The Paris boys and I used to sit at the edge of their yard, a little bluff overlooking the rutted alley that split Willsie Avenue from Lemon Avenue and faced Van Buren Street, looking east toward the hill up which we walked to General Beadle Elementary School.  Two years separated each of us; me, Wayne, Marty, John.  Occasionally another neighbor boy, Dale Jakeway or one of the Whalen boys (where they all named John? possibly…) would sit with us, but we mostly saved this activity for ourselves.

Author with Pepper, circa 1962.

This would have been 1964, the year that Chevrolet re-introduced the El Camino and Ford the Mustang.  We’d sit on the dirt underneath the lilac bushes that formed a hedge around the Paris’s backyard and pick rocks out of the ground. Our homes had been built on landfill–the ground was loaded with rocks and tin cans and the detritus of building the rest of our town, you never knew what you’d find when you started digging; we would idly pitch them at the gravel parking area below. There was a duplex at the corner, bright yellow shingles and wooden screen doors with the mesh coming undone; mind you, we weren’t trying to hit a car, but just pitching rocks in general to see who could hit an imaginary (or real) object, who had the best arm (Wayne, the older brother, did).

The Paris boys were my ersatz brothers; occasionally, whenever my mother and I went anywhere for longer than a few days, I was allowed to invite one of the brothers to come with as a companion; usually I chose Marty, although Wayne was closer to my age, Marty was smarter and we seemed to share a more complete friendship than I did with Wayne.  As Wayne and I came into our teen years our relationship became more complicated and involved, not intellectually, but most certainly physically.

If I went outside there they’d be, one of them at least, and we’d go off on our bikes or ‘take a hike’ or play in our pink gravel driveway with my Tonka trucks — of course with the trucks there were strict rules of usage and what could be done to them or with them or I’d pack it all in and take them inside — those boys played rougher than I did, a result I assumed of actually having brothers.

When the heat of summer became too oppressive, we’d ride our bikes down to Robinson Park and go swimming in the community pool, the pool house’s concrete floor slick with water and heady with the smell of chlorine and wet children.  Their mother, Dolores, was home, but rarely interfered with our activities, unless of course, we were making too much noise too close to their house, or if someone got hurt.  I and one or more of them would walk over to Haines Street where there was a little Ma & Pa grocery and buy candy. If I had any extra money from my allowance, I’d treat, because even though my mother and I were struggling, the Paris’s, just by their sheer number, were worse off than we were. The father a truck driver — and an abusive drunk — wasn’t home often and I’ll never know how they even managed to put food on the table, let alone treat the kids to a chocolate bar or a bag of red licorice whips.

Did I mention that the boys had an older sister, two years my senior?   Debbie and I would play together once-in-a-while, usually more imaginary games, such as pretending to chauffeur the Beatles around in our car, she and I in the front seat and using our Beatles bubble gum cards as place holders for the actual Beatles in the back seat.  One summer afternoon, she and I raided our pantry and ate a whole can of black olives while sitting on our back stoop, it made both of us sick to our stomachs and confessing to our mothers what we had done was as embarrassing a moment as I remember from my childhood, at least one of them; you know, it was the shame of being stupid.   And eventually, once I was in high school, Dolores got pregnant one more time and added another daughter, Elizabeth, at the tail end of her marriage–five kids in a two bedroom, one bath cracker box of a house.

About this time, when I was 10 or 11, I started building model cars.  After carefully saving my allowance (or at least a part of it) and when I had three or four dollars put away, I could ride down to Main Street in Rapid City to the hobby shop and select a new model, perhaps even buy that sparkly cherry red paint–it looked like nail polish–of course, I know you’re thinking “he’d ride downtown on his bike all by himself at such a young age,” and yes, it’s true, if I let my mother know where I was going–calling her at work to check in after school or during summer break, she might come home for lunch, and I’d ask if it was okay to ride my bike into town.  Children then, at least the kids I knew, had a lot more freedom to do as they pleased than children today.  it wasn’t unusual for us to be away from home for several hours, exploring this vacant lot or that one, “oh, let’s go one more street over and see what’s there,” was a fairly constant refrain for us, smaller versions of Daniel Boone or the Rifleman–one of us always had an air gun or bb gun or a phony bowie knife of dubious sharpness that we would take on these longer excursions.   It felt good to be armed, such as it was.  Us, on the way to being men.

So the summer would go by, and sometimes the early fall, until the first snowfall, you’d often find us in that year when the El Camino came back and the Mustang was the hottest thing on four wheels, sitting on the bluff overlooking Van Buren and up the hill to the east where cars would suddenly appear and take the dive down the steep hill and roll up toward us.  You could hear the motors first, and the object of our time there was to claim the car as our own, before anyone else could, scoring points for the discerning ear that signaled the coming of a Mustang or an El Camino, by calling out, “that one’s mine!”   Extra points would be scored if the car bore out-of-state plates, more for those from further away, California always seemed so exotic then, more so than any cars from the east.

So many children’s problems get worked out when they sit together and conspire to enjoy themselves over the least of activities, and children do have problems, ones they won’t share with anyone other than another child.  There’s the constant pressure to behave, to conform to the standards of adults, who can be so mercurial and difficult to comprehend, all those mixed signals, “I love you,” “leave me alone, I’m busy,” “what do you think you’re doing young man?”, “you are the sweetest child.”  So sitting there, a little grimy from playing, grass stains on your knees whether you have long pants on or not–just the thought of grass stains conjures up that wonderful feeling  of being lower to the ground than an adult, and how your perspective of the world is informed from that closeness to the earth and of not having to be so far away from it, it seems to center a child, even if they are daydreamers with golden clouds of  “what ifs” and “why nots” swirling around their heads, before adulthood squelches those impulses, if their education hasn’t already.  You know, while you can still call out, “that one’s mine!” and grab onto that fleeting moment as if it truly were yours.





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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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