“Spoiled! Just spoiled rotten,” said Grandmother then pressed her lips together and shook her head solemnly. She was responding to Dad’s inquiry about her bridge partner’s grandson Alexander. Grandmother and Mrs. MacIntosh were appalled by the permissiveness of Alexander’s mother. At Kenyon College, she had studied John Dewey’s theories about raising young children to roam in nature, express their unique personalities, and be free.
Grandmother and Mrs. MacIntosh believed in establishing discipline and molding character in young children. As early as possible, little ones should learn to write the letters of their name, add two plus two, and build cabins with Lincoln Logs. They should color within the lines and draw pictures of houses and flowers, no scribbling and mixing colors.
I heard Grandmother’s stories about Alexander almost every Sunday. He was lost in the woods at the Worthington Free Nursery School when his father came for him one afternoon. Alexander’s father joined a search party of teachers. Mrs. MacIntosh reported that newsreel images of the Lindbergh kidnapping flitted through his mind. They found the four-year old Alexander on the bank of a pond watching minnows and listening to frogs just before sunset. He greeted his father and the teachers casually and told them what he had learned by watching and listening. The teachers were pleased. After a wave of relief had washed over him, Alexander’s father contained his anger. Over dinner, Alexander related the afternoon’s adventure with great enthusiasm. His mom beamed.
At Immaculate Conception Elementary School, the mischievous Alexander often had to stay after school and fill the blackboard with promises like “I will not talk to my neighbor” and “I will not snap rubber bands on other pupils.” When Sister Mary Frances heard a ruckus when she turned to write on the board, she whirled to Alexander’s corner of the room and usually found he was the making faces or launching paper airplanes. His report card was often marked D for “conduct and deportment” with several checks next to behavioral problems. His father spoke sternly to him before signing the card, but his mother said he was just “high spirited.”
His mother received a call from school asking when Alexander would be well enough to return to class. She thought he was at school, but under interrogation from his father, he admitted that he had been hanging out in the family’s unused garage for three days. The old furniture was comfortable and Alexander had stockpiled a family-sized box crackers, two jars of peanut butter, twelve sodas, and his collection of books about ocean liners, freighters, and sailing ships. His father wanted to ground him for two weeks without television, but his mom decided an essay on the importance of education and a sincere promise to go to school every day would suffice. Grandmother sighed and said Alexander would become one of those juvenile delinquents she read about in Time and Life.
On the first day at St. Charles, Alexander MacIntosh was one of the names called. “That’s Alex MacIntosh, father,” he responded. I turned in my seat to see the “spoiled boy” who was doomed in life by permissive parents. Alex was a pale, slight boy with rosy cheeks and large black glasses—not my image of a juvenile delinquent in a gang. Looks could be deceiving, I thought, but after we talked in the hall for a while, he did not sneer, scowl, or swear like a young hoodlum. I still had reservations but thought maybe Alex was an OK guy.
A few days later, Alex and I were in the basement hallway lined with green metal lockers with louvers for ventilation of sweaty clothes and smelly tennis shoes. There was ample room for books, sweaters, coats and boots. He said he was having trouble with the combination lock for his locker and asked me to show him how my lock worked. I proudly showed him how well I knew my combination and made the lock click open. He thanked me and went back to his locker spinning the knob on his lock as he walked.
The next morning, I went directly to my Latin class. Father O’Dea’s eyebrows arched when he received no response when he read “Mr. MacIntosh” during roll call. In the basement hall to exchange my Latin book for the Algebra text, I was surprised that the lock was not latched and opened the metal door. Alex roared and leapt out of the locker. I staggered backwards as he joined several other guys in the hall in uproarious laughter. I recited my entire stock of profanity, before I forced myself to laugh.
“Jesus, I’ve been squeezed in there since before first period. I thought I’d die in there.”
“Dumb, Alex! Just dumb. O’Dea will want to know where you were.” I replied. A little payback, I thought.
“I still surprised the hell out of you,” said Alex. He repeated this prank on several of my classmates who somehow let him get the combinations to their locks.
Grandmother inquired about how Alexander was doing at St. Charles when she came to our house for Sunday dinner, and I gave terse responses. She noted that his grandmother was quite concerned about him. I nodded, but said nothing.
Alex was running for class clown. He submitted a two-word paper in Father Goode’s English class: “On anything.” Precisely what was requested, an essay on anything. Father Goode wrote across the paper, “Not what I expected, but very creative. I’m giving you 89 %.”
When Alex spotted a grasshopper on the window ledge just before theology class, he reached out and cupped it in his hand. A one-page, mimeographed notice on the desk caught his attention and he positioned the paper on top of the grasshopper. Father Murphy strode in as Alex reached his desk. He turned to write on the board while the paper moved across the desk. Everyone was puzzled by the moving paper, which floated off the desk onto the floor. Alex kept his eye on the grasshopper which sought refuge in the shadow of father’s cassock and proceeded to climb his sock and disappeared under his pants leg. Alex tried to cover his mouth and stifle his laughter, but was already attracting attention when father reached for his shin and began an impromptu manic dance slapping his leg. Everyone but Alex was puzzled, but he was convulsed in laughter.
When the grasshopper was extracted and stomped by father, he pointed at Alex and shouted, “You did this. See me after class. You’ll be sorry, Mr. MacIntosh. As the snickering died down, Father Murphy attempted to regain his composure.
Over the next two years, Alex was undeterred by repeated punishments and D’s in conduct that his father called deplorable, but his mother ignored. He was leading in the race for the title of “class clown.”
