“I better not catch you playing with them boys across the railroad tracks, they’ll be a bad influence on you.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard my mother say this. Not that I ever did play with the boys across the street, we mainly just hurled rocks and insults at each other. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t have been too bad of an influence on me though, I could have whooped them all if it ever came to that. I was always able to identify bad influence after I got a whipping for being influenced. It’s amazing how clear your thinking is after the rod of instruction has driven foolishness far from you.
John Wayne was a bad influence on me. I got a whipping one time for repeating a few choice words that I’d heard The Duke holler at some outlaws right before he rode out into the open prairie with the reins in his teeth and rifles in each hand, to blast them away. For whatever reason, my brother was staying after school in the fourth grade to work on some project. While Mom and his teacher were conversing, I went outside with Zach and one of his friends. Perhaps I was trying to show the friend how tough I was, perhaps he was picking on me, I can’t say for sure, but I called him a dirty name, or rather I called his mother a dirty name, and he told on me.
“Zane Daniel Wells!” My mother said, then she bit her tongue. I knew she was mad cause she always bites her tongue when she gets mad. It’s a wonder she didn’t bite it off while raising my sister. I also knew it was serious because she used my middle name.
“Where did you learn that phrase?”
“John Wayne.” How could my childhood hero let me down like this?
Mom was not happy. If I’d have known that I wasn’t going to get to watch any more westerns at my grandmother’s house for a while I’d have said that Zach taught me that phrase. Mom wouldn’t spank me at school, she waited till we got to my grandmother’s house.
The influence of determined parents and a belt or switch was greater than any bad influence I was exposed to as a child, but I could never get away from the bad influence of my brother Zach, who is four years older than me. We used to make bows and arrows out of green saplings and fishing line. They were crude, but good enough for Robin Hood and his merry men. One day Zach decided that we ought to play William Tell, inside. It had to have been raining, or else we’d have been outside. Rain was the only thing that would have kept us inside since this was before we got the air conditioner. As I recall, we decided that the living room was the best place to play William Tell.
“Go stand over there across the room.” Zach ordered me. He of course, got to be William Tell. If I would have known the story of William Tell, I would not have complied so easily, but this is a story about bad influence. Bad influence sounds like fun until you’re already in too deep. I stood there with my big glasses, watching Zach as he drew back his bow.
“Be still.” Zach said closing one eye. I was starting to realize that this might be bad influence.
Thwang! The greenstick arrow flew across the living room, right into my lip. I remember being so young that I couldn’t properly express to Mom what happened, and I don’t think that Zach got a spanking, but I got a band aid that did not help the cut on my gums.
It was probably hard to be an active little boy who loved the great outdoors and have a much younger half blind brother as your only playmate. Not only was Zach four years older, but he was always big and strong for his age. This didn’t stop him from expecting me to play up to his level no matter what sport he forced upon me. He taught me a lot about sports. At football I learned to run fast or get tackled, but it was a long time before I could outrun Zach. What I learned about all the sports was, play until you get hurt and then Zach will leave you alone. We used to box at my grandmother’s house with my cousins boxing gear. Zach would knock me down over and over until I got a bloody nose. I never knocked him down, but it wasn’t because I didn’t try.
Another thing I couldn’t do no matter how hard I tried was catch the ball. It didn’t matter if it was football, baseball, or basketball, I couldn’t do it. In retrospect, I probably just couldn’t see. “Don’t be afraid of the ball!” They would say. Who isn’t afraid of an unseen fastball? I would close my eyes, look away and hope for the best. Since I was such a terrible catch, most of the time Zach would throw the baseball on the roof and catch it as it rolled off. In one of the rare events that I played catch with him, Zach knocked me out with a baseball to the forehead. I laid there for a second wondering if I was still alive. When I got up I wobbled around and stumbled into the kitchen where Mom discovered the knot on my forehead the size of a new potato. Zach went outside and started throwing the ball up on the roof. I gave up sports then, I don’t even follow football.
After we realized that bad influence would be met with swift and painful discipline from our parents, we learned to identify it from afar and avoid. Sometime in my childhood a shift happened, and we went from being influenced to being influences. I am sad to say that we weren’t always good influences. I don’t think that we were intentionally mean in most of these cases, we were just children. For example, we had discovered through years of cutting grass that you can take the hose off of the spark plug and if you hold that spark plug while pulling the start cord, it will shock you. We learned that this is the scientific way of knowing if your spark plug is bad, sort of like licking a nine volt battery. We used to take turns holding the spark plug until somebody chickened out. It was great fun. One day our neighbors were babysitting a couple of boys a bit younger than me, and since the neighbors had three girls, the boys made their way over to play with me. I thought it would be fun to play the lawn mower game, but they had never played. I probably could have explained the rules a little better, because when I snatched the start cord and he received the unexpected shock, he didn’t want to play anymore and went back to the neighbors.
We had another friend that we could talk in doing just about anything, from jumping out of trees, to swimming in the creek in February. I don’t think it was so much our influence as his vulnerability to anyone’s influence.
Bad influence can be disguised as good advice. I once gave my friend Jared the worst good advice I think I’ve ever given. We were at his house on the back deck at the time. I was watching Jared futilely try to chop a D cell battery in half with a rusty meat cleaver. It was just before supper time and I was about to head to the house, so in order to speed the process up I suggested that Jared use the maul instead of the cleaver. The thought had not occurred to him and he was grateful for the suggestion. He rubbed his hands together, grabbed the maul, hit the battery as if he was splitting wood, and instantly dropped the maul and grabbed at his eyes with his hands. He was hollering like a stuck pig. His parents heard the commotion and rushed out onto the deck. When he moved his hands there was black battery acid all over his face and hands. I ran home as they all piled into the vehicle to go to the emergency room, probably not the way that his parents wanted to spend the evening. I’m not sure if it was because of his injuries, but not long after that Jared started wearing glasses.
Now that I am grown, I’m reliving the cycle of trying to break bad influence, but this time in the role of a parent. Right now I know that my children are very impressionable and susceptible to bad influence. I’m careful about who they play with and what they watch. In a world where bad influence abounds at every turn, I believe that parents, for better or for worse, are the single greatest influence on a child’s life. My parents set clear boundaries and gave clear warnings. More importantly, they followed up with loving admonishment, even if my mother was about to bite off her tongue.
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