The trailer park was a sprawling place with plenty of vacant spaces for a boy to roam and get lost. One end bordered a huge lot of scrapped construction machinery with a giant mound of tractor tires we used to play on. Sometimes a truck would rumble through the gate and we would run like hell for the fence. The man they called Healy never called the police. He just chased you off for trespassing as if it were a game. We liked to cut through Healy’s on our various adventures. Weeds grew out of the gravel and the dilapidated equipment towered over us. We walked together–a gang of boys with dust in our tennis shoes and the sun on our backs. Parents didn’t lather their children in sunscreen back then. We left the house early. Sometimes we would come home for lunch and sometimes not. So long as you made it home for dinner you were ok. We weren’t scared of anything.
Not far from Healy’s was a place called The Pit. It was just that, a massive hole in the ground where they dumped things. The Pit was lined with tall cottonwoods that kept everything in shadow. The place smelled of diesel with cinderblocks, tires and rusty bicycles rising out of the brown, stagnant water. It was a landmark where boys sometimes met each other. I saw a total eclipse of the sun there once. We all stopped what we were doing to watch. A chill went up my spine as it got dark like the world was ending.
Across the street from The Pit was a fenced pond where a girl had drowned. I got curious about it one summer and sneaked through the fence to fish. The pond was full of stunted bluegills so ravenous that they would hit a bare hook. I liked to hide in the shade of the cottonwoods, twitching an orange Rapala on the surface that the bluegills would try to inhale even though it was bigger than they were. One day I was working my favorite lure over some deep water along a peninsula choked with willows. Out of the calmness there was an incredible splash, like a bathtub had been dropped from the sky. I stood there stunned and helpless as the lure went sailing into the air, not sure if it was a lunker bass or that little girl’s ghost.
Growing up the trailer park was on the edge of things. The cornfields along Skunk Creek, the hay fields where we played baseball, and all the wild spaces in between are gone now. They’ve been bulldozed and replaced by shopping centers, tract housing and neat rows of trailers. I drove through it once apprehensively as an adult and it didn’t seem the same. There weren’t any children playing and, when I rolled down the window, all I could hear was the hum of air conditioners.
Tornadoes fascinated me. Some residents placed tires on their tin roofs, a remedy that baffled me. Others swore to the belief that if you left your windows open the storm wouldn’t carry your trailer away. Embedded in the consciousness of every Plains dweller was that colorized image from The Wizard of Oz of the Wicked Witch’s feet sticking out from under the house. The twisters would follow the corridor of Interstate 90 like it was the yellow brick road, sometimes chewing up a small town along the way. Folks often said that a tornado would never cross over water. Skunk Creek snaked a boundary to the west and the tornados always did seem to veer south or peter away at the last instant. The blaring sirens, flashing radar screens and power outages became a summer ritual. The trailer park had a place called The Bomb Shelter built into the side of a hill. One end of the hill was black-topped and we used to zoom down it at incredible speeds on our bikes. The warnings always came in the evening or at night . I remember the whole family huddled in the darkness of The Bomb Shelter with the water dripping in lines from the seams of the ceiling. We waited together for the storm to pass as the lightning flashed outside.
One night when I was older, a thunderstorm came and the sirens went off. Both my parents were working. My father called to tell me that it was a warning and that I needed to get down to the shelter with my brother. I looked out the window. It was already raining fiercely and the wind was shaking the tree limbs. We were watching a Twilight Zone marathon on the USA Channel and didn’t want to leave. It seemed stupid. We could just as well get hit by debris on the way there. I knew there was no tornado coming. My father called back about five minutes later. My brother and I just let it ring like we were already gone.
When my father asked me about it the next morning, I looked him in the eye and lied to him. I distinctly remember him smiling and nodding his head in reaction to my lie. I knew he was crediting himself for what a responsible and independent young man I had become. It did not bother me to lie to him or my mother. Their demands on my freedom were too restrictive. I routinely stole coins and sometimes bills from my mother’s purse to spend on treats or video games at the convenience store where I was forbidden to even go. She never said anything to me and I knew it was because she thought my father was stealing the money. I had seen him sneak into my room at night and pilfer birthday cash out of the green piggy bank I kept on my dresser to buy beer.
I must have been about eight when I first realized adults lied. One day an oversized boy kept stealing the basketball I was using to practice layups. Every time he stole the ball, he would maliciously dropkick it into an open field. I found the recess monitor and persuaded her to watch this misbehavior from afar. After he punted the ball once again, I returned to her sure I had outwitted him. She looked at me with contempt as I demanded she do something. Just then the school bell rang and all the children took off running back inside. “You better get your ball,” she said coldly and turned away. I left the ball lying there in the bare field. My teacher did an inventory of the balls and asked the class why one was missing. When I confessed, she reprimanded me and made me go out to the playground to retrieve it. I was always rather thin-skinned about such petty injustices.
