Quiet Ain’t Dishonest

police

Another post spurred on by my childhood friendships rekindled on Facebook; this one having to do with a certain corner.

The setting: I grew up in an unincorporated part of Ventura County, California, just outside the city limits of Camarillo.  It was unincorporated, but not undeveloped.  Fifty or so houses lined this three-quarter-mile street and its accompanying private drives, appearing on the county map like an artery with so many smaller veins, the private drives, shooting off in whatever direction, following contours predetermined by the terrain.  Hills and barrancas running every which way, not to mention avocado trees and chickens.

We all seemed to have avocado trees and chickens, though not really.  But the fences were barely kept up—no need to keep them tidy—so our chickens and our neighbors’ ran all over the neighborhood so that it seemed like everyone had a few or several.  (The neighbors weren’t running all over the neighborhood, mind you.  I’m talking only about the chickens: the some chickens that belonged to us and the other chickens that belonged to our neighbors.  Do you see how important apostrophes are?)

But the chicken coops were kept tidy!  For there were coyotes and the occasional bobcat—another story for another day!

Add to all this that along this street, Alosta Drive, were thirty or so kids within a three- or four-year age range.  Yeah, Asphodel for the grown-ups but Elysium for us!  We still refer to ourselves as the Alosta Mafia.

So, I lived near the top of the street.  Usually people would say “end of the street,” and so it was, for the street ended just a hundred yards or so above the property where I grew up.  But remember those hills and barrancas?  The street weaved its way up the side of a sizable hill, rising 400 or so feet in elevation along its three-quarter-mile length.  Getting the picture?

Now, if we kids were to take Big Wheels—which we did—frequently—or Red Flyer wagons, modified with go-cart wheels and raised axles to lower their centers of gravity—which we also did—frequently—if we were to take these engineless vehicles to the top/end of the street, it was a full quarter-mile down (a precariously steep) hill to the first leveling-off place.  And, yep, that first leveling-off place was at the corner we’ve all been reminiscing over on Facebook.

It was a ninety-degree left turn; and the leveling-off place coincided with the corner, meaning it was a steep descent from the top all the way up to the corner.  Crazy steep!  Like 200 of that 400 feet of elevation!  And to make matters worse, some telephone company engineer had once upon a time decided to plant a telephone pole right at the end of the curve.  Something like this:

Corner

By the way, I don’t know whose idea it was to plant the ice plant there once upon a time, but it was brilliant!

Back then it was no seat belts or helmets either!

Well, you can imagine the stories!  Flying down the hill as fast as (or faster than) a car, we’d lean into the corner and hope for the best.

“Do any of y’all remember that time Mike did a face plant?” one of my reminiscing friends asked.

“Yeah,” another answered, “I was there.  His face was a bloody and the skin around his lip peeled away.”

This was a fool’s hope, now that I look back; for in the event that the sand or gravel didn’t send you into a tailspin, there was a chance that a car just might be coming uphill as you were on your way down.

I vividly remember someone once exclaiming, “Dude, you almost got run over by your mom!”

In any event, most of the stories we remember today aren’t of us making it safely around the corner.  That happened more often than not, don’t get me wrong; but that’s apparently not the stuff of memories.  Rather, it’s the face plants we remember, the near collisions, the toppling headlong into and beyond the ice plant, and the stains the ice plant made in our clothes!

Good times!

But the memory I want to share of this corner is a little different.

By now we were a little older.  It was probably late in the spring of 1982, though I could be off by a year.  I remember school was almost out; it was one of those Friday or Saturday nights where some of the guys wanted to forget our studies for a while and just goof off.  So we rallied, five or six of us anyway, and met in Chris’s driveway for a game of ditch ‘em.

The object of ditch ‘em was simple.  It was dark; we’d see the glare from a car’s headlights approaching; and it was everyone for himself (or herself) into the bushes, gutters, trees, chicken coops, whatever, so long as the driver of the car didn’t see us.

Sounds kind of lame now, sure.  But we came up with it on a night when we had sneaked out of our respective houses; and so if we were to get caught it would get back to our parents and who knows what kind of trouble we’d be in!

But not tonight.  None of us had sneaked out.  We were just hanging out at Chris’s entirely under the auspices of our parents’ permission.

So ditch ‘em was in fact kind of lame.  Or boring at least.

