I spent the next day with Timmy Atkins. My mom dropped me off in the middle of the morning. The Atkins house looked normal enough from the outside - just a typical ranch built on a hill with a walk-out basement. Tim had a brother, Don, who was a year older than him and a sister, Shiela, who was sixteen. Tim answered the door and I went in. The house was a mess - the worst I'd ever seen. There was litter in the living room and the kitchen looked like an environmental disaster. I followed Tim to his room. It was crowded with things, but neat as a pin. He told me that the kids had the upstairs to themselves while his mother and her boyfriend occupied the basement. He'd given up cleaning things for the other two, and didn't think they'd picked anything up in a month. It was one of the reasons he didn't like to spend much time there. The other reason was his mother's boyfriend, who was from Poland, didn't speak English, and wasn't trying to learn how. He wasn't abusive or anything, just a freeloader. He couldn't find work because he didn't speak the language. Tim's Mom didn't have a lot of money to start with, so it put a major strain on the whole family. The kid didn't even have a bike.
I found myself liking Tim a lot. He showed me his various collections. I liked the old bottles well enough, but I was fascinated by his radios. Most of them were from the twenties and thirties and only one worked, but some of them were really elaborate. The working one was almost as big as a juke box, and sounded almost as good. He'd spent a huge amount of time refinishing it and it was gorgeous. He knew all about them, too. He had me engrossed with what he knew about the manufacturers and the history of broadcast radio. He told me all about a guy named Bill Lear, who had invented the car radio. It was at the time when it was popular to name things ending in 'ola' - like Coca-Cola and that. He named his company Motor-ola. The car radio was only one of his inventions. Others included the eight-track tape and the corporate jet. Tim had a great way of explaining things, too. He didn't just rattle off facts and figures - everything became a story.
What people had taken for faggy behavior was really a deep-seated gentleness. He picked things up so gingerly I almost wanted to hold my hands under them, thinking they'd surely drop. He found true beauty in things like old medicine bottles, showing me how to tell if it was really old or just something they hadn't changed the shape of. He had a lot of old milk bottles with the names of the farms painted on them. He knew where the farms had been and who had owned them. He said you could find an object in a second, even if you were spending a lot of time in old dumping grounds looking for things. It could take forever to figure out what it was, how it was used, and who made it.
Tim's house was almost next door to a town beach. It was hot, so we decided to go for a swim. I had shorts on anyhow, so he got into a bathing suit and grabbed a couple of towels and we went, bringing a beach ball. Tim was a strong swimmer and I was not. We dropped our stuff and he ran in up to his knees, dove in and swam straight out into the lake. I walked in up to my waist and just plopped down. I’m definitely not a strong swimmer, just a splasher. Tim swam for a while, and then we grabbed the ball and just horsed around until we got tired. We dried off and walked down to Ken's house. On the way, I asked Timmy if we could be friends. He seemed very happy to learn that I liked him. He put his arm across my shoulders and we walked the whole two miles like that, yakking about whatever came to mind. He turned out to have a good sense of the wise-crack and had me laughing most of the way.
The weeks that led up to the Fourth of July that year were some of the happiest of my life. Barry and I finished the garage after a few more days and he gave me a hundred dollars, which was about eighty more than I expected. I gave Timmy ten for the shirt I'd wrecked, and stashed the rest in my dresser.
Tim, Rich, Jerry and I became pretty good friends, and our little circle widened when I made my peace with the D'Allesandro brothers. They'd always been in the group that I hung around with before, but that had ended with the fight.
Timmy had gotten me interested in his old bottles and we spent a lot of time at an old abandoned dump near the quarry, using his little three-pronged hand rake to dig things up. I quickly learned how to determine if anything was significant age wise, but I let Tim look at everything I found just in case I was wrong. I let Tim keep anything he wanted, but I soon had my own little collection growing in my bedroom. He always had his book with him, and it became our bible. I don't think we found anything particularly valuable, but the book always showed something similar and we could figure out what the more unusual things had been used for.
