The Boy Under The Steps

My first day of school at Camp Parks Ele­men­tary School was unfor­get­table because what hap­pened that day was fun­ny, and still is some forty years lat­er. A lit­tle boy was found hid­ing under the school steps and was appar­ent­ly mute. He was even­tu­al­ly coaxed out with a cook­ie and ques­tioned, but would not say a word. The boy was parad­ed from class to class. The prin­ci­pal dragged him into my first grade room.

Does any­one know who this boy is?”

The boy had dark curly hair and stared sul­len­ly at his brown tie shoes. She forced his head up and asked again.

It was my broth­er Joe and I didn’t say a word.

In a sec­ond grade class a few rooms lat­er he was final­ly iden­ti­fied. My sis­ter Karen point­ed him out imme­di­ate­ly. I remem­ber get­ting in trou­ble for that.

My Dad said Joe hadn’t been briefed prop­er­ly about what to expect and should have been escort­ed by one of his par­ents. But he wasn’t there, away on his ship, and my Mom was off in Mom­my Land some­where with my younger sis­ters. Joe was put on the bus with the rest of us and every­one fig­ured he’d find his way to class on his own.


Johnny Fronk

My friend’s name was John­ny Fronk; he was a slight­ly pudgy red-haired kid and fel­low Navy brat. We both lived in Koman­dors­ki Vil­lage, a naval facil­i­ty with bar­rack apart­ments and large Quon­set huts where Navy stuff was stored and repaired On an after­noon pic­nic one day, we spent the day skip­ping stones and look­ing under rocks for crea­tures along a shal­low stony creek. Some of the big­ger kids found a deep­er hole up creek at a bend called Devil’s Point with a huge tree limb over­hang­ing it to jump from. John­ny dared me to do it and I dou­ble dared him. You couldn’t get out of a dare; it just wasn’t done. So, in a minute we were stand­ing in line for a turn to can­non ball into the water. I climbed out on the oak tree branch with John­ny behind me and nev­er looked back as I leapt ten feet in fine form into the creek below. I swam away under water and expect­ed a big splash behind me. But when I came up John­ny boy was still in the tree. He wore a bug-eyed pan­icky expres­sion and looked scared shit­less as he strad­dled that limb bel­ly-down and held on to it with a death grip hug. I called up to him three or four times to hur­ry up but he would not look at me. Three old­er boys were stacked behind him and began harass­ing him. After a few min­utes there must have been ten peo­ple gath­ered below him urg­ing him to jump. But he would not be talked down and clung there for a half an hour until one of the dads climbed up and pried his arms up and tossed him down awk­ward­ly like a cadav­er stiff with rig­or mor­tis. Besides that sight, I remem­ber his ear-pierc­ing shriek pre­ced­ing the loud splash. All those peo­ple there, and no one caught him.

The Death Defying Barrel Ride

That wasn’t the last time I accept­ed a dare or did some­thing real­ly stu­pid, I was just get­ting start­ed. My sis­ter Karen said there were a lot of mean kids in Koman­dors­ki. Weeks lat­er my brava­do got the best of me when I hap­pened upon a group of them gath­ered at the top of a grassy hill.

They were tak­ing turns rid­ing the inside of a tire down a gen­tle slope and it looked like a fun ride. I walked up the tram­pled grass path lit­tered with aban­doned sheets of shred­ded card­board worn out from too many slides down the dry flat­tened grass hill­side. I merged into a gath­er­ing of younger kids stand­ing to the side and watched as the dar­ing boys took turns cram­ming them­selves into the tire and being launched down the hill, hoot­ing and hol­ler­ing as they rolled in tight sum­m­er­saults until the tire slowed and fell over soft­ly into the grass. I didn’t know the old­er boys but they seemed nice enough and were laugh­ing and hav­ing a great time. I asked if I could have a ride and was giv­en a nasty who-do-you-think-you-are­-jack­ass-look as an answer. I glared back, my face con­tort­ed with both anger and dis­ap­point­ment until the kid stared me down. I took a few sheep­ish steps back with the oth­er lit­tle lambs.

At the bot­tom of the hill anoth­er kid appeared push­ing a met­al bar­rel and waved for help to get the bar­rel to the top. At first, they were all anx­ious for the first ride until the one point­ed and said, “No, not this side, the oth­er.” Every­one turned and stared qui­et­ly at the back­side of the hill. It was twice as long and twice as steep. The boys took turns look­ing at the bar­rel, then down the steep hill and protest­ed.

No way!”
“What are you nuts?”
And “… I’m not that stu­pid.”
But I was, and stepped for­ward.
“I’m not chick­en,” I clucked.

The boys turned and looked at me with star­tled expres­sions. Their eye­brows popped up and their open mouths creased into wicked grins. Before I knew what was hap­pen­ing, I was hus­tled over, stuffed into the bar­rel and prompt­ly kicked down the hill. Every­one cheered as I began my death defy­ing bar­rel roll. It was actu­al­ly fun for a few turns, exhil­a­rat­ing in fact, until the spin­ning became intense, then fright­en­ing as I braced myself inside the tor­tu­ous cen­trifuge of hor­ror. If you’ve ever seen any old NASA test pilot films where the pilots are strapped into the chair at the end of the long arm of a spin­ning cen­trifuge, that’s what it felt like. G‑forces pulled the skin from their faces, expos­ing gri­mac­ing teeth as their cheeks flapped and their eyes closed tight to hold them in. That’s what it felt like. The spin­ning was nev­er going to stop and I was prob­a­bly going to die. The bar­rel bounced hard off swells in the hill and became air­borne before it crashed bru­tal­ly into the grass and tum­bled head over heels, spit­ting me out. I was chewed up and bat­tered and cry­ing like a baby as I stum­bled around dizzy-drunk try­ing to regain my feet. I fell to my side, my head still spin­ning and vom­it­ed. Those lit­tle bas­tards just tried to kill me and were laugh­ing hys­ter­i­cal­ly from the top of the hill.

