UNLIKELY HEROES

In late December of 1959, I carefully packed the small black pigskin suitcase with the green satin lining, which my father had loaned me for my trip, with all the cherry bombs, TNTs, dozens of packs of Anchor Brand flashlight crackers and bottle rockets– which I had purchased a month earlier at The Dixie Jungle– and quietly slipped aboard an overnight train from Savannah, Georgia to Sarasota, Florida, alone, to spend New Year’s with my cousin and his family. Not my parents, not the conductor, none of the other passengers, not even the porter, suspected what was in that little black pigskin suitcase.

The next day, my aunt and my cousin Rusty were waiting for me when the train pulled into the station.
I put my other suitcase, the one with my clothes in it, in the trunk of their car and kept the small black one by my side.
As my loving but naïve and unsuspecting aunt pulled out into traffic and gunned the engine toward home, Rusty and I, along with the black suitcase, occupied the backseat. He popped the question.
“Didja bring any firecrackers with you?”
This was the moment I had been waiting for. I had rehearsed the whole scenario in my mind over and over on the long train trip and now it was unfolding in real time. For just an instant I felt important, in control and powerful. I savored the moment.
Rather than respond verbally, I reached down and picked up the small black suitcase from the floor behind the front seat and placed it gingerly on my lap, while deftly placing both thumbs on the dual nickel-plated buttons that released the two nickel-plated clasps holding the suitcase closed.
My cousin edged a bit closer, a look of great anticipation on his 12 year-old face.
Simultaneously, so as to effect maximum impact upon my cousin, and in an effort to impress him, I released the two snaps on the black suitcase and they sprung open with considerable pent-up energy and rattled– or rather vibrated for a split-second against the shiny metal latch mechanism in a most satisfying way.
Then I carefully… and slowly lifted the lid of the suitcase revealing its neatly packed, cellophane-wrapped, colorfully-labeled, dangerous and highly-explosive contents.
I looked up at my cousin’s face.
His eyebrows were raised, and his eyes, ever-widening as his jaw dropped open. A drop of saliva dropped off the tip of his tongue and was quickly absorbed into an amber stripe on his Bermuda shorts.
My aunt drove on, happily-oblivious, as usual, to the dramatic events unfolding around her.
In about a half hour, she turned off the highway onto another road and not long after that, slowed down and turned right at a mailbox and followed a white-sand road that wound back through lush green and orange vegetation ending abruptly at a one story, low-slung ranch style beach house overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
We had arrived.
My uncle was the manager of a nearby resort in Sarasota and had recently rented this hideaway in Siesta Key for himself and his family.
In a few days, amid palmetto trees, a grove of orange trees, an abandoned house and mere steps from the sand at Pont of Rocks Circle, and all alone, with no adult supervision, we would become unlikely heroes,Screen shot 2014-08-22 at 5.05.11 PM and there, amid the smoke, the fire and the loud explosions we would end the 1950’s.

 

The Circle (and Other Stories of an Evaporated Childhood)

After returning home from a month in summer camp in North Carolina, when I was still only twelve, I fell in with a small group of younger kids from down the street. We would all randomly congregate at a small circular park at the end of the block, known as “The Circle”.

On The Circle’s west side was a small, mysterious, but otherwise unremarkable brick building, which I later found out was a “pumping station”—whether for water or sewage, I never knew, although there was plenty of each in my home town.

I found out about 40 years later when they were digging up the street that there were some very large pipes which ran under the street to this building, although I doubt any of us knew it at the time. From time to time, one could hear mysterious whooshing sounds coming from inside the windowless building, too, as if the unoccupied windowless brick building was constructed to obscure some ancient magical waterfall.

There were plenty of big bushes, too, some with little orange berries that were good for throwing at other kids, three or four magnolia trees, at various locations in the park, suitable for climbing, and one open area large enough to get up a game of “half rubber”, a bastardization of baseball involving a solid rubber ball cut in half and a sawed-off old broom handle for a bat. One nice thing about half rubber was that you only needed three players—a pitcher, a batter and a catcher—although an outfielder would have been nice.

There was also an open area on the South side of The Circle which was large enough for tackle football, where there was a small patch of bare earth where the grass had been worn away, mute testimony to the spot where most of the main action had taken place.

“Solomon Park”, as it was known on the maps, was situated on a side street, so there wasn’t much car traffic, which made it an ideal place to play or to circumnavigate on a bicycle.

In those days every kid over the age of five or six had a bicycle, and as far as I knew, was free to roam the neighborhood with no adult supervision, as most kid’s fathers were at work and their mothers were home taking care of smaller children or tending to household responsibilities.

