By JAMES A. HAUGHT
CHARLESTON (W.VA.) GAZETTE
One of my granddaughters is a brilliant, tall, lovely teen who never earns less than an "A" in high school. Her scores on national tests are sky-high. And she never has done wild stuff. We all envision a shining future for her.
When I returned from a sailing trip last week, the first thing I heard was dismaying news: A week after her 15th birthday, the granddaughter and four other teens had gone to a small private airport in a boy's convertible late at night -- and an unlicensed girl had driven the car in a wild plunge off the end of a runway, down a hillside.
My granddaughter, riding in the back seat, was the least injured, suffering a slight spinal fracture and a couple of leg wounds. Her friends were smashed up worse. They face lots of surgery and long recuperations. No drugs or alcohol were involved in the bizarre crash, police said.
My whole family collectively shook our heads. How could a gifted honor student wind up in such a brainless mess? If the smartest kids do stupid things, it's a miracle that any teen-agers survive.
Some of them don't. My sailing venture was at Cave Run Lake in Kentucky. I kept my half-century-old Flying Scot at a big marina, which is posted with many warning signs. One warning, repeated in several spots, forbade swimming from the piers and moored boats because of electrical connections and other dangers.
One evening, the marina was surrounded by police cars, ambulances and emergency dive teams. Despite the warnings, five teenage girls had gone swimming from a moored houseboat. The boat had faulty wiring. Two girls were stunned by shocks from the boat's bottom. One was pulled out and rushed to a hospital -- but the other's body wasn't found until next morning. Her obituary in the Lexington Herald-Leader contained a photo of an attractive youth, little different from my granddaughter.
Adolescence is a time of such delightful promise -- and such unthinking, irresponsible, immature behavior. We senior citizens are baffled by the lack of wisdom in teens.
Just when I'm ready to pass stern judgment, I recall my own adolescence. In high school, my buddies and I learned to make gunpowder from sulfur, saltpeter and charcoal. We concocted homemade bombs that rattled our little West Virginia farm town. One nearly went off beside a bus full of passengers, but the fuse fizzled. Then an old driller died, leaving his stash of dynamite, fuse and caps in my father's barn, and we boys made "firecrackers" that rattled the town twice as bad. To us, it was adventure, fun.
Now, looking back, it seems like insanity. I guess that's what adolescence is -- a time of lunacy that most kids outgrow. Parents should give their children as many serious, earnest warnings as possible -- and parents should double-check with each other, to make sure teens are where they said they would be. But adults can't control every hour when adolescents are out of their sight. They simply must keep their fingers crossed and hope that tragedy doesn't strike.
Here's one more example of youthful chaos: Wednesday morning, the police radio in the Gazette newsroom squawked that a blood-covered youth staggered down a Charleston street and collapsed on a lawn. A few minutes later, an officer reported: False alarm. A 12-year-old boy poured catsup on himself and faked his gory death, to fool the neighborhood.
Adolescence. Just hope that your youngsters get through it safely -- and mourn the few who don't.
X James A. Haught is editor of The Charleston Gazette, Charleston, W.Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.