Let’s get this straight: While I feel not one jot of guilt for the many ways in which the best years of my young life were squandered, I am very much aware of the many opportunities lost as I mastered skills that would serve no useful purpose in my later life and certainly provided no benefit to society. What in particular was left unattended?
Well, math, polite conversation, wood burning, knot tying, automobile maintenance, maintenance of any sort really, French, practicing the piano, laundry, letter writing, weeding, emptying the litter box, art, thank you notes, sensible eating, flags of the world, patience, and sundry other worthwhile attainments. Any of which might have profited me handsomely, or at least might have prevented some of the notable failures that haunted me into late adolescence.
There were a few scattered, half-hearted undertakings, but I lacked ambition and grit, and thus rarely stuck with truly challenging enterprises. The Cub Scouts, for example, expected quite a bit from its Bobcats, Tiger Cubs, Wolves, Bears, Webelos, and Arrows of Light. I can state that with confidence without having actually navigated my way up the food chain. This partially successful Bobcat (newcomer rank) sailed through the first level of scouting which involved buying the shirt, patch, and cap. I suppose I should give a parent some credit for the purchase as my weekly allowance would hardly cover the cost of Cub duds, and, as previously outlined, saving up for something I wanted would have belonged in the general category of postponing gratification, a skill set I chose not to develop. The next hurdle involved mastery of the Scout Sign, two fingers held aloft, essentially rabbit ears, a physical challenge I managed easily, and the ability to explain the meaning of the sign (“to help other people” and “to obey”), neither of which seemed very interesting but were at least relatively uncomplicated. The next step was to memorize the Law of the Pack and the Cub Scout Motto. I never got to the motto, primarily because the Law of the Pack, which begins with the phrase, “The Cub Scout follows Akela…”, was so puzzling that I quietly shed my blue beanie and left the pack to its own devices. My subscription to Boy’s Life, the magazine of scouting, followed me into my freshman year at college, but I never earned a single merit badge, no backpacking badge, no dentistry badge, no leather work badge.
So, how did I spend those formative years? I read quite a bit, evading the school’s assigned reading almost from the start, lolling happily with Frank and Joe Hardy and their chums, Chet Morton (i.e. “me”, chunky and dim) and Biff Hooper (i.e. “my inner jock” – six feet tall, blonde, and athletic). Disorganized in every other venture, I began with The Tower Treasure and read the books in order until the start of the eleventh grade, when I found The Viking Symbol Mystery less engaging than I had hoped. I read books about baseball and football, books about space and time travel, books about lost civilizations, and books about knights and dragons.
In what may have been the most curious impulse but perhaps the most profitable, I read the dictionary and the World Book Encyclopedia. Had I made the final cut for Jeopardy or Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, I might have been able to monetize the hours spent poring over accounts historical, scientific, and technical. On the other hand, I only had access to the edition of the World Book published in 1917, so some articles probably called for updating. On the third hand, the descriptions were delicious and far more evocative than those appearing in the 1950’s and ’60s, as was this description of the Basque.
“Basque – a brave, proud, and independent people whom no invaders have ever crushed or expelled from their native province in Northern Spain and the southwestern corner of France, near the Pyrenees.”
Upon consideration, perhaps these were not the most curious of occupations. I’ve written elsewhere of my fascination with professional wrestling and dissection; as Stan Lee might put it – ‘Nuff Said. So, yes, I read comics by the truckload as well. And then …
It pains me to admit that I spent a great deal of time perfecting sound effects of all sorts, many of which punctuated instruction in the classroom, most notably the long whistle of a bomb falling from great height, exploding on impact with at least four separate sorts of concussion. Impressive but not appreciated. With regard to impressions, I did a fair Bela Lugosi and Donald Duck, but the sole effect I employ even now, a hair-raising and spot-on evocation of a cat in terminal battle mode, continues to go unappreciated no matter how often I trot it out.
There was no merit badge for the mastery of the “rat tail”, a towel moistened at the tip, curled and snapped in one fluid motion, but it was an entirely necessary protective measure as ten or fifteen boys, a considerable number of whom were hormonally challenged and eager to express their sublimated vitality with aggressive manoeuvres of various degrees of intensity, were herded naked into a shower room each afternoon following required team sport. I was among the smallest and certainly among the two or three chunkiest, an obvious target, easy to corner, clumsy enough to fall against the bank of radiators. During the subsequent summer, a well-meaning but likely insane relative thought I would find a visit to a tannery jolly fun. I did not, and the stench of flayed animals remains with me to this day. I knew something like that smell, of course, as my wet buttocks and flanks had been frequently pushed into the steaming radiators, leaving vertical burns of varying sizes. I was reluctant to show these burns to the school nurse, but they were increasingly angry as they went untreated. I finally swallowed my pride and bared my backside, but I determined not to put myself in danger again.
Thus the rat tail. Yes, I had to enter the shower room, but carrying a towel, I had a weapon at hand. I pictured myself Zorro or Lash LaRue, an artist with a whip. I was and am able to twirl a towel and snap it with precision in a single motion. As I am rarely assaulted in showers these days, I have to content myself with idly snapping a magazine from a shelf or a toothbrush from the side of the sink. A dry towel snaps, but a moistened towel delivers a stinging slap, as my toothbrush can attest.
In recent years, I have found that I can kick-start any conversation by asking if my companion has a hidden or secret talent. It is my experience that everyone does, from the ability to belch the alphabet to the wiggling of ears. I’ll offer the yowling cat, but I long for the day when a stranger asks if anyone in the room can snap a rat tail with a pop so loud that it sounds like fireworks. I may have to wait for some time. Disappointing.
My brother posts frequently on Facebook and YouTube. Perhaps the time has come for me to offer my own instructional videos. I have this heavy yellow towel with exactly the right heft; check local listings.