“I’m bored,” my brother Andy complained.  “Why don’t we do something else?”

“Like a variation on a theme?” I asked, having recently begun working on Mozart’s Ah, Vous Dirai-je Maman.

“Huh?” everyone else asked.

So we started playing with the drivers’ minds.  Instead of running for cover, which held no risk and therefore seemed pointless, whenever the glare appeared one of us would stand on one side of the road and another on the other and we’d lift in tandem a pretend cable (or rope or whatever the driver wanted to imagine), or even string a real roll of toilet paper across the road at windshield height, to see if we could get the driver to slam on the brakes and stop the car.  Whenever we succeeded it was all laughter and high fives then drop the pretend rope or real roll of t. p. and run like mad for cover before the driver could get out of his (or her) car and wring our necks (unless it was your mom, who’d wring your neck later).

Anyway, in this way on this particular night we ended up at the corner.

Five or six cars into it I caught myself getting bored with this new game, this variation on a theme; which meant for me it was time to pull the M80 out of my pocket I’d been saving for just such an occasion.

“Hey Matt,” I whispered to the person closest to me—in proximity I mean, not in loyalty, “check this out.”

“Whoa!  What is it?”

I’d bought the thing on my last trip to Grandpa’s beach house in Baja, some miles south of Ensenada.  My family would go to Grandpa’s beach house a few times each year.  On a recent visit my brother and I had discovered how much fun fireworks could be and how easy it was to smuggle a few home to unincorporated Ventura County in our luggage.

I was always pretty good at math, and someone told me an M500 was a half a stick of dynamite.  They were also like ten bucks each.  The power alone frightened me; but so did the price.  But an easy calculation told me that an M80 was like a twelfth a stick of dynamite.  Technically, it was an M83.333…, but that’s too much of a mouthful, surely—or so was my theory.  Anyway, an M80 (or 83.333…) was a heck of a lot more powerful than a piddley firecracker or bottle rocket.  And they were only fifty cents each (“or eleven for five dollars, my American friend”)!  So I bought eleven and set five off later that day on the beach and traded four more to a guy for a live lobster.

I broke down and bought a few bottle rockets too, because they flew, which was cool.  But I left the firecracker purchases for my brother.

“Firecrackers are lame,” I said.

“But you can get a whole brick for five bucks,” he answered.  Which was true.

Anyway that left me with two M80s for the trip home, one of which was confiscated at the border because I flinched when the agent asked if I was bringing any fireworks home.  “You know these are illegal in California, son?” he’d asked.

So now I had my one, prized M80, tucked away in my pocket earlier that night for just such an occasion as this, here, bored with our variation on ditch ‘em at the corner.

Now, recovered from my boredom and quivering with excitement over my plan to scare the heebie-jeebies out of my friends, except for Matt who was in on my secret, when it was dark as dark and quiet as quiet, I stealthily lit the M80’s fuse and threw it out into the street, right in the middle of the corner.

And I waited, suppressing giggles as much as possible.

Matt giggled too.

“Shut up, doofus,” I said.

“You shut up!”

We both giggled again, louder this time.

“What?” Andy’s voice came from behind.

“Oh, nothing.”

The fuse was lit.  Only a matter of seconds now!

But the wick was barely smoldering.

Whahuh?  Had I waited too long, I wondered?  Had keeping the firework in my pocket somehow damaged the fuse?  Argh!

I continued to watch and wait, jabbing Matt in the side and pointing out my demise, the quivering and giggling having ceased now, Matt and I watching silently as the firework’s wick glowed more and more dimly, until at last we could see no glow at all.

A dud, I concluded.  My plan had failed.

“Ha,” Matt remarked, jabbing me now and pointing, “bummer for you.”  And he went off to join Andy and Chris and the others.

Then, just as I was about to walk out into the middle of the street and retrieve my prized yet failed twelfth a stick of dynamite in the hopes of some semblance of recompense, humbled, staring at the ground, shuffling my feet—I’d already stood and taken the first steps—the unthinkable happened.

No, I know what you’re thinking; but the M80 did not explode.  Not yet anyway.  Rather, the telltale glare of headlights showed in the distance.  And for some reason—maybe the others were bored by now with the pretend cable game too, or maybe we were out of toilet paper, I don’t know—Chris yelled, “Ditch ‘em,” and we all ran pell-mell in several different directions.

