Albuquerque, NM – 1994
Like any house, we had neighbors to the left and right. I never in four years met our neighbors to the right. To our immediate left lived a gruff, angry couple who spent their days yelling at their dogs and each other.
They had five Pomeranians that barked all day. Since the fence in the backyard was common, our favorite pastime became teasing these dogs. We threw rocks at them and kicked the fence. When the barking reached a fever pitch the neighbors would storm out and scream at the dogs. We thought this was hilarious.
On several occasions our neighbors caught us red handed. They would yell and try to intimidate us. On one occasion, the husband chased my friends and I up the street threatening us all the way. Needless to say we were enemies after that.
Much as I had done as a kid, my brothers played in the dead space between our houses. One day as they played they discovered a pile of car parts under a tarp. They could think of nothing better to do than to smash them with rocks and sticks. Naturally these car parts belonged to our neighbor, who intended to fix a car he had in storage. Once again our parents were on the line for our destructive tendencies.
Along the shared fence in our backyard stood a wooden play house. It was dirty and worn; none of us played in it. It resided in a part of the yard that never saw the sun, so it was always cold and damp. The inside walls and floor were covered with yellow shag carpeting that had crusted over from exposure to the elements. It smelled strongly on mildew.
They only purpose it had left for Dan and I was as target practice for our throwing knives and Chinese stars. We painted human silhouettes on the face of it and, standing at ten paces, hurled our sharpened projectiles at it for hours.
The wood was hard and the four walls gave it excellent acoustics; it sounded like we were hitting it with a hammer. The neighbors hated it. They yelled at us to stop, claiming they couldn’t hear the TV over our noise. We were sure they were fine, so we continued. Within minutes they came to our front door and complained to my parents. Of course we had to stop. We were pissed. Dan took a particular dislike to them.
One day Dan arrived with the familiar countenance of having committed a crime. His eyes were wide and his expression blank. He breathed quickly but showed no other sign of distress. He said, “Dude, you should see what I.. never mind.”
Within twenty minutes our neighbors were banging on our door. Someone had smashed their porch light with a brick. Glass littered their driveway and the frame was bent in all directions. A brick still lay at the scene. The vandal had also taken a white rock from the rock garden and scratched profanities on the red brick wall by their front door. The neighbors were furious.
Obviously the destruction coincided with Dan’s arrival, but without an eye witnesses it was all purely circumstantial. My parents asked me what I knew about it and I played dumb. They put our neighbors in touch with Dan’s parents, who pleaded no contest and paid for the damage. I think Dan got grounded for a day.
To the left of these neighbors lived a single mother and her two boys. One of them was my age. I would later meet him officially and become friendly with him when I joined the wresting team in high school.
His younger brother was handicapped, probably autistic. He could walk and speak and play, but was obviously diminished. We rarely saw the boy our age, but the younger boy played in his front yard ever day. Dan would frequently pester this boy when he passed and would try to get me to follow along, but I knew better. I couldn’t pick on a handicapped kid. Dan eventually took my lead and left the kid alone. I was glad for that.
The garage door of this house was always open revealing piles of junk. Dan had a habit of popping into open garages; each day on his way to or from my house he would swipe something from the neighbors’ garage. It was never out of necessity or desire; he commonly threw away the things he stole in the nearest dumpster. He loved the thrill of the hunt. He took a soccer ball or two, a tennis racket and various other articles – petty stuff.
One morning he came to my house to walk to school together. He displayed his familiar crime face. He prompted me to hurry, “C’mon man,” he said, “I’ve got to put something out.” I cringed, knowing he’d done something wrong. I grabbed my stuff and we headed out the front door. We passed the first neighbor’s house and already I could smell smoke.
We approached the second neighbors’ house and already I could see flames and smoke billowing from their garage. He look at me with wide eyes; it was clear that his prank had grown beyond his control. He made a few steps as if he was going to try to extinguish it, but seeing that it was too big he stopped. Not knowing what to do we ran to school. I spent the rest of the day in gut-wrenching anxiety.