I never once saw an adult in that park.

Anyway, it became a thing that August to see which of us “big kids” could ride his bicycle around the park the most times. It took about two and a half minutes to circle the park on a bike. There were three or four kids aside from myself who showed up there, day after day, at the end of that summer.

Hour upon hot hour, we would ride around and around, each kid keeping track of the number of revolutions he had made.

There were no girls in our group. Boys like us didn’t play with girls. I considered it traitorous.

It was an unusually hot summer that year and a couple of the younger boys had taken to throwing cups of water on us each time we came around. Most kids in those days rode American bicycles with big rubber tires, but I had a red “Rudge”, an English bike with thin tires and two hand brakes.

I had gotten it for Christmas when I was six and been riding it for half of my life at this point.

On days I was not in school, I was allowed to sleep late, and in the summertime, my parents were both at work by the time I woke up. At this time of the morning, the only other person at home was my grandmother, an “invalid”, who by this time of the morning, would have pulled herself up out of bed, using a makeshift “trapeze” of two by fours, sawed-off broom handles and doubled-up clothesline rope my Dad had rigged up for her, and plunked herself down in her wheelchair for another day.

She was like a mother to me and spent her day looking out the window at the birds and squirrels or reading her bible, or making phonecalls for the Calvary Baptist Church or writing letters to her son in Washington, D.C. She talked to “Tweety” and “Pete”, her two parakeets.

My mother told me that parrots and parakeets could “talk”, so I was sure they understood her every word, and one day would answer back, but they never did.

My grandmother, whose name was the same as my own mother’s, had a small black and white television set on a rolling tubular aluminum stand in one corner of the room and she spent her time watching quiz shows like The Price Is Right (with Bill Cullen), where contestants tried to guess the price of common household items without going over the price, or “Kids Say The Darndest Things” with Art Linkletter. She crocheted booties, bonnets and bedspreads for her 8 grandchildren and any others who asked.

It was great for me to have her there all the time, but she was in no condition to ever stop me from going wherever I wanted–and besides, I never asked anyone’s permission, because for the most part, being of an impulsive nature, I never knew where I was going until I was on my bike headed there. My Grandmother never knew where I was or what I was doing when I was out of the house, which was a good deal of the time. And if she had tried to stop me, I would have not listened to her.

Monday, August 31, 1959 dawned hot and the Blue Jays were restless in the magnolia tree outside my bedroom window.

It was my 13th birthday. I got an early start, and was the first one at The Circle that day. I began riding around and around, keeping count of how many revolutions I had made. By the time, I was up to about thirty, I was joined by one or to other kids and then later on, another, and we rode around and around, as the hot morning turned into the hot afternoon.

We rode silently and with determination into the late Georgia Summer.

By two or three o’clock I was up to about 150 revolutions and someone’s little brother who had joined us for a while, but dropped out, was now filling up a waxpaper Dixie cup with little green hearts on it from a neighbor’s garden hose and running over to throw water in the face of any big kid he could.

I was a teenager now, a couple of years older than the other kids and I was determined not to let anyone younger “beat me”. So I kept going, skipping lunch and not bothering to stop to go to the bathroom.

The afternoon came and went, and the sun dropped down warm and orange behind some tall pine trees in the backyard of a nearby house. Most kids had now dropped out or joined the water brigade.

I kept going.

My parents got home from work after 6, but by that time, I was still going strong. I could have kept going until after dark, but 256 times around the park was a record and that was good enough for me. The other kids had all gone home anyway.

There was no one left to impress except myself. There never was.

The next day I showed up again at the park. There were a few kids there already. They asked me how many times I went around. I told them. Someone figured out that I had ridden over 40 miles. I knew at that moment I was ready for an even greater challenge.

I would ride my bicycle to the “Dixie Jungle” in next county, to buy fireworks. It was 17 miles away. I would save my strength and my money for a month or so, and then just get up early one morning and go.

I rode home.

I was a boy with a plan.

That fall, on a sunny day in November, when the air in Georgia is crisp and cool, but not cold, with twelve dollars in my pocket and both of my parents at work and my grandmother in her wheelchair in her bedroom, I got dressed, grabbed an army surplus canvas bag to carry the fireworks in, slung it over the handlebars and slipped unseen and unnoticed, except perhaps by a stray cat out the front door of our house.

I mounted my red bicycle and carefully pedaled west on 51st Street, passing the houses of kids I knew– and kids I didn’t.

