A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 3
by Jake Rohrer, May 12, 2011
Teenage boys, goaded by their surging hormones, run in packs like the primal horde. They have only a brief season of exhilarating liberty between control by their mothers and control by their wives. — Camille Paglia
Junior high school was a revelation after spending kindergarten through grade six tucked away in Kensington. Suddenly, I had a separate teacher for each subject in separate classrooms rather than one teacher for all subjects in a single classroom. I don't recall a single black student attending my grammar school. Now there were lots of them. Mexicans, Asians, guys who shaved and shapely girls with noticeable breasts. There were even a few guys who drove cars. Then, once daily after physical education class, I was required to take a shower in the middle of the day with about 200 other guys. Once you reached grade six in grammar school, you were at the top of the ladder, there were no upper class men to look down on you or push you around. Now, in grade seven, there I was again, at the bottom of the ladder.
What a strange new world it was. Tough looking guys with greasy hair who smoked cigarettes and wore blue jeans low on their waist roamed the terrain like dangerous animals. Each had a particular slouch and style, like they were daring someone to fuck with them. Some had metal “taps” on the soles of their shoes and they would drag their heels to produce an audible clicking sound with each step as though warning people of their approach; they were not dancers. Each seemed to have a reputation for his various and purported fighting abilities. The toughest of them all, according to reputation, was Mike Fridel, who was only in the eighth grade, but he didn't even look like a tough guy. More like a big, happy farm boy. He smiled a lot and didn't seem to put on the tough guy front like most of the others. I imagine he didn't need it.
It was also a time when educators could physically punish out of line students without having to worry about the goddam lawyers. I mean wallop the shit out of them. The dean had a leather razor strop in his desk, and he would lay it on with a will to any smart ass who was sent to him for insubordination. It happened to me a couple of times when I was being an asshole 7th grader, challenging the authority of a teacher. He would bend you over and let you have it, right there in his office. I don't know how much good it did, but I was never anxious for more.
The great majority of kids in junior high, grades 7 through 9, were 12 to 15 years old, a terrible age for most of us. Surging hormones with the onset of puberty, accompanied by pimples, sexual awakening, and peculiar body hair growing in strange places. It was all too much all at the same time. There was so much that had to be learned on your own, stuff you didn't learn at home; where to find your place in this strange new world, how to act around your peers, especially around the mysterious opposite sex. How did it all fit together? No wonder so many guys turned primal, putting on a tough exterior, turning to physical combat as a means to assert and protect themselves, a way to hide shortcomings, imagined or real. Many didn't know how to behave otherwise.
Racism flourished, particularly anti-black, sometimes anti-Asian, left over from World War II. I don't remember any anti-semitic or anti-latino prejudices, although they may have been just beyond my reckoning. No one seemed to think there was any difference between the Japanese and the Chinese. One fellow who was black but had some Asian features was denigrated by other blacks, “…we call him 'Ling Ting' 'cause he look like a Jap.” A Japanese fellow was denigrated by whites, “…feed that chinger some rice!” Black people were “niggers” but only so called by the whites, mostly behind their back. There were also some genuine transplant rednecks, among them “Mississip',” the famous nigger fighter, whose name spoke to his former home.
Across the street from the campus was the “Boys Club,” a franchise of the American institution, “Boys Clubs of America.” From what I could figure out, that's where you went to play pool, or, if you had been “called out,” challenged to a fist-fight, “…behind the Boys Club” was the preeminent battleground. There was also boxing, ping pong, game rooms and a coke machine. On Friday nights there was sometimes a dance, occasionally with live music. I think the first group I saw there called themselves “The Honky Tonks.” The guitar player had side burns and a spit curl on his forehead and played the great guitar anthem, Bill Doggett's “Honky Tonk,” while the girls looked on with dreamy eyes, sometimes even a scream. I thought then it might be cool to learn how to play a guitar. When Elvis arrived, the girls really learned how to scream, accepted social behavior because they saw it happening on TV. When you strip away all the trappings, that's what rock & roll was all about anyway, a mating dance, the bird of paradise with the gaudiest display, the guitar a phallic extension, a beat and rhythm to get your pulse up. There was something indecent and sexual about having the power to make girls scream. Rock & roll was the platform for those with the talent to strut and spread their feathers, every young boy's dream. A holy grail for the dick.
