By: Mark Sweeney
The Summer of 1970. Wow. What a great summer! It will always go down as one of the best. No, no, it was the best; it was just one of those summers that I never forgot. I turned eleven. Between fourth and fifth grade. The first girl I fell in love with, as much as an eleven year old can be in love: Debbie LaBonte. She blew me away. We had a song, or at least I had song for us. I’m pretty sure she knew nothing of it. I can actually guarantee it. “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, I still think of her every time I hear that song. I even bought an ID bracelet for $6, which was the way it was done back then: find a girl, fall in love, give her your ID bracelet and live happily ever after. My dad told me I was too young to be going steady and forbid me to give her my ID.
Love is a powerful thing, even as an eleven year old. You couldn’t tell me not to pursue the woman I’m going to marry. So I had my song, my ID and the nerve to go get her. Off I go. It may have been the most nervous I’d ever been – I was going to ask her to be my girlfriend. This was still back in the day when you called a girl and she answered, you hung up in sheer terror. I’m not sure why I thought I could talk to her in person when I couldn’t do it on the phone. I was scared to death, my heart was racing, my stomach was doing flip flops, I was sweating and in a panic. I’d practiced my lines, my moves, my thoughts, my actions.
I’m prepared, I’m shaking, but I’m prepared. I’m about to embark on an adventure of a lifetime, an adventure in love. Let’s go. I got shot down out of the sky and was devastated. So I did the only thing I could do in that situation. I picked up the pieces of my shattered heart and went home. My heart was broken the way only an eleven year old heart can be broken. Well, that was a waste of $6. My first experience with heartbreak, little did I know, was just the start. There was plenty more where that came from. Just keep stepping up to the plate, boy, and the girls will continue to bombard you with bean balls. And we do, we just keep stepping up to the plate, because we LOVE you, don’t you understand? I LOVE you; you have to go steady with me. Apparently she didn’t. A note: In seventh grade she had a crush on me, but it was too late. I’d moved on. My trek as a lone wolf had started.
So Debbie LaBonte wouldn’t go steady with me. I guess this means we’re not getting married. I guess I’ll just hang with my friends this summer, which prophetically enough, is pretty much the way it goes for your entire life. Find a girl, hang with her, break up, go back to your friends, find a girl, hang with her, break up, go back to the friends. I still have my whole summer. I’m going to have fun with or without my sweet Debbie.
The 4th of July is coming, the greatest of all holidays for a kid. It’s the middle of the summer, no school in sight, it’s hot so you don’t have to wear shirts or shoes, and you get to play with explosives. It doesn’t get much better than that for a young buck. We used to stock up on some fireworks. We had mostly Black Cat firecrackers, because nothing was cooler than Black Cat firecrackers. We would also get a hold of M-80’s and bottle rockets. We didn’t have much use for ones that go in the air and spew colors, we wanted something that exploded. We also had these things called “buzz bombs” which were pretty cool. They would fly up spewing sparks and such. We landed many of those things on various neighborhood roofs. That’s a heart stopper when a buzz bomb lands on a dry, hot roof and it’s still spinning and spewing. “Holy crap, grab the bag and run!” We did a lot of running on the 4th. It may have been the most runningest of all the Holidays.
Mainly on the 4th we wanted to blow things up, and we did. During the year, my brothers and I would build model cars and airplanes and blow them up on the 4th of July. One of our delights was tying some fishing line to an airplane model, soak it in gas, light it on fire and then spin it around a leg on the swing set. The swing set turned out to be a launching point for many things that were on fire or about to explode. We had some cinder blocks next to the garage and we would sometimes put the airplane model on the block, fill it with cotton balls that were soaked with gasoline and throw bottle rockets and firecrackers at it until it was destroyed. Sometimes it would blow up and spray gas everywhere – you quickly found out it’s best not to stand too close to the cinder block. Just ask Ricky Nelson, not the Ricky Nelson, the one from our neighborhood, it took almost six months for his eyebrows and hair to grow back. He smelled like burnt hair for a week.