Ken was taking a lot of time off, and we all helped with his Independence Day preparations. Some people like Christmas best, some Thanksgiving. Ken lived for the Fourth of July. I helped him one more time with his snowstorm, but he still wouldn't tell me what it was going to do. We very carefully wrapped it in layer after layer of masking tape, and he kept measuring the diameter until he finally said it was perfect.
He was also really happy that his kids were coming for July and August. We all spent some time fixing up a bedroom for them. It was upstairs and, like everything else in the house, was knotty pine. During this time I'd seen the rest of the house. The living room only had a couch and a table. The rest was taken up with a drum set, some huge amplifiers and other electronics, and a bunch of guitars. I begged and begged him to play electric for me, but never heard him. He was always too busy.
Ken trusted Timmy with the dune buggy and Tim could scare you almost as much as Ken did. He was a terrific driver if you liked living on the edge. He knew hundreds of places where I hadn't been on the property and went somewhere different almost every time we went out. One night we got onto the chicken farm next door and drove right into a colossal pile of chicken shit thinking it was a hill. Hey, it had grass growing on it! The car and both of us were covered in the stuff. We managed to free the car and head back. Nobody was home at Whit's house, so we took his garden hose and cleaned off the car and ourselves. We still stunk so we jumped in the fish pond with everything on. That didn't work very well either, and we ended up stripping to our underpants. That's how we were dressed when we went back to Ken's. We just marched past everybody to the washing machine and dumped it all in. Nobody ever mentioned a thing about it.
We spent a lot of time up at the fort, even sleeping out there some nights. We'd start a campfire and just fool around and talk. We showed it to Ken and Barry one day, and the next day they chipped in to get us some lumber to make it into a proper place. Barry gave us some ideas and within a week it was almost like a little a house, with a door, two windows and a plywood floor. Everyone scrounged up a little something at home and we ended up with pictures on the walls, candle holders, and scatter rugs on the floor.
As the Fourth approached, the level of activity increased. We spent loads of time running wires through the woods to trees that Ken had marked with yellow paint spots. We helped him make what he called 'tree snakes', which were another type of bomb made from Black Cats, only strung together in sixty foot long lengths. We dug little holes in the lawn and buried empty beer bottles in them. Don took Bobby to New York for more beer and more swerks. Ken and Jerry took a ride to the shore to order clams. Barry had me help him build a trellis right behind the flagpole.
On the First, Ken asked Tim if he wanted to go with him to pick up his kids. Timmy asked me if I'd ever been in a plane before, and I said no. He told Ken that I should go with him so I could learn about flying. Barry brought us to the local airfield and said he'd wait. He had plenty of beer with him. Ken rented an airplane, a little Cessna 172. He did his pre-flight, then we lined up and took off for Long Island to get his kids. I fell in love with flying before we left the ground! The power of that little plane, the way it pushed me back in my seat, just amazed me. It was bumpy on the runway, but the second we left the ground it got smooth. We went up and up. As soon as we leveled off, Ken started showing me the controls and what did what. He used a lot of words I didn't understand, but I got the idea. I had identical controls right in front of me and he had me get the feel of the pedals and the wheel. He showed me the instruments. The only ones that really made sense were the compass and the altimeter.
He explained what a heading was, and what ours should be. Then he told me to take over and leaned back and closed his eyes. Now, I'm sure Ken could sense anything I started to do wrong, but he was letting me fly the plane! I was so excited! I was eleven years old and flying an airplane!
It didn't take long, maybe forty minutes, and we were landing near the ocean at another little airport. When we stopped, Ken got out and started running towards two kids who were running right to him. He scooped them both up and turned around to me and introduced Dennis and Sandy. They looked just like each other, but not a lot like Ken. They were cute kids, anyhow. Then a very pretty lady came up to us and I got introduced to Ken's ex-wife Virginia. She was very petit and good looking, and the obvious influence on the kids' own looks. She was very nice, too. She hugged Ken for a long time as if they were still married and he'd just come home from a long trip or something. We all went to her car to get the kids' stuff. I picked up one bag and almost broke my arm. It weighed a ton.
After a lot of goodbyes and hugs and promises, we got in the plane and took off. I was in the back with Dennis, who kept telling Ken he had the stuff. When we were getting near home, I found out what stuff and why his bag was so heavy. He had six five-pound sacks of flour in it. Ken put his window down and tried to bomb his yard with them, but we couldn't see where they went.
