The Value of Accountability

by | Mar 12, 2021 | 2 comments

It was Halloween and 1961. The stars aligned over America to make a Catholic man named Kennedy president and put Alan Shepard in space. Elsewhere, construction started on the Berlin Wall and The Bay of Pigs invasion failed to depose Castro in Cuba.

 A company named Pampers introduced the first disposable diaper. The Shirelles had a number one single (i.e. 45 rpm vinyl record) entitled “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” The Orient Express made its last rail excursion between Romania and Bucharest, and the first Six Flags theme park opened in Arlington, Texas. Many other notable occurrences in medicine, politics, and technology popped up in the headlines of our local newspaper that year. Perhaps the most notable for my future was this one—United States Becomes Directly Involved in Military Action in Vietnam.

But on Halloween night, I had no interest in any of these things. My head exploded with images of popular movie antiheroes, especially their archetypal moral relativity and questionable behavior. Think Brando in On the Waterfront or Bogart in We’re No Angels or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Rules were meant to be broken. What was once right was now wrong and what was once wrong, if not altogether right, was acceptable. This type of protagonist behavior was nothing new. It had been around since Shakespeare wrote his tragedies. The difference nested in the fact that it began to seep into mass cultural mores through films in the 1950’s only to become a conventional value during the 1960’s cultural revolution.

I felt quite often as a newly evolved teenager that life was “unfair.” Vowing secretly to make society pay for forcing consequences on my pubescent actions even though my actions were mostly inconsequential, I entered the shadows of anti-ism as night fell over my town. The perfect ambience of a full moon, a slight chill in the breeze, the incense of ash and smoke from the burning piles of leaves in front of homes along Water Street and up and down Gibson, Seminary, and Race, the squeals of small children dressed in bizarre costumes bought at Murphy’s Five & Ten on the city square as they went door to door collecting Milk Duds and Milky Ways, and the twisted shadows of trees backlit by the yellow glare of a few dim street lights filled me with adrenaline and angst. It was the right formula for trouble. I met my good friend Bobby at the football field by Lowell School and we walked along Water Street as dusk melted into darkness.

“What are we gonna do tonight?” asked Bobby.

“Something between now and nine o’clock. I have to be home by then.”

Damn, your dad is strict. My only rule is if I get arrested don’t tell them my real name.”

Bobby’s homelife was considerable freer than mine, and my father didn’t want me to associate with him for that reason. One of his favorite Bible quotes can be found written in Proverbs—bad associations spoil useful habits. Don’t misunderstand me here. My father was no Bible-thumper. He happened to know that quote from listening to my mother lecture him about playing poker all night at the Elks Club. But my dad didn’t know my friend, not really. Bobby lived to follow, not lead. A decent kid with no great mental acuity and a wiry athletic build, he simply enjoyed the company of others who told him what to do. My father’s bias seemed based more on the fact that Bobby’s father had ended up in court a couple of times for misdemeanor crimes like drunk and disorderly. Oh, I forgot to mention. My own father had been recently elected city judge and presided over such matters. Our family’s reputation mattered.

As we contemplated the evening’s activities, Bobby and I sauntered past a small business that made and engraved headstones for the recently departed. The place was randomly located. It stood on the corner of the intersection of two residential streets. There were no other businesses anywhere near the square brick building. We carried bars of Ivory soap in our pockets for bare windows anywhere, and this closed business provided a perfect conjunction of opportunity and motive. Unfortunately, we arrived too late. Unknown criminals had preceded us and streaked the huge plate glass display windows facing the sidewalk. “Frankenstein Lives” “Dracula Sucks, But So Does Your Mom” and the ever popular “Fuck You” among other profound and pithy adolescent quotes graced the glass.

Dismayed, but not discouraged it was at this point in time and at the age of thirteen I became a true vandal, an anti-hero in the best celluloid tradition, a rebel without a cause, a traveler on the road of bad judgments. But the burst of adrenaline that flowed through my veins could not be denied. Whoever owned the business left a row of unetched marble and granite tombstones on display along the sidewalk in front of the building assuming they were too heavy to steal or the black market for tombstones was limited, I guess. What jewelry fence would want to move a big blank rock?

“Let’s play dominoes,” I said.

“What?”

“These things are stacked close enough together that if we push the one on the end, they’ll all fall over,”

“Where’s the fun it that?”

“The fun comes in the morning. The guy will have to get a crew to stand them all back up. We can ride over on our bikes and laugh at them working.”

“That sounds pretty dumb.”

