"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Drive-In Movies, Banana Splits, And Playing With Fire

I was a member of the Pyros, a club founded by Bobby Prentice, the school bully.  Our raison d’etre was to set fires.  One Thanksgiving morning while my mother was dressing the turkey, I took a walk down the narrow street that passed by our house.  Few people lived in our neighborhood in those days, only the Ohlenbergs up the road and the Blandishes a few doors down. Billy Blandish was a classmate of mine at our country day school, and his mother was so strict that we had to take off our shoes when we went to visit him.  The house was neater, less cluttered, and more scrubbed than a Shaker cabin.  It was always dark, because Mrs. Blandish didn’t want to waste electricity, and she was always sat by the picture window, reading by the last dim and fading light of the afternoon.  It was very creepy going over there.

The Ohlenbergs were a normal family – father, mother, and two children – but I avoided going over there because one of the children was born with an oversized tongue.  He moaned and groaned, grimaced and made wild gestures when he tried to talk.  His mother, never having adjusted to his disability, screeched at him louder than a banshee, hoping that volume would somehow force normal speech from his deformed mouth.  You could hear her yell at poor Randall all the way up Bradley Street.  The Ohlenbergs had a dog named Barney– a big, muscular Doberman who could never sit still,.  He drooled and slavered, and his slime always got on your clothes.  Mr. Ohlenberg was a small contractor, had his own truck, and spent all his spare time at the public course down past Stanley Quarter Park.  He was a scratch golfer and a big drinker.

In any case, that Thanksgiving morning I set a fire in the the dried leaves by the road across from the Ohlenbergs.  The rule of the Pyros was that you were always to be nonchalant about your arson.  You could never use twigs or kindling, or fan the flames into a blaze, but only indifferently toss matches, keep walking, and turn around only if you smelled smoke.

It hadn’t rained or snowed for weeks, and the oak leaves, long fallen from the trees in the small grove of woods behind our house, were as try as monks’ parchment.  They caught on as though lightning had struck them, and in only a few minutes an angry circle of fire was advancing towards the back of our house.  I took off my heavy leather coat and started banging at the fiery leaves; but as soon as I beat out the fire in one place, it raged in another.  I became panicked and flailed at the fire like a lunatic.  If it hadn’t been for an old dead log, sodden, moldy, and moss-covered after years of rain and damp, I would have burned the woods down.  I imagined the fire racing up the ivy-covered trees, torching the branches and jumping from treetop to treetop, finally dropping on the roof of the kitchen where my mother was finishing the gravy; but then miraculously it hit the old log, and I was saved.

The father of a friend of mine was gifted 100 lbs. of bananas from a patient who had visited an island in the Caribbean. He was so grateful to Dr. Cather for successfully removing a benign growth on his head that he wanted to thank him with something special. I knew the patient, a stubborn millworker, and the father of a second-grade classmate.  He let the tumor grow to an enormous size before his wife convinced him to have it removed.  At first he did fancy comb-overs to hide it, but soon it popped through the strands.  He wore hats all the time, but again, baseball caps were not enough, nor big fedoras; and the ugly, purplish thing stuck out no matter what he did.

In any case, in a three-hour procedure, the awful growth was removed.  Mr. Kotski was so happy that he took his modest savings and went to Martinique, and from there shipped Dr. Cather the 100-lb. box of bananas.

Ed, Kerry, and I loaded the box into the back seat of their mother’s Volkswagen beetle and we drove around New Brighton tossing bananas at stop signs, telephone poles, and mailboxes. Bored, we started in on parked cars, then cars passing us coming the other direction.  If you hurled a banana just right, it would sail through the open window and explode all over the inside of the car. Ed was the best shot.  He understood about trajectories, velocity, and arc and executed a perfect launch of one of the ripest bananas that we had saved for last.  It hit the metal divider between the driver’s window and the vent, splitting it in two. Half the banana sprayed the dashboard and the windshield, the other half covered the driver’s face with yellow goo.

He wheeled his car around, chased us into a cul-de-sac and called the cops.  If the sergeant who responded hadn’t been given a police exam by my father and passed despite an enlarged prostate, our parents would have been called, and there would have been hell to pay.   The cop calmed down the banana-ed driver, told us to clean up his car, pay him five bucks each, and never do anything like this again.

