[September 10, 2023] Long ago, when I was a tween (not a child but also not a teenager), I was probably 12 years old; I was dropped off by Fanny, my school bus driver, at my home. Walking with my books under my arm, I noticed a used cigarette burning in the ditch out in front of my house. Most likely, it was thrown by a passing motorist, careless as so many of them tend to be. Wow, I thought, I can be like one of the cool kids in school and here is my chance to prove it right now. As a note on my personality, I believed in filling my head with useful, cool things to do, and smoking seemed like something I could easily add to my repertoire. I could quickly get a few puffs of smoke before entering my house, and Mom would not be the wiser.
I was wrong. The first “drag” from the cigarette sent spasms into my lungs and caused involuntary coughing while vomiting my lunch onto the grass. I was on the ground before I knew what was happening, gasping for fresh air, squirming in a jerking motion, and making the most terrifying noise. I’m sure all the nearby farm animals were scared, as was I. That day, I learned a valuable lesson. Never smoke tobacco; it’s not worth trying to be cool. There surely were other cool tools I could discover to make myself more “popular” as every 12-year-old wants to be. Cool like John Wayne — stoic, tough, witty, ready to clobber the bad guys, and never ever taking crap off anybody. But I did not know this at that age. Not smoking was a small decision but one of the best decisions I ever made.
I was not very interested in school (a mistake that took many years and much pain to correct), but I wanted to learn about science and girls. Those puberty hormones were starting to rage, yet I was awkward and socially inexperienced. I closely observed boys older than me and watched how they interacted with the girls. Looking back, I oversimplified their behavior and believed that being cool was the solution. “How do I do cool?” I could do a few things, and “cool” Doug would magically appear. Dress cool, walk cool, talk cool, puff on a cigarette cool (nope, strike that one), drink beer, and be aloof like I didn’t care one whit if I did that; even the women teachers might be interested in me (or so I thought). I was wrong, but you couldn’t have convinced me then. Maybe that was how to get the girls to notice me.
My Mom drove me to a store to buy a Nehru shirt. They were all the rage in the 1960s. It cost me 25 bucks, almost a month’s wages. I tried to walk with a swagger, and I’m sure it was entertaining. I even had a friend of a friend who knew somebody over 21 buy me a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I overpaid. And the taste was horrific. When kids in school came near me, I would look away like I was contemplating doing something cool. All this got me was beaten up once, one girl I had a crush on slapped me (darn hard), several teacher reprimands for failing to turn in homework, and a visit to see the Assistant Principal. Being cool, indeed, was overrated. Even my Mom asked me if I was sick or had trouble at school. If she only knew. My Mom was cool at her school, so why couldn’t I be?
I failed at being cool. And catastrophically so. I was so bad that even a few younger kids pointed fingers at me and smirked. After all that, one might think I was ready to hand it up and throw away the idea of collecting cool things to do. But, no. Learning how to make myself useful and appreciated was the only real alternative. That’s when I got farm jobs working with cows and pigs (pretty low for a cool kid). But I got fringe benefits like Linda, the farmer’s daughter and the first girl I kissed. Wow. Working became my passion. The farmer opened up to me and told me how he got started and became successful and how the business worked. His kids were all girls, so he was looking for young men good enough for his daughters. Ouch. I liked girls but wasn’t ready to go down that path. I told the farmer the truth, and he understood. Besides, I was 12. He laughed. I learned that hard work, honesty, a good attitude, and telling the truth were the most valuable things a boy could do. Screw being cool. Work beat that. And I had a lot more more money than the cool boys at school.
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