Johnny Be Bad

“The bad boy: Always more fun.”

—Ian McShane

Today’s story is contributed by Chris Haydel.

“Stay away from that Johnny, he’s trouble,” Mom warned.

He’s a troublemaker, a bad seed. As a nurse, Mom had observed the sometimes tragic result of hanging out with “dangerous” kids.

johnny be bad

Chris Haydel Family,
Christmas 1971

It was a hot summer day in New Orleans, but to me, it had never felt cooler. I had saved up for a month, and today was the big day. The shiny long barrel. The plastic “ivory” grip. Multi-cap loading capacity. A magnificent weapon. A young boy’s dream. I had seen it in the toy aisle of a store not too far away.

Mom had gone out to run errands, but she promised to take me as soon as she got back. I was playing outside to kill time.

Johnny was outside too, but he was killing bugs with his magnifying glass. “Hey, watcha doin’?” He yelled from across the street.

“Nothing,” I mumbled, bowing my head, heeding Mom’s warning.

I shuffled my feet for a minute and looked up. Johnny was now standing on the lawn, just a few feet away. Glaring at me with mischievous eyes, he was clearly sizing me up. Not good, I thought.

“I’m just waiting for my mom to take me to the mall to buy a new cap gun,” I said as I shuffled my feet, staring down at the ground. I was really hoping he would take the hint and get lost. But before he opened his mouth, I realized I had disclosed too much.

“You don’t need to wait for your Mommy… c’mon, let’s go,” he sneered, tugging at my shirt.  “You’ll have the gun and be back before your mom even gets home.”

I should’ve said no. I knew it for sure. Should’ve just plopped right down on the lawn in protest.

But at eleven years old, a boy’s pride, so wanting to be “cool,” it blinded my mind to good sense, to doing what I knew I shouldn’t do.

As we arrived at the first street corner, the first red flag went up.  Or thumb, should I say. It was Johnny’s thumb! Apparently, we were hitchhiking to the mall!

Before I knew it, Johnny flagged down a car. He climbed in. Stupidly, so did I. Neither of us knew the driver.  Within minutes, we were swept away from the safety of our neighborhood.

I was scared. But I also felt a sense of excitement different and more intense than I had ever felt before. Just “bad boy” Johnny and me. Hitching a ride to buy guns.

Rebels on the loose!

Is this what being bad feels like? It was a fascinating thought.

Well, lucky for me, the worst didn’t occur.  Had that been the case, I might not be here today. Our “chauffeur” was a nice guy and dropped us off in front in the mall.  We raced each other into the building, straight to the toy aisle.

There it was, more beautiful than I remembered it. But something else I hadn’t remembered. It didn’t come with caps, and I only had enough money for the gun.

And what good is a gun with no ammo? Johnny detected his cue… “Go buy the gun,” he whispered, “then come back and meet me here when you’re done.”

I knew his intent, and I protested at first. Hitchhiking was one thing — stealing was something else. But again, I went with the flow. I was getting in deep.

The curse of being “cool” had consumed me. I couldn’t say no.

In a zombie-like trance, I went to the front, bought the gun, and reported back to Johnny in the aisle. He revealed a handful of caps he had tucked close to his chest.

“Here, put ’em in the bag,” he slithered in a most devious tone.

For a split second, I snapped out of it. “No!” I hissed back. “Fine, then I’ll do it!” he snarled, grabbing for the bag. I clutched my bag tight, and in a reaction of intense haste and frustration, I angrily swiped the extra caps from his hand and thrust them in the bag!

Then it happened. Adventure turned bad.

It felt like a Great White shark latching down on my left arm with a force that spun me around. “What do ya think yer doing?” he growled, his breath hot and putrid in my face.

The shiny brass buttons of his security uniform streaked through my vision as he shook the bag loose from my grasp. He had us both by our scrawny little arms, one in each hand. A massive man. A weathered, militant face. My eyes immediately welled up.  Johnny was defiant, stone cold. He didn’t flinch an inch.

We were both dragged to the back, through the “Employees Only” door. It was grey and bleak — quite the contrast from the colorful toy aisle just seconds before.

I was so scared, my brain was virtually paralyzed. I don’t even remember being put in the holding cell, but that’s where we ended up.

I was sobbing. Sniffling. Sick to my stomach. A criminal behind bars.

And Johnny? Not a single tear. Not one sign of remorse. After a while, they let me out and cuffed me to a chair while a lady asked me questions and typed up my responses for the report. “So why did you come with him?” she asked, her eyes gesturing disapprovingly toward Johnny.  At that point I realized… everyone did know Johnny.

Back in the cell, Johnny laughed, saying, “Yeah, I got busted stealing here once before, and my dad busted my tooth over it, see?” As he pulled down his lip to reveal the broken tooth, my stomach dropped and my heart broke, simultaneously.

Would his dad hit him again? Would my dad hit me? Bust my tooth?

My dad was the kindest, funniest, most gentle guy in the world. We always played word games in the car together. A beloved pediatrician in the community.  Always upbeat.

My father was the man I respected most. But hitchhiking? Stealing? I feared for my life — and my teeth.

After what felt like a whole day in that cell, the security guard finally came for me. “Good luck! Hope it doesn’t hurt too bad!” Johnny snorted on my way out. I was taken to a separate office.

Dad was already standing there, arms folded, furrowed brow. Eyes closed and head down, I began weeping uncontrollably. My life was over.

In just one day, I had ruined everything. He would never love me again. Never respect me again. I was devastated.

And then I felt his arms wrap around me. He didn’t say a word. He just hugged me until I stopped crying.

We drove home in silence, a major deviation from our normal word play.

Days went by. Dad didn’t speak to me at all. Not a word. At breakfast. At dinner. Before bed. Utter silence.

I did extra chores. Extra homework. Extra anything I could think of to start winning back his respect. I missed him so much. I missed our conversations, our word games, just having him in my life.

After two weeks, I could take no more. The silence was unbearable.

I approached him,“Dad, can you please just tell me what my punishment is so I can do it and we can go back to normal?” He motioned for me to sit down.

“Son, you’ve given yourself more punishment in the past two weeks than I ever could have.”

I blinked, bewildered by the response.

He continued,“Why do you think I play word games with you all the time?”

“To help my vocabulary,” I said, remembering what he had told me.

“Yes, that’s true, but more importantly, it’s to teach you to think … before you speak, before you act, before you do anything. The worst situations in life usually start as rash, foolish, impulsive, seemingly small, but bad decisions.”

Dad continued, “I wanted to give you time to think about that.”

Dad was a man of infinite patience.

He also knew how to mentor, teach, and make a message stick.

My mom was loving, but in a different way. If she had picked me up from “jail” that day, I may have gotten that busted tooth after all!

Thanks Dad. My life is so much better because of you.

johnny be bad

Chris at an anniversary party with his daughter and son.

Chris lives in Pasadena, California where he strives to bring the wisdom and compassion of his father to the life he shares with his wife, Pilar, and son, Santiago. He is the founder and president of Haydel, Biel & Associates, a registered investment advisory firm. Chris’s passion for investment knowledge is matched only by his love of music, especially the music of his hometown New Orleans. Whenever possible, you will find him promoting, cultivating or assisting the music and musicians of the Crescent City — maybe soon to a town near you.

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