I crossed Harmon Street glancing over briefly at Solomon Park, scene of my recent triumph. I crossed Paulsen Street, where my mother always turned right to go to work.

I kept going, passing houses on whose porches I had trick-or-treated or sold Oatmeal Cookies.

I came to Habersham Street. I crossed it and rode on.

Now and then a car would pass or someone would be walking on the sidewalk. I ignored them. They returned the favor. I was invisible now with secrets to confess.

I came to Abercorn Street, a busy street leading downtown with a median in the middle of it. Years later my parents would be involved in a serious automoible accident there following an aborted attempt to flee a hurricane.

But I easily crossed Abercorn and headed West.

It was late Fall, the trees were bare and I could see the water tower at the end of the street at the Neal Blun Lumber Company. I had been down this street many times in past years as it was the shortest route from our house to Highway 17, the main highway to Florida. The main difference, was every other time I had gone this way, I had been in a car with my father driving, and we were on our way to Jacksonville to visit his mother.

This time, however, I was on my bike and all alone.

I came to the end of 51st Street and crossed the railroad tracks. Soon I was peddling past motels and gas stations on the outskirts of town. The sky was blue and I kept thinking about what kind of fireworks I was going to buy when I got to The Dixie Jungle.

I had been there before once or twice with my father. It was basically a gas station and souvenir shop selling soft drinks, chips, candy, and cigarettes, in addition to firecrackers, cherry bombs, TNT’s, Torpedoes, Cracker Balls, Skyrockets, 2-inch salutes and buzz bombs. They also had a really crummy “zoo” out back with a few monkeys, a ratty-looking bobcat, a skunk, a possum, a few bored-looking raccoons, a pony, a few chickens and a goat or two.

For 50 cents, the proprietor would take you on a brief walking tour of his sad collection of chicken-wire cages. The star of the show was “Maude The Singing Jackass,” who was advertised on hand-painted signs for miles in either direction. Maude was tied to the stump of a nearby tree and apparently didn’t feel much like singing the day my Dad took me there.

After another fifteen or twenty minutes I was really out on the highway. It was a two lane paved black asphalt road with one lane in either direction. I stayed over to the right and kept the front tire of my bike a few inches in from the edge. I was going about 15 mph and there was plenty of room for cars to pass. It was the trucks I was worried about.

I kept glancing back over my shoulder about every ten seconds and if there was a truck coming up behind me I would get off the road completely and ride slowly along the grassy median trying to avoid broken bottles or cans and then get back up on the road and continue on. There wasn’t that much traffic in those days, but, nevertheless, I had to do this many times. I passed Mammy’s Kitchen, a Bar-B-Q restaurant off to the side of the road. There was a big colorful painted roadsign of “Mammy” complete with a white bandana on her head and red and white apron. Mammy looked a lot like Aunt Jemima. I pedaled on.

I came to the bend in the road where my father had told me he had once run off the road into a ditch in 1927, when he first came to Savannah. I passed the Wise Owl Potato Chip Sign. It was cut out to the shape of a big owl and stuck up from the center of a large bush. It advised passing motorists to “Get Wise.” It seemed much larger to me now than on the many times I had seen it when my father and I were going to see my grandma in Florida. I got a good look at it. I liked that owl. I fancied that it approved of what I was doing.

At any rate, it was too late to turn back now.

When I got to the abandoned gas station with Donald Duck and Goofy painted on the inside glass window I stopped to rest. This landmark, too, I had seen it many times in the past. This time I noticed that the paintings of Goofy and Donald seemed “off” somehow. I suppose that being an artist, myself, I couldn’t help having a more critical eye than most. I sat by the side of the road and thought about Donald and Goofy and watched the passing cars and trucks for a few minutes. I imagined that Donald and Goofy approved of what I was doing.

Then I got back on my bike for the final leg of the journey.

It wasn’t long before I passed another landmark, The Bamboo Farm, and then I came into a large open area where the road passed through a marshy area. Off in the distance I could see the low open concrete bridge that crossed the Ogeechee River and separated Chatham country from Bryan County and which separated me from fireworks.

I pedaled a bit harder.

Once over the bridge and the black water, I came to a series of road signs advertising The Dixie Jungle and Fireworks.

I was almost there.