Barry was waiting for us and we went back to Ken's. Ken was wrapped up in his kids, so I took a walk with Tim and Jerry and we sat on the flat rock by the pond. I was one happy kid. I'd just flown an airplane and gotten back alive, now I was sitting in a beautiful spot talking with my friends. Yes, friends! I really cared for these guys. For a solid month we'd told each other whatever was on our minds … dumb stuff and important stuff. We knew how each other felt about things, what mattered and what didn't, as well as what we hoped to become, though that changed almost daily. We talked about Ken and Don and Barry and Jimbo, and imagined ourselves still being friends when we were old. We laughed when I mentioned that Ken never seemed to actually do anything himself. He just assigned jobs and left. We decided it was ok because it was his place, he paid for everything and, anyway, he was the guy with all the ideas. I told them how I was so surprised to find out Barry was gay, and Jerry went nuts. Tim knew, but Jerry didn't. He didn't believe it and called us liars. When we finally convinced him it was true, he still couldn't understand how a macho guy like Barry could be queer. Tim finally told Jerry to just shut up, that it didn't matter. Barry was a nice guy and would always be a nice guy. It just didn't matter that he was gay. It shouldn't matter to anyone.
I think I'm making it sound like Ken and his friends were lunatics, but they were regular people. They all had jobs they liked and earned their own living. Just listening to them you could tell they all believed in God, even if they weren't particularly religious. A friend of theirs got killed in an accident and they all took a day off and got dressed in suits to go to the funeral in New Jersey. When they got back that night they drank and reminisced together for hours, shutting everybody else out. Tim and I were there that night. They were sitting on the patio. Somebody would tell a story about their friend and they'd get all loud and laugh. When the laughter died down, you could see them hugging each other. Then somebody would remember something else and they'd be laughing again. When Tim and I were walking down the driveway we both hoped out loud that somebody would remember us that well when we died.
Kenny's kids were great. Denny was eight and Sandy was six. Denny was kind of quiet, but Sandy was a lot like her father. She was so inquisitive about everything that it bordered on annoying sometimes, but both kids absolutely loved everybody they met and you couldn't help but love them back. Sandy glommed onto me right away. She wanted to know everything, especially about my father. Nobody had ever asked much about what he was like, and I spent hours telling her. That little girl was so sweet! Whenever the things I was remembering made me sad she'd remind me that my father was in Heaven now, and I should be happy for him.
Whatever I had going with Sandy, Jerry had with Dennis. Whit had a huge vegetable garden, and Jerry and Dennis worked in it almost every day. It was really funny. Both of Ken's kids had New York accents, but Denny picked up some of Whit's Maine twang. One time he came up and asked "Way'ju git the shee-it?" Translated, that meant they wanted to know where the chicken shit had come from. It was doing wonders for Whit's cabbage. We laughed like hell later when we saw Whit and Jerry sneaking into the woods at dusk with a big galvanized tub and a shovel.
When the Fourth finally came we were all excited. Ken's ritual was to have a giant picnic in the afternoon, then send everybody to the town fireworks display, and have them come back afterwards for his own display. The afternoon was fantastic, with tons of food and lots of games. There were about a hundred people there, and I got to meet some of Ken's other friends. One was Harry Forrester. He was a doctor, but he seemed just as crazy as the rest of those guys. Jimbo came up from New York with a bunch of his own friends. They looked like a bunch of hippies, but they got into the swing of things.
We had hamburgs, hot dogs, corn and all kinds of clams. Steamers, clams on the half shell, clams Casino. I loved clams. Unfortunately, not too many people knew how to open their own so me and Don and Barry stood there shucking them until our hands were bleeding.
Ken and Tim started doing something with the cannon. I went over to see what. Ken wanted to make a July snowstorm on Whit's garden across the street. That's what the gizmo we'd been working on for so long was for. Ken had it all figured out. He'd fill the cannon with M-80's, then tape a firecracker to the front of his 'snow bullet' and fire it off. The M-80's should light the wick of the firecracker, and it should blow up the toilet paper right over the garden.
