Teen-agers, hormones and water towers
by Leon Satterfield
When Sen. Lorraine Langford pointed out to the Legislature last month that "the 18 to 20 year old probably makes the worst decisions in the world," I squirmed. She was arguing, you remember, that students aren't smart enough to help decide how our state universities and colleges ought to be run.
I squirmed because she might have been talking about the males who grew up in my hometown back in the 1950s. At 18 we drove too fast and read too little. By 20 we drank too much Coors and smoked too many Camels. We even joined armies and fraternities.
And although nobody was proposing it then, I wouldn't have trusted any of us to decide how a college ought to be run and here's why: Our minds, such as they were, were clouded by our raging hormones.
Listen to this:
I am 18 years old and I am about to make the dumbest decision I've ever made. I've made dumb decisions before: I picked up a Black Cat firecracker just before it went off and blew out the webbing between my forefinger and thumb. I made a basket at the wrong end of the court in a B-team game. I put a match to some hissing propane to see if anything that cold really burns.
But those were more or less accidents, bad jokes played on me by the Cosmic Ironist. What I am about to do now is premeditated stupidity: I have decided to climb the water tower and paint something witty and deathless to commemorate my high school graduation.
It is not my fault.
It is Billy Gene Hawkins' idea. We do not think it is dumb. We think it is heroic and we think the girls will take notice.
Billy Gene is short and pugnacious and he used to live in Oklahoma. I don't know how he acted there, but in my town he is a Bad Influence. So I pay a lot of attention to him.
He likes to make comparisons. He played defensive back for his high school team in Oklahoma last year, he says, and after their 8-1 season, the cheerleaders and pep squad gave the team a big party and there was what he calls heavy petting. In my town, after our 2-7 season, the team got free malts at the drugstore and the druggist let us look at pictures in Life.
In Oklahoma, Billy Gene says, they have a swimming pool with a high board and loose girls; in my town, we run through the lawn sprinkler in our old overalls and I sit next to Mable Henderson at Baptist Youth Fellowship.
And in Oklahoma, he says, high school seniors paint the water tower.
So right after we graduate and an hour or so before we leave on our senior trip, Billy Gene says "We ought to paint the watertower," and I listen. Baptists in my town aren't supposed to drink or gamble or dance or go to movies on Sundays, but I can't remember any rule against painting water towers.
"Sure," I say. "Why not? Yeah."
Except for the Co-op grain elevator, our water tower is the tallest structure in town, 90, maybe 100 feet up, a fat metal cylinder with a pointy top, perched on four erector-set legs. There's no ladder, but the legs have cross pieces a little farther apart than rungs, and we start up. I have the red paint bucket, my arm passed through its wire handle, and Billy Gene has the brushes.
Anyone watching would have wondered what we are doing. Mating rituals always appear odd to onlookers.
When I was pre-pubescent, I'd climbed about a third of the way up before I got too scared to go further. Tonight, though, I can't see the ground so clearly and Billy Gene is there to give his Oklahoma snicker if I don't get to the top.
There's a two-foot wide metal grid walkway around the tank itself, with an attached four-foot metal ladder hanging down parallel to the leg we are climbing. It is three and a half feet away. By hanging to the leg with one hand, we can reach over and grab a rung. The wind is blowing hard this high up and I am having second thoughts.
It occurs to me that we are on the verge of another of those graduation-night tragedies, and I imagine tomorrow's headlines: "SENIOR GIRLS INCONSOLABLE: HEROIC GRADS DIE IN FALL FROM WATER TOWER."
But we don't. We grab the rung, take the big step across to the ladder that hangs over 75 feet of windy air, then climb up onto the walkway. We aren't tall enough to make letters as big as we want but we do what we can. We paint "SRS '52" on the side facing Main Street, drop the bucket and brushes into the wind, and go down the same terrifying way we came up, laughing like maniacs when we finally see we aren't going to die. On the ground, the spilled red paint looks a little like the blood in "The Sands of Iwo Jima."
When we get on the bus a half hour later to leave on our senior trip, we tell the girls what we've done. We expect they will squeal and fawn over us and ask us to sit next to them on the dark bus. We show our red hands and tell about grabbing the ladder 75 feet up. They do not react. When we finish the whole story, no one says anything for a few seconds, then Carol Ann Donegal, the prettiest girl in our class and our only cheerleader, asks "What'd you dothatfor?"
For an instant, the testosterone subsides and I catch a glimpse of my own irrationality. But the moment flashes by before I can seize it, and the glands kick in again.
"Hell's bells, woman," I say in my John Wayne voice, "somebody had to do it."
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.
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