Sunday, April 22, 2012


Hello, Dear Readers.  It’s good to see you.

This past week, I was thinking about the old saying that everything you need to know, you learned in kindergarten.  And I suppose that when you really stop to think about it, that may very well be true.  I mean, in kindergarten you learned how to be nice, how to share, and how to play well with others.  Of course, you also found out that you could increase the relative trade-in value of your lunch if you could talk your mom into tossing in some Twinkies and that having the bigger box of crayons was just inherently better than having the smaller set. 

Good manners and a basic understanding of a consumer-driven free-market economy—that’s pretty much what you get out of a kindergarten education.  Whether or not that’s really all you need to know in life is a whole other question.

My younger sister, though, never bought into the whole “everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten” philosophy.  As far as I could ever tell, she thought kindergarten was for sissies. Hell, they wouldn’t even let you have real scissors in kindergarten, and I always figured that she regarded the whole thing as a complete waste of a perfectly good year of your life that you could have otherwise spent learning how to use a chain saw and boning up on your survival skills.

Anyway, for some strange reason, my sister decided one day that all I really needed to know in life was how to shoot an arrow.  I have no idea why she thought I needed this skill, and I don’t think she did either.  For my part, I suppose I thought it might come in handy at a cocktail party someday.  I didn’t know exactly what kind of a cocktail party would involve an archery demonstration, but then again, I didn’t really know what a cocktail party even was.  So it seemed like as good a rational for learning to shoot an arrow as any other reason might have been.

So, my sister set up a little archery range in our backyard one fine spring day and got down to the business of educating me.  It vaguely seemed like something we shouldn’t have been doing, and I think we both kind of knew that.  But just to be clear, my mom had never said that we couldn’t shoot arrows in the backyard.  Of course, if my mom had spent her time listing all the things she didn’t want us to do, she’d still be talking some 30 years later.  But as far as my sister  and I were concerned, since we had never specifically been told that we couldn’t play backyard archery range, that meant that it fell under the category of Things We Didn’t Think Mom Would Care If We Did. 

Now, in all honesty, Things We Didn’t Think Mom Would Care If We Did was kind of a strange category because it was flexible to the point of being completely unpredictable.  I mean, one summer, we found a pond full of tadpoles, so we brought home about 150 of them.  My mom wouldn’t let us keep them in our bedrooms and sleep with them in our beds like we wanted to, but she didn’t really have any problem with us setting up a veritable Frog Nation on the patio.  And it was great.  We watched those little tadpoles all day long.  It was fun.  It was educational.  What more could a parent want?

Strangely, though, my mom felt completely different when we brought home a snake.  But it wasn’t like she just got mad.  It was more like she totally freaked out.  She didn’t just want us to take that snake back to where we’d found it; she wanted us to hop on a bus and drop it off in another state.  And I can just imagine how that would’ve played out when my dad got home from work.  “Where are the kids?” “Somewhere in Nebraska if they know what’s good for ‘em.”

As far as our archery range went, though, we didn’t know for a fact that my mom didn’t want us shooting arrows in the backyard, and that was good enough for us.  Of course, looking back on it now, I can honestly say that the smartest thing we did that day was put the dog inside before we got started.  And I think it’s just dumb luck that neither one of us had started drinking regularly by that age.

We didn’t really have a bow so much as we had a 40 year-old carved stick with a 40 year-old piece of string attached to it that my father had made back when he was a kid and wasn’t supposed to be shooting arrows in his backyard.  But it seemed like a pretty decent bow.  I don’t know why he still had it except that to the best of my knowledge, that man had never gotten rid of anything smaller than an airplane in his whole entire life.  Something the size of a bow probably wouldn’t have even registered on his junk radar.

I’m not sure where the arrows had come from, either, but my younger sister is the kind of person who’s always “got a guy,” and doubtless that even back then, she had a guy who knew a guy who had no real reservations about supplying teenagers with a limited range of weaponry.  I’m also not sure where she had dredged up the target.  It was a regulation-sized deal stuffed with hay and everything, and I just figured that she’s scored it in some back alley transaction somewhere.  “Psst…hey, kid, wanna buy a target?”  You don’t really imagine people dealing in black-market archery equipment, I guess, but back then, that was pretty much what the seedy side of life in the Denver suburbs amounted to.

