I was a dork as a kid. Gangly, awkward. A spectacular clutz. Feet and ears too big for my body. Not quite Alfred E. Neuman, but close.
Most of the time I wore high-water jeans that showed four inches of white gym socks. Not by choice, mind you, but I was growing so fast that my mom couldn’t afford to keep me in clothes that fit. It would’ve broken the bank.
But there was a time in 5th grade when I was the coolest kid in school. Or at least felt like it.
It began the day my Mom gave me a black leather jacket. It was fake leather, but the effect on me was the same.
My new pleather jacket had a dozen pockets and each had a zipper with a dangly chain hanging from it. And when I flipped up the collar, it stayed up. Very cool for a 10 year old.
I wore that jacket all the time, even during the summer. Pleather doesn’t breathe, so in the July heat sweat dripped down my neck, slid between my shoulder blades and down the small of my back until it slipped into my jeans and was sopped up by my tightie whities.
But I couldn’t take the jacket off. It gave me an identity. Without it, I was just a squirrely kid. But with it, I was cool. I was tough. I could whip anyone. Even Brian Benassi, if I needed to.
With my jacket, I was somebody. I was The Fonz.
Uncle Rodge Gives Me Something Better Than Cool
I can’t remember what I did to warrant a “swat” (the term Uncle Rodge used for a spanking) but I’m sure it was deserved. I probably lipped off with my new-found leather jacket swagger. Whatever it was, Uncle Rodge caught me in the act.
“Greg…come with me.”
He walked to his bedroom and motioned me to follow. In those days, kids were forbidden to go into an adult’s room unless given permission. And the only time Uncle Rodge gave permission was when I had done something wrong and was about to get punished.
“Have a seat.”
“How are things going at school?” he asked.
Oh, crap! He was being polite. This was going to be worse than I thought.
“Uh, good.” I said. “I mean, y’know…good.”
Uncle Rodge never disciplined in anger. Quite the opposite. We had some of our most meaningful conversations right before he said, “Stand up and grab your ankles.”
“So…what do you and your buddies do for fun?”
“I don’t know. Play 500 in the street. Build ramps and jump our bikes. Other stuff.”
“It is. We race sometimes, too. Not on foot because I’m not very fast. But the other day I bet Mark Juchems a dollar that I could beat him home from school on our bikes.”
“Did you win?”
I shook my head. “No. Mark’s got a Schwinn two-speed kick-back and my bike is a piece of junk.”
“So you lost the bet.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“So, you paid him the dollar?”
I was puzzled. “No.”
“I just didn’t. We never do. It’s just something we say.”
“Ahh. You weren’t serious. I get it. But what if it was a real bet? What if you told Mark that if he beat you home you’d give him something really valuable? Something like…your leather jacket.”
I looked down, fiddling with a zipper on my sleeve.
“I guess I’d have to give it to him.”
“But what if…”
“There’s no ‘buts’ here. No ‘what ifs.’ If you lose, you pay. Understand?”
“I guess so.”
Uncle Rodge put his arm around my shoulder and lowered his voice.
“Greg…I want you to listen to me very carefully. This is important. You listening?”
He lifted my head so he could look me square in the eye.
“If you lose a bet, you pay it off. Even if it hurts. Follow?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Listen, your word is more valuable than a leather jacket. More valuable than anything. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. A man keeps his word. Always. Be a man.”
Even my 10 year old brain knew something important had just happened. Something spiritual. Uncle Rodge had wrenched a worthless pleather idol from my hands and replaced it with something noble and worthy.
“Make sense?” he asked.
“Yeah. It does. Thanks, Uncle Rodge.”
He smiled and squeezed my shoulder. “Good. I believe you.”
He stood up. “OK, then…stand up and grab your ankles.”
In the midst of our conversation I had somehow forgotten the reason we’d come into his room in the first place. Or at least I wished he had forgotten.
No such luck.
It didn’t matter, though. The important correction had already taken place.