Okay, that may be an overstatement, but we did love burning shit and building fires, albeit small ones. During the Sixties on Bruning Street every back yard had a ‘burning barrel’ (Can you imagine? Today? In California? Actually burning trash in town? Oh how times change.)
There was only one rule: The fire in the burning barrel had to be out by noon. No problem. I always volunteered for Burn Barrel Duty. Mom was happy to oblige.
Fire fascinated me, but what I really craved was camping out and with a ‘proper’ camp fire: just a little rustic thing with rocks all about and something to cook, preferably some dead animal, but a potato would do in a pinch. Ricky shared my fire obsession, but was none too keen on the culinary part of the exercise. He just liked breaking the rules. And building fires. And burning shit.
So for about three weeks running, every day after school we would meet in my side-yard, where there would be less chance of prying eyes busting us, and build a small camp fire. I would steal potatoes, or carrots, or bologna, or spam, and using an old coffee can, we would cook away. As I recall we never ate any of this food, but that wasn’t really the point was it?
The Old Broad who lived next door hated all the kids in the neighborhood–with a purple-fluorescent passion. Her daughter had managed to escape her conscience by purchasing the house and dumping her off there to fend, checking in every six years (OK: weeks).
She had a beautiful pristine grassy front yard, golf-green-like, never feeling the wet kiss of a Ked’s sneaker, a bicycle tread, or even a bare foot. She had drawn a line on her border:
Abandon All Hope:
KIDS Who Set Foot On My Lawn
My buddies and I were rowdy kids (Read: Normal) But when we played in my front yard we were cognizant of The Witch’s Yard, and did our best not to inadvertently step on it. Because we all knew That Bitch was watching from her window; I mean, what the hell else did she have to do with her time?
One afternoon, just about the whole neighborhood was playing ‘Batman & Robin’ vs The ‘Green Hornet’ vs ‘The Man from Uncle’ vs ‘James Bond’ in my yard.
Call it a ‘Super Hero Smack Down’ if you like.
Things got out of hand and I took multiple bullets from Kato and then method-acted my death, falling prostrate onto The Bitch’s yard. Seeing my over-acting (and my trespass), my gang scattered like dew in West Texas on a hot summer day. I lay there for a moment, not unlike Laurence Olivier in the death scene from ‘Lear’, waiting for the applause.
What I heard instead was the screeching of what should have been an owl.
Was The Witch/Bitch. She was screeching and running toward me,(Shades of Mr. Peabody)I got up, jumped back onto ‘safe ground’ (mine) and prepared myself for the royal chastising. I did not have to wait long.
This old broad proceeded to lay in to me with the most vitriolic rage I had ever heard up until that day.
Not knowing what to say, I just stood there, head half-bowed and took it. My gang slowly made their way back in what I mistakenly thought to be a show of Solidarity. They gathered around on either side of me, but not too close. The Old Bat, now with a perfect opportunity to lecture the entire population of juvenile delinquents on Bruning Street, took her stage and launched her soliloquy,
“You kids have no respect! You know you are ruining my yard! Look at all of you! You-should-be-ashamed! You have no respect!” Then she leveled her eyes, laser-like at me,
“And this kid,” she said, pointing a bony finger in my face. “This kid! Look at him! He is laughing at me! Laughing!”
(Clarification: it was a smirk, involuntary, but certainly to the uninitiated a smirk nonetheless. You see, my entire life I have had no control over my ‘smirk’ and this has gotten me into much trouble and has indeed cost me some relationships, but I just cannot help it. When something strikes me funny or ludicrous, the muscles in my face take over, and… well, I guess ‘smirk’ works well enough for the description.
Alas. Tis a curse.
Growing exasperated, and then feigning great ‘Old Helpless Lady’ sorrow, she said,
“Look how he laughs at me! Look how he mocks me! Me! Just a poor old woman who only wants to have a nice yard. Is this too much to ask from my old age?”
And with that performance thus ended, she turned and slowly (for full effect) sauntered off and made her sorrowful, broken old lady exit, stage left. (Mind you: this was the same lady that, OJ Simpson-Like-in an Airport, had burst upon the scene five minutes previous, flaying talons and rage.)
My best buddy, Randy, came up to me and asked oh so solemnly, “Lance, do you… laugh?”
“Not anymore,” I said brusquely, and walked toward the front door of my house. Everyone else slowly dispersed, all heart-sick and remorseful.
“And thanks for having my back” I said under my breath, to no one in particular, as I entered my house.
So I was pissed at my Bruning Street Gang for some weeks and fell in with Ricky full-time. Fine with me. We were having great times every afternoon building our campfire, roasting and boiling whatever I could filch from Mom’s fridge or upon occasion, the odd hapless toad or lizard, or mouse.
One Friday afternoon, I scored two potatoes and a couple of carrots from Mom’s fridge and went to my side yard to wait for Ricky. Presently he showed up with a half package of hot dogs and a few slices of five-day-old Wonder Bread and a bottle of Ketchup.
Now we had a problem
“Ricky, gonna take us hours to cook all this shit,” I said.
“Aw shit! Well, we can just build a bigger fire, yeah?”
“I dunno. Too much smoke and we gonna get caught,” I protested.
“Bullshit! Ain’t nobody around. Who gonna see it?”
So we went to work digging out our fire pit to accommodate a much larger fire. I had some bricks I stole from the pile my stepfather had brought for the construction of the patio he had started. I placed them around the perimeter of the fire pit. Ricky scrounged about and found some pieces of four by fours my step-father had been using to lay out the pattern of the patio. I went into the house and found a fresh McCall’s Magazine belonging to my Mom and brought it out for kindling.
We proceeded to build a proper ‘camp fire’. Actually, it was more of a bonfire to tell the truth, but we weren’t worried. The McCall’s magazine smoke was a little overwhelming though.
As we were preparing the vegetables and the hot dogs for cooking I heard the sliding door slide open. Not good. Mom was not supposed to be home for another hour. I ran to intercept her before she could get to the side yard.
“Hi Mom,” I said. “Hey Mom. I’m hungry. Can I have a sandwich?” I was actually trying to push her with my chest as I said this and she was having none of it.
She pushed by me and turned the corner to the side yard.
“Lance! Ricky! Put out that fire! What is wrong with you?!”
“OK! OK! Mom! We will!”
Then I heard the sirens.
Three fire trucks pulled up in front of my house and firemen jumped out frantically, dragging hoses and shouting like crazy. They knocked the little fence down which separated my side yard from the street. The lead fireman, looking left, looking right, shouted, “Where’s the fire! Where’s the fire!”
Then he saw it: A fire about the size of a ‘Smokey Joe’ BBQ grill, and he fell down laughing, dropping his nozzle.
He recovered, picked up his fire hose, then doused the fire, me, mom, and Ricky (I think out of spite, or frustration), then turned to his fellows and said, trying to regain his composure,
“Fire’s out Boys. Somebody call it in.”
Of course now I was in deep shit. The Fireman summoned me out to the front yard (which was embarrassing as everyone, and I do mean everyone in the neighborhood were assembled all about) and had a little talk with me before they left;
“Son, do you realize you could have burned that house down? Did you see how close that fire was to your house?”
(‘Yeah’, I remember thinking; ‘about six feet, no wind, and me with a garden hose at the ready’. But wisely, I said nothing and opted for remorseful—the one time my built-in smirk did not betray me.)
He continued, “If we are ever called out here again, we are gonna take you down to juvenile hall. You understand?”
“Uh Yeah, I mean, Yes Sir.”
After the smoke cleared, literally and metaphorically, I discovered it was the Old Witch Next Door who had copped us out and called the fire department.