As a child, I would sometimes go out of my way to get attention or stretch my sense of importance. Often, these actions would end poorly.
I grew up in a valley in Western Montana, in a time and in a place where hunting was encouraged not just as a way of life but as a way to survive. Taking the life of an animal could ensure a family had food in the freezer for weeks, which wasn’t always a small feat considering the difficulties of finding good work in the area. I remember having concerns about going hunting with my stepfather at the time, but I also remember he was excited I would be able to legally go hunting with him. To be fair, at the time I was quite pessimistic and wasn’t sure how much of that was actual pride in me growing up and how much of that was gaming the system by being able to have an extra “tag” to take the life of a deer or an elk. To be honest, a couple decades later, I’m still not sure.
I understand things have changed slightly now, but back in the 90’s for a young hunter to get their license they needed two things: to be at least 12 years of age, and take a course that would teach them basic safety out in the field. This training was mandated to be a certain number of hours, and the courses I would take took place over several days. Back then, there’d be actual hands-on fire arm training (no ammunition though) and the whole affair would also be assisted by local organizations hoping to get children to join them that might not have already, such as the Boy Scouts. Afterwords, there was a test, and once the test was passed a license was granted.
I would not get my license at the age of 12. I would be beaten and grounded for a month instead. Getting beaten was common occurrence, but to be grounded for so long was something new. Such was my mistake.
The classes weren’t terribly long, only a couple of hours, but they always had a 15 minute break in between them. They were held in what was at the time a junior high school, and there was plenty of vending machines in case someone wanted a drink or a quick snack. There was also a payphone. Since cellphones were all but unheard of not only back then but in that particular area, if you needed to make a phone call while out you’d put in a quarter or two (payphone depending) and be connected for up to ten minutes.
It was break on the third day, and there were some older kids there I wanted to impress because I was attention starved and why not. I also knew just the way to impress them. I had a friend whose dad was a pastor, who also worked at a technician for telephone lines, and this friend had taught me a valuable skill. It was an incantation, a magic spell, a few rote commands that we didn’t fully understand the meaning behind yet could get to work almost flawlessly every time.
If you dialed 998 on a payphone, then hung up? It would ring back.
I understand more about this today; this was a diagnostic tool for repairmen to make sure telephones out in the field worked. It’s commonly referred to as a “ringback code.” That particular code worked on a number of the payphones in the area, although not all of them.
At the time though, it was something neat and mysterious.
So this is what I would do to impress these people. They were around the phone, and I remember pretty meekly saying “watch this” and going up and dialing 998. I was pretty nervous.
So nervous, in fact, I dialed 911.
Not a big deal though! I quickly hung up, ran off, shamed at my mistake. I’d have to deal with these kids later, and they’d probably make fun of me for messing things up. Sure enough, a few minutes later one of them approached me. “Someone’s on the phone for you,” he stated.
Now it wasn’t my 15th or 20th time being pranked, but being pranked is engagement, and if they’re laughing at me at least they are laughing! So I decided to play along. I knew there wasn’t actually another person on the phone. Except, there was.
She was a secretary with the Sheriff’s office. At the time, in our small town, in our Sheriff’s office there was literally one sheriff. There were a couple of part time deputies, sure, but it seemed most law enforcement was handled by the police proper. This made the fact that it was the Sheriff’s office calling a notable one. The lady was firm and wanted to know why I had called 911. “Oh, it was a wrong number,” I stated. I wasn’t lying.
She then wanted to get my personal information. She asked if she could have my name.
Fortunately for me, I knew exactly how to answer this question. I was taught by several commercials how to handle speaking with the police over the phone without getting into trouble or using one’s personal information.
“I wish to remain anonymous.”
The lady on the phone asked if I would repeat that.
So I did. “I wish. To remain. Anonymous.”
And then I politely hung up, because the conversation was clearly done.
It was not done.
The sheriff shows up. I’m pulled out of class. This school had hallways meant for traffic for kids between class and this sheriff somehow took up the entire width of it with his shoulders and his stature and his stance. He had his arms in a position where I wasn’t sure if he was going to draw his gun or just beat me to death. His face made it clear he did not want to be there. His tone made it clear that I was the reason he was there.
“You,” he said. One of the teenagers near the phone was behind him. I could only assume that he had pointed me out. The sheriff wanted to make sure. “This him?”
“Yeah,” he said. Damn narc.
“What’s your name?” He was talking to me, which was not a good sign. Fortunately, I knew how to respond to these kind of questions!
“I, uh, wish-”
“I swear to God, I will arrest you if you finish that sentence.”
So of course I didn’t.
“What is your name.” This was not a question. This was a threat.
So I answered his question, and I had to explain it was an accident, and then I had to explain how someone accidentally dials a three digit number for emergency services when literally every other phone number a human being would normally call on a payphone is seven digits. I heard about how abusing the emergency call system is a serious thing, could be fined or even taken to jail, I was taking him away from “more pressing work,” and so on.
And then that was that. I wasn’t in trouble. He didn’t arrest me. He didn’t shoot me. Although if he had, I’d know to put pressure on the wound and get help, so clearly I had learned something from the classes. I sheepishly went back to class and that was the end of that…
Until the next day, when I thought I’d be taking the test, and my name wasn’t called for roll call. Instead, I was pulled out to the hallway, where an instructor shared in the most straightforward way possible that a decision was made that due to what had happened they had decided not to let me take the test because they felt I was not “mature” enough and that it would be “reckless” of them to do so. I remember asking if I could at least stay and take the test and they could say I failed, which obviously they were not okay with.
So I walk home, not sure of what to expect. I still remember that my mother was cooking pigs in a blanket, which was unusual in part because she often wasn’t home to cook and because we rarely got to have these. I know she was surprised I was back so soon. I tried to explain to her what happened, and this lead to my stepfather getting involved and wanting to know what happened. He was beyond angry (but then, wasn’t he always?) I had wasted money on the fees for the course, I had cost the family food in the freezer, and I had personally embarrassed him.
I was sore that night. From that night on, I was grounded. I had started taking lessons in trombone at school; I was expected to return the rented instrument because clearly I “wasn’t mature enough” to play it. When I wasn’t doing chores I was to sit on my bed in my room for “a month.” I spent literally just over two weeks in a routine where I’d have to do my homework on my bed, then sit on my bed and make sure I was not caught doing anything else. If I was reading or falling asleep I could receive further punishments.
Fortunately, if one can call such a thing fortunate, some perspective came into the family when my brother was caught shoplifting from the local supermarket when he was sent to buy groceries. In my situation, my parents never spoke with law enforcement; in this case, they had to go pick him up from the station.
I still remember my stepfather’s words on the matter: “At least when you fuck up, it only hurts yourself,” he said. Clearly he had forgotten his ranting about how we needed “food in the freezer” as we had gone rounds. “I don’t know how we’re going to pay your brother’s fines.”
I was only 12 though. Plenty of other opportunities to get into trouble and disappoint him more.