Right! We spent a long time aiming the cannon so it would go just the right way. Ken figured about four M-80's, but put in five just to be sure, then two more. He put his snow bullet in, then tossed a few lit M-80's into the woods to get everybody's attention. That part worked. Suddenly 'Jingle Bells' started playing on the stereo. We got everybody away from the front of the cannon. Ken lit the wick. The explosion was colossal. The snowstorm was colossal. It just wasn't in Whit's garden. It fanned right out of the cannon barrel, into the wind. Suddenly the driveway, the cars, the lawn and everybody there was buried in feather-light bits of toilet paper. It was hot and we were all sweaty, so it stuck wherever it touched bare skin. Everybody looked at Ken. He had a mildly surprised look on his face, which was black from gunpowder but rapidly turning white with toilet paper dust. You could see his white lips mouthing 'This did not work'. Then he turned around and looked at a sea of white faces and cracked up so bad he fell down in hysterics.
Barry went to his van and got out a case of water pistols, and suddenly there was a huge water fight going on. Don brought his kids inside and they started throwing water balloons out the upstairs window. Things escalated with people throwing pails of water at each other, then Ken going right after people with the garden hose. The hilarity in that yard was amazing. Everyone from toddlers to grandparents was having a ball getting soaked on a hot afternoon. Ken and Barry kept tossing M-80's into the woods and setting off bottle rockets a whole package at a time.
When it got towards dusk, people started to head home, most promising to return for Ken's display. At about eight o'clock he hollered to whoever was still there to start setting things up. Ken and Barry started filling balloons with oxygen and acetylene. They had to keep moving to where they’d run the ends of all the wires. Somebody had soldered a flashbulb to the end of each wire. They'd force that into the balloon, then fill it with gas and hang it in a tree. Here and there, they'd fill two or three more balloons and tape them to the one with the flashbulb. Then they got a box of trash bags and started filling them with gas, again putting two or three together sometimes. Then they set up three trees with six bags each, and the last one had a dozen.
Ken had me and Tim taking the long ropes of fireworks and wrapping them up tree trunks. Rich and Jerry took packages of bottle rockets and set them in the bottles we'd buried. We were all running around like crazy. We heard the town display starting to go off and Kenny hurried us even more. He was setting up the bigger rockets everywhere, as well as some special display stuff he had.
When Ken was satisfied he got us all cold beers. He put Tim and I in charge of the electronics, which consisted of a metal box with about a hundred toggle switches and a single red push-button. We were to flip the switches one at a time, then push the button, which would set off the oxy-acetylene bombs. Rich and Jerry were in charge of bottle rockets and each got a long cigar to light them with. Ken and Barry were going to take care of the stuff in the trees. Ken had his kids sit with me and Tim on strict orders to not move a muscle until he came back for them. When we heard the grand finale of the town fireworks we were all excited. Only Barry and Ken knew what was going to happen for sure, but we'd all helped set up and had some idea of how much stuff was really going to go off that night. After another ten minutes Ken came to where we were on the patio and flipped the first switch, then pushed the button.
There was a mighty BLAM from the woods. I asked him why he set the big one off first and he said it was just a little one. I got scared. I had a lot of power in my lap, and tried to pass the box to Tim. He didn't want to hold it either. If one little balloon could make that much noise, what was going to happen when it was garbage bags full of the same stuff?
A few cars started to come up the driveway and Ken yelled for us to set off the next one, which we did. It was just as loud as the first and it went off with just the lightest touch on the red button. Suddenly Tim wanted to hold the control box, but I didn't want to give it to him. We decided to take turns with the switches and the button. A whole lot of people started to come, and it was getting crowded. Rich and Jerry lit off a whole row of bottle rockets as fast as they could run. Thousands must have gone off in about a half minute, and they started refilling the bottles. When it looked like nobody else was going to come, Ken started lighting off his big rockets, telling us to start firing our thing about once a minute. He set off some of the display stuff and it was just like town fireworks, only kind of like the grand finale at the beginning. Then he came over and called everybody into a little huddle. He wanted to do everything now before the cops came, and told us to just start everything as soon as the woods lit up.
