I would ride my bike past the mental hospital near our home.

Brownstone gothic buildings were clustered in the center, and a spear topped wrought iron fence ran for miles along the perimeter of the grounds. It was designed by an architect with a bizarre appreciation of insanity. The same buildings proliferated across the state, a manifest realization of our dreams of lunacy. If an inmate was visible on the grounds, I heeded my older brother’s warning that they would grab me, pull me through the bars, and rip my arms off. I pedaled furiously until the fence became a blur of whizzing stakes that I could no longer see through. I believed that if I couldn’t see them…they couldn’t see me.

We were, all of us, innocent.

None of us knew what it meant to survive then. We all took risks: some brilliant; some pathetically stupid. Living was a haphazard game that was softened by small crimes. The shoplift, the lies, the skirting of rules and regulations which seemed more like challenges than laws. Success was a manipulative effort…harder if your family had no resources…ours did not. To move from childhood to manhood involved petty infractions of almost everything. This, I think, was not unusual in blue collar America. The have-nots felt some implied obligation to finesse from those who had. Often it was minor and innocent…or ignorant, designed to secure some necessity or momentary need by taking rather than earning. We played at cops and robbers. We preyed on the weak and vulnerable. Or protected them.

It was a learning curve.

The boy who kneeled on my chest and beat me for walking down his street was chased by a man who had been beaten once before. That boy’s brother became my best friend. I saved my younger brother from a beating in the same way, and became summer friends with the thug. He lifted weights for months in secret and punched me goodbye in the autumn.

He died in Vietnam.

As teenagers, we ran through the streets as a “gang” of  boys…heroes or hostiles, it didn’t seem to matter. We were looking for adventure, not trouble; although in our boyish hearts we thought we were ready for anything. Our creativity manifested in elaborate “games”, in which we were both predators and prey. On a ridiculous lark we staged a “murder”, so that we could watch with hilarity as the “murderer”tried to squirm out of blame only to realize later just how innocent he was.

I don’t think it was a character issue. It was survival training, where all the rules were askew. We leaped from roof to roof in mock escape, delighting in being caught and “killed” on the spot.

The older we got, the more ominous our neighborhoods became.

People were discovered bound with wire and gagged with their own testicles. Bodies showed up in unlikely places or didn’t show up at all. The ones that were found were meant as messages. Those who left the messages were mysterious agents of doom. We spent more time wondering what they had done to receive that sort of punishment, than worrying over who they were and who mourned for them. It never occurred to us that the death was a tragedy for someone we didn’t know. The girl you dated could be related to the killer or the daughter of the killed. We were kids.

Still, we didn’t lock our doors. Neighbor watched out for neighbor. Sounds were alerts that demanded a curious response. We didn’t cower in fear behind shuttered windows. We took care of each other. Children roamed the streets throughout the day and came in when it was dark. Bruises were ignored, broken bones were not. I never saw a policeman until one of my friends became one, sort of. He didn’t last long. The temptations afforded by enabling crime were greater than the gratification of stopping it.

There were no bad people, only survivors and escapees.

The games evolved. The prey became real. We would chase down and beat a black boy for wandering into the neighborhood, simply because he was different. They would chase and beat us if we wandered into theirs. We justified everything with a self-deluded haze of impermanency.

We went to war and those same black boys were there beside us…brothers in arms. We came back crazy or didn’t come back at all. Innocence became opposition; mischief became resistance, and the world became deadly serious…our lives were never the same.

The inmates of the asylum were were on the wrong side of the spear tipped bars.


~ by theoxherd on April 15, 2012.

2 Responses to “Ephemera”

  1. “like” is the wrong word here.

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