SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
May 24, 2020

Most of My Boyhood Chums Were Stupid Jerks

 

I have no idea what the hell brought this to mind. I guess the brain was just shambling around in its bathrobe and slippers again. It occurred to me that not only were most of my closest friends up until fourth grade plain bone stupid, a couple were nasty little fuckers bordering on the psychopathic. But it wasn’t exactly my fault.

            Growing up in a suburb of Green Bay, in an area where most of our neighbors were elderly, my choices were relatively limited. There was a small smattering of kids roughly my age on the block and on a few of the surrounding streets, so if you wanted to play some back yard football or have someone over to play Gnip-Gnop or operation, or you needed some reconnaissance to find out where the Dilly Man was at that very moment, these were your choices, and so these were your friends, pitiful as they were sometimes. Only thinking back on them all now did it strike me that most were blond, and most looked like miniature Forties character actors. Even eight and nine-year-olds could have tough, weathered little faces back then.

            Here’s a quick handful of sketches of kids who were, at one time or another, my best friends.

            After we arrived in Green Bay in December of 1968, Pat F. became my first neighborhood friend. He was about five or six years older than me, but I didn’t realize that at the time. He lived a block away on Dauphin Street. I don’t know if he saw the moving trucks or just saw the new people in the back yard or what, but one day he simply materialized on our doorstep, shading his eyes to peer through the screen door. Then he began showing up every day. He was a chubby, friendly sort with a lisp and short hair who was always cheerful and hungry. He loved hot dogs swimming in too much ketchup, and fart jokes always made him cackle. He liked a lot of the same toys and cartoons I did, (even though I was four and he was ten), so I had no trouble playing with him. Only later did I learn he was retarded, and would never develop beyond a seven-year-old mentality for the rest of his life. To this day he still calls my mom three or four times a day, usually to check on the time or the weather.

            Timmy N. lived four houses up the street from us. He was a scrawny kid with a high forehead and wide-set eyes that left him looking like Elisha Cook, save for the curly blond hair and perpetual grin. And like Cook, he was utterly hapless, incapable of touching anything (especially if it belonged to me) without breaking it. His house always smelled vaguely of dog shit, though I can’t remember if he had a dog. I know he was around a lot in the early Seventies, we played together a bunch, but the only specific incident I recall was the time he decided to make lunch for us one day while both his parents were gone. He threw a couple of pieces of bologna into a frying pan and turned on the heat, Then he added some grape Kool-Aid powder and some peanut butter. When his mom walked in to find the kitchen filled with smoke, I remember her only comment was, “Oh, you’re such a dipshit, Tim,” and I had to agree.

            I ran into him in a grocery store years later when I was back in town between semesters at Chicago. The once scrawny little kid had grown into a big, burly athletic type, though still with Elisha Cook’s face, and still grinning. He was waring a thick cable-knit sweater, but I confess that’s all I remember about the encounter.

            Next door to Timmy was Dave R. Dave was, I think, a year older than me. He was another one with the weather-beaten face of a Forties character actor, though I can’t name one specifically. Maybe a blond Edward G. Robinson. Tough, mean, runty little bully with no neck and a bullet head. Looking at his dad, who resembled a drunken former boxer, I got the idea even back then it was an abusive household, which may help explain Dave’s tendency to bully every kid around him. Short as he was, he looked more like a flunky to some real bully, but unpleasant and humorless as he was, I suspect none of the other real bullies wanted him around. As a result, Dave developed his own “I’ll meet you by the flagpole after school, and you better be there” persona. We were enemies more than friends, but were indeed friends on occasion, though I can’t recall anything we ever did together. The only direct interaction (save for the beatings) I do remember was the time I was in the back yard, and Dave shouted a threat at me as he stomped up the sidewalk.

            Well, by then I’d had enough of his bullshit. I stopped what I was doing and marched over to the sidewalk where he was waiting. Although a year younger, I was still taller than him. Maybe because I had a neck. In any case I said nothing, merely stared down at him, my small hands balled into small fists, ready for anything. Eventually he turned and continued on his way home. My parents both watched the encounter from the kitchen window, and got a big chuckle out of it.

