To Serve and Protect, Part I

All to often we read of bad and even tragic encounters between police officers and the people who those officers have sworn to protect and serve.  No doubt there are instances in which the police officers overreact to a situation, and perhaps even do so with malice.  Police officers are, after all, human, and come with the full compliment of frailties and personality failures that all of the rest of us come with.  I am not apologizing for bad cops any more than I would apologize for bad ultrasound techs, bad politicians, bad parents or bad writers.  All should, and with some compassion (with the possible exception of bad writers) be shown the error of their ways and in circumstances where it is merited, punishment meted out.

Police officers do have a rather unique occupation however.  Except when they are addressing a class of kindergartners at a public school on how to safely interact with strangers or, well, I don’t know of any other such scenarios, tend to be dealing with the rest of us when we are at our worse.  When a police officer responds to a call concerning some sort of trouble, sees something in a neighborhood which looks amiss, or pulls a car over on a street, road, or highway for one reason or another, the result may be that a split-second decision will determine whether that officer and the object of his attention goes home to his or her family that night or departs the scene in a body bag.

It is for that reason that I tend to be slow to jump to judgement when I read or hear about another alleged case of police brutality.  I repeat, police officers can be brutal just like I can, and have, been brutal.  I am not making excuses for bad behavior.  Nevertheless, I will never know what happened moment by moment in the mind of the police officer or in the mind of the object of his attention when I hear of a reported incident of police brutality.  The best that I can do is to support a thorough investigation of any incident by as neutral a third party as is possible and then be satisfied with the conclusion drawn by that party.

All that being said, I do have personal experiences with being the ‘object of the police officer’s attention,’ and now propose to tell three tales which I hope will give a little insight on how this relationship between server and served sometimes looks at ground level.

In the fall of 1964 I was fifteen years old and found myself sitting in science class next to an extraordinarily pretty girl.  One day this extraordinarily pretty girl invited me to go see a guy named Billy Graham who was throwing some sort of shindig at the football stadium where the San Diego Chargers played.  The girl could have asked me to peel the skin off of my feet and stick them into a bucket of salt and I would have agreed instantly, so the next evening I found myself at the Billy Graham crusade and before the night was over, to my considerable surprise, I was a Christian.  As best as I remember I did sincerely responded to the message presented by Mr. Graham that night, but the most important thing to me at the moment was that I now was able to attend church with the extraordinarily attractive girl.

Nothing came of this mutual attendance at church.  The girl already had a handsome, athletic, studly boyfriend away at college, none of which adjectives described me in any imaginable way.   I did however meet Roy Maxwell at that church, and he and his step brother Marty Corbin and I became an inseparable trio, even though Roy and Marty attended a different high school than I did ( a thing which meant much in those days).  We hung out together and did all of the teenage boy things until Roy got a girlfriend.  I was initially annoyed by that since it interrupted our horsing around and also probably because it highlighted the fact that I couldn’t win a girlfriend if I had a hand with four aces.  Even worse, she was a student of Hoover High, which was my school.  Quelle horreur!  The traitor!

As it turned out, Carole Jenkins was a very nice girl and I came to like her as a friend very much.  In fact, our friendship lasted for several years until I fell off of the end of the universe after returning home from Vietnam, but that is a different story.  In addition to being very nice, Carole had the additional advantage of belonging to a family that was very rich.  I have no idea what Carole’s father did for a living, but the Jenkins family lived in a gigantic house situated atop Del Cerro, a hill on the eastern edge of San Diego.  I don’t suppose that you could call the Jenkins residence a mansion, but to a kid living in a stucco cube in a working class neighborhood of East San Diego it looked pretty much like a mansion to me.

I was used to other kids having advantages that I did not, but in one area I did have a leg up.  I had a driver’s license and my father was very liberal about allowing me to use the car.  At least once each week I would drive to the Maxwell residence and pick up Roy and Marty and drive up the winding road which climbed past rank after rank of large homes which got bigger and nicer as we neared the top of the hill.  After a few weeks of this we began to feel like we actually belonged up there.  We were soon to find out how wrong we were about that.

Not too long after we began to drive to Carole’s house a series of break-ins occurred on Del Cerro hill.  First cars and then houses were hit by people who knew that Del Cerro is where one was most likely to find treasure worth the risk, in their minds at least, of burglarizing cars and homes.  The good citizens of the Del Cerro neighborhood took predictable umbrage at such nefarious doings and demanded, and received, a heightened police presence in the affected area.

As a result of this elevated police vigilance Roy and Marty and I began to attract attention as we drove up the hill in my Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor through a forest of Cadillacs and Lincolns and the occasional BMW and Porsche.  Three young men – old men did not usually adopt the occupation of burglar – in a cheap car (relatively speaking) was going to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, and we began to grow accustomed to being stopped by the police nearly every time that we went to visit Carole, and having our identification checked before being granted permission to proceed.   The whole thing took on the air of a routine until one evening when that routine came to a sudden, screeching halt.

On that night we were climbing the hill on our way to Carole’s house when the predictable red and blue lights snapped on behind us.  We were very used to this by now and so I pulled over and rolled to a stop next to the curb.  Having done this drill several times before I decided that this time I would make myself super helpful and maybe speed things up a little bit.  With not the slightest idea that my actions could end very badly I slipped my hand down to the handle on the Mercury’s door, pulled it up, pushed the door open and emerged and began walking back to where the police car was just parking behind me.  To make matters worse, as if that wasn’t bad enough, I reached around into my back pocket to extract the wallet containing the identification which I knew that they would momentarily be asking for.  That’s me: Mister Helpful.  Always looking for a way to make a bad situation better.

 

This was probably my first lesson in the importance of perspective.  The police officers did not see a citizen emerging from a car to save them a walk and reaching for his wallet to save them the trouble of asking for identification.  Instead, they saw a car that was out of pace, inhabited by three youngish males, with one of the emerging from the car and advancing towards them while reaching for, what?  A gun?

