Colorado Acid Test

The State Trooper threatened me with arrest if I stuck out my thumb again. Hitchhiking, he insisted, was illegal in Colorado, but getting a ride looked doubtful if I didn’t thumb it. Traffic slacked off the farther I got from Denver. Plodding along, arms at my side, I craned my neck to smile at oncoming cars.

I’d dropped out of high school back in Chicago only a few days before and was on my own, traveling to communes I’d only read about in Time-Life magazines. Finally,my smile paid off and a car pulled over.

“Where to man?” Two bearded longhairs in beads, tie-dyed shirts and leather headbands satin the front seat. The pale blond driver looked like Jesus. His black bearded passenger was rugged and bronzed in a jean jacket. I’d been saved by the right people.

“I’m headed to Drop City,” I said as I hopped into the back seat. They looked like they ought to know where it was.

“Far fucking out, man,” Jesus drawled. “We can only take you as far as Colorado Springs.”

Any mileage was welcome, my legs needed a rest. The two dudes in front became engaged in some deep conversation that I didn’t bother following. Their speech was peppered with words like groovy,far out, and they said wow, a lot. Finally, the rugged looking passenger turned to me.

“Here,man,” he passed something to me. “Let me lay a tab of acid on you.” He dropped abright purple circle onto the palm of my hand. Saying no more, he turned back to his front seat conversation.

It was the first tab of acid that I’d ever seen, much less held, but at seventeen years of age I was still trying to prove myself and didn’t want to proclaim my ignorance. I examined it with care, wondering what to do with this treasure.

The tab was flat, like the wafer you got for communion in church. About two inches in diameter, it was a pretty, delicate thing, divided into four parts by indented lines, like slices of a pie. Should I take it or save it? 

I’d smoked my share of grass, with minimal results, but acid-LSD, I knew only from the negative media coverage. The scare propaganda about messed up chromosomes worried me, but scientists said there was no evidence for that. Lots of acid dropping hippies already had what looked like normal kids. Timothy Leary said acid was a gateway into our spiritual depths, a path to self-knowledge. I wanted to explore psychedelics, but later, when I was better prepared for what everyone agreed was a life changing experience. At the moment I was fresh out of high school,traveling alone to explore communes I’d only read about. There was enough going on in my life without taking acid, miles from a familiar face, but I feared this divine gift could dissolve in the moist warmth of my hand or deteriorate in my pocket. It shouldn’t to be lost or wasted.

To hell with caution! I swallowed it whole before I could change my mind. After a few more minutes ticked by the passenger turned back to me again.

“Hey man, did you eat it?”

I shook my head affirmatively.

“How much did you take?”

How much? Of course, that’s why it was divided into sections.

“I took the whole thing, man.”

His jaw dropped, and his eyes popped out like in a cartoon. That told me I’d goofed.

Woooow man! That was a four-way tab. Heavy shit!” He turned to Jesus. “He ate the whole fucking thing, man!”

“Wow!” Jesus shook his head and clucked his tongue.

None of this wowing was doing my peace of mind any good. I had to guard my mind from spiraling into panic. No way could I allow these guys to spook me. Fortunately, I was a meditator, a student of the mystic yoga of India and Tibet. Maybe my spirit guides had led me to this challenge and I was confident I could handle it.

“Hey man,” Jesus called me from my reverie. “Ever take acid before?”

“No, it’s the first time.”

The passenger reached over the seat and clasped my hand. “Welcome to the Wonderland brother!”

When they dropped me off, I’d be on my own, like Alice in a strange new, yet familiar land.

September 1965: Woods Runner

A new boy approached me in the Eighth Grade schoolyard.

“Hi, I’m Paul Ladendorf.” He held out his hand, strangely formal.

“I ain’t seen you before,” I told him. “Are you from around here?”

“I’ve just been kicked out of Holy Ghost.”

That was the Catholic grade school. I never asked how or why he’d been kicked out. Now he joined us in Wood Dale public school. Strange that we’d never run into each other before. He lived right across Salt Creek from me, close by. Most of the boys my age lived a mile and a half away, on the far side of town.

Paul and I hung a rope across Salt Creek, lashed to trees on either side, so we could easily clamber across, even when the creek flooded. In his room he spoke in whispers. “Let me show you something.” He moved a heavy rug, exposing a ragged hole in the floor barely wide enough to pass into. “Come on!” He slid, feet first into a secret chamber. I followed and found a roomy hang-out. It was big enough for four boys to sit in. It was comfortable, with old rugs to lounge on and a stack of comic books, with a few girlie magazines he’d come across in the neighbors’ trash. Paul’s face was stern as he intoned solemn words.

“I’m going to initiate you into our secret society. You must never reveal what I’m about to tell you on pain of death!”

His secret organization was the SSVA. It stood for the “Super Salacious Villains of America.” Such a mouthful. He laughed, breaking his somber demeanor. He then led me out to meet the three Diezel brothers, who lived a few houses down on Potter Street. George was our age. Charlie and Mike a few years older.

“Do you watch the Man From U.N.C.L.E?” George asked me.

“Sure,” I lied. I was vaguely aware of the TV series, but thought it corny.

“Watch it carefully,” he said seriously. “We get secret messages from them.”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking. I kept my own face in character and played along. Together with Paul and now joined by me, we made up the whole of the SSVA. But we were not alone.

“The SSVA is allied with the Woods Runners of the West End Nation,” Paul told me.

“The Woods Runners,” I wondered. “Who are they?”

“Be patient,” Paul shot me a stern look. “You’ll find out soon. We’ll have to test you first, see what you’re made of. Not just anybody can become a Woods Runner.”

***

It was late on a Friday after school and already getting dark. My father had grudgingly given permission for this weekend camping trip that Paul had been raving about. His father called my dad and finally convinced him.

“It’ll be all right,” he told him. “These boys are thirteen now, plenty old enough to handle themselves in the woods.”

Paul’s father pulled onto the shoulder of Church Street. We got out by an open field that I soon discovered had a cemetery at the far end. His father called out. “Sure, you boys don’t need anything else?”

“No, Dad,” Paul answered impatiently, “Just go on! We’ll see you Sunday!”

As soon as his father drove off, Paul’s attitude changed. Haughtily he tossed his backpack at me, which I barely caught while struggling to put on my own.

“Hey, what’s the deal?”

“Shut up, Ron. If you want to be a woods runner you’d damn well better do as I say. No questions! Got it?”

Confused, but suddenly realizing that this was to be a test, my initiation, I nodded.

“Keep up with me!” His voice was gruff and commanding. “Let’s go–goddamn it–get the lead out of your ass!”

He took off running, leaving me no time to somehow sling his pack along with my own over my shoulder. Finally, I had to carry his in front. Struggling with the hopeless load, I ran to catch up.

Paul loped ahead, winding among the headstones. As I ran among them I recognized the Gothic script. This was one of several ancient German cemeteries in the area, but there was no time to read details. Crossing the cemetery was relatively easy. I’d barely caught up as Paul disappeared into the dark shadows of the woods beyond. It was pitch dark inside. He didn’t slow down, but only yelled back at me.

