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?”
When I saw what happened last weekend at Doc Knapp Field in Oneonta I could hardly believe it. Spray-painting graffiti on walls is nothing new. Heck, in New York City it is considered an art form. But in Oneonta? At a Little League field? Graphic sexual imagery? Nazi swastikas? I was stunned.
When did the evolution of vandalism morph from pranks to crimes? I don’t know, but it has. Soaping somebody’s windows? Sophomoric. Letting the air out of somebody’s tires? Childish. Ringing doorbells in the dark of night and then running away? Don’t even go there.
We know that the three alleged vandals arrested in the 6th Ward spree are under 16. I think two are 13 and one is 12. What is the thought process that goes into a 12-year-old’s mind that says it might be fun to strike a match and burn a structure down? When does a 13- or 14-year-old think it will be cool to draw cartoonish depictions of genitalia on the side of a baseball field wall? When is it ever fun to paint a swastika on anything?
I mentioned to a teenager that I thought what happened at Doc Knapp Field was unspeakable. The teen responded, “Well, you know that the swastika is a peace sign, after all.” I was incredulous.
I looked the 16-year-old in the eye and said, “Tell that to Elie Wiesel.” The teen looked back at me and said, “Who is she?”
Almost everybody in my generation did some act of vandalism when they were young, although I cannot speak for the ladies. We did it, we got a thrill out of it, it was stupid and we wish we could take it back. Why did we do it? Nobody knows. Rebellion? Boredom? Sowing wild oats? Probably all of that. Blame it on the constrictions of rural, small-town life? No, I suspect it happens with young people in big cities also. It just does. The best we hoped to get out of it was not getting caught in the act and nobody getting hurt.
But when did we go from putting goldfish into a toilet tank or soaping someone’s windows to burning down a Little League facility or painting a Nazi symbol on a public building?
Like I said earlier, what happened to us?
I’ll catch you in two ...
“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7 to 9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find him on Facebook by searching “Big Chuck.” He invites you to contact him at email@example.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.