“I admit it’s not my best idea, but it’s all I got on short notice, and we can’t go home tonight without doing something. What kind of outlaws do nothing?”

We did it. Who in the hell knew rocks would break?

As the stones toppled one against the other, they picked up momentum. When the last two collided the corners of each chipped off. The one that ended on the bottom between the whole pile and the sidewalk split like a watermelon dropped from a fruit truck.

“Oh shit,” Bobby whispered.

“Oh shit,” I answered.

We ran along the side of the building and down Seminary street between a row of framed houses. Lights still illuminated a few of the porches. Grey shadows flickered out living room windows from a few others where TV’s glowed with colorless action. Parked cars sat empty and with soapy windows while strands of toilet paper dangled from trees like icicles. The moonlight outlined a world void of other people. Our breathing rasped against the silent night air with a heavy melody of fear punctuated by the bass drum thump thump thump of Converse sneakers along the concrete sidewalk as we ran. Behind us a car crawled slowly down the street and from the driver’s side door the steady beam of a high-intensity spotlight pierced the hedges and shadows between the rows of houses.

“It’s the cops. Someone must have called them,” squealed Bobby.

“We have to split up.”

“Right.”

“You hide behind the Collins house and stay there till they disappear. I’ll run back toward Lowell. There’s the creek behind the school with that huge drainpipe that runs under the football field and comes out on Hall Street. I can get home from there. The cops won’t follow and get their shoes wet even if they see me.”

This was in an era when small town police forces were staffed with Barney Fife and Andy Griffith impersonators, not Rambo wannabees.

“Call me tomorrow.”

He went east and I ran west, the police still searching shadows behind us.

**************

Every year the local Knights of Columbus held a pancake meal at the K of C Hall to raise money for various charities. Adults bought tickets for their children that entitled the holders of said tickets to all the pancakes and sausage buried in lakes of maple syrup that you could eat. It was an orgy of hyperglycemia that left my senses satiated and sleepy after about three plates full of pancakes every year. That feeling of warmth and security flooded over me as I awoke the next morning under my own covers safely. Even though my belly was empty, my hunger was satiated. Confident that once I bragged about our mischief my outlaw reputation would be cemented among my classmates, especially the impressionable female ones, I began to dress for school.

My father had left for his business at 6A.M. as was his custom. He stopped every morning by the Palace Pool Room for coffee and a visit with some of the other early risers before unlocking his door at the auto dealership. He came back home on this day, something very unusual. It must have been a few minutes past 7 o’clock. I had just finished dressing for school and was about to grab my breakfast in the kitchen. He stopped me before I left my room.

“I didn’t get to talk with you this morning. How was Halloween last night.”

“Okay. Nothing special.”

“What did you do.”

“Well, I was supposed to meet Andy and Joe and Jerry at Greek’s, but they never showed up. So, I just walked around and watched the little kids collect candy, and then I played a few games of pool at the Palace with Mike before I came home.”

His face flushed a bright crimson, and he clenched his teeth. 

“Yeah, so what?”

“So once a week I hold city court and spend all morning listening to people lie about stuff like they weren’t really speeding, their wives have a black eye because they fell down the stairs, they only had two beers before they got stopped driving their car on the wrong side of the road, or they really meant to pay for something they had in their pockets when they walked out of J.C. Penney’s. It’s not the crimes they do. Those are minor. What bothers me most are the lies. Most of them don’t feel like they should be held accountable. I’m supposed to believe their stories and let them off. The witnesses, the police, everybody else, got it wrong. The problem is that when you get in a habit of lying about little things you also lie about big things. Soon, you start believing your own lies.”

“Yeah, dad. Liars are the worst. They should get everything that’s coming to them.”

At this point my father was apoplectic. His knuckles blanched as he tightened his fists. His eyes glazed over. He began to pace back and forth, rocking a little from side to side between the end of my bed and the wall.

“I’m glad you agree. Did you know the police arrested your friend Bobby last night?”

“Uh, no. What for?”

“Seems like some kids vandalized some stuff at the monument store, did a lot of damage and the police found Bob hiding under some bushes about a block away.”

“Wow. That’s a shame. Well, like you say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Did you ever watch a moth get close to one of those bug-zapper lights they use to sell on late night TV infomercials? The poor moth can’t resist the pretty glow and then, it gets close enough that the electricity fries it before it can back away or change its direction.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, he wasn’t. But he was smart enough to sing like a canary to the police who then called me this morning.” 

