Guess my middle name should have been 'Don't'

Guess my middle name should have been 'Don't'

It was one of those long, hot Ohio days, and Mom was in a hurry.

“Michael,” she said as she hustled my sister and brother into the back seat of our Ford Galaxie 500. “Listen. I’m counting on you.”

I was 8 years old, so I’d been around long enough to understand that something was being asked of me that I wouldn’t want to do.

That was just part of being the oldest child, and I was used to it. After all, with my father at work and the nearest responsible relative living 20 miles away, who else was she going to turn to?

The Fuller Brush Man?

So I sat in the shotgun seat and got ready for an adventure. Summer afternoons being a kind of dead time between hanging out with my friends in the morning and baseball games in the evening, I relished the chance to do something useful, to be of assistance.

At least that’s what I told my mother.

Storm clouds — the ominous purplish-black kind that usually sent her scurrying to the basement with the three of us in her anxious wake — had been gathering in the western skies all morning, and I could hear thunder in the distance. To see Mom driving us out into such a nasty reality was, to say the least, a tad bit disconcerting.

Alas, I don’t remember why she had to get to Walgreen’s so fast. Maybe one of my siblings was in need of penicillin. Who knows?

What matters is when she parked outside the drug store, sheets of rain buffeting her as she wrestled with an umbrella, she looked back at me, desperate, and said something I’ve never forgotten.

“Don’t touch the red thing,” and she was gone, off into the storm.

I knew all about the red thing, having toyed with it as I sat in the driver’s seat of the family car, parked in our suburban driveway.

It was the emergency brake handle, and I’d been warned not to mess with it. Dad wasn’t kidding around when he said, “Don’t.”

So I didn’t.

But you have to understand that when you’re 8 and about to start third grade, you begin to challenge established parameters, things like bed times and allowance amounts and how loud a radio can go.

You have some small conception of the value adhering to traditional norms possesses, but there’s a growing awareness deep inside that whispers its siren-song allure, which says, “Do it.”

So there I sat, staring at the red thing, lightning lighting the sky with jagged bolts, big thunder crashing, the radio hissing static, when I decided it was a very propitious moment to disobey.

This was, perhaps, not the brightest thing I’d ever done. Prior to that afternoon, the most devious prank I’d engineered involved the three of us hiding in closets or under beds when Mom had driven Dad to the office, owing to a bus strike, and she was frantic when she couldn’t find any of us upon her return to the family home.

“Michael,” she said, practically throttling me with relief after I’d called off the ruse. “Don’t you ever do anything like that again.”

Yet there I was, a year later, looking to up the ante. I could blame my Catholic upbringing and the way parochial schooling had made it impossible to avoid what the nuns called “near occasions of sin.”

But when I pulled the red thing, in that storm, it was all on me.

I can only imagine what must have gone through my mother’s mind when she stepped out of the store to find the car missing.

For one thing, she’d have been frightened by the intensity of the summer squall, which had only gotten worse since she left us.

For another, though, when she saw the Galaxie 500 stopped, halting traffic in all directions, with her first-born child smirking behind the wheel, she had to have thought, “I just don’t get it.”

To Mom, I was the one who was supposed to be reliable, the well-educated, good-grades-getting son, the one she could count on. I was the first baseman who caught everything thrown or hit his way, the summer-reading-club star, the son who didn’t mind tending the Kool-Aid stand in the driveway, a boy who always said his prayers.

To quote Rod Stewart from “Every Picture Tells a Story,” look how wrong you can be. My life has been an almost continual series of falling-short episodes, of failing to do the right thing. Now as I approach my life’s back nine, I have to admit I have to work on my short game, to sometimes just play it safe, understanding settling for bogey isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Speaking of golf, a game I should be better at but will never master, I remember the summer when construction began on a “nonprofit clinic” directly across the street from our house. It was a 4-acre field, wide open and beautiful, a place for Dad to the walk the family dog, my friends to play football and me to hit golf balls.

Mom was not pleased to hear the news, so I took my 9-iron and systematically scythed every surveyor’s stake that had been hammered into the ground, hoping to stop the inevitable.

I think she was happy I didn’t accept “Don’t” for an answer.