“I have my doubts as to where I belong. It's something to think about.” — Green Day, Disappearing Boy
* * *
I've never been one for heeding others' advice. I'll listen politely, acknowledge its validity, speculate on how to apply it to my situation with the best of intentions. But believe it: tell me the stove is hot and not only will I touch it once, but I will return and do it a few more times in case the first one was a fluke. Call it stubbornness, bloody mindedness, or just a firm conviction that the world is peopled with idiots who could not possibly know better than I. I like to make my own mistakes. Boy, do I. Sometimes it takes a while to drive the fact of that hot stove home and I'll collect a few blisters along the way. But I will get it. Eventually.
This includes the sage counsel dispensed by wise woodland creatures. Singular though this event was (referring to the last chapter of this series), I can't say the bear made any significant lasting impact on my life. There were differences. I began making some appearances at West Junior High. I played baseball that summer. And I stayed out of the cops' clutches for a while. But the hopes of my ursine friend and, to a lesser degree, me, of a complete turnaround were for the most part unrealized.
I was a curious (in the Carrollian sense) 14-year-old, and getting curiouser. I read widely in philosophy, poetry, science, the Victorians, and Russians, but I could not be bothered to expend the slightest effort in school when I did deign to attend. I was for the most part a loner but the companions I chose when I chose to be social were the absolute worst kids imaginable: thieves, vandals, glue sniffers, switchblade wielders, wood shoppers and schoolyard bullies. They were all tough Latino boys who tolerated, for novelty's sake I suppose, my little blonde bigmouthed presence. That and my fearlessness to ingratiate myself with the riffraff. I would do pretty much anything in an antisocial or criminal vein, from wising off to teachers to throwing rocks at cop cars. Tame stuff by today's standards, but sufficient to gain me a reputation as a “hood,” in the parlance of the times. My junior high years were spent engaging in acts of petty thievery and vandalism, drinking pop-wine and smoking ditchweed, fighting, fussing, and generally making a huge nuisance of myself. I became well known to the police and made a few more trips to Zeb Pike, cementing my hooligan rep and further embarrassing mom.
One of these trips garnered me my first, but by no means last, mention in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph on the front page, yet. The headline read: West Side Race Car Joyride Ends with Four Arrests.
Ricky Rush was a local fat kid with limited use as both a motorsport impressionist and as the son of a plumbing contractor with a garage full of brass pipefittings which could be secured together to make lead pipes. Sometimes I and my boys, Phil Mondragon, Joe Pacheco, and Timmy Lujan, would hang out in the Rush garage creating fanciful, complex pipeage, smoking bowls, and watching Ricky perform. “Burble, burble, pop,” would erupt out of him. “That's a top fueled dragster waiting at the tree, ready to light 'em up.” Reeaoorwrehuhuh‚ “That's a McLaren F1 downshifting into a turn.” Wezt-uh-weet-rahngrahgn— “That's a Maico 401 fully wrapped in low gear climbing a hill.” SkezrROOOARssshtskzzvooongt — “That's Bobby Unser taking the last turn at the hill climb before he brings home the black and white tablecloth.”
It was uncanny and quite hilarious. He came by his talent naturally — his dad Ron Rush was Rush Racing as well as Rush Plumbing. They entered a car every year in the open wheel division of the Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, a car we often clambered around on in the garage, a tubular skeleton with huge off-road tires and a 500 inch motor. One time Ricky cranked it up for us and I honestly believe that the majority of the blame for this escapade lies on him for that extremely provocative act. Who could resist the sound of all those unrestricted horses blasting out of those headers? Not me. I vowed then and there that I was going to drive that beast.
