I don’t remember what we told our parents we were going to do on those weekend evenings when we announced we were headed over to the city park. Maybe we just said we were going to the park. No one cared. This was simply an extension of the freedom we had known since we were able to get ourselves out the front door in the morning and into the neighborhood on our own. All the mothers in the neighborhood were there if something dire happened, to staunch any bleeding and drive us to the emergency room, but they certainly didn’t keep watch over us. We were always far out of sight anyway.
We, perhaps the last generation who enjoyed this type of upbringing, are always yammering on about how free and idyllic those days were, I’m sure to the irritation of today’s parents, who have to keep ever-vigilant eyes on their children and short leashes used to drag them out of the dangers that await them on every street corner, primarily sex perverts and serial child killers.
Each time we met up in the park, one of the gang, usually the same three or four guys, was assigned the duty of bringing the evening’s liquor. This was a revolving responsibility that fell to each in turn. Everyone’s father had a liquor cabinet of some sort. Ours was in a large cabinet that held decorative dishware. The booze was underneath the glass part where the plates, small porcelain statues and other items were displayed. In the bottom cabinet there were bottles of various liquors that were hardly ever touched. Nobody drank much in our neighborhood, or rather they drank one thing and the old dusty bottles like the Rock and Rye and the Manischewitz remained undisturbed for years at a time. (Although the Manischewitz was dragged out when we had a sore throat or bad cough. Miraculous medicinal qualities were attributed to it by my father. We kids hated it when he had us drink a small glass of this sticky sweet wine.)
So we would find an empty soda or liquor bottle and pour a little bit from all the other bottles into it – wine, whiskey, gin, anything that was there — mixing them without any thought as to taste. Then we would bring this to the park.
Darkness. We would meet near the tennis courts where there were lights, though we hung around on the edges of the illumination, in the shadows. We would sit on a picnic table and pass the bottle of mixed liquor between us. It should have tasted horrible — it no doubt tasted horrible — but I don’t remember anyone ever complaining about it. After a while we’d be pretty drunk. That’s when we played our game.
Steve (drums) had a small derringer pistol he had found in his father’s belongings. It was quite beautiful, engraved, silver and gold.
Let me pause here to insert a quick tutorial of guns and other weapons we kids possessed. For most of us, that would be none. Buying a handgun was an impossibility, particularly because as far as I know there weren’t any. I imagine some fathers smuggled pistols back from the war, and cops had sidearms, but the general public walked around the streets of Parkersburg, West Virginia, pretty much completely unarmed if you don’t count pocketknives. Dangerous knives, as opposed to pocket knives, were on our wish list, particularly switchblades, which we assumed were carried by every hood in town, though we only saw them in comic books and not in real life. The Movie, Blackboard Jungle, had been released a few years before and while I don’t remember if it ever played in Parkersburg, though I’m sure it must have, there were enough popular references to it and images from it that everyone knew what a switchblade was supposed to look like and the damage you could do with it. Even just the pulling it from a pocket and opening it one-handed with an ominous snick would be enough to scare away the toughest hoods. Everyone wanted a switchblade — black, sleek, deadly — though nobody knew where to buy one.
When the band went to New York for a competition we had our chance. Since our seedy “hotel” was located around Times Square, we quickly found many pawnshops and small stores that featured knives of all sorts. And there they were, the classic switchblades that we lusted over. Unfortunately, they were for display purposes only because the Switchblade Knife Act of 1958 (brought about by the furor over Blackboard Jungle) prohibited their sale. There was a general understanding that indicated that you could buy one of these display knives if you really wanted to, but you had to be 21 and they were too expensive for us anyway. The dream died, and we returned home, defenseless.
One of the guys in our group, I can’t remember who, had a cousin from Philadelphia who turned up one summer for a couple of weeks. Let’s call him Ernie. He was our age, and he had a reputation as being a member of a real, organized street gang, and, best of all, he was armed. He was the proud owner of a gravity knife, which he called a flick knife. It looked like a large pocketknife and opened when you flicked your wrist, whereupon the blade would snick open and lock into position. It sounded cool, and the little wrist twist looked cool. He laughed at our quaint notions of switchblades, and asked up why anyone would want to carry a knife in his pocket that could flip open if you accidently bumped the button on the handle. What would happen then, he asked with a leer? We all nodded solemnly, paling slightly at the mental image of a knife blade flashing through thin pocket material and into your penis and scrotum. No more switch blades for us! Now we all wanted a flick knife. Not that we were any closer to finding where we could acquire one.