“Get your hands up” came the shouted command.  I was stupefied by this response to my good intentions and took another step forward while still pulling at my wallet.  Both of the officers pulled out their revolvers, with one going down to his knee and the other remaining standing.  Both barrels were pointed squarely at your’s truly.  “Stop moving and drop your weapon”  shouted the officer who was standing.  I had no idea what they meant by ‘weapon’, but I figured out what ‘stop’ meant right away and did.  “Drop the weapon!  Drop it!”  repeated the policeman.  I didn’t have a weapon, but I did have my wallet in my hand and reasoned that if I dropped it I might somehow keep from getting shot.

“Turn towards the car and put your hands on the trunk” came the next command, and by now I was getting into the spirit of the moment and moved just as fast as I thought would look non-threatening.  The kneeling policeman rose up and the two of them began to walk towards where I stood with hands on the trunk of the Mercury and within an inch of peeing my pants.

One of the officers patted me down, searching for any sort of weapon, and when none was found the other bent over and picked up my wallet.  The first policeman turned me towards him and asked “What the hell do you think you are doing here?  You just about got yourself into some serious trouble boy.”  “I was just trying to be helpful” I replied.  “We’re driving to my friend’s girl friend’s house and we’ve been stopped a bunch of times.  I just thought that I would speed things up a little.

At this point the officers knew that they were dealing with an idiot, not a criminal.  They holstered their weapons and breathed a big, long sigh of relief.  “Son, don’t ever do that again.  We don’t have any idea what you intend to do when you get out of your car.  When a police officer pulls you over just stop your car, turn off the engine, put your hands on the steering wheel where he can see them and let him do his job.  Everybody is going to have a much easier time of it if you will just do those things.”

The officers returned my wallet to me and let me get back into my car.  Roy and Marty were pale as ghosts and began to babble incoherently as I fired the little Mercury up and drove the rest of the way to Carole’s house.  That night I enjoyed the spotlight, a position that I was not accustomed to, as we told the tale to Carole, who was not used to being involved with people who were held at gunpoint and nearly shot by the police.

Roy and Carole would in fact end their relationship soon after this incident but, as I stated earlier, Carole and I continued our friendship several years more, long after I lost contact with Roy.  I hope that I might run into Carole someday, although that is extremely unlikely.  Maybe I will see her at my high school’s fiftieth year reunion.  “Hi.  Remember me?  The guy who was almost shot by the cops in 1965?  How’ve you been?”

The Joke’s On You, Part III

I have always had a unique love of practical jokes.  From the time that I learned what a practical joke was I have been drawn to playing them on other people and having them played on me in my turn.  Of course it was important to choose as my victims people who could take a joke, as some people just do not take them well.  I tended to avoid playing tricks on prickly people, even anonymously, since somebody was bound to run off at the mouth and there’d be a fight in no time at all.  I was never really interested in that.

Not all people were like me however.  Some of the guys in my neighborhood would pull off a  joke on just about anybody, and some of those jokes were not at all just in good fun.  Willie Starnes was such a guy.  Willie was bigger than most of the other kids and not at all afraid to cross the lines of propriety when it came to having fun at other people’s expense.

Willie’s jokes ran the gamut from simple fun to intimidation to outright sabotage.  For example, there were two slender trees growing at one end of our neighborhood park.  Willie one day took two lengths of surgical rubber tubing and tied one end of each to holes punched in opposite sides of a metal funnel.  He then tied the two rubber tubes to the trees and had in effect made a huge slingshot.  Willie then took a bag full of water balloons and began to rain them down on kids playing on the playground about 100 yards away.  Getting smacked in the head with a water balloon launched from half a block away was not a fatal event, but it was far from fun.  Willie liked it however, and that is all that mattered.

The boys in our neighborhood also had a little game that we called “Bam”.  In this game one could punch somebody in the shoulder, throw a basketball into their lap or hit them with a white bean shot through a pea shooter and be safe from retaliation if one would only say “Bam” out loud when the hit was delivered.  The effect was usually startling or embarrassing but rarely painful, at least the way that most of us played it, but Willie could be counted on to take it to extremes.  A punch in the chest, a football thrown at the head or groin, or a painful flick on the ear delivered by Willie to the accompaniment of a shouted “Bam” took all of the fun out of the game for the rest of us.

When Willie wasn’t annoying us he was sure to be somewhere stuffing a potato up somebody’s exhaust pipe or letting the air out of somebody else’s auto or bicycle tires or, as he once did, running a kid’s bicycle up the flagpole at the park and tying the ropes up high on the pole so that the little guy couldn’t reach it.  Willie was not the roughest guy in our neighborhood by a long shot, but he certainly had his own rough edge and was far from my favorite person to hang around with.

All of us guys looked for a chance to get back at Willie without taking a thumping on the head as part of the bargain.  Willie had a bicycle but nobody dared to mess with it for fear of being caught.  We would play the “Bam” game with him but always be sure to tap him lightly or telegraph the throwing of any object his way.  It was critical that we extend to him a sense of inclusion since he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon that we knew of, yet not make our actions aggressive enough to be interpreted as a challenge.  Walking that tightrope came to be a big pain in everybody’s necks.

The solution to the problem came to us unexpectedly when the older brother of Frank Cortner, one of the smaller kids in our group, got a summer job working at a movie theater in the suburb of La Mesa, which sprawls just next to San Diego.  This theater ran all of the old cheesy black and white “B” science fiction and horror movies; the ones we all loved and watched at the movie house in our own neighborhood.  Most of the movie companies produced posters to be displayed in the windows outside of the movie houses and wanted those posters back when the movie’s run there was completed.  Sometimes, however, when a poster got torn or soiled or in some other way defaced the company let go of it and printed up new ones to accompany their crappy movies to their next showing.  When this would happen anyone who wanted them could take these posters home, and that is how a poster from a monster movie came to find its way into the garage of Frank Cortner.