When I arrived home from school my mother greeted me with excitement. She asked if I had heard what happened. I said no and tried to act curious instead of terrified. She had been taking my younger brothers to school when she saw that the neighbors’ house was on fire. She called 911 and stayed on the scene until the fire department put out the blaze. Since she was the only one one the scene, she talked at length with the fire chief.
He told my mother that the cause was clearly arson; he placed the time of combustion about the time Dan and I left for school. She asked if I had seen anyone lurking around their garage. I said no. I think she suspected Dan, but again there was no evidence and I was the only witness. I spent my remaining years in Albuquerque fearing we would be found out.
At the top of the street, in the last house before the prairie dog field, lived a kid named Tim. Tim was a year or two older than us. I can’t remember how it started, but we were enemies.
Dan and I could take two routes to school: the street in front of the houses, or the ditch behind our houses. We preferred the privacy of the ditch.
But every now and then we would take the front path. And every time we did we would encounter Tim. It was always be trouble. If Dan and I encountered him alone, we would chase him to his house throwing rocks. Once we chased him brandishing knives to scare him, which worked all too well. I still remember the terrified look on his face.
One day as I stood in the back yard with my brother, I saw Time walk by the front of the house. I had an M-80 firework in my pocket that I was saving for just such an occasion. “Hey Nate,” I whispered, “See that guy? Watch this…”
I lit the fuse and cocked my arm back to make the pitch. As I waited for the perfect moment to throw, the firecracker exploded in my hand directly next to my ear. I screamed in pain and ran in circles. My ear rang like a siren and my fingers felt like they’d been smashed by a hammer. I bolted inside and plunged my hand in cold water. After half an hour I was pretty sure I was ok. Nate and I agreed we should not mention this to my parents.
On one occasion Dan and I chased Tim up the street until we arrived at Dan’s. As we stopped, Tim turned around to taunt at us. I flipped him off and called him a pussy. I was mid sentence as I walked face first into the row of hedges in front of house. I crashed completely into them and fell forward, stuck in the branches. I heard Tim howl with laughter. My blood boiled and my face blushed deeply as I backed out of the bushes as quickly as I could. Dan looked at me with bewilderment. It’s difficult to look tough when that happens.
There were also times when Tim and his friends outnumbered us or would find one of us alone. Tim and his friend found me alone one day and cornered me. They let me go but threatened to beat me up if they caught me again. I was relieved; I fully expected the beating then.
Tim’s friend took it upon himself to bully me whenever he saw me at school. After several encounters, I decided that I would fight him one on one. He was much bigger than me, but I had a creative imagination. I could easily picture what it would be like to thoroughly trounce him. The next time I ran into him I challenged him to fight after school. He agreed.
I spent the rest of the day recruiting friends for support. I wanted a big audience to cheer me on. One of my friends gave me a big metal ring with spikes on it to wear in the fight. Victory was certain.
School ended and I arrived at the predetermined spot. Several of my friends arrived too, ready to see some action. I was ready – or at least thought I was. My opponent appeared in the distance. I threw up my hands and talked shit. Without saying a word he charged me and slammed me into the brick wall with a two handed shove. My head whiplashed forward the wind was knocked out of me. This is not how I imagined it would go.
With another shove he easily slammed me against the wall. My confidence vanished. He punched me a couple time and I turtled up and took it. I could not even formulate a coherent defense, let alone mount an offense. From the distance a teacher ran toward us yelling at us to stop. Everyone fled the scene.
I was shocked by how ineffective I had been. Nothing happened according to plan. This was the first time that my vision of how things would go did not correspond to how they went; but it would not be the last. Most young boys learn this lesson over and over.
But this is perfectly natural; it is healthy to be checked by your limits, and it shouldn’t keep you down long. Rather than let such an incident teach a permanent lesson, it teaches us to plan harder for next time. Next time we will execute with perfect precision. And who knows – maybe we will.
Dan and I went to Tim’s house several nights later. We vandalized his parents’ car and spray painted profanity in his driveway. He attended high school the following year so we no longer saw him or his friend.