When We Were Boys
We always woke up early. Saturday mornings, summer mornings, every morning. Even as time stood still for the wasting—ample, humid, stretching out before us like a ribbon on a gift. We sensed adventure in the morning sun, felt it in the wind as the cars zipping past us, touched it on every rock worth throwing. We chased it with every step down the street.
We cooled off at convenience stores, only to hit the road again clutching sodas, our pockets bulging with sugar. The pace varied, from urgent march to bored meander, stopping on occasion to take a whiz behind a tree or admire a fancy car. We landed punches for every Volkswagen that passed. We had to see whose candy colored spit flew the farthest. We teased, we joked, we argued. We basically harassed each another to the brink of tears.
The next day we did it all over again.
Jason told the jokes; corny ones, funny ones, cerebral ones that flew over my head. His rat-a-tat stutter of a laugh was like a woodpecker in the trees when it got going. He was a human trivia machine as we plodded along, and it always felt like we made better time when he was telling the stories.
Nights were spent playing Super Mario Brothers, the game within a game being who could finish the fastest—mashing down the turbo button while chanting, “speeeeed deeeemons” at the top of our lungs. When we were got too loud it was on to my little sister’s room, where we mangled her Pound Puppies and held her Cabbage Patch dolls for ransom.
We made prank calks. Some random, some not. We called older girls we didn’t have the nerve to speak to at school. When we ran out of phone numbers we roamed the neighborhood, knocking and running, more than a couple of times at one house because all three of us had the same crush on the same girl who drove us nuts by liking a different one of us each week.
We knew how to squeeze a summer dry. At church camp, we’d found out just what kind of damage we could cause by dropping a cinderblock into the outhouse and slamming the door before the splat. Pulling back into church, a parent pulled us to the side and, to our amazement, repeated each and every curse word his daughter had accused us of using. We gave him a standing ovation for his efforts.
Our parents worked full-time. We exhausted out babysitters. We road bikes off ramps, into creeks, into trouble. We hopped on our skateboards and flew down the monster hills at breakneck speed. We spent weeks trying to bust open what we were told was an ammo box buried just off the road in the woods. AT&T wasn’t amused.
Our walks continued. Jason bobbed along on his toes, bending his fingers as he bounced, blinking and smiling, as though walking alone wasn’t enough to burn off his boundless energy. Jason was the best at making up gibberish or riddles, at remembering song lyrics. Remembering anything really.
I was always secretly jealous at how effortlessly his brain clicked and functioned. When we took a drawing class together at the Fine Arts Center, I arrived on the first day, armed and ready with my sharp pencils and crisp notebook. Thing was, I was terrible. I struggled to draw dimensions and angles, erasing and reworking what looked like a tangle of knots until the smudges wrinkled and tore. Meanwhile Jason had sketched out an entire city, complete with three dimensional cubes and buildings and what looked like a railway system. Every line had a place to go. I don’t think Jason owned an eraser.
Like his mother, he was a natural artist. Naturally gifted. Naturally goodhearted.
Both Jason and Chis had Big Brothers who did all sorts of cool stuff with them. I can’t remember which one was a pilot, but he took us up in a tiny four-seater plane. It was better than a roller coaster, I held my breath as the plane trembled as we climbed nose first into the clouds. Then he killed the engine. We stalled, dipped, then plummeted, my stomach lodged in my throat as gravity beckoned. At the last moment, he cranked the engine as I screamed a silent scream. We swooped down, jerked level, then climbed back to the safety of the clouds. Chris and Jason wanted to do it again, I wasn’t so sure, but that maneuver had to violate something in the Big Brother/Big Sister contract.
We held contest to see who could grow the longest mullet. Then rat tails. We wore cutoff jeans with our boxer shorts hanging out. We may have unknowingly started some current hipster trends. We had horrible fashion sense but we were never bored.
Jason started up his own neighborhood newspaper, enlisting the kid down the street and collecting subscriptions throughout the neighborhood. Missing Pets. Birthdays. He even had a classified section. If you wanted to sell a lawn sprinkler, Jason was your guy. He had a sports page about who’d won the last basketball game at the park. I still remember his mother’s face when she subscribed.