I do not at this time remember which movie that poster with a torn corner and a smudge of ketchup across the title came from.  I was certain that it was from “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” starring Michael Landon of “Little House on the Prairie” fame, but my friend Wes is equally certain that the poster was of “It! The Creature From Beyond Space”.  To add to the confusion another of my co-conspirators who still lives in San Diego, Ron Larimer, believes that it was the “Creature From the Black Lagoon”.  I guess it really doesn’t matter.  What is relevant to this tale is that we had at our disposal a nearly life-sized poster of a very frightening creature, and one fine day while we were all lounging in and around Frank’s garage a bright idea occurred to one of us concerning how we could use that poster to gain a small measure of revenge on Willie Starnes.

We carefully cut out the figure of the monster from the poster and glued it to a large piece of cardboard which had remained in the garage since Frank’s parents had bought a new refrigerator the year before.  We then cut away the excess cardboard so that we had a fairly sturdy, nearly life-sized image of a monster; trust me, it was the Teenage Werewolf.  The other guys don’t know what they are talking about.  Next we went to the hardware store a few blocks from my house and bought two eight foot 2 X 4 building studs.  We used a couple of strips of plywood as joiners and nailed the two studs together, and then tested it for height.  It was too big, so we took about four feet off of one end and now it was just right.

Willie Starnes lived in an upstairs apartment with his parents on the corner of Polk and 43rd Street, about five blocks from my house.  Willie always had his window open, wanting to see what was going on outside and liking being seen in return.  There was a streetlight on the corner opposite Willie’s window across the intersection, and a row of palm trees between that light and the window.  Those trees let a lot of light through but softened it so that things would not be seen outside in the sharpest clarity from inside Willie’s room.  We all knew that Willie had to be home on Thursday nights because his father insisted on family time, and Willie hated the thought of not being able to hang out at the park or prowl the streets with the rest of us so he would retire to his room as soon as he possibly could.

Darkness came early on the day that we got our revenge on Willie.  By 5:30 PM there was little more than a glow on the western horizon.  Willie was finishing his dinner and crafting his best effort at a credible excuse as to why he had to retire to his bedroom.  We were waiting in the shadows across the street when we saw Willie’s figure walk past his window, and at that moment we knew that our time had come.  Using a hammer that we had smuggled out of Frank’s father’s garage we pounded a couple of carpet tacks through the image of the monster, fixing it to the end of what had become a twelve foot pole.  We crossed the street, which was not a particularly busy one, and crowded behind a hedge which ran the full length of the apartment building in which the Starnes family lived.  Frank hoisted the pole with the image of whichever movie monster it really was and placed it squarely in the middle of Willie’s bedroom window.

We were probably not there for a very long time, but it seemed to us like we were there forever holding a long wooden pole with a silhouette affixed to it on a well lit corner in a big city.  We were worried that some curious neighbor would call the cops on us before we hit pay dirt, but all of those fears came to an end abruptly when we heard a terrified shriek come out through the open portion of Willie’s window.  Frank bobbed the pole up and down and Willie shrieked again, then we hauled down the pole and took off running, trying to stay out of the light as best we could.  We ducked into an alley, disconnected the cardboard monster, chucked the pole into somebody’s back yard, and trotted back to Frank’s garage where the monster was fixed in a place of honor on one of the walls.

Willie never did mention this event when he came to hang out with us at the park.  Frank or Ron or I would sometimes mention monsters that we had seen on the big screen at the Crest Theater on University Avenue and comment on how scared we would be if one of those creatures ever jumped out at us from the dark, but Willie would never take our bait.  I think that he suspected us, but that may just be the product of a guilty mind.  We never told any of the other kids about our prank, but all of the other kids went to the weekend matinees just like we did, and all of them would talk about this monster or that one, so Willie could never really be sure who had got the best of him.  That just made it that much better.

Frank and Wes and I are still in contact and we still laugh about that prank on rare occasions when we get together.  Nobody knows what happened to Willie however.  We have one clue only.  One day, many years later, Wes ran into Willie at Pacific Beach in San Diego.  Willie was living on the margins of society, probably what we would now call ‘homeless’.  Drugs had obviously wrought havoc on his life already and he seemed to be walking blindly into an alternate universe of delusion, paranoia, separation and eventually violent or drug-induced death.  I have no confidence at all that Willie still lives.  Nevertheless, Willie Starnes occupies the exalted position of recipient of the number one, all time best prank that I was ever a part of, and if for no other reason than that I wish him happiness if he yet lives and peace if he has gone to meet his Maker.

The Joke’s On You, Part II

Halloween was a special time in my neighborhood of East San Diego when I was a child.  I grew up there in the 1950’s and 1960’s when things were more simple, in my world at least.  These were the times when the elementary schools would have halloween carnivals in the evening at which one could fish for prizes from a tank, throw bean bags through a hole to win tickets redeemable for prizes, or win a cake on the cakewalk.  I will never forget how excited I was one time when the music stopped on the cakewalk and the paper plate upon which I was standing contained the winning number and some big, pink, three layer cake was mine.  And I didn’t even like cake!

Also missing in halloween these days is the homemade and natural goodies that we once filled our pillowcases with; brownies, fudge, apples and oranges and my all-time favorite, popcorn balls.  We knew most of the neighbors who were giving us these home concocted treats and the thought of them inserting something dangerous or gross into our treats never entered either our minds or theirs.  I really do miss the popcorn balls.

There is no doubt that I enjoyed the treats greatly, but I must confess that I really loved the tricks too.  Most people only said “Trick or treat” as a formality, but my brother Brad and I took that formula very seriously.  Our tricks originally were short on imagination.  Soaping windows, burning paper bags filled with doggie doo on the front porch and the like were our stock in trade at first.  As we grew a little older however the quality of our work was honed to a sharper edge.  My all-time second favorite prank was Halloween related, and was as follows.

Sometime right around 1960 Brad and I decided to make a dummy to hang from a branch of the pine tree which grew in the front yard of our house.  The branches spread out over the sidewalk and anyone walking up that sidewalk, and there would be hoards of people out trick-or-treating in those days, would have to walk under that pine tree.  We found an old pair of my jeans and stuffed the legs full of crumpled up newspapers, pine needles, dried weeds from a burn pile in our back yard, and dirty rags.  Brad then pulled an old shirt out of the rag bag in the garage and attached it to the jeans with safety pins.  The shirt was then similarly filled and a cotton rope attached to the collar with more safety pins.  We then glued a paper lunch sack into the collar opening of the shirt which represented a head and in the dark it made a pretty good likeness of a person hanging from a limb.

