We lived in an apartment complex when I was about seven or eight. Moving there was a shock to my system. My family had been living on a farm in Morrill up until then. Our new place was an honest to goodness building, two floors high, absent the smell of pig and cow manure, and corn, and other relevant smells of nature. Kids came out into the street to make it their playground. I rode my tricycle around the sidewalk. Calling it their idea, my two older brothers took turns riding it. When we first moved in, a fellow by the name of Teddy Trout helped us move couches, and beds and our kitchen appliances into our new place, cold tile floors, cramped bedroom spaces. He didn’t want to take cash for his help, even though he desperately could have used it.
“We’re neighbors. That’s what neighbors do, we help each other.” Teddy said.
A few of his siblings appeared on the sidewalk to help. My dad borrowed a farm truck to move most of our belongings. Mister Carpenter, the farmer who hired my dad, was a strict man, but a Christian man, and liked my father, appreciated all the hard work he had done for him. Carpenter gave him his first employment opportunity as a farmhand, then offered him tuition money to attend welding school. I don’t know the details of the agreement, just that, later, it seemed odd to me that a white man was fronting the cash for school, betting on my dad to succeed. Either way, he wouldn’t see his money again. That seemed always to be suspicious, and that he was doing it out of the kindness of his heart seemed so far-fetched… well, let’s just say that after we moved into our new home, dad waited for the other foot to fall, and maybe Carpenter would call in a marker. He never did. After welding school and gaining certification, my dad got a job welding farm equipment. So, it was big town, or bigger town, here we come.
I suppose you might call these my first lessons in morality, sort of how the real-world works, the ones that I remember anyway. Teddy, who was nice enough to lend a hand, didn’t want anything in return. Why would he be any different than Mr. Carpenter? Whatever caused suspicion made me wonder, enough that I was questioning the motives of even my brothers. For my family, there were these gray areas in a black-and-white world. All my brothers really wanted, though, was life to be carefree as we were living on the farm. Going out to play, there was little to stop us, except fatigue and the seemingly endless squabbles.
Don’t get me wrong. All was not carefree. We caused trouble. Once, we caused a fire that brought fire engines from three counties. My brothers and I lit broom sticks that we found in an incinerator. They might deny the facts of the case today. We were trying to be cave men after watching some old movie on the tube. Ah, the beauty of media. It wasn’t the devil that made us do things. It was TV. I’m not sure of the size of the blaze, but in my small boy mind, it was 30-feet high and ate up a large part of the pasture for miles and miles. I can still remember that day; the smell of the charred grass stuck in my nostrils. The only thing that stood out about that incident was that I felt special, somewhat privileged, sitting in the front seat of one of those big fire engines, while I watched the volunteer fireman struggling to point the hose.
My mom took a tongue lashing about the fire from my dad. She should have kept a better watch on us. There was trouble we escaped that could have been a lot worse—encountering a bull snake in a nearby ditch, getting into a corral with cattle many times our size, falling into an irrigation ditch filled with gushing water and penny spiders, crawling around tractors and the sharp blades of the plow attachments, and walking around in the first few hours of a blizzard in the driving snow, a storm in which a cow ended up flat on its side, dead, stiff as a board.
We played the same way at the apartment complex, with little mind to the dangers surrounding us. One minor difference. Where there were no people before, now they were everywhere, their shadows in the lighted windows at night, driving by in trashed cars with zombie looks on their faces, and other kids yelling at the playground. Screams for the sake of screams. Noise for the sake of noise. Thinking back on it, the presence of human beings, in anything, significantly raised the risk factor. Life and limb could have been lost at any moment. This organized chaos was new to me, while on the farm, reasons to me seemed clear, even the unexpected thunderstorms, someone getting bit by a rattle snake, a farm hand losing his life being crushed by a truck moving hay bales.
While pushing myself along on a tricycle, once lovingly bought by my father, now with creaky wheels and rusted joints, it was no better than a scooter, however, the object of our game was not a smooth ride, but to see how fast we could make that thing go. In doing so, creating the least amount of wind resistance gave me the bright idea to lower my head. The ground sped by. Propelling myself with one leg, I started at one end of the complex then kept going along the street until I had gone past the whole building. As I took my first turn, I realized there was a neighbor kid tooling around on his old rickety bicycle watching us; it was one of those bikes that even had fenders and a bell on the handle bars.
