The Good-Ole-Days Series
#7 Remember when…
Influence can be a powerful teacher, if you cultivate and use them wisely. ~JCG
By John C. Gyorki
SO, IT BEGINS
I took my cardboard pencil box home from school to store and collect cigarette butts. After gathering my desired number of spent butts from our ashtray at home. I turned my attention to our junk drawer in the kitchen where we kept matches. After carefully surveying the area for a parental free environment, I knew I had to act fast to remove a full box of stick matches to stash in my pencil box before anyone caught me.
I hid my pencil box in my bottom dresser drawer of my bedroom. The box reeked of stale smoke which in turn permeated my clothes with its odor.
Honestly, I did not have to hide my pencil box. I took it too and from school all the time. My guilty conscience knew I had done wrong! Therefore, my fleshly human nature buried its guilt to secrecy.
A CALL TO ACTION
Morning came, I left my home as usual, with pencil box in hand and a spring in my step as I walked to school. Nobody asked what was in the box because most children carried one. I casually walked into the classroom and hung up my jacket on our designated coat hooks. Slowly I made my way walking towards my seat gripping my pencil box with both hands firmer than usual. I slid my box inside my desk, easily avoiding any abnormal attention to myself.
Our class started on schedule beginning each day with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Even tho prayer had been eliminated from the school system in 1963. Our teachers and administrators still allowed it. Unfortunately, my second-grade year ended with no more prayer again.
When we finished our routine, I glanced over at the smiling girl who sat next to me. I thought I would wait until recess time to impress her with my pyrotechnic demonstration.
About twenty minutes into our day. We were tasked to copy words off the blackboard onto our ruled composition journals. I tried not to make eye contact with smiling girl, but an overwhelming urge to look got the best of me.
I finally caved in and found myself gawking at smiling girl! She had already been looking in my direction. The grin I saw on her face made my heart miss a beat and lose my mind. I became oblivious to my surroundings.
The teacher and my classmates blurred from existence. Everything vanished around me, including my common sense. It felt like we were the only two left in the classroom.
I couldn’t take it any longer! I had to show her how talented and resourceful I am! It had to be now or never! I achieved level stupid within an instant!
Shaking with excitement, I clambered as I outstretched my arms inside the side slotted desk towards the back fumbling around until I felt my pencil box. I didn’t want to pull out all my magic tricks at once. Therefore, I kept my container concealed.
Next thing I did was slip a cigarette butt out but could not retrieve a matchstick from its box. What prompted me to move forward with my next action surpassed all human logic.
I lowered my head eye level to peek inside the desk to gain a better view, while pressing my face into the desk opening as close as my wide head allowed. I placed the cigarette butt between my lips hiding my face from smiley girl. I can only imagine today; she may have had a puzzled look on her face the entire time I had my head buried in my desk.
I managed to open the lid of the box partially with my left hand reaching in with my right grabbing the box of matches. Meticulously I pulled a match from the box and immediately raked it across the course surface.
I shoved and dropped the open box of matches back into the pencil box. With a lit match in hand and face still pressed against the desk opening. I moved the flame towards my cigarette butt and took the biggest draw off it and held the smoke in my mouth.
Afterward, I tossed the lit match back into my pencil box with my face still in the desk. To my dismay the entire box of matches caught fire! Since the pencil box’s key ingredient was cardboard, it didn’t take long to envelop into flames either.
I jumped up out of my seat, turned and looked at smiling girl, except she wasn’t smiling anymore.
She had her hands on her face with a facial expression of sheer horror.
Smiling girl is now freaking out girl screaming at the top of her lungs,
“I THINK JOHNNY HAS MATCHES!”
Then there I am, standing in front of my desk, dumbfounded with flames shooting out of it like a film scene from the movie Towering Inferno!
Mind you this is all happening so fast that I still had a mouthful of smoke from the cigarette butt I drew off.
So, what do I do when freaking out girl is tattling on me to the teacher?
I said, “NO I DON’T!”
Smoke poured out of my mouth and nostrils as I spoke. I coughed and hacked so hard I almost fell to the floor from feeling dizzy.
I looked away from freaking out girl and turned my attention to hysterically freaking out teacher, then continued to look around the room at the entire classroom in a state of confusion!
Everything unfolding appeared to be in slow motion.
Our teacher quickly pulled the fire alarm handle on the classroom wall and ordered us to assume fire drill practice mode. We all left the classroom in a single file line including all K-6 grade classrooms from the entire school building.
Our maintenance man put the fire out within seconds, using a fire extinguisher which resulted in the cancellation of the fire department.
All this happened within minutes. The fire contained, my pencil box completely charred to ashes, books survived, but some of my school papers did not.
OH, WHAT HAVE I DONE
I stood outside the school building with my classmates in silence. All eyes focused on me. I felt ashamed, humiliated, and sad. I glanced up at sad face girl. She gave me the what were you thinking stare making me feel terrible.
Even I couldn’t believe what I had done.
My teacher came over and asked me if I was ok, tears rolled off my cheeks because I felt embarrassed. She hugged me and told me I would have to pay a visit to the principal’s office.
CHAIR OF SHAME
I found myself paralyzed with fear in the principal’s office sitting on a chair.
