It’s hard to figure out exactly how you can take a decade or so of character training and blow it all in one afternoon, but I managed to.

I was 13. It was winter. The backwaters from the Chesapeake Bay had frozen around some of the boats still moored at the public pier in our inlet. Biting wind blew across the frigid water and bore deep into our bones. It was a time when kids were holed up inside, restless, bored, and longing for the thaws of early spring and the prospects of summer’s heat.

I was one of those kids. January showed no promise of surrendering its grip on the elements, and seventh grade showed no promise of getting any more interesting. I was standing on the threshold of manhood but still thinking with the irresponsibility of a child. And I apparently had a little more time on my hands than I knew what to do with.

I can’t remember who came up with the idea. It doesn’t matter. Whether you’re the architect of the crime or merely an accessory doesn’t make your actions any more or less stupid. The plan went something like this. One of the summer cottages in the woods by the tidal basin had a slot machine in it. My friend and I knew this because we had been in the cottage when the owners were there in the summer (playing with their kids) and had dropped a few nickels in it. The cottage wasn’t “winterized” and was, therefore, boarded up and secured for the off-season. However, the slot machine was still there, and the electricity was still on. We figured that, if we could play with the lock and get in, we could have some fun playing the machine.

The lock turned out to be a piece of cake. We didn’t have to break anything to get it to turn. Once inside the house, we simply opened one of the blinds to get enough light, plugged in the slot machine, and waited for it to warm up. To prime the machine, we had taken all the money we had between us (which was about three dollars), had cashed it into nickels, and stuffed change into our pockets. So with our own money, we proceeded to spend the next half-hour playing their machine.

Every few nickels, a cherry would appear, and the slot machine would burp out some change. It was a blast. We took turns. My friend would drop in a nickel, pull the lever of the one-armed bandit, and watch the tumblers in anticipation. After five nickels, I’d take my turn. Back and forth we went; losing, winning, losing, winning, until finally the machine held all of the nickels we came with plus all of the nickels it started with.

From the time we made our way to the cabin to the moment we ran out of money was about 45 minutes. Once the thrill of the moment was over, the fear of the situation hit us. We figured we’d better get out of there before someone noticed something suspicious. We unplugged the slot machine, closed the blind, and locked the door behind us as we left.

Caught in the act

The county cops were waiting for us as soon as we came around the bushes on the side of the house. Apparently, someone had seen us snooping around the cabin and had given them a call. We didn’t try to run. It would have been fruitless anyway, as they knew who we were because they knew our parents. They immediately separated us and started asking questions. It was not a pretty moment.

They got on their radios to get calls out to our parents. They connected with my friend’s father first. He was a state trooper. When they explained what we were doing and how we had been caught in the act, he suggested that they send his son home and he promised to deal with him. My friend took off for home immediately. Which left two county policemen and me.

They finally connected with my father. I could only hear one side of the conversation as they explained who, what, and where to him. I could tell from their next statement that Dad had apparently asked them what they do with kids who do stupid things. They explained that there was some “process” they put juveniles through up at the county station, and then they released the kid back to the parents later in the evening. He told them to “process” me and then give him a call when they wanted him to pick me up.

The “process” was basically a combination of having you sit for long periods of time, with nothing to read, while police walk by and stare at you, or grunt and shake their heads, or whisper to one another and look over at you. Then they make you sit next to their desk while they ask you a bunch of questions about your whereabouts over the past 10 years when certain unsolved burglaries, car thefts, and murders took place.

Then they’d make you sit some more while they did their stare, grunt, and whisper thing around you. It was very effective. I felt like pond scum and was scared out of my mind.

Finally, around nine o’clock that night, my father came and picked me up. On the drive home, he outlined all of the punishment that he and Mom had thought up for me while I was at the police station.

The final part of the “process” happened about a week or so later. I had to appear before a judge to find out what they were going to do with me. The owners of the house left it up to the police to do whatever they wanted since nothing was damaged, and the war chest inside the slot machine was a little deeper as a result of our visit.

My criminal record

The Judge. Let’s see now … how would one describe what he did to me? Actually, I can’t easily give you a feel for what he did because the most effective words to use aren’t usually found in the writings of Christian authors. But if I ever dared use them, you’d smile and nod your head and say, “Yep, Tim, got your point, I know exactly what he did to you.”

I was the last person to appear before him that day. Only a few people were still in the courtroom. When they called my name, I mentioned to my dad that it was our turn to go up to the front. He informed me that it was “my” turn to go up to the front. He’d wait right where he was. He’d be there for me to either take me home when it was all over or to visit me if they carted me away.

So there I stood, skinny and scared before his Honor while he proceeded to do an emotional autopsy on my face. He ripped into me with a vengeance. His voice exploded. He talked of his shame. He talked of my spiritual family, my church training, and how disappointed he was that after all that had been given to me in the way of love, and all that had been done for me in the way of character training, that I would respond with this kind of stupid behavior.

After he was done humiliating me beyond recognition, he proceeded to tell me what he would do to me if I ever did anything as stupid again. I’m convinced that my dad put him up to this because they both seemed to enjoy the whole ugly scene a little too much. He ultimately dropped the charges and released me to the custody and care of my father.

And that’s the extent of my criminal record. I never did anything like that again.

Natural consequences can be a good thing

What about my friend that got sent home to his father, my friend who never had to go through the stare, grunt, and whisper process, my friend who never had to stand before his Honor and get verbally pistol-whipped? Well, my friend has ended up in an east-coast penitentiary twice. He had a dad who wanted to sweep the whole incident under the rug and pretend like it never happened, and because of it, my friend never really got to know what it was like to be a real man.

Bottom line: Don’t circumvent the negative consequences of your children’s foolish actions. If you do, you only set them up for greater heartache. Kids do stupid things. They embarrass us. They let us down. They defy all of our efforts in building their character. When they do, we have a strategic responsibility to deal with them in such a way that the consequence of their foolishness comes down on their heads hard enough to knock some sense into them.

My father loved me enough to let me feel the full extent of my actions. He hated the thought of me making crime a passion more than he hated the personal embarrassment he’d have to endure in church when word got around that Howard Kimmel’s son, Tim, happened to be a jerk.

And I’m a better man for it.

Copyright © 2001 by Tim Kimmel. All rights reserved.