“Double time, idiot! Get a move on!”

What an asshole, I thought, as I blindly crashed through branches. He obviously knew these trails by heart. The roar of his obnoxious voice acted as a beacon for me to home in on. He changed direction several times, crisscrossing onto alternate trails. Sometimes he seemed to forgo the trails altogether. We circled around. I suspected he was deliberately trying to confuse me to see if I was worthy, able to keep up. In total darkness Paul suddenly disappeared altogether. Gasping for breath, I swung around, utterly lost for a moment.

“Up here, idiot,” his voice called from high above.

I looked up, but could see nothing, until I bumped into a large oak.

A rope dropped down as he called to me. “Tie the packs on before you climb up.”

After I did so he hoisted the rope. I waited for him to drop it again for me, but he refused.

“Use the notches on the bark. A woods runner climbs up the bark like a squirrel.”

In the darkness I stumbled over a log at the base of the tree. Stepping on it I felt around, finding shallow notches, worn smooth by use. Unlike Paul, I had a fear of heights, but I was more afraid of being thought a coward. With his demands to hurry ringing in my ears I blindly threw myself up the tree, making it part way up before my hand slipped. Falling, I landed painfully on the log with a bruising thud. My second try ended the same way. I was bruised and scratched, but nothing was broken.

“Goddamn it, Ron, get up here! Prove yourself!”

How had this inept ‘statue of stupidity’ been transformed into my tormentor? He sounded like one of our exasperated teachers, or even my dad. Maddened with pain, angry at Paul, and even at myself for my ineptitude, I attacked again. The third time I was more familiar with where the grips were and made it to a jutting brace that supported a platform. Paul’s voice was inches from me then.

“Climb the braces and swing yourself over,” he demanded.

One brace in each hand, I shimmied up fourty-five degrees away from the tree to the edge of the platform as the braces squealed under my weight. I hoped they would hold my hundred and ten pounds. With a last burst of effort, I swung a leg over the side and hoisted myself over.

As I caught my breath on the gently swaying platform, Paul gripped my shoulder, and then pulled me to him in a bear hug, his attitude suddenly affectionate.

“You’ve made it,” he congratulated me. “Fischer’s Woods is the sacred forest of the West Enders. Only the tested elite can be introduced into these mysteries. Tonight, you have joined the ranks of the immortals, the denizens of the West End Nation. You can be proud and revel in your feat.”

With dramatic flourishes Paul initiated me into the brotherhood of the West End Woods Runners. He’d put me through hell and I’d made the grade. After I’d caught my breath, I repeated the oath after him.

“On pain of death I shall never reveal the secrets, nor the whereabouts of the West End Nation’s tree fort…” I swore to everything, little realizing that the location was hardly a secret in the neighborhood.

After tales of Paul’s daring do, we rolled into our sleeping bags. Rocked by the gentle breezes of the night in our lofty aerie, we fell asleep.

***

Chirping birds heralded the morning. Eagerly, I gazed out over my green surroundings, which I could see clearly at last. We were about fifteen feet off the ground on a large platform. Walls on three sides shielded two decks that could easily sleep four boys, two on either side of the tree at each level. A sloping shingled roof gave protection from rain. A six-pointed red and green star in the logo, “Tree Dwellers” decorated the south side. “Give up hope all ye who enter here,” was inscribed prominently on a panel within. I’d read that somewhere before.

Paul sat up and followed my gaze. “It’s from Dante’s Inferno; the sign over the gates of Hell. Pretty neat, huh?”

The quiet was shattered by a far-off cry.

“OOODIN! OOOODIN!”

Paul cupped his hands to his mouth and replied. “OOOODIN!”

It was the name of the Northman’s great God, Odin, used as a war cry in the Vikings movie. A figure soon appeared in the small clearing below, wearing khaki shorts and barefoot, he adeptly climbed the bark to join us, bringing a sack of bologna sandwiches for our morning repast.

I was introduced to this “Bugly,” whose Christian name was Steve. He was a member of the large DalCerro family that comprised more than half of the West Enders. They were the Gatekeepers, living on the edge of these woods at the dead end of West Avenue.

Bugly was soon followed by his brothers. As there wasn’t enough room in the tree, we climbed down to the fire pit by the log at the base. I was introduced to each as they appeared. Chris, bare-chested in jeans and bearing a machete on his shoulder, was always busy constructing rope bridges, damming small streams and of course, devising defensive booby traps to dissuade the unwary trespasser.

Mike, called Hippie since long before there were any, in tee shirt and shorts, was the artist. His focus was dramatic Spiderman and Tarzan pictorials.

Then the younger brothers came. Patrick, the reliable, who grimly obeyed the orders of his elder brothers, as if a junior officer in their Army. Patrick was tasked with keeping the younger kids out of our way. He was aided in this by his equally steadfast older sister Mary. Their charges were Joey; the precocious and wayward boy; Teddy, little William and sister Eva.

The Fichter boys came next. Mike, Toney and Bubba lived a few doors down on West Avenue. Their two sisters did not join us. Talking with each, or all at once, became chaotic. Through multiple voices I gradually absorbed West End lore. One thing stood out. Like Paul and the SSVA, the boys peppered their speech with archaic idioms they’d found in the Sci-fi and Adventure books they devoured.

“Patrick!” Chris peremptorily ordered. “Get these little kids out of here.”

Patrick snapped to it. He could be counted on to perform errands and to watch over the antics of the smaller siblings.

There was an older, almost mythical brother, Ricky. He was a remote figure, busy with the onerous demands of high school. It had been Ricky, they explained, along with his equally legendary chums, who had built this well engineered tree fort and founded the West End. Its ideals lived on in the minds of his younger siblings.

The DalCerro brothers operated under a chain of command by birth order. Nature was sacred; the woods must be protected from developers and vandals. Tarzan, especially as depicted in the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which they re-read often, was a figure they emulated.

“Johnny Weissmuller lives in Elk Grove Village, north of here,” Bugly asserted. “My brother met him once.”

Johnny Weissmuller, I well knew, was the actor who played Tarzan in many pre-color films. We practiced his blood curdling yell. It reverberated in the woodlands.

“Are you ready to see more?” Chris asked and without waiting for an answer, led the way, climbing up the bark and then hauling himself out the upper window and over the roof.

We climbed higher into the tree, which was one of the tallest in Fischer’s Woods. I’d never climbed so high. I firmly gripped each branch to avoid vertigo. My cautious pace up the swaying trunk caused Chris to badger me. “Come on, catch up.”

We reached a small platform, barely large enough for Chris and me to sit on. The sight took my breath away. We floated over the green carpeted forest beneath a baby-blue sky.

“Look over there,” said Chris, pointing east. “It’s still a little hazy, but on a clear day you can see the new John Hancock building.”

“Oh, yeah? I can barely make it out.” It was the odd, wide at the base building, twenty miles away in downtown Chicago. “How high are we?”

