If It Doesn't Kill You, I'm Not Trying Hard Enough
I have been accused of trying to kill my youngest son, Danny. Not that I would murder him, more like ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ It is just happenstance that Danny is with me when these opportunities to do good have occurred.
Maybe it goes back to my father, who was a lifeguard when he was younger. By the time I came along he no longer looked like a lifeguard (more like what I look like today), but in his younger days —with his full head of hair, half-grin smile, sport jacket and pipe — he cut quite the figure.
When I was younger, I was a bouncer. I walked through crowds, wearing the “I’m in charge here” shirt, broke up fights, threw out drunks and tried (tried) to pick up girls. It was a great time. Even after my bouncer days were over, I would still jump in and break up fights, though it proved more dangerous without the shirt (I’ve heard ‘who the fuck are you?’ more than once).
Like my father before them, several members of my family are in the life saving business. My late brother-in-law (a man wonderful beyond words) was a fire chief, two of my nephews are firemen and my youngest nephew, who just turned 16, has already started volunteering at the fire department. Over the years I’ve collected quite a few fire department shirts: Mount Bethel, Clifton, Orange — all places I have never (and never will at this point) have the opportunity to save anyone’s life.
One day, while driving with the kids, I noticed two cars pulled over on the side of the highway. A woman sat inside one of the cars while another woman stood next to her, talking on her cell phone. I stopped, told the kids to stay in the car, and walked towards the woman on the phone. She had called 9-1-1 because the woman whose car she hit complained of chest pains. As I got closer she looked at me and the concern drained from her face.
“It’s okay,” she smiled, telling the person on the other end of the line, “the fire department is here.”
I shook my head, pointed to the logo on my chest, and said, “It’s just the shirt.”
“Oh, never mind,” she said as her smile tagged out, “It’s just the shirt.”
It’s just the shirt. The next morning my testicles were on a milk carton; I haven’t seen them since.
Now, about killing Danny.
Earlier this year, we were coming out of a pizzeria in a strip mall when we noticed a car roll out of a spot and cross the parking lot. There was something wrong about it, something didn’t look right. As it rolled by, Danny said, “There’s no one in that car.”
And he was right.
The car was rolling across the parking lot towards the highway and rush-hour traffic. The only things in its way were a series of small, brick towers, about four feet high. We hoped they were enough to stop the two-ton jumble of metal from making its escape. We moved forward (like a dog chasing a car, I wasn’t sure what to do if I caught it) and watched as it, fortunately, crashed into one of those towers.
Danny and I went store-to-store looking for the owner. As we emerged from a Chinese restaurant we saw a man, brown bag in hand, step from the liquor store (answers a lot of questions). He stopped and stared at the empty parking spot. He looked left, right, up (up?) but failed see his car with its backend propped up on the half-fallen tower of bricks.
We walked over to the owner, explained what had happened, and then the three of us went to his car.
“You get in,” I told the owner, “and we’ll push you.”
Danny and I got behind the car, leaving the fate of our lives to a man with a bottle of liquor in one hand and his keys in the other. He stepped in and turned the key, the engine roaring to life as he hit the gas. Danny and I pushed forward against the trunk of the car, the tires smoking as they spun uselessly against the asphalt. What happened next was only somewhat surprising, considering this man had forgotten to put his car in park just a few moments ago.
The car moved backwards, pushing the small brick tower, and us, towards the highway.
“Hold it!” I yelled, and walked over to the driver’s side window. “You have it in reverse.”
He apologized and I went back and joined Danny behind the car to push a second time. The engine roared once more as a feeling of déjà vu washed over me.
“Hold it!” I yelled, and repeated what was not obvious to him, “You still have it in reverse.”
He mumbled apologies and then tried for a third time, with Danny and me standing safely to the side. Finally disengaged from the tower, he drove away. We waited until his tail lights disappeared over the horizon before we felt safe enough to leave, and then we headed off in the opposite direction.
When Danny was about 12 years old, we were driving home when a young couple in a minivan entering a fast-food parking lot inadvertently cut off a pickup truck with three men in the cab. The pickup slowed, and then cut across the highway into the lot behind the young couple. This was one of my Bouncer moments. I entered through the exit and drove around the building where the pickup truck had pulled in next to the minivan. I handed my cell phone to Danny who had no idea what was going on.
“Listen,” I said as I parked the car and started out the door. “If anything happens, call 9-1-1.”
Danny just sat there, his eyes wide, saying “wha...wha...what?”
Before stepping out of the door, not knowing what was going to happen next, I felt compelled to give Danny some real-world advice.
“A couple of other things,” I said. “Rosebud is the sled. Bruce Willis is a ghost. And for the love of God, no matter what you do, never watch Godfather Three. I don’t know what Coppola was thinking.”
By the time I stepped out of the car, the minivan had pulled out of its spot and headed toward the drive thru. Crisis averted. Although I scarred Danny for life, at least I’m sure he’s never going to watch Godfather Three.
And then there was — the couch.
One night, when Danny was about 16, we were driving on a not-too-busy highway (you would think Danny would stop driving with me by now) when I saw something in the road ahead. My first thought was that it was a car with its taillights out. As we got closer we saw what it was — a couch, lying on its side, in the middle of the road. I swerved to avoid it, and then realized someone could get hurt if they ran into it so I pulled over and we walked back to get it off the highway.
We could see pinpoints of headlights a few miles down the road, so we knew we had time. As we lifted we realized it was a fold-out couch, the dreaded mother of all couches. We tossed the cushions aside, keeping an eye out for the headlights as they grew larger in the distance. Danny grabbed one side and I grabbed the other and we lifted. Just then, the bed frame yawned open and as I stepped around to get a better grip, the shoelace of my right sneaker entangled with the metal frame, effectively tying me to the couch.
Have you ever watched a movie where someone gets their shoe stuck somehow with an impending disaster heading toward them? You watch and want to yell at the screen, ‘just take off the shoe!’, but they don’t — they never do. The music swells, there is fear in their face, and you think, ‘just take off the fucking shoe!’ Then, depending on the movie, they either get killed, or that last-minute effort frees them from their fate.
I’m here to tell you — you just don’t think about taking off the fucking shoe.
With Danny pushing, and my right foot being ingested by the couch, we try to drag this monster to the shoulder of the road. I kept looking up at the headlights as they twinkled toward me at a rapid pace. I told Danny to get off the highway as I still tried to drag myself and my new best friend to safety. Finally, with my last effort, I am able to disengage my foot and I stumbled, then fell, landing on the grass with Danny standing safely above me.
“Ok,” I said, “Let’s wait for these cars to pass and...” but I never got to finish that sentence.
A huge Ford pick-up truck smashed into the couch, sending foam confetti, fabric and splintered pieces of wood into the night sky. The truck never broke stride and soon disappeared within the sea of taillights that followed behind him.
We got back in the car and drove home keeping eyes open for that stray La-Z-Boy recliner or a suicidal ottoman that was looking to end it all.
So fear not for Danny. He is away at college now, just started his freshman year, so he is safe.