The first time I experienced real, life-threatening danger was in the seventh grade. I may have been in real danger before the seventh grade, but if I was, then I don’t remember it. That’s the funny thing about memories. Some memories are these delicate, wispy things like dandelion seeds caught in a breeze—maybe sprouting someday, maybe they simply vanish. Other memories are these technicolor, vibrant things filled with music and smells and emotions—powerful and evocative mental cinema. Looking back, a lot of my memories of my friends in the seventh grade are living, vibrant things. I didn’t need danger to make these memories of my friends stick in my brain. But there was once this remarkable time with them that you won’t believe. When I finally tell you the whole story, you’ll most likely say, Nah! That didn’t happen. But it did. It really did.
Before I tell you about the time me and my friends got ourselves into some real danger when we were in middle school, first let me explain about myself and where I grew up. My name is William Flynn. I’m from a little suburban town outside of San Antonio, Texas called Converse. This town’s sensibility was more strip mall than metropolis, but it did have the basic necessities for middle school kids: a dollar cinema (cheap flicks and all-you-can-eat popcorn), an arcade (with our faves Donkey Kong and Joust), a comic book store (Marvel titles more than DC), a skating rink, plenty of convenience stores, and the like. What more could a kid want? Back then, my parents called me Billy—a nickname that referred to my uncle who died during the Vietnam War—but I preferred my real name, William (even more so since Bloody Billy came into my life, but more on that later). My birth parents divorced when I was a baby, so I grew up mostly with my mom, Pam, and her new husband, Steve. He was a nice enough guy, although mostly quiet when it came to me. He loved my mom very much. That was obvious by the way he kissed and hugged her. I don’t think he cared for me too much since he rarely acknowledged my presence back then, not even with a pat on the shoulder.
Anyway, the middle school in Converse, Texas that I attended was called Franklin D. Roosevelt Middle School—a better president I couldn’t think of for a school moniker. Funny thing was, it was rare to have a school in the South named after a Northerner like Roosevelt, especially a liberal do-gooder like F. D. R. Most of the schools in and around San Antonio were named after Confederate war heroes like Robert E. Lee or Jefferson Davis. Don’t ask me why. It’s just an observation. But fortunately for me and my friends, we went to Franklin D. Roosevelt Middle School (Now, don’t get me wrong, the name was great, but the outside looked more like a state penitentiary than an institution of learning). Most of the kids had a parent who worked at the nearby Air Force Base: Randolph. And because F. D. R. had students whose families were from all over the United States, the kids were all the possible shades of human beings, from pale white to middling brown to dark black. In the mid-1980s, it must’ve been a rare thing having a school population like that in Texas. Looking back, I can’t imagine my childhood any other way. It’s where I made my best friends, my posse, mis compadres. Their names were Randy Moss, Brian Johnson, and Miguel Gonzalez.
We were thick as thieves, as they say, or four peas in a pod, or whatever you want to call a tight crew of close friends. We did everything together, and when we weren’t together, we made plans to meet up. We usually met after school in the wooded area behind F. D. R., a path cutting through the oak, pecan, and cedar trees that led the students home to the surrounding neighborhoods like Thousand Oaks or Hidden Oaks. As you rode your bike down the path, a small clearing appeared deep in the wooded area, and there was always some extra sporting equipment and metal bleachers laying around, left there by school district workers after football or baseball games. And on this day—the day that would be remembered as the day the real danger seeped into our lives—it was hot as blazes as Randy and I rode our BMX bicycles to the clearing to meet Brian and Miguel. It was the second to last week of school and even though it was technically still spring, it felt like summer had already arrived. The end of school always exuded the promise of fun. Summer couldn’t come fast enough.
When Randy and I reached the clearing, we jumped from our bikes (BMX style with handlebar pads) and watched the riderless metal steeds careen into the surrounding brush. It was our unique way of dismounting our trusty rides. The sight of our bikes stabbing the bushes, then falling over, always made us laugh.
“Bullseye!” Randy cheered.
“Two points!” I belted out.
