Ah, to be six years old! You’re no longer a baby totally dependent on others, yet you’re also not an adult with all the attendant responsibilities. You’ve just started school and the only passing requirement is to learn to tie your shoelaces.
Heady times, to be sure.
So why would an otherwise intelligent, good-looking kid throw it all away and chance doing some hard time in The Big House?
I blame it all on Aurora.
See, Aurora was a manufacturing company that made HO-scale (1:87) slot cars, those little plastic model cars with tiny little electric motors in them that you race around a slotted track using a transformer to control their speed. Most set-ups had track with 2 lanes so you could race your brother or your friend, but the more advanced layouts had 4 lanes, with the required special track pieces that would fit next to each other on the curves.
The track was sold both in sets – the usual ovals and figure-eights as well as “special” sets such as “Le Mans” (ostensibly a copy of that grand course) – and as separate pieces for those daring and experienced enough to create their own layouts. I had started off with a figure-eight set received on my sixth Christmas, quickly grew dizzy watching my rides zip around the simple circuit and decided to make my own custom racecourse.
Over the next six months, I drew blueprints, colored them in with Crayola’s finest and dreamed the dreams only the truly inspired (or demented) can dream. I had a vision of a giant layout going all around our spacious basement, a vision that was soon shot down when my Mom mentioned that the track would have to go across the doorway of my father’s shop as well as the half-bath entrance-way.
Still, I managed to wheedle two ping-pong tables from my father, each 4’x8′ and each more than enough for any normal six year old’s racecourse, but of course just barely enough for MY ultimate creation. First I had to decide whether to put them end-to-end or make an “L” shape out of them, a decision that was pretty much solved by the simple fact that only an “L” would fit in the space available.
Okay, I could live with that. I went through dozens of #2 pencils drawing track layouts on the tables and calculating how many pieces of track I would need. Luckily I was skilled in math, at least the theoretical form – my financial abilities were somewhat wanting at that point. Hell, they STILL are.
As a result of this financial idiocy my list of needed track sections ended up exceeding the GNP of any of several small nations. I wept as only a six-year-old can weep, my salty tears dropping onto the green grass mats that now covered both tables in anticipation of the gray-black tracks being laid upon them.
The upshot was that I had to settle for a lesser track design. I use the word “lesser”, but that’s like saying a millionaire has to settle for a lesser Ferrari when the top model isn’t available. The track that I had scrimped and saved my allowance for was finally piled up on my little work-table, patiently waiting to be inserted into my masterpiece. Over the course of the next three days I impatiently connected the track pieces together with the little plastic “U” connectors, had to re-do several sections when my carefully-crafted blueprints proved to contain errors of scale (curse you, Crayola!) and spent those days with thousands of little pieces of green “grass” covering my body. School was just a bother at this critical junction of time – who needed to learn the Plej of Legence and endlessly recount alfabits when my Cobra GT and Ford F-40 were waiting for their duel to the death?!?
Finally! Yet another Saturday (Saturdays seemed to be my unlucky days from this point onward), this one in June. The sun was streaming in through the small high-mounted basement windows and falling upon my racetrack, a sign from Heaven that all was as it should be. Like any good driver I walked the track, noting any dips or obstructions in the road. I found a few cat hairs and an uneaten piece of Chuckle’s (red) and disposed of them. I carefully placed my car on the track for its first real time trial, got ready to click the stopwatch I had “borrowed” from my brother and, when my imaginary Christmas-tree light blinked down to “GREEN” I was off!
Burning down the long home stretch, applying the brakes before the S-curves, negotiating those tricky chicanes, passing through the Plaster of Paris mountain that brother Dave had given me from his defunct railroad, past the several small towns of plastic factories and pastel-colored homes with their HO-scale children running around in the yard. On and on I pushed the envelope, staring Death in the face and laughing!
Just as I was negotiating the sweeping final bend before the finish line, Dad yelled downstairs:
“Hey, Phil, want to go to Klein’s with me and Mom? Maybe I’ll buy you something for your layout!”
Klein’s was one of our local department stores, sort of a pre-cursor to K-Mart and of approximately the same low quality, but to me the mere mention of their name invoked magic! Klein’s had a huge (six-years-old = relative) section devoted to slot cars, model buildings and the thousand-and-one little extras that you could spend your money on.
On the way to Klein’s Dad told me that I could get something for $3, but not a cent more. I was content with this limit, as I knew that the item I most wanted – a small boxed collection of green rubber bushes, or hedges – cost $2.75. I knew this because my undeveloped brain had stored all the pricing info in the county relating to slot cars with mathematical precision. I knew exactly where those bushes would go on the layout as well – right in the chicanes, to give them a bit of mystery. How can you successfully race through such a tricky passage while shrubbery obscures your view? It would be a challenge for even the best drivers.