Jimbo went over to the rest of the display stuff, Rich and Jerry went back to their rows of rockets, and Ken and Barry ran up to the woods. There were a lot of people there by then, well over a hundred. All of a sudden there was a wick burning on the ground by the woods and the packet bombs started going off, followed by the first tree snake. That was an amazing thing to see. Just about a million little fireworks going right from the ground right to the top of the tree in about ten seconds. The bottle rockets started to go by the hundreds, we started firing the gas bombs, and Jimbo set off skyrockets as fast as he could.
The noise and the light were astronomical. We were tearing the air apart with the world's biggest fart, and everything that went off illuminated the smoke from the last things. The booms from the gas balloons were amazing, and we could easily tell when more than one went off at once. They were enough to make you deaf. The sky was filled with flashes, too many to even consider. The woods kept exploding. The ground was exploding. The tree snakes were everywhere. It was all almost over in maybe ten minutes. Tim and I still hadn't fired off everything and Kenny came over and grabbed the box from us. He flipped all the remaining switches up, then pushed the button. About thirty explosions went off at once causing a boom you'd swear they could hear in the next state, and a flash so bright I couldn't see for a solid minute. Ken had a grin from ear to ear. Everybody there was cheering and clapping for the show. Ken turned the outside lights on, and he finally had his snowstorm. Little bits of paper were falling from the sky everywhere.
It was over. People started to leave. They'd only come for the fireworks. We could hear sirens in the distance, and they were coming closer. All the cars leaving must have blocked their way. Ken got all of us together at his big redwood table and got out a deck of cards. We started to play poker. The older guys all had beers, but Ken gave us kids cokes. A police car came up with its lights flashing and a cop got out. Ken went over to see him, and we could overhear him saying that yeah, we heard the noise too and it must be kids farting around in the quarry. The cop seemed to buy it, and he left.
We moved to a far corner of the yard and soon had a campfire going. Don showed up and almost everybody else left. On one side of the fire Ken, Don, Barry and Jim sat together with some of their friends. On the other side it was just me and Timmy. There was a cooler full of beer and everybody was drinking some.
"Wudja think guys?" Ken asked me and Tim.
"Awesome. Just awesome. I never had so much fun in my life," I said, as Tim said something similar.
The older guys kind of leaned together, then started singing a song to the tune of 'My Bonnie'. "My Father makes cheap contraceptives. He punctures the end with a pin. My sister performs the abortions. My God how the money rolls in. Rolls-in. Rolls-in. My God how the money rolls in." They had a lot of verses and Tim and I were in hysterics. When we finally got our breath, the guys were even closer, with their arms around one another. Tim put his arm on my shoulder.
I got brave. "Barry, are you really gay?"
"It doesn't bother you guys?"
Ken: "Not anymore."
"Let me tell you guys. When we were kids, maybe older than you - around fourteen, there wasn't the word gay. There was a guy that drove around town in a Cadillac convertible. One day a kid I was with told me the guy would give you a couple of bucks if you went with him and let him suck your dick. I thought that kid was the biggest liar I ever heard. Couldn't imagine anything like that. When I saw these guys later, Don and Jimbo and Butch knew all about that stuff, but me and Barry didn't. We didn't know anything about sex of any kind. Well, maybe a little. Anyhow, I asked my father about sex stuff a few weeks later and he gave me the standard facts of life thing. I asked him about the guy in the convertible and he told me to stay away from him, but told me some about homosexuals, enough that I got the idea. About half a year later, Barry told us all he was that way. Butch was still there, then. Butch was my absolute best friend.
"Anyhow, I freaked. Told Barry to stay the hell away from me and ran home. I think I was crying all the way. It was a shitty day anyhow, so I went to my room and sulked until I fell asleep. After a while, Butch came over. Him and my father yelling woke me up, then they were in my room. Butch started yelling at me about the way I treated Barry, like how could I be buddies one second and not the next. I didn't get it. Like how could he still be friends if he knew Barry would do that stuff? My father was really pissed at me, really gave me Hell. He said shit like that doesn't matter. Friends are friends, and that's what counts. They made me feel like toast. I mean, Butch was my best friend, but Barry was my friend the longest. We lived next door since we were born, always played together. We grew up together. I didn't meet Butch until seventh grade, but we always hit it off. He's how I met Don and Jimbo. We had more fun - I mean, we were all nuts. Crazy stuff, but we were always laughing. The Knights of Jabberwocky.
