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.
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.
“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.
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.