I was caught. In my father’s house accountability was never an option. Lying was never a way to avoid accountability if you valued your life. Okay, that’s a bit hyperbolic. On the other hand, my father was never a man to be trifled with unless you were willing to be exposed for a fool. He had known the reality of this situation before ever entering my room, and I was offered the chance to redeem myself by honestly confessing the truth. My weakness and fear prevented my redemption. Yes, if I admitted the reality, I would have to be punished for my actions. However, by refusing to face the truth my punishment increased exponentially. My credibility was shattered. My father discovered that Bobby was not bad association for me, but vice versa. Most of all, the guilt upon realizing the layers of disappointment my mischief caused, not just to me but others as well, haunted me well past the end of my disciplinary sentence. I became aware of my own cowardice.

Lastly, I discovered I had a conscience, which has plagued me for the rest of my life and why I could never become a politician. I truly felt bad for my actions after the fact, not because I got caught but rather because I crossed a line between freedom and license. Freedom to do whatever I wanted was predicated on taking responsibility for what I did. I confused that with a license, or right, to simply do whatever I wanted no matter how it affected others. As I grew older and experienced more of the world in which I lived, I realized the importance of recognizing this difference. Many people never do. I’ve been lucky to have known people unselfish enough to help me in this regard despite that assistance being painful at times. I didn’t enjoy my father holding me accountable for my wanton stupidity. I had to work off 400 dollars’ worth of damage by washing cars, sweeping garage floors, and shoveling snow for three months of weekends without pay.

This event is, of course, a very minor blip on the road of life. It would not be worthy of much time and literary attention ordinarily, except for the fact that it helps me understand where my society has ended up in the 21st century and why. Many Americans are cowering in a darkened room metaphorically, afraid to admit the damage they have done to themselves and others by refusing to admit they are wrong when evidence corrects them, by believing opinions are more valuable than facts, by ignoring education as a way to correct false thinking, by assuming freedom means doing whatever you want regardless of the consequences to your neighbor, and by giving up a democratic form of government for a fascist one in order to keep their particular race in power.

Congress is full of minor vandals like that. Think of Louie Gomert, a sycophant who makes “Sling Blade” seem like a rocket scientist or newly elected Lauren Boebert, an arrogant little bimbo whose qualification for Congress seems to be flipping burgers, or Jim Jordan, whose only political skill is the ability to cover up for pedophiles. They are far from alone.

Many of my countrymen seem to have lost the ability to accept correction. Maybe “ability” is not the right word. Maybe what they’ve lost is the will. The movement toward license and away from responsibility as individuals has sped up our descent into arrogance and self-righteousness, especially over the last four years (i.e. 2016-2020). If we normalize violent behavior by attempting to destroy any reality we don’t like, I wonder how long before that cognitive dissonance minus accountability will end up tearing us apart. Because of the events on January 6, 2021 at the Capital Building in Washington, D.C. the American public now can demand that the elected fools involved, no matter what their status or rank, accept responsibility for the damage they did or be restricted through some type of punishment from ever doing it again. The cries from cowardly politicians of “I didn’t do anything” and “We need to move forward, not look back” and “My constituents might get mad at me” can no longer excuse their egregious actions since the presidential election of 2020.

The proud YouTube crowing of violently stupid citizens that have accomplished nothing but death and destruction of the very people and very institutions they claim to hold dear must be responded to with swift and just punishment, or I guarantee the behavior will repeat itself the next time their craven desires are rightly ignored. You cannot bring unity to a society by appeasing the bullies and depraved members in that society. Unity comes from a clear acceptance of what is simply right and what is simply wrong. Peacefully protesting injustice is a right granted by democracy. Violence with the intent of forcing your will on the majority is not.

I am a relative humanist, but an assault on the very bedrock ideals of our nation leaves little room for relative reflection in the aftermath.

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<a href="https://writersatlarge.com/riff/author/jim-mcgarragh/" target="_self">Jim McGarrah</a>

Jim McGarrah

Jim McGarrah is the author of ten books. Lamar University Press released A Balancing Act: New and Selected Poems in May of 2018. McGarrah’s memoir of war entitled A Temporary Sort of Peace (Indiana Historical Society Press, 2007) won the national Eric Hoffer Legacy Nonfiction Award. Blue Heron Book Works published his latest nonfiction book, Misdemeanor Outlaw in 2017.

2 Comments

  1. Robert A Wrigley

    Bingo, Jim. Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Jude Pedersen

    What a lovely piece. Sometimes what is happening is so flummoxing that it’s hard to know where to start. Thank you for articulating this so well.

    Reply

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