Anyway, we were all set up for my sister to show me what she’d learned in school.  Now, why anyone ever thought it was a good idea to offer high school kids a course in how to launch sharp pointed sticks into the air is sort of beyond me.  Then again, a fair amount of high school gym class involved being smacked in the back with a basketball, getting a soccer ball kicked into your face, and having a tennis ball driven into your forehead, so it wasn’t exactly a “safety first” kind of environment to begin with. 

And it wasn’t just the wimpy kids who got pummeled.  In our school, Assault with a Piece of Sports Equipment was an equal opportunity kind of activity, and that made sense.  After all, you didn’t need any great level of athletic prowess to horsewhip someone with a jump rope.  All you needed was ten seconds of inexplicable bravery and a fair amount of righteous, misdirected anger.  Needless to say, even the tough guys got their fair share of abuse at my high school. 

At any rate, I think the gym teachers finally figured that since they were basically just teaching Assault 101 anyway, they might as well take it one step further into actual weapons.  As far as I could tell, the only reason they settled on archery instead a full course in riflery was because it was more cost-effective.  I mean, bullets aren’t reusable unless you’re firing lead balls out of a musket, and trust me, no self-respecting kid in my high school was going to stand out in the middle of the football field, shoot off a musket, and then go shag the bullets so the next person could use them.  The only thing that could’ve made that idea any sillier is if they’d also required the students to wear clown suits while they were doing it.  And if there wasn’t enough money for bullets, there sure weren’t any funds for clown suits.  So, the gym teachers just stuck to archery, and that was that.

Anyway, back at our home archery range, my sister stepped up for the inaugural shot.  She drew the bow back, and I have to admit, she actually did look a lot like Robin Hood.  She let the arrow fly, and right at the moment, we discovered something:  that bow was more than just decent.  It was freaking rocket launcher.  We just stood there and watched in amazement as the arrow sailed over the target, over the fence, and off into the wild blue yonder. 

To this day, I honestly have no idea where it landed, but I’ve always imagined the neighbors in the next three yards down sitting out on their patios having a nice glass of ice tea as this arrow goes whizzing past overhead.  “What the hell was that?”  “Oh my God, we’re under attack!”  And the next thing you know, everyone is grabbing up their canned goods and bottled water and herding their children into the basement. 

At any rate, I was always pretty sure that even if we had fired an arrow into our neighbor’s yard three houses down, we hadn’t actually fired it into the neighbor himself.  I think there would’ve been some neighborhood gossip about something like that.  It probably just landed in his yard, where he later accidentally ran it over with the lawn mower and spent the next hour or two tweezing splinters out of his shins and kneecaps.  Of course, I don’t really know that that’s true, but I tend to be optimistic like that.

Back at the shooting gallery, though, we only had one arrow left, and I wanted to take a turn.  But my sister insisted that a proper demonstration was necessary for my educational benefit.  She was nothing if not a dedicated teacher.  So, she lined everything up again and vaguely mumbled something about needing to aim low when you’re shooting an arrow (especially if you’re firing it out of a cannon). 

I’m not entirely sure what happened next, but I’ve long suspected that right at the moment she let fly, we both closed our eyes. I don’t really know why, but for my part, I’m pretty sure I was praying.  I didn’t think that would necessarily improve my sister’s aim, but just for the sake of the neighbors, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

When we finally both opened our eyes, that arrow was nowhere to be found.  The only sure place it wasn’t was in the target.  And that in and of itself was kind of amazing.  I mean, it was a regulation-sized target.  It was huge.  And we were only about 7 feet away from it.  It wasn’t like we were shooting at a dinner plate from three blocks away.  But still, my sister had somehow managed to completely miss the entire target, which, all things considered, was probably a greater feat of archery skill than actually hitting it would’ve been.

I think we were both silently hoping that we hadn’t just run our neighbor through for good, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get the image out of my head of this nice older guy in a pair of khakis and golf shirt pinned to his fence like an insect sprawled out in a display case.  Anyway, we frantically started looking around, and then we saw it—a hole right through the front door of the garden shed.  We went in, and there was the arrow…halfway through the back wall of the shed and firmly embedded in the fence behind it.  My little sister had shot that arrow through two sheets of metal and right into a wooden fence.  She had taken down that garden shed like a rhino on the Serengeti.

