I was 11 years old when I learned that “authority” wasn’t synonymous with fair, or right, or reasonable.
During the first half of sixth-grade, at Hyde Park Elementary School back in 1981, I was one of a select group of students who were permitted to leave Mrs. Hewitt’s English/Spelling/Grammar class twice a week to work on a special project. Organized and supervised by a couple of moms, we students were going to make marionette puppets and have several performances of The Grimm Brothers fairy tale, The Elves and the Shoemaker.
Each of us was assigned a character which we would be responsible for putting together and creating the costume. I was chosen to be one of the elves. Since we were only meeting for about 45 minutes twice a week, the construction of the puppets wasn’t too terribly in-depth. Everyone used the same pattern for the marionettes. We cut the head, each arm, each leg, and the torso from two pieces of cream-colored cloth that we would then sew together.
I remember sitting at sewing machine for the first time, excited that I was going to get to use it. At home my mom had a Singer sewing machine that I was fascinated with. I would often go into the room where she had it set up and marvel at the machine that had the power to repair the shirts I had torn climbing over fences or to hem the hand-me-down pants I had that were too long. My mom made sure that the Singer was never threaded because she knew I liked to sit at the table, turn it on and step on the pedal to be able to hear the staccato sound of the needle quickly move up and down. But I was going to get to actually use this one.
One of the moms sat there with me and showed me how to control the speed. She then threaded the machine and had me watch her as she ran one of the arms through, leaving the top of the arm unstitched so that we could later stuff it with cotton. I sat down at the machine and, with her closely supervising, I sewed the other arm together. It wasn’t as good as hers. Sometimes my stitches were too far inside and I had gone completely off the cloth a couple of times down around the fingertips, but I got the job done. The legs went much more smoothly, as did the head. The torso was the easiest of all, as it was more or less a square.
We dropped ½ ounce fishing sinkers into each arm and leg to give the hands and feet some weight. Then we stuffed all the parts with cotton. In order to simulate the joints, we stitched across the arms/legs where the elbows/knees would be. And although there was no need for a movable wrist or ankle, we stitched there as well in order to keep the sinker in the hands and feet. By now, I was an “old pro” with the sewing machine and it was no problem whatsoever to stitch the legs, arms and head onto the torso. The end result was clearly a human figure, about a foot tall, that could very easily have been used as a voodoo doll had we been so inclined.
The faces of our marionettes were to be drawn on using colored pens. I have never been artistically inclined and, although I was going for something suitably “elfish,” I ended up with something along the lines of “angry Pacific Islander.” My costume design didn’t fare so well, either. While the other marionette characters had outfits made from a variety of fabrics and made use of different colors and had accessories like belts, suspenders and hats, I had cut the patterns for both my elf’s shirt and pants from a piece of brown corduroy. Once those articles of clothing were sewn and my marionette was dressed, I attempted to “elf it up” by trimming the hem of the shirt with pinking shears to give it that jagged, saw-toothed look, but the effect was lost since the shirt and pants were the same material. I was well aware that my marionette wasn’t as presentable as the others, and I was silently embarrassed about that. I was positive that I was going to be told that my marionette wasn’t good enough and that I couldn’t participate in the show. But no one said that. They knew I did my best. And while I knew I did my best, it was obvious that my best wasn’t as good as the others. I was happy that I would be hidden from the audience’s view as I manipulated my marionette’s actions from behind the stage.
Learning the control the marionette elf was a blast, and I picked up on it pretty quickly. Two control bars were used: My right hand held the bar with the strings attached to the head and each hand, while my left hand held the bar with strings attached to the feet. During our practices, I would spend a lot of time on making my elf walk. I focused on this because I didn’t want him to seem like he was floating or hopping his way across stage. His arms and hands were a different story, though. Those were controlled by the bar in my left hand. I didn’t have the dexterity to control either of his hands to make it look like he was hammering or tapping on something. The best I could do was to alternately raise and lower each arm, which made my elf look like he was slowly beating a phantom drum.
I’m unable to recall any of the actual performances of our little play; probably because we were behind the stage and didn’t get to feel a “connection” with the audience that a live actor might experience. However, I do recall our curtain calls after each of the performances. We had to line up in front of the stage with our marionettes and make them bow. Each time, I remember thinking, “Everyone’s going to know that it was me that had the crummy looking marionette,” and I hoped that my embarrassment wasn’t as evident as I felt it to be. But as before, no one said anything about it. No one pointed or snickered.