In a couple of minutes I pulled up and leaned my bike against the side of the building. It was a quiet at the jungle that day. I swung open a screen door and stepped inside. It was dark and cool and the only light seemed to be from a naked lightbulb hanging from the wooden ceiling near the center of the store. There was a man in the back of the place who noticed me when I came in, but didn’t pay me much mind, so I casually drifted over to the section where they had the fireworks for sale. I was the only customer there at the time. They certainly had a great selection. I tried not to wet myself. It would be difficult to choose between the bewildering assortment of colorful packages all wrapped in cellophane with such labels as Black Cat, Alligator, Zebra, Yankee Boy, Dixie Boy, Anchor, Camel and Cock brand, but I eventually settled on a large package containing 80 packs of Anchor Brand Firecrackers for four dollars.

I brought this up to the man in the back of the store and for good measure and because I still had a few dollars left purchased some bottle rockets and a dozen cherry bombs. Expecting to be arrested at any moment, I handed over the money and he handed me a paper bag full of power and self-respect.

I walked directly out the front door, did not pass go or collect two hundred dollars.

I placed the goodies in the canvas bag, slung it over the handlebars and started for home. I don’t remember much about the trip back, except that I arrived back home, by 1 o’clock in the afternoon.

No one had missed me.

My parents never knew what I had done and I wasn’t about to tell anyone. I went back inside and put the fireworks in a small black suitcase in my bedroom closet, where they stayed until I went to visit my cousin in Florida for New Year’s.

Wasn’t anchor he going to be impressed?

The Wall

opera

By the time I was around 12 years old, I was pretty much known in school as the kid who could draw.

Other guys were always asking me to draw stuff for them–like sports cars or jet planes–or monsters or aliens. I liked the attention it gave me and I savored it for every one of the ten seconds or so that it lasted.

But aside from Hughie, I still didn’t have any friends. And half the time, I wasn’t even sure about him. I don’t blame him, really. After all, he didn’t really need me to pal around with, he had five brothers. And then, as if the deck wasn’t stacked against me enough already, along came “Richard”. He was a kid our age who moved in right next door to Hughie. If Hughie felt like doing something with someone outside of his own family, all he had to do was walk outside and go next door to Richard’s house. His new friend even had my name!

Hank and Harry, the two juvenile delinquents who lived on either side of me, were around 16 years old by then, and way too old for me to be palling around with. I also knew there was zero chance that Hughie would ever call me up and ask me to do anything, especially now that he had Richard. So most of the time, even though it made me feel like a loser, I still went over to Hughie’s, every time I wanted someone to hang out with.

But so did Richard. He was usually already there when I arrived. I started to get the feeling that Hughie couldn’t have cared less one way or the other whether I was over there or not. And I’m sure I was right.

One day, when I was in a pre-emptive mood regarding Richard, I called Hughie up on the telephone and asked him if he wanted to go to the movies. His answer was vague—and left me intellectually and emotionally stymied. He merely said, “I don’t know”. “I don’t know……” It was a simple enough answer, but somehow, I just couldn’t handle it. What could I say? I didn’t know how to respond to him.

So I hung up. 

So most of the time, I just stayed home after school and drew pictures in my room. Mostly on the cardboard “shirt-backs” that came with my father’s freshly-laundered and folded shirts.

Horror movies and science fiction movies were all the rage in those days and both scared and fascinated me.

I had also become somewhat obsessed with a magazine called “Famous Monsters of Filmland”, by Forest J Ackerman. It was mostly reprints of movie stills with pictures of Frankenstein, The Werewolf, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Robbie The Robot from “Forbidden Planet” and others. 

My father worked as a telegrapher for the railroad, and voluminous information concerning the identity of various passenger trains, as well as the arrival, departure and contents of thousands of freight cars would be printed out constantly onto big rolls of yellow paper. When the rolls began to run out the color of the paper would change to pink. That way, the operators knew to change the roll, so all of the information which was being transmitted would be printed by the Teletype machines and the machines would not be tapping away on an empty roll. My father had grown up in a family that had seen hard times come and go and he was not raised to be wasteful. So instead of throwing away perfectly good rolls of pink paper that he had removed from the machines, he’d bring them home to me to draw on. He even showed me how to use a ruler to tear off pieces of paper from the rolls, so that each sheet would have a nice straight edge. Consequently, there was never any shortage of art supplies around the Parker household.

By the time I was 12, all the walls in my room were completely covered with my drawings of monsters on pink paper. It was my first art exhibit. 

One day there was a knock at the door.

