Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Comic Books and Bubblegum

The story goes like this:

Both my parents worked at the John Deere tractor factory in Waterloo, Iowa when I was growing up. What this meant was that during the summer, I was left completely alone and un-attended.

Which is great when you're a kid in the summertime.

We lived outside a small Iowa town -- almost an even mile -- and when I was fifteen it was an awkward place to be. There wasn't much to do and I found myself wasting lots of summer days. My older brother worked as a cashier in town at the drugstore and I used to hassle him that someday I was going to come riding into a town and rob him blind, just to embarrass him.

One morning found me outside hunting squirrels with a water pistol. Now, this was back when you could get a water pistol that was actually shaped like a real gun rather than a bubbly-looking spacegun like you get nowadays -- although, they were still clear and primary-colored. Squirrels are quick and react generally the same way each time you squirt them, and all though it was really really hilarious at first, I did finally get bored with it.

You ever hear how John Dillinger once faked his way out of jail by carving a gun-shape out of a piece of wood and then blacking it with shoe-polish? Plastic will actually hold shoe polish as well. It actually makes a bright-yellow Browning look pretty good. So I painted up my water pistol, wrapped the handle in black electrical tape, put it in a bag so I wouldn't be seen carrying it down the road, and headed into town, whistling.

I waited until I knew the store was empty of customers and I could see my brother through the side-glass window, at the register. Then I burst in, brandishing my pistol.

"Don't move!" I shouted. "This is a stick up!"

My brother just shook his head, until I squirted him a good one. Then he got a bit angry.

I grabbed a Fantastic Four comic book and a pack of Bubble Yum bubblegum and told my brother to just go ahead and count to a hundred "real slow like." Then I backed out of the door, waving my scary-looking squirt gun.

Then I went to the city park, jammed all five pieces of gum into my mouth, and read my comic book.

Twenty minutes later one of our town's Finest pulled into the park. I knew him. I actually sat next to his son during choir. He got out, hiked up his britches around his big middle and strode over to me.

"Mike," he said.

I spit out my bubblegum. "Officer Woodyard," I said back.

"Understand there was some excitement over at the drugstore," Woodyard said.

"Yep," I said. "I robbed the place blind."

He almost grinned but didn't.

"Well," he said, "your brother paid for your loot and the pharmacist, Mr. Schmitz, he didn't seem too worried about it."

"That's good," I said.

"But," he said, then sighed. "Mr. Schmitz says you was waving around a gun. Is that right?"

"Yeah," I said.

"That's a problem," Woodyard said. "Do you still have it?"

I pulled it out of the bag.

"Sure," I said. "Here it is."

Officer Woodyard stepped forward and took it, then looked at me.

"This is plastic," he said.

"Right," I said back. "I've never held a real gun in my life."

Woodyard sighed again.

"Well," he said, "I'm going to have to take you home. We contacted your dad and he's on his way."

This was a surprise. Contacting my father at Deere was something I didn't know was possible. I thought it was a phone call that routed through three offices, down to the assembly floor, through a foreman, and then down the line. For all I knew, they stopped the assembly line if someone walked away from his position. And now he was coming home? This didn't bode well.

My old man had a list of chores made up in his head on the way home that kept me working around the house and acreage for three weeks, then he walked around and made me write up another list of things that occurred to him as he saw them that added another week of work on top of it.

Then he said, "Next year, you get a job."

When I turned nineteen I bought my first guitar. The first song I learned was a Beatles song, the next three songs I learned I wrote myself. This was one of those.