And even though we both knew we were in big trouble at that point, she was really sort of proud of the accomplishment.  Then again, I suppose that not just anyone can bag a garden shed with only one shot.  To this day I believe that if she could’ve uprooted the whole thing and had it mounted above the mantelpiece, she would’ve done it.  It would’ve gone right next to the front fender of our old Volkswagen that my dad winged with a BB gun.  But this was hardly the time for pride.  I mean, we had shot up the garden shed, and there was no hiding it.  We had crossed over into the category of Things We Knew My Mom Would Care If We Did.

To make matters worse, that arrow was so firmly driven into the fence that we couldn’t pull it out.  So, my sister, always the evil genius, just started stacking stuff in front of it.   She was crafty like that.  And that was a good thing because all I wanted to do was run as fast as I could in any direction that led away from the scene of the crime.  I mean, right at that moment, I would’ve happily traded away everything I had for a clown suit and a bus ticket to Nebraska. 

Anyway, we wiped our prints off the bow and put it back in the garage where we’d found it, and we stashed the target next to the side of the garage where no one ever went. We figured that if we were lucky, someone would steal it.  It was, after all, in brand-new condition.   If nothing else, we could claim that we’d never seen it before and that we had no idea where it had come from.  We couldn’t hide the holes in the shed, but the way my sister saw it, we’d be home free if my parents couldn’t actually prove that we’d done it. 

Of course, I don’t know why we thought that if our parents actually hadn’t seen us do it, they’d be more inclined to think that some rogue band of infidels had invaded our backyard and shot up the garden shed.  I can just see my parents discussing it.  “So, what do you think—the rogue band of infidels theory…or our own children?”  My parents just aren’t that dumb.  Hell, nobody’s parents are that dumb. 

And I suppose that we could’ve always just lied about it, too, but my sister knew that I’d never make through a parental interrogation.  I could barely make it through a math test without a sedative. My sister knew that I couldn’t take my parents’ beady little eyes boring a hole into my guilty little brain.  I’d crack like an egg under the slightest pressure.  I’d sing like a diva at the Met.  So, she just hid the evidence to the best of her ability.  I mean, that girl was born thinking like a defense attorney. 

And if that plan had failed, I’m sure she had a backup strategy that involved burying my parents in evidentiary suppression hearings and specious legal motions guaranteed to stretch on until long after both of us had moved away.  And all that planning worked, too.  After a week went by with no mention of the shed from either of our parents, I decided that if I ever actually got arrested, I wasn’t going to waste my time calling a lawyer.  I was just going to call my sister.  As far as I was concerned, she could make anything disappear.

Years later, during some random attack of conscience, I told my mom the story of my day of home schooling, emphasizing, of course, that the whole thing had been my little sister’s idea.  But I figured that by then, the statute of limitations had run out on that particular crime and that my sister and I really had gotten away with something.  Even now, though, I’m not completely sure if I told my mom about it because I thought I needed absolution or because I just wanted bragging rights, but the truth is that I didn’t get either. 

As it turns out, my parents had known about it for years.  After all, you couldn’t really miss the hole in the front door, and even if you did, the half of the arrow you can still see going through the back wall and into the fence is harder to miss than that target should have been.  But then again, I always figured that my parents weren’t that dumb, and apparently I was right.  I just hadn’t ever counted on them being quite that forgiving.

The funny thing is that in the end, I never did get to shoot an arrow.  To this day, I’ve never shot an arrow.  I’ve never even held a bow in my hands. But I wound up learning a few things from that whole experience.  Mostly I learned that a little home schooling is a dangerous thing, especially when your little sister is running the school.  And I learned that despite your best efforts, your parents usually know what you’re up to.  And if they don’t know, they’ll find out.  Parents are smart like that.  But beyond that, I gained what is perhaps the one piece of knowledge that they actually don’t teach you in kindergarten:  the world is a wondrous place full of all sorts of remarkable things that you can know, and the invitation to learn is always there.  But from time to time, you’re better off turning down that offer.  I mean, if my day of home schooling taught me anything, it’s that sometimes, ignorance really is bliss.

Philosophy for a hungry planet.


© R. Rissler, 2012.  All rights reserved.