This is an excerpt from a longer piece. I was thinking about old friends today, and how they can shape your life in good ways and in bad. Also, how much the experiences we have when younger stay with us…
I’m sure junior high was (and is) meant to prepare kids for the mind-sucking black hole that is high school. Our classes get harder, and we have more homework. We start working on group projects, and have the opportunity to participate in more organized activities–things like athletics or student government. We start to notice the opposite sex. We experiment with cuss words, and our bodies start doing all kinds of crazy things. For me, it was a little different. Puberty ran a little late, and I was quick to discover how cruel and sometimes merciless early teenage boys can be. Though both years of my junior high experience were powerfully difficult, they were also where a learned the most about myself, and who I was to people. Eighth grade was even worse than seventh, if such a thing was possible.
My friends and I mostly kept to ourselves, and did the same things probably most boys did during the early 1980’s: we played outside. We walked along the culvert that ran parallel to Fanita Drive and pretended we were on a long journey. It would only go so far, though. We figured out pretty early on that when you got to the point where the ditch turned into a tunnel and went, I think, under Grossmont College, that it became darker than a politician’s heart in no time at all. We learned this the day my friend Robbie’s little brother earned the immortal nickname “Shit Stains.”
We had thrown some granola bars and 16-ounce bottles of Coke into my friend’s backpack, and simply started walking down the ditch, as we called it. After about a half mile or so, we came across a dead and bloated white cat—it was puffed up like an over-inflated balloon. Ronnie’s brother (prior to his christening) got the idea that it would be fun to poke it with a stick. He jabbed at the side of the cat, and as the stick pierced it, a vile cloud of decayed stink hissed out and all three of us nearly hurled immediately. Little brother dropped the stick and we all started running along the top of the culvert toward the street—Prospect Avenue, I think.
After a few more minutes, we got to where the cement sides of the ditch ended and the tunnel under Harvard on the Hill began. Little brother took point and we began walking into the darkness. I suddenly wished someone had remembered a flashlight. It was freaking dark! Water trickled from somewhere, and though we could barely see, we heard our feet splashing through the shallow water as we walked.
Suddenly, there was a noise in the darkness, like something falling over. That was all it took, and we turned around and started running as if the devil himself were behind us. Little brother was in the rear this time, and just as we were passing from the darkened reaches of the tunnel into the bright daylight, his feet slipped out from under him and he went down on his ass. He skidded for a short distance, and when he stood up to dust himself off, we noticed the small amount of water in the ditch combined with the dirt had left a green smear along with a shit brown mark down the length of his backside.
Shit Stains was born.
We decided to cut the adventure short after that, and after a brief intermission for a clothing change, we adjourned to the field next to Ronnie’s house for a safer pursuit—no rules tackle football. It wasn’t much of a game, really. Sometimes we just tossed the ball into the air and tackled the hell out of whoever caught it—which was really just the timeless and very politically incorrect game of “smear the queer,” though we didn’t call it that at first. Mainly, this was because none of us had much of a clue what a “queer” was, other than something you didn’t want to be.
For all we knew, queers were some nameless thing that parents came up with to scare kids into behaving, akin to the Boogey Man, or Bloody Mary, or the chupacabra. We had only the most rudimentary ideas about what homosexuality was, and certainly didn’t have any clue they were people in the same way we were people. Also, people during the early 1980’s (especially my parents) didn’t really talk about gay people or gay things when I was a kid—at least not to me.
Of course, my parents really never talked about hetero sex, either. I didn’t know much besides you laid on top of someone and things happened—what “things” I had yet to figure out. It wasn’t until I was 11 or 12 that I found my dad’s stash of skin magazines. There was a stash under the sink in our camper, another in my dad’s boat, and still another under the bathroom sink. A few stolen glimpses through those were my initial exposure to “how things worked.” I never had “the talk” with either of my parents, and I remember my dad saying something to me once that I “had to learn somewhere.”
It never really occurred to me that it should have been from him. That was something I would not learn until many years later, when I had two boys of my own.
So, we played “Smear the Queer,” and we shot BB guns, and we threw mudballs and read comic books. Every once in a while, we would be able to summon up enough guys and enough enthusiasm to play an actual game of football—those days were the best. The kids who swung by the field would not always want to join the game (we played pretty rough). Often kids would just hang out for a few minutes and move on, while those willing to risk getting piled on by a group of geeks would leap into the fray, and join us for a game. It was a day like that when David came by. We knew him from school, but he was never really part of our little enclave, because we thought he was a little weird. He and his family were Jehova’s Witnesses, and to us that just didn’t make any sense at all.
We didn’t know anything about the minutiae of his religion, only that they didn’t do anything cool; like celebrate holidays or birthdays. He had a little brother, and a pretty cute sister a year younger than us, so we were friendly enough when we did interact with him.
This one particular day, he came by and we had just finished an especially bloody game of Smear the Queer. Skinned knees and elbows abounded, along with a split lip on Shit Stains. We decided to adjourn into his backyard and begin work on a fort we wanted to build from scrap plywood and stolen nails—it ended up taking most of the weekend. The highlight was waiting until dark one night and destroying one of those newspaper recycling boxes for the six pieces of blue painted plywood it would yield. Then I jacked a couple handfuls of nails from my dad’s toolbox. After that, the work went relatively quickly, and soon enough we had a single story plywood fort with a single blue door you had to crawl through and a rudimentary fireplace made from some red bricks and mud we’d scraped up with our hands.