Nina, the “maid”, a wonderful woman, whom I loved very much, and who worked for us, and took care of my grandmother, answered the door. Thirty seconds later, she appeared at the door of my bedroom with a somewhat strange look on her face. “Ricky, there are some boys here and they want to see you.” This was the best news I had ever heard up to this point in my life. Finally, not just one boy had come over to play with me, but a whole army of boys were at the door. They marched right in.
I was ecstatic.
My heart was racing. At long last, I would have my own friends. My excitement was somewhat diminished when I realized that they hadn’t exactly come to see me, what they had really come to see was my room and all the drawings on the wall. For a few happy minutes, seven or eight boys from my class were crowded into my bedroom and admiring my drawings of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein and the Mummy, and Lon Chaney as the Wolfman. Then, as the last set of eyes turned from looking at an eyeball dangling from a skull or a stitched up cranium, and turned instead toward the door, I knew it was all over. I realized that not only was I not the subject of their interest, but even my exhibit was only a brief stop along the way to their real destination.
They were headed to Daffin Park to the Kiddie Fair. Someone mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that I was “welcome to join them” and so I excitedly tagged along trying hard to keep up with the leaders up near the front of the pack. I had been to the fair before. It was a small amusement park with rides and cotton candy. Lots of fun, but not nearly as big as the one on the outskirts of town, The Coastal Empire Fair, which was held every October and even had dead babies in jars. No sooner had we arrived at the small fair than our leader, spotted several attractive teenage girls and made a lewd hand gesture in their direction and addressed them in a most shocking and direct way in what I thought was a highly inappropriate manner. I immediately got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Who were these people?
What had I gotten myself into?
I wasn’t ready for this.
As the other boys drifted toward the girls or blended into the big crowd of people at the fair I slowly dropped out, turned around and walked home all by myself, only too happy to return to the comfortable solitude of my lonely room.
And there I stayed– happy, safe and quite secure in my own little world.

 

 

 

A GARDEN HOSE

When I was a little kid six or seven years old, I had a friend who lived around the corner and being an only child whose parents both worked–and like any kid– in constant search of fun and adventure, I frequently ventured over to my friend’s house every chance I could get. He had four or five older brothers and there was ALWAYS something fun happening over there.
 
One day, when I went over there to play, his mother and two of his brothers confronted me in an accusatory manner.
 
“Why did you cut up our garden hose?”
 
It was an odd question. “What–? What are you talking about”,” I responded.
 
His mother said, “But, Ricky, we SAW you do it!”
 
What WAS somewhat troubling is, (although I didn’t share this thought with them at the time) was that I DID have a vague image in my mind of a transparent green garden hose, all coiled up, with air bubbles circulating in an oddly- fascinating way through it. Even now, after all these years, I can easily picture that hose quite clearly in my mind. It was the same hose that we used to stream water across the red tile front porch of their house– to make it slick and slippery. Then we would slide across the porch on the water only to be saved from grievous injury by the ornate iron railings. The question haunts me still. Why would I purposely destroy something which was crucial to such fun? It didn’t make sense!
 
Yet there they were—staring silently at me with their accusing freckled faces, expecting an explanation, waiting for my admission of guilt or some kind of confession. Seconds passed like hours.
 
Thinking back on it, I do recall that when the water was turned on, little air bubbles circulated quickly, ‘round and ‘round in the coiled-up hose, for five or ten seconds before the water came out.
 
But I can’t believe I would have actually showed up at their house with a butcher knife in hand, and then, finding no one home, proceeded to bend down with the knife and cut up their garden hose into little green wet pieces!
 
Yet, I have to admit, there was something really fascinating about those air bubbles and the way they went round and round, faster and faster. Something cosmic almost, something which might unlock answers about the universe. Things a kid like me wanted to understand!
 
Thinking back on it now, through the decades of passing time, it occurs to me, if I HAD done such a thing, why didn’t they call my parents to report the offense? Surely that would have been a logical way to address the problem.
 
Yet, to my knowledge, no call was ever made.
 
True, I did have total free access to the drawer in our kitchen in which the knives and other cooking utensils were kept– and there was nothing stopping me from opening it and going out the back door, through our backyard, across the lane, through the neighbor’s gate, up their driveway, down the street for a hundred feet to the lawn and then getting down on my hands and knees and slowly forcing the dull blade of the knife through the soft green transparent rubber into those beautifully-moving bubbles that were trying to escape.
 
As I think of this, I can still almost feel the resistance at first, as I pressed down– and then, the sudden giving ‘way of the rubber, as the blade cut through to the other side– and cut into the blades of grass underneath.
 
If they were watching me do this, why didn’t they come running out of their house yelling , “What are you DOING?” Why remain inside looking at me through a window and say nothing until the next time I came over to their house– and then confront me– like I was some kind of juvenile delinquent?
 
And where was the hose I supposedly cut up now….? Where was the evidence?
 
Yet, why would they deliberately make up such a preposterous story?
 