No one was checking up on us in those days.  No helicopter moms, no soccer practice, and no pagers.  Once we were out the door we were on our own. We dealt with cops, bullies, and angry neighbors.  Once Billy Hendricks hit a baseball farther than anyone before.  It went up over the dogwood, past the high yews, through the limbs of the maple tree and into the dining room window of Mr. Pantucci who was finishing up his pasta fazool.   He ran into the backyard with his stained bib flapping in the breeze, chased after Billy who had still hung on to his bat, and shook him until his glasses fell off.  As pissed as he was, he didn’t call Billy’s parents or the parents of any of us.  “You gonna pay for this”, he threatened.  “You gonna hear from me.”

We did hear from him, but never had to pay.  He knew we would never ever play ball in his backyard again, and we never did.  We knew of Mr. Pantucci’s reputation as a wife-beater and we were scared shitless of what he would do to us if we so much as stepped on one of his petunias. Eventually he calmed down.  Whenever he saw Billy he mimed an air-swing and smiled.

There were plenty of bullies in school, but teachers never interfered, and let us sort things out.  We learned fast when to shove back, when to put up and keep quiet, and when to run. A teacher whacked the knuckles of Bobby Bitters so hard that they were black and blue for a week, but his parents never sued nor came in to see the principal. After the thwacking Bobby stopped throwing wet wads of toilet paper at the girls, and buckled down to his schoolwork, such as it was. 

Bobby was as dumb as a stone, and he never could figure out what Asia was let alone where to find it on the map.  He repeated fourth grade twice, and the only time his parents ever set foot in the school was at the invitation of the principal who told them that they had to send Bobby someplace else.  No mainstreaming, no inclusiveness, no concern for self-esteem, and no pulling PC punches.  Bobby went to the school ‘for dumb kids’ in Plainville and apparently did well enough.  He shaped up, wore tidy little suits at high mass on Sunday, and the last we heard he was helping the Bellows Bros. paint houses in Bristol.

Every day in the summer after playing baseball on the green, we stopped at Avery’s, a local bottling plant which produced soft drinks way beyond cola and ginger ale.  We loved their sarsaparilla, birch beer, cream soda, and root beer. They were cold, incredibly sweet, and cheap enough so that we could drink two or three at a time.  On Saturdays we went to Friendly’s and ate banana splits until we were sick. No carrot sticks, apples, or granola for us.

After basketball at the ‘Y’, we stopped at Jimmy’s Smoke Shop to ogle the girlie magazines in the back, to buy bubble gum and stock up on candy. Jimmy never cared that we were underage, and let us have our fill of big tits as long as we bought something.  As importantly Jimmy knew that in a few years we would be getting our own pussy and in a few more would be sick of screwing the wife; so ‘let the boys have their fun’ was his motto.

As soon as we could drive, we went to drive-in movies.  We usually went with our friends and had fun ragging the love scenes, eating pizza, and drinking soda. The drive-ins never closed for the winter, and provided space heaters – clunky things on long ratty wires that were strung through the window and placed on the floor.  No one was concerned about fire, skin burns, or fiery infernos caused by accidental combustion; nor had any of us ever heard about someone getting barbecued at the Berlin Drive-In.

We never wore helmets as we raced our Schwinns around the reservoir, nor down the 18 percent grade from Shuttle Meadow.  We rocketed down Jefferson Street, took corners like Olympians, and had only a few scrapes and shin burns to show for it. One Saturday Devon Briggs hit a sandy spot at Maurice Street and was flipped into Mrs. Landers’ rose bushes.  He broke his arm and collarbone, but none of our parents stopped us from daredevil riding.  He should have been paying more attention, that’s all.

I made it through those unprotected, unvigilant, free-wheeling days and am still here to tell about it.  So did Freddy Bracken, Lyle Penchant, Joey Granski, and the rest of my friends. My adult kids have thanked me for being so willing to let them alone.  They of course don’t know the real story.  Going to raves, hanging out with dopers from Gaithersburg, and doing the DC go-go scene in the ‘hood was not exactly the banana-land and Pyro Thanksgivings of my youth; but I am glad they appreciated their freedom.

I feel sorry for the teenagers and pre-teens of today.  It seems like they are programmed more rigidly than Skinner’s rats, and are watched more closely than lifers at a maximum security prison. No nasty playground slides.  No see-saws.  No risk, no adventure, no fun. 

Yes, the old days were better.


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