It was just after Star Wars came out—the original Star Wars, or what folks today refer to as Episode 4. My friend, Brian, and I were doing our best imitation of a climactic light saber battle, with the decidedly low tech but easily accessible substitute, sticks. I forget if I was Luke or Obi-Wan or Vader, but whoever I was I wasn’t leaving anything to The Force. I was giving it all I had, and so was Brian. It was an epic clash …
The sticks hit, mine broke, and splinters flew everywhere—including directly into my left eye. Much excruciating pain, several trips to the doctor, and two humiliating weeks of wearing an eye patch later, my eye was ok—but if it had been a slightly bigger piece of stick, who knows?Plots
I was obsessed for a good chunk of my childhood with ghosts, haunted houses, secret passageways, and anything hidden or mysterious. Fortunately we had a two-hundred year-old farm house that had its share of secret niches and dusty old attics. But that wasn’t always enough for me; I wanted to be the architect of my own secret spaces.
I was always building some new hideout or tunnel. There was no shortage of bamboo (in the summer) and snow (the rest of the year) where I lived in Maine, both of which were ideal for constructing caves and passages, so again I was lucky. But this one time I decided I wanted to get somebody. I wanted to use the engineering skills I had honed for clandestine purposes. I wanted to build a trap.
I was a practiced shoveler, and I knew all about the structural characteristics of bamboo (a hardy invasive species now prevalent in New England called Japanese Hogweed). So here was my plan: dig a hole big enough for someone to fall into, put the chunks of sod to the side, place lengths of dried bamboo across the top of the hole with the ends jammed into the sides of the hole (leaving enough space above them to replace the sod), cover the replaced sod with leaves and twigs and stuff, get someone to chase me, run past the trap (or maybe jump over it if I dared), and watch the person fall in.
Well, I managed to dig a hole about three feet long, two feet wide and one-and-a-half feet deep, which was barely big enough to count as a hole once I put the bamboo and sod in place. I did get a friend to chase me, but he just stepped on the edge and thought it was a mole hole or something. And then I got in trouble for digging up the yard. So my grandiose plans of luring an unsuspecting victim to his doom never panned out, but if they had I would have had one shining moment of satisfaction followed by what would surely have been weeks if not months or years of punishment, mistrust, and guilt.
My hours of unstructured play came close to blinding me and putting my friend in the hospital. In other moments of mayhem throughout my mostly unstructured youth, it resulted in untold cases of raging poison ivy, skunks turning to spray as we ran for cover, the clichéd-but-much-too-common rusty nail in the bottom of my foot, fleeing a neighbor’s thoroughly ticked off thousand pound bull, broken windows galore, dents in the top of the car, and so on.
But from each moment of mayhem came an indelible lesson: eyes are essential, plotting the demise of others isn’t worth it, don’t dig around old barns without a) thick-soled shoes and b) a flashlight, don’t throw sharp objects as high as you can randomly into the air, don’t try to herd cows if you’re not on a horse, watch out for shiny three-leaved plants, etc.
I credit these lessons with my mostly unblemished record of health and morality since childhood (the key word being “mostly”). You really do learn more from your mistakes—and from pain, and from guilt. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? I got lucky, and I definitely got stronger.