We also hoped to boost a few Playboys from the liquor store next to Ronnie’s house so we could paper the walls of our fort. It was really pretty easy—someone had found out the year before that the store owner kept a stash of stroke books next to the toilet in the little bathroom to the back of the store. One guy would ask to use the toilet while the other talked to him and distracted him enough we could sneak by with the magazines down our pants or stuffed into a backpack.
The day we hung out with David, we decided to use him as the decoy. I would stand out front and Ronnie would be the bathroom user. Everything worked out according to plan, and a few minutes later, we had two Playboy Magazines (one featuring the actress Suzanne Somers’ famous pictorial) and another called Hot Cherries, or something to that effect. We immediately adjourned to the backyard to start decorating.
Suzanne got the place of honor next to the door, and we decided that the following evening would be a good night for a sleepover.
There were four of us in the fort that night. We’d managed to procure several dozen carpet samples—I can’t remember where—and had covered the hard dirt with them so we didn’t have to unroll sleeping bags on the ground. Robbie brought in a cassette player and we listened to the soundtrack from the movie Heavy Metal. I hadn’t yet seen the movie—it was rated R and I hadn’t had the chance. The soundtrack was good, though. It featured artists like Sammy Hagar, and Don Felder from The Eagles.
So the four of us—me, Robbie, Shit Stains and David—listened to music and talked about movies, and at first the fort was filled with the sounds of laughter and excited conversation. Then a time came when it got quiet for a minute or so and David decided he was going to tell us something.
He muttered a few words that sounded a lot like “kite thighs,” and Robbie said “Say that again?”
“I like guys,” he whispered.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked.
He said it again, followed by “I’m a ‘faggot.’”
We were silent for a minute, and then the three of us burst into laughter. He was having us on.
“No, really,” he said. “It’s OK.”
“Seriously?” asked Shit Stains.
David swore it was true, and then offered to prove it by performing a certain act upon the three of us.
We were all silent and then one of the brothers looked at him and slowly said “Get the fuck out of here.”
“Come on, guys…” David said, and looked at each of us in turn. “It’s no big deal. Lots of people are.”
“Get. The. Fuck. Out of here.”
Robbie literally kicked David in the ass and then shoved him toward the door. We then laid into him with a chorus of “go home, fag,” and things of that nature. He dropped to his knees and crawled out the door. I could hear a short bark of either tears or laughter as he ran across the lawn. It never occurred to me that what I had just been part of was just as bad as what the little punk asses had done who had made such sport of me in the shower.
The following Monday when we got to school, we somehow got the idea it would be great fun to tell everyone we possibly could what David had told us, and had offered to do. It eventually got back to the Vice Principal, and we were made to apologize. David just stood there and listened, but didn’t say much of anything. It didn’t really matter, anyway. The damage was done. That kid was a pariah for the rest of the 8th grade. No one wanted to spend any time with him, and to my knowledge, he was pretty much a loner for the rest of the year. On the 8th grade trip to Disneyland, he walked around by himself with one of the chaperones because no one wanted to hang out with him. It wasn’t until then I started to really feel shitty about what we had done to him. I never really thought about his motives in telling us what he had. Maybe he’d just wanted to get it off his chest and thought he could trust us—he didn’t really have any friends after all. None of us knew him the way we knew each other.
A couple days after the Disneyland trip, I decided I was going to go over to his house and try to talk to him. He lived a mile or so from the brothers, and they lived less than that from me, so I just walked over. I knew where his house was, but had not actually been there. His family lived in a large, old-fashioned looking white house with a large front yard. Parked kitty-corner to the house was a silver Airstream trailer with a couple lawn chairs in front of it.
When I knocked on the door, David came out and stood on the front porch.
“Hey, man…” I said, and then my voice just trailed off. I didn’t really know what to say. “Nice house. It’s big—looks like something out of a movie.”
He pointed over at the Airstream. “My parents stay in there. My sister and brother and me live in the house. They come in to eat, though.”
It was the weirdest thing I’d ever heard, and I had no idea how to respond. So I got to the point.
“I just wanted to tell you…about Saturday night—“
“Forget it,” he interrupted. We stood there awkwardly for a minute, and I realized he’d let me off the hook. I didn’t want to be. I felt like a dick.
“I’m sorry, man.” I said. “Not because Mr Caldwell told me to say it. I just am.”
“Yeah, well…” he said. “I’m studying.”
“OK, well, I’ll let you get back to it.”
I walked away without saying goodbye, and that was the last time I can remember talking to him. He was a ghost the last month or so of school. I don’t know if anyone else talked to him, either. I think I’ll regret that weekend for the rest of my life.
That Saturday night would be a weight for years to come, and the cool kids at my school never really did stop giving me shit at every opportunity. It didn’t bother me as much now—maybe because it seemed like a deserved some ridicule after what had happened with David. Yet even with that, I was still able to survive junior high, and looked forward to high school because I figured there I would be able to start over again, in a place where only a few people would know me. I would be an even littler fish than I had been in junior high, and I was OK with that. It would be a lot easier, I figured.