Our results were mixed.  It was Halloween after all, and people were expecting such props.  Some of the younger kids were a little bit spooked by our dummy but they were calmed down by their older escorts and not much came of it, so Brad and I decided to take the prank to the next level.  We tied one end of a string to a leg of the dummy and then climbed up into the tree, using the string to pull the dummy up into the tree with us.  Now we were able to wait for our victims to come walking up the sidewalk and let the dummy come swinging down right in front of them.

The effect was electric and hugely satisfying.  The first group gave out a shriek, and when they assessed the nature of the joke tore our dummy down and spread it all over the sidewalk.  After they walked on we repaired our masterpiece and regained our perch in the tree to wait for new victims.  The wait was not long and soon our dummy, now just a bit the worse for wear, went swinging back out of the tree.  The effect was identical, but this time we hoisted the dummy back up into the tree before our marks could recover from their fright and inflict punishment on the dummy like their predecessors had.  We received a few threats and verbal chastisements from our thoroughly punked victims but we stayed silent and mostly invisible in the dark recesses of the pine branches, neither moving nor even giggling until the party had moved on.  We then waited for the next party to stroll along, and the whole thing began all over again.

This prank generated a lot of laughs but eventually grew stale.  We climbed down from the tree after a while and removed our dummy from his branch over the sidewalk.  Several ideas were kicked around and we finally agreed to take the dummy a couple of blocks away where we would hide between two parked cars, wait for a car to come along, pitch the dummy in front of the car and then run out and snatch it up before the presumably startled drivers could react.  It seemed like a good plan, so we gathered up our dummy and walked to Chamoune Avenue two blocks distant from where we were.

When we arrived at Chamoune Ave, two blocks east and one block north of our pine tree, we found a pair of cars parked very close to one another and hunkered down to await the arrival of a passing car.  We didn’t have to wait long.  A car driving west on Wightman Street turned right onto Chamoune and began rolling slowly towards where we lay in wait.  When the car was very nearly even with our location Brad heaved the dummy out in front of the advancing car.

The driver hit the brakes and the car came to a screeching halt, but not until after it had rolled over our dummy.  The driver, an elderly man, emerged from his car and hobbled around the front to the passenger side.  While he was doing this Brad and I retreated to a row of shrubs, behind which we hid.  It turned out that we had no time to leap out, grab our dummy, and make our getaway.  The old boy quickly assessed the nature of what he had just run over and gave vent to a string of curses such as he had probably not used since he stood in the trenches of France in World War I.  He grabbed the dummy and threw it towards the sidewalk, yelled something about our mother, and then reentered his car and continued on his way northbound on Chamoune.

Brad and I howled with delight at the quality of our prank and recovered our dummy.  We replaced some of its stuffing with some of a newspaper that we had brought with us from home (it was a Thursday paper, and they were really thick with lots of pages), put a few new safety pins into it to keep pants and shirt together, completely discarded the paper bag which we had used for a head, and prepared for our next victim.  Again, we didn’t have to wait for long.

In the distance two headlights appeared and they kept coming toward us.  As the car passed Wightman we knew that they would be the next to suffer from our clever ruse.  We knew that we would toss out the dummy and go straight to our hiding place behind the shrubs this time, making no attempt to bolt out of our covert and flee with the dummy.  Worked last time didn’t it?  What could go wrong?

The car approached and once again Brad tossed the dummy in front of it.  The result was initially the same; screeching tires, grinding halt, dummy under the car.  That’s where the similarity ended.  Out of the four doors of the car boiled four large teenagers, easily Brad’s age or older, which meant a good deal older than me.  The four teens were not amused and we slunk back deeper into the darkened yard, trying to stay out of sight.  The attempt was a failure.  The four angry teens saw our movement and came after us with shouts and threats.

We retreated at a run into the alley and then followed it up to Wightman, then up that street and into the alley between Chamoune and 45th Street with the four teens closing the gap between us.  This alley was closer to our home however, and we knew that Mr. and Mrs. Larson had a big and intimidating dog that they kept in their back yard.  Brad decided to take our chances with the dog and hollered for me to stay close to him.  When we arrived at the Larson’s back fence we jumped up onto a wooden box-like structure where Mr. Larson put his trash cans and leaped from there over the fence, running for the fence on the front side of the yard like the devil himself was on our heals.

And the devil WAS on our heals.  Duke, the German shepherd, was taking his ease in his doghouse in the back corner of the yard when we exploded into his domain.  The dog was caught by surprise by two figures racing silently through the yard and did not get a good jump on us, and that was the break that we were hoping for.  Brad flew like an eagle over the fence on the other side of the yard and I made it most of the way before Duke clamped his teeth onto the heel of my U.S. Ked.  I lunged forward as Duke lunged back, and we traded my freedom from a mauling or a beating or both for my left shoe, and I considered it a bargain.

The four teens had no intention of entering a yard occupied by a full grown and thoroughly pissed-off German shepherd, and Brad and I flew through a passage which we knew of between two houses that led between 45th Street and the alley which ran between 45th and Highland Avenue.  We crept queitly through another passage and soon we were standing on Highland Avenue, close to our house.  Once on Highland I kicked off my other shoe and hid it in a bush, put my socks into my pocket, and we ran the rest of the way home.

Upon arriving at home we entered the house gasping and laughing, with me barefoot.  Our mother was not curious about this as we were in San Diego after all, and I was barefoot most of the time anyway.  We pretended to be stopping in to eat some of the candy that Mom was handing out to trick-or-treaters, but in fact we were waiting to be sure that the angry teens had given up the hunt.