The Rushes went on vacation after the Hill Climb every year and that was when I decided to make my move. It was a Sunday morning and I wanted to do this one solo, at least until I got the car away from the house. I called the fellas before I left and told them to meet me on the playground at West Jr. High in 30 minutes. I punched out a window in the garage door to gain entry and went inside. There she was, as beautiful as ever, but she had taken on a slightly menacing quality. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? I had been driving since the age of nine, but this was a whole 'nother deal. I sat down in the enveloping bucket seat and ran idly through the gears, turned the wheel experimentally. This thing, I thought, could actually kill me. The thought was thrilling and terrifying. “Don't be a pussy,” the car whispered to me. “If you walk out that door under your own steam, you'd better put some rocks in your pockets or you'll drift away like smoke. Take me out, though, and you will accumulate enough volume and density to carry you straight through to the Bicentennial and beyond. Do you know what the headline is going to read? ‘Golden Boy Takes Victory Ride’!” How could I argue with that logic?
I slapped the wheel. “Damn straight,” I said. “All right,” she said. “Now grab that can over there and fuel me up. That's right, all of it. Now wheel the battery cart over and hook it up. Press that button.” She roared to life with a guttural rumble that I could feel in my Golden Bones. I disconnected the battery, opened the garage door, climbed into the cockpit and off we went.
I drove the six blocks or so to West at little more than an idle. The playground at that time was just a big open dirt patch a block long and a half block wide. The boys were waiting there smoking cigarettes and throwing rocks at each other. I pulled up and goosed the engine a little. “Climb on,” I said. Amid expressions of admiration and disbelief, they did so. I drove out to the middle of the playground, cut the wheel hard to the left and stomped on it. Centrifugal force sent my friends flying every which way. I sent a roostertail of dirt far and high enough to rattle against the school windows as I spun donut after donut. After about six of those I stopped to check on Joe and Tim and Phil. They were jumping up and down, laughing and screaming. “Come on,” I yelled, waving them over. They jumped back on and we ran some sprints the length of the playground, making drifting, sliding turns.
When we saw the cops coming down 19th Street, we elected — wisely, I think — to run on foot, but we didn't get far. They ran us down in about half a block and dragged us back to the car. We stood there for a while, cuffed and contrite, as they called every other cop in the vicinity to come see how we had turned West Jr. into a racetrack. “Who's the driver?” one cop asked. “Me,” I answered proudly. “Cool Hand? Is that you, Washburne? We're gonna have to call you Speed Racer now.” They charged me with burglary, auto theft and a host of traffic violations for good measure. I was transported back to Zeb Pike to await my fate.
This being my fourth visit to that institution and for a fairly serious crime, this time wasn't going to be another catch and release. The powers that be were insisting on a “placement,” i.e., some therapeutic or punitive or combination thereof living situation away from home. I was determined not to be a candidate for DYS, the juvenile jail system, for whatever reason — probably my fatal charm and health and good looks. There being fewer beds at these “softer” placements, I was allowed to go home on a provisional basis until a spot for me opened up.
When we got home a conclave was assembled — me, my mom, whatever drunken housepainter was currently installed as consort, and Len Frazor, a family friend from back in the Haight-Ashbury days who had started a commune in southern Colorado called, after his band back in the 60s, Anonymous Artists of America (AAA). What the hell was he doing here? I had a bad feeling about this — well-founded as it turned out. “Leonard has offered to put you to work this summer at the AAA,” my mom said. “Leonard can kiss my rosy red ass,” I replied. “You either go to Red Wing (the nearest “town” to the AAA) or you wait it out in Zeb Pike,” she said. I was convinced, and that very day I was packed and on the road to Huerfano County. God help me, I was being put back into the hands of the hippies.
* * *
I was once again the footballer on the cricket pitch, the alligator in the café, the Marxist at the G-8, utterly out of my element. These were earnest, serious hippies, a group of flower children who'd left the Haight when the dream died and had built a thriving, self-sustaining community. I was a sullen, slouching, recalcitrant scoundrel who worshiped at the church of breaking glass.
