I went hiking recently, and found myself reveling in the simple, quiet beauties of nature. I would love to take an hour to just sit on a rock at the top of a hill and watch and think and breathe the cool, blowing air.
I then sat back and realized that there was a time when my gratitude for the surrounding world was poorly displayed, and a combination of my youthful angst and curiosity led me to destroy much of the local plant life. I learned the hard way that, though not easily provoked, Mother Nature can choose to slap someone silly. Or at least mock them.
POCKETKNIVES, BUG COLLECTIONS, AND LAUGHING DAISIES
While growing up, I always felt I was a reasonably intelligent child. I read a lot of good books, watched snippets of the news in between my cartoons, and, if captive in the car with my father, even half-listened to (shudder) talk radio. Yet, for some strange reason, I was occasionally brought back down to my cave-man roots, brought down to a place where the most sublime joy was easily found. I think that most any guy, grown or not, would agree with me in saying that the predominant occupation of the mind of every prepubescent male is not in the wooing of women, nor yet in the acquisition of food, but in wondering what happens to things when you break them.
Countless were the hours I spent with my suburban rabble of friends, finding potentially punishable material, and then dastardly contriving the mixed means of their respective obliterations. Other boys seemed to dabble more in the dry-ice arts, or even in the classic skill of fireworks-tampering. I was not so brave. Upon long observations of my compadres’ singed knuckles and absent eyebrows, I had developed a reluctance to use anything of a volatile nature in my experimentations.
And yet, somehow, my equipment of destruction always seemed infantile and pathetic when compared to the awesome destructive potential I held at my seven-year old finger-tips. This was not my fault. Our house was not exactly brimming with fun power tools and such, like the houses of my friends. Their fathers all had cool jobs, like welders and carpenters and mechanics, and they all had separate garages stuffed with a wondrous variety of devastating paraphernalia. My dad was just a music teacher, whose knowledge of things mechanical sat somewhere in between the levels of “nun” and “poet”.
Most of the time, I was forced to amuse myself by walking around our backyard in a down-trodden sulk, whipping the heads off my mother’s flowers with a long, skinny stick I had picked up. Though not nearly as rewarding as the sickening WHHOMPTH! from the explosion of a pop bottle filled with the innards of emptied fire-crackers, the more subtle WHHHHHHIP! ... THLUP of my rod of power satisfied my needs.
I spent many an hour back there, beating the air and surrounding foliage like a deranged symphonic conductor, my baton of annihilation sparing no daisy. Sometimes, I could even hear the flowers petitioning for leniency, begging empathy for their already short and meaningless lives. But my stick and I radiated frostiness. There was no deliverance for the daffodils, just a geranium genocide. I had no compassion for the cowslip, no sympathy for the sunflower, and no pity for the periwinkle. And the chrysanthemums? Well…they were just doomed.
When my friend Richard turned eight, his mother invited all of the neighborhood kids over for a birthday party. At least, it was in its formation a birthday party, but it inevitably ended up becoming more akin to a death march, as were all birthday parties for small boys. His mother paraded us around to miscellaneous organized activities that were never as entertaining as just running around and hitting each other with things.
Eventually, though, our rebellious uprisings and attempts at escape were too much for her, and she spent the last half of the party shut up inside her room, muttering to herself (“No…gosh-darnit…Don’t touch…Why can’t you just hit the stupid piñata, instead of every other boy in the room? And no peeking! ...What did I say about touching that!?...Lousy kids…”).
Richard was tall for his age, and skinnier than an Ethiopian pigeon, with almost-white hair and a tan-less complexion that would have made a polar bear look sideways. He had five brothers of indiscriminate age, all of whom looked exactly like him. Sometimes, I would be out wreaking havoc with Richard, and I would look up and realize that it was not Richard, but Mike, or Wade, or one of the others. Ultimately, this made no large difference, since their interests were all so similar (Interests: 1-Bugs, 2-Spaghettios, 3-Combining the aforementioned two interests).
Richard started opening his presents, which most likely would have consisted of eighty-four Ninja Turtles, five home-made bug collections, and dress socks. I was, at best, uninterested, and was considering going home to catch the Power Rangers (HAI-YAH!) when, out of the corner of my eye, a little flash of an impending life-alteration, in the form of a small box, wrapped in the business section, caught my youthful stare. Quickly unwrapping it, Richard ripped out its mysteriously glorious innards, bringing into the light a gorgeous, shining, crimson pocketknife. It was beautiful beyond all my imagination. I could hear Richard’s mother’s tulips screaming in hopelessness. Man, Richard had the best parents ever! And the possibilities were endless! I sat, in my own world, green with envy, plotting as to how I might come upon my own pocketknife.
