I remember being ten, eleven years old maybe, and running around in the summers when my old man was drunk off his ass on the couch in the frontroom, and my ma would open the back porch door and tell me to get out of the house for a couple of hours so she could get some peace and quiet. I would round up some other neighborhood kids—it didn’t really matter which ones, though usually Benzo and Pooce were along for the ride—and just run out as far as we could get from the block without interfering with anyone else’s turf. At that time, 1960, 1961, there were still a lot of what we used to call prairies around—empty lots. The lots could fool you if you weren’t careful. The grass in them was tall, tall enough that from the street it looked like you could just run right across them to the alley behind. But, really, there was a slope down from the sidewalk and another back up to the alley so the middle of the yard might be four feet or more down. You could run into one and be up to your armpits in weeds and get yourself a broken ankle to boot. That was something you learned as a little kid running through the neighborhood. So, when we’d come across a prairie on one of our runs, we’d be careful, especially if we didn’t know it real good, to go in sideways, one foot at a time, or better yet find a big rock or a stone and throw it in and see how far down it went before we jumped in. This was also true in cases of snow. Just something we learned.
I remember one particular hot summer day around that time when my old man was sleeping one off and me, Benzo, Pooce and this kid Jerry from Haddon Street went for a run around the neighborhood, looking for soda bottles to return to the National for a nickel a piece. It was hot that day, I mean real hot. I put on a baseball cap with a long brim to keep the sun out of my eyes, and after a few minutes of running, the canvas on my Keds were all soaked with sweat. We were all getting overheated and were ready to head back to smoke cigarettes in the shade of the basement of my back porch, when we ran up against some older kids. These older kids were Ventures to top it off. Just what we needed. We had just turned the corner off a dead-end street, after cutting through a basement gangway, so we couldn’t turn back without slowing down. Now, these guys were standing at the other end of the block, dead ahead in front of us. Dressed up in their war sweaters, they must have been on their way to some kind of fight, and we had just gotten in their way.
There was five of them, and four of us. They had their chains and lead pipes. We had our cap pistols and bubble gum. We all stopped in our tracks. Next to us was a long, deep prairie that led to the alley behind the Weiboldt’s. We had a way out, but none of us knew this particular prairie, and we didn’t have time to find a rock to throw in it. The thought of us all piled up at the bottom of the pit, our ankles broken, while these guys pummeled us with those chains and pipes didn’t look too appealing.
We stood our ground.
That turned out to be a mistake. The lead guy, the one with an upside-down Gaylords patch pinned to the front of his sweater got right in my face. “Where you boys from?” he asked.
I knew what he meant. “We were just on our way out of here,” I said. The wind blew a pile of old newspapers in a cyclone around our feet.
“Well, you’re walking through our turf, son,” he said. He couldn’t have been much more than five years older than me, but he called me son. I looked away. You didn’t want to make too much eye contact.
“We’re from Damen and Augusta!” Pooce piped up. He was such an idiot. The last thing I wanted was them knowing where we were from and that we didn’t belong on their block. He was only trying to help.
“Oh, a wisenheimer,” one of the other guys said, walking up to Pooce. This guy had a standard issue Jousters sweater on over a stained white t-shirt. His Keds were all messed up – like his mom tried to sew them back together after they got ripped. The other guys with him all had black leather shoes on. This guy had busted-up Keds like us.
Pooce looked away. At least he was smart enough to do that. The guy grabbed his big head by the chin and turned it to the east. “You see that?” he asked. “Ashland Avenue over there?”
Pooce tried to nod, but the guy was still holding his head. He turned his head the other way now. “And, you see that way? Toward Damen Avenue?”
Again, Pooce tried his best to nod, his eyes still focused on the ground.
The guy put his hands on Pooce’s shoulders and turned him around now. “And, see that way? To Division Street?”
Again, Pooce did what he could.
“Well, that’s our turf. Ashland to Damen, Division to the train tracks. We’re in charge here. And, we don’t like it when little punks like you think it OK to come running through here, causing trouble.”
The lead guy spoke up now. He was still right in my face, looking down into my eyes. “What should we do with them?”
“I say we roll him,” one of the other guys said. I couldn’t tell you which one because my eyes were trained down again.
“Yeah,” the guy in front of Pooce agreed. I tried to see out of the corner of my eye. The guy was still gently swinging his short length of chain in his other hand. “I’ve been wanting to roll somebody for a long time. Now, we got four of them.”
Benzo and Jerry said nothing. They knew what was coming.
I tried to look around. Across the street, there were two old bags in housedresses hanging laundry from a long line between a front house and a back house, gossiping in Polish, and they didn’t do a thing to help us.
I got the chain first. It hit me right across the face and sent me flying backwards into the prairie. I rolled and rolled down into the tall grass, and landed in a pile of rocks and broken bottles. I was all cut up bad, but I couldn’t get up, so I just stayed where I was at, watching my hands turn purple and swell up. I heard the sounds from up there on the sidewalk of my friends getting beat, but there was nothing I could do about it. I heard them crying, and I heard the Ventures laughing and joking, so proud that they were beating up a couple of kids.
I tried to get up, but my hands were too busted up and swollen to pick myself up. I closed my eyes for a second, and that’s when I heard the sound of bones cracking. I knew I had to get up there. I rolled myself sideways onto an old refrigerator door that was sticking up out of the grass next to me. That got me halfway up. Then I gritted my teeth and lifted myself up. The pain was unbelievable. I swear I broke some more of my fingers just lifting myself up, but I did it. I climbed up the steep slope of dirt and crabgrass and peeked out over the edge of the sidewalk. Benzo was knocked out, lying facedown in the curb, like a dead body. A venture was standing over him, his back to me, looking down at his work. Jerry was cowering, crouched down, covering his neck and the back of his head with his hands while these Ventures kicked and hit and spit on him. Pooce was holding his own, toe to toe with a Venture twice his size, refusing to go down no matter how many times he was hit. Then, I saw it.
The chain. The chain that they knocked me out was lying there on the hot asphalt, shining in the sun like a silver dollar. They were distracted; they didn’t see me. I crawled over and grabbed it and walked over to the Venture that hit me. He was standing over Benzo and he still had his back to me. Just on instinct, I swung the chain high over my head. He must have heard the sound of the clanking metal, because he turned around just as it slapped across his face. He spun around two times, my hand to God, two times, before he hit the ground. When he hit the sidewalk, I heard the sound of his skull cracking in half. Thick, red blood spilled out in a pool around the guy and I knew he was dead. I looked at the chain in my hand, and I couldn’t believe what I had done.
The other Ventures stopped what they were doing and walked over. We all stood in a circle around the dead Venture and the lifeless body of Benzo, who was now covered in the blood of my attacker.
We looked down at the body, then we looked at each other. And, suddenly we wasn’t enemies no more. We were all just scared kids. They were kids, too. I still had the chain in my hands. It got real quiet. Too quiet. The old Polish ladies noticed. “What’s goin’ on over there?” one of them shouted out. I looked over and they were walking over to their fences to see what happened, their hair up in rolling pins, cigarettes dangling from their lips, their yards full of crushed beer cans. The Ventures scrambled and ran out of there, leaving their dead comrade behind. Like I said, they were just kids.
Pooce and I nodded to each other and grabbed Benzo and carried him out of there, down into the prairie and out into the alley behind it away from the old Polish ladies. We left Jerry behind, still crying in the gutter. If he didn’t take his chance to get out of there, there was nothing we could do for him. We never saw him around the neighborhood again, never found out what happened to him, where he went or any of that. And, as for the Venture? Good riddance.