A bad reputation

If adolescence marks the beginning of a clearer sense of who you are, and who you do and don’t want to be, I hit it at 12 years old when a girl told me I had a bad reputation.

For the previous three or four years I had been a very naughty boy—not all the time of course, but often enough to be a worry to my parents. And they didn’t know half of the things I got up to, often with my younger brother as a willing accomplice. Shoplifting was my debut, after a friend in school told me he had grabbed some fireworks from the news-agency. I had the perfect accessory; a double-breasted overcoat with big inside pockets, so it was easy to lean over an item and slip it in without appearing to put your hands near your pockets.

I was spotted first time. The next day my dad confronted me, telling me I had been seen hovering near some toys, and now they were missing. I confessed immediately, knowing I had no choice, and dad returned the toys. Apart from being grounded and losing my pocket-money for a month or so, I can’t recall any other punishments hurting much. Dad rarely hit us, but I was worried about the school principal finding out, because he was very free with the cane. That didn’t happen, and I wouldn’t understand why until years later.

After maybe a year of limiting my risky impulses to standard boys’ stuff like destroying ants’ nests, stone-throwing fights and scaring the neighbour’s cows, my next crime was putting objects on the railway line near our house. At first it was just pennies and small metal toys, with pleasing results. But I wanted to see what would happen if we put a large thing in front of the huge steam train that came through late most evenings, filling the valley with noise and smoke. We found just the right choice near the tracks; an empty, rusty 44-gallon drum. As soon it was dark, we snuck out of the house and put the barrel on the track.

My brother and I shared a bedroom, and we peered out into the darkness when we heard the long, mournful train whistle. Suddenly I was terrified, realising this was going way too far, and an awful accident might be about to happen. I just hoped the barrel would be crunched flat, and wouldn’t cause a derailment or worse. But that night the train slowed right down, coming to a stop at the station, and simply bunted the barrel to the side. The next morning, we couldn’t find the barrel, and for a long time afterwards I feared the knock on the door asking if we boys, who were often seen playing near the tracks, were responsible for a very serious crime. In fact, no-one seemed to know about the barrel; nobody said anything; so we just swore a vow of silence on the whole matter.

Over the next few years, among other exploits my brother and I vandalised street-lights, made guns out of pipes and firecrackers and stole money and cigarettes from our parents. The most dangerous was partly an accident. My dad and my brothers, along with his friend Ian and two of his sons, went camping next to the River Murray. While dad and Ian went into town to get drunk as usual, I looked in Ian’s car and found a rifle. I played with it for a while, pointing at birds in trees and imaginary rabbits in the grass. I stopped to speak to my brother, holding the gun in front of me, and for some reason pulled the trigger. There was a sharp crack, and a hole appeared in Ian’s car door. He had left it loaded and cocked, which doesn’t make it his fault, but was a very stupid thing for an experienced shooter to do.

Unsurprisingly, the other boys distanced themselves from my problem immediately. I opened the door and found no hole on the other side. The bullet must have been inside, probably sitting at the bottom of the door. The car was very untidy, and mud-spattered, so I decided to try disguising the hole by throwing new mud along the side, after plugging the hole with more mud. It looked quite convincing, but I knew it would dry out, and then most likely fall out at the first big bump on the rough dirt tracks. My chances seemed slim. The other boys kept the secret, Ian’s sons probably because of his famous temper, and my brothers through loyalty.

Again, there were no consequences. While I waited for the axe to fall, Ian drove that car around Mount Barker for months afterwards with the mud untouched. He often came to our house, and parked right in front of where we would sit and eat from the family barbecue, with the door facing us. About a year later, I saw him driving a new car. I never knew when or if Ian or the new owner discovered that bullet hole, or if Ian ever harbored any suspicions.

When I turned 12, my best present was a pocket knife. Typing now, I can still see the scar on my knuckle where I accidentally closed it on my index finger. Of course, I tried cutting everything I could find; plants, ropes, wood and so on; but I still don’t understand what I was thinking when I took to the hoses on my neighbour’s milking machine. I can see them now; red rubber that my knife whipped through so easily. The next evening, having forgotten about the hoses completely, I felt no fear when I answered the door to the local police sergeant. There was no-one else at home, but that didn’t stop him questioning me. I was a pushover.

‘Hello there; David isn’t it? Tell me David, have you got a sharp pocket knife?’

I couldn’t wait to pull it out of my pocket to show him.

‘A very smart little number. So what would you know about the rubber hoses on the milking machine next door—the ones that I reckon have been cut by a knife just like yours?’

I was dumbstruck, and very afraid. He pressed on.

‘It was you wasn’t it David? I think we need to have a talk with your father about what to do. Your neighbour is pressing me to take legal action on this.’

My silent tears were my confession. Perhaps at that moment he realised he was overstepping the mark, questioning a 12-year-old alone at night, because he said ‘I’ll be talking to your father about this in the morning. And I’ll have that knife now please.’ Leaving me alone in a state of panic.

Yet again I got off lightly, at least in the short term. I was taken by my dad to give a shame-faced apology to a furious neighbour, dad paid for the hoses to be replaced, and no charges were laid. Dad told me to say nothing about the matter to anyone, and I didn’t. But dad did say to me that he had great difficulty in talking our neighbour out of legal action, and he just hoped other people in our little town didn’t find out. I was never afraid of my dad, but his obvious disappointment cut me deeply. Completely self-absorbed, it never occurred to me how much this and my previous shoplifting might have cost him in his social standing. As one of the big bosses in Mount Barker, he could call in favours, but this one must have hurt.

I might have gone on to more juvenile crime, but for two things. The first was when a boy in my class, from one of the poorest families in the district, was sent to a reform school for a year, for stealing some money from a neighbour. I stopped to think about a couple of others who had gone before him. It hit me that I only got off because my dad was well-off and influential. It just didn’t feel right. But the cruncher was all about a girl. She lived not far from our place, and I had a crush on her, with absolutely no way to express that. One day I saw her walking home in front of me, and I joined her, offering to carry her bag.

She looked at me, not unkindly, and said ‘I’m not allowed to talk to you David, because my parents say you have a bad reputation.’ I couldn’t think of anything useful to say, so we walked along in silence until we got to her gate.

‘Goodbye David.’

I went home in tears. The thought that other people, especially the girl I was swooning over, saw me like that was just about unbearable. How many people knew? Did mum and dad know people were talking? The girl never spoke to me again, and I tried to avoid her whenever possible. And from that day on, I have never stolen anything or vandalised property. I spent the rest of my adolescence fully aware of how close I went to ruining my life, which only added to my general lack of self-confidence. As an adult, I’ve found other ways to be thoughtless, to be careless about the rights of others and to take stupid risks. But my urge to do something destructive, just for the sake of it, went away when a girl taught me a little about the wages of sin.

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