One day there came a hushed urgency, like an electric current, that spread through the school. I have no idea what brought it about, but word on campus was there would be a gang fight after school, white against black. “Gang fight” was not an apt description of what took place. The whites lined one side of the street, while the blacks lined the other. Taunts and insults were traded. Rather than opposing gangs fighting it out, like sometimes seen in the movies, this was more like a medieval jousting tournament. A champion for each side would meet in the middle of the street, in the center divider, and punch it out. No one used weapons other than their fists. The biggest, strongest and toughest looking guys were all there on both sides of the street. On lookers, like myself, stood outside the throng of toughs. There were a few females there, too, girl friends of the tough guys who mostly had undeserved reputations as whores.
Out into the center of the street strode the white champion, Mike Fridel. How he was chosen was as much a mystery to me as was the event itself, but I guess everyone knew of his reputation as a fighter, even though only an 8th grader. He was met by an equally big and capable looking youthful black man, and both raised their fists and circled each other. A feint here, a feint there, and it was all over in 30 seconds. The black man lay on his back where he had been knocked down with a single punch. A cheer went up from the white side of the street. Then the first black man was replaced by another who was equally tough and scary looking as the first. Again, the same ritual ensued, the circling and feint, and the black man was quickly knocked to the ground, sent there by a single, powerful punch from his white opponent. And the second black man was replaced by a third, with an identical result. Mike had won the day for white America and he wasn't even breathing hard. Congratulations and backslapping took place on the white side of the street, while the other side slowly made their way toward the other side of town.
It was a match between the races and proved nothing at all other than the power of Mike's punch. I guess it didn't occur to anyone to have it out on the basketball court or on a football field, but in general, the best athletes didn't engage in street fighting, the hallmark of the toughs and punks. The fighters probably didn't even know the other by name. It wasn't a personal grudge. They were simply representing their races, like Olympians represent their countries. Unquestionably, the contest was representative of the racism that existed all over the country, not just in the South. If a black champion had won in the South, though, he might have been shot or lynched. I always wondered what would have happened if the white champion were beaten here in El Cerrito. It was over as quickly as it began and I don't recall another similar confrontation while in junior high. I like to think that the arrival of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Jimmy Reed, Sam Cook, Huey “Piano” Smith, James Brown, Joe Turner, the Coasters, the Platters, Ray Charles, and scores of other great black artists just beginning to reach a white audience, were instrumental in helping turn the tide. Even so, it would be years before the Beatles, drugs and the war in Vietnam would begin to raise a collective consciousness that included respect for your fellow man.
* * *
“Nine-nine!” exhorted T.C. Walker, one of the physical education coaches, a stopwatch in his hand. T.C. for Thomas Calhoun, although among the boys he was known as “Terrible Cock” for the rumored monster between his legs. Nine point nine seconds was a new 7th grade school record for the 75 yard dash. “Where did you start from, son? Are you sure you were at the starting line?” he chided the panting boy. The runner was Larry Halls, a perky, cocky, smiling, handsome, devil-may-care kind of guy who was also a superb athlete. If Mike Fridel was known for his fighting prowess, then Larry was known, at least among his peers, for being the fastest runner who could do the most pushups, climb a 20 foot rope faster than anyone else, and who excelled at all the sports. He was slender with tight muscles that rolled under his skin, and he had rugged good looks with jet black hair and a sloping nose that looked as though it had once been broken. He could do a “kip” from flat on his back to a standing position with just a kick of his legs and a push from his hands. He earned his “green trunks” the first time out, nearly scoring gold. The color of your trunks, the shorts you wore for your physical education classes, was a status symbol determined by your score in a series of decathlon-like events. You started out with gray, then moved up to blue, red, green and gold. Only a handful of guys, mostly ninth graders, had earned their gold trunks. The girls all loved Larry, and he loved them back. If ever there was a Johnny Cool, a Prince of the Hop, or a Bad Motorcycle, it was Larry.
We came to know one another mostly through sports, always it seemed, playing against each other on various intramural teams. I admired his abilities and he could at least appreciate my own competence. Somewhere during his education he was held back a grade, I believe due to a serious childhood illness.