In walks Mr. Principal with a serious look on his face. I could smell Old leather aftershave when he entered the room. He closes the door behind him, then turns to me, pauses, and stares at me intently. Next, he walked over to his chair and pulled it out from under his desk to seat himself.
Mr. Principal clasped his hands together on his desk and leans in towards me, “Johnny, I would never have expected this from you! Quiet, shy little Johnny? Why did you do this?”
The most profound answer I could give him was, “I don’t know.”
Then he asked me,” where did you learn to play with matches?”
“My grandpa,” I replied.
I’ll never forget the puzzled look I saw on Mr. Principals face.
I have to admit; he was a kind compassionate man of integrity. He gave me the benefit of doubt for making a poor decision.
After giving me an incredibly long lecture about fire hazards and safety.
He said he would allow me to go home and tell my parents what happened on my own.
“Do I have your word, Johnny? Will you tell your parents?” Said Mr. Principal.
I nodded my head, yes.
I left the office feeling terribly remorseful. Walking down the hallway felt equally bad if not worse. All I wanted to do was crawl into a hole and puke.
BROKE MY WORD OF HONOR
I left school that day with full intentions of telling my parents. Anytime I thought of telling them about my fire antic, I fizzled out. I knew if I told my dad he would blister my backside, RAW!
Going back to school was a little uncomfortable, but everyone forgave me, and soon, life leaned back to normal.
Two days passed with never mentioning a word to anyone. In my pea brain mind, I thought, out of sight, out of mind. Oh, boy was I wrong!
DO YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO TELL ME
On the third day, I went home for lunch thinking my mistake had been forgotten from the collective consciousness of humanity. When I entered my home, I looked up and saw my father towering over me near the back door.
I don’t remember feeling the floor nor the sensation of walking to the kitchen chair I found myself sitting on.
He asked me, “Johnny, do you have something to tell me?”
Wisdom escaped me again. I said, “I don’t think so.”
Apparently, that was the wrong answer, because I again did not feel the floor beneath me, plus I couldn’t feel my butt for a week. It felt like twin cheeks fall from grace.
Mr. Principal had more wisdom than I did. He made a phone call to my father and explained to him what happened.
I went to school Friday morning, the day after my rear end fell off. My teacher said, “Mr. Principal would like to see you before class starts.”
Grrrrreat I thought. I marched down to the office to meet with him.
He asked me if I would like to sit down, I respectfully declined because I still felt a little tender on my private side.
Obviously, he knew my father had talked to me because Mr. Principal could barely hide his laughter when he saw how I walked.
He said, “I’m sure you learned your lesson, you may leave now.” I waddled away back to class.
The above picture is a little extreme, but it clearly illustrates the way my rump felt after dad took a belt too it, ON FIRE!
After my disciplinary actions were applied, I could have easily blended in with these baboons. I’m positive if I were left in the care of these creatures they would have welcomed me into their family, wholeheartedly. After all, I kinda had the behavioral part down pretty good.
That little guy in the picture is me. I did not wear glasses back then (joking).
Just for the record, I did not have a mental disorder associated with a pyromaniac. I didn’t have an obsessive urge to start fires. All tho I will admit, it wasn’t ruled out by my parents and teachers. It was a huge lapse in judgment. I shouldn’t have been playing with matches.
My father didn’t beat me to a pulp either; it was a seven-year-olds perception of what happened.
Yes, my need to know how things worked and to express what I had learned, to impress someone backfired on me.
Once again, the power of influence gripped my curiosity. Reflecting on my memories doesn’t surprise me that I acted out what I saw. Not that it’s an excuse, it’s just what I knew.
My world revolved around stories of war-torn Europe during World War I and World War II. My father at ten-years-old found undetonated bombs or grenades along the roadside in the village he lived. The stories I heard how children of that era used that stuff would make anyone cringe.
One of my theories of when the fire idea seeded in my mind may have stemmed from my dad’s story of making Molotov cocktails during the Hungarian Revolution he fought in.
Another theory about fire idea inception could have been when the Fantastic Four Cartoon coincidentally aired on Saturday mornings 1967. Johnny Storm instantly became my favorite character. FLAME ON!
The simplistic explanation for my actions was imitating my grandpa and his friend.
So, between cartoons and war stories, I heard in my life. I thought my implementation of ideas and behavior was completely natural. Having a pocket knife on me at a youthful age was a badge of honor if I used it appropriately. Everything taught related to survival.
Unmistakably, my dad and grandpa sat me down and explained the right and wrong way to do things. Even after all the talking, my still small inner voice of reason begged me to listen, and I did at times, but I still managed to find myself in a predicament.
Influence can be a powerful teacher, if you cultivate and use them wisely.
I’m grateful for the influence of biblical teachings I found myself leaning on when life threw curve balls at me. There is no greater influence than the God I serve.
LIFE CHALLENGES WILL ALWAYS CONTINUE
I managed to stay fire free for a couple of years until I fell off the flame wagon and had a relapse with a neighbor friend. His idea, I just happened to be with him. Guilt by association.
After retiring from fire art. I occupied my time with a new passion. A birthday gift was given to me on my twelfth birthday by a childhood friend. A refreshed sense of experimentation as a result of this exceptional gift, a chemistry set.
Another story another day.
Great little story about chemistry sets from the Smithsonian Institute Mag.
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