“Exactly 80 feet off the ground. I measured it by dropping a rope. The same one we used to make that catwalk.” He pointed to the V shaped rope bridge attached to an end of the platform. It offered a single rope to walk on and two, on either side, for handholds. “My brother Joey fell from there. His fall was broken by so many branches that he landed on his feet, undamaged, like a cat.”

The way he said that was so matter-of-fact, like it had no special significance, but it sent a chill up my spine.

“I tied myself on this deck and rode out a thunderstorm once,” boasted Chris. “The naturalist, John Muir, did that a hundred years ago. He’s one of my heroes. Believe me, it was a hell of a ride.”

Chris seemed fearless. I wondered if, like Paul, he too had an Achilles’ heel. We surveyed the canopy of trees below in silence. Despite my visceral fear I too wanted to experience a thunderstorm up there. This club of forest folk promised me adventure. As Paul would say, I was among the immortals. I wanted to belong. As if reading my mind, Chris spoke gravely.

“Ron, you are now a Woods Runner.  That’s our translation of coueur de bois. They were the renegade French Voyageurs who lived with the Indians before the English and Americans took this land.” He grew pensive. “My mom’s side is French Canadian; I think we are their descendants.”

“Me too,” I told him. “My grandfather says we are part French Canadian Indian.”

“Come on,” Chris said. “Follow me across to the other tree.”

Each step we took on the thick rope caused it to sway and bounce. Exhilaration mixed with terror chilled me as we crossed the fifty-foot span. Reaching the far tree, we clambered down to the ground. Then he led me on a tour of the woods.

“This is the swamp we call Green Death.” Chris said as he led the way into the murky green, algae covered water.

The trunks of a few long dead trees, like white skeletons, rose up before us. Holding our shoes, we waded barefoot across the water. It rose past our knees, as Chris inundated me with facts of this, his cherished domain.

“Fischer’s Woods is over eighty square acres. It’s a natural sponge, absorbing the rain’s run-off.” A cynical sneer crossed his face as he looked at me. “The developers want to build a subdivision here. Can you believe it? Stupid humans are ruining our world.”

We reached the far side and sat down to put on our shoes as Chris continued. “The good news is that some naturalist from the University of Chicago came through here. He says this place should be protected. Building here would increase the flooding in the area. He also found rare native plants here. It’s up to us to save our woods.”

To the north the woods ended in a long swamp that girded the edge of civilization. Several muskrat dens made of reeds broke the surface of the water. We passed through on a raised path to a road, where I saw a street sign, “White Pine.” It ran along the northern edge of their realm.

Chris struck me as a kindred soul. He was exactly one day older than I was, born in March 1952. Like me, he was an avid consumer of the news. We had come to respect the Viet Cong’s People’s War  that was taking on the American colossus. They had guts and were fighting for their own country, like we did in 1776. Our United States, we decided, had turned its back on our founding principles of equality and human rights. It would be patriotic to oppose it.

It had been an amazing weekend and I wanted more of it. The guys at the “End” felt like family. Belonging to the West End, even as a peripheral member, gave me the sense of belonging I sorely needed. I didn’t feel that sense of fitting in among my classmates in Wood Dale. The West End was in a different school district. They would attend Addison Trail High School rather than Fenton, where I was bound. With chores and homework taking up so much of my time after school and on the weekends, I had to carefully plan each arduous trek there and back, making my visits infrequent during the school year.

West Avenue was a stub of a street. A residential road only two blocks long, coming off the busy Grand Avenue from Chicago. We were at the southern edge of Bensenville. The town of Elmhurst began at the cornfield on the other side of Grand. Grand Avenue dead-ended a couple blocks beyond, where it joined Lake Street. This, with Fischer’s Woods to the north, was the neighborhood of West End Nation.

Along the Ouachita River

Friday, May 19, 1967. Outside Monroe Louisiana 

I jumped up, psyched for the new day. Surely the mysterious bayous were nearby. I began trekking along State Route 165, ever deeper into Dixieland. Trees shrouded the bends of the Ouachita River, off to my right. A railroad embankment ran along my left. According to a sign it was eighteen miles to Logtown, then another eight miles to a town called Bosco.

Bosco? Surely it wasn’t named after the chocolate syrup. That was the brand my grandmother used to buy me. It had a re-usable clown’s head dispenser that screwed on the jar. You took off the red hat to pour chocolate syrup out of his pointy head. Thinking of my grandparents sent a wave of sadness through me. I knew they were probably worried sick. That was not my intention, but it couldn’t be helped. When I was settled, employed, I would write them and let them know I was alright.

Looking for the bayous, I veered off on a gravel road that ran parallel to the main drag. After a mile or two it crossed back to the highway. Expansive white fields spread out to either side of me. Was this cotton?

Groups of black men and women, boys and girls, gathered in front of dilapidated shacks. They looked like ragamuffins, shabbily dressed in patched and mismatched clothing. It was a scene out of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Birth of a Nation. They appeared to be laborers awaiting rides to jobs in the fields. A pick-up truck full of similarly dressed youths drove by. They waved and jeered at the others waiting their turn.

A sign announced the hamlet of Logtown. I saw a large general store facing the road. It was dilapidated, unpainted wood with a tarpaper roof. A short line of similarly unkempt small houses stretched along the side of the road. The black boys gathered by the store began catcalling, mocking me.

“Hey white boy, where ya’all go-en?”

Y’all from the Nawth, white boy?”

“Oh, he’s a runnen away. Yankee boy, yo runnen?”

“Yooohooo! White boy’s runnen away! Come back heea white boy!”

They burst out laughing as I hurried along. These hecklers might blow my cover. How did they know I was a Yankee? I tried to appear calm. If they knew they were getting to me they would keep it up. It must not be the most ordinary thing for a lone white boy to be ambling along this rural road in the land of cotton.

If I asked one of these kids, would he help me? To them I was just a strange white boy. I had been crazy to get off in Monroe, looking for mythical swamps.

A big Continental Trailways bus whooshed by. I needed to be back on board a bus to New Orleans. Could I catch the bus in the next town? I counted the mile markers along the road. There was a lonely church by number 72. Beyond that a large sign announced the town of Bosco. It was nothing like Logtown.

The neat, white painted general store sat on my right. It was a much larger, better kept and a more substantial store than Logtown boasted. This hamlet seemed to be composed of just this one large building. Some tin roofs glimmered in the sun farther away across the green fields towards the river.

All the faces I saw there were white and seemed securely middle class. There was no row of dilapidated shacks.

An old white man was sitting on the veranda of the store with his chair propped back against the wall. It looked just like Mayberry USA. He hailed me with a kindly voice.

Ya’all just missed the bus, son, won’t be ‘nothan by he-ah fo ‘anotha ouah.”

I stepped up on the porch. “Does the bus go all the way to New Orleans?”

“That there bus goen ta Nawlens.” He drawled his intonation evenly, leaving me unsure if he meant “New Orleans” or some place actually called “Nawlens.”

I asked again. What I got was more of the same. His accent was stronger than movie actor’s drawls I’d heard.

