To become old and wise at an older age, you first have to be young and silly first. I was young and very silly but not just that, there were times when I was arrogant and full of myself, phases when I thought I know it all. I looked down at people, not a conscious choice I made, it just happened. The arrogance of the youth.
Sometimes I was even cruel, but I shook it off at an early age. I think when you play with the power of hurting people the first time, your reaction to your own actions determines how you will go on from there.
Perhaps to be good, you have to realize the bad in you first.
I was very young, perhaps nine or ten. Not a teenager, but a child, yet I showed cruelty I never forgot.
I can still see our farm, the old water basin that has been cemented into the ground, the rusty water faucet that only provided cold well water, so we could wash our dirty feet and boots outside, or give water to the farm animals.
My grandma was in the fields that afternoon, it was close to picking time, and she was marking the fruit trees. I was alone, had time to piddle around when two of our neighbor kids came walking down the driveway into our farm. They lived above us, in an older house that had seen better days. Above us, meant we could see each other but had to hike about ten minutes up or down the Austrian Alps to visit each other.
The kids were siblings, much younger than me, the little boy was three, his sister five. They had snow-white hair, and very pale skin, almost albino-like. They looked fragile and dirty, even filthy at times, their hands and faces were always in need to be cleaned, and their clothes always needed washing.
I didn’t like them much. They were too young to play with, too dumb to talk to, and they never left me alone. On the weekends when I was home from boarding school they followed me around like two little puppies. My grandma fed them, made them sandwiches, gave them my candy and my cookies, and treated them like they were special.
Now looking back I can see so clearly that those kids were in desperate need of everything. Better food, adequate clothing, kindness, care, and love. Their mom looked rough, she tried to hold the farm together but never succeeded. I am not sure what had happened to their dad, nobody ever mentioned him, so whatever had occurred, it was neither honorable nor good.
That afternoon I had been in our cellar, determined to make the old bike work. I had a tin can with grease in front of me, tried to put the grease on the mechanism with a stick. I had no idea what I was doing but it must have looked promising because the little girl picked up a stick from the ground as well. She put it in the grease, and as always, copied everything I had been doing. When she tried to get the fat out, the stick hit her leg and now a black long grease mark run down her leg.
She started crying, something she always did -too quickly and too often for my taste. “You better wash this off,” I pointed to the grease on her leg, “you don’t want to go up in flames, don’t you?
Had she been crying before, now she was sobbing and hauling and I laughed at her.
She run to the water basin, climbed over the little cement wall, and turned on the faucet. Ice cold water splashed down, and soon she was soaking wet. She rubbed on the grease stain, tried to make it disappear, which of course didn’t work. She needed soap, and I wasn’t going to tell her.
I enjoyed watching her. It served her well, perhaps now she would stop playing with my things when I was gone.
She cried, her face now red, snot running down her nose. She looked pitiful. Again I told her she would go up in flames. She was frightened and terrified. “I don’t want to die,” she screamed, which made me laugh even harder. How could she be that dumb?
But something happened inside me. While I still chuckled at her for being so stupid, the laughter didn’t feel good anymore. Nothing felt good or right. I knew I would be in terrible trouble if my grandma ever would find out, also I expected the girl’s mom would come down to talk to grandma and me, as soon as she would hear about my heartless joke.
But that wasn’t it.
Watching the little girl and looking at myself made me feel ashamed. She was so much younger, so fragile, so vulnerable and I was so mean.
Whatever punishment was coming my way, I would deserve it.
I turned the water off and handed the little girl an old rag and the curd soap we always stored above the basin, right on the window sill of the cowshed.
Finally, she rubbed the grease stain off and as soon as she climbed out of the water basin, she and her brother took off. Soaking wet, she run up the old gravel road like a monster was chasing her, her little brother trying to follow. I was the monster she feared!
That evening I was quiet at supper, I expected a knock on our door any minute. Surely by now, the little kids had told their mom and she would make sure I would get severely punished.
I waited that evening, and the next day as well. Nothing happened. I am not sure what gnawed on me more, what I had done, or that I would get away with it.
I went back to school, and when I came back home two weekends later, it still didn’t leave me alone. All this time in school I had been thinking about my behavior. Had it been so different from my parents, how they had treated me when I had been living with them. Their alcohol rage, their laughter when they mocked me when I was crying. I was just like them.
I don’t remember the name of the little girl or her brother’s name, but I remember the incident very well. It had shown me a side of me I am not proud of.
Looking back I am glad it happened at such a young age when I was still fearful of punishments, and when I couldn’t stand it when my Grandma was mad or disappointed.
Sometimes when I look around this world, when I watch how cruel people are and how badly they treat strangers they have never met, I wonder, do they still remember the first time when they misbehaved so badly. Did they not go to bed feeling ashamed of their actions?
I don’t know if I will ever be wise, but I know I am getting older and I see things now clearer than ever.