After our final performance, just before Christmas break, we were able to take our marionettes home. I didn’t really want third-rate elf, but I was proud of the doll I had made so the very first thing I did was cut off the strings and those brown clothes. I took the former-marionette up to my room and set it on the edge of the TV stand with his back leaning against the TV. Every now and again, when I was especially bored, I’d pull him off the TV stand and make him act out some scene from a movie or one concocted from my own imagination. Although he couldn’t stand on his own or hold a pose, his arms had a tremendous range of motion and I could move them in ways that my Star Wars or G.I. Joe action figures were incapable of duplicating. It was fun making him climb up my closet door like Spider-Man or perform the iconic finger-point-dance along with John Travolta when ABC aired Saturday Night Fever.
Eventually, things like that became boring and so I began making him do other, more daring things. He became an acrobat. I’d fling him upward, causing him to do cartwheels in the air. Each time I’d try to out-do the last. Three cartwheels? Let’s go for four. What about six? There were only so many I could make him do inside the house. I needed to take him outside to be able to do more, but it was winter and I didn’t want to ruin him by playing with him where he could get wet. Another change of careers was in order. He became a stuntman and I named him Colt Seavers, after Lee Majors’ character on the new TV Show, The Fall Guy.
The first stunt was a fall. I sat on the landing at the top of the stairs and pretended to be the director.
“All right, Colt. You’re just going to jump off the landing and we’ll see how things go, OK? Annnd…….ACTION!”
I gave Colt Seavers a little toss so that the first step he hit on the way down would be about the third from the top. There were plenty of takes for this particular stunt because he would never fall and tumble the same way twice. Sometimes, he hit the steps just right and would accelerate toward the bottom with reckless abandon until he came to a sudden stop on the tiled floor below. Other times he would hit the wall or banister on the way down which often slowed him enough that he came to rest draped over the edge of a step looking like every bone in his body was broken, his legs on the step above and face on the one below with his arms bent at awkward angles. Falling down stairs was all well and good, but there were other stunts that needed to be done as well.
I would precariously sit him on the top of the door to my room and shoot him with my dart gun. And not one of those “safe” dart guns like they have now, where the small dart is made of rubber and is propelled by air. Colt Seavers was regularly shot with a standard, plastic, spring-loaded dart gun pistol with the rubber suction cup removed from the dart. Sometimes my aim would be off and I’d hit his foot which made him fall forward. It wasn’t that spectacular, until I moved a folding chair in front of the door so he would hit it on his way down, which caused a sudden change the direction of his tumble. What I enjoyed the most though, was shooting the dart at the upper portion of his body. One moment he’d be sitting on the door, and the next moment all I saw was feet disappearing over the top. Colt Seavers was a great toy, made even greater by the fact that I had made him.
Spring arrived and I was finally able to take Colt Seavers outside. I no longer harbored any thoughts about acrobatics and how many cartwheels could be done. It was all about being a stuntman. I’d climb trees, drop him out of them and smile as I watched him Plinko his way down. He was put into the Wiffle-Ball Automatic Pitcher and catapulted across the yard. His hands and feet were duct-taped to the tetherball and he was sent into an ever declining, ever accelerating spiral until he was pinched between the ball and the pole.
Then, one day, I was in the front yard and I figured I’d see just how many air cartwheels I could make him do. I was so concerned about the power I would need to get him high in to the air and how I needed to flick my wrist in order to get the maximum number of cartwheels that I didn’t even think about where he was going to end up. I let him fly. Up, up, up he went, end over end. He reached the apex and started his descent, and I could tell what was going to happen. WHUMP, he landed on my porch roof. I stood there in my front yard and stared up at the roof. Colt Seavers’ hand was the only part of him that was visible.
This was a no-brainer. The window in my room looked directly out onto the porch roof. All I had to do was lift the screen, walk on out, pick him up and climb back in. It wouldn’t take but 10 seconds. I dashed into the house.
“Mom! My guy’s on the roof. I’m gonna go out and get him.”
I hadn’t made it two steps up the staircase before my mom said, “No, you most certainly are not!”
I stopped dead and grabbed the railing with both hands. “But MOM!”
“I said no!”
“But he’s just right there! I’ll be out and in—“
“Kevin, you are NOT to go out onto that roof and get him! Do you understand me?”
I flopped down onto the step and sat there with my head in my hands. Horrible visions started playing in my mind. Colt Seavers would get soaked if it rained. I recalled one time I dropped a paperback book into the plastic backyard pool and it just got soaked. When the book finally dried, after several days, it had almost tripled in thickness. It was still a book, of course, but it had been ruined. I was afraid the same thing would happen to Colt Seavers…that the cotton inside him would absorb the water and he’d bloat up and be ruined. I imagined that a bird would swoop down and take him away, or tear him apart to get the stuffing out and use it in the construction of some nest somewhere.
