You would think, when hearing some of the stories in my family, that my brothers and I had a death wish. Actually, we were just typical young boys in a much simpler time. If you managed to break your arm when you slipped on a throw rug while running around the house, after your mother told you not to, there was none of this “sue the manufacturer of the throw rug” business. You were brought to the emergency room to have your arm set in a cast, with your mother telling you the entire way that if you hadn’t been horsing around and running around the house, you wouldn’t be on your way to St. Francis, especially on a night when your mother and father had other plans for the evening. Why, they were going to miss Red Skelton! The nerve of you! How could you be so inconsiderate?
Fortunately, most of the mischief that we got into was nowhere near as dramatic as all that, although some of it could have been. Take, for example, my introduction to electricity.
I was about three years old, and we were living in Indianapolis. Generally speaking, kids that young take naps in the afternoon, but of course it’s around that time that I decided I had enough of lying in bed in the afternoon, pretending to sleep. Mom would put me down for a nap, and I’d find some way to occupy myself that wouldn’t wake up my brothers, who were both under two and hadn’t gotten to the rebellious stage just yet, or disturb my mother, who was downstairs watching Dinah Shore or something. Occasionally I would pitch enough of a fit that Mom would decide that I was just going to be awake and horsing around in my room, where she couldn’t see what I was doing, and let me roam wild through the house between one and four in the afternoon. She usually ended up regretting it, like the day I tried to make myself sneeze by sniffing pepper up my nose, or the day I was with her in the basement while she was doing the laundry and drank a small cup of Clorox (that was partly her fault, because she was using one of my plastic cups to measure the bleach).
One day, my mother’s paternal grandparents were coming to Indianapolis to visit, and Mom wanted to have some time to visit with them without a somewhat hyperactive three-year-old breaking in every ten minutes, so she informed me that a nap that day was not negotiable. I didn’t like it, but again, didn’t intend on lying in bed during that time, anyway; I was just going to have to find some way to occupy myself for those hours.
Anyway, Beads and Etaba (Mom, being their oldest granddaughter, had the honor of naming them) arrived a little before lunchtime. After all of the greetings (“say hello to Beads and Etaba, Johnny”) I was told to take Etaba’s hat and cane up to my room and put them somewhere that they would be safe. I laid his hat on the dresser and set his cane next to it and went back downstairs. At one, we were brought to our rooms. Mom undressed me down to my diaper and told me to get in bed and stay there and, for God’s sake, don’t wake my brothers. She left and closed the door, and I got under the covers and closed my eyes.
At quarter after one, I decided that this was crazy and got out of bed. I wandered around for a minute and saw Etaba’s fedora on the dresser. It looked just like the one Broderick Crawford wore on Highway Patrol, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it on. It was enormous on my head, but when I looked at myself in the mirror on the closet door, I saw Dan Matthews looking back at me. “Twenty-one fifty to headquarters,” I growled into my hand, and laughed. Quietly, of course. Can’t wake Jimmy and Kippy.
I went into the closet, brought out my galoshes, stepped into them, and picked up Etaba’s cane. Now I was a song-and-dance man, and danced in front of the mirror, singing some goofy song quietly and having a gay old time. Somehow, and I don’t know why, I got it in my head to stick the cane, with its steel tip, into the electrical outlet.
I didn’t scream or even make a sound, even though I was blasted halfway across the room. I was just in shock, so to speak, and sitting across the room, cane in hand, fedora slightly cock-eyed on my head. The sound did wake both of my brothers, who started crying, and it brought my mother and great-grandparents up from the living room, where they had been having a nice, adult conversation. She saw the cane in my hand, saw the black soot around the outlet, and smelled the ozone in the air, and knew exactly what I had done.
Mom helped me take off the boots and took Etaba’s hat and cane to an undisclosed (to me) location, and told me to get into bed and stay there.
Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t punished for the little incident; Mom figured that being blown across the room by several hundred watts of alternating current was punishment enough. All she would say was, “You’re lucky you had those boots on.”