He was close to a year older than me. We soon started hanging out together, then going out evenings, spending the night either at his house or mine. What do 12 and 13 year-old kids do at night?
All of our heroes smoked, so we thought we'd take that up. Cigarettes were available from vending machines for a quarter. No sweat. Sometimes on weekends we'd hitchhike without a destination, just to see how far we could get.
We both played on the same Pony League baseball team, but foremost in our minds was girls. We stayed up late at night, smoking cigarettes, talking about girls, fantasizing about our first fuck. We weren't smart enough to discuss pregnancy, disease or the responsibility therefor; we just wanted to get in there and learn what it was like. We had a running bet on who'd be first. Larry had three girlfriends to my one, and I knew he would win, but I bet him anyway. It was more than a year before this bet played out and, as I imagined it, Larry won. I had to take his word for it, which I did, happy that any pressure was now off. Actually, there was no pressure; I never even came close.
One day Larry was called out by a bigger guy, one grade ahead of us. Other than hormones, I have no idea what it was all about. The last thing Larry would do is not show up. It was a matter of honor and he had plenty of that. It happened on the day Elvis Presley was to be presented to the nation on the Ed Sullivan show, and an excitement about his performance permeated throughout the school. The other kid was a half-foot taller than Larry and outweighed him considerably, statistics that weren't lost on Larry. So as they squared off to throw punches at one another, Larry started jumping up in the air as they circled, floating around the other guy like a jumping jack. The bigger kid couldn't figure it out and asked Larry what the hell he thought he was doing. “If I'm going to hit you, I need to be as tall as you,” said Larry. The bigger kid smiled at that and Larry just kept on circling, jumping into the air with his unfailing athletic ability. The circle closed and they came up against one another, but the only punches landed were mostly ineffective body blows. Pretty soon, the other kid, out of breath, suggested that they just forget it and go home to watch Elvis. “Okay. Can we be friends?” asked Larry. “Yeah. We'll be friends,” said the other kid, and that ended the matter. Larry wasn't an aggressive sort, but he absolutely refused to back down from anyone. Twice I saw him beaten into the ground by older and tougher guys, once because he had his eye on the wrong woman.
As 7th graders, we together went to a classmate's birthday celebration, a swimming party at the Albany Pool. Kenny, whose birthday we came to celebrate, was a strange kid. He was a bully and so insecure he had to put on a constant tough guy front. He wouldn't mess with anyone who looked like he might be a match for him; anyone like that he considered his pal. But others he would come up against that he read as lesser than himself, he would push around and cajole, daring them to put 'em up as though on stage for onlookers, not unlike the cowardly lion of Oz. This night, however, he made a big mistake. Also in the pool that night was a chunky kid from another school, shorter than Kenny, whose name was Mervin Pizzagrante. Kenny imagined him a target and started in on Mervin with his tough guy act. “You wanna go outside?” dared Kenny. “Sure,” said Mervin. “Why not?” By this time, all his party guests had gathered around. There was no honorable way out for Kenny.
Mervin was as tough a kid as ever there was. He was a little heavy at age 12 but made up for any lack of a muscular physique with nerves of steel and a powerful punch. Mervin wasn't afraid of anybody. Before his 14th birthday, I saw him wrestle two cops to the floor when they tried to arrest him on a juvenile warrant in the Albany Bowl. “Help me, you fools!” cried one of the cops at a few of us who were standing there, watching Mervin go to town on them. No fucking way. Good luck. So when Mervin came out of the dressing room to square off with Kenny, all of Kenny's party guests were there to watch. Mervin's nonchalance and confidence were unnerving enough, but the look in his eye turned Kenny to jello. He stood frozen in front of his “target.” Mervin hit Kenny just once, and Kenny fell to his knees, whimpering, “…please, no more.” Mervin just smiled. “…sure,” he said, and walked off into the night. Larry and I exchanged knowing glances. It couldn't have happened to a more deserving guy. But I think Kenny learned a good lesson from the encounter with Mervin, and as a result a lot of the bully in him seemed magically to disappear.