            Again several years later, I ran into his parents at a grocery store. They told me Dave had been in a terrible car accident a few years earlier, requiring over thirty stitches to close the gash in his scalp. I remember thinking “Well, at least he didn’t have to worry about neck injuries.”

            Apart from that car accident, they had nothing to say about his whereabouts or doings.

            I went to kindergarten and first grade in the basement of a church that doubled as the annex for Webster Elementary during the week. The church parking lot was our playground, and one day I was about to get into a fight with John S., a kid I’d never met before, when we somehow figured out my dad had recruited his older brother into the Air Force. So we became friends instead. He lived two blocks up the hill on a horseshoe street whose name I forget. He was another one who, strangely enough, bore a striking resemblance to Elisha Cook Jr., even more than Timmy. John, at six, was a small-time hood with a taste for vandalism and fire. His family unexpectedly packed up and moved away during the summer following first grade. Never heard a thing about him again, though I wonder if John’s habit of trying to set fire to the neighbors’ houses had anything to do with the move.

            I think I was in third grade when I met Mark M. Mark wasn’t a stupid kid, but he was a prissy little rich fag who resembled a young Steve Buscemi. He had a sharp nasal voice and an annoying habit, whenever you disagreed with him, of planting his fingers on your chest and pushing you away lightly while whining, “You’re not my friend.” He also wore a lot of vests.

            His father was some kind of successful businessman, so Mark lived in a big fancy house in the rich part of town. They had a large, wooded back yard, where Mark would stage epic battles with his endless supply of G.I. Joes. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, except Mark had a knack, even in third grade, for rigging up some real, and extremely powerful, explosives. He would plant the explosives in the yard or in piles of dirt, arrange the G.I. Joes in various dramatic battle poses on or near his small bombs, step back a ways, and detonate them one at a time. That may be why I liked him sometimes.

            In fourth grade, Scott R. didn’t look like a young Aldo Ray—he just looked like Aldo Ray. Chubby kid with blond hair parted and combed to the side. He wasn’t real bright, Scott, but pleasant enough and enthusiastic. Despite the cheerful demeanor, he was a very sad and lonely kid. Teachers and fellow students alike seemed to completely ignore him. I don’t think he had any other friends, which may be one of the reasons I started talking to him. Man, how he loved his pro wrestling. It was pretty much the only thing he talked about, and maybe the only thing that made him happy. He did a mean Billy Superstar Graham impression, and even made himself his own championship belt out of tin can lids. I suspect he became so obsessed with wrestling as a means of proxy revenge, the way smart geeky kids so often latch onto the Nazis. Although he was a big kid, Scott was a gentle soul who ended up being bullied a lot, but would never fight back. While other students passed notes about boys they liked or some small bit of schoolyard gossip, Scott would pass me notes about the violent, screaming fight his parents had the night before, or the time his father stomped out of the house and vanished for three days, or the impending divorce proceedings and the custody battle. Because of this, I’m guessing, he slept over at our house a lot. The one time I remember, I walked home from school with Scott, who was carrying his usual overnight bag. My dad clearly wasn’t aware he’d be coming with me, let alone staying over, because as soon as we turned the corner and headed up the driveway, my dad threw open the garage door and wheeled out the new minibike. It had been a secret, something he’d been planning a long time, and came home from work early to surprise me with it. It wasn’t a fancy minibike, but I was thrilled. I also wished I could’ve told Scott to go home so I could have some time alone with the new bike, but I knew I couldn’t. My dad knew it too. I was going to have to let Scott take a few spins on it himself. He wasn’t the brightest kid, and I was afraid he’d break it, somehow.

            Considering Scott’s own situation at home, knowing his dad would never be waiting to surprise him with a new minibike, the whole scene left me very sad.

