When I left the house Tuesday morning my pal Fin was not standing at the telephone pole waiting for me as I had come to expect. The familiar routine we had built up over three years of walking to school had suddenly become interrupted for reasons I did not know. I stood by the pole waiting for Fin with a growing sense of nervousness that something bad had happened between dusk and dawn. After five minutes of waiting for him I headed next door to his house and knocked on the front door only to be greeted by the echoing silence of an empty house. A few more knocks, more silence.
I waited around for another ten minutes to see if he was running late or had overslept but I received no satisfaction of an answer. It was getting late so I headed off to school walking by myself for the first time since kindergarten. I had forgotten how desolate the streets were early in the morning. Sure, I delivered papers before the sun came up and the streets were usually empty but in those first ninety minutes when the sun is up and the birds are just starting their morning songs, it can be pretty scary.
As I passed houses on Memory Avenue I could see shadows moving inside. Shadows of people I knew or thought I knew. Shadows that in my mind formed Rockwellesque movies of Mothers and Fathers making their kids breakfast, helping with last minute homework and giving out hugs with unbridled joy, and as I passed each of those homes, with those thoughts, the searing pain of jealousy and rage built up inside of me. I had no outlet, no pressure release valve, no Fin to talk to about the non-sensical bullshit that distracted both of us from the shitty way we felt about our particular family woes.
A few blocks from school I became aware the streets were starting to fill with more kids in my situation. Kids who had no friends, outcast kids with little or no social skills, kids who seemed to have been alienated from everyone since their conception. I felt like shit. I’d heard my name called out by some of the outcasts and I ignored them. The last thing I wanted to do was field questions about why I wasn’t with my normal group of punks and greasers. Some of the older kids who hung out by the drug store smoking saw me and started to chide me about not having Fish or Fin with me. I scowled at them and flipped them off and then quickly crossed the street to put distance between me and a guaranteed ass whipping.
I kept my head down, fists in pockets and just barged across into the street without looking. I ignored the honking horns of cars and the screams of kids I did not know the names of kids I never took the time to learn. One voice rose above the others “SKIP! DAMMIT! LOOKOUT!!!” I stopped and looked around. I was standing at the median with cars passing in front of me and behind me and as I looked towards the voice calling out to me I saw Fish yelling my name again. His hands were clasped around his mouth making a funnel to help amplify his voice. “SKIP!!! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!!!” Standing next to Fish was my neighbor and friend Fin. Fin was pale and shaking his head and he looked as if he were about to throw up.
I stood there in shock and wondered how the two of them got to school before me and why Fin had left me to walk to school alone. I half-heartedly lifted my arm in a wave. The cars that were approaching me started to slow and come to a stop and when they had I continued across the street. I was still upset at my friends and I was in no mood to talk with them. They had both ditched me and I felt betrayed. I wanted to punch them both in their noses and watch their blood spill from their bodies, then sit back and laugh at them. But I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, we were the Musketeers! I had to work out my anger, frustration and my sense of betrayal before I got to them. I started counting as I took a step forward.
One…Two…Three…Four… I could feel the tension in my shoulders receding…Five…Six…Seven… My fists started to unclench…Eight…Nine…Ten… Thoughts of us sitting in Fish’s basement listening to Blue Oyster Cult albums and sharing a stolen beer started to make me smile…Ten…Nine…Eight… I remembered a couple of fights all three of us were in and how we had watched each other’s backs…Seven…Six…Five… Fin and I were catching pigeons under the overpass and we both about killed ourselves crossing the interstate…Four…Three…Two…One…All the damn work we’d done over that last week on the bike filled my mind and all was forgiven.
“Hey Guys!” I said a little too loudly as I stepped onto school property.
“What the hell was that?” Fin said
“Yeah Man! You suicidal or something? You drop some acid and think your Superman?” Fish peppered at me.
“Nah, nothing like that. I was just thinking about the bike I guess. I’m pretty excited to get on her and ride tonight.”
“Yeah. Tonight.” Fish said and elbowed Fin in the arm.
“Ouch! What the hell man?”
“Nothin, let’s get going before the first bell.”
“Hey Fin, where were you this morning?” I asked him as all three of us fell into step next to each other.
