Boyhood bedlam

Once, when we were young and evil, my brother, a friend and I decided to dig a pitfall trap for a neighbor kid we disliked on that particular day. 

Right: Three pre-tween boys thought we could shovel a human-size hole in the hard earth, obscure it with, say, palm fronds, then lure our nemesis to the pit, where he would dutifully tumble in and, with hope, writhe in pain and cry for his mama. We might even bury him alive. 

The sheer outlandishness of our artless ruse — we’d seen way too many jungle movies and reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” — betrayed a warped sense of humor and advanced sociopathy. We were, in our way, hardened hellions, backyard scamps in Sears Toughskins and Keds sneakers who lived for the most mailbox-damaging firecracker and perfect pile of dog poop to leave on the neighbor’s porch. 

In hindsight, trapping a helpless child in a deep earthen hole was low on my brother’s list of mayhem; he was busy splatting passing cars with eggs. The high-concept stuff, like the ingenious pitfall trap and starting brush fires, had all the earmarks of a Chris and Gene production — me and my boyhood bestie Gene, a character of almost dangerous precocity, whose rascally misdeeds I chronicled in a previous post

My inner children? Probably.

Boys are bad. If I tell you Gene, who bore galaxies of freckles, threatened to stick an M-80 in a poodle’s rear-end, then I should probably fess up that I peed on a kid’s head from the strategic perch of a tree fort. 

If I describe how my pal Don smashed a huge, harmless tarantula with a rock, I guess I can admit to nicking .22 bullets from my Dad’s small stash, prying them open with pliers and lighting the black powder for a dazzling little dance. In my bedroom.

If I do all that, you either see dumb juveniles paving the way to prison or common boys-will-be-boys behavior that’s as benign as saying boys are made of “snakes and snails and puppy dogs’ tails.” (They are made of that and so much more: fire, lizards, toilet humor and horrors, nudie pin-ups, rock ’n’ roll, illicit cigarettes, contraband beer, and other primal excitements.)  

I was a boy and I can hardly explain our innate appetites for destruction. I loathed team sports but my friends did not, yet we found common ground and ample time to — name it — mutilate frogs, melt “Star Wars” action figures into gooey globs, boil alive bitty Sea-Monkeys, hurl dirt clods into traffic, shoplift rubbers and records. It was wrong, all of it, but oh-so thrilling.

Little girls are awful, too. I can elaborate but prefer a don’t ask, don’t tell stance. Rest assured, the distaff devils are not “sugar and spice and everything nice.” They are funny and cruel, vindictive and viper-tongued. But we know that. And that is why we love them.

From those early years, about ages 7 to 12, I graduated to harder middle-school mischief, the kind where you don’t inhale, cops knock on your car window beaming flashlights, and parents cancel certain privileges. (And of course girls. Don’t ask, don’t tell.) 

Those were darker years, when heedless devilry came with tougher consequences and higher expectations amounting to: Knock this shit off, now. It’s strange, but having a homeless guy purchase you beer sounds almost worse than burying a child alive in a large ditch. There’s about a four-year gap between those two impish delights, and that’s a lifetime at that age. Either way, it’s all kid’s stuff — tutorial, twisted, and so terribly, wonderfully wrong.

Fourth of July: slightly better than you think

So they do the big community fireworks show in our exurb the night before the Fourth of July — that is, today, the third — presumably so they don’t have to compete with the real fireworks shows, the mega-extravaganzas detonated by the nearby big cities. Makes sense. Can you imagine if every town and city shot off their arsenals at the same time on the same night? The skies would be pyro pandemonium. (Would that be so bad?)

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For our country-fair version of neon-blooms and sky-borne booms we’re granted largish park space, hot dog and churros stands and only slightly embarrassing cover bands with names like The Rolling Clones doing their best not to asphyxiate classics by CCR, the Beatles, Journey, Foreigner and scads of other woolly ‘60s-‘70s supergroups. The music and fireworks are free. The hot dogs are not. Parking is combat. There is no alcohol. 

This is not a recipe for delight. The Fourth is kind of a dead-end holiday to begin with. Perfunctory plastic flag-waving and high-school-band parades aside, I don’t think many Americans are actually reflecting on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. You might be, but really you aren’t. It’s all very patriotic, in a face-painty kind of way.  

th-1.jpegThat said, it’s a good summer holiday, sort of the kickoff to the season (which happens to be my least favorite season, just saying), that is strangely rife with hot dogs. They’re all over the joint.

A good holiday, but not the best. That honor goes to, well, just about every other American holiday. Easter, with its gobs of chocolate, is almost better than July Fourth. Thanksgiving is better. Certainly lawless Halloween and the gift-bloated Christmas surpass it. Hell, even my birthday beats out Independence Day, which is kind of like the special little brother of holidays. Sacrilege? Sorry.

But we settle. The Fourth has its fun. Fireworks, especially from the stance of this recovered pyromaniac, are glorious. Even the rinky-dink version in the ‘burbs, with rampant children, grassy blankets, hot dogs, snow-cones and long-in-the-tooth bands belting out “Don’t Stop Believin’” casts a pleasant spell — and gundpowdery smell.

Away from the park, beer flows and barbecues flame. Small gatherings happen in backyards. Kids squeal and peal and dogs slalom around bare legs and sandaled feet. (Those dogs want … hot dogs.) The occasional dancing sparkler is unveiled to the astonished eyes of youngsters.

I have indelible memories of the holiday as a kid on the beaches of Southern California. It was magic: illegal firecrackers, smoke bombs and Roman candles, lit from inside huge sand pits we dug that sat four or five friends. We were there all day until the city’s big fireworks show unfurled in the night sky, over the ocean, popping, bursting, crackling, streaming. And there we were, watching below, aglow in a thousand sizzling colors.

* Update: The local fireworks shebang was rained out on July 3. They rescheduled the big party for, get this, July 13 — a wee late. And it’s Friday the 13th. Isn’t that its own wild holiday?