Did I really cut up their hose– or was my friend’s mother lying? She had once told me my mother called and asked me to go home. I knew when I heard this that in the unlikely event that my mother had called (she never called me there) she would have expressed her wishes concerning my whereabouts directly to me and not a third party.
 
In every life, many such mysteries remain, unanswered, haunting our minds like unwelcome guests, slowly dimmed by the passage of time and amplifiedScreen shot 2014-08-20 at 2.45.55 PM by the power of imagination.
 
And, about which, we may never know the truth.

Bic Sucks

At least that’s what it said on the stop sign on the southwest corner of 50th Street and Waters Avenue in my neighborhood when I was a kid.
 
I knew who Bic was, I had seen him around. He was a couple of years older than me, and lived in a house nearby, I wasn’t sure which one. Bic was tall and thin with olive-colored skin and wavy brown hair. I remember it was unusually shiny. He had small purple eyes, that darted about restlessly like those of a guilty criminal. I had seen the lettering on the sign for some time before I actually saw Bic. I think he may have been a kid who had recently moved to the neighborhood. None of the kids in my immediate area had ever spoken of him so all I knew about him was what I had read on that stop sign and that was that he “sucked”. I wasn’t sure what “sucks” meant either, but I suspected it wasn’t something to be proud of.
 

I was the type of kid who took things which were written on stop signs very seriously. I interpreted the scrawl as some kind of dire warning from some anonymous kid who knew him to watch out for him, to watch your step around him, not to trust him, to stay away from him. And so I did, for my entire life, except for just this once. 

It was a hot summer evening and craving adventure and excitement, I had gone outside after supper to walk around my neighborhood. It was around eight o’clock in the evening and it was still somewhat light out. I had gotten as far from home as the driveway separating Diane Bailey’s house from Mrs. Pilgrims’ when I chanced upon Bic coming in the opposite direction. No one walked particularly fast in those days. He was wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans and smoking a cigarette. He had a pack rolled up in his sleeve. To my knowledge, he had never seen me before. I think, to him, I was just another kid. He spoke first.

 
“Hey….wanna go shoot off some fireworks….?”
 

I think he knew the answer before he asked the question. That was the kind of question most kids liked. No doubt, I quickly replied in an affirmative manner before he had time to withdraw the invitation. “Okay….” I said. After all, he did say “fireworks”. This alone indicated to me that he probably had more than one firecracker to shoot off. The word did have an “s” on the end of it. I was really hoping he had a whole pack –of 16 firecrackers. That would have meant that I could spend considerable time hanging out with him, time enough perhaps to even establish a friendship. I wasn’t about to hold anything I had read about him on a stop sign against him. I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. The truth is, that even if I had known he was an escaped lunatic from an insane asylum, I would have still gone with him, because he said the magic word, “fireworks”. As I was about to find out, he actually was somewhat of a lunatic. 

I followed him up the block toward my house and we cut across the street and took the shortcut across the vacant lot toward the Soda Shoppe. Then he unexpectedly turned into the alley and went around behind the Soda Shoppe, coincidentally, not far from the very corner with the stop sign where I had first learned of his existence.

 
There was a kind of decorative concrete and red brick gate with a few strands of barbed wire attached to the corner of the building. Someone, probably the building’s owner had discovered that kids were using it to climb up and get onto the roof of the building. I did hear once that someone had broken into the Soda Shoppe through the skylight and taken a bunch of candy and comic books. Obviously the work of a professional. Now that I think of it, It was probably Bic.
 
Suddenly I caught myself following him up onto the red brick gate, past the strands of barbed wire and by holding onto the gutter, I pulled my 78-pound frame up onto the tar roof with my own two hands. Bic walked across the roof of the building and I followed. It was only a one story building with a flat roof. There were a couple of large oak trees planted out front and from the roof you could easily reach up and grab a handful of leaves. The roof toward the front of the building was actually covered with dead leaves.
 
It was pitch dark now and we edged up to the decorative barricade and peered over.
 
While I watched a police car approaching on the street below, Bic lit up another cigarette. Then what happened next surprised me. Bic took out a cherry bomb from his pants pocket lit it, and threw it down at the passing police car below.
 
Its fuse spewed yellow sparks as it bounced off a couple of tree limbs on the way down. There was an embarrassingly loud BOOM, as it exploded with tremendous force directly atop the roof of the passing police car. The underside of the trees and the building across the street were all briefly illuminated by the blast.
 
