My Biggest Childhood Regret
Looking back on my childhood, I recall incidents more worthy of a lifetime of regret:
(1) That I was only nice to my sweet, loyal friend Shannon when the cooler kids weren’t around.
(2) That I turned up my nose at 98% of the delicious, home-cooked meals my mom placed in front of me.
(3) That five minutes after our beloved cat Clyde got flattened by a car tire and I called my dad at work, I led off with, “Can we get another cat?”
(4) That I wasted far too many hours playing Super Mario Brothers and not enough on The Legend of Zelda.
(5) That I jumped on the Permwagon at the tender age of 8, that I stayed on board too long, and that those were prime side-pony years I’ll never get back.
But the regret that’s stuck with me: that I didn’t put my money down on red.
It was 1980-ish at a carnival in Nebraska.
My dad and I decided to try our luck at the midway while my mom and brother were off gambling with their lives on the Tilt-A-Whirl. I was proudly sporting my new Urban Cowboy-inspired hat – bright purple trim with bright purple feathers, assumingly plucked off the flesh of a Flying Purple People Eater. Coordinating clip-on feathers dangled from the brim. Life was good.
And that’s when I saw him. The most enormous teddy bear I’d ever seen in all my six years. He was massive, bigger than me — and smiling, practically waving to me, from atop a game booth shelf.
He was fuzzy and smartly dressed in a beanie, vest and matching bow tie. With all the qualifications one would deem as “cute”, he was the spitting image of Yogi’s sidekick Boo-Boo — enough resemblance to make kids swoon, but not enough to risk Hanna-Barbera copyright infringement.
My memory of the game itself is a bit vague. There was a chest-level counter with painted squares of all the colors of a jumbo box of crayons. Behind the counter was a roulette wheel with corresponding squares. Players were to put money down on one color. I remember it costing a quarter to play, but this makes no sense — then why not put a quarter down on every color? I don’t know. I’ll say it was a dollar so you don’t challenge the statistics.
The game was packed with people along the counter, and I squeezed my way into a space by the red slot as my dad looked on, beaming at me with the pride that every parent must feel when his child gets that first taste of losing all their hard-earned money in the most pointless fashion.
I was content with my choice of red and placed my money down.
A split second before the wheel would spin, I panicked. Red? That’s too obvious. It’s right in front of me. That can’t be right. Why, there’s periwinkle, gray and burnt sienna down the row that are much more obscure.
So at the last moment, I grabbed my dollar and reached it across the beer-bellies and lacquered hairdos to place my money on gray.
That’s right about when the wheel stopped on red.
And that’s right about when the words were uttered that would linger in my conscience for years to come.
“Aw, you had it right there!” My dad exclaimed this as he slapped down his hand on the red square for emphasis. Then he added an all-in-good-fun laugh as if I just missed a question on a flash card. No big deal. We’ll move on to the ring toss. Maybe we’ll win a Smokey and the Bandit mirrored wall tile.
Stunned and horrified, I looked to the man who won Enormous Teddy – weak-chinned, slopey shoulders, a Pink Floyd t-shirt, haphazardly feathered hair. Clearly the kind of person incapable of appreciating what he had. Clearly the kind of person who’d exploit Enormous Teddy, using him as an inconspicuous vessel to conceal his stash of pot.
I tried to get past the loss of Enormous Teddy by convincing myself I was better off without him.
(1) That he would’ve made my other stuffed animals jealous, that there’d be drama.
(2) That he wasn’t quite as huggable as he looked, that he was stiff as a cadaver, made of thin polyester carnival fabric and stuffed with sawdust.
(3) That the midway smell had permeated his fur, that it’d taint his hugability for all our days.
None of this convincing worked — for one, who wouldn’t want to hug on something smelling of cotton-candy-popcorn-gear-grease?
Four years later, I moved to a new town, to a different school, starting from scratch in the social arena. I couldn’t help but think how easy it’d be to assert myself into friendships using the social currency of Enormous Teddy. Enormous Teddy would push me ahead — to the status level of the kid with the Dukes of Hazzard pinball machine, or the kid with the glow-in-the-dark basketball hoop, or the kid with the unspayed cats.
One would assume I eventually moved on from toys, dabbled with adolescence and outgrew the loss of Enormous Teddy. Mostly that is true. But I never got past the words. No, I continued to hear them in my head for years — through every near-miss and failure life would throw my way.
“Aw, you had it right there!”
Again and again.
Sometimes at night, while lying in bed looking over at my sleeping husband, I still hear the words.
“Aw, you had it right there!”
And so I lean in close, wrap my arms around him, exhaling with the contentment that I have everything I’ve ever wanted in life.
And I pretend he’s filled with sawdust.