“Where ya’all from, boy?”

This old man’s affable face and manner were so open. He seemed to be just making conversation, however I was wary. I could never fool him into thinking I was a local, so I admitted to being from the “Nawth.” I made up a story about traveling down to see an aunt in New Orleans.

“Well, I’ll be,” he drawled. “What ya’all doing traipsing through this backcountry?”

A good question. I stretched for a logical explanation.

“I got tired of riding the bus and thought I’d save some money if I hiked a few miles.

Reeeeeally?”

“Yeah, really!” I stuck to my story. Then I admitted that I’d walked all the way from Monroe.

Mon-row?” He echoed incredulously. “Did’ja walk all the way down he-ah from Mon-row?”

I broke off our conversation to step into the store. A pretty, dark haired woman in her mid twenties worked behind the counter. I bought some oatmeal cookies and a pint of milk. After stepping back outside, I poured one of my instant breakfasts in the carton and shook it up. The loquacious old man informed me that the owner of the store was also the sheriff.

Thas him thea now,” the old man announced as a white station wagon pulled up.

I swallowed a wave of panic. I wondered whether he would turn me in to the sheriff. There was nowhere to run.

The sheriff got out of the car and I did a double-take. He was the spitting image of Andy Griffith of Mayberry, right down to his full head of wavy hair. His demeanor was just as cheerfully relaxed and non-threatening as that TV icon. My fear vanished in relief. Andy Griffith was too humane to fear. He waved and exchanged a few pleasantries with the old man before stepping inside to chat with the pretty woman. The old man told me she was the sheriff’s wife.

Feeling braver I stepped back inside to do a little people watching. No doubt about it, I was in a mini Mayberry USA. It appeared to be a place where people gave each other respect and acceptance. I didn’t press my luck, however, and kept a discrete distance.

Some of the black kids who’d jeered me earlier came riding up in the back of pick up trucks. Two of the younger kids stopped in for a coke. My circumstances didn’t permit me to pry deeply into the relationships of black and white. It seemed a segregated society beyond economic interactions. Back on the porch the old man nudged me.

“That bus be comen pretty soon, ya’all betta get up by the road.”

It came, barreling along, not slowing down as I faced it. The old man yelled out.

Ya’all betta raise yer hand or sump-tin, show ya want that ride or he gone!”

The bus was almost abreast of me when I jumped up and down, arms flailing. It took the length of a football field for the bus to screech to a halt and I ran for it.

Coach Camp’s Health Class

Ever since we were in junior high, boys and girls went to separate gym classes. Our rough and tumble gym class took on the character of a boy’s club, complete with more open profanity than before. In high school, we now had gym uniforms, shorts and a tee shirt, emblazoned with a Bison, the school mascot. We also had lockers and took showers before changing back into our street clothes for the next class.

I was in Mr. Richard Camp’s Gym class. For a few weeks he taught us Health, which was a euphemism for Sex Ed. It was in a classroom; we didn’t have to change into gym shorts or shower afterwards.

Coach Camp was muscular and trim, a man’s man. He relished telling us tales of his glory days, serving in the Marines in Korea and Japan.

“We hung chains under our chopper and flew low over the tall grass, flushing out whole flocks of pheasants. As they flew up we machine-gunned them. It was excellent gunnery practice for the guys. You can bet we had a great time over there.”

How, I wondered, could he brag about massacring birds. It sounded so selfish; they didn’t gather them to eat. He rambled on.

“Older Korean men wore these hats; resembling Abe Lincoln’s only smaller. As we flew up on an unsuspecting fellow, the guys took bets on who could make the shot.” Camp’s audience of fourteen year old boys was rapt, eager to hear what came next. “A single, lucky shot took off the old man’s hat. The fellow looked around a moment, wondering where the hell his hat went, before scampering away. We had a good laugh over that. God, I miss the fun we had in Korea.”

Mr. Camp was just warming us up. I couldn’t imagine any of my other teachers in escapades like these. He finally got to the sex part of class. Briefly, he went over the bare bones, mapping the body parts and changes in the male and female bodies that we were all experiencing to one degree or another. It was academic and I’d heard it all before from my mother. When he got to the meat of the matter my ears picked up.

“Now you boys have to be careful not to get a girl pregnant. There are plenty of things you can do to get your fun, without shooting off in her pussy. We’ll call it a vagina here!”

Embarrassed laughter rippled through the room.

“Wear a rubber, a condom, for god sakes. You may think you’re in love, but you boys don’t want to be saddled with a squalling kid just yet.”

The class answered with a resounding “No!” it was expected of us.

“If your girlfriend keeps putting you off, won’t let you make it to third base, then, all of a sudden one day, she’s hot to trot, begging you for it. Stop right there and run!”

He paused for dramatic effect, looking around the room, especially at his favorite students, his star athletes on the football team. We were all hanging on his every word.

“Why stop, you may ask. Because that’s the worst time!  Your girl is ovulating. She’s in heat, her body is telling her she needs to get pregnant-now. So you stick it anywhere but in her vagina. Got me?”

Coach Camp was no prude.  He knew guys needed to get laid; they only had to be careful about it. His stories kept coming, personalizing and illustrating the subject. He knew he was making our mouths water.

“It’s a damn shame that prostitution is illegal in this country, because that could save you boys a lot of trouble and grief. It’s legal in some countries, like Japan, where I had the best sex of my life. We spent our leaves in the Red Light district when I was stationed there. The Mama-san was my best friend; we’d bring her booze and chocolates and party away our whole time off base.”

Camp told one wild story with particular relish.

“We had a buddy in my unit with the biggest dick I ever saw on a white man. He was a simple minded hillbilly and didn’t go in for foreplay. He just rammed it into the poor girl like there was no tomorrow. The girls were not happy with him, so Mama-san and I decided we’d teach him a valuable lesson. I asked her to find the tightest girl in the district. She found one as tight as a virgin and we all chipped in, paid her extra, so we’d pull a surprise birthday party on ‘ol Big Dick.

“The walls in Japan are made of paper. We had his lovely present waiting for him, spread-eagled out on the futon, while the Mama-san waited with the rest of her girls and us on the other side of the paper wall. We had all we could do to keep from laughing out loud as Big Dick came in, yanked off his pants with the biggest hard-on you ever saw. From the far end of the room he charged at the girl, like a raging bull, but when he plowed into her he let out the biggest scream I ever heard.

“We punched through the paper wall—surprise! He was doubled over, screaming in pain. There was blood everywhere, but it wasn’t from the girl. She wasn’t exactly laughing, no, but she was in on it. He’d split his cock wide open trying to ram it into her. We all had a good laugh at that dumb hillbilly, but took him a week to laugh with us. We’d brought along our medic and drunk as he was, he got into the spirit of our prank. It took all the bandages he had with him to wrap Big Dick’s cock until it was as big as a cantaloupe. We couldn’t zipper his pants, had to leave that monster sticking out, for the entire world to see.

“You can imagine what he looked like next morning at roll call, standing there with this huge white turban sticking out of his pants.” Coach Camp slapped his thigh and the whole room cracked up.