            In fifth grade, Scott’s mom got remarried to a man who also had a son, Nick, who was Scott’s age. I’m sure his mom and new stepdad were convinced the two would be the best of friends. They weren’t. Nick was a fat, angry, boorish thug with the mental capacity of a carp. Oh, it was bad. At some point soon thereafter, Scott and Nick vanished. No idea what happened to them.

            I think the only reason I knew Mike F. Was that he went to our church and was in my confirmation class. I don’t think we ever went to the same school. He lived in a nice house about three blocks up the hill and around the corner on Oakwood. He had longish hair, glasses, and a thin, pointed face that resembled Peter Fonda’s. He also had absolutely nothing resembling a personality. I’d completely forgotten about him until I started putting this together. The only thing I remember was an afternoon sitting on the roof of his house eating button candy. I liked his older brother, who was an alcoholic by age fourteen and much more interesting than Mike.

            Even before I started kindergarten, Robb M. was my best friend. I think we met his family at the church we attended briefly after first landing in Green Bay. He was the youngest of four brothers. His mom looked like Ann-Margret and his dad, who taught industrial arts at East High School, was Finnish or Danish or something. Robb, oddly enough, was the only one of the four brothers who inherited his father’s accent. For about two or three years there, though it seems longer, our families hung out a lot together, from back yard picnics to trips to Milwaukee to visit the zoo, take in a Brewers game, and swim in the pool of whatever hotel we were staying at. Even when the rest of the families weren’t involved, Robb and I hung out nearly every day. They lived about four blocks away, so it was an easy walk. Robb didn’t resemble a Forties character actor. He had glasses, bangs (he was the only one of his brothers who wasn’t blond), and was perfectly average in every conceivable way. But he loved gorillas and the Planet of the Apes movies as much as I did, so that was good enough for me. He also had a catch phrase of sorts, “skoova-chew!,” which he would drop into conversation for no apparent reason.

            We went to movies, spent summer afternoons at the shabby local amusement park, and made up games like “Airplane Disaster” and “Punch the Baby.”

            When my mom walked me across the street to my first day of kindergarten, I was under the impression the class would consist of just Robb and me. When the classroom door opened and I was confronted with twenty little idiots I didn’t know staring back at me, that’s when I lost my nut. Within the first half hour of my formal public education, I escaped from the classroom three times and kicked the teacher after calling her a dummy (which she was). I eventually got over it.

            The summer after kindergarten, Robb’s family moved to the middle of the woods in Upper Michigan. The only time I saw him after that, he knocked me unconscious during a pillow fight. Our pillow fights could get pretty brutal.

            My mom and his mom have stayed in touch, so I learned that Robb went on to become a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. I’m completely serious about that. Isn’t that the fucking best? Who knew such an occupation even existed anymore? Ironic thing is, as I mentioned he’s one of the few kids I knew back then who didn’t look like a Forties character. He’s apparently been selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door for thirty years, so maybe he does now. He’s also been married three times to women of three different races—black, Hispanic and Asian—which is neither here nor there, but interesting.

            There was little choice in becoming friends with Eric L., given he was my age and lived directly across the street. He was another beefy blond kid, his bangs combed straight down to his eyebrows. He had a wide, flat, flabby pale face and lips that always struck me as a little too red. His father was a chaplain at the local prison, and as is the fate awaiting all children of preachers and psychoanalysts, Eric and his younger sister were fucked from the start. It wasn’t just that he was fucked, there was something deeply wrong with him. He seemed incapable of telling the truth about even the simplest things, and harbored an anger that verged on the psychotic. He was also the first of my friends in the neighborhood with an impressively filthy mouth. While the rest of us were still giggling our way through “h-e-double toothpicks” and spelling “damn” “damb,” Eric had long since graduated to “cocksucker” and “motherfucker.”

            I remember him bragging once that he’d spied on Timmy N’s mom as she got out of the shower one day. He never explained how he got into the house and downstairs where the shower was without Timmy being around. The bigger problem with his story, I remember thinking, was that, having met her on countless occasions, I can tell you no one in his right mind would ever want to see Timmy’s mom naked.

