When I was little, somewhere between first and third grade, we were on food stamps. We’d go to the grocery store with our little booklet to buy some things, but not other things, because the food stamps program only sanctioned certain items. I’m proud of that time in my life, mostly because I can bring it up in conversations with people these days lest they think I had it too good growing up.
Former friends of mine used to make fun of my upbringing. “You had it so easy, Rodney!” I think I did, in fact, have it easy compared to most people in the world today—but that doesn’t mean I’m going to concede the point easily among friends. So, at a perfect moment in a conversation, I’ll roll out my food stamps story and it stops them cold, at least for a moment.
Because I was the youngest of three and, as ascertained earlier—WE WERE ON FOOD STAMPS—our vacations weren’t all that elaborate before my brothers moved out. When they lived with us, we’d load up the car with our camping supplies and our week’s worth of clothes stowed neatly in individually painted beer cases. My father was an alcoholic who found creative ways to use his empties. I have to hand it to the guy: Who’d have thought you could turn a debilitating addiction into an arts-and-crafts project? But sure enough, he’d buy his Stroh’s beer by the case and, perhaps feeling a twinge of guilt for his sickness and not wanting to discard the perfectly reusable cases, he thought we could pack our clothes in them and save on buying suitcases or duffle bags. And here’s where I understand him more in my gut than in my mind: By painting them in individual patterns and colors for each of us, he covered up what they actually were and put a different face on his disease for the rest of the world to see. It said “Hey, look at these ! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” He was hiding in plain sight.
Then we’d drive Up North. If you’re not from Michigan, you need to know that “Up North” is any place that’s not Detroit. Up North easily could be due west or even slightly south. People from Michigan vacation in Michigan. I read recently that more Michiganders, as we like to call ourselves, vacation in their own state than any other state’s residents. Californians, by percentage, supposedly vacation less in their own state than Michiganders do. Floridians? Heck, they have Disney World and yet they tend to leave their home state more than we do. Maybe it means that we’re just not creative. We’re motorized, but perhaps not motivated.
Those last few sentences don’t hold true for me, though. Not because I’m better than everyone else from my Motherland, but because on one particular vacation, I was extremely creative and then hyper-motivated by the results of my creativity.
It was the morning of our camping trip up the coast to Lake Huron. I needed to put my mitt, baseball and bat into the station wagon, which was parked in the backyard and locked tight. Everyone still was inside the house, so Dad gave me the keys to unlock it. He didn’t realize how weak his son was. He didn’t suspect that my wrists were so scrawny and my grip so lousy that I couldn’t manage to actually turn the key in the door’s lock. And I didn’t want him to know this—so I found a creative solution to the problem.
After a few tries, I looked around and there, lying next to me, was my baseball bat. So, of course, I left the key in the door and gently, slowly used the bat as leverage. Unfortunately, it worked too well. Not only did I have enough force to twist the key, I twisted it too far and broke the head off—with the remainder still lodged deep inside the yellow, faux-paneled Kingswood Estate Station Wagon.
I wouldn’t call what I did next “panic.” Actually, it was pretty calculated. I took the key ring with the severed head into the house and told everyone around the breakfast table that I broke it off in the lock. Pride was swelling in my little heart. What a brute! I’d summoned the strength of 10 Rodneys and won the metal round. Sure, they were mad. Sure, the family trip would be delayed, but their son wasn’t a weakling anymore.
After a few moments of parrying their questions with not-quite lies but not necessarily the truth, my brother Scott said, “You didn’t have to hit it with a baseball bat.” Instead of freezing or running away, I brilliantly did the only thing I was born to do, and burst into tears. The tide turned in my favor and he was scolded for saying such a mean thing. I never found out whether he actually had peered out a window at precisely the right moment to witness my assault on the key, but somehow he knew. He knew and was taking the rap for knowing. He was just being honest and here he was getting punished for it. Served him right.
A few hours later, Dad realized he couldn’t free up the lock. Needle-nosed pliers and paperclips were no match for that deeply lodged sliver of metal. Finally, a spare key opened the passenger door and we were heading Up North on I-75. For the better part of two days my dad worked on the door at the campground, eventually removing the entire panel and the lock mechanism. I watched, but not too closely. I preferred a nearby sandy baseball field to our campsite and the semi-disabled station wagon.
I want to say that I learned a valuable lesson on that vacation. I want to somehow end this with words of incredible wisdom that I can pass on to my daughters. At the very least I wish that I could apologize to everyone in my family that I inconvenienced them that day. But when I’m being completely honest with myself, I realize that the story holds more than just trite realizations and candy-ass conclusions. That day, I realized that while truth is solid, it’s more of a malleable solid. I also discovered that I had an incredible power to sway my family by the way I acted and the way that I carefully presented myself to them.
Honestly? Those two things scared me. They scared me because I was afraid to use them again. And they scared me because I knew I would.