BLACK CATS AND STAND PIPES
Reason’s kids weren’t
any ornerier than kids from other small towns. They were just more inventive. Back in the sixties, Reason didn’t have
a lot of recreational opportunities for its youngsters; unless you counted the pile of old tires behind the Sinclair station.
Those tires ended up in some strange places, including on the roof of the Reason Super one Halloween.
There were Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts,
but that only amounted to one day a week--and that not on the weekend when it really counted. And each church had a youth
group, but the recreational opportunities there were limited, since there are a lot of things you just don’t feel like
doing when you have your Bible with you.
So young folks in Reason came up
with their own diversions. They varied according to the weather and the season, of course. In the summer, older boys dropped
M-80s into the toilets at the city park. The blast could be heard for a couple of blocks, and always brought Chief Slug Petersen
on the fly. He’d squeal tires stopping in front of the Johns and shine his spotlight all around the park. Then he’d
get back in his car, stick a wad of chew into his cheek and radio in that those “rotten brats have done it again.”
But “blowing up the pots”
couldn’t be done too often, there being a seasonal limit on the number of toilets the city was willing to replace. Summer
also was when kids in Reason climbed the standpipe. The water tank was located at the south end of the city park. A little
red light on top alerted low-flying planes of its presence. To climb the pipe, you had to shinny up the legs about fifteen
feet until you reached the ladder. Then all you had to do was climb—and not look down. Looking down spelled disaster.
When you got to the top, you left something to prove you’d done it. Years back, some smart-alec had left an old pair
of his briefs up there. Since then, that had been the standard.
One year, some of the older kids
dared a junior high boy to climb the standpipe. It was a sign of manhood, they told him. It was the ultimate in coolness.
And they cheered him on as he made the first leg of the climb. To their credit, they hadn’t told him to leave the underwear.
But he’d heard about the custom, though it wasn’t real clear to him. The kid got to the top of the pipe amid the
cheers from below and—in the glow of that tiny red light—took off his clothes and draped his briefs over the guardrail.
He turned, and started back to the ground. Then he made a disastrous mistake. He looked down. Right then and there, halfway
down the ladder, he froze. The kids tried to coax him down for an hour before they called the volunteer fire department. It
only took five minutes for the rescue.
Halloween, the kids were their most
creative. Costumes were not popular with the older bunch, but the drug store sold lots of brown shoe polish the week before
the holiday, and the grocers couldn’t keep eggs on the shelves. Toilet paper was a hot item, too, as was cheap shaving
The kids were adept commandos, orchestrating
and carrying out raids, then slipping away into alleys and behind buildings. Reason’s police force always put on extra
officers for Halloween. The recruits got walkie-talkies so they could communicate and it was hard to tell who got the most
fun out of it, the hunted or the hunters.
Winter, the top attraction was “doing
cookies” in the high school parking lot. In dry weather, the sound of squealing tires was loud enough to penetrate the
walls of Reason’s homes and break concentration for Jeopardy viewers. When it snowed, you couldn’t hear the tires,
but the kids gunned the engines and the roar shook windows for a block.
Teenagers didn’t have a corner
on innovation when it came to recreation in Reason…there were some pretty creative ten year olds. James Lane and
“Poker” Stewart were two of the best.
James and Poker hung around with
Thomas Lee Jefferson. Rather, Thomas Lee dogged their steps. And they took advantage of it. Kids back then put playing cards
on their bicycle spokes with clothespins. The cards click-clicked on the spokes, making a sound vaguely reminiscent of a misfiring
James and Poker talked Thomas Lee
into going a step further. They talked him into putting red and blue streamers on the spokes as well. They convinced him to
attempt a ramp jump…sure to set him up as Reason’s unrivaled daredevil. They would make sure everyone was there.
He would be the talk of the town. It would be so cool, they told Thomas Lee, coming off that ramp with people ahing and ooing
and his spokes clicking and those red and blue streamers flying in the wind like jet streams. But the streamers didn’t
fly. They wrapped around Thomas Lee’s spokes and jammed into his chain, bringing the wheels to an abrupt—an unexpected—halt.
Thomas Lee’s bike never completed the jump, but Thomas Lee did, coming to rest in the neighbor’s rose bush. And
James and Poker were right about one thing…Thomas Lee was the talk of the town.
The boys didn’t mean to cause
trouble. They just naturally loved to experiment. Take, for instance, the summer James turned twelve. James had his back pocket
full of Black Cats pilfered from his older brother’s Fourth of July stash. And there just wasn’t any reason to
have all those firecrackers if you weren’t going to shoot them off.
Thomas Lee had just come from lunch.
He still had ketchup rimming his mouth and dripped on his shirt. Ketchup, back then, was considered a vegetable by most kids.
It went well on everything from burgers to baloney sandwiches. Anyway, James and Poker and Thomas Lee headed to the park,
a block away.
After an hour or so of bailing out
of the swing at its high point, pretending they were paratroopers, James and Poker
got bored. They’d tired of the monkey bars as well, and Thomas Lee was sitting on the top of the tornado slide. What
happened next was completely unplanned. It was, as the lawyers say, a crime of opportunity.
Thomas Lee was sitting there, at
the top of the slide, unwrapping a jaw breaker, unaware that, below him, James was yielding to temptation. Poker had a pack
of matches, James had Black Cats. The combination was lethal.
James climbed up behind Thomas Lee,
lit the fuse to one of the firecrackers, slipped it under Thomas Lee’s rump, and jumped off the slide. The boys told
Thomas Lee to slide, but Thomas Lee still remembered that ramp jump. He didn’t trust them. James and Poker panicked.
They started shouting in shrill voices. They waved their arms and begged Thomas Lee to slide down. They tried right up to
the minute that Black Cat exploded, blowing a hole in Thomas Lee’s best pants. Then, he slid.
Thomas Lee’s mother, who was
not a small woman, traveled the block from her house to James’ in about a minute flat, with Thomas Lee in tow. The smell
of the Black Cat followed them right into the living room, where James’ mother invited them to sit and Thomas Lee declined.
For the next two months, James and
Poker seldom saw one another. James spent most of his time raking and mowing and picking up trash. Poker washed so many dishes
his hands stayed wrinkled through most of sixth grade. When school started again, they nearly fainted with joy. Even in Reason,
late summer can be a drag.