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.

My best fiend: remembering a childhood pal

My best friend between ages 5 and 10 was a freckled scamp named Gene, who even at that age seemed to conduct life on the razor’s edge, courting trouble with a highly evolved sense of mischief and the occasional snap of malice.

Always cooking something up for us to perpetrate, be it leaving dog poop on someone’s porch then doorbell ditching or setting small fires with gun powder in his bedroom, Gene earned the nickname “Gene the Machine” from my dad, who didn’t know the half of it.

Small and short — he sat on a tall step stool at the dinner table — Gene provided my unsentimental education. He taught me every cuss word I know. When he blurted “Go to hell!” at a girl in our fourth-grade class, I was too overcome with snickers to be shocked. He introduced me to nudie magazines, some of which he buried in plastic bags in his backyard. He sold me on the rock band Kiss and the dubious pleasures of pyromania. 

Boy holding burning matchstick

Matches and firecrackers were always on hand. We scorched many things, including, by accident, ourselves. At our mildest we would torment plastic army men, igniting them and watching them melt, black, acrid smoke curling up. Eventually Gene, with another pal, burned down a large field. (That misbegotten episode attracted the authorities.)

Something of a holy terror when he was in form — like the time he tortured to death two frogs he found under a rock — Gene also exposed me to twin thrills: the breathtaking delights of high-impact rollercoasters and the gnarly waves at our Southern California beaches. To this day, a mean, uncompromising rollercoaster is a peerless high.  

And then he’d do something reckless, like toss shotgun shells into a bonfire or pour rubbing alcohol on the garage floor in a circle, light it and stand in the middle of it as if performing some kind of pipsqueak pagan ritual.

We were young and he made me laugh harder than anyone. Yet this incorrigible gremlin exposed me to dangers and things wrong and taboo, even illegal. (Where were our parents amid the devilry?) Once he convinced me to throw rocks off a cliff into dense traffic. A man, enraged, saw us and we ran like hell.

Even Gene’s jokes were warped, naturally. He told me that he was going to stick a firecracker in the neighbor poodle’s butt and light it. Seeing my horror, he admitted he was kidding. Thing was, I didn’t put it past him. (Then again, he was a bleeding heart animal lover, lavishing cooing affection on his dog and pet rat.)

After I moved, at 10, from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco Bay Area, Gene and I kept in touch, seeing each other twice a year to hit the next rollercoaster, smoke cigarettes on the railroad tracks and listen to heavy metal as our teenage years blossomed.

Gene picked up the guitar and played metal like a madman — he was good at whatever he tried, from surfing to skiing — and I continued playing the drums I started as a kid. We jammed, copying riffs we heard on vinyl by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Metal Church and Metallica.

And then Gene’s heedless path took him down bum detours, drug addiction being the worst of it. We saw less and less of each other as we hit our 20s — college, jobs. He struggled mightily with his demons, and lost. At 26 he was dead from an overdose. I was a pallbearer at his funeral with a few other guys I’d never met before.

I still have dreams of Gene — impish, funny, alive. He made an enormous imprint on me, shaping and influencing me in ways to live (loud, with a scrap of healthy risk) and not to live (like a kamikaze). Age has tempered, filtered and refined all that. I’m (arguably) well-adjusted, considering the Gene factor.

In the end, Gene was just a neat kid, scrappy and irrepressible, taking a bite out of life with enviable gusto if too little restraint and a sometimes shaky moral code. I facetiously call him that devil child. But, thing is, I don’t think he’s anywhere near hell.