Now I knew what real pain was. My elbows, knees and the back of my head were scrapped raw. Back then I had a butch hair­cut, kind of a buzz cut. A few days lat­er the wound on the back of my head scabbed over and turned dark brown. It looked like an injury from a mor­tar round. My head, knees and elbows took weeks to heal as the scabs split and broke off and scabbed over again, slow­ly shrink­ing like dark islands in a sea of flesh. The sores left behind dark pink scars that fad­ed away months lat­er.

Home Alone

We lived in one of two long slat wood bar­rack apart­ment hous­es sep­a­rat­ed by a road. There were six apart­ments per build­ings, three on top, three on the bot­tom. Ours was the mid­dle one on the bot­tom. With my dad away and no car, my mom had to rely on the kind­ness of the neigh­bors if we real­ly had to go some­place. It would be an emer­gency usu­al­ly; like when my broth­er Joe, run­ning around bare­foot one day, cut his foot pret­ty bad­ly on a bro­ken bot­tle and had to get to the hos­pi­tal for stitch­es. The neigh­bor, who helped that time, was pissed that his car seat was blood­ied up. Anoth­er time, my sis­ter Paula came home gur­gling and gag­ging after find­ing and eat­ing some deli­cious look­ing choco­late fla­vored Ex-lax at a neighbor’s across the road. That woman was furi­ous Paula had got­ten into her stuff and bitched the whole way to the hos­pi­tal that she had to dri­ve her, my mom, and all the kids as well. We ruined her day appar­ent­ly, but Paula’s day was con­sid­er­ably more dif­fi­cult. She recov­ered a day lat­er after get­ting her stom­ach pumped. Get­ting a ride after that was prob­lem­at­ic for my mom and too much of a chore to deal with.

My mom had to get a car. She didn’t know how to dri­ve and decid­ed she would have to learn. She walked a mile to the near­est bus stop because no one was avail­able to get a ride with any­more and took a bus into Hay­ward to take dri­ving lessons. I don’t know who taught her to dri­ve, but they did a shit­ty job. (Eas­i­ly dis­tract­ed and ter­ri­ble with direc­tions, she’s one of the worse dri­vers I’ve ever dri­ven with to this day.) Mirac­u­lous­ly she passed the dri­vers test and saved up enough mon­ey to pur­chase a used 1949 Ford sta­tion wag­on, one of those Wood­ies with the beech-col­ored wood trim pan­el­ing dec­o­rat­ing the side pan­els and back gate. She had that car for only a few months and it became dif­fi­cult to keep up with the main­te­nance and gas. Some so-called friends of hers talked her into trad­ing the car… for a fur coat… that I don’t think she ever wore.

I don’t remem­ber the cir­cum­stances exact­ly, but for some rea­son I was left behind one day. I had no idea where my fam­i­ly was. It might have hap­pened dur­ing the time my Mom had the Wood­ie. I woke up and sat grog­gi­ly on the edge of my bed. Yawn­ing, I sud­den­ly became aware of how loud the silence seemed. Ours was a nor­mal­ly a noisy house­hold and it was dead qui­et.

Mom! Mom?” I called out, but heard no answer.

With six chil­dren to haul around, Mom prob­a­bly hadn’t noticed I wasn’t with them. There were no lights on and the TV was off. I walked from room to room to look around. They were gone. I was in my Fruit of the Looms and sat down on a cold vinyl chair at the kitchen table sur­round­ed by five emp­ty ones fac­ing this way and that. Cere­al bowls and spoons with rem­nants of Chee­rios cling­ing to them were scat­tered across the table­top. For break­fast I munched on a hand­ful of chee­rios and pealed up the soft alu­minum cap on a bot­tle of choco­late milk from the fridge and took a cou­ple swigs. The big white milk bot­tle was two thirds emp­ty. The milk­man deliv­ered milk, eggs and but­ter in those days and left it in a met­al crate on the front stoop before the crack of dawn.

I got up and looked out through the win­dows, front and back every ten min­utes. The back­yard was a canopy of clothes lines filled with pinned cloth­ing, socks and white sheets that flapped and snapped in the val­ley wind. Out front, neigh­bors passed by occa­sion­al­ly as I watched secret­ly from a cracked slat in the win­dow or behind a cur­tain. Every time I heard a car I jumped up and expect­ed to dis­cov­er they were back. But they weren’t. I put on some clean clothes and my sneak­ers and roamed around, bored as any six-year-old boy could be. I sat on the couch and leafed through a Life mag­a­zine filled with pic­tures of the hand­some new pres­i­dent and of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe who took some sleep­ing pills and nev­er woke up.

I returned to my bed and pulled up my cow­boy pat­terned bed cov­er and tried to take a nap. They would be home by the time I woke up. I tried but I could not sleep in the bright-lit room. I cov­ered my head with a pil­low and start­ed to sweat, and when I closed my eyes I could see these lit­tle bright squig­gly things pass across my eyes even though they were closed. I could hear my heart beat­ing and my stom­ach made weird curly-cue sounds. I gave up on that and took turns fid­get­ing about on the black and sil­ver thread couch and chair and stared at the front door as the day dragged on. The hours were excru­ci­at­ing­ly long. The clock had to be mov­ing in slow motion. As I became more anx­ious each hour felt like three and I won­dered if they were ever com­ing back. My mom just learned to dri­ve and was a ter­ri­ble dri­ver and so you start think­ing about stuff like that. Maybe the Fronks would take me in until my dad came back from Japan in six months. At least they were Navy and we might move to a bet­ter place.