Was it true, as his father suggested, that he had the brains of a squirrel...or was there a deeper reason for lying down on a busy airport runway? Jim Shepard tries to explain...

How stupid were my friends and I, growing up in Lordship? It goes without saying that we were unsupervised (in the early '60s, most parents—at least mine—expected their kids, once past the age of, say, 7, to disappear on nice Connecticut Saturdays, and not return until dinnertime), and in that unsupervised state, it fell to us to keep ourselves entertained. We always came up with something. And all of it fell into two categories: things that were stupid and things that would have been fine, had they not been done stupidly. We gloried in the brainlessness of both. We had such an appetite for the kinds of activity that would cause a parent to despair that my father ran out of ways of insulting us, and he was easily one of the most verbally inventive people I knew. He got tired of announcing that I had the brains of a squirrel, for example, and started substituting around in the animal kingdom, and beyond: an ant, a flatworm, a walking doorknob.

Why can't you entertain yourselves the way the normal kids do? he would plead, searching for just a glimmer of reason. And we were always contrite to have upset him so much. So for a few days we would. We'd play basketball, and everyone who wore glasses would come out of the games with pince-nez or monocles. We'd play tackle football and tear shirts into court-jester-like strips and rip the knees and seats out of pants, and when none of that or none of the bloody noses and sprained ankles generated any stir, we took to playing on the empty fields above our beach, Russian Beach, with one sideline the edge of the bluffs. That lasted until two of us, Milton Harrigan and myself, caught a runner on a sweep and slung him out of bounds high out over the brambles. I remember an involuntary sound of awe on all our parts, including the runner's, as we realized just how much air he'd achieved before he experienced his Wile E. Coyote moment.

Who's "we"? Well, in my particular little pod there was probably a rotating group of six or seven kids, but three of the mainstays were my best friend and the bane of my father's existence, Jimmy Swift; my brother, John; and his best friend and the other bane of my father's existence, Kenny Swift. The Swifts and the Shepards were good friends, and Joanie, their mom, was hilarious and sharp-eyed and more or less at her wit's end when it came to her boys. Bill, their dad, I remember as hardworking enough that most of his disciplining occurred long after my brother and I had to go home for the evening.

My father was a worrier, and perhaps because of that he had an invincible need to believe that his sons weren't psychotics; that the Swifts were the problematic influences. It wasn't a bad theory—they almost always had better ideas than we did, in terms of the sheer inventiveness of the havoc—but adults always tended to overestimate the importance of the guy who came up with the idea. Sometimes you'd put forward a notion and everybody else would be more excited about it than you'd be, and they'd be the ones who made sure it happened.


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