1. How I Got Here: Patterns of Hindsight
How do we end up doing what we do in life? How do we become what we become? How did we get where we are today? At some point in our lives, we all ask ourselves these questions. Of course, there’s no single, causal explanation or answer, but by looking back through the pattern-revealing lens of hindsight, we can recognize some of the defining activities, experiences, ideas, and opportunities that ultimately shaped our paths. History reveals patterns, and patterns reveal life.
I was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois. My parents gave birth to nine children. Yes, we were of Irish-Catholic descent (it’s the first question most people ask when they hear nine kids).
Built in 1896, the house I grew up in is the same house my mother lives in today. With four boys and five girls, life had its share of unique idiosyncrasies. Food was always scarce. We considered bologna a delicacy, and when there were actually a few slices left, they were usually hidden be-hind or under something else in the refrigerator—familial Darwinism at work. Although the house had six bedrooms, all four boys slept in the same room. My mother locked us in at night to keep us from going downstairs and raiding the kitchen. To get the extra rations I was sure I needed, I started climbing out the window, crawling across the roof, hanging off the gutters, and dropping to the ground, where I’d then reenter the house through a basement window I had left open before going to bed.
My brothers and sisters would probably say that my greatest talent as a kid was finding things. My parents ran a tight ship. When one of my siblings gained possession of something my parents thought inappropriate, such as my sister’s low-cut hip-hugger pants, my older brother’s Doors album, or my younger brother’s BB gun, my parents confiscated the “offensive” items and stashed them away in the types of places where no one, including my parents, would ever look again. Inevitably my siblings would turn to me for the recovery operation. My process was elementary. The size, shape, and composition of what I was looking for were key. A BB gun required a rifle’s length of rigid hiding space volume; a Doors album a long, thin slot; while my sister’s pants could be squished away almost anyplace. I’d always imagine where I would hide the object if I were my parents (up high and out of reach from my little brother, odd and unexpected compartments for my sister’s stuff, etc). I knew every nook and cranny in the house, so if a dresser or a box in the closet were askew, it was a surefire clue that I was getting hot. Nothing was out of bounds as a hiding place: inside TV sets, behind dresser drawers, on top of the furnace in the basement. I never failed in a finding mission—ever! Helping my brothers and sisters find their stuff was cool, but it wasn’t what jazzed me; I thrived on the thrill of the hunt.
I’ve come to believe that within the heart of every boy lies the seed of a warrior. Even a boy born and raised in a bubble with no exposure to TV or toys will occasionally chew his toast into the shape of a gun, or stealthily roll his bubble across the room to sneak up on his mom. The degree to which the warrior seed grows and flourishes is dependent on the life experiences in which it’s nurtured. For me, there was one seminal experience that I first took part in at the age of seven. It wasn’t the Boy Scouts. It was “bombing cars.”
For me and my friends, bombing cars had nothing to do with trying to scare people or damage their property. Instead, it was our way of imbibing what I have since come to know as “the warrior’s cocktail” (the thrill of the hunt mixed with the thrill of the chase).
To get the best possible chases, the types that would challenge our ability to run, dodge, evade, and outsmart, we were picky. We picked our bombing positions with great care to ensure we always achieved surprise. Houses surrounded by thick evergreen trees or juniper bushes were our favorites. We threw snowballs only at cars driven by men—the younger and the more, the better. Back then, there was a high price to pay if you got caught. You either got the crap kicked out of you and your face washed with snow on the spot, or you were dragged off to the police station and locked up until your parents came to get you—my claim to fame was that I never got caught.
At times, our numbers would swell to upward of fifty kids, some-times heaving more than fifty frozen projectiles; on those days we called it carpet-bombing cars. Before we’d start bombing, I’d gather the younger kids around—most of whom were pretty scared—and share what we called the golden rules of bombing.
“Be prepared. Know how all the gate latches open and shut, and remember who has dogs in their yards. Pull your hat up high so there’s nothing blocking your vision and your ability to see what’s going on around you.
