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Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Legend of Doctor Destructo


As I continue my journey through late middle age, I take comfort in knowing that all these young whippersnappers with their thundering hip-hop subwoofers and noisy, flared tailpipes still have a long way to go to catch up with the hell-raiser that I was when I was their age.

I was, on the surface, a good kid. I wasn't one of the cool kids; I wasn't popular or a jock or a nerd, per se. I got more A's than B's, with the occasional C when I didn't apply myself. But at night, this mild mannered Joe Ordinary, without his superior’s knowledge, turned into Doctor Destructo.

There was a small handful of us, who discovered, not by accident, that it was a major thrill to go out and do what we called "canning."

The best part about being poor and driving an old jalopy was that a dent here or a scratch there didn't really matter, especially if you were in someone else's car. Frequently that car would be Sarah Connelly's 1962 Falcon station wagon or Terry Bodkin's beat-up Fiat.

Way after dark on Monday and Thursday nights, we would pile in one of those cars way and begin our path of obliteration. You see, Monday and Thursdays were the nights that people would put their trash cans at the curb for emptying the following morning. It was our job to see to it that most of those cans in the neighborhood were sent flying into the yards of their owners after a hard wallop with a chrome-plated, steel bumper.

Terry was the daredevil. She would jump curbs and run up on people's lawns to hit her target. Plastic cans were easiest on the body of the car, but the metal cans produced, in addition to a filthy mess, an horrific sound and an irreparable dent in the can. To our delight, metal cans were more prolific than the plastic ones. Garbage bags were not so popular then.

Usually a can was placed at the edge of a driveway, so you could just jerk the steering wheel quickly to the right and send it and its smelly contents airborne. Hit and run. Points were added for height and distance. We were stealth juvenile delinquents. On the approach to a can, the lights were dimmed to prevent any witnesses from seeing the license plate number.

It was mean. It was destructive. But we couldn't help ourselves. To us, it was damned funny. Each hit would evoke belly laughs and floorboard-stomping hysteria. We would sometimes hit three or four on a block and would be laughing so hard that we'd have to pull over, get out and roll on the ground. If anyone pulled this trick on me today, I would be livid.

The Falcon was the tank. Nothing could harm it or dent it or even scratch it. That steel bumper was simply made for low-impact collisions. The Fiat, on the other hand, was frequently dinged or had its headlight cracked.

We didn't do it every trash day eve. We would sometimes go weeks without a fix. We didn't want anyone to be ready for us. Many times during our short-lived canning period, people came running out of their homes screaming "Hey you (expletive) kids!" Usually they were angry bald men in goofy looking shorty pajamas. Sort of like what I look like now. Whenever that would happen, we would call it a night in case the cops were called out to look for us.

Karma finally caught up with us, though. Some clever homeowner-victim decided to set a trap. He surrounded his trash cans with heavy iron pipes driven deeply into the ground. When Terry hit the can, we heard a horrific noise and were knocked back out into the street. The tire was flat, but we drove on it anyway to a pay phone and called Triple A, because Terry had no jack. It was one in the morning, and they said it would take an hour for a wrecker. We ordered the wrecker, but before they came, we were rescued by a friend with a jack.

We changed the tire and took off just as the Triple-A guy arrived, screaming, "Hey you (expletive) kids!" It turned out that that booby trap had also bent Terry’s wheel and cracked her axle. There’s a price to pay for juvenile delinquency.

It was time to find a new hobby. No one in our graduating class had, until then, picked up on the tradition of toilet-papering homes and cars. Each time we went out, we selected new prey. Usually it was someone we knew who went to bed early. We didn't have money for toilet paper, so we carried empty suitcases out to the airport and took rolls from the bathrooms, which were plentiful and well stocked. We filled our luggage with paper ammunition and then drove off to the victim's house. The procedure was to park a block away, tiptoe in with our luggage, and completely wrap the car in toilet paper several times over. As if that wasn't enough, we would then go to a pay phone (remember, it was always well after midnight), call that person's number and whisper eerily, "Go look in your front yard!" We'd wait a minute and then drive by again so we could see the entire family outside in their jammies, picking off dew-dampened toilet paper from their car or shrubs or trees.

This event came to a screeching halt when we decided it would be a great idea to go and toss some toilet paper in the giant oak trees that surrounded our high school. The police pulled up in no time, and we dashed back into the car before their spotlight hit us.

Panting like dogs and sweating like horses, we nervously awaited the interrogation.

The cop walked up and shined his light at all of us and collected all of our drivers licenses, and as Robin next to me pulled out her license, I spotted a fat ounce of weed in her purse. My throat dried up.

"What are you doing out here so late?" the officer asked Terry.

"Nothing," she said, "just talking." Yeah, like that was gonna fly.

The officer shined his flashlight up in the trees and saw the strings of toilet paper flapping in the breeze.

"I don't suppose you know anything about that toilet paper in the trees, do you?" He asked.

"What toilet paper?" She asked, even though she herself was, as we all were, sitting on several rolls of it.

Mercifully, the cop was nice and told us to end our "conversation" and go home. So much for that. We all slapped the reefer-carrying Robin and scolded her. "What are you trying to do, get us arrested?"

So what was our next trick?

We were lower middle class kids who got to go to a rich kid's school. There was a golf and country club near that school which, for good reason, we had never been invited to. The place had received some bad press about its unwritten membership by-laws which excluded the non-white, non-Christian community. We saw this as carte blanche for making its elite membership miserable. We would park close to the putting green and hide in the hedges until all of the foursome's golf balls were close to us. The "charge" command was given, and we'd run out, scoop up all four balls, run back, jump in the car and speed off, while the golfers screamed, "Hey, you (expletive) kids!" We always tried to get the same foursome at hole 1 and hole 18, just to make sure they had a miserable start AND finish to their game.

My home was catty-corner to the second tee-off, and one of my favorite pastimes was to line up the stereo speakers at the jalousie windows, and just as the golfer would swing, I’d spin the volume knob up to ten. Not as irritating as stealing their balls, but still adequately effective.

The practical joking began to escalate. I came home one night to find my Volkswagen sitting perpendicular under the carport. The only way that could have happened was by picking it up and rotating it. There was about an inch clearance in front and in back. It took a good half-hour of back-and-forthing it to get it out.

I retaliated on the person I suspected to be the car-turning mastermind (but wasn't.) I put an opened, 3-week-old can of tuna flavored cat food under the seat of his car that was baking in the hot sun during a weekend I knew he was gone. It was a smell that never went away.

Next thing I knew, I woke up to find a pound of cooked spaghetti stuck to my car. Dear Heloise, can you please tell me what will remove hardened, cooked angel hair pasta from the hood of a 1971 Volkswagen without removing the paint? I’ve been using hot water and fingernails, but even then, some paint comes off with it.

Eventually a truce was called before someone got hurt. Most of us never got our paybacks, though. I suppose if I wake up one morning with a 9-iron through my windshield and stinking garbage on my front step, I will consider it justice served.

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