I headed to the uphill side of the road, still anxious to fetch my prized yet failed firework, but after the car was to have passed, wanting to keep an eye on things, hopped over a droopy fence, and sat poised.  And, then—it’s like slow motion as I replay it in my mind’s eye—just as the car we’d all just ditched reached the corner, I saw my twelfth-a-stick-of-dynamite-failed-yet-prized firework suddenly spring back to life.  That fuse wasn’t just a smoldering glow now either, but a full flame!

“Matt!” I shouted.

And—not even a shred of lie here!—not even an ounce of exaggeration!—I swear it on the Alosta Mafia’s highest levels of honor and valor!—just as the car was fully straddled—I mean, the firework was dead center under it!—

KABLAM!

And all at once a collective shout of fright erupted from the Mafia (and maybe from the driver too, I don’t know)!—except from me and Matt.

Then, crickets—except for the idle of the car’s motor and the muted sound of muffled music from inside.

The car had stopped!

And the driver got out.

And he systematically walked around the car.

And he kicked all four tires.

And he shrugged his shoulders and got in and drove off.

And that was that!

But once he was out of earshot—oh, what rapture!—I and all my friends laughed out loud until our bellies ached.

And we were still laughing a half hour later, in fact,

when the cop showed up.

“Hey,” he shouted, “anyone here named Matt?”

And he stepped out of his patrol car.

Five of us rolled out of our various respective hiding spots and walked subconsciously towards this new voice of fearsome, badge-wielding authority; a voice which then said something about someone who’d called the station complaining of some teenagers near that corner up on Alosta Drive throwing lighted objects, thought one might be named Matt.

“Nope,” Chris said, which was true enough, for Matt had gone home shortly after the explosion; thought his dad (a fireman) might start asking questions and wanted an alibi.  (“Nah, I was home by then, Dad.  Don’t you remember?”)

“Yeah,” I offered; and added without thinking, “he went home already.”

And again, crickets.

Then it began to roll over me, like when one of us would roll out of a wagon onto, over, and across the blessed, saving ice plant!  What had I just said?  What had I just done?  The gig was up now for sure!  And by the betrayed looks of my former friends, I’d have some answering to do later.

“Well,” the cop said, “I appreciate your honesty, um—what’s your name?”

“Tim.”

“Yes, Tim, I appreciate your honesty.  You do realize, son, that fireworks are illegal in California?”

I flinched.

“Yes, uh, sir,” I managed, finally.

The cop addressed my cronies.  “You dweebs go wait over there,” he pointed.  “I want to talk to Tim alone.”

“Yessir!” they said collectively and, I thought, all too willingly.  And, swoosh, they were out of earshot.  Or at least I hoped they were.

Just to be sure, though, I spoke quietly.  And I told the whole story.  Including that part about smuggling the illegal firework from Mexico.  Including that part about the tattered fuse.  Including that part about me thinking it was a dud.  Including that part when I shouted Matt’s name, which is probably where the person who called the station had heard it, I said.  And even including that part about the driver getting out, kicking his tires, shrugging his shoulders, and driving off.

“And,” I continued, “I know I shouldn’t have—  Wait.  Officer, sir, are you laughing?”

“Um, son,” he cleared his throat.  Then, some moments later, after he’d turned his face from me so I couldn’t tell whether he was smiling or scowling or what, he continued.  “Never mind.  I appreciate your honesty though, son.  Don’t ever lose that.  And you just tell Matt, next time you see him, that fireworks are illegal in California.  Got it?  That’s all.”

I stared up for a few seconds in disbelief.  That was all?  Really?  I was nonplussed.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  “Aren’t you gonna bust me?”

He leaned over and cupped his hand around his mouth and whispered—so there was no chance of them overhearing—“No, Tim, I ain’t gonna bust you.  Your friends will do enough of that, I’m sure.  But keep it quiet after I leave and they might keep it to a minimum.  After all, quiet ain’t dishonest.”

He then stood up straight, turned, walked to his car, called on his radio (loudly enough for anyone in earshot to hear, mind you)—“nothing to be concerned about, just some kids being stupid”—got in, sat down, turned off the flashing lights, turned the car around, and drove slowly away, out of Chris’s driveway, around that memorable corner, and out of sight.

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2 Responses to “Quiet Ain’t Dishonest”

  1. Very funny – take that as you will. Love, Mom

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