After a while we ventured back outside and returned to the scene of our triumph by a roundabout way.  When we arrived we discovered that our dummy was nowhere to be found.  Not even pieces were seen in the street or in nearby yards.  It appeared that the teens had thrown the dummy into their car and drove away with it, probably to reproduce our joke somewhere else.  Brad and I returned to the Larson’s yard where he posted me in the alley while he went around to the front.  On Brad’s signal I began to make noise and distract the dog while Brad jumped over the fence and recovered my shoe.  Duke never saw him.  Mr. Larson raced out of the back door of his house just as Brad cleared the fence on this return trip.  I fled from my post at that moment and ran around to the front of the Larson house.  Brad was waiting with my shoe and we retraced our steps to the bush on Highland Avenue where we recovered my other shoe from its hiding place.

We walked home with me fully shod, enjoying a good laugh and only one old pair of jeans lost for our efforts.  We get a good laugh to this day every time we get together and tell the story for the umpteenth time.

The Joke’s On You, Part I

When I was young I lived in a neighborhood of practical jokers.  There were some who’s mischief ran to the malicious, to be sure, but by and large our pranks and practical jokes were harmless if occasionally quite shocking.  Almost all of the kids in my neighborhood were long-time residents, so any prank would probably be pulled on a neighbor who’s lawn one might cut for a few dollars on a Saturday morning or who one might deliver newspapers to in the afternoon, or who – worse case scenario – might go to bowling league with one or more of your parents.  Getting caught pulling any prank on one of these neighbors might easily result in retribution from Dad with his belt.  Getting caught pulling a malicious prank would result in a fate that would be much, much worse.

Also deterring us from pulling really bad pranks was Officer Alphabet.  Officer Alphabet grew up in East San Diego not more than 150 feet from my house.  His family was Polish, and his name contained nothing but C’s and Z’s and Y’s and a gob of other letters in unpronounceable combinations.  The real pronunciation of his name was something like “Shemshack”, but it certainly didn’t look anything like that, so we just called him Officer Alphabet.

Officer Alphabet had been a big kid while growing up in our midst and he grew up to be a big police officer, and he was assigned to patrol our neighborhood.  This presented big problems to us prank-loving kids, as Officer Alphabet knew every passageway between houses, every path through the canyons which laced through our neighborhood, and every hedge, tree or shrub big enough to provide cover to a hiding prankster with judgement hot on his heals.  Officer Alphabet had used all of those passages and hiding places himself when he was a kid pulling pranks.  Officer Alphabet couldn’t be in our neighborhood all of the time, but when he was there the place stayed pretty quiet.

We had all levels of tricksters living in our midst, and many were not all that creative.  Draping toilet paper over trees and shrubs and family autos parked in front of somebody’s house so that the morning dew would virtually plaster the paper to whatever it was draped over was a favorite of the unimaginative, as was scooping up a pile of doggie doo into a paper bag, placing it on a porch in front of the door, lighting it on fire and ringing the doorbell, hoping that the occupant of the home would answer the door, see the burning bag, and stamp on it to try to put out the fire.  That prank was so old that few people fell for it, but it still generated a lot of laughs on the rare occasions when it worked.

I belonged to a higher order of trickster, however, and enjoyed hours of entertainment with my friends as we raised hackles, ire and Cain throughout our neighborhood for many years without any of our jokes bringing significant retribution upon ourselves.  What follows are a few examples of our better efforts at creating good natured havoc with out neighbors in East San Diego in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

My third all-time favorite prank occurred one summer evening in 1963, I think it was.  Some friends and I, all fans of sci fi and monster films and all bored, came up with the idea of transforming me into “The Mummy” from the Boris Karloff 1932 movie of the same name.  We went to my house where we cut a hole out of a cotton pad and taped it over my right eye, covering up eyebrows which I wished to keep.  We then taped an intact cotton pad over my left eye and covered my close-cropped hair with a piece of rag from a bag of such things which my father kept in the garage.  We then proceeded to tape my head and hands completely with gleaming white adhesive tape until I was eventually doing a pretty good imitation of Mr. Karloff’s character.  I pulled on my black turtleneck shirt and we walked the short distance to the recreational center, which we called ‘The Park’, where all of the neighborhood kids hung out.

My friends hid behind shrubs while I strolled across the asphalt towards the center’s office over by the basketball court, dragging my left leg ever so slightly in homage to Karloff.  The effect was electric.  One of the girls gave off a stifled scream, or more like a swallowed squeak, when she turned and saw me approaching.  Everyone else simply stopped in their tracks and stared as I shuffled further into the light.  I made my way to a bench where most of the kids were sitting and took a seat which a couple of the kids had just quickly vacated.  I sat down, faced them, and then began to laugh through the tight slit which we had left for my mouth.  At this point my friends emerged from the bushes behind which they had been hiding and we all had a good laugh after a few punches in the shoulder from the guys and pushes from the girls, all of which I received with delight being a kid who was rarely the center of anything.

After a while Sonny Abacha, one of the newer kids in our group, suggested that we take our show out into the neighborhood.  We devised a plan to have one of the kids walk up to a house who’s owner we didn’t know, with me in tow, and ask for directions to a mythical house number on a street a few blocks away.  We all agreed on the plan and chose a house about a block away from the park.  Since our scheme was Sonny’s idea he was chosen to take me up to the first house.  We mounted the steps, rang the bell, and waited as we heard the steps of the approaching resident.  The porch light came on and the door was opened by a short, grizzled man in dungarees and a stained undershirt.

“Excuse me sir, can you tell me where I can find Myrtle Street?”  asked Sonny in the most polite manner which he could summon up.  The man stared at me for a moment and then looked back at Sonny,  “Huh, what’d you say?” he asked.  “We’re looking for Myrtle Street sir. I need to get my friend to a home where he will be taken care of but I must have read the map wrong.  Can you tell me if that street is anywhere around here?”  “It’s two blocks down the street that way” said the man, pointing with his chin.  “What the hell happened to him?”  Sonny didn’t miss a beat.  “Fire, sir.  He was in a car crash and got burned.”  The man stared a moment longer and then said “Hell of a bad break.  Well, Myrtle’s that way”.  This time he pointed with his thumb and shut the door as Sonny thanked him for his help.  Sonny and I held our laughter until we reached the sidewalk and the group of kids who appeared from behind parked cars and trees, and then we enjoyed our prank to the limit.  We repeated this scenario with different boys, and girls too, walking me up to the front doors, always to be greeted by gasps, stares, and frequently expressions of condolence.