Coach Camp was like a character from one of my books. I both loved and hated him; he was never boring. His bragging about massacring birds, or shooting the hats off Korean men, disgusted me, but I was thrilled by his whorehouse tales. I’d decided that’s where I belonged, in a joyful, rollicking whorehouse, exactly like he described.

September 1966: Lorelei Parts One and Two

Cynthia invited me to a summer’s end party after school began. It was after my usual curfew, so I snuck out of my bedroom window and ran across town. Most of the kids were unknown to me. Several of the junior high girls were exceptionally alluring. We congregated in the basement. For once the adults let us be, staying out of our way upstairs.

One of the older guys, a junior in high school, surreptitiously pulled out a flask of hard stuff to everyone’s delight. We mixed it with our soda, enough for those of us brave enough to get a little buzz. Then we sat in a circle on the concrete floor.

“Let’s play spin the bottle,” the guy who brought the booze suggested. No one objected. I’d never done that before and was excited. He put his now empty flask in the middle of the circle and spun it. When it pointed to another guy, he laughed. “Ok, I’ll spin it again.”

When it landed on a girl, they went into a dark closet.

Someone shouted, “Your time is up in two minutes!”

Someone else added, “You don’t have to do anything if you don’t like each other, but you have to stay there the full two minutes.”

After two and a half minutes, we banged on the door and ordered them out. They were flush-faced and still hanging onto each other.

The next to spin followed, clockwise, until it was my turn. Great luck, my spin landed on this girl that I’d been watching. I had never seen her before. Her long, brown hair framed a pretty, yet serious face. She was about five-six with breasts that were beginning to swell enticingly.

We took our turn in the hallowed closet. There was just enough light filtering in for me to admire her features. I put my arms around and lined her up. Although I was not entirely a novice kisser, I didn’t want to blow it with this one.

“Wait,” she put her hand on my lips. “What’s your name? Mine is Lorelei.”

“I’m Ron. Lorelei is a pretty name, is it French?”

“My Dad says it’s German.” She stared at me a moment, a strange look in her eyes, making me wonder if she wanted to back out of this, but then she smiled. “Okay, Ron, let’s do this.”

My heart raced. I hoped to not make a fool of myself. Should I keep my eyes open, or closed? I took my cue from her. Her eyes were still open, staring at me in the half light as our lips met. We were restrained at first. She began to nibble my lips, a good sign. My mind was on fire.

Should I open my mouth? I went for it, she did too. Then I slowly stuck my tongue in and she wiggled hers, mixing her wetness with mine. It sent shivers through both of us. I hugged her tighter, feeling the enchanting swell of her breasts through our clothes. We continued fencing our tongues, tasting the Coke-whiskey sweetness in each other‘s mouth.

Too soon they were banging on our door. “Come on you guys, it’s been almost three minutes already!”

I didn’t feel like re-joining the group. “Let’s sit over there and talk,” I said, pointing to an old sofa in the corner of the basement.

Lorelei nodded, took my hand and led the way. Just sitting beside her, holding hands and yes, more kissing, thrilled me. An express train was charging through my brain, but my head cleared enough to remember how important it was to compliment a girl.

“You’re so pretty.”

She giggled.

“I mean it. You’re really pretty.”

“You look good to me too.”

A year younger than I was, she had a serious face that smiled warmly. With her dark brown eyes, she bore into me, as if drilling for my soul. Let her tear into me, I decided. I would rip out my heart if it pleased her.

We talked, words spilled out of me as if a dam had burst. I told her my closely guarded secrets, about my desire to run away, get away from this town. I would reinvent myself in some exotic location and live a life of adventure. She seemed interested, maybe she would join me. I gushed on about politics, how we needed to change the country. Civil Rights, the War in Vietnam, all the hot button issues I addressed and she didn’t object. Her eyes remained fixed on me, drinking me in, convincing me that she understood and agreed, or at least respected the wisdom of everything I had to say.

It was time to go, but I couldn’t let her slip through my fingers.

“I have to see you again. Where can I meet you?”

She smiled wide and slyly, so sexy that she took my breath away.

“I usually hang out with my friends in front of school. See me there on Monday.”

We had a date. I snuck back through my bedroom window before anyone woke up and tried to sleep. School wasn’t something I usually looked forward to, but I was impatient for the rest of the weekend to pass. When Monday’s class finished, I’d hold that enchanting girl in my arms again. That much seemed certain.

 

Four o’clock on a Monday Afternoon

After school I ran along the tracks to Wood Dale Road, then north to Highland, my old alma mater. I was brimming with anticipation for this newfound girl, the brightest shining beacon of hope in my miserable life. Lorelei understood me. With her I looked forward to shared happiness, not here in Wood Dale, that could never be, but as far away as we could get.

There were several kids standing close together by the road. I didn’t see Lorelei. Maybe she was delayed.

“Who you looking for?” A big Mexican boy at the far edge of the group asked me.

“I’m waiting for Lorelei. Do you know her?”

The whole group burst into laughter. I wondered what was so funny. They spread out and the Mexican boy opened his long jacket, revealing someone hiding within. It was Lorelei, her small frame in the boy’s tight embrace. Some joke. I hadn’t anticipated finding her that way.

“Well, you found me.” She sounded deadpan, not as thrilled to see me as I’d expected.

She seemed to eye me coldly. I thought her smile looked mocking, challenging. What was I to make of how I had found this girl who’d enchanted me? Were his advances unwanted? She wasn’t struggling, made no attempt to break away from the guy. His arms draped possessively over her shoulders from behind. She gripped his hand in hers, as if she’d long claimed him as her steady. His eyes met mine haughtily, as if to say I had no business being there. My preconceptions fell away; I had no idea how to respond.

A moment passed in which I only stared, dumbfounded and said nothing. It seemed I had been set up to be mocked, by my beloved Lorelei. It had been a tough week of school already, now this. Everything I’d gone through piled up to this big letdown, eroding my self-confidence, leaving me in Paranoia’s choking grip. Had Lorelei been intending to humiliate me in front of her friends from the beginning? I had to salvage some pride.

Masking my shock and confusion with a hard face, I straightened my back and made an about face with stiff military precision, exactly as taught by Mr. Gatto. Without looking behind me, I marched back the way I’d come. I had to be a disciplined soldier. I couldn’t let anyone, even a failed love, destroy me. My future, I told myself, lay beyond the narrow confines of this town and spoiled girls. If I was to have love, or at least soul-satisfying lust, it would be out in the larger world.

Next spring I would launch myself into that world. There could be no turning back.

15 and on the Lam

15 May, 1967

 Morning dawned bright and clear. My own personal D-day had finally arrived. My emotions were a bittersweet mix, equal parts relief and guilt. My conflicted feelings churned inside of me. I had to put a lid on it, pretend that everything was normal.

I‘d gotten up early, breakfasted and dressed for school. Although in expectation of a warm day, I was wearing three long sleeved shirts, layered over each other, and an equal number of pants.

