As time ticks by and my childhood grows ever distant, I’ve grown to be thankful it was so… magical. It wasn’t obvious at the time, but I took for granted a childhood others might have envied. For some, their younger years terrorize them still.
As I observe “kids these days”, it’s amazing how many use earphones. “Plugged in and tuned out”, my buddy D.B. says. They are blissfully oblivious to their surroundings. Conversations are mostly electronic, and I wonder if youthful imagination is extinct. When I actually see a child riding a bike in the neighborhood it amazes me. If one of them stops to chat whilst I’m weeding the roses, I might faint from the surprise (or from the embarrassment of farting as I rise).
My first day of school, I was understandably nervous. I hadn’t met any other kids because we still lived in Tempe and commuted every day. Mom had a job there, but we hadn’t found a house in town. As I searched for my new classroom, oblivious to the strange kids surrounding me, I worked hard at keeping calm. This was my third school in the three years since we moved to Arizona from Illinois, so I had learned a system of self-preservation in new surroundings. I hummed a favorite tune of my father’s, seeking to soothe myself.
As I neared my destination, my serenity was suddenly shattered when I was slapped, hard, on the back from behind. I turned with fist clenched to behold the biggest kid I’d ever seen besides my oldest brother, and he was laughing at me.
“Hey Boomer!” he bellowed. His buddies laughed. Although he seemed good natured and friendly, I knew from having two older brothers to show no fear. So I turned around and slapped him on the back with all my might. SMACK! I didn’t think about it before I launched my counter-strike, but the other kids gasped as Big John’s back arched and he grimaced in pain.
“The name’s Coomer!” I shouted, and stormed off. Later on the playground during recess, Big John found me. I thought my days as a Florence kid were over the same day they began. But Big John seemed to like the fact I hadn’t cowered when attacked. It was a wise choice to not back down, but I was still a scrawny smartass in need of a bodyguard. We remained close throughout high school, and our friendship continues today.
John and I hung out constantly my first two years there. Still kids reaching for double digits in age, we played kid games. Built roads for our Tonka trucks to fly down in my back yard. Climbed to the roof of our “barn” and lobbed grapefruits at aggressive male dogs who came courting our female mama pup Hobo. Snuck peeks at “borrowed” issues of Playboy, not understanding what we read yet pretending to know more than the other. Rolled in the grass with Hobo’s plentiful supply of puppies, laughing as they attacked us with ferocious tongues. We were best buddies, and we had a blast together. Even if I truly pissed him off, John remained a gentle giant. Although he could have crushed me in his huge mitts, he always forgave my trespasses. Those first few years, we were nearly inseparable.
Everyone’s mom thought I was too skinny, so they always fed me. The lunch ladies at school even gave me a ‘job’ in fourth grade so I’d come to the cafeteria every day and find a steaming plate of food waiting for me, before lunch. I didn’t gain weight, but I grew taller and learned how to sweet talk the lunch ladies into even more extra portions.
Back when television consisted of four or five channels, with midday programming limited to soaps, we depended on an active imagination to avoid idleness. My dad loved to hear me say “I’m bored”. It gave him a break, because he sentenced me to hard labor if I dared whine “there’s nothing to do!”. There was no recourse; if I said it, he had an instant cure for boredom: a long list of chores. Thanks to Dad, I learned to pursue creative endeavours and invent adventures.
I wasn’t too proficient on a bicycle when I was nine. Due to some coordination deficiencies, it took me longer than other kids to get the hang of it. One day I sailed out of a grocery parking lot right into the path of a car on Main Street. I hit that car more than it did me; the lady behind the wheel was traveling at a blistering pace of about 4 mph, so I was more scared than hurt. I dusted myself off and lit out of there before she got out of her car.
As my skills improved, my friends and I would ride our bikes miles into the scorching Arizona sun to swim in irrigation pump “pools”, or to pick grapes for a dime a pound in the outlying vineyards. If we were hot, we drank water, usually out of a neighbor’s spigot. Sunscreen wasn’t such a concern back then. Perhaps the ozone layer was yet unbroken. I’d come racing down our street and hit the dirt driveway in front of our house at top speed, then lock up the brakes and slide to a stop. It was a competition to see who could leave the longest skid, and I usually won because I had a “slick” back tire.
Two more of my closest friends, Henry and Roger, decided it would be good biology practice if they performed open-heart surgery on an ailing frog. PETA had yet to come about. As the Frog family’s incompetent attorney, I lost the malpractice lawsuit.
Our lovable town hippie Ronnie stopped to show off his pet “lizard” on Main Street one day. He had it on a leash, following him around. Somebody had to inform him it was a Gila Monster. “Faaaarrrr out, maaaaan,” was his reply.
