Looking back lately on the path of my life so far, I find myself drawn to the moments when I went off the track.
Take the curious case of the crossing guard’s windshield wiper, for example.
It’s only one of many wrong things I’ve done in my time, and lots of the others were much worse. But it’s an easy illustration of how swiftly sweetness can go sour.
Way back when, perhaps in 1981, when I was twelve, a buddy and I went out pranking on Hallowe’en. We were allegedly trick-or-treating, around the little village he lived in. (The dirt road I lived along had too few houses, too far apart, for going door-to-door.) We’d filed a flight plan with our parents, gotten the usual safety lectures, dressed up, and set off. I think I was dressed as a chef. He may have been Gene Simmons but I can’t swear to that.
Anyway, we trooped out with pillowcases we hoped to fill with candy, and with the greed of eager kids we succeeded. We got candy galore.
Sugar overload wasn’t enough for us that evening, though. At some point, alive with the night’s potential for mischief, we went off-route. Armed with bars of soap for writing rude messages on windows, we set out to wreak whatever havoc we could get away with, in this sliver of unaccounted time.
It was typical for guys our age to whoop it up on Hallowe’en in relatively harmless ways. But on this night my buddy had a target in mind, and I was his willing accomplice.
We crossed the highway from the village, to the little rural post office, which of course was all closed up for the night. In the dark parking lot was our target: the crossing guard’s car. This was a little beat-up Chevette, or something similar. It belonged to the lady who walked kids across the highway, back and forth between the village and the nearby school.
For some reason my buddy didn’t like the crossing guard, a fact I found weird, but never had the guts to question in any serious way. It was probably simply that she was an authority figure, who got to tell him what to do every school day. As if he wasn’t able to cross the highway on his own.
Anyway, with him in the lead, we went after her car, soaping the windows, scrawling whatever crude crap a pair of 12 year old boys could come up with.
I remember the darkness of a cold autumn night around us. I remember the thrill of being Bad, and the sense of control it gave us. To do wrong was to choose, whereas to do right was simply to follow the rules. I could not see then, as I see now, what sort of weak choice it was: to launch a sneak attack in the name of a cause I didn’t even understand, let alone believe in.
The crossing guard was a sweet lady. I had nothing in the world against her.
When you go off-trail, beware the slippery slope, eh? While my buddy was gleefully ranting about getting his revenge on the crossing guard, I made a choice that went beyond pranking.
Caught up in the moment, I grabbed, bent, and ultimately, broke the metal arm of one of the windshield wipers of the crossing guard’s car. I still remember how it felt when it snapped in my hand.
That snap signaled that something had gone farther off the trail than I’d thought or intended. True, we were already breaking the rules, but until that point we’d been obeying unwritten rules somehow, even if I hadn’t known it. And I had just crossed the line all by myself. Now my buddy was looking at me, wondering what the hell I was thinking?
I felt totally helpless. What the hell was I thinking? Nothing to justify an expensive, hurtful act that would frighten and confuse the innocent crossing guard, that was for sure.
I remember in that moment feeling a strange, strangled sense of injustice, like I myself had been wronged, let down somehow. Because I hadn’t read the unwritten rules. How was I supposed to know?
My buddy and I ran like hell, back across the highway and home. I hated the taste of my candy that night. I could still hear the snap, still feel the shock.
I lived in fear for a while. I never made amends. But I never forgot, either.
I am not looking for forgiveness. This happened a long time ago, when I was a boy, and a sensitive, impressionable boy at that. Not everything I did was so thoughtless, and sometimes I even behaved with a high degree of decency. Like any human, I had my good days and my bad. I take some comfort in feeling that I would do so many things differently now.
But what still sticks with me, beyond the shame of merely having done this dumb, wrong thing, is how such a small act came to loom large.
So many little choices in so little time: The choice to proceed with wrong intent. The choice to follow. The choice not to question a leader’s call. The choice to escalate without justification. And ultimately, the choice to ignore the damage done, and where it all began.
Until, now, anyway. Now maybe I see the starting point of what winds up being the wrong thing to do.
It’s about feeling secure, or not. It’s about being mindful, or not. It’s about being present, or not. It’s about being compassionate, or not.
Now I feel the snap of the crossing guard’s windshield wiper. How effortlessly we can break the things we can’t or won’t repair. How sweetness turns to sour, in the eternity of an instant.
And I try to remember how it comes to that.