We get to the store, Dad says he’ll be in the Hardware section, Mom would be looking at dresses or something and that I shouldn’t wander out of the Toy section (yes, in those days it was common practice to let your little kid alone in a store – nobody ever snatched me, possibly much to my parents’ despair). I nodded my assent and flew to the precise section that had my bushes. I picked up the box in triumph, already seeing in my mind’s eye how vastly improved my track would become when I happened to notice the price tag on the box.
The Unattainable Bush
Oh, NO!!! WHEN did they raise it $0.50?!? WHY?!?! Now I couldn’t get it – it was over the $3 limit my father had set. I quickly searched my pockets but came up with only some old Wrigley’s gum, some red gunpowder caps (EVERY real boy carried them) and 4 pennies.
I looked forlornly at the box, with its glorious hand-painted cover of majestic green hedges standing tall and proud along some Germanic-looking avenue. I saw my OWN pathetic layout, now devoid of said bushes, not being a REAL layout at all anymore. I had been THIS CLOSE to perfection, to achieving what other six-year-olds had only dreamed of, only to have it snatched away by the avarice of Mr. Klein!
Holding the box in my hands and debating what other, lesser item I could purchase, I noticed that the box wasn’t sealed – in fact, a quick lift of the top section revealed 6 – count ’em, 6! – glorious green bushes laying snugly together, almost seeming to mock me with their sing-song chant –
“You can’t have us, you can’t have us … “
I reeled in anger, my eyes seeing red, and suddenly, out of no place that I had previously recognized or have since determined, I decided that I would HAVE my bushes, no matter what!
Peeking out of the corners of my eyes and determining that the coast was clear, I quickly placed the 6 bushes, now oddly quiet, into the pocket of my dungarees.
I placed the now-empty box back on the shelf, took a final survey of my exit route and, sweating like a virgin in a house of ill-repute, began to make my escape.
The Heavy Hand of Justice
That’s when that heavy, hairy hand locked onto my shoulder.
“Where are YOU going, young man?”, a voice straight out of Hell boomed. It sounded like James Earl Jones if James Earl Jones was doing testosterone shots and was REALLY angry.
Ignore all later accounts of the incident that claim I wet myself. Those are just outright lies spread by my enemies.
I was marched to an office whose existence I had never even imagined. It was lit with cold, green-tinged fluorescent lights, devoid of any furniture save a stern-looking, no-nonsense metal desk and a single gray filing cabinet. A black dial phone sat on the desk, looking more unimaginably terrifying than any torture device ever devised by the CIA or the Taliban.
The giant man in the blue sports jacket dialed the phone, bellowed some words into it and sat back watching me with veiled lids, occasionally taking a noisy slurp from a Styrofoam coffee cup.
My father burst through the office door soon after, rapid-firing questions to the giant. My Mom’s face was white with fear and for the most part she sat meekly on a stiff metal desk chair off to the side, while my Dad was pacing back and forth and banging his massive hands on the giant’s desk. I feared an epic showdown, a Battle of the Titans, was brewing and I shrank into my chair, whimpering.
The giant was using words like “jail” and “thief” and “police”, words that brought tears to my eyes. After every such word my father would bang the desk yet again and wave his arms like a wild man. I have to say that, at that precise moment, Dad was never more of a superhero to me – defending the weak, the small and the guilty.
Finally, some accord was made. I say this because the giant extended his hand across the desk and SuperDad reached his across as well, in the process knocking the cup of cold coffee directly in Giant’s lap.
To this day, I like to think that it was a movement fully-planned by Dad, a finishing move on a defeated opponent that would bring honor to the best moves of professional wrestling.
I don’t recall much after that, except that I was led out to the car rather quickly by the scruff of my neck. I took my usual seat in the back, still wailing like a wimp while Mom read me the riot act …
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU? WE DIDN’T RAISE YOU TO BE A CROOK! WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST ASK IF YOU COULD …”
On and on the verbal beat-down came, waves of it crashing across my guilty skull. I felt lower than a pregnant snake’s belly and bluer than a midnight showing of Deep Throat.
Dad kept his peace while he drove, then as we were passing the last local hobby shop before home he wordlessly pulled into their parking lot and, despite Mom’s repeated pleas of “Mike! Mike! Mike!” took me by the hand, walked into the hobby shop and purchased, for $4.50 (plus tax), a box of 6 Green Bushes.
I spent many of the following years happily racing my slot cars on my track. No matter whether I was fighting against the clock in a solo race, dueling with my best friend Michael Salerno or, that one memorable New Year’s Eve, holding a 24-hour endurance race which featured bottles of Coke and bowls of popcorn and peanuts, fuel for such an inhuman and inhumane trial that in any event saw both Michael and me snoring on the basement floor after midnight, only a quarter-way into the race, wrapped in blankets provided by Mom.
It didn’t matter how we raced, who won, who got to drive the new car or what the track layout was at that particular time – those 6 Green Bushes always occupied a position of honor high atop Plaster Mountain, constantly reminding me that while it is good to always strive upwards you have to watch out for those damned rock-slides.