The success of our little joke led us to try our luck with a larger audience.  The two main business streets in our neighborhood were Fairmont and University Avenues, with University being the most commercial of the two.  We decided to head towards Fairmont first where there was a hamburger stand at which we were frequent customers.  We pretended not to notice the stares of motorists who drove past us as we walked up to that business, and when we arrived Linda Stevens, one of my oldest friends, took me up to order.  Linda was a very pretty girl, and the boy working at the window was our age and always gazed longingly at Linda when we went there for burgers or taquitos or whatever.  Tonight he just stared at me, like everyone else, and then asked Linda “Who’s your creepy friend?”

“Arlen, that is a terrible thing to say” Linda scolded.  “This is Joseph, my cousin.  His family died in a fire and he was terribly burned.  Now he’s living with us and I would appreciate it if you would be a little bit nicer to him”.  Arlen stood behind the screened window apologizing to Linda and me for his poor choice of words while I stood beside Linda thinking that it would be worth getting burned for real to elicit that much attention and sympathy from her. Linda and I were good friends, it was true, but I would have loved to elevate that status if there was any way that my shy personality would have allowed it.

Linda went to pay for the two sodas which she had ordered for us but Arlen wouldn’t dream of taking her money.  Linda thanked him and handed me my soda.  I inserted the straw into the thin slit which we left open over my mouth and slurped some of the soda in an exaggerated way that forced a laugh out of Linda.  Arlen just stood behind his window looking stupefied as I limped beside Linda toward the kids who were watching from a darkened parking lot across the busy street.  Linda and I crossed the street easily, as every car braked instantly upon seeing me.

One block away was the corner of Fairmont and University Avenues, and this was a major hub in our corner of the city.  We were very aware of the stares of the drivers and pedestrians whom we passed by, and were busy planning our next act in this comedy when a black and white police patrol car slowed down as it passed us and then rolled to a stop by the curb a little bit ahead in the direction that we were walking.  As we pulled adjacent to his car the officer called us over to him.  “Is that dressing the real thing?” he asked.  It never entered my head to lie.  “No sir” I answered.  “Then what is this all about”?  “It’s just a joke sir” said Sonny.  “We’re just having a little fun.  We haven’t done anything wrong, have we”?  Well, actually you have”  replied the officer.  “You’re not allowed to wear a mask outside except on Halloween.”  We were stunned by that knowledge.  “Why is that?” I asked.  “Well,” the officer drawled, “how do we know that you aren’t going to rob some business or do some other bad stuff?  If people just all ran around with masks all of the time there’s no telling how many crimes would be committed and with no way of identifying the criminals”.

That made sense to us and so we promised to remove the tape.  The police cruiser pulled away and we walked around the first corner that we came to and plunged back into the darkness of a residential street.  We hated the idea of ending the joke, but as it was my rear end that would be in a sling if the policeman returned to check up on our level of compliance I made the decision to shed my disguise.  The tape came off, along with generous amounts of hair which I had not managed to adequately cover, and we all returned to the recreation center sharing a lot of laughs along the way.  We waved goodbye to The Mummy as I dropped the tape and accessories into a trash can just on the other side of the tennis court.

And that is the story of my third favorite neighborhood prank.  My second favorite will be told in my next story.

Just Joe Being Joe?

Joe Biden, the Vice President of the United States, has recently apologized for criticisms which he leveled at America’s erstwhile Middle East allies in the struggle against ISIS.  Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have given money and weaponry to anyone who will fight against Syria’s Bashar al Assad, and two of those someones were the Nusra Front and the al Qaeda splinter which went on to become ISIS.  Turkey and the U.A.E. reacted angrily to those accusations and the Vice President backtracked quickly.  Saudi Arabia has not commented.  I, on the other hand, intend very much to comment.  There are a couple of different ways to view this episode and I would like to look at two of them.

The first interpretation is that the Vice President, who is known fairly or otherwise for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, has done it again.  As a person who frequently takes issue with the Vice President’s boss it would be tempting to jump to just that conclusion but I will refrain from going there just yet, due mostly to the fact that I believe that the Vice President was making an accurate statement.  A great deal of oil money and weapons were in fact shipped to those groups who’s only virtue was that they opposed Syria’s Alawite-led government, which is itself supported only by Shi’ite Iran and Hezbollah and the Russians.  Those rebel groups are out of control now and threatening much more than Assad and the Shi’a dominated government of Iraq.  I wonder if all of that oil money and weaponry has ceased to flow to ISIS.  Yes or no would not be something that I would be likely to know, but the Vice President, briefed by American intelligence, certainly might.

And then there’s Turkey.  Turkish inaction against ISIS might have been excused when ISIS held 49 Turkish hostages, but those hostages are now home with their families.  Where is Turkish action against ISIS?  The Turks seem to have little interest in events south of their border.  ISIS is butchering and enslaving Christians and Yazidis, Shi’a and Kurds (when it can get them), and Turks are by and large none of those things.  In fact, armed Kurds defending their homeland is not a sight to gladden the eyes of a Turkish government official, and therefore the Turks are putting up every imaginable roadblock to any such thing as Kurds crossing the Turkish border to defend the city of Kobani in northern Syria.

I just wonder; was the Vice President acting as a surrogate for his boss, calling out those allies for past and//or current misdeeds?  Was Joe Biden sticking his finger into the eye of the Turkish government, telling the world how it really is, and then giving the Turks cover by saying in so many words “Oops, Sorry.  I’m just Joe being Joe.”?  Is it possible that this was a shot across the Turkish bow; a warning that continued Turkish fecklessness and disinterest in events in Syria and Iraq is being seriously watched and considered and that there will be a price to pay if such disinterest continues?

