When the cowboy movies came to the Paramount Theater, for a Saturday afternoon at least, we could put away our unending and always present fear of slow death by snakebite or quicksand and just be boys.
Death was always imminent during boyhood. The likelihood of surviving to teenage years was terrifyingly small. Most didn’t, we knew them, it was sad. They didn’t make it, ok, maybe a few did, but not many.
We found downtown in the little city a magical place, surprisingly devoid of slimy, deadly vipers and bottomless mud that would drown you, until nothing remained for your family to find, but your bones. Maybe your bones, maybe you’d just vanish under the sucking mud.
Safe inside the belly of the city was a magical place of larger buildings, storefronts full of confusing and confounding stuff, and toy stores full of plastic guns, we were, after all, the next generation of soldiers, soon to be cannon fodder…
If we carefully played the waif card, we could get the pretty, sweet-smelling ladies, in colorful summer dresses, to buy us ice cream.
We were good waifs, chameleons, we could be orphans if need be. The mission was ice cream. We’d cross any line…
There are no better grifters than young boys.
Some nights I’d run – breathless – into the house, as the late summer sun finally set and announce that I had, in fact, survived another summer day. I’d nearly drowned in the deadly muck; stumbling and falling over the deadly serpents coming from their holes to warm their body’s on the now warm rocks, the stones having baked all day in the hot sun.
Somehow I’d managed to survive another summer day.
Strange no one but me and my best friend and most mortal enemy, Dougie, understood the dangers of boyhood.
We’d fight at times, all the time, every day.
We never killed each other, not even once. Dougie and me, we had an unwritten law about first blood. First blood always stopped the fight. We liked to fight, we didn’t want to kill each other.
We’d sit next to each other every day in class, until we were separated, unfairly, victims of a system blind to our plight, or the principal’s office. One of us would be bleeding. Mystery blood. A secret, a pact, an alliance against the pit vipers and quicksand waiting to kill us, or worse principals waiting to imprison us.
After six ungodly hours in that restrictive Hell Hole, the principal held the power of life and death over us. He could, in fact, keep us there even longer — another hour under his thumb.
We never cracked, we’d sit in those horrific plastic chairs, under pictures of a dead Kennedy, hands in front staring down, one of us bleeding.
One of us always bleeding…
After an hour the principal or vice-principal or some untitled handler would give in. We’d escape, brothers in arms.
The fading sun as September gave way to October made us feel safer, the snakes less active, the bottomless quicksand soon to be too frozen to swallow us whole. We found ourselves safe but imprisoned by the school year and principals.
I never did learn to come to terms with deadly ophidians, bottomless Hell-holes, and elementary school incarceration… to this day the stuff of recurring nightmares…
Boyhood, and fates worse than death.
Boyhood… what a simple and complex and perfectly awkward life.