Thou Shalt Not

This topic is about your moral education, the learning that occurs in every young person’s life. You learn by precept (George Washington, I was told when I was in elementary school, could not tell a lie), by example of others (both positive and negative). What was your early education like? Can you tell a story or two? Who were the influential people? What positive and negative role models did you have?  Were there situations, events, and actions in which you did what you knew was wrong? This is true confessions.  Tell those stories in a much detail as you can.

9.1. Begin with a story. You did something wrong and you were punished.

“Where did you get the cigarettes?” my dad asked.

It was an ongoing battle when I was a kid. I wanted to smoke. I thought it was cool. You couldn’t watch 10 minutes of television without seeing a commercial that glamorized smoking. I still remember the jingles. “Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should.” “Salem, take a puff, it’s springtime.” “Chesterfield 101, a silly millimeter longer.” Everyone’s dad smoked, some of the moms. My dad had smoked. Sitting in the front room at night, he puffed away on a Camel. Between puffs, the cigarette rested in an ashtray, a trail of rich blue smoke rising luxuriously from the burning tip. It was endlessly fascinating.

So down by the river, sitting next to the hollow tree, we smoked. Cigarettes tasted terrible. Menthol helped. But they tasted awful. We lit matches and handled the cigarettes with fumbling hands, pinching them between thumb and forefinger the way guys on TV did, the way most dads did, laying our heads back and blowing jets of smoke in the air.  Me and Danny Leman, Ronnie Fritz and Dean Gaul, we smoked cigarettes we stole from Joe Hrcka’s Mobil station.  

II. Another story. Another incident. What did you do? When and where? What were the consequences? Maybe you’ll write about breaking the same rule. As it turns out, I have lots of stealing stories. I wouldn’t say I was a kleptomaniac, but there was something going on there. If you stay on the same subject, that’s fine. But maybe you moved on to other transgressions, other instances of when and how you “disobeyed.”

A year or two later I became a confirmed Methodist. 

That happened in our church around fifth grade. There was some book learning involved–from the Good Book, that is–in a series of classes I attended with Danny Leman and Ronnie Fritz and some girls our age, Dawn Wiltsie and Patty Meyers. The teaching was done by a few women of the church. Once or twice the name John Wesley came up, but other than that, looking back I have to say the curriculum was totally lacking in rigor and historical perspective; not that, as a fifth grader, I had any great hunger for such things. Suffice to say I came away from this instruction with no clear idea of what the Method was. No one ever explained what made Methodism different from any other religion. We had a Reverend, the Lutherans had a Pastor, the Catholics had a Father. We all had the Bible. And . . . so?

To a fifth grader religion was primarily about suffering. I don’t mean the suffering of Christ. I mean the suffering, first and foremost, of going to church. The hymns, the sermons, the uncomfortable pews, the long hour of church.  

III. Move forward in time. How did you thinking about rules and obedience and conformity develop, change, or stay the same? With respect to what behaviors? And what about your peers? others around your age who were positive or negative role models? If you were just a youngster in the first two instances above, tell a story about a time when you were a little older. Maybe the stakes were a little higher.

I was pumping gas at my dad’s station one day when Harry Heffel pulled up to the pumps in a shiny blue Corvette and stopped. He asked me to fill it.

Harry Heffel was a year younger than me. We were both out of high school. I was home from Colorado, where I had spent a month trying to be a Rocky Mountain hippie. Up to that time I’d never seen Harry Heffel drive any car, let alone a new Corvette. He got out of the car and stood next to it while I filled the gas tank, then handed me cash to pay and drove away.

IV. Another story? If you’ve run out of the bad things you did, talk about a peer. If you have it in you, tell another story about breaking rules.

That wallet I stole. I was sitting on a reminder that thou shalt not steal. A reminder I no longer needed. A reminder nonetheless.

It was a Thursday night in OctoberIt was a Thursday night in October, my sophomore in high school. I was going to turn fifteen years old that month.  I know it was a Thursday night  because there was a junior varsity football game being played at school and I had gone to see this game. Up in the stands I sat down next to Brian Bennett, who shortly after the game started suggested that we leave. 

He was sixteen. He drove. 

That night he had the family car, a silver four-door ‘57 Chevy, which except for its four-door-ness, was a pretty cool car. But Brian was not a car guy. Like me, he was a music guy, a guy that girls found to be “cute,” a guy who I was beginning to realize had a better fashion sense than I did. He drove the eight miles from Freeland to Saginaw Township, to a place called Green Acres shopping center, a forerunner of what would become the indoor shopping mall. Forming two legs of a right triangle were a dozen stores, side by side all one continuous building. Among them was Gridley Music, which he and I frequented to buy stuff like guitar picks and strings, but mostly to hang out and be around local musicians.