Or was Joe Biden truly just being Joe Biden, with the possibility of almost anything coming out of his mouth at any time?  I will be watching the action of our allies in the region, and especially the turks, before I make up my mind.

What To Do About ISIS

The United States is leading a solid coalition in a war of air power against ISIS in the Middle East.  Our nation, which is often slandered by people around the world, is nevertheless the one taking the lead there.  China is absent, as is Russia.  India also is nowhere to be seen.  Brazil?  Not present.  Germany and Japan are restrained by post WW II constitutions which limit their overseas military activities.  Other Western and, importantly, some Arab states are adding small contingents of jets and pilots but it is America which is doing the heavy lifting.  Again.  But as troublesome as air power can be, there will be no ultimate victory unless an effective ground force takes the battle into the teeth of ISIS.

Therein lies the rub.  The Kurds, who field an effective and cohesive ground military force, have a limited scope.  They are not going to extend their military reach far outside of traditional Kurdish lands.  The Turks have given no indication that they intend to have anything to do with the chaos below their southern border; to the contrary, they have gone so far as to prevent Kurds from crossing that border into Syria to defend Kurdish territory in that fractured state.  The Syrian government’s military forces have been inadequate to wrest control of territory away from ISIS and Iraq has no functioning military to speak of.  No other Arab state seems at all willing to commit ground forces into the fray, and so ISIS will absorb the punishment delivered from the sky but will not be defeated.

The upshot of all of this is that the defeat of ISIS will require the insertion of ground forces from somewhere outside of Syria or Iraq and probably outside of anywhere else in the Middle East as well, and I see no likelihood that such a ground force could come from anywhere other than the United States of America.  Cobbling together a ground force including countries other than only the U.S. would require the coalition-building capabilities of a George H. W. Bush, and it would be to the credit of President Obama if he could accomplish such a feat.  Whether the President has the skill or the stomach for such a policy is not at all certain.  ISIS will be calculating that he does not.

Over the years I have grown weary of the criticism that my country has endured over it’s various foreign policy initiatives.   I accept that we are not perfect and that policy, tactical and strategic mistakes have occurred, but the thrust has always been to right a wrong, in my opinion.  As a result of that constant criticism, from within this country as well as without, I have been tempted to say “To heck with it.  Let’s return all American military personnel to American soil and let the world do what the world wants to do, and when the next earthquake or genocide or gobbling up of a weak state by a strong one comes along say “Go ask the Russians for help.”

But I can’t do that.  Russia and China and India don’t care if Yazidi men are slaughtered and the women are made sexual slaves (the real war on women).  No skin off of their nose.  Maybe there is no skin off of my nose either, but I know that we have the ability to stop it, and if we do not use than ability then I believe that we are complicit in the wrong itself.  That makes me a reluctant interventionist.  What about you?  Do you care about the victims of ISIS?  Do you care enough to do anything about it?  Am I wrong to care?  We should have a conversation about this.  We are talking not about abstractions but the lives of very real people.  That should mean something to us.

I’m A Fool for the City

The year of our Lord 1976 was not my best year.  The first five months of that year I spent trying to hold together a marriage which was slowly melting down, and the last seven months were mostly lost in a boozy muddle wreathed in clouds of marijuana smoke as I self medicated to forget the pain of my failure in that endeavor.  Each day of that last seven months was an undirected jumble of virtually meaningless hours and every night at the residence which I shared with three other people would have looked like a party to any reasonable person, not that there was ever very many reasonable people present in our residence on any given night.  One evening a person who accompanied a  friend of mine apologized for not bringing something to add to the party.  My friend laughed and told him “This isn’t a party.  It’s always like this here.”

That sort of lifestyle eventually either kills you or loses its allure and for me it was the latter, and so as that awful year drew to a close I awoke one morning, put my tools, some clothing and a few valuable items into my truck, and pointed the nose of that vehicle south and east away from Northern California and across Southwest deserts towards Albuquerque New Mexico, where my brother Bart lived.  I needed to restart my life and returning to my family seemed like the right place to get that journey underway.

Albuquerque is a very different kind of place than any that I had ever lived in before however, and it didn’t take very long after my arrival to find out just how different it was.  I actually felt like I had fallen into a crack between two universes and had emerged in some bizarre facsimile of the normal one I had inhabited up until I pulled into the city limits.  My introduction to this odd new universe came quickly when Brad announced on my first day there that he was going to K-Mart to buy some item which he needed for a construction project at his house.  I climbed into his truck and we were soon standing in one of the construction supply aisles near the rear of the building.  We were not alone however.  A few yards in front of us an argument was taking place between a young woman and a young man.

“I don’t know why you are saying that.  None of it is true” said the young woman.

“Don’t lie to me” replied the young man, spitting the words out between clinched teeth.  “You think I’m stupid?  or that I don’t have ears or eyes?  You’re nothing but a puta”

For those of you unfamiliar with the American Southwest, ‘puta’ is not a very nice thing for a woman to be called.

“Don’t call me that” she hissed at her accuser.  “I haven’t done anything wrong.  I don’t know why you’re making this up.”  The young man remained unconvinced.

“I’m not making anything up.  I saw you with Joe with my own eyes.  Are you saying that I’m blind, puta?”

“I said don’t call me that.  Me and Joe are friends and that’s all.  We’ve been friends for a long time.  You’re just trying to make something out of nothing.”

“I know you and Joe are friends.  Good friends, too.  You looked real friendly when I saw you get into the back seat of his car.  Maybe if I had stayed around longer I would have seen your heels in the window too, puta.”

This was as far as the girl was willing to let the young man go, and she lashed out with a vicious right hook that would have made Mike Tyson proud.  The young man’s glasses flew off of his face and spun through the air, landed on the floor and skidded to a stop at the feet of Brad and me.  Brad had found the item that he needed so we quickly did an about face and walked up another aisle towards the check out stand at the front of the store.  While Brad was paying we heard the quavering voice of a female in distress paging the store manager to the employee break room.  My guess is that the young man at that same moment was applying something warm and wet to the left eye that was swelling shut and already beginning to blacken.