I spent my first days at the AAA sneering at the livestock and criticizing the “punitive” conditions. (“Call this a road?” “Why is everything made out of wood?”). But shortly I found something to stimulate my teenage soul. One was the vehicles which I would not only be allowed but required to pilot in the course of my various duties, including an ancient Norton motorcycle, a 2-1/2 ton truck, and a six wheel amphibious ATV. There were horses and donkeys to ride, guns to shoot (under proper supervision, of course — no one was crazy enough to turn me loose with a firearm), and smaller children to corrupt, harass, and serve as minions. Oh, they were such an innocent and trusting little bunch, but the thieving missions I sent them on resulted only in lectures about the way things worked then. (“You don't need to steal the weed, kid, just ask and you can have anything you want.”) Clearly these people were insane. I realized early on that it would probably take a major act of destruction to truly antagonize them, something like burning down the dome (common area), and I also realized I didn't want to. Something about the way they just sort of pulled me into the mix without ceremony or interruption was comforting.
There was no sense of “Okay, we've got a troubled kid on our hands, so let's all do this or that and keep an eye on him and blah blah.” Rather, I was told what was expected of me and when to sleep and left alone or not as the situation warranted. I built fences, took care of the donkeys (Brooklyn, Bronx and Manhattan — get it?), and we had a garden. I wasn't much of a worker at first, but I came around gradually and developed some skills and good habits.
One of the AAA denizens, Adrian, was a person known to me and my family for many years and someone I had long presumed was a male of what species I wasn't sure — probably something in the ogre family. But then I'd learned that Adrian was in fact human and female to boot. If my misconception seems insensitive, you clearly never met her. Gnomish of height and blockish of breadth, Adrienne looked carved out of a block of greasy denim. With steel rimmed glasses on her nose above a sneering mouth perpetually plugged by a Camel, she spoke in a voice that sounded like hot slag in a blender. She never spoke the word “kid” without qualifying it with “God damn,” and no one under 21 had a name besides that, as in “Hey you god damn kid, hand me those pliers,” or “Get all these god damn kids away from me!” She was — and for all I know, is — a terrifying creature and never more so than when she was laughing. Whenever it happened I felt like a fairy tale captive awaiting the oven.
She had a partner of surpassing beauty who I, as an adolescent with the sap running free, had trouble keeping my eyes off of. Lila didn't bother much with clothes in the summertime and was generally topless. A lot of the women there were, but most of them I'd become inured to. Not so Lila. She had a magnificent body that had me engineering all sorts of machinations to afford me glimpses. Those among you of the male persuasion who can recall being 15 might understand my plight. On the one hand, I was in the presence of a gorgeous nude female to feed my pubescent fantasies, and on the other, said goddess was the property of a very protective and villainous troll who might actually kill and eat me.
When I did get caught, it wasn't as bad as I imagined. I was working in the garden one morning and had positioned myself to have a clear view of Adrienne and Lila's cabin. After a time, she came out wrapped in a sarong, topless, and started throwing out feed to the chickens in the front yard. I was rapt. She placed her fingers together and raised her arms above her head, arching her back and stretching luxuriously, breasts taut and glorious in the morning sun. I goggled unabashedly on my knees in the dirt. I think I was probably making some kind of strange noise when I felt a vice-like grip on the back of my neck. “Maybe you could find something else to focus on, huh? Huh?” said a familiar growl, shaking me like an errant puppy. She spat and stomped away, muttering, “God damn kids.”
And so I, being the respectful and obedient lad that I was, forever averted my eyes and never again objectified the female form no matter how blisteringly hot it was.
I was a good deal more circumspect though. I sprained my eyes several times that summer trying to extend my peripheral vision to the point I could make it appear that I was looking at clouds or donkeys when I stole the rare glance.
In August we got the call (figuratively speaking, there were no phones at the AAA — probably it was a carrier pigeon or smoke signals) that a placement had been found for me. I bid goodbye to the donkeys, silently swore I would return someday to slay the troll and claim the hand of the fair Lila, and returned to civilization.
* * *
Brockhurst Boys Ranch, a “residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed adolescents” was situated on a hill above a charming little hamlet called Green Mountain Falls. There were 29 other kids more or less like me, i.e., wild, confused, and out of control. The program featured group therapy, athletics, Outward Bound-style wilderness excursions, and school — first on-site, then transitioning to Manitou High as academic and social skills improved. This was during the Carter years and it was a well-funded, efficiently run place staffed with caring and qualified people. The director was a PhD and the counselors were either MSWs or working on same — contrast that with similar institutions today and their teams of thugs who are “educated” online.