Ernie, in his brief stay among we rubes, showed us how to build a zip gun, which he said were fairly plentiful in his gang, and very useful in the many street battles he and his brothers were involved in. He drew up a nicely detailed plan on a sheet of typing paper. You took a piece of wood around six inches long and a couple of inches wide and nailed a shorter version of same on the end at a 90 degree angle to produce a gun shape. You found an old sliding bolt brass lock — they were everywhere in those days — and screwed it to the top piece of wood, positioned toward the rear over the handle. Then you broke off a car antenna, something Ernie said he and his mates did as a matter of course just to cause a little trouble, and cut it off so it was four inches long. This you attached in front of the sliding bolt with strong rubber bands made out of sliced-up, thrown-away tire inner tubes. Then you positioned more rubber bands so that they stretched from the front of the top wooden block, back to the little handle on the sliding bolt. Insert 22-caliber bullet into the antenna, pull back the band-powered bolt, release same and the bolt would hit the bullet causing it to discharge.
Simplicity itself. If anyone would like me to draw this up for you leave me a note in the comment section.
After Ernie left, there were long discussions about actually building one of these zip guns, but as far as I know no one actually went ahead and did it. It seemed like an awful lot of work, especially since none of us had ever fought in a street war, or even knew of one in our town. Back to the City Park and Steve’s father’s derringer.
It must have been a 30-caliber or larger, and we had no bullets that actually belonged to it. But Steve had figured out if you put a .22 in the breech on top of a piece of wooden matchstick, the thing would fire. The bullet would rattle out the short barrel and depending on luck and physics be powerful enough to hit anything in a fifty foot radius with some accuracy. That anything being one of us, running, trying to get far enough away so we would not be injured by the bullet.
Could anything have been more stupid?
One minute we’d be sitting on the picnic table, then Steve would shout, “Run!” and we’d be off in three different directions. Steve would decide who to shoot and pull the trigger. Sometimes he missed. It was dark, the bullet was as wrong as it could be, we were running and dodging, drunk, and yet when all the stars aligned correctly that bullet hit you in the back with a punch that hurt like hell. No one was ever really injured, no skin was broken, but it left a giant bruise that you had to hide from your parents. Everyone would laugh and that would be the end of it. Death had been averted. We would finish the bottle and stagger home. No parent ever seemed to notice when we came home in this condition.
After three weeks of summer band practice, the new guys were getting pretty good and things had settled down. The ones who were never going to make it had quit; a few were kicked out by Frank as being too stupid to memorize the music and the drills; the ass kicking had dwindled, though it never really stopped. As a deterrent to bonehead mistakes, it worked pretty well.
Summer in small towns, at least my small town in those days, didn’t offer a lot to do, other than getting shot at with Steve’s dad’s derringer. Summer band practice gave not only the band members something to do, but the town participated as well. I’ve mentioned that we marched on the broad grassy campus to the right of the school, alongside the long horseshoe driveway that circled around in front of the main school building. The building itself looked like a small college, built in a classical, vaguely British style.
Evening practice ran from five to seven PM as long as it wasn’t raining. We would gather in the band room, play a few marches and head out to the field. On those warm summer evenings we would always find a line of cars parked at a 45-degree angle along the side of the horseshoe drive that was closest to the field we marched on. The entire side of the horseshoe was filled with cars and perched on the fenders and sidewalk were those young women and families who had driven to the school to watch the band practice. Which must have been interesting for them in the early weeks when we were still getting kicked with regularity.
There was a sort of hierarchy in the parking, with the girlfriends of the band members positioning their cars on the upper reaches of the horseshoe, nearer the head of the field where we formed up. The line of cars stretching down the horseshoe would devolve into friends of band members and then just native Parkersburgians, moms, dads, and kids who wanted to listen to the music and watch the drills go from total chaos to choreographed precision.
After an hour’s practice, Frank would give us a fifteen minute break. The older guys with girlfriends — the cool guys — would go over and lean on sun-warmed cars and talk to their pretty girlfriends in their pretty summer dresses or fashionable Capri pants. The girls would be sitting on fenders or leaning against polished chrome bumpers and grills. The cars were mostly Chevys and Fords from the design era that was right before the really exotic tail fin, space-ship look.