I started paying attention after that. I saw that adults liked to make rules for children, but they did not follow the rules themselves. I began to see the world as a duality between adults and children. I still believe, as I instinctively did then, that children must lie to adults in order to protect themselves. I never liked school. I regarded the edifices of learning that dotted the city as nothing more than a conspiracy to destroy childhood.
Early on I asked myself this question: if everyone is free, why is everyone miserable? I had no answer then. Now of course, I realize it is largely because the world is ruled by the pursuit of money. Children are exempted from this concern and many adults hate them for it. My parents possessed the wisdom of Sisyphus. Life had conditioned them to repeat the same mistake. They hated their jobs and blamed it on my brother and I who were entirely disinterested and ungrateful for their sacrifice. We were just boys and we just wanted to play.
The children of the trailer park organized themselves into packs like dogs. We rode our bikes about as we defended our territories, bullying some, allowing ourselves to be bullied by others. It’s hard not to laugh when I look back at those days. We were so politically incorrect and heartless at the sight of each other’s adolescent suffering. There was one kid named Hohdahl who lived next to The Pit. He was chubby and Army-obsessed, playing guns all the time with his face painted up in camouflage. We used to call him “Dumb-dahl.” One summer, he started bragging about possessing a dinosaur bone that he had dug out of a riverbank with his father. For whatever reason, this dinosaur-bone claim really pissed all of us off. Whenever we demanded to see it, he would haughtily explain that it was fragile and worth a lot of money. This went on for a while until finally we got sick of it and decided to beat him up. His much-older brother ended up socking me in the gut in retaliation. Weeks later, we were playing around The Pit and Hohdahl’s father came out and showed us the fossil. It was a bone all right, but it was white and didn’t even look fossilized. I figured it was just a cow bone. We stopped having anything to do with Hohdahl after that. He ended up joining the Army.
There were all kinds of kids like that, freaks really. You picked on them so you wouldn’t get picked on yourself. Mickey Ryan lived in the shadow of The Bomb Shelter. When he was just a toddler, his mother’s boyfriend got mad and threw him into a wall. He fractured his pelvis in the incident and had to wear a special brace–leather cuffs around his thighs with a metal rod between them. He walked with a stiff, bow-legged gait that reminded me of Pinocchio. He was still able to ride a bike, but he could only pedal from a standing position. He used to call us names so we would pursue him until he wiped out somewhere. He seemed to like the attention. Eventually we got sick of it and ignored him. He had a face covered in freckles and dirt. He got kicked in the balls a lot. Kids used to line up like he was a carnival challenge. There wasn’t much he could do about it. I don’t know what ever happened to him.
Corey was a mentally-disabled boy who was, by his mother’s own admission, a victim of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This was the Eighties. No one told us retard was a bad word. When you get older you start behaving with some kind of sensitivity, but in those prepubescent days it was like Lord of the Flies all the time. Corey was tall and skinny with a lantern jaw, knobby knees and a bowl haircut. He really wasn’t that retarded, just slow as his mother would tell us. He suffered from a congenital defect–“a hole in his heart.” He had to have an operation that left him unable to play for several months. When he was finally well enough to come outside, kids mocked him by saying his new heart had been transplanted from a baboon. Every summer he would show off a fistful of medals from Special Olympics. “Congratulations, Corey,” Billy Simpson teased “you’re faster than all the other retards.” Corey had the shittiest bike in the neighborhood with a frame that was always breaking. His dad, who was a welder, would just drag it to the shed, don his mask and join it back together. The bike had weld spots all over it. We would just shake our heads and chuckle when he rode by. Despite some atrocious acne, Corey ended up married with a kid of his own when he was just a teenager.
Billy Simpson was Corey’s best friend, even though he called him a retard more than anyone else. He had a braying voice and pretty much specialized in being annoying. My brother punched him in the face once, severing a tendon in his finger when he broke his glasses. We used to play a lot of Wiffle ball games in his yard. His mother was never in a very good mood and we used to make fun of her for having a big ass. She drove a dark-blue Chevy Nova with a loud muffler that somehow matched her gruff demeanor. Billy refused to do anything she said, pushing her until she lost it. When she paddled him in front of us and carried him inside screaming, that usually meant the Wiffle ball game was over. I heard stories from my brother about how, after high school, Billy would just hang out downtown and pester the cops until they arrested him. Some kids never seemed to grow up. I don’t know that Billy ever met his father, and that seemed to be the determining factor in how kids turned out. When a parent abandons a child, it leaves a hole in their self-esteem that they are never able to fill. The trailer park may not have been Compton or Appalachia, but child abuse and neglect were rather commonplace. As flawed as my father may have been, at least he was there. He endowed me with the skills and interests that define me to this day. For that, I will always be grateful.