Much to a lot of people's surprise, mostly mine, it turned out to be exactly what I needed. I grew and thrived, discontinued much of my antisocial behavior and began to see the world in a different light — i.e., not necessarily something to be blown up.
* * *
Jaime Bernal was a boy in my group, a small, excitable Bolivian immigrant who slept under the most luxurious covering imaginable — an alpaca blanket. It was Rawhide on one side and long, lustrous fur on the other. During the day the bed was made fur side up, but at night young Jaime flipped it over and nestled, sans top sheet, in a fur cocoon.
One night I awoke from a recurring nightmare about Carol Burnett's mouth and noticed some activity going on from Jimmy's corner of the room. As my eyes adjusted, it became apparent to me that the little bastard was defiling the alpaca (new self-love euphemism?) in his nighttime solo erotic meanderings, if you take my meaning. Naturally, my first instinct was to creep over to the light switch and humiliate the poor kid, but a germ of an idea took root before I could take action.
The next day I got a stout pair of scissors and cut a six-inch wide strip off the end of the blanket and cut that into squares, secreting them under my mattress. That night I discovered dimensions of autoerotic bliss heretofore undreamed of.
I could hardly keep such a discovery to myself and so I distributed the remaining sections among members of my group. The “furries,” as someone dubbed them, were a huge hit and we could all be found at sinks in the morning rinsing out our furries while one person stood guard watching for Jaime. We set up a clothesline in the basement near a hot water heater to dry them. We discovered that the inherent feel-good properties of the furries could be enhanced significantly through assiduous grooming, and so we employed shampoos, conditioners, and currying to maximize their softness and luster. Our relationships with them became intensely personal and I think most had names, certainly mine did: Lila.
It came to pass that someone's furry was lost, or stolen, or something, and thus began the Great Furry Controversy. Mike Eastman reached under his pillow late one night preparatory to beginning his nocturnal ministrations and found — nothing. He leapt out of bed and switched on the light. “Who's got her?!” he yelled. “Somebody stole my furry!” “Shut up! Jaime will hear you. We will find it in the morning,” I told him. We didn't, but the next night it was another kid who found himself furryless and Mike suspiciously calm. Several thefts were reported and precautions were being taken. Furries were carried around in pockets and dried with hairdryers instead of hung. Vigils were kept at night to determine who was and was not in possession of their furry.
The inevitable happened eventually: someone decided to go back to the source. Somebody — I suspect Eastman, a lad with poor impulse control — cut a great big chunk out of the alpaca, a very noticeable chunk. Jaime went straight to the staff and reported the desecration of the blanket and a group was called. The interrogation began and it wasn't long before someone cracked and confessed not only to owning a piece, but to its purpose. We were all ordered to surrender our furry, which we (apparently) did. Jaime attempted reassembling his blanket, jigsaw fashion, but found one square missing. A search was conducted, threats were made, but the missing furry was not found. Jaime sent the blanket home to be reassembled and life went on as before.
It was some weeks before I dared unearth Lila from her hiding place under the carpet and I took extreme measures to ensure her existence remained secret. As the last surviving furry, its value was inestimable and there was no telling what someone might do to obtain it.
I guess I must've dropped my guard, because eventually someone got her. I didn't say a word, didn't raise a stink, but decided to lay back in the weeds and wait for the perpetrator to make a mistake. Sure enough, one morning as I took up an early surveillance post in the bathroom, standing on the toilet and peeking over the stall, that weasel Eastman came in and pulled the defiled furry from his pocket. “I'll kill you!” I screamed, kicking open the stall door and launching myself across the bathroom at him. I clawed at my poor Lila with one hand and punched Eastman with the other as we rolled around on the bathroom floor. The sounds of the battle attracted the rest of the group and the counselor, who opened the bathroom door to find the two of us clutching the furry, bloody and panting on the floor. Counselor Phil said nothing, just held out his hand. We surrendered the last furry, and that day I was indoctrinated into the sad fraternity of lost love.
Next: Punk rock saves my life.