We, the freshman, could only gaze upon these beauties, these relationships, from afar, or at least as far away as the trees at the head of the field where we stretched out to sit and rest until Frank formed us up again. I will not lie, the scene evokes a time of ease and joy, a quiet before the sixties arrived with all its war, racial strife, political disasters and tumult. As I have said, I knew there were enormous problems loose upon the land, but in the four years I was in the band, these summer practices were simple pleasures that I’m not sure still exist, at least not night after night, year after year. I hear many people — most people — lament their high school years, and I always wonder at it. I’m not stupid, I understand the destructive nature of adolescence, the cruelties those years can bring, but I can’t really join in these lamentations. I can only remember these soft summer evenings, and the pretty girls in their colorful summer dresses.
No cut-off blue jeans. And the shorts were conservative. During the school year the only kids who wore blue jeans were the “hoods” and the really poor kids. Girls wore skirts and dresses, maybe pants that would be called slacks. The boys wore chinos which would be, well, chino colored, or black. Anyone who wore pants of any other color was considered a hick. At least until the pink and charcoal grey craze.
This was about the time that “pegged” pants came into vogue, taking the high school hallways by storm. It would later be relegated back to the hoods, but when it burst upon the scene only the coolest guys were wearing pegged pants. And I was not what you would call a cool guy.
Remember, I was tiny. I wore thick, horn-rimmed black glasses. I was on the debate team. We shopped at Sears and Roebuck. But also remember, I was in the band.
I needed a new pair of pants. Not because I had outgrown anything, but because it had been awhile. My mother took me to the boy’s department in Sears, which I was distressingly well acquainted with. When I was younger we would go there, and I would climb up onto the shoe machine that shot deadly x-rays through your shoes and showed a ghostly image of your feet and bones, all glowing a lurid green. Oh what fun that was. It’s a wonder we all didn’t have foot cancer by the time we were in our twenties.
My mother found me the usual boys pants and sent me into the dressing room, where I would try them on with the usual pathetic results. I was so small I fell between the size hell of Little Boys and Young Men. I refused the boy’s pants, and the Young Men’s were always too big and dragged the ground around my stupid shoes that we bought in the little boy’s department because my feet were as small as the rest of me. No one wore sneakers, just plain tie-up shoes. When I went to college I discovered Bass Weejuns – loafers — but until then it was plain black or brown shoes. Were they Buster Brown’s? I shudder to think that they might have been.
In my new ill-fitting pants, I slunk out of the dressing room and stood in front of the giant, floor-length, three sided Mirror of Shame. The pants sagged, as all the pants did on my undersized frame. My mother said she could hem them. She had to hem everything I bought. She could see I was pretty discouraged about the pants. I told her what pegged pants were, and how they were really cool. But Sears and Roebucks didn’t sell pegged pants. My mother listened and said, “I can do that.”
“I can peg your pants.”
How the hell was she going to do that? We bought the pants and drove home. She went upstairs and worked on her sewing machine for an hour or so then came down and tossed me the pants. “Try them now.”
I went upstairs to my room and pulled the pants on. They did not drag on the ground. They were tight on my legs. I went in to my mother’s bedroom where there was a full-length mirror.
They were pegged.
I looked fabulous.
For the first time in my life, I felt a great sense of admiration, mixed with awe, about my mother. I knew she was a good mother and took care of our family, a tough job because my father was only home on the weekends, but it had never occurred to me that she had skills. Serious skills. I didn’t know much about sewing, actually I didn’t know anything about sewing, but I knew she must have taken the pant legs apart and then sewed them back together again in some way that made them tighter. I went downstairs and showed her.
“They look good,” she lied. I thanked her for doing the sewing. I didn’t say anything about her skills, but I think she could tell I was more than appreciative. She had a small smile that said, See there, there’s more to me than you will ever know. Which was right. That was a lesson I learned and relearned over the years.
So I went to school in my pegged pants. No one mentioned them. Which was probably a good thing. I must have looked pretty foolish, my little self in tight pants with my googly glasses and my stupid shoes.
But I felt cool. That was enough.