In my room, I’d put the finishing touches on a farewell note to my parents that said little. What could I say? Only that I was leaving home. I tried to make it clear that it wasn’t their fault.

“I’ll be fine,” I wrote, “Don’t worry about me. I just have to get out on my own.” I didn’t sling any blame. They were difficult to live with, sure, but they couldn’t help it. I felt they were products of this soul-killing society. I needed to escape their fate. I didn’t want to grow up like them, but I didn’t want to be cruel. I needed fresh air, to escape from the confinement of my home and this constricting neighborhood.

“I promise to write you how I am doing when I have the chance.” My words sounded stiff, even to me, but I knew I had to keep it short and to the point. I slipped the note into the top drawer of my dresser, right on top of my underwear. My mother should find it later when she put away my laundry.

I walked through the kitchen to the back door as if it were a normal day, where I froze in panic. Dad was speaking to Mom in the living room. He was usually gone to work by that time of the morning. There was a weary, worried, tone to his voice. Their intense, but hushed, discussion may have gone on throughout the night. Did they suspect that I was up to something, or was it just their relationship on the rocks?

I stood there a moment, poised to open the backdoor and step out into the larger world, straining to make sense of what I heard. Finally, I decided my parent’s conversation had more to do with their on-going marital problems, rather than any suspicion of my leaving.

My father seemed to have no clue as how to win over my mom. I felt sorry for them both. Although my sympathy laid more with mom, her bitter sarcasm and steady drinking didn’t seem like the best coping mechanism. They were both trapped in a tar pit that they only dug into more deeply.

I walked out of the house carrying only my sack lunch. My books were all sitting in my locker in school. I had not bothered doing any of my homework last night. That terror was ended.

Cutting through the vacant lot next door, I stooped to retrieve my gym bag from the undergrowth. Last night I‘d stashed it there along the path. I didn’t want my family to see me carrying it from the house. This bushy field was all that was left of the once extensive prairie that had surrounded our newly built house. I had watched our home being built in 1955, when I was three years old. As my mother and I picnicked under the quince tree in the long grass, we watched my father work. The land was an Eden then, a place of flowers and butterflies, so different from the cramped Chicago apartment we‘d left. My parents had been living with my Mom’s parents when they first married.

The woods and fields had been my refuge in my early years, but they were mostly gone now. The neighborhood had changed; it was filling up with people who cared nothing for the natural environment and screamed at us ‘damn kids’ who cut across their manicured lawns. The homes that had replaced my living woods seemed like mausoleums. They were inhabited by un-neighborly neighbors who remained strangers to each other. Society was a series of private families, hermetically sealed off from each other.

Cutting diagonally through the field to Addison Road, I legged it to the intersection where Addison ended at Irving Park Road. Irving Park was a busy, east-west, commuter highway during morning rush hour. The gas station at the corner was where I caught the school bus. Not today. There was no traffic light, no crosswalk. I took my chance and ran for it across Irving. It was early enough that none of the other school bus riders were there to see me.

I hopped over the half-fallen barbed wire fence and ran across the field of young corn to the railroad tracks beyond. This was one of the last working farms in town. We were rapidly losing our open spaces to development. They were taking the woods out of Wood Dale, which was turning into just another commuter suburb of Chicago.

Reaching the railroad tracks, I turned right and found comfort in my first objective: the tree-shrouded railroad trestle over Salt Creek. It was peaceful, surrounded by whispering willows that protected me from view. I sat, smelling the spring blossoms and listening to the creek gurgling around a line of rocks. I’d often hopped across the creek from one rock to the other, but the spring showers had raised the water level. Crossing would be a damper experience than I needed.

I leaned back against the concrete embankment and gazed into the woods to the north, my back to the busy hubbub of Irving Park. The slowly crawling traffic made me fearful that the drivers would be more attentive to whatever they saw along the way. That could mean trouble.

I had far to go. I’d left false clues behind to throw them off. The World War escape literature I’d read advised exercising patience in making a getaway through enemy country. That’s what this was to me: enemy country. Like a prisoner on the lam, I would lie low during daylight. Seeing a kid, like me, out of school would arouse suspicion. A watchful housewife could make a call to the Truancy officers.

Meanwhile, I need to get as much rest as I could to help pass the time and keep my mind calm, my anxiety in check. That was the key, keeping cool. Breathing exercises helped. I must not appear to be a fugitive.

By this time I should be boarding my school bus. Soon it would be roll call in my first class and I‘d be marked tardy. Then, an hour later, I’d be absent in my second class, but as I’d often cut these classes, it might take a while for the alarm bells to go off and my mother to be phoned.

Mother wouldn’t find the note I left until late afternoon. She’d get a call from the school first. I felt terrible about the anxiety this would cause her, but I couldn’t help it. Some things had to be done regardless of the consequences.

It was getting hotter. I removed the extra clothes I wore and tried to cram them inside my already bursting gym bag. The seams of the cheap, plastic bag were already starting to fray. My gym bag was jammed full to bursting with supplies: A few changes of underwear, a wind-up alarm clock, two pocket knives, ten small cans of Sterno, which I’d pilfered from the restaurant I’d worked at and more than ten packets of Carnation Instant Breakfasts.

The last item took up most of the space in my small bag. As I used them up along the way I’d eventually have room for the extra clothes I wore.

I rifled through my gear, weighing the value of each item. I folded my brand new pair of white pants carefully and left them on the concrete side of the trestle, hoping some wondering hobo would find them.

I didn’t carry water. No liquid to quench my thirst. My training regimen had toughened me to where I knew I could go over twenty-four hours before needing a drink. In this cool weather I wouldn’t sweat too much. By the second day I’d be far enough out to venture into a store for milk for my Instant Breakfasts. I’d tried drinking them with cold water. Yuck, that wouldn’t work except in a dire emergency. If need be I could look for an outside water tap.

As the morning rush hour died down, I began walking west along the railroad tracks. They were parallel, but some distance from the highway and most houses. With studied nonchalance I strolled out of Wood Dale and through Itasca. My heart raced as I crossed the still busy Route 53, desperately hoping not to arouse the interest of passing patrolmen. I made it through the hamlet of Medina to Roselle.

At first I was hidden from a clear view of the road. Gradually the road angled closer and the trees thinned. I felt naked, walking in plain sight. Could they tell my age as they cruised by? I needed to appear insignificant, invisible. What should I do if a cop pulled over? Run or brazen it out?

Just beyond Roselle, after putting about six miles behind me, I encountered a delightful blind of poplar saplings to my right. Cover at last. I would stick to my plan and lie low. Slipping into this forest of shimmering leaves, I dropped and pulled out my collapsible binoculars. Low crawling from one vantage point to another within this little green island, I studied the approaches, making sure that I was not being followed.

I amused myself by scanning the houses and yards surrounding my haunt. Laundry flapped in the breeze in the backyards of the neighborhood to my north. It was a homey sight, nothing amiss. No reason to fear discovery this early in the day. I wasn’t tired. It was hard to doze through the rest of that long afternoon. Time ticked slowly by. Each passing second was like a drop of my life’s blood draining away. Feelings of panic arose that I suppressed.

