As a young boy I always had a fear of authority. I don’t mean the police, I mean adults other than my parents. There was always some authority figure who was correcting me in the community or in school. Since my father was the owner of a pretty popular bar in a very small town, I was well known in the town, and I knew a lot of adults. If I was involved in some stupid behavior on one side of town my parents found out through the grapevine very quickly. My parents never questioned the guy who told them about my behavior, regardless of whether or not he was drunk. They would always question me, because I was the kid, and they believed the adult. It always seemed like I was found out one way or another.
The other thing that never failed was if I was told not to do something and I disobeyed, something bad always happened to me as a result. I don’t mean like getting yelled at by my father; I mean something really bad would happen that was a direct consequence of my rebellious attitude.
As kids we all waited for the summer not because we were going on vacation with our families, but because it was a time to play baseball, drink soda, hang out, and ride our bikes all over town. I always had a pretty decent bike; it was fun to ride. I liked to ride my friends’ bikes sometimes, but for some reason my father had a problem with that. One day (I was 11 at the time) I pulled up in front of the bar riding my friend Johnny’s bike. I put the brakes on with my right foot and the bike didn’t stop. It only stopped when I used my left foot. My father was watching this entire scene. He said, “Jimmy, I don’t want you riding that bike; it doesn’t have a coaster break.”
I said, “Yeah it does, you just have to use your left foot.” He said, “Are you right handed or left handed?” I said, “Right.” He said, “Well then, you’re always going to use your right foot to brake. If you’re on a bike that has the brake on the left side, you’ll try to stop using your right foot, and then you won’t be able to switch feet and stop fast enough.” Well like all kids I heard but I didn’t listen. One warm summer night my friend Johnny pulled up on his bike, and I asked him where my other friend Izzy was. He told me Izzy was up the block. My bike was in the back and I was too lazy to get it so naturally I asked him if I could use his, and he said yes. I took the bike; rode up the block, saw Izzy and told Izzy to come on down. I turned around and started back down the block at a pretty high speed. No sooner did I start when Izzy’s sister Elizabeth stepped in front of me. I slammed on the brakes, with my right foot of course. The bike didn’t stop. I crashed into her pushing her up against a brand new car that was parked on the street. Oh, and did I mention that the bike didn’t have any rubber handgrips either? The medal handlebars were dragged across the car denting and scratching the paint finish. The owner came out of the house and asked me where I lived. I pointed down the block. He proceeded to walk with me down the street, through the bar, and upstairs where my mother was sleeping on the couch snoring. I woke my mother up, and she was shaken to find a strange man standing in the living room. We all had to go downstairs and up the block to take a look at my art work. I was so frightened I didn’t know what to say or do. I asked my mother, “Are you going to tell dad?” Of course, I knew she was going to tell my father, but I just thought I’d ask. I was thinking, isn’t anybody going to help me. I didn’t mean to do it. But, I was told not to ride that bike. I walked into the bar and in his own way one of my father’s drunken customers tried to comfort me. Dinny O’Rourke one of my father’s best customers Dinny was a four packs of cigarettes a day man, a guy who spent all day in the bar paying my father’s bills. We always knew when he was there because his asthmatic cough filled the place with a lot of noise and a lot of germs. He said, “Hey Jim, are you all right?” I said in a quivering voice, “Yeah.” He said, “Good, as long as you and the girl are all right, don’t worry about anything. Then he said with all of his drunken bravado, “You should have told me what was going on with that guy when he came through here to tell your mom what happened. I would have thrown him the hell out.” I felt like asking him if there was any room at his house where I could stay for a while.
I crawled upstairs and went to bed. I got up early the next morning and slithered out of the house before my father woke up. I went up the street and met up with Izzy and asked him how his sister was. He said she was fine. I sat there with him and talked with him about how I knew I had to go home and deal with my dad. He said he would go with me. I walked into the bar, my father was in the back kitchen, and I made a made dash for the upstairs door. Izzy followed me, and as he was getting ready to close the door a voice cried out, “HEY ISRAEL, IS JIMMY WITH YOU?” Jimmy, that’s what he always called me when things weren’t going too well. I poked my head out and said, “Hi dad.” He said “Come here.” I slowly walked to the back and stood before the judgment seat of God. Well not really, but that’s what it felt like. He asked me the definitive question. “Did I tell you not to ride that bike?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “So why did you ride it?” I couldn’t come up with an answer. You know, he didn’t even care about the car that I wrecked. He didn’t even mention it. He was really upset with me because I didn’t listen to him. I disobeyed. It destroyed his trust in me. He told me to go upstairs; I was put into solitary confinement. Izzy said to me, “I guess I better go home.”
This was the first time I was grounded. There wasn’t much to do up there, but I made due. I watched TV and spent a lot of time being ignored by my parents. They didn’t disappoint me either. They were the experts at the silent treatment and withholding a parent’s love when things went wrong. I used to think as I got older that they wrote the book on conditional love. After about two days of this I got a call from my grandmother, my father’s mom. I was so happy to hear from her. She asked me if I would come over to her house and help her clean up the backyard. I figured, well it’s my dad’s mother He would want me to help her. I didn’t mention to her I was grounded, I didn’t ask for permission from my dad to go; I just left the house. Another mistake.
