Every once in a while I want to take a ride to Skowhegan. See the big Indian out there looming over the street. Check out the fair and see if it’s the same as when I was a kid. Maybe pop in on that old girlfriend and see if she still loves me.

But I can’t do it. Because to get to Skowhegan, I have to drive by Hinckley. And in Hinckley is a dungeon of brick where people with nets are waiting to capture me on sight. They know I’ve done various bad things since I was old enough to walk and they want me in custody.

I know. My mother told me.

When I was a kid, Hinckley was the highest punishment just waiting to be executed. When I got caught lighting fires in the woods, I was bound for Hinckley. When I was discovered on the roof of the elementary school, it was almost a certainty that I would land in Hinckley. When I got found in the closet with a neighbor girl — we weren’t doing anything, you know, just talking — I was going to Hinckley.

I don’t know how I managed to stay out of the place.

Almost everyone I know had a Hinckley when they were children. It was a local orphanage, a youth lockup or maybe something completely made up, like the Center for Really Awful, Naughty Kids (CRANK) where the worst misbehavers would be shipped.

These were terrible places of neglect and torture, the kind of hell hole in which Oliver Twist wouldn’t last a single day. The conditions said to exist in these places became more horrible if you happened to have an older brother who had figured out the scam but who delighted in scaring the snot out of you.

“They make you sleep with spiders. Big fat spiders that bite you all night long. In the morning, nuns beat you with brushes and make you take showers in scalding water. They feed you worms and you have to eat all of them or they will make you sleep in the attic. And that’s on a good day …”

For a time, I lived in constant fear of Hinckley. Images of cold, damp walls and masked tormentors haunted me every time I set off to do something I wasn’t supposed to do. Peeking in the windows of a pretty classmate, I thought of Hinckley. Blowing up some old lady’s lawn ornament with firecrackers, I wondered if this was what would land me in that prison for boys.

Breaking windows out of the abandoned building up on Myrtle Street, I had to deliberate over whether the delicious sound of shattering glass was worth the risk of landing inside the cruel walls of Hinckley.

Deliberate and then fire that rock toward the unbroken pane on the third floor.

Because let’s face it, a kid might shudder at the thought of imprisonment, but the joy of breaking and blowing stuff up is always a little bit more powerful. You dread the thought of consequences, but if you’re 6 years old and all the other kids are doing it, are you going to skip the chance to leave flaming dog poop on a neighbor’s steps?

No sir, you are not.

Which may be why you don’t hear so much anymore about parents threatening their children with places that don’t exist. Back then, you could warn a child about the nightmarish conditions of the YOUTH CENTER. But now they’ve changed the title of that fearsome place to something like PLEASANT VIEW ACRES WITH CLOUDS AND PONIES FOR TROUBLESOME BUT STILL VERY NICE CHILDREN and who the hell is afraid that?

Kids who get into trouble these days are ordered to take timeouts. Parents will snatch away the PlayStation12, banish the little demon from the computer or, if the offense is a particularly high one, take away the cell phone.

Take that, you little pissant.

Which is probably a more reasonable response, more psychologically sound and blah, blah, blah.

It troubles me. Children who aren’t forced to ponder the frightening possibilities of a Hinckley probably won’t grow to believe in haunted houses, old women who might be witches, or young lovers who find a bloody hook hanging from the car door, either.
And frankly, what fun are kids if you can’t make up scary stories and ruin their sleep?

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