Several people commented on a column I wrote for the Knoxville News Sentinel not long ago. It included a true story about drunken, teenage elephants in Indonesia. One female reader pointed out that adolescent elephants aren’t a lot different from adolescent human males. “Testosterone-driven,” was how she put it. And she was right.
In fact, it boggles my mind that so many of us survive adolescence. Young males rank higher in accidental deaths than any other group. Young males are more prone to risk-taking than females and a lot of the risk-taking is to impress said females.
Not all risks have the potential for a fatality; some only make the risk-taker wish he had perished. One of my early testosterone-driven feats involving poison ivy comes to mind.
I was 12, I think, and my class was having a rare recess that didn’t involve a team sport. I was propped up against a tree, reading a book called The Wonderful Trip to The Mushroom Planet, near a brown-eyed beauty named Vicky.
One of my classmates, Steffan Ledgerwood, who was interested in the book, made an observation: “You’re sitting in poison ivy.” The brown-eyed Vicky glanced in my direction. I had been afraid to talk to her, so when the opportunity to show-off came, I took it.
“Doesn’t bother me,” I said. To prove my point, I grabbed a handful of the leaves and rubbed them all over my face and arms, then lifted my shirt and applied them to my stomach.
“You better wash it off,” Steffan said. Seeing that the object of my desire was still watching, I shrugged off the danger, probably with a sneer. After recess, we went to the restroom, where I washed my hands as I had been taught, after I finished -- but not before.
Early the next morning, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and a monster stared back at me. My eyes were swollen shut, my fingers had blisters between them and I itched in every place I had touched myself the day before. Apparently a bath taken several hours after contact hadn’t helped.
My own mother had to stifle a smile when she saw me. Today, my condition would have warranted a trip to the doctor, but such wasn’t the case then. I endured alcohol baths and calamine lotion for three days before the blisters began to subside, but evidence of my stupidity still remained when my father said I had to go back to school.
News of my condition had spread during my absence -- and so had the reason for my misery. I stared straight ahead and kept quiet to avoid attention the first day back. I did sneak a look at my brown-eyed beauty and she looked amused, not sympathetic.
My vow not to show-off again lasted a few weeks. Another Lolita from down the street was present when a couple of boys began jumping their bicycles off a steep bank. I decided to push my bike up the side of a wooded ridge -- then jump the embankment.
It would have been easier pushing the bike if my arm hadn’t been in a cast from a fall a next to the last day of school. But I got the bike about 200 yards up the ridge. I yelled so everyone would look and pushed off.
A few feet into my ride, I found I couldn’t steer with one hand and I couldn’t stop, either. I missed the bigger trees and a pile of brush stopped finally stopped me, resulting in multiple scratches and bruises. I went home limping and went back after the bike later.
It was the last time I showed off -- until the next time.