We cut grass. We pooled our funds. We hiked to Swensons Restaurant where, after combining a week’s worth of allowances, we feasted on a $20 monster bowl of ice cream. Afterwards, with our three spoons floating in the slop, we were almost too sick to walk home. But we managed.
But mostly our money went to sodas and candy. Fireworks at the flea market. We terrorized any place of business. At Best Department store we chucked footballs over the shopping lanes, shot basketball on the display hoops until the manager chased us off. At the mall, highly overcaffeinated and obnoxious, we talked through movies and then bought Lemonheads and chucked them at unsuspecting shoppers. At Sears, we got the boot for jumping up to knock the second hand ten minutes up into the future. We had some epic battles on the Pop-A-Shot machine. At Tape World, we stumbled upon an edited version of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. To this day it remains the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.
We thought we were the Beastie Boys. I mean we really thought we were the Beastie Boys. Somewhere, there’s a VHS tape of us lip-synching Hold It Now, Hit It in my backyard. We shot bottle rockets at each other. Yeah…the BB guns. We carried machetes into the woods. We rode minibikes without helmets and played football without pads. We never, ever thought about what would happen. What could happen. When the creek flooded, we stripped down and dove in, only to be whisked downstream, holding on to tree limbs for our lives until my dad arrived and jerked us out. Judging by the look on his face that day, I was safer in the rapids.
Chris had a thing for flint tipped matches, always striking and lighting them off his front teeth. On one walk, clear across town to Nana and Papa’s house, we arrived at the doorstep amidst a howl of sirens, plumes of black smoke blotting out the sun in our wake, Chris’s breath reeking of sulfur.
I’m kidding, of course. His breath smelled like cinnamon.
Our grandfather kept us in line. At church he could level us quickly with a heavy stare. The rule was at least one adult between each boy at service. In his shop, he helped Jason and I make Nerf basketball backboards, cutting out the wood and showing us how to sand them down nice. Jason had the idea to slap a Los Angeles Lakers logo on his. Chicago Bulls for me. We set them up in his basement and battled it out full court, for weeks after, Ice Cube’s Jacking for Beats pulsing the equalizer on the duel-cassette boom box.
Those summers crawled along. Long, hot, made bearable by Chilly Willy’s, temperamental window fans, and the cover of the trees in the woods. We shared clothes, beds and basements, breakdance moves. Jason was the only one of us who could do a head spin. He could walk on his hands for days. We affixed smoke bombs to remote-control cars. We ate Steak Ems, sucked down Diet Mountain Dews and New York Seltzers. We watched Wimbledon, trying to figure out the strange rules of tennis before heading to the park to knock tennis balls into the creek.
Inspired by Chuck Norris movies, we stepped out to the shed, where we made our very own Molotov Cocktail without so much as a clue to what actually happened when a lit beer bottle filled with gasoline hit the asphalt at a public park. We found out. We ran from park rangers. We built forts, using roughly the same number of nails to frame a small hotel. We spent hours playing full contact hide-and-seek in the pitch-black backyards. Sunday afternoons meant helping Jerry up the deck ramp, Marvin Gaye crooning thorough the screen windows. Then it was off to knock on a pretty girl’s doors, scrambling off before she ever had a chance to tell us to go away.
But those walks.
Our walks. With sweat rolling down our necks, as though shedding our innocence. We stayed out all night, fueled by nothing more than wonder. Before Jason moved to Indiana and my father moved to Texas. Before we lost Claire. Before Nana and Papa moved. Before Papa got sick.
Before it was our turn.
We walked. We walked and talked and laughed and we fought. We had no reason to question what would happen or what could happen. Only time. Time to sort out our jealousies and rivalries and differences. And we were always okay. Tomorrow would always come. And when it did we’d wake up early and walk again. We’d knock and run and keep running into the night. We’d share another spark of brilliance, another Molotov cocktail explosion of laughter. Another crunch of gravel beneath our feet. Another rattle of chain link as we scaled a fence for a narrow escape, our breaths heavy as the weight of our fears presses down on our backs. We'd hit the woods where we knew the paths, tearing down the hills for the park, falling into wet grass with burning lungs and wide eyes, our hearts thudding with laughter.
When we were boys…
In loving memory of Jason Kennedy 1975-2017