On my last visit back home, I went out for a morning run that takes me about six miles along the back roads, behind the high school and coming back along Route 61. As I was heading down an alley a few blocks from the house, I heard someone yell out, “Bill or J?”
He meant was it me or my brother he was seeing. I turned to look, and it was a middle-aged guy, a little burly, but not huge, standing in the middle of a backyard vegetable patch. It’s Bill, I said, slowing down to try to figure out who was talking to me … happens every now and then back there with people I haven’t seen in decades.
“It’s me, Joe H.,” he said. And I should have known as he was standing in his mother’s backyard. All I knew of him in adult life was that he was a postman for years, probably still was to judge by his tan. I told him I was back from New York for a few days, and he said he was taking care of his Mom. Might have to move back into the house as things weren’t going so well. I told him that I knew the feeling, unfortunately, as both my parents were gone, and told him I was sorry to hear that. Well, I don’t want to interrupt your workout, good to see you again, he said. And I went my way.
I hadn’t seen Joe since at least the early 1980’s. He was a few years older than I was, a great high-school athlete, known for his speed. There’s probably still a picture of him hanging in the awards case at the high school with the four-man relay crew he ran anchor on. Back then, he was a sleek, naturally-muscled kid with shaggy black hair and clunky horn rims. The guy I saw in his mother’s vegetable patch had a small belly going on, looked like either closely-cropped or shaved head under his baseball hat, but when I looked him in the face, yeah, that was Joe.
But that really wasn’t what he known for back then in the 1970’s. Every waking hour of every day, every time Joe came walking up the street to the heart of the neighborhood, the schoolyard next to my house, he would have Rex with him. Rex was a big black collie/labrador mix. They were inseparable, always together. I’m not even sure where Joe would walk Rex when they came around. Usually when you walk a dog, there’s a certain, long route you follow to give the dog a good workout. It just seemed like Joe and Rex weren’t going anywhere in particular. Joe was heading up to the schoolyard to hang out, and it was second nature for him to bring Rex with him.
Heading up to the schoolyard, at least in daylight hours, didn’t imply hanging out. It implied x number of baby-boomer kids gathering, almost every day, to indulge in a game or two of whatever sport was in season. Spring/summer was baseball. Fall was football. Fall into winter was basketball. If there were six kids, it would be a small game. If there were 12, a bigger game. If everyone showed up, upwards of 20 kids, we would head over to the open field by the hospital and play a big, official game on grass. We’d also do that sometimes in the cemetery, although that was a bit of a pain in the ass as the open field there was on a hill. It didn’t seem incongruous to us to play football in a cemetery: it was an open field in our hometown, fair game. Despite being a rural area, there weren’t a lot of open public fields like that. Plenty of woods, but not so many big fields.
For better or worse, Joe served as a guide as he was older, a real baby boomer, as opposed to the bulk of us who represented the very tail end of his larger baby boom generation. There were plenty of kids Joe’s age in the neighborhood … the issue being most of them, like him, were in the middle of their teenage years and even in rural Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s, were heavily into drugs and partying. Joe wasn’t, and because of that, and his clunky glasses, and his constant companion, Rex, he was considered a little odd by the other kids his age.
Joe would never come by the schoolyard at night. I have a hard time grasping this now, as kids in my hometown back there these days don’t hang out at all. But back then, the older neighborhood kids would come by the schoolyard to hang out at night. Just druggy/stoner teenagers for the most part, hanging out. Not necessarily looking for trouble, but by the same token, they were taking drugs, smoking cigarettes, not doing anything, pretty much avoiding their homes, probably because their home life was awful, thus their condition. I don’t know how the adults around there put up with this, including my own parents. If that sort of shit went on now, kids hanging out until midnight, carrying on, occasionally blasting rock and roll on portable eight tracks and radios, I’d be pissed off, at the very least.
In the summer there were nights we would all hang out, but that would be to play hide-and-seek, and later Jailbreak, a hide-and-seek derivative our relatives from New Jersey taught us when they visited. Even that must have been pretty harrowing for adults, a dozen kids screaming “jailbreak” at the top of their lungs every 20 minutes or so. But at least they grasped it was an all-age event that would break up no later than 9:00 pm. As opposed to the harder-edged kids hanging out year round, later than that, and not playing any such games.