I was completely blown away by the this event and as we arrived at Brad’s truck I asked “What the hell did we just see?”  “Oh, that’s no big thing here” Brad replied.  “You’ll get used to it”.  The funny thing is that I did get used to it, mostly because one odd event after another seemed to blend into the pattern of a unique personality of the city.  The next wrinkle of that personality was to make itself known to me before very much water in the Rio Grande passed underneath the I-40 Bridge.

My friend Wes showed up at Brad’s house two days after I did and all three of us strapped on our tools and began to hang drywall for a local contractor.  It was the dead of winter and Albuquerque sits at 5,000 feet above sea level.  Winter storms are not common there, but they do occasionally come and when they do they can bring significant amounts of ice and snow.  The three of us were working on the east side of the city one day when the grey clouds rolled in and began to drop snow while we were occupied inside of a building.  By the time that we noticed the weather there was a layer of snow an inch or two thick on the ground already and more was falling as we stood there.  Brad declared that we should quit and begin to make our way to his house on the west side of the city, as far away from where we were standing as we could and yet remain in the same city.

We stowed our tools in the back of Brad’s truck and he began to steer the vehicle slowly and carefully down the whitened streets, first stopping to procure a couple of cases of beer in case we were snowed in.  Many others had the same idea and there was an additional inch or two of snow on the streets when Brad completed his purchase and began to do the best imitation of a tip-toe in a half ton truck that I have ever seen.  Slowly and carefully he navigated the gentle hill which dropped into the South Valley where his house was, still many miles away.

Now at this point I have to explain something about the tires on many of the vehicles in Albuquerque.  New Mexico is a dry place, and Albuquerque is more dry than many other parts of that state.  Without a lot of rain and snow and ice to make the need for good tread on one’s tires obvious it is easy to become lazy and not replace a tire until it is a good deal past far gone.  Many of the tires in Albuquerque are simply bald, and bald tires plus ice and snow are a bad, bad mix.

And a bad mix they were on this particular day.  Brad and Wes and I were rolling slowly down Second Avenue, enjoying a few beers before actually arriving at Brads house (I am not advocating this behavior; I am simply reporting it) when Brad noticed a large American car – all American cars were large in those days – coming up behind us at a much higher rate of speed that we were going.  The first that Wes and I were aware that there was a drama about to unfold was when Brad said “Uh Oh, this probably is not going to end well,” and he began to slow down a little bit more to increase his maneuverability in case things went horribly bad.

The car behind us, driven by a young man with his wife or more likely girl friend beside him, pulled into the oncoming lane in order to pass us.  When he attempted to straighten the trajectory of his car the slick, bald tires allowed not an iota of traction however and the car continued on in the new path which the driver had just initiated.  That path took the car and its passengers across the oncoming lane, down into a low and somewhat broad ditch, up a railroad embankment which paralleled Second Avenue, and back down the embankment to settle in the bottom of the ditch.  While this was happening the car began to turn a lazy half circle so that it came to rest with the front of the car pointing towards us as we continued our slow, careful pace up on the road where we wanted to stay and the now hopelessly stuck driver wished that he still was.

The whole thing seemed like some slow motion dance.  The car making it’s lazy arc up and down the railroad embankment, narrowly missing a road sign in the process; the female passenger already giving the driver hell before we passed them by; it was like an opera without the music.  There was not one thing that we could do to help in those days before cell phones, but Second Avenue was a busy street and we knew that a police cruiser and a tow truck were in this gentleman’s immediate future, so we drove on laughing so hard that we almost wet ourselves.

A final tale (and I could tell many more) featuring the peculiarities of Albuquerque came a year later, when I was back in town following the construction trades.  Brad took me to Chuck’s Lounge, a bar and pizza place on Central Avenue in the heart of the city.  There was always a diverse crowd in Chuck’s due to its proximity to the University of New Mexico a few blocks away up Central and two interstate highways just a short distance west and north.  They also made some very good pizza.  On this particular night one could see sandals and boots, headbands and cowboy hats, paisley shirts and big shiny belt buckles and every manner of clothing and personal grooming styles you can imagine.  I was there for the pizza because they made the best green chili, pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  Actually, they make the ONLY green chili and pepperoni and chorizo pizza that I have ever eaten.  I was interested only in the pizza and not the other clientele who were enjoying Chuck’s hospitality that night.

All of that changed in one instant however.  Unnoticed by anyone in the building, a man entered the front door with a handgun of some unknown calibre looking for the person who was fooling around with his wife, and his wife too if she happened to be so unlucky as to be there that evening.  This person bellowed out a name which nobody responded to, which prompted the man to discharge a bullet into the roof to make himself perfectly clear.  At this point everyone in the joint hit the floor or took cover behind whatever they could find.  Nobody bolted for the exit because that would put them into clear sight and might suggest to the cuckolded shooter that he might be the guilty party.

The armed man peered under tables and around bar stools and decided that the Casanova whom he was in search of was not going to be found in Chuck’s that night.  At that point he pulled out his wallet and laid a wad of bills on the bar, apologized for disrupting everyone’s evening, instructed the bartender to set everyone up as far as the wad of bills on the bar would go, and took his leave to search for his wife and her lover elsewhere.

Brad and I crawled out from under our table and found to our delight that very little beer had slopped out of our glasses as we dove for cover.  We finished our pizza and beer, paid up, and departed shortly after the incident.  Chuck called the police, since he would probably have heard about it if he had not, and they showed up just before we left.  There was no sense of urgency shown by the police since nobody was hurt.  The officers took a description and seemed to know who their suspect was, and we all got to leave without a great deal of fuss and to-do.

These are three of a great many stories that I could write about life in Albuquerque.  I found that city and state to be unlike any others, and I frankly enjoyed their quirky if somewhat dangerous personality.  I live far away from Albuquerque now and my family has also moved on, so I have little likelihood of seeing that city again.  I still keep it in my mind and heart however, and that will simply have to do.