Randy hopped on the bottom bench of some metal bleachers. He was the tallest and burliest of the four of us—almost to the point of looking more like a grown man than a middle school-aged boy, his t-shirt and shorts fitting more snugly than they did when his mother bought them last fall—and standing on the metal bench made him appear gigantic, his hulking frame jutting up toward the sky, his red hair closely cropped on his square, freckled head. No one messed with Randy, not even high schoolers, and I enjoyed the security that came from standing next to such a massive friend. But little did they know that good ol’ Randy was really a softy under that burly exterior. He rarely started trouble anymore like he did in elementary school. He mostly just wanted to make his friends laugh.
“I got some new jokes,” he said, his hands on his hips, one foot tapping the metal bench. “Want to hear ‘em?”
“Yeah, I want to hear ‘em.” I sat in the grass, his attentive audience of one. “We got time before Brian and Miguel show up.”
“All right, let’s see,” he said, his eyes rolling up to scan the mental list of fresh jokes he’d been compiling throughout the day, instead of listening to his teachers. He carried a copy of Truly Tasteless Jokes by Blanche Knott in his back pocket and studied it like the Bible as well as copies of Mad Magazine and Cracked that he kept in his backpack. He couldn’t get enough of these sources of juvenile jokes, puns, and riddles. “Did you hear about the monster with five legs?”
“No,” I replied. “What about him?”
“They say his trousers fit him like a glove!” he said, punctuating his joke by extending his arms toward me, as if to say Ta-da!
I always burst into laughter when listening to Randy and his joke routines. He was just so enthusiastic about it, even if the jokes weren’t all that funny. I loved that about him: his enthusiasm. Sometimes, a little enthusiasm will go a long way.
“I got a million of ‘em,” he quipped, a smirk on his face, confident in his new juvenile material. “Want to hear more?”
A rustling in the bushes behind us caught our attention and we both looked with curiosity, searching for what may be creeping around us. Not seeing anything, Randy said, “Must be a stupid squirrel.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“Now, where were we?”
But before he could continue, Brian and Miguel’s bikes appeared riderless and crashed into the brush behind the metal bleachers. Randy’s audience of one turned instantly to three.
“Got some new jokes?” Brian said, dropping next to me.
“I could use a laugh,” Miguel chimed in.
“I’m here all night,” Randy said, smirking. “I’m just getting warmed up. What took you guys so long?”
Brian sighed, then thumbed in Miguel’s direction. “He had to whiz. Took forever!”
“I drank two cans of Big Red in seventh period. I had to go bad!” Miguel lamented. “I almost peed my pants.”
“That would’ve been unfortunate,” Brian said, patting his shiny, auburn afro back into its original shape, then dusting shards of grass from his jeans. He was lanky like Miguel and me, but with longer, sinewy arms that reminded me of a praying mantis, and possessed a bright, toothy smile that was impenetrable to the sugary snacks we constantly ate. I don’t know how we were so thin because we ate everything in sight like four trash compactors. I’m not joking. It seemed only Randy’s mass consumption of junk food metabolized into muscle. The rest of us had black holes for stomachs where Twinkies, soda, and potato chips disappeared into another dimension.
“It would’ve been embarrassing!” Miguel was serious. The potential for embarrassment was to be avoided at almost all costs, especially in middle school. Miguel’s earnest disposition was matched only by his studious fashion sense, which that day was Izod shirt and khaki shorts, an outfit closer to a uniform than what the rest of us wore. His curly mane always neatly cut and styled, the result of his father’s militaristic routine of visiting the Randolph Air Force Base barber shop every three weeks.
Randy watched the three of us from his metal perch, unamused by the interruption to his comedy routine. His spotlight was dimming with every passing minute that Brian and Miguel bickered.
“Guys,” he said. “You’re holding up my show. I worked all afternoon on this routine.”
“Go on!” I said.
But before he could continue, we were joined by a solemn crew emerging from the brush, tall high-schoolers who we knew all too well: The Thousand Oaks Gang. Led by “Bloody” Billy Callahan, the high school bruisers surrounded the metal bleachers while Randy hopped down to stand in-between us and the thugs. Bloody Billy was one of the few people not intimidated by Randy’s over-sized stature.