“Patience,” I told myself soothingly, reassuring that part of my mind that wanted to bolt. “Patience, learn to wait.” I must dull, not excite, my mind. Even though time was wasting, I should not break cover too soon. That could blow the whole thing.

Finally, the distant banging of screen doors and yelling children told me that school was out. Still I waited. Dinnertime came and went. Then dusk gathered. I could safely proceed.

As I walked west along the tracks the moonless night grew much darker than I’d expected. I’d given no thought to the phases of the moon, a serious oversight. I became frazzled from stumbling over stones and unevenly laid railroad ties and I was cold. I’d planned to walk all night, but it was not yet midnight when I stopped at a tiny wooden shack, right next to the tracks. I had to get out of the cold wind.

Freezing, I put on all of my clothes, even pulling the cotton tee shirts over my long-sleeved shirts for extra warmth. I curled my legs up to my chin and squeezed my frame against the dirty plank wall. I lay on the dirty wooden floor. The shack was meant only to shelter a standing man. There was barely enough room to sit, much less lie in the cramped square. I’d rest only a few minutes, I told myself. I’d carry on in better shape after a snooze.

Worried about hypothermia, I remembered the story I’d heard of a local boy. He ran away only to freeze to death in a barn. I lit one of my Sterno Canned Heat paraffin cans. Disappointing. It didn’t give nearly the heat, nor last as long as I‘d hoped.

My rest was shattered regularly by the thundering roar and earth shaking vibration of passing trains. They barreled by, only feet from my ears. Sleep had to be counted in shivering moments.

Such an awful lot of noise. How did people living nearby stand it? That was no place to rest and I couldn’t get warm. I owed it to that dead runaway boy to succeed and prove that there was a chance of success, of escape. We didn’t have to be victims all our lives.

My parents would be frantic by that time. The thought gnawed at me. Despite everything, imperfect as they were, I loved them. But I had to push them out of my mind. I couldn’t help it; leaving was something I had to do. My survival was at stake. There was no guarantee I’d survive this escape, but I repeatedly reminded myself that I wouldn’t survive staying put. We all had to harden ourselves to survive. Losing me would be good for them in the long run. My parents had five daughters to raise. As the only boy, I was the odd one out. They would have to focus on raising the girls until I was old enough to be beyond their control. I could return, or get back in touch then.

My grandparents were another matter. This would be especially hard on them, but I knew Grandpa, who’d also run away at fifteen, would understand. There was no sense torturing myself with how my absence would be torturing them. It was fate, an act of nature like a tornado. Better that they have an absent grandson, then a dead one. I knew the dangers. I may not survive this flight from home, but it was my best chance.

To steel myself I had to invoke my warrior heroes, Indians like Crazy Horse of the Sioux and especially those hard-bitten soldiers on the Russian Front. I would become like them. In an impossible situation, with death staring us in the face, we simply had to steel ourselves, suck it up and do what we had to. The present moment produced immediate concerns that I had to rouse myself to focus on.

Back on the tracks, I jogged for warmth, still shivering and tripping over the odd railroad tie. I had to reach my first objective in the darkness before dawn.

Tuesday, May 16. Bartlett, Illinois 

The sky began to lighten with streaks of red. I could better make out the shapes around me. A white sign stood beside the tracks. Its black letters spelled out “Bartlett.”

It was my “phase one objective.”

Bartlett was only about six miles beyond Roselle, where I’d waited for darkness. Under normal conditions it should have taken three hours at most. This last stretch had taken too long. The railroad tracks began to curve north towards the larger city of Elgin.

A railroad trestle loomed before me. It appeared ghastly in the eerie pre-dawn light. This was my place to cross the broad Fox River. I crouched and cautiously studied it. There was a control tower on the trestle. I didn’t know if it was manned at this hour, or if I’d be visible to whoever was up there. I scanned the area for signs of guards or workmen. Finally I was satisfied; there didn’t seem to be anyone around.

Warily, I crossed over the great wooden structure, grateful to be on the far side of the river. I was giddy with joy. The new day brought its own bright confidence. On the other side of the bridge I left the railroad to head due south along the river.

The morning traffic was already increasing along the roads. My plan called for me to hide through the day along the Fox River. There should be some concealing woods along the bank. The area was more urban than I imagined from the maps I’d studied. People would soon be waking up to their breakfast and daily routines.

The Centerfold

I found a small greenbelt. What a relief to be back in the woods. Unfortunately, it extended only a short distance down the West Bank of the Fox. I came upon a boy’s clubhouse concealed in the trees. It was only about six square feet, but sturdily built with odd scraps of tongue and groove lumber. They probably purloined it from a construction site, just as my friends and I had done to build ours. It was a well built structure that I wouldn’t mind inhabiting indefinitely if I could find a way to make a living.

In curious awe, I looked inside. There was no furniture on the warped plywood floor. The smell of fresh sawdust, mixed with the spring flora outside created a pleasing scent. Prominently tacked to the far wall was a lasciviously smiling nude, a Playboy centerfold. This shack was a boy’s temple to sex, holy Pornography. This, after my long night’s march, was a most welcome sight.

The lady in the centerfold was a well endowed brunette, kneeling sideways and smiling engagingly at the camera. Her large breasts were pertly pointed, poking through an open negligee in a beguiling way. It was as if she was inviting me to join her and I did. This was the perfect place to wait out daylight.

I almost forgot my plight as I fell to my knees on the plywood floor. She was all I could hope for in a woman. If only she was real. A knight errant, such as I imagined myself, needed the blessing and affectionate tokens of his lady to embark on a quest. This mute woman became my muse. As if in a mystic temple, I worshiped at this shrine of my desire.

My guardian spirits had surely led me there. They were encouraging me on my quest. Somewhere out in New Orleans I would find such a beautiful woman. That quickened my pulse. I should have been bone tired, but I was on edge, full of adrenaline and desire. Inspired by the fantasy before me, I hungered for the real thing, a live girl.

After a few sleepless hours I arose, more stimulated than refreshed. Although it was still too early in the morning, I felt time was wasting. I should have waited for darkness, but I couldn’t relax.

The last shielding trees ended. Controlling my nerves, I wound through streets that were not empty enough. Should I return and hole up in the boy’s clubhouse for the rest of the day? Retracing my steps could appear suspicious and I hated to retreat. Moving on, my teeth clenched as I encouraged myself.

“Get a grip on yourself,” I whispered, forcing a grin on my mug, very much the opposite of how I felt. I had to be like the characters in my books. I was behind enemy lines in search of no-man‘s-land.

The populous city of St. Charles straddled the banks the Fox River right up to the waterline. I had to turn away from it. Due west ought to be open country. In an overgrown weed lot on the edge of town I forced myself to lay low and wait for nightfall.

Switching my twelve pound bag from one arm to the other reduced the strain. Alternately I tucked it under an arm, or put it on my shoulder as I forged ahead. It was all I could do to minimize muscle soreness. It was a workout, a good thing I’d gotten myself in shape over the past year. My boy scout back pack would have been ideal, but it would give me away as a boy on a journey. Except for stubbed toes, my feet were holding up.