* * *
At 15 and a half, Larry got his driver license and together with his step dad, we went to San Francisco where they purchased a 1951 Mercury two-door coupe, a “stocker,” all original. Larry immediately set about making it anything but original. Rumbling mufflers were installed, the suspension was lowered, emblems, a metal visor over the windshield and door handles were removed, chrome wheels added, a custom grill installed and the car was painted a color called “Dusk Plum,” more subdued than “Candy Apple Red,” but nonetheless, a very cool color. A trip to Tijuana resulted in tuck and roll Naugahyde upholstery in the front with a tonneau cover over the rear seat for now, until money enough was found to do the rear as well. Final touches included a speaker in the grill so you could blast your radio at those outside the car. Wheels. Dragging the main was the cool thing to do in that time period, whether in a hot rod, a cool car or mom's sedate sedan. The movie “American Graffiti” did a great job of recreating this scene. A parade of cars filled with hormones and hopes of sexual conquest cruised up and down Richmond's MacDonald Avenue, a four-wheeled mating ritual all of its own. Here the reputation as the toughest fighter was replaced by reputation for the fastest car.
There was a time when Larry's mom and step-dad planned a weekend gambling trip to Carson City in Nevada. Larry and I were invited to come along. We couldn't gamble, of course, but Larry had just gotten his drivers license and the car would be ours for most of the time we were there. The whorehouse was called “The Moonlight Ranch” and it didn't take us long to learn how to get there. Larry wasn't yet 16 and I wasn't yet 15. The black madam, looking more like a housekeeper, answered the door and stared at us with raised eyebrows and the most incredulous examination imaginable. “…well, I guess you's old enough,” she said, leading us to the wares. The whores were absolutely thrilled at our youth and gathered around us, petting and cooing. Commercial pussy was only five dollars and I gave her a two dollar tip. It wasn't my first time but might as well have been. She gave me a tip of her own, pubic lice known as “the crabs.”
It took a few weeks for those little bastards to form a community and start making me itch like crazy. At first I couldn't figure it out. Had I gotten poison oak all around my dick? Then, lying in bed at night, I did an examination. There appeared to be some grains of sand from a trip to the beach that wouldn't brush off. I plucked one of the grains and looked at it very closely on the tip of my finger. Fuck! It was alive and had tiny legs that waved in the air! Crabs! I knew it had to be. I got into the bathtub and tried to drown them, then poured Listerine, a mouthwash, all over myself. All without positive result. Jesus, what could I do? I felt I was diseased. My dad was away on a hunting trip. No way I could go to mom and tell her I'd been to a whorehouse. Shit. I got to Larry's house first thing the next day. “Larry! Larry! I got the crabs! What can we do?”
This is how uninformed we were: the crabs, we both knew, was a form of venereal disease. We started calling pharmacies, talking to the pharmacist, asking if they had anything for venereal disease. I still remember the concern in a pharmacist's voice, “You'd better go see a doctor, son. Right away.” I was saved when Larry's step dad got home. An ex-marine, he knew all about crabs. “Har, har, har,” he laughed at my distress. He came out of the bathroom with a bottle of a common household medication that had an oily base. “Here, put this on them. That'll do the trick,” he said. And sure enough, dead crabs dropped like dandruff, filling my undershorts. I soon had enough dead crabs to bread a veal cutlet. He cautioned me to keep it up for a few days and make sure my clothes were washed in hot water. He even said I may have to get a hot iron to get them out of the seams in my jeans.
And so ended my ordeal with the crabs, along with my initiation into junior high school. Then I entered the first freshman class at El Cerrito High School, again finding myself at the bottom of the ladder and feeling cheated of a year at the top. Larry, though, lived in another district and would be shuttled of to a high school in Richmond. Our brotherhood would slowly drift apart as we both found new friends and new activities to fill our lives. The bond I felt with Larry, though, somehow remains to this day. I attended the 45th annual reunion of my high school class in 2006, hoping to find some news of Larry. I found there Irene Chavez, Larry's 7th grade girlfriend, who told me Larry had died years earlier, a cancer victim. I hadn't seen or talked with Larry in over 40 years. Nonetheless, there was a hollowness, a sense of loss that I could never replace. Coming of age with Larry was as unforgettable and initiating an experience as would be the years I spent in prison.