When Violence Rules

by Bruce Patterson, February 1, 2012

When, in the summer of 1953, my family tipped our hats to our Chicago home, piled into our Kaiser four-door and drove the 2,400 mile stretch of US Route 66 to our new home in the City of Angels, the little boy living next door was exactly my age. Happy for the companionship, we became best friends and over the next dozen years—at least while he wasn’t locked up—we stuck together like The Lone Ranger and Tonto (meaning “dumbbell” in Spanish). Michael Reagan was his name and, like me, he was half-Irish. Or at least Michael’s stepdad, who was named Pete, was Irish. Michael’s mom, a natural redhead with rusty eyes and rosy cheeks, was named Betty and I suppose she, too, was Irish. But, before Betty married Pete, she’d married a Mexican Californio and Michael came into this world with thick black hair, black eyes and brown skin stained black. Since Michael’s three little sisters were born willowy and pale-faced with sorrel hair and sky blue eyes, Michael stuck out like the proverbial black sheep. Or, since Pete didn’t like Mexicans and resented having one living in his house and eating at his table, Michael stuck out like a busted nose and two black eyes.

I was born with a tongue-tying stutter and I, too, stuck out, either because of my resolutely zipped lips, or because of the funny sounds I emitted when I warbled, and that gave Michael and me even more in common. If Michael didn’t fit in with his family, I didn’t fit in anywhere outside of mine. We were also extremely heedless and reckless children who got ourselves into no end of trouble. Our parents accused us of being childishly impressionable with way too much fantasy swirling inside our numb skulls and not near enough discipline in our bones, and they were right as far as it went. But if getting whipped with belts, taking swats in school, getting your ass kicked on the street and busted by the police made boys disciplined, prudent and wise, Michael and me would have grown up to be Rhodes Scholars.

Having hard-assed dads was another thing that tied Michael and me together. Although Pete was a whole lot worse than my dad was and I shouldn’t even mention them in the same breath. I’ll tell you how nasty Pete was: our houses were built into a hillside and dug under the front part of Michael’s was a dirt-floored basement with an outside stairway. They kept a mattress and bedding down there so that Michael would have something to sleep on when he was being punished and once—we must have been in kindergarten—we dragged the bedding over to under the end of the lacquered wood laundry chute so it’d cushion our landing after we’d slid down from the kitchen. It was great fun until Pete leaped the stairs in a single bound, yelled he’d been warned, and slapped Michael across the face so hard he went flying. Instantly terrorized, I ran up the stairs as fast I could, the sounds of slaps and Michael begging for mercy stinging my ears. I ran and hid in my bedroom and, when my dad came home from work, I told him what had happened.

After making sure I was telling the truth, my dad grimaced, mussed my hair and told me he’d take care of it. He went over, climbed the concrete stairs up to Michael’s covered front porch and knocked on the door. Since my bedroom window was only about twenty feet away, I spied on what happened. When Pete appeared behind the screen, my dad invited him outside and told him to shut the door behind him. After Pete had done so, in a low voice my dad assured him that if ever again he got violent around me then he’d have a big fight on his hands. By way of apology, Pete meekly extended his hand but, refusing to shake it, my dad added that that went for Michael, too. If Pete wanted to act like an animal, he’d best make sure my dad never found out about it. Then he turned and left while Pete disappeared back inside and gently shut the door.

“That did the trick,” as my dad would have put it. But Pete had plenty of other ways to punish Michael without having to beat him up. He could strap him across the ass, for one, which was the traditional way of punishing bad boys in our neighborhood (bad girls got grounded and heaped with housecleaning chores). Still, whenever I was around, Pete stayed on his best behavior. At least until he realized he was wasting his time, Pete even pretended to like me even though he knew I’d snitched him off. Anyway, from then on I hated Pete and, whenever he was around, it wasn’t long before Michael and me got lost.

A product of Chicago’s Depression Era immigrant slums (he was born in 1921), my dad was a very hard man. To him most everything under the sun was cut and dried. Sentiment for sentiment’s sake? Sentiment was worth what it sold for in this wicked world. So when I complained to my dad about how the other kindergarteners were making fun of me because of my stutter, my dad shrugged his shoulders and welcomed me into the club. If I wasn’t getting picked on because of my stutter, he assured me, it’d be because I was too tall or too short, too fat or skinny, ugly or good-looking. It was my problem and not his and, like everybody else in this world, I’d have to solve it for myself.

Since, in my case, that meant learning to fistfight, my dad proceeded to teach me how. On the spot he showed me a move, had me practice it and, once he was satisfied I got the idea, he taught me another. A couple of weeks later, confident that I now had a good stiff punch with either hand, he told me that the next time a bully got in my face, I was to aim for the back of his head and smack him in the nose as hard as I could (a weak punch was worse than none at all). That one pop would solve the problem practically every time, my dad guaranteed me.

So I did as my dad said and, sure enough, it did the trick. Although in the coming years my willingness to fight would cause me, and my opponents, a good deal of physical pain and emotional suffering—not to mention us getting on the wrong end of strict disciplinary actions—to my mind it beat the alternative.

But there was no easy cure for what was ailing Michael. Although, after we turned seventeen and I’d gone off to the infantry, Michael did throw Pete down their front yard flight of stairs. The old man tumbled all the way to the sidewalk, too, and that tickled me. For his crime Michael got sent back up to Wayside Juvenile Facility, but I knew he’d gotten his money’s worth and I was happy for him. Also, as much as I hated to admit it, I knew jail was the place for Michael since I’d watched him grow from a resentful, mixed up little kid like me into a seriously dangerous mad dog.

The last time I saw Michael was when, heading for Vietnam, I came home on leave. For a couple of years he’d been hanging with Los Avenues, our neighborhood’s Chicano street gang, swilling mescal, sniffing glue, shooting horse, toking mota, low-riding, corner-hanging, slow-dancing and committing crimes, and now he was living with two vatos I’d known since 7th Grade. They had a clapboard shack under Mt. Washington and during my stay in their shoebox living room they’d flat-out scared me. Michael was acting like he’d never known a white-bread white-boy like me, and the vatos were leering. At one point Little Eddie Lavarro, who was second generation Los Avenues, pulled from under the couch a giant Army Issue .45 automatic pistol, held it up to the light and told me if I wanted anybody killed after I’d left town, he’d gladly do it for fifty bucks cash money—or two cabrones for seventy-five. They all carried on like the offer was as funny as shit, but I sure didn’t. It made me think it was they, and not me, who should be going off to war.

After I got out of the army, I returned to the old neighborhood one more time to, among other things, look up Michael. But he’d gone away to prison again, this time for good since, after robbing a liquor store down on Figueroa, and just for the fun of it, he’d shot and killed the clerk. Wondering what Michael must have been thinking when he pulled the trigger made me feel dirty, and instantly I knew I was done with him. I’d gotten a bellyful of killings and killers, and my heart went out to the clerk.

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