Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ghosts of the Battleships

It’s been said the Golden Age of science fiction is not the Forties or the Fifties. No, the Golden Age of science fiction is around Eleven. When a boy’s eleven, and he gets pulled in just past the event horizon of Asimov, or Bradbury, or Clarke, or Heinlein – well, life is good and complete and endlessly fascinating and overflowing with wonder.

As a corollary, Eleven was probably the most wonderful time of my life. This was a year or two before my parents divorced. I lived in a house I loved, I lived in a neighborhood filled with endless possibilities, I went to a school I was comfortably perfect in – or perfectly comfortable in – and I pal’d around that year with a kid named Mark, getting into all sorts of devilishly fun mischief you can really only appreciate if you had once been an eleven year old boy.

Yeah, we were in school together, in the same class. Though we weren’t “bullies” by any stretch of the imagination, we made up elaborate backstories about our classmates. I remember a somewhat heavy ethnic kid – who probably wound up a collegiate offensive lineman – that took the brunt of our weirdness. And he never even knew it.

But most of our troublemaking happened around the neighborhood. Ring and run was a favorite past-time. That soon grew boring, so, being criminal masterminds, we recruited my little brother to do the ringing and running. We, of course, would hide in the bushes in the house across the street and observe the homeowner’s reaction. I even had the grand idea to tell my brother to ring the bell, run to the edge of the property, and lay at the base of a three-foot stone wall out of sight of the front porch. Unfortunately, the owner, dumbfounded and perplexed, decided to walk out and leisurely inspect just about every inch of his front yard. He literally stood two feet directly above him, yet never spotted my no-doubt terrified little brother. We, of course, giggled with glee from safety on the other side of the road.

Like many gateway drugs, this led to harder stuff. Harder in this case meant: let’s have my little brother “play dead” at the side of the road, half on the curb, half off, while Mark and myself would camouflage ourselves behind nearby shrubbery. We’d wait a remarkably short time before cars pulled over to investigate this “dead” child – at which point my brother would take off running like the devil himself was after him. We always made sure we were close enough to hear the remarks of our “victims” as they returned to their cars: “I thought he was dead!” I remember one young man saying to an older woman as clear as if I heard it at dinner tonight.

Me and Mark targeted a local home fix-it supply store called Rickels, causing mayhem for their poor minimum-wage employees. We set all the display alarm clocks to go off all at once. We put six-inch hollow black plumbing tubes into the fake toilets and closed the lid – ho, ho! what a surprise awaited the unsuspecting shopper. We even got kicked out by the store detective one day.

There was a stream that meandered beyond the wooden fence in Mark’s backyard. We hopped over and followed it all the way down to the mill and the pond a little way’s away. The stream was overflowing with tin cans. We hit upon the idea of asking the mill owner’s permission to fish out all the cans and recruited my brother to help. Of course, he eventually fell into the blue scummy water and had to bike all the way home to shower the foul odor off himself. This was probably the most altruistic thing we did (at least superficially; I believe we had it in mind to make 5 cents off each can, but it never got that far).

Another time we had the intelligent idea to stick a Frankenstein mask on the end of a stick, go under a nearby two-lane bridge, and poke it up over the sewer grating at passing cars. Very quickly, however, the tables were turned on us as a motorist – who obviously had no sense of humor – pulled over, ripped the Franken-stick out of our hands, and hurled it at us spear-like as we fled down the stream away from the road.

Over in my neck of the woods, we hit upon the idea of trying to scare people a different way. I stole a plastic tin of talcum powder from my mother’s dresser as Mark came over my house one night. We did up our faces to look as unnaturally pale as possible, then moved out down my street, looking for houses with windows open and “victims” visible inside. We found a few and paraded as zombies back and forth on the sidewalk … and elicited exactly no response. A rare dud for us, I suppose.

I have lots more memories of those days, a lot disjointed, a lot that run on to no discernible conclusion. There was a birdcage that hung on a tree at that stream behind Mark’s house for no comprehensible reason whatsoever. Playing Battleship with Mark in my backyard and Mark taking the destroyed battleships, hovering them about in the air, saying something that the “ghosts of the battleships are returning!” Going to the movie theaters by ourselves for the first time, and seeing … The Poseidon Adventure 2 (!) Mark extolling the virtues of the Chuck Heston movie The Omega Man one afternoon, then calling me up later that day after I went home to exclaim, “It’s on teevee right now!”

And many more I won’t bore you with, primarily because they probably wouldn’t make any sense to you.

* * * * * * *

I’m not big on the Facebook thing; probably cause I’m about a generation removed from its target market I suppose. After my hospitalization in 2009, when I unexpectedly found myself with a lot of down time with a pink slip with my final check, a friend strongly encouraged me to sign up. Reluctantly I did, because such public non-anonymous displays embarrass me. But guess who “friended” me a month later? Yup. Mark. My best friend from over thirty years ago.

We corresponded and caught up, and maybe checked in once a year or so, all via email. Then, out of the blue, he let me know his family was coming cross-country into town to visit relatives. Would I want to get my family together with his for a bite to eat?

Immediately as I read his words, all the thoughts and memories preceding flooded through me. Stuff I hadn’t thought of in decades. Would I? You bet. Opportunities like this you can’t just leave to “tomorrow.”

One night between Christmas and New Years, Mark and I met and grabbed some Mexican food with the families in tow. Over a couple of beers we reminisced and caught up with life stories and chatted up our jobs and houses and towns. He and his wife have two daughters, just like me and mine have, though a year or two older. They shyly played the mental chess pre-adolescents do, barely speaking to each other until breaking the ice as we’re all putting on jackets to leave.

It was a tremendous ninety minutes that I wish was two or three times longer. We left in the rain making promises to reconnect in a few years when my family would be vacationing near his once my little ones are a bit older. On the ride home all they talked about were Mark’s daughters, while I drove watching the wipers rhythmic motion, my mind half in 2011, half in 1978.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful!!! Always

Mark said...

Best article I have read in years. I am honored to be part of this memory and wouldn't change a thing. Time marches on, but fond memories never change.