“When the chase starts, stay flexible. We can run anywhere we want—we’re kids, they’re not. Change directions a lot: the more you stay out of his sights, the less he’ll want to keep chasing you. If the snow is fresh, don’t ever hide—your footprints will lead him right on top of you.
“If you can’t outrun ’em, you gotta outsmart ’em. If the guy is about to catch you, slow down a bit, then drop to the ground in a ball and he’ll trip over you and go flying into the snow. If you get caught, start bawling your eyes out, and tell ’em you were just walking home from school and some older kids told you to start running. If all else fails, just stick with me. I’ll make sure you get away.”
More than any other activity in my youth, bombing cars was the experience that allowed my warrior seed to grow and thrive, while also arming me with a mind-set full of options as both the hunter and the hunted.
High school was sort of a halcyonic blur for me. I spent most of my time hanging out with my friends, playing sports, or just plain ol’ having fun. I ran cross-country and played ice hockey, dual-purpose handrails that kept me out of trouble and in great physical condition. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin, and babysat for my neighbors to make my kicking-around money. Although there aren’t many things I’d change about my adolescent years, there was one event during my senior year of high school that, if given the opportunity at the time, I definitely would have requested a do-over.
A few months before graduation, a girl who was a neighbor of mine told me that if I were to ask her friend to my prom, her friend would definitely say yes. I was totally psyched. I had yet to attend a single dance in four years of high school, and this would be my last chance. I had had a crush on her friend for a long time, but had never been able to get my nerve up to ask her out on a date. Now, with the threat of rejection greatly minimized, I figured I might just be able to close the deal. While walking home from school that day, I mentally rehearsed the words I’d use when I called her on the phone later that evening. I was the king of dialing six numbers, then hanging up the receiver—this was not going to be easy. Lost in my hypothetical phone conversation, I didn’t notice the jacked-up Dodge Charger jump the curb and skid to a stop on the perfectly manicured lawn a few feet away. “Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin was blaring from the Bose in the back. Three of my friends jumped out and surrounded me. They were fired up about something. “Wait until you hear what we got planned for prom night,” Billy Pappas, a fuzzy-haired Greek kid who loved to drink beer, announced. A keg of beer? A live band at the party afterward? I wondered. Billy didn’t wait for my answer. “For all those suckers going to the dance, this is gonna go down as the greatest prank in school history!”
“Wait a minute, Billy. Aren’t you going to the prom with your girl-friend?” I asked in disbelief. “No way,” he replied. “This will be much more fun!”
“Come on, Pete, we can’t pull it off without you,” they all chimed in together. I didn’t say anything. “Without you we’re sure to get caught; we need you, man.” Ego has a powerful pull on all humans, but on a male teenager, it’s enslaving. As they explained the “plan” to me, I don’t remember if it ever seemed like much of a good idea or even like much of a good time, but they acted like they really needed me. I wasn’t thinking in terms of the last dance, or the girl, who was probably at home that very minute waiting for my call. All I thought about was how much my buddies admired my talents as an escape artist, and how throwing my hat in with them gave me an easy way out of having to step up to the plate to actually dial that seventh number.
The day of the dance, we pooled our dollars and change together and bought a case of beer and a bushel of ripe tomatoes. With the tomatoes and beers divvied up among us, the four of us settled into position, hidden in a thick tangle of juniper bushes that blanketed the corner house one block down the street from the high school. There we sat for the next two hours, waiting for what the plan predicted would be a parade of buses loaded with prom couples on their way to the dance. We whiled away the hours by guzzling our beer and talking about how stupid all the other guys were for actually going to the prom and missing out on all this “fun.” The air lay heavy with the stench of piss and pine. Finally, a single orange school bus rumbled down the street toward our ambush position.
Completely tanked, all four of us lurched out of the bushes hooting and hollering like deranged savages. Each of us ...