My brothers each took their turn. My oldest brother kept crude time on his wrist watch. I wondered if he was being honest with logging the minutes and seconds, but it didn’t matter. Feeling the wind in my hair, and the ache of muscles in my legs, my heart thumping, and sweat pouring down my head made me feel alive. I was battling my own conditions. The faster I could take myself, the better. When I got on the tricycle for my next try, I placed my knee on the seat, grabbed the handle bars with a death grip, and was off. My brother, said go, with no warning, not even a “get-ready, get-set,” to let me know. He was in charge, and God forbid one of his little brothers show him up, embarrass him, make him look bad.
I looked sideways at the apartment building, watching the scene change in a blur, the doors and windows, the blonde bricks, blended; I pretended to be Evel Knievel in a rocket booster sailing over the Grand Canyon. Though there was no wind, not even a breeze, I felt like if I had gained enough speed, I might be able to get the trike off the ground, if only I could strap myself in and spread my arms to raise myself up, float along in midair, even just an inch, in my imagination, up to the clouds. I pulled back on the handle bars and looked up, hearing the tick-tick-tick of the approaching rickety bike heading straight for me. The older boy coming right down the middle of the sidewalk toward me wasn’t slowing down and appeared to have this look of indifference on his face. I could swear he was grinning. These days, I see him as the baron who jousts with Snoopy in a dog fight, old goggles, fogged and cracked. His face marked with grease, jagged broken teeth. His hands on the gun controls, swooping down on a small bird. With little warning, I could veer neither left nor right. I was lost to fate.
Then, I saw stars, my vision of the universe ad infinitum, the glow of sun on the horizon, a bright moon shining in the darkness, I left my body for an instant. Blackness. It rose up to avoid feeling the full impact of the bike fender slicing into the top of my head. I had passed out. When I came to, my brothers looked at me with blood pumping out of my skull. I was laying on the grass next to the sidewalk, seeing the apartment complex. How unfair. I had barely gotten out of the gate. I heard the tick-tick-tick of the old rickety bike riding away, a triumphant baron; a heartless, soulless baron, riding out along the street, being chased by a few small kids who saw everything. He didn’t care if they caught up to him. In his plaid shirt and faded jeans, he just kicked them away, swatted them away like helpless flies.
My brothers were more scared for themselves and what mom would do and say. She’d of course be mad. Again, something horrible had happened on her watch. Damn kids. They reluctantly carried me to the back door of our apartment. Mom was guaranteed to be there, in the kitchen. The phone was there, on the wall with a 10-foot cord if she was so inclined to check on us. It was her lifeline. If Ma Bell had charged for local calls, we would have truly been in the poor house. If mom had something to say to her friends, it was going to take hours.
When I walked through, my face was covered with sticky blood. I began to feel it along my head. It had fully drenched my hair. Mom immediately hung up the phone. Her distressed look told me all that I needed to know. Was it bad? Hell yes, it was bad. Then, the tears came. My brothers did their best explaining. My mother moved with haste, grabbing a clean dish cloth from a kitchen drawer, she applied pressure to the crimson fountain at the crown of my head. With her other hand, she hefted the phone receiver up to her ear and cornered it with her shoulder. Then, she lit a cigarette, a Kool Menthol, and asked my oldest brother to light it. I could hear my dad’s faint voice on the other end, saying that he was on his way. He must have run all the red lights because he was back home within a matter of minutes, and I was being whisked away in his strong arms, carried like a rag doll to the car. My two older brothers ran after him, as though part of an emergency crew, asking about me. “Is he going to be alright?” They were honest about their feelings. How could they know the wound wasn’t life threatening? To them, I had lost a lot of blood, and that scared the shit out of them.
At the E.R., the fat nurse swabbed the blood away, located the wound, and prepped it with orange-colored antiseptic. There wasn’t a whole lot of bedside manner there. After all, how many stupid-kid accidents did she see in a day? I could spot the look. Factor in that I was a Mexican kid at that, well not technically. I was born in Scottsbluff, in the same hospital. The doc showed up and poked at my head, first with a syringe of anesthesia, then with needle and thread, telling me I’d have a story to tell my grandkids, a bit of an exaggeration. He was no plastic surgeon. It ended up being eight stitches which left a jagged scar on the top of my head, the shape of a check mark. Coincidentally, I use it as an identifying mark in my job as a soldier. If I ever get lost or captured in war or for any other stupid reason, that’s one way the rescuers would be able to tell it’s me to bring me back across enemy lines to a safe harbor.
As for the barons in my life, I learned my lesson early. I have managed, thus far, to keep all of them in my sights… well, except for me, sometimes, but I’m getting better.