Ricky had a little brother who was mentally retarded. I don’t mean he was an idiot, he was actually retarded. Now they call it “mentally challenged,” but back then it was OK to say “retarded.” We always had to watch what we were doing around Ronny because he would mimic everything we did, and sometimes it was dangerous. My dad used to have these big rubber weights we could attach to our fishing rods, so we could practice our casting. One day we were practicing our casting in the street in front of their house and Ronny saw us doing that and went into the garage to get his own fishing rod. But Ronny, God love him, didn’t use rubber weights, he grabbed a rod that had actual treble hooks attached. Treble hooks are three pronged hooks that do their job very well. So Ronny comes out with his fishing rod and his brother Ricky was unfortunate enough to be standing behind him on one of Ronny’s monster casts, and Ricky caught a treble hook right in the nostril, ouch. Ronny, of course, doesn’t know this and thinks he’s snagged, so he keeps yanking on this sumbitch until that hook has been buried deep up his brother’s nose.
Ronny had no idea what was happening because he wouldn’t even turn around, he has no idea why he can’t get his cast off and he doesn’t seem to care, and he’s just going to keep yanking on this thing until it launches. Now, all hell is breaking loose, Ricky is screaming at the top of his lungs, and we’re running into the yard to help. Ricky has blood flying everywhere, and Ronny is still trying to get his cast off. Mrs. Nelson comes running out and sees what’s going on and flips out. Nothing freaks a mom out like seeing streams of blood flying off one of her children’s faces while the other one is yanking a three-barbed fishing hook deeper into his face. She finally gets the fishing rod out of Ronny’s hand and wants to know where he got the idea of casting in the yard.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for us to say “not us” when we’re standing there with fishing rods in our hands. Ronny stayed with us while his mom took Ricky to the hospital. They had to cut his nose all the way open to retrieve the hook. His nose was wrapped up for most of the summer. I don’t think Ronny even knew what he did. We just sat on the porch eating Popsicles, and he seemed as content as could be.
I say “popsicles” but they weren’t actually “popsicles.” They were ice cubes made out of Kool-Aid with toothpicks sticking out of them, and sometimes the toothpicks were crooked because my mom put them in too soon and they would fall over and stick out sideways – hard to hold is my point. We never got to buy popsicles; my mom “made” popsicles. We didn’t really get in trouble or anything about the casting thing. My dad just told us to be careful what we do around Ronny because he didn’t always know right from wrong. Like we did.
Ronny was almost like the mascot of our neighborhood. We would include him in most of our activities unless we had to go somewhere. Ronny’s mom didn’t like him wandering far from the house. He did participate in all the sports games though, which was a huge pain in the ass. Ronny always wanted the ball and when he would get it, he’d take off running. Every time. I don’t mean he’d run down the field. No, he’d take off down the street with the ball. It didn’t matter if we we’re playing football, basketball or baseball; every single time he got a hold of the ball, he’d take off. I’m not sure we ever finished a game that Ronny was playing in because we would spend half our time chasing his ass down. I’m not sure what anyone else thought when they saw 8 or 9 kids chasing a retarded kid down the street. Ronny always laughed the entire time we were chasing him too. He just thought the whole thing was a delight. He was also deceptively fast; the only one who could really catch him was Tim. Timmy would catch him and grab hold and then we’d have to pry the ball away from him, because not only was he fast, he was strong as hell. It usually took a couple of us to get it away from him. We’d head back to continue play and Ronny would come with us and want the ball again. You’d eventually have to give it to him just to appease him and get him to settle down, but once he had it, boom, he was gone.
Back to the 4th. Here’s something else to be careful about when gassing and exploding models. Keep them far away from the house. As we found out, wood burns, and so does paint. We scorched the side of the garage one day but good. It scared the hell out of us. As we’re standing there, we can see the house actually starting to burn. We stood there for at least a minute, wondering what the hell to do. Go tell Mom or run. If we run, we’ll have to come back, and then there will be hell to pay. Then my brother gets an idea, the hose! Get the hose! Good thinking. We can put the fire out and mom will never know. Well, she won’t know if we cut out the burned wood, replace it, treat it and then paint it the right color. We got caught, no way around it really, a big, three-foot round black scorch mark on the side of the house, no real way to hide that. Inside if you broke something, sometimes you could just throw it away and hope that nobody ever noticed. You can’t throw away a burn mark. But since we knew we were in trouble, we started blowing up everything we could get our hands on. We figured if we were going down, we might as well have fun.
