My friend Richard, the co-conspirator for making saltpeter bombs, was the original latch key kid. He was the only person I knew in High School whose both parents had full time jobs, meaning that neither of them was home when he got out of school.
Richard had to let himself into his house, which also meant that he basically had free run of the place for several hours until his mother got home. To me this would have been a personal dream come true, as there was almost never a time I was without some sort of parental supervision. But for Richard, this freedom and the responsibility that came with it made him as independent in mind and spirit as anyone I knew at the time.
He never had to do any house chores, thus sublimating the free time by having numerous personal concurrent projects and hobbies, which for the most part never included doing homework. On paper, he was an average student. But in mind and spirit he was a teenage Renaissance man. Making gunpowder with me was only the tip of the iceberg.
His father, a newspaper photographer for The New York Daily News, had a darkroom in the basement as well as a large collection of eight-millimeter movie reels, with some of these film clips not being straightforward documentary or archived news stories. Richard had discovered a few reels featuring strip-tease artists hidden in the racks and would then invite several of the guys over to watch them at a charge of 25 cents a head.
He claimed that one of the videos was a clip of the movie actress Gail Storm before she made it big in Hollywood. But the film quality was so poor that it could not allow validating that one of the original porn Queens had successfully gone straight. On Saturdays we would bide our time by watching nudie films or more mundanely dress up as Japanese POWs, then take and immediately develop the goofy pictures of ourselves pretending to be in captivity after WW II.
Richard also had other distractions like a beautiful fish tank; some cage bound pets such as hamsters, turtles, snakes, and tarantulas as well as a large HO model railroad setup that took up the greater part of its own dedicated room. He would spend hours doing most of the detail work on the train set himself which resulted in a miniature work of art, complete with customized train cars gliding through beautiful landscapes.
I was jealous of Richard’s train set and wanted one of my own, but could not afford it on my allowance. My father also categorically refused to begin a new collection, as years ago he had already started a Lionel train set for my brother and me. But I always thought of Lionel trains as being non-detailed, awkward, bulky, and too oversized in reference to its elegant miniature HO counterpart.I also hated the fact that the tracks had a very unrealistic middle third rail while the ties were too widely spaced. To me, it looked stupid.
Also because there never seemed to be enough room in our house to set them up, they lay dormant in boxes until the day that my cousin Byron, my brother and I made a huge train track ramp running all the way down the basement stairs. We then proceeded to essentially wreck the entire set by running the engines and cars down the roller coaster ramp into the basement walls. Although we were reenacting the wreck of the Old 99, I wish now that I still had that early 1950s Lionel train set in mint condition, and could take back the fateful afternoon we all played Casey Jones at the throttle.
Then again, I never did seem capable of saving the potentially good stuff; as I usually cluttered up both my mind and my storage bins with worthless crap, like insipid memories of what might have been or a 25-year collection of pharmaceutical company memorabilia that turned out to be almost worthless.
Richard, being far ahead of the curve, also continuously tinkered with things, trying to invent or reinvent mechanized gadgetry. For example, he was never satisfied with the existing gear ratios on his three-speed bicycle, or the tire sizes that he always tried to alter in order to gain speed or mechanical advantages. Racing bicycles came along thirty years later.
He was also an expert in building and flying remote control balsa wood airplanes. Or sometimes we would build model race cars, and using small captured frogs as drivers because they looked just like tiny men with race helmets on their heads and goggles on their eyes, would spend hours running them down the hill on the road outside my house. Sometimes we would set the cars on fire with lighter fluid to simulate a crash; an act of now regretful lack of respect for animal rights as well as something else I wish I could also take back again or do over. Live and learn.
Once when he was in his late teens I saw a ridiculous looking gadget on his bed. He had dismantled the fish tank pump that ran on a piston drive and had attached the rotary component of it to a small leather pouch that he said he could use to masturbate with just by lying in bed without having to actually do any work with his hands. He said he could read a comic book while the gadget did its thing. Although I have no clue as to what might have happened to the fish after he cut off their oxygen supply, I guess his little machine probably lifted him to such a personally hedonistic Ozone level that the loss of a few innocent guppies really didn’t matter anyway.
On Halloween he would dress up in theater quality Vampire suits, hide along the pathways where smaller children were walking, then jump out, scaring the daylights out of them by holding them up for candy ransom. He also rigged his mailbox with a remote speaker inside, along with a pulley to open and close the door flap so that when a younger child would come up his walk way for trick or treats, it would play a recording of ghostly moans or werewolf howls. This would make the kids run away screaming in terror. It was mean spirited; but it was also very clever, as he hardly ever had to dole out candy at the door. Trick. No treat.
In 1963 when the Beatles stormed America, he started his own band when he latched onto the idea that the new music would be popular on the pedestrian level. He got me interested in the guitar, taught me some primitive chord sequences, and although I didn’t join the band I did continue self-taught play.
Not to be intimidated by the Beatles popularity, he simply stated:
- If they can do it, then why can’t I?
His vision was prescient as the world then saw a tidal wave of new groups making recordings. Eventually he convinced the school administration to let his band play at a few high school dances. Although the music was terrible it didn’t matter because he was having fun doing what he wanted to do. Then suddenly as if by magic, his image changed, he was no longer perceived to be a geek, the girls seemed to really dig it and before he knew it he was fighting them off.
At about the same time in 1964, Richard’s father, who was assigned by the newspaper to photograph one of the Beatles first American concerts at New York City’s Paramount Theater, had been given some front row tickets as perks. An ecstatic Richard asked me to accompany him and his father, but my mother put the kibosh on my equally excited enthusiasm.
I was sixteen at the time and although I would be with an adult, numerous cajoling whiny pleas fell on completely deaf ears. She did not want me to be in New York at night, because after all, it was thirty miles away from home. So she pontificated:
- Everyone knows it’s a dangerous place. You might get kidnapped.
- But Mom, please, please let me go.
- So what part of “no” don’t you understand; the N or the O? Besides, it’s a Sunday and that’s a school night, too.
This disappointment was lumped into the same category as her throwing away my mini loaf of Howdy Doody Wonder Bread, along with all my TOPS baseball cards. Kidnapping, I secretly thought might even turn out to be blessing in disguise. It is also doubtful in the retrospect of knowing how popular the Beatles eventually became, that she would reconsider and let me go to the show anyway.
Most adults thought the Fab Four to be just another passing fancy, while most parents could be collectively quoted as saying:
- Stop listening to that stuff. That music is going to rot your brain. And look at their silly looking clothes; tight silver suits, pointy toed black ginzo shoes and those ridiculous haircuts. What do they think they are Pageboys or something?
Perhaps, or better yet, because little could anyone remotely guess in those early days of their first appearances, that one day soon The Beatles would in fact become venerated as lving musical legends and eventually go on to be Knighted by their Queen.
Oh Mommy, Mommy
Please may I go?
It’s such a sight to see
Somebody steal the show.
Oh Daddy, Daddy
I beg of you
Whisper to Mommy
It’s alright with you.
Cause they’ll be rockin’ in Boston
In Pittsburgh, Pa.
Deep in the heart of Texas
And round the Frisco Bay
All over St. Louis
Way down in New Orleans
All the cats wanna dance with
Sweet little Sixteen
(Chuck Berry: Sweet Little Sixteen)