When I was a young boy I was generally more cautions than most of my friends, but I still loved taking my chances from time to time. For instance, my brother and I once acquired a device called a ‘flexi’. This thing was basically a sled with wheels, which was useful since San Diego was not big on snow. The flexi came with two large springs which connected the front axel to handles that would allow steering but which tended to keep the flexi pointed straight ahead, more or less. The first thing that my brother and I did once we got our hands on a flexi of our own was to remove those springs. The second thing that we did was head straight to the Dwight Street hill.
The Dwight Street hill was short, only half a block long. t’s virtue therefore did not lie in its length. Instead, the Dwight Street hill was valued for its steepness. Brad (my brother) and I would take turns standing at the bottom of the hill and signaling when no cars were approaching the intersection of Dwight St. and Chamoune Ave. When the hand came down we would shove off and fly down that hill with the speed of Mercury on a mission for the gods.
I do not know what advantage we believed that removing the springs conferred, but on our flights down the hill their absence frequently proved to be quite painful. Sitting on the boards of the flexi and steering with our feet we had to keep perfectly straight, or the turning of the wheels at speed would result in us being pitched off of the flexi to bump and roll and skid the rest of the way down the hill on elbows and knees and faces and rear ends. The amount of skin that was left on that asphalt surface was impressive, when you consider that every kid in the neighborhood wanted his turn on the flexi. I can’t begin to count the bottles of iodine, mercurichrome, and other antiseptic liquids that were splashed over raw body parts which were missing skin because of that stupid flexi.
Another daredevil attraction that we boys could’t pass up was messing around with heights. Anything which got us up off of the ground made us feel untethered, like birds, and able to throw off the shackles of gravity which sought to limit us to a boring, terrestrial existence. There was a big pine tree in our front yard that was probably fifty feet high. From the top one could see for many miles in all directions, even to the Coronado Islands which lie south of San Diego and actually belong to Mexico. We boys would spend hours in that tree, frequently crawling out and balancing on the larger branches as far out as would hold our weight, and then swaying up and down and back and forth in the wind. This practice lasted for several years until I discovered that a huge species of spider which was colored much like the bark of that tree lived there. Heights were exhilarating but spiders are terrifying, so that pretty well ended my tree climbing days.
Probably the most dangerous stunt which any of us ever pulled off however involved becoming a human flame thrower. We enjoyed aiming a stream of hairspray through a flame which created an exciting blowtorch effect, but that was not enough of a thrill for one of the more adventurous of us. Something with a little bit more ‘flare’, if you will, was needed and Larry Stang was the first to find out what that something would be. Larry was an older teen and a smoker who had his own Zippo lighter, and one day while refilling his lighter with the highly flammable lighter fluid Larry had his epiphany. Unknown to everyone else, Larry tried his new trick and it worked. He could hardly wait for the big moment when he would stun and amaze the crowd with his new-found capability.
That big moment came a few weeks after Larry’s epiphany. We were all hanging out at the recreation center which was the nucleus of our neighborhood, talking and joking and pretty much doing what teenagers do everywhere where there is a little spare time in the day. Nobody took any notice when Larry pulled a can of lighter fluid from his back pocket and dug his Zippo out of a pocket in front. Straightening the plastic nipple of the can into the ‘open’ position Larry proceeded to squirt a sizable amount of the fluid into his mouth. We all stopped talking in mid sentence and stood looking at Larry with our jaws hanging agape. Assured of a good and appreciative audience, Larry flicked the striker on his lighter and produced the pilot light through which he blew a blast of the fluid.
The results were instantaneous and electric. The fluid ignited just as it flew through the flame, producing the staggeringly impressive human torch effect that Larry had practiced successfully for weeks. There was one little glitch however. One variable that Larry hadn’t taken into consideration. Bob Dylan once famously sang “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Well, apparently Larry Stang DID need the aforementioned weatherman. The flame which spewed forth from his mouth was quickly blown by a malicious breeze right back into his face, lighting his hair and the collar of his shirt, turning the human blowtorch into just the human torch.
“Holy crap!” “Shit!””‘ta madre!” These and other expressions greeted this new development. One of the older, more quick-thinking boys tore his shirt off and with its help the flames were extinguished in no time. Larry was moaning as the skin began to blister up on his face and on his hands which he had used to beat at the flames. The burns were not especially severe, but that meant that they were more quickly painful. A couple of the guys half carried Larry to the recreation center office to get help from the park leader, who took one look at Larry and called for an ambulance.
A couple of days later we went to call on Larry. There were four of us, including Bill Samuels who was one of the biggest, meanest guys in the neighborhood. When we were admitted into Larry’s room we were assaulted by the hospital smell and the vision of Larry’s blistered, bandaged head and hands with some sort of glistening ointment that looked for all the world like serous fluid oozing from Larry’s sores. The sight and smell together had an instant effect on Bill, who passed out cold as a fish and split his head clean open on the metal foot of Larry’s bed. That earned Bill a night’s stay at the hospital in a room not too far down the hall from Larry.
That pretty much signaled the end of the ‘human blowtorch’ routine in our neighborhood. Many spoke of it, a few tried it with mixed success, but it soon died a natural death. We were forced to limit ourselves to playing chicken on our bicycles and walking across canyons on elevated pipelines which carried water or gas or who knows what in order to get a little adrenalin rush going. I sometimes wonder how any of us stayed alive.