Dad won’t be home for another four hours, and we can do some serious damage in four hours. Let’s find some jars and coffee cans. Coffee cans we found out, can be treacherous, but the glass jars were fun, especially with the M-80’s. We went over to Chris and Todd’s house to get some peanut butter jars; their mom had plenty. We’d put them upside down on the driveway, slip an M-80 under it and watch the fun. We were a bit more careful with the glass, we stood behind a tree, all six of us, standing behind the same tree. When that M-80 went off, it sent shards of glass off in a huge circle of cutting, slicing, maiming death. But hey, nobody got cut, let’s do another. We blew up about four or five jars when Chris and Todd’s mom comes storming out of the house. Apparently, the glass was bombarding the house as well, and she couldn’t figure out what it was. The problem is, she’s coming out just as one is going off and it peppers the front of the house with glass. It seemed to scare the hell out of her. Chris and Todd weren’t allowed to play with us anymore. So it’s off to the Sweeney’s back yard and the coffee can.
Our group is up to about eight, we lost Chris and Todd, but gained the Murray boys and two kids from one block over. I guess they came for the finale. I take this coffee can and drop two lit M-80’s into it, cover it up and roll it out into the backyard, and we can’t be more than twenty feet from this thing when it goes off. There are two incredible explosions and I feel crap hitting me in the face and arms. I look around and everyone is bleeding, the can blew up and sprayed us with shrapnel, no real deep cuts, but head wounds bleed a lot, so it looks pretty bad. Kids are crying and freaking, the kids from the other block take off screaming, I don’t ever remember seeing those boys again. Everyone’s crying, and my mom runs out and there are eight kids standing in her back yard with blood streaming down our faces. It looked like some kind of war zone. If we would’ve been naked we could have made the cover of Time magazine. Jane kept her cool though, it was a little freaky at first, but she held it together, wasn’t really new to it, she’d seen this kind of thing before, nobody needed stitches, so she got everyone cleaned up and sent home. I went to my room. I spent a lot of time in that room during those turbulent years of ‘68-‘70. But that, unfortunately, was the end of the 4th of July 1970 for us.
Those years of ages 9-12 were good ones. Much mischief. Good years in Kansas City. I attended Katherine Carpenter grade school. We rode the bus to school, and most of the time I walked home. I set some kind of record for the most minutes spent after school in a three-year stretch. Every time you screwed off in class, you’d get five minutes after school, cleaning erasers or some other chore. That’s good for the kiddies, breathing chalk dust in the afternoon, nice way to catch some black lung disease, or in this case white lung. When you “misbehaved,” your name went up on the board. Your name on board equals five minutes you would have to stay after school. Each time after that, if you misbehaved, you got a slash mark, each slash mark was another five. I figured out I could get up to four slashes after my name and still run home before the bus got there. That way no one would be the wiser.
I was a trouble maker, but I covered my ass. On one of my “hall sessions,” I found a storage locker unsecured; I slipped in and found an endless supply of inks and paints and other articles of artistry. Seeing as I had no place to carry such a load, I used a ladder to put my supply of trouble on top of a storage cabinet nearby. After class, a friend boosted me up and we get away with our supply of inks and paints and other things that make a mess in the hands of children. We had hours of fun hiding in the bushes, throwing those tubes of ink into the street and waiting for cars to drive over them. Oh, it would give a squirt and we giggled like school girls. I don’t know what it is about young boys and breaking things, but we just love destruction. We went so far as to roll up pieces of bread and watched cars roll over them. Cars rolling over stuff, now that’s good clean fun. I don’t know why bread being squashed by a car is entertaining, but damned if it isn’t.
Mark Sweeney is a 20 year comedy veteran and a former Marine. He’s been seen on Comedy Central, Short Attention Span Theater, Days of Our Lives, Boston Public and Third Rock from the Sun. He’s worked his magic for audiences from Duluth to Belize to Kandahar. He also written a book, Court Jester: The Making of a Comedian.