I immediately began petitioning for a pocketknife of my own, much like the boy and his B.B. gun in the movie The Christmas Story. I reminded them that I would be a boy scout soon, and any boy scout lacking his trusty penknife would invariably be the societal leper. My parents seemed unsure, so I began to bombard them with a fusillade of very sensible reasons as to why I needed this knife. My baffling arguments included such possibilities as being stuck under a fallen boulder with a need to saw my own leg off, or fending off ravenous wolves that had come down from the foothills, and even a roving Biker gang that, “I swore,” Richard’s brother Mike had just seen, and so on. Naturally, they couldn’t compete with my brain-melting logic, and I began to sense their gradual acquiescence to my demands.
Finally, the day of my eight birthday arrived, and, lo and behold, there sat, shining in the sun, in all of its grandeur, a magnificent, sparkling, deep-red, multi-purpose…box.
But in that box was my pocketknife! Oh, Joy! Oh, sweet merciful heavens!
After opening and closing the blessed jack-knife in impatient glee for about the seven hundredth time, and after repeated cautions from my mother and chuckles from my father, I proceeded to run around frantically, searching out victims for my clean, menacing, cutting edge, my outlet of youthful rage. As I stepped over the threshold of my yard, I sensed thousands of daisies shuddering simultaneously.
It was just one blade, unhampered by any saws or fingernail clippers or lame corkscrews, and oh, what a blade it was! Within twenty minutes, I had whittled down every single twig and stick within a five-mile radius, and I had poked giant, glaring, jagged holes in all of our excess zucchini, and chopped through thousands of the stems of the little, inedible apples growing on the tree in our yard. I was flabbergasted at the sheer authority this keen dagger commanded in my backyard realm. A trail of flower heads adorned my wake, their bright colors petering out through their severed stems.
If only I had known then that I was about to be taught a lesson by someone who was tired of seeing her people oppressed. Mother Nature must have been infuriated, and she was about to drop the Red Sea on my pagan, barbarous little hiney.
Exhausted from my rampant destruction of the local vegetation, I dashed gleefully into my room and plopped down on the bed with my new baby. I lay there, holding it above me at a worshipful distance, and I opened it, closed it, opened it, closed it, opened it, closed it. I stopped to simply stare at my beautiful knife, rolling it over and over in my hands above my body, my palms sweaty from my invigorated afternoon.
I think that this is when Mother Nature got on the phone with her uncle, Gravity.
Abruptly, slipping from my excited, moist hands, the pocketknife dropped. It fell, faster and faster, seemingly falling through eternity. It gracefully altered its downward trajectory, rolling over just enough to ensure its killing point was at the bottom of its descent.
Through my mind coursed images of me, flailing, pinned to my bed, like a bug in Richard’s bug collection, thrashing out the last bursts of my life in useless death throes. I swore that I heard thousands of daisies outside, dancing on their little daisy crutches, laughing raucously at this turning of the tables. I closed my eyes, praying to God to stop the accidental slaughter of a foolish boy, remembering every single helpless honeysuckle I had brutally cut the life from, when…..
THUMP…CLATTER CLATTER clatter clatter!
I opened my eyes warily, expecting to be staring at a gushing fountain of blood, but was startled by the realization that…I was entirely okay. What had happened? Had God heard my doomed bleating and sent an angel to knock away the killing thrust? Had Gravity simply missed?
I looked down and realized that, yes, it had scored a direct hit right over my heart, leaving a mildly painful and moderately impressive bruise, though not big enough to my liking. And it had, in fact, hit me point down but, due to good fortune and shoddy American manufacturing, it had bounced right off my quivering self, clattering harmlessly to the floor.
I sat there a moment, staring fearfully at it, gasping for breath. I slowly rolled off the mattress, closed the demonic instrument carefully from feet away with a baseball bat and glove, kicked it under the bed, and never touched the evil thing again.
I learned an important lesson that day about my own adeptness with tools of destruction: I had none. Man’s curious fixation with taking things apart was never meant
to be my area of expertise.
And while there would always be those claiming “People kill people,” I knew in my heart that pocketknives could kill boy scouts, and I was very content to continue running safely around, flicking that dumb stick, though every time I approached my mother's flower beds, I swore I could hear the daisies tittering in protected glee.