“Oh, uh, my mom took me out to McDonalds for breakfast and then dropped me off here about ten minutes ago.”
“Cool, what’s the special occasion? She get a pay raise or something?”
“Uh… no, nothing like that.”
“C’mon, Skip, stop being Kojak for a few minutes. So what if Fin’s mom wanted to spend some time with him. Shit, he sees his mom less then you see yours.” Fish interrupted.
“I’m not pulling a Kojak. I was just worried when Fin wasn’t waiting for me at the telephone pole like usual.” I said a bit defensively.
We had just gotten to the front steps of the school when we heard the first bell of the day ring. We nudged our way through the throng of classmates and made our way to our respective homerooms. Fish was in a separate homeroom than Fin and I and we quickly said our goodbyes with a promise to meet for a picnic lunch in a few hours.
Once again our morning education was turned over to Public Service Movies and naps filled with dreams that took each kid out of the concrete block walled educational prisons. I dozed in and out of consciousness like the rest of the class, my thoughts and dreams were filled with the freedom of riding around Green Bay, exploring the parks, being a bike kid for the Green Bay Packers, camping, and just being able to get out of the neighborhood and away from some of the crap that had been brewing with the older kids. Besides, I had some paper route buddies on the West side that I’d only seen during our subscription drives and they’d been pestering me to come by their house since we met. It would be pretty cool if I could ride out to their house and see them over the summer.
You know, summer dreams filled with endless supplies of soda pop, candy bars and trips to Hansen’s Ice Cream to eat the twenty five cent drip cups until my stomach burst! Swimming all day at Joannes Park Pool or riding out to Bay Beach where everything cost a quarter from the rides to the popcorn. No parents leaving notes of endless chores and rules on where not to go and what not to do. Mornings where I wouldn’t have to wake up until the clock was in the double digits and the sun was approaching its apex. Dreams of lazy days and crazy nights, dreams I still have today. Hell, probably dreams you have right now, just like me.
The end of the Public Service Films blurred into slide shows that required some class participation. I was lucky to not have to participate because I had been chosen as the class A/V kid and all I needed to do was set up the slide show and hit play on the tape recorder and then press the “Advance” button on the projector. The teacher had left the classroom stating she needed to use the mimeograph machine and left Karen Cornett in charge of a 25 lethargic kids who wanted nothing to do with watching movies or slide shows.
So, for fun, and since opportunity had presented itself to me, I chose to just flip the slides as fast as I could both forward and back. When Marlin Perkins was talking about how him and Jim had brought down a wild African lion my slides were on the half naked people of a recently discovered tribe of what looked like cannibals. The boys that were awake cheered and the girls hissed at my antics. Karen “tut-tutted” me and I ignored everyone. My shenanigans were strictly for my own amusement and I had been keeping a running count of how far ahead or behind I was with the audio so if I heard the teach opening the door I could easily get back to where I needed to be.
“Skip! That is not the way you’re suppose to work the slide projector.” Karen scolded.
I ignored her. I had no choice. If I stopped what I was doing I would have been razed at lunch and probably for the rest of the week.
“Karen, give it a rest!” little Marky Borrowitz responded from the behind me. “Heck, this is the first time this week anything we’ve done seems interesting. Marky lived on my block about seven houses down from me. He had been the first kid to even speak to me when we moved in. When I slept over at his house we would read all his comic books over and over again. Hell, he had been the one to introduce me to The Amazing Spider Man. When Fin moved into the neighborhood all three of us built the first Memory Avenue Soap Box out of scrap lumber, with the help of Marky’s dad. But, like most friendships in life, Marky had fallen on the popularity food chain that occurs between elementary school, middle school and junior high school. I still liked him and I never picked on him but I knew if I were to reignite our friendship I would suffer the same fate as him. Being an omega kid in an alpha driven educational hierarchy. I slipped my left hand behind my back and gave him a quick thumbs up.
“You’re gonna be in a lot of trouble when Miss Schmidt gets back!” Karen warned.
I saw my buddy Fin stand up, “I have to use the bathroom if that is ok with MISS CORNETT!” he said and walked out of the room.
“Jimmy Finnegan! You are not supposed to leave the classroom while the teacher is not present!” Karen shouted.
And that is about the time the spitball fight started. The main target… Karen Cornett.