I was a teenage vandal.
Let me explain.
When I was a kid we had neighbors who would steal our Whiffle balls if we ever hit a home run and the balls made it over our backyard fence and onto their property. One year, around Halloween, I’d had enough. My neighborhood gang and I snuck onto their property late at night and threw three rolls of toilet paper up and into their trees. I then crept up to their front door where they had a brass mail slot. I gently lifted it open and emptied an aerosol can of my father’s Burma Shave cream onto the neighbor’s floor.
Of course, I got caught. And by the time my mom dragged me by the ear over to our neighbor’s house to apologize the next day my mind was whirling, my heart was sinking and my butt was already sore.
The year was 1962. I was 12.
My dad and his friends used to put goldfish into the toilet tanks at the Hillcrest Roller Rink when they were kids in Sidney. Until the manager caught them and tanned their hides, that is. The year was 1938. My father was 11.
My grandfather, Louie, told me the story once of how he switched oil for water in the cans used by the old lamplighter back in his hometown of Montagano, Italy. He and his friends would then watch and giggle as the old man tried and tried without success to light the oil lamps along the main street of his hometown at dusk. The year was 1888. My grandfather would have been 10.
So I guess I come from a long line of vandals. Didn’t we all?
But what happened to us?
When I was doing research for a book about New York cemeteries about a dozen years ago, I visited more than 200 rural graveyards across the upstate region. The vandalism I saw was eye-popping. Desecrated graves, toppled monuments, destroyed headstones. I couldn’t believe it. I thought: “when did vandalism get to this point? Damaging a person’s final resting place?”