As teenagers, we traded two wheels for four. My dad had a new VW “Thing” which was an off-road marvel. It would scamper up roads some of the more manly 4×4’s couldn’t. One night, as Henry, Roger and I were out blasting around town one night, we had a few mishaps. First, Henry reached out to adjust the radio antenna; it came off in his hand. Roger was riding on the running board and raising hell as Irishmen are wont to do, when I turned a corner a bit sharply. He put his hand through the plastic window attempting to hold on. Later that night at our desert party spot, the Thing wouldn’t start. Mark’s Gremlin had a bumper that didn’t match up to the Thing’s, so our solution was foolhardy, but it worked. Two of us sat on the Gremlin’s hood with our feet up against the back of the Thing with Roger at the wheel. Any slight deviation in Mark’s steering, and our legs swung dangerously over the edge of his hood. We pushed it a mile into town that way, and it’s a wonder we survived. We parked it in the usual spot and hoped for the best.
The next day, Dad had to drive a different vehicle because his Thing wouldn’t start. I told him to put Coke in it, “because Things go better with Coca Cola”. He wasn’t amused. Feeling guilty later that afternoon, I decided to put in some extra time excavating our corroded gas line in the back yard. As a summer storm “haboobed” toward me, I decided to heave the pick just one more time before seeking shelter. With tiny sand pebbles stinging my skin, I gave that pick a mighty swing. The pick ruptured the water line, shooting a stream 20 feet skyward. Dad came home to my Thing confession PLUS the news he’d now have to replace both water AND gas lines. Poor guy had three martinis that evening.
Our small town of Florence, Arizona was awash with characters, both young and old. I was more attracted to the gray haired, grizzled townies. Their stories were fascinating, and many of them will be found in my novel if I ever get around to finishing it. History always entranced me, and their stories of the “old days” were usually spiced with a bit of overkill. Yet the stories always showed the goodness and kind humor of the folks who populated our town.
There were everyone’s favorite ‘Uncles’: Cecil Cartwright, Louis Hyde, Joe Padilla and Joe Armas, to name a few. Although our names were different, they treated everybody like we were family. Uncle Cecil offered to take me fishing, but we never had the chance. Mama Lucas Leos delighted me with stories of Florence’s “old days” of the 1930s and 40s.
Uncle Louis paid me to mow lawns and paint his several rentals. He was a bachelor who lived in a studio apartment for 30 years, but he spent his extra money on five houses in the area which he rented out. If a kid had a bike, he or she could always count on Louis to fix it for him. Louis also had quite a few folks who depended on his handyman skills to help them as needed; he was usually repaid with a hearty meal. No matter what Ma cooked, Louis would always exclaim, “Pat, that was absolutely the best meal I’ve ever had!”
It was Joe Padilla who took me aside one day as I made my way to Little League tryouts. His face was sad, but he was so kind as he told me I didn’t have the skills to play baseball. Joe Armas would exclaim “Oh God it’s a Coomer, hide the food!” when I came to visit my buddy John Joseph. The two Joes worked in the Maintenance Department at the high school, and always looked the other way when I snuck out of school through their work yard.
There were incidents which blasted my innocence. Having a sheltered life, I never understood child abuse, because the very thought of it was foreign to me. In fact, I never even heard of sexual abuse until a friend revealed her own version of hell when we were 15. It not only shocked me, it popped my cozy white-boy bubble.
I didn’t know about racism because I never had to experience it. Of course there were some dumbass racists in town, but they weren’t the majority. People who uttered racial slurs usually had them rammed down their throats.
We all got along in Florence, but I didn’t realize life wasn’t the same “out there”. Even so, we did learn early about the “bad boys” on the other side of the fence in Arizona State Prison. Many parents of my classmates were prison guards, and nearly everyone in town owned a gun. When the Tysons broke out in 1977, I was met by a dozen sheriff’s deputies as I drove home from my girlfriend’s house. Very sharply, I was ordered to open my car’s trunk, by a heavily-armed officer. I slept with a loaded 12-gauge shotgun near my bed.
When we moved there in ’69, the town marshal explained what to do when Ma asked how to handle an escaped convict.
“Shoot him, ma’am,” the marshal said. “If he ain’t in your house, drag him in and shoot him again, just for good measure. No questions asked. Save the state a lot of money.”
That wouldn’t work in today’s world. Nowadays, Ma would have been tried for murder.
It was a different world in the 1960s and 70s in Florence, Arizona. I guess it was everywhere back then, but Florence was a great place to be a kid. I’m sure it still has a lot of the same charm, but I cherish the people who made my time there so… magical.