            Another time we were sitting on the swings in my back yard. It was a warm evening in August, and he told me he had a job as a comedian at The Bunny Hop, the classier of Green Bay’s two strip clubs. Eric, I’m guessing, was about eight at this time, but he seemed completely earnest about this, like he believed it himself. He dressed up in a little cowboy outfit, he said, complete with two cap guns and a holster, and went on every night at eleven, telling dirty jokes in between the strippers. This was long before The Simpsons episode about the burlesque house, so I have no idea where he came up with that one. “I tell my jokes,” he said, and mimed blowing the smoke off the barrel of his cap gun. “And I say, ‘If you don’t like that one, you can stick it up your ass!’”

            Weird thing about that story, apart from the obvious, was that Eric was never a funny kid. But then the story got plain creepy.

            “They had a special night the other night” he told me as we sat there on the swings. “They only do it once a month, something like that. They bring this woman out on stage, strip her, and lay her on a table. And they have all these knives and scissors and stuff there. And they say anyone who wants to can come up and cut off a part of her body. Any part they want.” Of course in Eric’s telling, they always cut off her breasts first. Apparently, again as per his telling, being slowly dismembered alive caused the woman no real harm.

            I think it was with that particular story I started to get a real inkling of just how disturbed he was. There had been hints earlier. Eric had a way of luring me into trouble and then, if we were caught, either vanishing or blithely lying his way out of any blame, leaving me there to catch the brunt of it.

            Like I said, he was my age and lived right across the street, so I had little choice but to be his friend, which seemed easier than being his enemy.

            I only saw him in one fight, and it honestly scared me. Eric’s mom was the den mother of a Cub Scout troupe, which I was pressured into joining. As my parents explained it to me, all my friends were joining, and “Mrs. L. Needs one more or she wouldn’t be able to do it at all.”

            Well, yeah, I knew all the kids in that troop, or pack or den or whatever it was called, but that made me want to stay away from it all the more. In the end I lost the argument, and soon found myself wearing a stupid blue shirt and an even stupider neckerchief.

            Anyway, the weekly meetings were held in Eric’s wood-paneled basement. One day after a meeting as we were all leaving the house, Eric attacked a kid named Glen for no apparent reason. At first I didn’t much care, because Glen was a moron and I didn’t like him either, but after landing three hard sucker punches to the back of Glen’s skull, Eric stepped back and I saw his eyes. That’s what scared me. There was murder in those eyes, and I knew if he’d had any kind of a weapon handy, he would’ve killed Glen right there in the front yard for no reason at all as everyone watched.

            Eric was a pretty stupid kid, but there was this cold meanness in him that terrified me. He had an imagination, no denying that, but man he was dumb. Being that dumb and that angry is a very bad combination, which is the primary reason I didn’t want him as an enemy.

            At some point in the mid-Seventies his family moved about five blocks down the street, and I never saw him again. By the time she was in her early teens, his younger sister, once a seeming model of sweet innocence, had become a greasy, drug-addled skank with a growing police record. Preacher’s kids, I’m telling you.

            A few years back, my mom heard from Eric’s mom, who said he’d worked for the railroads for awhile, but there had been some kind of bad accident. Ever since, he’d been receiving disability and living on a farm. I had nothing to say about that.

            There was one last group of kids about my age on that street, just two or three blocks away. The Gustafssens, I think the name was. All blond, of course, but I wanted nothing to do with them. I think they were inbred. In any case, considering what friends I did have back then, if I wanted nothing to do with those kids, you know they must’ve been pretty bad news.

            I confess that on occasion over the years I’ve grown curious to learn what happened to some of my old boyhood chums. In a few rare instances, as noted above, I get the occasional, and inevitably grim update. As for those others, every now and again I’ve gone online to see what I could find. In every last instance, there is absolutely no evidence these kids ever existed, No Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, no passing mention in news stories, nothing. So either they died a long time ago, or they somehow found a way to stay completely off the grid, and if the latter, well, then I envy them.

 

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