My best friend, Dan Wiggins, was the youngest in his family with two brothers and a sister. They lived on the other side of busy West Twelfth Street, crammed into a single-wide trailer between the Get ‘N’ Go and the freeway. The Wiggins family had a bust of Elvis in their living room and a crippled dog named Fritz who slept in a basket underneath the TV. With his curled nails, shriveled lips and pointy teeth, Fritz looked like a giant sewer rat. His back legs didn’t function and he used to crap these desiccated hairballs right in the basket. Dan used to manipulate his front paws and sing for him as if he were a puppet. It was all rather burlesque, like a scene from a John Waters movie. When the animal finally died, Dan replaced him with a black kitten that could barely walk at first. The people who sold it to him would blow pot smoke into a plastic bag and place it over the kitten’s head. Dan wittily named the kitten Cujo after the famous Stephen King movie about a rabid Saint Bernard. Cujo fully recovered from his brain injuries and Dan, for the record, evolved into a highly responsible pet owner.
Dan’s father was a truck driver–a lanky man in cowboy boots with glasses and drooping, hound-dog earlobes. When he was home from the road, he liked to stretch his legs in the patio shade as he smoked his pipe and listened to Hank Williams. Several of his fingers were missing from machinery mishaps. I used to watch in fascination as he tamped the tobacco into his pipe with his pinkie stump. He was a kind man who always had a pocketful of quarters for us to take to the arcade.
Dan and I spent the majority of our time bicycling or playing basketball. Otherwise, we competed to outdo each other with various acts of vandalism and petty theft. Crediting himself with my corruption, Wiggins claimed that the first time he saw me I was in my yard chasing butterflies with a net. Dan idolized his eldest brother, acting mature for his age and emulating him in every way possible. I was never cool. Dan, on the other hand, listened to hip music and seemed to be one step ahead of the fashion trends–wearing Hawaiian shirts, Bermuda shorts and Chuck Taylor’s way before anyone else I would bike with him to Ernie November (a local record store) and just look at the album covers, unable to connect with any of it. Most of the punk and death metal bands he played on his boombox sounded like noise to me. His favorites were the Dead Kennedys and a satanic group called Venom. He would strut around his living room spouting lyrics while his mother stared out the kitchen window and chain-smoked. One day when I came over, he couldn’t stop chanting the Venom chorus: “I spend my days in Sodom. I spend my days in Hell.” Laughing at him, I explained sodomy. He refused to believe me until his mother, in a tone of bitter resignation, confirmed my definition. That shut him up, at least for a while. The first music that Wiggins exposed me to that I really liked was Run DMC. After that we graduated to Grand Master Flash, Slick Rick and LL Cool J. They rhymed of a world that seemed a long way from the trailer park. I dug the fresh beats and the way the songs cut abruptly from one sound to another. The rappers told stories and, if you paid attention, you could find something new in the lyrics each time you listened. Wiggins and I took up break dancing for a while. I’m glad they didn’t have YouTube in those days because, frankly, we were as white as rice.
One day, while Dan and I were walking down an alley, we happened upon a pair of boys digging through some boxes of old clothing someone had left in the trash. Dan started razzing them for being garbage diggers. We we’re taken aback by how unafraid of us the boys seemed. Didn’t they know who we were? Come to think of it, we didn’t know who they were either. The bigger one even told us to go fuck ourselves before he turned around and went on trying on clothes like the alley was a J.C. Penney’s changing room. Dan, not standing for this, immediately got into a wrestling match with the boy. They held each other in headlocks for a while before a mutual respect was reached. After that, they immediately invited us to their house a short distance away. It turned out they were fraternal twins. Their names were Jesse and Donny. Jesse was smaller and more charismatic, while Donny was a brooding sort—someone clearly burdened by a deeper intelligence. The four of us formed a tight group after that.
I fell out of contact with most of those kids when I got older, by choice. I wanted to get as far from the trailer court as possible. I ran into the twins at a football game right after I graduated from high school. My college roommate’s girlfriend was a cheerleader and I was tagging along with him. I felt a little sheepish because I hadn’t seen them in so long. The bond was still there, communicated in a moment of eye contact. I couldn’t deny it. While I’d been honing my skills as a social chameleon, they’d hardly changed at all–still just a couple of trouble-making kids from the trailer park. I departed the stadium I never belonged feeling like a phony.
We got into huffing gasoline. Once I got so high bouncing between their trailer and shed that I actually believed I was inside a Ms. Pac-Man game. Their single mother was a nurse who worked long hours. One day Donny was huffing on the couch and he passed out. Gas spilled everywhere. He tried to clean it up but there was no getting that smell out of the upholstery. He would have had to burn down the whole trailer to cover up what he had done. None of us saw Jesse and Donny for a long time after that. Their mother, understandably, went batshit over the incident. Along the way, I heard stories from Wiggins that Jesse had gotten into trouble with drugs and the law. Not long ago, I heard that Donny had taken his own life. The news didn’t surprise me, but it saddened me somewhere deep in my being. We all grew up feeling like we were on the outside looking in and we all found different ways to cope with it. We were just boys and we just wanted to play.