My immediate thought was, “What have I gotten myself into?” I was sure I would spend the rest of my life in the “juvenile home”. I wondered if Bic would be in the cell with me. He didn’t seem the least bit worried, and as the police car drove around the block with its lights flashing and up and down the block in front of the store, Bic just leaned back against the wall and cooly finished his cigarette.
 
 
I had had enough. I had had more than enough.
 
Bic picWithout saying a word, I crossed the roof by myself, sat down on my butt near the edge, shimmied around, grabbed onto the gutter and lowered myself past the strands of barbed wire onto the red brick gate, dropped onto the ground and disappeared into the rest of my life.

 

A Fistfull of Berries

berries

 

One summer when we were both around nine or ten, my cousin Rusty was spending a couple of weeks with us. He was much stronger and tougher than I was, being of a stockier build and having survived a number of minor drubbings from his much older brother, Robin.

 

It was a typically hot summer afternoon and after lunch, Rusty and I rode our bikes down the street then turned right at the corner and headed aimlessly toward Solomon Park, a small circular park that neighborhood kids often used as a playground.

 

Along one side of this park were some bushes that at this time of the year sported garlands of bright orange berries that were ideal for throwing by the handful at other kids. These berries were hard enough to make it to the target, yet soft enough not to do any permanent damage. We both grabbed a handful and continued to reconnoiter the area.

 

We hadn’t gone too far when we spotted an older kid with red hair and freckles from the next block. I think his name was “Butch” or “Buddy”. I didn’t know him, but I suddenly seemed to recall at that particular moment, that he had been mean to me at some point in the not-too-far-distant past, and, I was feeling quite emboldened by the presence of my cousin from out of town and quickly decided then and there that right now would be the perfect time to avenge whatever slight may or may not have transpired.

 

Perhaps it was the expression on his white, freckled face– or the vague memory of an unkindness, or perhaps it was the color of his hair or his complexion, but something triggered an aggressive impulse within me to let him have a fistful of berries.

 

I let fly– and for a brief second, I was an eyewitness to some of the berries hitting him square in the face while others bounced harmlessly off his chest. I’m not sure if Rusty threw berries at him or not.

 

He immediately started running after us, and naturally, I sped up, rounded the corner and pedaled as hard as I could up 50th Street. I lost track of Rusty and that kid. I think Rusty may have ducked down the lane and headed back toward our house with the kid in pursuit.

 

At any rate, the kid was not running after me. I ditched my bicycle in some bushes and decided to proceed on foot as a diversionary tactic. After all, the kid who had thrown the berries at him was riding a bicycle. As I did so, I imagined him beating the crap out of Rusty somewhere. I knew I would be next. I hadn’t gone very far on foot when I noticed a large cardboard box in the alley next to The Victory Soda Shoppe– the kind of box that a refrigerator or some other large machine had been shipped in.

 

I quickly turned it up and over my head.

 

I was no longer out on the open. I was hiding in a cardboard box! Brilliant! I had a momentary sensation of safety standing there in the darkness out of the hot Georgia sun.

 

Then I realized I couldn’t see anything except my feet when I raised the box to move. For all I knew, Butch—or whatever his name was– could be standing right next to me.

 

Meanwhile, as I found out later, Rusty had made it home, stashed his bicycle next to the Magnolia Tree beside the house, run in the front door, and, breathing heavily, was now peering out the window through the venetian blinds.

 

He told me later, he thought that by now, that I was surely lying dead somewhere. He looked to the left and he looked to the right.

 

Nothing…..

 

No red-headed bully– and no cousin.

 

Then slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, something across the street, to the left of a pine tree started to move.

 

It was a large cardboard box.

 

It seemed to have something– or someone inside. He watched it in fascination. At first, it would move five or six feet then stop and lift up a bit–then move five or six more feet then stop and lift up a bit. It was moving closer and closer to the house.

 

Then suddenly, out from under the box, sprang a skinny kid in short pants and a T shirt.

 

I made a mad dash for the front door and found Rusty safe inside. He looked relieved to see me. He was still breathing hard.

 

We had both survived.

 

Then, for the first time in my young life, I felt that it was just not me all alone against the world.

Sleepwalking to California

 

In the summer of 1955, shortly before I turned nine years old, I was invited to take a cross-country trip with my Aunt and Uncle and my two cousins who lived in Florida. My father and I had been in Jacksonville visiting my grandmother and it was agreed upon that we would rendezvous in Port Saint Jo, in the Florida panhandle and I would join my cousins and their parents as they headed north through Florida and westward toward California.
 
It wasn’t exactly a journey in a covered wagon. It was a journey in a station wagon. A new white 1955 Ford station wagon with a red interior.
 