"I'm losing track, here. My Dad made me go next door to make up with Barry. He wasn't home, so I had to sit on his step and wait for him. When he got there he tried to get around me, like he was really pissed. I read it wrong. He wasn't pissed. He was afraid. Afraid of me. We were friends forever, and Barry was afraid of me! I felt like pond scum, I mean really bad. But I didn't know what to say! I didn't know how to say it, so I finally asked him if we could still be friends. That I didn't care what he liked, but I didn't really want to hear any details. Anyhow, after that day it didn't matter, and it doesn't matter now, and it'll never matter. I'm me, Don's Don, Barry's Barry and Jimbo's Jimbo. Butch got killed, but he's always here too. He was the guy who said how stupid it was to ever lose a friend. That was his big thing, never getting mad at your friends. He said frustrated was ok, exasperated was ok, but mad wasn't possible or you were gonna lose a friend. That's the way we feel now. Friends for life, no matter what."
I was sitting there thinking how much fun I'd been having and how lucky I was to meet these guys. I learned more about life and friendship and the way things should be in a month than I had in eleven years. The beer was having an effect on me. I went over to the woods to pee, then came back and leaned against Timmy again. I was tired and I dozed off. I don't know how long I was out for, but when I came to the fire was out and it was just me and Tim wrapped in a blanket. He was behind me with his arms wrapped around me and his chin on my head. I looked up at him.
"How long was I asleep?"
"I don't know. A couple of hours, I guess."
"Where is everybody?"
"Gone to bed."
"Howcum you're still here?"
"I didn't want to leave you alone."
"Why not? You didn't have to stay."
"I would'a stayed anyhow. I didn't want the day to end."
We went into the house and I cooked some four-egg clam omelets. I was trying to be quiet, but we woke up Jimbo. I gave him my omelet and made another. We ate them on the patio. Tim had a beer with his, which made me feel like puking. I had orange juice and Jimbo just ate the eggs.
"Dave, Ken told me about your father. I'm really sorry."
"He said you were a real little dickwad when you started coming around, but you're getting better."
"I'm trying. I'm just not used to bein' personal with people. I always hung with a crowd, but I never got to know anybody. It was all just laughs. It's not that I didn't like people, I just never got to know them. I didn't know anybody enough to like them, just how hard they laughed."
"We're all like that with most people, Dave. I mean, you do get to choose who you want to be friends with from the people you meet. A lotta people are gonna pass through your life. Hang on to the good ones. It can take a little work, but it's worth it. Once you make that connection, it's hard to break. The best thing in my life is that I never lost a friend to anger. Yeah, some people move away and some have died, but even the ones that moved sometimes get in touch and we still feel like friends. It's a great feeling - like having little bits of you all over the place."
"I'm really trying hard to be like that. I have some friends now, and I really like it. And I'm really surprised how smart everybody is. One way or another everybody seems to know stuff I don't … like Richie knowing every dot in the sky … and Timmy knowin' about antiques and everything. All I ever learned was how to walk and talk and stuff, and clown around. And cook breakfast."
"Good eggs. Kenny says you're a hell of a negotiator. That's something most people're afraid to do."
Tim piped up, "Yeah! You were too cool in that place in New York. I would'a just left when I didn't have enough money. You saved Ken a bundle on the radio and I got my book and I still had all my money when you got done. It was awesome!"
"You really think so?" Gee, I'd made an impression. A favorable one. Maybe I did know a few things.
"Guys, I'm goin' back to bed,” Jimbo said. “You sleepin' in the house or out here?"
I looked at Tim and he looked towards where the blanket was. "Out here, I guess."
"Good. Let me grab my blanket and I'll go with you guys. I never get to sleep outdoors in the city."
We spread the blankets on top of one another and crawled in between them. It was pretty lumpy and uncomfortable on the ground, but I fell asleep in no time.
It was the deep sleep of a happy camper.Next Chapter Previous Chapter