But Joe would come around during the day, and that almost always meant starting whatever game we were going to play that day. Tie Rex's leash to a shady spot in the chain-link fence and get into it. Like most of us, he was a good-to-great athlete. Our social lives at the time were built on sports, with the schoolyard serving as the hub of that activity. I would later find this to be smothering and annoying, especially with our house right next to all the action, but it was good up through the age of about 12 or 13, after which time, man, how many pick-up games do I have to play, can’t we change this up a little? While I don’t look back charitably on the druggie kids in the neighborhood, I can also see they probably went through their sporting days, and at the age of 12 or 13, like me, wanted to spend their time doing other things. In my case, it was reading books, and in theirs, it was smoking joints or dropping acid. Although I suspect the greater reality was just drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes, more so out of economics than desire. I’ve always had an aversion to kids hanging out as a result of this. I don’t give a shit if you’re turning over cars and lighting them on fire … at least do something!
We never paid much attention to Joe as an authority figure, but he was, by sheer dint of his age. It also helped that he was fair-minded, not an asshole, and a real stickler for rules. Unlike some of the older kids, he would never pick on a younger kid, never threaten anyone, never take that upper hand that an older teenager with less character would assume as his natural authority. I point this out to underline what a positive influence he had on all of us at a fairly crucial time in our lives. He wasn’t the only one. The brothers Mark and Dave T. had the same love of sports and were roughly the same age, as was brother J. They were hardly at war with the druggy kids, but there was a clear delineation that sometimes pronounced itself in strange, troubling ways.
I should point out that turning 16 was like Cinderella putting on the magic slippers: almost to a kid, it signaled the end of his neighborhood sporting days, assuming he hadn’t thrown in the towel sooner. The ability to go out driving with your gang of friends signaled a whole different way of life. By that point, a kid who was genuinely into athletics would be fully integrated into high-school sports and no longer have the time or inclination for neighborhood pick-up games. Not to worry though: through the mid-80s there always seemed to be a batch of kids coming along who fell into that 12-to-15 age bracket. As I recall, the batch after me, in the early 1980’s, could be a bunch of insufferable little pricks as they had no older guides like we did with Joe. Even when Joe and the other older kids started getting into high-school sports and not being around as much, I can recall some of us carrying on like pricks, being abusive and weird with each other in ways that wouldn’t have flown with Joe around. Oddly enough, it was often brothers who would be attacking each other like this!
I shouldn’t judge too harshly. Looking back, I can see that the main difference between Joe and a lot of those wayward kids, aside from a stable home life, was drugs. I could see how the stoner kids became that way. They had rough home lives, often with abusive parents, so it was in their best interests to stay out of the house as much as possible. And it only made sense for them to group together with other like-minded kids in the same boat. Drugs helped them get out of their heads, out of those problems which were there every day and inescapable, not quite realizing they may have already been mimicking how their parents were at that age, fruitlessly trying to escape their asshole parents in that never-ending chain of abuse. At that age, it seems like you have a thousand choices, but the greater reality is that you’re more than likely already starting to imitate your parents in ways that suggest you’ll be just like they are. In some cases, that’s a nightmare, in others not, although every kid would surely consider that a nightmare at the time. Genetics, character traits and learned behavior … the hidden barriers to true freedom.
Still, I look back and see that if there had been no buffers like Joe, that whole wave of drugginess and bad behavior that ran so deep in the first half of the decade might have overtaken the whole gang of kids through the 1970’s, as opposed to petering out the way it did as time wore on. I didn’t think all this when I saw Joe running that morning a few weeks ago, but when I thought about it, afterwards these things occurred to me. It made me feel some sense of delayed gratitude and recognize that most of our time as kids back then, it was older kids who guided us in those many hours we spent outside of parental and all other adult boundaries, and I was thankful that someone like Joe was in charge back then. I get the impression these days that kids don't have anywhere near the freedom we had back then to roam and govern themselves accordingly.
I think my last teenage memory of Joe was him and Rex coming down the street on a summer afternoon. One of those unbearably humid days, around dinner time, when it was clear a thunderstorm was going to explode any minute. I could feel a few raindrops as I sat on the steps in front of our house and was thinking, “Man, we’re going to get hammered.” Just then I saw Joe and Rex, tearing down the street. He yelled out, “We’re running through the raindrops!” And it seemed like they did for a few dozen yards as he and Rex sprinted down the block. But then a sheet of hard rain came along and soaked them before they even crossed Route 61.