I turned eighty this year but when I look back on some of the nutty things I did as a kid, I have to wonder how I ever made it this far. For example…
By Dave Riley
ABOUT THE AGE OF TEN I developed an interest in testing the laws of physics. How fast could I cycle, I wondered on this particular summer day, if I started from the top of Poplar Street and pedaled down as fast as my feet and legs would pump? Poplar, a quiet, tree-lined street, ended at Center Street, and I wondered what kind of thrill would I get making the right turn onto Center at top speed — whatever that speed was. Poplar wasn’t steep, but it was a constant downgrade that encouraged speed.
About fifty yards from Center I got my first physics lesson: bikes and other things on wheels don’t make 90-degree turns at high speed. In fact, I was too far to the right to make any turn at all. The best I could hope for was a soft landing into the door of the Gilmores’ garage across Center Street. Then a terrifying thought occurred: What if a car were coming along Center? (Talk about poor planning.) I went speeding through the intersection heading straight for the garage door that seemed to rush up to me, but before I reached it, I went flying. My experiment with physics ended when the front wheel careened off an immovable object — the curb. I don’t know who helped me, but the next thing I recall was sitting on a porch back up on Poplar Street, being attended to by Raymond Adams’s mom, who I believe was a nurse.
On balance, I think that was probably the dumbest thing I ever did as a kid. Fortunately, I survived that near catastrophe, and thus was able to go on to do other notably brainless acts. For example:
Eavesdropping. When I was about eight our phone service was part of a party line we shared with two other families. One day I decided to eavesdrop on Mrs. Rudman. Can you believe that? Actually, listening inwasn’t the dumb thing. But when she told her friend, “I think that Riley kid is listening,” I blurted out, “I am not!”
Trying to practice golf in the back yard using a baseball bat because I had no golf club. My first shot went right off the side of the bat and would have gone directly through the kitchen door window had not another agency intervened. That agency was my oldest brother Bob, who came out the back door and got nailed square on the forehead. As soon as he realized what had happened, he took off after me. I headed out back, and up Pleasant View Avenue. Bob gave up the chase quickly, but I put a half-mile between us before I slowed down. I don’t remember where I went after that, but it was dark before I dared to go home again.
Calling Mr. Canty a _______________. (I’m not going to tell you what I called him.) I couldn’t have been more than five, and the older boys put me up to it. We were a small mob walking back from the Robinson’s store near the intersection of Broadway and Center one summer evening when Mr. Canty drove towards us in his car. He honked his horn, and the Carr brothers kept saying, “Tell him he’s a _________! Tell him he’s a _________!” So I did. Within minutes Mr. Canty was sitting in our small living room discussing my vocabulary with my father. Poor Mr. Canty — he was so embarrassed he couldn’t bring himself to the say the word. “He called me a very nasty thing,” Mr. Canty said. “A very nasty thing.” I don’t recall any punishment, but it was years before I knew what that word meant, and I have never used it again in my life.
Trying to walk across Kenduskeag Stream on the ice. Raymond Adams and I thought it would be a hoot to walk to the other side — as I recall, a distance of a hundred yards or so. He was a few paces behind me, and somewhere near the middle, the ice turned to mush. Before I could pull my foot back, I went through. There must have been a current, because instantly I was under the ice and being pulled downstream. I remember flailing with my arms and crashing up through again. Somehow I pulled myself out. It was freezing outside, and I was drenched and probably two miles from home. Raymond took me to his house where his mom dried all my clothes. She did that, she said, to spare my mom from ever having to imagine the horror of what had almost happened.
Defrauding an innkeeper in Portland, Maine. (Actually, this wasn’t dumb at all. It was pretty smart, and I throw it in just to let you know I wasn’t a total idiot.) I was a freshman at Bapst at the time, and one Saturday I took the Maine Central Railroad along with my friend Rusty and another fellow to Portland, about 150 miles away, to see Bapst play a night game against Cheverus. My recollection,which may be faulty, is that Bapst had had a crummy season up to that point, but somehow managed to beat Cheverus.
Afterwards we all went to a room Rusty and his friend had rented at the Eastland Hotel, at the time the nicest place in town. The hotel management probably never would have noticed that three were staying there for the price of two, but sometime around midnight others began arriving — eight or nine more as I recall — and they were rowdy. I don’t recall any drinking, but people that age don’t need alcohol to raise a ruckus. Eventually there was a heavy pounding at the door, and a raspy voice announcing, “House detectives. Open up!”
Instantly, people went scrambling for the closet and the bathroom as the banging continued. I thought of going out on the ledge, but we were several stories up, and that seemed like a most unpalatable option. As Rusty went to open the door, I spotted the one place nobody else was hiding: I dove under a bed, and got myself as far from the edges as possible.
IT TOOK THE DETECTIVES ALL OF FIFTEEN SECONDS to round up the fugitives. “Who signed for this room?” one asked. Rusty and his friend acknowledged that they had, although I don’t think they were at all sure that was the right answer under the circumstances. “You two can stay if you can shut up,” he said. Then he ordered the rest to get out.
Meanwhile his partner had acquired a fascination for a door next to the bed under which I was hiding. It was the door that adjoined to the next room, but when he opened it, all he saw was another door, presumably locked, that opened into the other room. There couldn’t have been more than a half-inch of space between the two, but four times the guy went over to open it as if he expected another bad guy to appear. I can only guess that he thought some teenage Houdini was in there holding his breath, and that he would eventually exhale and fall to the floor.
Meanwhile, I was getting a floor’s-eye view of the proceedings. (To this day I remember the door-sniffer’s crummy taste in clothing: black shoes, tawny brown trousers and white socks.) Now if you were a house detective in this situation, would you look under a bed? Of course you would, and so would I. I was lying there assuming that eventually I would be caught, but I wasn’t about to crawl out and say, “I did it! Arrest me!” Each time those darn black shoes came by, I got more nervous. But the only guy who saw me was one of my buddies who gave me a startled look when he reached under the bed to retrieve a shoe.
Eventually, everybody cleared out, and Rusty, his friend and I got a good sleep. I have no idea where the others spent the night, but autumn nights in Maine can be really chilly and I suspect that the following week, more than one mother was scolding her sniffling son for not dressing warmly enough at that football game.