Summer of the monkey-boys

A hot summer day, a carload of teenage boys and a dangerous driving mistake reveal a mom's capacity to pardon boyhood transgressions.

Published May 9, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

We -- my brother and I -- were boys, fiends, monkey-men. We set fires in the field behind our house, we dropped things on cars from trees, we fought with ski poles and drew blood. I even ran into the house and announced to my mother, quite falsely, that my brother had just been struck by a car. Somehow, she forgave us these things. Somehow she forgave us something worse:

Summertime. Cornfields and Pennsylvania countryside, Nixon still president. My brother and I and several of our friends rode sweatily in the back of our family station wagon -- wrestling, flicking Cheese Doodles at each other -- as my mother ferried us from one place to another. She'd asked for quiet so she could concentrate on the road. We were uncooperative, my brother and I just old enough that we'd become unconvinced of the danger of our mother's fury; she no longer scared us, for we were touching the basketball net with our fingers, we were learning about girls, we were privately doing other things that mothers didn't need to know about.

And so we vaulted from seat to seat and roughhoused until my mother made a small driving error, which required for its correction that she perform a K-turn on the narrow, busy country road. No doubt aware she was responsible not just for her sons but for the other boys, my mother watched the traffic carefully behind her sunglasses before executing the turn -- and thus didn't see the drainage ditch on the other side of the road. The station wagon lurched backward, one rear wheel useless. We were stuck.

We boys fell upon my mother mercilessly, baboons of scorn, hounds of ridicule.

Somehow a middle-aged man appeared with a truck and a chain and an offer to help. He looked tired and dependable. My mother obligingly smiled her female appreciation and then with blinking anger asked each of us if we'd be quiet so that she could listen to the man's directions. We sniggered mockingly.

Soon the man had hooked up the chain to his truck and told my mother he'd call when to put the transmission in drive, when to hit the gas, when to brake.

Perhaps my mother should've had us stand by the road as the man helped. But -- this I know now as a parent -- she'd have worried about one of us being hit by a passing car, and so chose instead to endure our rising, speed-freaky excitement.

The man, now under the car, hollered a muffled instruction to my mother; hostage to our endless foolery, she shifted to drive and stepped on the gas.

We heard an awful human cry. My mother screamed and confusedly jammed the brake and that was when we saw the man leap up next to the window in death-seeing fury: She had nearly run over his head.

The horror of the possibility finally wrecked my mother's composure. She collapsed against the steering wheel in tears, eliciting, at last, the shamed silence from us -- from me especially -- that she had asked for, and, as well, this long-after acknowledgment that yes, she forgave us for this, too.

By Colin Harrison

Colin Harrison is the deputy editor of Harper's and the author of three novels, the most recent of which is "Manhattan Nocturne." A new novel, "Afterburn," is scheduled to be published in January 2000.

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