I grew up alongside Kevin Arnold of the Wonder Years only without a Jets letter jacket. Those neighborhood landmarks and watershed moments and the guys I ran with, through the streets and adjacent woods just a couple blocks north of Limestone School, are etched in the granite of my adolescent memory. So this section is about my first love and stupid things I did that were never revealed…and it’s about my Mom…who was an anchor of my early life and a beacon for the neighborhood I lived in as a buzz-headed kid growing up in the tumultuous sixties.
While others were ‘turning on, tuning in and dropping out’…I was simply roaming about my neighborhood trying to figure out what life was about. For most of the seven years I attended Limestone School, I called home 3650 Sheridan Road, a split level house my Dad built circa 1963. It was a great house for a kid and a dream neighborhood, rollicking undulating asphalt streets perfect for gravity-induced bicycle rides in summer and frosty downhill sledding in winter. I knew all the guys and girls who lived on my block and we spent our free moments roaming trails in the woods and building forts as shelter in the event of nuclear war. We also pondered the deeper questions of formative minds…whether or not Neil Armstrong had a good view of God while walking on the moon July 20, 1969, (this was after all the dawning of the age of Aquarius) and we had begun to wonder why we no longer felt revulsion around girls.
My first crush and first heartbreak over a girl, was really stupid, because I was seven and she fifteen, and I had no shot at real love. But I was a smitten seven-year old, jealous because the fifteen year old twirler in the high school band loved our other neighbor, Randy. It would happen to me often in the future, but this was the first instance of feeling petty jealousy toward another guy and thinking, “I’m not as attractive as he is, he’s a handsome guy and I’m not.” He was the first pretty boy I knew growing up. His sister, Christy, was the first girl I ever kissed when we happened to find ourselves alone in the firewood box in their backyard with the lid down. We were both five and hadn’t a clue but had seen it done before so why not, right?
My next kiss happened in the sixth grade and the girl lived in the same house, the Ross family had moved to Colorado. And it was under a persimmon tree and felt like eating a persimmon. But I digress. Back to Randy. He was a pretty boy because the beautiful band twirler, Jan, after moving in next door (our three houses formed a triangle) fell madly in love with him. And I hated him, as did my gang of older neighborhood buddies. I recall fondly, Jan baby sitting and I’d sit on the couch leaning against her arm and she’d run her fingers through my hair as we watched Gilligan’s Island. Or I would hang out at her house in the hip upstairs game room with the shag rug listening to “Oh, Sweet Pea, won’t you dance with me, Come on, come on, come on and dance with me!” She had all the coolest records and greatest wall posters. I was deeply infatuated with her. And to the neighborhood guys who were all on the darker side of the greaser versus socially cool kid continuum, it was just another affront to their blue-collar outside-looking-in-life. They never got any breaks, never any sympathy, and the beautiful girls…they were just a distant dream to the guys. So we didn’t like Randy, the pretty boy who stole my girl. Besides, he stunk at sports, which was after all, our measuring stick for pecking order.
Once we were playing tackle football in the Gilchrist’s front yard…their driveway was one end zone and the Ross’ sandstone retaining wall was the other end zone…which sometimes resulted in a touchdown and concussion, cutting short the excessive celebration problem in our neighborhood. You could tell Randy wasn’t an athlete because he had a front shirt pocket which none of the other guys had and in that shirt pocket he had a pencil which none of the other guys had either and he got tackled and slammed to the ground. When he got up, the pencil lead had stuck in his chest and he had a pencil protruding from the meaty upper part of his right breast. New girl moves into the neighborhood, gracefully twirling a baton in a leggy and frilly uniform, blond and beautiful…and the pretty boy with the pencil lead stuck in his chest gets the girl.
Most of the guys in the neighborhood were older than me. I was in my early elementary school years and they were all closer to junior high. So they let me hang with them and I was their little buddy who they looked out for and when they called a backyard football play in the huddle for me and pitched me the ball, they blocked extra hard so I could score. It made me feel like a king and I loved playing ball with them. But like Charles Barkley, they were not always the best role models.
Once when I was six, they told me that dog food was just like human food…just a little dryer…and they dared me to take a bite. I did. It tasted like ground cardboard mixed with dust and bran flakes and with just a hint of vermin hair. I spewed…ran furiously through the back door into the kitchen and drank a jumbo glass of cold water. Then there was the time not long after that episode that the neighborhood boys were all hanging out down in the woods next to the creek. They had a tepid bottle of Coors and were passing it around the circle. When they asked if I wanted to try it, I said, “Sure, it’s got to be better than dog food.” I took the bottle and tipped it up swilling the warm sudsy brew into my mouth, swishing it around. Seriously, I thought they had put dog pee in the bottle and it was another joke. They stomped around laughing at me, but insisted it was real beer and that I better not tell my parents they gave me a drink. So these were the guys I looked up to and hung with when they let me. They weren’t princes, but they loved and included me.
My Mom was the neighborhood counselor, social director and peacemaker. She wanted to reform them all, take them to church, buy them an ice cream cone and tell them Jesus loved them…and that the world is beautiful and they could go to heaven also. They rarely accepted the “come to church” invitation, but always, always accepted the invitation to Cheeseburger Night.
On a Friday night, Mom would drag out the griddle and fry up a dozen cheeseburgers and the guys would infiltrate our home. Don’t remember much about the conversation or games she would have us play inside…we were always itching to get back outside…into the neighborhood night, to play Kick-the-Can or get down in the ditches on either side of the road waiting until a car approached on the black asphalt neighborhood lanes. We’d rise up on either side of the ditch pantomiming opposing gangs pulling an unseen rope in a violent night tug-of-war…our silent struggle bringing the approaching car to a tentative stop. Whereupon both teams would stand up dropping the invisible rope, laughing hilariously at the driver of the car foolish enough to be brought to a halt by an imaginary rope. Then we’d sprint down a side yard, jump a fence and make our way back to our home base.
They were decent individual guys, but as a group became a rowdy and incorrigible wild bunch. So the redemptive act was Cheeseburger Night. It was my Mom’s simple plan to redeem the neighborhood gang. And they all came and ate their fill and they were always welcome in our home. One night after we ate cheeseburgers, the guys meander out onto the front porch and I could hear murmuring among the two oldest, Gene and Charlie. They were going to pummel the pretty boy, Randy. I wasn’t in on the scuttlebutt, but soon realized what was going down. And Randy knew too. His house was three down from ours and he was backing away, walking backward toward his house, eyeing the guys, on the verge of either breaking into a run or crying. I don’t remember what happened after that. It was all a lot of hot air and tough talk I think…Mom may have been wise to proceedings and came out on the front porch shooing everyone home and so Randy got off without getting pummeled. He didn’t do anything wrong, other than get the girl we all wanted.
I remember those times as good ones,even though some things I learned about life were a little on the edge for a young boy. It took a long time to fully understand everything I learned growing up in that neighborhood. Beer really didn’t tempt me…it tasted awful. Girls are soft and smell good and are fun to kiss. Guys when left to their own devices run like pack wolves unfettered by what’s right or wrong. Cheeseburgers taste better when eaten with friends.
We become better people simply by inviting folks into our homes and sharing our lives…and we become better people as we mingle and mix and are carried along in that stream of graceful love even when we swim against that flowing stream. God forgive me for all dumb things I just confessed to…and for all those things I left out. And thanks for giving me a cheeseburger party Mom who loved me with tenacious gentleness, and in an age before helicopter parents hovered in spiraling proximity, gave me the God-trusting space to eat a little dog food and kiss a girl or two, in the neighborhood of my youth. Mom…if you haven’t fainted…I love you.