I had to talk tough to myself, be my own coach. Coach Townsend had pushed us hard. Tormented us as we ran and did calisthenics, but their verbal abuse was exactly what I needed to hang in there. Their words came back to me as I channeled their voices to urge me on.

“Suck it up and keep going, ladies!” they mocked us as we ran. “What are you a bunch of cry-baby pansies? My grandma can run up that hill faster than you!”

Coach Townsend laid out our future in a pep talk after practice.

You boys may think that in this modern world, you won’t need the stamina we’re training into you. Well, I guarantee that many of you are going straight to Vietnam after you graduate. You’ll need some damn grit to make it there. Even if that war winds down by that time, don’t kid yourselves, there’s bound to be another and you draft age boys had better be ready. You’ll thank me when you’re cut off by the enemy, exhausted and hungry. You’ll think you’re finished, hungry, thirsty, exhausted. You’ll imagine that you‘ve pushed yourselves as far as you could go, that you‘ll let the enemy have you. Then you’ll remember my ugly face yelling at you and you’ll reach deep down inside your guts for that last ounce of effort. You will rise and pull yourself through.

Desperation was the best motivator. I had no illusions about my future. If they caught me I would be sent to Reform School.

 

Raising Hell at Highland Junior High School

In Ray Blaskowisz’s company my sense of humor became cruder and more cynical. Mad Magazine was our bible. Authority figures were our straight men. Our eighth grade social studies teacher earned our wrath.

Mr. Yarrow dressed in a light colored suit and tie, his head cropped into a tight blond crew cut, almost indistinguishable from his pale skin. He was vanilla colorless, except when he got mad. The first day, he wrote his name on the chalk board. Then he gave us his idea of a pep talk.

“As a young man, I sought out important men of business, asking them for their secrets of success. One of them told me: ‘I’ll tell you the secret of success, it’s simple.’”

Mr. Yarrow wrote it in large letters under his name on the board. As he wrote, with his back to us, he scratched his butt with his free hand. It was a nervous tic we were to see often.

He turned to face us while pointing at the words. “I am the BOSS,” he delivering the last word loudly with a forward jerk of his upper body. “And YOU,” another word punctuated by a jerk. “YOU are nothing!”

The room was silent. I wondered what we were in for. He went on.

“We are going to live by this rule. Any trouble will be dealt with.” He paused, his eyes boring into each of us boys in turn before finishing the sentence with a single word. “Severely.”

He put down the chalk. “This classroom is not a democracy. It’s like a business corporation, or the Army.”

So much for the spiritual depth of capitalism, I thought. This teacher personalized all that I hated about our conservative society. Money was god, success the means to get it. Communism was the great enemy. To him it was black and white. We were in a life and death struggle against tyranny and oppression. We had to do anything save ourselves from languishing behind the Iron Curtain.

As he continued speaking he walked along our rows of desks in a peculiar manner. His hands clasped behind his back, his feet splayed out forty-five degrees as his upper body rhythmically jerked forward, punctuating key words. Yarrow appeared to be a great goose about to charge us.

I looked across the aisle at Ray. Under Yarrow’s eyes a faint smile played across his face, which was otherwise serenely angelic, marking him as an obedient boy. As soon as Yarrow passed us, Ray’s grin widened as he mouthed, “He walks like a duck.”

That cracked me up. I failed to stifle a snicker, which erupted into a belly laugh. Yarrow swung around.

“Do you think this is funny?”

“I think I sneezed,” was all I could come up with as I vainly struggled to control myself.

“Get out, report to the Principal’s office–now!”

Yarrow, our “boss,” proved to be a pain in the ass, a big joke. We spread our slogan around the school. “Mr. Yarrow walks like a duck.”

Doodling

Phillip Tritthardt was a quiet boy; he’d been working on the cover of his three-ring binder all day. He didn’t seem interested in world events, so it surprised me to see what he was doodling in large letters.

RED CHINA

IS A KEEN
COMMUNITY

I wondered at his choice of the word, keen. Cool had long ago superseded it in popular usage. He probably meant it as an ironic joke. There were no Communists among us. Not yet. After lunch and recess, we seated ourselves in Mr. Yarrow’s class for the rest of the afternoon. Phillip sat in the row of desks to my left, putting the final touches on his masterpiece, working carefully to darken the perfect Gothic lettering.

The bell rang and Mr. Yarrow began winding into his lecture. Phillip put his pen down and sat up in his chair, eyes front like the rest of us. It was Yarrow’s usual rant, but we knew we’d better appear to be listening, even if our minds were elsewhere.

Yarrow walked in his jerking fashion up and down our rows of desks as he droned on. He passed between Phillip and me, circled around and came back again.

Wham-bam! The room shook with a loud crash. I looked up to see Philip’s desk flipping into the aisle, banging against shocked students, scattering papers and pens over the room.

I realized with horror that Yarrow, his face flashing deep crimson, had thrown over Phillip’s desk. With lightning speed, he pounced on Phillip, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and lifted him from his seat. With demonic energy, Yarrow tossed Phillip to the front of the class where he landed in a heap.

Phillip’s face was ashen, dumbfounded. He obviously had no idea what this was about. Yarrow shoved him into the hall, shouting “Wait here. I’ll finish with you later!”

Slamming the door, which shook the room, he confronted us.

My fellow students and I sat frozen in shock. What had innocuous Phillip done? His notebook didn’t immediately come to mind. Yarrow, his face still beet red and breathing heavily, looked as if he’d emerged from the depths of hell. He began addressing us in a soft, questioning tone.

“Red China is a keen community?” He glanced at each of us. I stared down at my shoes, wondering if he might throw another of us out on our ass.

“Red China,” he repeated, “is a keen community?” He drew himself up like an enraged fowl about to spring, then his whole body jerked forward as he shouted, “Red China is NOT a keen community!”

He picked up the offending notebook and roared: “I will be right back. I don’t want to hear any noise!” We heard “Come with me, young man” before he shut the door. I imagined that he hustled the rag doll that had been Phillip down to the Principal’s office.

Stunned silence gave way to a collective sigh of relief. Someone finally whispered, “What the heck happened?” Several versions of the fantastic display were offered. Few students had caught a glimpse of the binder. What could we expect when our maniac teacher returned?

Hearing footsteps, we lapsed into silence, lambs waiting for the slaughter. Yarrow was in good humor, refreshed after his battle with Communist propaganda. He took up his topic where he’d left off. He was livelier in his delivery, as if nothing had happened. After class some of us even wondered if we’d imagined it all.

I was always in trouble and used to it. But this was new to Phillip. He had never
felt Mr. Trotter’s rubber hose on his backside in the sixth grade like I had. He’d never
been in any kind of trouble. It was time he learned what the smallest step away from
conformity could bring. When Phillip got out of detention, he didn’t want to talk about it.
He became even quieter and more withdrawn than before.