I rode my bike over to my grandmother’s house. She was about 90 years old, and partly blind. She moved around pretty well though. She had fallen down a long flight of stairs about a year earlier, just dusted herself off, and basically walked away without a scratch. She was a tough bird – definitely from strong stock. As I was cleaning her yard that day, I stepped on one of the broken pickets from her fence that was on the grass. I stepped right on a nail that was sticking out of the picket. The nail was rusty. It only punctured my foot. I checked my foot and found no blood; I figured that was a good thing. I rode my bike home and immediately started to have some trouble walking. I quickly got to the point where I couldn’t walk at all. I didn’t tell my parents, because I was petrified of getting in trouble for leaving the house. I woke up the next morning and still didn’t tell my parents. I sat around all day because of how much my foot hurt. I went to bed early and was in a lot of pain, and I mean a lot. I was moaning. My mother came into my room very late at night and found me laying there crying and really scared. She asked me what was wrong. I told her I stepped on a nail at Gram’s the day before and that my foot really hurt. She pulled the covers off of me and there were red stripes going up my leg. I didn’t know it, but I had blood poisoning.
You have to understand that everyone in town was one of my father’s drinking buddies including Dr. Downs, the town doctor. Very early the next morning my father went over to get him. The only worry was whether or not he was going to be sober. Well he was hung-over, good enough; my father drove him over to the house. He came up the back door with his black bag and with his son, a car mechanic. To me he looked like Jack the Ripper. He took one look at my foot and said, “First.” What did that mean? Then, he washed his hands in the kitchen sink using dish detergent. He told my mother to have me lay flat out on the kitchen table; all I could think of was for what. My mother was at the top of the table and my sister was at my side. My sister said to me, “Remember Bonanza the other night, when Little Joe was shot with an arrow and Hoss had to pull it out.” I said, “Yeah what about it.” She said, “Well before Hoss pulled the arrow out he gave Joe a big stick to bite on.” She handed me a dish cloth and said, “Use this.” I dropped it on the floor.
My mother said to the doctor “What are you going to do.” He said, “I’m going to cut his foot open.” That didn’t seem to upset her at all. He pulled out a spray can and started to spray my foot. My mom said, “What’s that.” He said, “Ethyl-chloride.” My mind flashed back to all the times I had watched the Mets on TV. I remembered how when one of the players was hit with the ball the team trainer would come out and spray the player’s hand or arm with ethyl-chloride. It didn’t take the pain away it just held down the swelling and allowed the guy to stay in the game. I thought Ethyl-chloride that’s not going to help, he’s going to cut open my foot, and this is the best he’s got. He pulled the scalpel out of his bag and held it like he was getting ready to cut into a piece of steak and started to dig that thing into the ball of my foot. I started to scream like hell. My mom picked the dish cloth up off the floor and shoved it into my mouth to hold down the noise until Dr. Mengela was done. He wrapped up my foot with a gauze bandage collected $10.00 and left. I still don’t know why he brought his son. Maybe he was worried my father’s car was going to break down on the way to our house. I forgot to mention that bike problem that I had was put on the back burner for a while, the bottom line was my father took all the money I earned working for my grandmother to help pay for the damage I had done to the car. Not a bad lesson and something that needs to happen more today if there’s any hope for our children to respond correctly to authority.
John Mellencamp’s lyrics in his song “The Authority Song” could never be truer. The chorus of the song goes like this, “I fight authority and authority always wins.” I fought authority, I didn’t listen to my dad, and it almost cost me my leg and maybe even my life, and in the final analysis authority won. Sometimes we think we have a choice when in reality we don’t. Sometimes, even adults think they have a choice about how they respond to authority in their in lives. Often we think these choices are small and they don’t matter, but they really do.
There is a true story about a man who went to his closet one day and had to make what he perceived was a small a decision, do I wear a regular necktie or a clip on tie. He made the choice to wear the regular necktie. He left the house and began to drive to work, and immediately got a call on his CB radio. You see the guy was a police officer. There was a robbery in a store in his area. He drove to the store to investigate and found the perpetrator still in the store. The police officer ended up in a fight with the guy, and was strangled with his own necktie. What do you think the dress code was for police officers? A clip on tie was standard. This man chose to violate authority when he decided to wear a regular necktie to work that morning. The ends result in 15 minutes it cost him his life. He made a seemingly small choice which had astronomical consequence.
Authority is designed to help and protect us. Somebody has to be in charge. In a family it’s the parents, in society it’s the police and the government, and on the job it’s our boss. We can fight authority if we want but, as the lyrics to Mellencamp’s song go, “I Fight Authority and Authority Always Wins.” There is no doubt that when we fight authority it is only a matter of time before someone loses.