One spring day an hour after school, I extended my thumb just beyond school grounds to hitchhike home. I believed establishing eye contact with drivers made them more likely to stop for me. An gray clunker approached, and I thought I recognized Alex behind the wheel. The car pulled to the curb, and I ran and jumped in. Alex greeted me and grinned broadly.
“Where did you get this old Chevy?,” I asked.
“Bought it from a neighbor for twenty-five bucks. I’ve saved my bus money for the whole year by hitchhiking to school.”
“What year is it?”
“1949 Chevrolet Deluxe. First of the Chevy fastbacks. Heater’s broken, but the radio works,” said Alex as he turned up WCOL, our rock ’n’ roll station. “Great car. Got it up to 95 on the highway.”
“Wow!” I replied more in alarm than in appreciation.
“You’re from St. Gabriel parish, aren’t you? I go past there. Would you chip in on gas to ride with me every day? Tom Tierney from St. James and a sophomore want to ride with me.”
One morning, when it was my turn to ride shotgun, I noticed that the radio was not blaring the Top Forty. He said glumly, “It just stopped yesterday.” We parked at the back of the parking lot near the only other clunker that happened to be a fastback Chevy of similar vintage.
That afternoon as I approached Alex’s car, WCOL was blaring at maximum volume. Inside I yelled “The radio’s working.”
“Yeah, I exchanged it.” His smile became a giggle, then he burst into laughter.
“What?” I asked. Then I saw Bruce Smith pounding his fist on the dashboard in his Chevy. “You didn’t? You’re out of your mind!” I shook my head as the others piled into the car and cheered that WCOL was back.
Alex cut in front of Joe Kelly as we pulled out of the parking lot. Joe fumed as Alex turned to us and said, “Great to have the cheapest car on the lot. Nothing to lose.” He laughed and fingered Joe with his left hand out the window. We were behind Mike Finn’s new convertible. The ’61 Ford was powder blue with white naugahyde bucket seats. He and his brother were laughing and talking in the spring sunshine. They could have been in a TV commercial as they turned toward their suburban home home in Upper Arlington.
On the following Monday morning, I saw the Chevy careen around the corner a block away as always, but something was different. I could clearly see everyone in the car sitting in the gray upholstered seats. The roof was gone!
“What do you think of my convertible?” Alex shouted as he came to a stop. I stood and stared. “I torched off the roof. Get in and enjoy the open air.”
Alex shot down the street, shifting gears like he was driving a Ferrari instead of an old Chevy. Only then did I realize that the windshield was gone. Squinting, I was reminded of wind in my face on a roller coaster at Cedar Point Park. Alex handed me army surplus goggles. In his goggles, he looked like a barnstorming biplane pilot in the 1920s. In the parking lot, a group of students gathered around our newly made convertible. Incredulous and amazed at first, our classmates were soon amused. Someone dubbed it a clown car and the name stuck.
“What are you going to do when it rains, Alex?” one student asked. Another said “This can’t be legal. The police won’t allow it.”
Alex couldn’t stop grinning. “It’s not going to rain today,” he said and turned toward the school, trailed by classmates asking more questions. At lunch, students came out to see what everyone was talking about in the hallways all morning. Some faculty came out for a look at the strange vehicle. Alex clearly relished his celebrity status.
We enjoyed more than a week of sunny weather and almost forgot about our preparations for rain. I stuffed a hooded poncho under the seat. One of the guys in the back seat brought a country club windbreaker and a hunting cap with ear flaps. The other had a yellow slicker his dad had worn in the Navy. Alex kept saying that it was not going to rain.
Of course, one morning in April, it did rain. Alex’s only concession to the rainfall was a Cleveland Indian’s ball cap to shield his goggles from most of the raindrops. He broke into song: “Singing in the rain, just singing in the rain” and repeated it over and over. Apparently he only knew the chorus. The rest of us were hunched in our rain gear.
Waiting at a traffic light beside a city bus, puzzled passengers stared down at the four boys with goggles and makeshift rain protection. Alex waved and turned on the Chevy’s windshield wipers. He laughed as the wipers whipped back and forth in mid-air. Some kids clapped. An older man looked on bemused, and a tight-faced middle-aged woman glowered. Alex threw up his hands and grinned.
The Sunday before graduation, Grandmother took me aside and asked if Alexander was going to graduate with the class. I assured her that Alex would cross the stage and receive a diploma.
“I’m so pleased to hear that. His grandmother worries so very much about him. You see, his mother spoiled him, let him do whatever he wanted. He’s always run wild. No discipline whatsoever! Permissiveness is ruining the younger generation.”
“There are exceptions,” she said bestowing a fond look on me. “Where is Alexander going to college?”
After a brief hesitation, I replied, “He plans to travel abroad before college.”
“Touring Europe’s old cities, visiting grand museums, and great cathedrals of Europe can be quite educational. i hope Alexander is mature enough to appreciate travel.”
I nodded and did not mention that Alex was enlisting as a basic Seaman in the U. S. Navy the day after graduation. He could be sailing for Antartica, Korea or many other desolate places in the world, but Alex was excited about the poster on the recruiter’s window: “See the World, Join the Navy.”
Alex served on a destroyer intercepting Russian freighters during the Cuban missile crisis, enjoyed shore leave at Guantanamo Bay where rum was ten cents a glass, and was trained as an electrician by the Navy. After completing his tour of duty, Alex specialized in the electrical systems of nuclear power plants.
Alex lives in Arizona’s Black Rock Canyon with Angie, his companion of twenty-one years. He travels to visit three grandchildren from previous marriages, compete in national billiards tournaments, collect natural gemstones, play golf, and do some consulting. He credits St. Charles for forcing him to discipline himself—to some extent.