“We want to hear more,” Bloody Billy hissed, setting his backpack on the ground, then cracking his knuckles as he slowly approached our group. “I love jokes.”
“Fuck you!” Randy barked. The Thousand Oaks Gang all chuckled. “We didn’t ask you to join us.”
“Really?” Bloody Billy stopped in place and looked around. “I wasn’t aware that this was private property.”
Billy Callahan—known as Bloody Billy for his propensity for profuse nose bleeds while fist fighting—was a lurking presence to the fearful middle-schoolers of F. D. R. Like the Boogie Man, his notoriety had only grown exponentially with time, and some middle-schoolers even whispered that he had failed several times and was quickly approaching 21-years of age, a perpetual senior at the neighboring Robert E. Lee High School. And although Randy certainly wasn’t scared of Bloody Billy, we didn’t want him brawling with the mean leader and his ruthless cronies. Bloody Billy was a reedy giant with fists like boulders and veins in his neck the size of water hoses, wearing a fascist uniform of tight-fitting jeans and a black Iron Maiden t-shirt. He even fit the part of lead singer for a heavy metal band—his shaggy, shoulder-length brown hair and square, stubbly jawline were perfect for a front man—albeit a lousy cover band at best. To make matters worse, Miguel’s older brother, Rogelio, was a member of the Thousand Oaks Gang and Bloody Billy’s main crony. Don’t ask me why. His unerring allegiance to Bloody Billy was a constant thorn in our sides. He was the spitting image of Miguel except taller and his face gaunt with an insidious quality that I can only liken to an angry possum. But whenever Rogelio saw his little brother, he seemed to float to the back of the angry rabble like a ghost. Maybe he felt guilty for being a part of the gang that liked to rough us up. Maybe, but I doubted it. Randy stood his ground.
“Leave us alone,” he said.
“But I want to hear your jokes, fuck stick—”
“Hey!” a husky voice called out behind us.
A security guard fast approached on a teetering golf cart, waving a flashlight in one hand while driving the cart with the other. When I turned around to see what Bloody Billy and his gang were going to do, they were already running down the path at full speed.
“Come on!” Randy commanded, and he darted for the surrounding brush. Brian and Miguel followed him in, and so did I as best I could with my gimp leg, after scooping up the backpack that Bloody Billy abandoned. I mean, there it was literally right before me—bright maroon with black shoulder straps and heavy metal band patches glued on—begging to be picked up. I didn’t even think about it; I just grabbed it.
The security guard followed the gang of high-schoolers down the path, being that the gravel and dirt trail was an easier route for the golf cart to negotiate than off-roading in the woods, skidding in the leaves and mud after us middle-schoolers. We dove into a dank culvert and waited for the commotion to pass.
As we sat inside the culvert, panting and wheezing, we snickered at our predicament. It wasn’t unusual for us to be chased by a security guard or a gang of high-schoolers, but every time it happened, it was still a big surprise. The inside of the culvert smelled like mildew, wet dog, and turds, but it was better than being beaten to a pulp by the Thousand Oaks Gang. A persistent dripping of water echoed from the other end of our hideout.
“That was close,” I said, panting.
“Yep,” Randy agreed, breathing heavily. “Say, did you hear the one about the dyslexic Satanist?” Nobody even tried to answer. Just panting all around. “He sold his soul to Santa.”
“Very funny,” Brian said, trying hard to catch his breath. “William, whose backpack you got?”
I shrugged, then sat the backpack in my lap.
“I think it’s Billy’s. It sure is heavy,” I said.
“Open it,” Miguel said. “Let’s see what’s inside.”
I unceremoniously unzipped the backpack and pulled out its contents. In my hand was a large, clear bag of skunky vegetation that was most likely marijuana, although we didn’t know for sure, having never been around marijuana, but certainly hearing about it. Underneath that in the backpack, thousands of dollars in various denominations of paper bills, some waded, some rolled, and some just loose.
“Oh shit!” Randy said, his proclamation echoing.
Yep. What he said.