“Do you understand me?”
I sighed. “Yes, I understand.”
“Don’t go on the roof.”
“God, I get it, ok?” I stood and stomped up to my room.
I climbed onto my bed, kneeled at the window with my arms crossed on the window sill and set my chin on my arm. I looked at Colt Seavers, lying there on his back with his feet lower than his head on the roof incline and his left hand sticking over the edge. I wanted to get him. I NEEDED to get him, if for no other reason than to just put him away in his proper place on the TV stand. I never left my toys outside. Never.
Then it came to me. I didn’t HAVE to go onto the roof to get him. I could stay in my room and accomplish the same thing. I opened the closet door and my dad’s fishing pole off the shelf. I assembled the rod and opened the window. I stuck the pole on out there, but it was too short to reach Colt Seavers. I pulled the pole back a little bit, pressed the line release button on the reel, and cast out the line. I positioned the pole so that the fishing line draped across Colt Seavers and I reeled it in slowly. The hook caught on the lip of the roof, but all it took was a slight jiggle to free it. A few more clicks of the reel crank and the hook caught Colt Seavers’ hip. I pulled him safely inside.
Just as I removed the hook, my mom came into the room.
“I told you not to get that.” She snatched Colt Seavers from my hand.
“No, you said not to go OUT and get him. I stayed inside and used dad’s fishing pole.” I held it up for her to see.
“You knew what I meant and yet you disobeyed me anyway. Why?”
I was incredibly confused at this situation. I honestly felt that I had obeyed her, but was getting in trouble anyway. I fought back tears caused by the confusion and unfairness of it all, and my voice trembled when I spoke. “You said…you said…no to go OUT…and get him.” The tears started to fall. “And I DIDN’T!”
“I told you not to—“
“Don’t interrupt me! I told you not to get him and you did it anyway. You’re grounded.”
“But, Mom!” I was incredulous. “You SAID—“
“GROUNDED! And this,” she held up Colt Seavers, “is gone!” She left the room and shut the door.
I fell onto my bed and screamed into my pillow. I cried under the onslaught of emotions. I was confused, frustrated, angry, and helpless. I felt like I had been cheated or betrayed. If I had to guess, I’d say that I was there for about a half hour before I had calmed down enough to emerge from my room. I made my way downstairs to the dining room where my mom was at the table clipping coupons or something. I was dejected, and didn’t (couldn’t?) look at her when I asked, “How long am I grounded?”
Without even having to think about it, she replied with, “Two weeks.”
“OK,” I said. I didn’t ask what I was grounded from, because it was always the same thing: No TV. I went to the kitchen and got a chocolate Jell-O Pudding Pop from the freezer. When I went to throw the wrapper away, I saw it. Colt Seavers and been dismembered and put into the garbage can.
I freaked out. Plain and simple.
I dropped the Pudding Pop and screamed, “WHY?” Instantly, the world blurred as the tears came again. I ran from the kitchen, and repeated “Why why why why why” as I made my way back to my room. I could hear my mom following me.
“I told you not to get him. You didn’t follow the rules, so you lost your toy.”
“But I DID,” I said as I flopped onto my bed. “I DID follow the rules, you said not to go out and I didn’t go out! And you cut him up. You cut him up and I worked really hard to make him!”
“Well, maybe next time you’ll—“
“No! No no no no no.” I screamed. “Leave me alone! I can’t believe you cut him up!” I buried my face in my pillow and continued to cry. She left my room and I think I cried myself to sleep, even though it wasn’t anywhere close to bedtime.
I didn’t talk to my mom much for a couple of weeks afterward. No more than I had to, anyway. I thought about making another one, but I didn’t remember how to thread a needle in a sewing machine. And besides, I didn’t have the right materials. And there was no way I was going to ask my mom for any help with the project. So…no. I never made another one.
I guess I ultimately forgave my mom for doing what she did. At least, I think I did. There was no “hallmark moment” to signify any forgiveness on my part, no moment where I exhaled all my anger away. In the end, it just came down to the passage of time and how it heals all wounds.
I often think about the marionette, especially when I’m laying down rules for my kids. I try to be clear, but sometimes I haven’t been successful. I’ve said the words, “That’s not what I meant and you know it” to my kids. And it pained me to do so. But I’ve also said, “You’re right, I wasn’t clear enough and I can understand why you did what you did.” That’s been hard to do as well. But I don’t think admitting such mistakes make me weak. I think it ultimately shows them that I respect them and their views, and I think they’re more likely to show me the same in return. At least I hope so.