Know what shocked me the most about my trip home last Christmas?
It wasn’t the snow or the miserable cold, or the strange local accent I thought I’d forgotten.
It was the fact that my friends kids sit inside all day and play video games or watch TV. All of their activities are organized for them. And they frequently complain of being bored.
I don’t think it’s any fault of theirs, necessarily. It’s just that technology is robbing them of imagination.
I was staggered by this, and I didn’t know what to say. And so I found myself turning into my father. You know the routine…
“When I was your age… Hey! Don’t roll your eyes at me you sonnovabitch!”
But it was true. When I was a kid we spent our time exploring a tiny patch of trees near the railway tracks, called Newell’s Woods. Or stuffing gasoline-soaked firecrackers into empty tins under the abandoned bridge near my grandmother’s place. On summer nights, as soon as it got dark, we dressed in black, smeared our faces with army surplus paint and figured out the fastest — and quietest — way through every backyard within a 6 block radius.
We were always scheming and plotting something. Elaborate multi-stage pranks that coalesced into a sort of symphony of the absurd.
Sure, we got into trouble, and I was kicked out of school more than once. But we were creative. And we knew those stories would make the best memories later on.
Imagine my surprise last December when I cornered one of these kids at my friend Jim’s house. Let’s call him “Hunter” for the sake of convenience.
“Look at all that packy snow.” I said. “Why aren’t you outside throwing snowballs at cars or something?”
And Hunter replied, “Can’t. I’m not allowed.”
I nearly choked on my gum. “Not allowed? What are you, crazy man? It’s not the sort of thing you ask permission for. And if you run really fast, you shouldn’t have to explain yourself either…”
But thankfully it isn’t all doom and gloom. He did find an iPad app that lets him mask his phone number, and he recently began to explore prank calls.
I received another message of hope this week too. And I want to share it with you today.
But first I have to fill you in on the background of the story…
At one point in high school, me and two of my best friends — Jim and John — fell into the habit of taking a nightly walk around the perimeter of our town. An evening constitutional, if you will. I think it was during the “all you can eat” buffet period, but I don’t remember the exact chronology.
Most of the time it was just me and John. We were quite fond of Dairy Queen Blizzards back then, and we ditched class at least once a week to indulge. So it was only natural that the conversation turned to ice cream during these late night excursions.
We decided that it would be a good idea to go there on foot.
The thing is, there wasn’t a Diary Queen in my hometown. It was in Brockville, 20km away.
We set our alarms the next Saturday morning, packed a lunch and met at the corner of Zaire and James Streets for our expedition. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant walk. Sure, we had the dewy St. Lawrence riverbank on one side. But there was a fair bit of traffic on Highway 2. And every once in a while a startled friend would see us, pull over and offer a ride.
“What the hell are you guys doing?”
“Going to Dairy Queen.”
“Well get in and I’ll drop you off!”
I held up my hand firmly and refused. “Thank you, no. We’re keen to walk.”
We put one foot in front of the other. We ate our lunch along the way. And when we got to Dairy Queen we sat down for half an hour, ate a Blizzard and walked back.
There was only one dark spot on this noble campaign, and it was entirely John’s fault. We’d made an agreement that summer to go through the entire Blizzard menu systematically, one flavour at a time. I was keen to expand my horizons, of course, and I also wanted to break my reflex habit of always ordering Mint Smartie.
On the day we made our epic walk, the next item on the menu was Nerd. Now, if you’ve ever eaten those tiny, crunchy sour candies, you’ll know they don’t exactly go well in an ice cream confection. I asked John if he would consider a temporary substitute, given that we’d just trudged 20km in the hot sun. But he was heartless and wouldn’t budge. He forced me to order it, and to grimly consume every last bite.
My jaw throbbed with the effort of chewing what felt like a mouthful of gravel. My stomach ached and cramped as we walked. I began to experience hallucinations. That paper cup was inexhaustible, like the goblet in Norse legend.
In hindsight I don’t know why I let him force me in the first place. I should have just kicked him in the shins. But I suppose we’d made a pact, and I was honour bound to comply.
We completed the 40km journey in just under 5 1/2 hours.
My feet were covered with blisters from stiff tennis shoes that were slightly out of true, and we were both pink with sunburn. We staggered through the side door of my house, liberated two ice cold beers from the fridge, and collapsed on the sofa. I’m pretty sure that’s still the best beer I ever tasted…
But this adventure wasn’t finished just yet…
The plot thickened the next day at lunch in the school cafeteria. We were giving a very modest and well-balanced account of our harrowing death march when Tom MacDonald looked up with his mouth full of food and said, “That’s nothing. I could run that.”
It wasn’t the first time Tom attempted to “one-up” us. But I’m pretty sure it was the last…
Artie Chilson threw down his french fries — the only thing he seemed to eat during those 5 years of high school — and said, “I’d pay 20 bucks to see that.”
This struck me as a very good idea. I pulled out my wallet, and the rest of the Breakfast Boys did the same.
“Okay Tom. Grab your stuff.”
“What, right now?” He laughed a little, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. And he couldn’t exactly back down at this point.
I think you can see where this is going. None of us made it it back to class.
As luck would have it, Jim and John had driven the family station wagon to school that day. The kind with fake wood panels and the suspension of a deep sea fishing trawler. So we piled into the car, drove Tom to his house and made him change into shorts and running shoes. And then we took him to the edge of town, just past the Sunoco station, and pushed him out the door.
We crept down the gravel shoulder with the hazard lights flashing as Tom jogged in front of us with grim determination. A few of the guys got bored and ran with him for a stretch. Passing cars braked as the drivers craned their necks, looking for a charity logo or some kind of support van. We tried calling Rich Thorpe — the local sports reporter — on the car phone. But mostly we just watched Tom sweat.
Sure, he wasn’t going much faster than a walk. But he certainly suffered. And he never once stopped. As far as I’m concerned, that was money well spent. He had my 20 bucks by Maitland.
The funny thing is, he didn’t even order a Blizzard when we arrived at Dairy Queen. He was looking a little pale by that point, and he just sat in the front seat and stared at the dash. I don’t think he said another word on the drive back home either. But he flinched each time someone scraped the bottom of a Blizzard cup with the plastic spoon of satisfaction.
Which brings me back to the kids of today…
Check out the email I got from John this week:
We wanted to let you know that Jim, me, Jack and Jenna walked 21km to Dairy Queen today in honour of our first expedition many years ago. Although we didn’t walk home, it is still a remarkable feat for a 9 and 13 year old.
For the record: we each had a large blizzard. I went with the Reese Peanut Butter Cup; Jim — Oreo; Jack — Crispy Crunch; Jenna — strawberry banana.
It’s great to see John’s kids carrying the torch, and following the noble example we set.
Perhaps there IS a future for their generation.
I just hope they’ve banished that fucking Nerd blizzard to the dustbin of “things that never should have been invented”. I nearly puked in the ditch.