My Dad and I met them at a picnic area outside Port Saint Jo and I transferred myself and my few belongings to their car. I was equipped with a new sleeping bag, an old camera and a roll of film, a small suitcase with a change of clothes and 8 silver half dollars for spending money. My father wisely suggested that I turn over the coins to my uncle for safekeeping, which I reluctantly did. I gave my Dad a hug and we went our separate ways.
 
My uncle, who was somewhat high-strung, for want of a better term, drove– while my aunt, who was very supportive, although somewhat inept, navigated with the help of some folding maps they had brought along. I was elated to be making such a long journey with my two cousins, who were as near to brothers as I would ever have being an only child– and a somewhat lonely one at that.
 
“Rusty” was my age and very adventurous– and I actually idolized his older brother, “Robin” whose arm was in a sling from a football injury. We drove along for an hour or so and before it got dark, decided to stop and have something to eat. We found a nice spot near a beach and my aunt prepared some hot dogs she had brought along, on a gas-operated Coleman camp stove.
 
After eating, my cousin Rusty and I went down to the beach and skipped stones across the water while my aunt tidied up and my uncle and my older cousin put things back in the car and prepared to continue the trip. We hadn’t gone more than a few yards when the back wheels of the station wagon became stuck in the sand.
 
We all got out to push and as my uncle gunned the engine, which only succeeded in getting the car more deeply mired in the sand. Someone, probably my older cousin, thought to place something under the back wheels to give the car some traction. We looked around and all we could find were some palm fronds, so we gathered up a few armloads of those and placed them in front on the spinning back wheels. Three boys got behind the vehicle and pushed while my aunt encouraged us from alongside.
 
This worked pretty well except that it resulted in my younger cousin being stung by several wasps who had made a nest in the palm fronds. My older cousin, who did not seem so excited to be part of the group, laughed as my aunt attended to him and then we all piled back into the car and drove away.

We drifted west through the Florida panhandle, and as it was now dark and we had had enough adventure for one day, it was decided that we would stop at a motel for the night. The plan was to camp out every other night, alternately staying in motels, hopefully one with a pool and a TV in every room.
 
As we drove along, seemingly lost in the darkness, eventually we came to a little motel in the middle of nowhere with a green neon VACANCY light. While we waited in the car, my uncle went in to get us a room. In a minute or two he came back and said we couldn’t stay there. When we protested that there had been a sign proclaiming VACANCY, my uncle proclaimed that it was a motel for “colored” only. My feeling at the time was that it was probably not a very nice place anyway. We continued along the highway and eventually found another place that looked pretty-much like the first one. This one was for white people.
 
The room had twin beds and my uncle and aunt took one and it was determined that my cousin Rusty and I would take the other while my older cousin, Robin slept in a sleeping bag on the floor. We were all so tired at that point we went to sleep without too much fanfare.
 
In the middle of the night I woke up and had to go to the bathroom.
 
Not wanting to wake anyone, and slightly embarrassed about having to go to the bathroom, I cautiously arose from the bed in the darkness and started feeling my way slowly along the wall in search of the bathroom. I must have bumped into something which perhaps made some kind of sound as my uncle, who was probably a light sleeper, challenged me in a whisper.
 
“Ricky—is that you….?”
 
I didn’t want to say anything, since it was obviously me.
 
He continued, “Ricky—what are you doing…?” I didn’t feel comfortable explaining that I had to go to the bathroom, as that was somewhat embarrassing—so I remained silent. Apparently this was enough to convince my uncle that I was a “sleepwalker”. He carefully got out of bed in the darkness– and, so as not to awaken any of the others, helped me back to my bed.
 
 
I didn’t say a word.
 
 
Early the next morning– as it was now light, I slowly got up, before any of the others, and easily found the bathroom.
 
My uncle was snoring loudly– and to my horror, I noticed that he had an immense erection poking out from the slit in his boxer shorts as he lay there sleeping. It seemed immense to me, anyway. My uncle was a very proper “Victorian” gentleman of the old school, very conservative in manner and dress– and this was a part of him I had never seen before and never wanted to see again.
 
The next night we camped out in a remote, but picturesque wooded location near a fast-flowing stream– but before we all turned in for the night, my uncle took a length of rope and tied it around the army cot I was sleeping on and the other end around one of my ankles, just to make sure I didn’t wander off in the middle of the night.
 
From then on– and for the next month, until they drove me back home after a trip back and forth to California, I was tied to something every time we slept outside.
 
I think what he was really afraid of was having to deal with my mother,palm.fronds if anything happened to me.