“Have you ever been in combat, Ricker?” my spiritual advisor asked.
Pelham Bay Wilding
The Molotov cocktail burst against the wall shocking the quiet, suburban night with flames fifty feet high. The bricks of the old gothic school scattered the gas across its surface, scorching the big flat wall where, during the day, children played their games. Almost immediately the sirens of police cars shrieked through the darkness and I was gone. At twelve years old, gravity did not exist. I flew, over fences, through backyards, under hedges, and up the back steps of my house and to my room on the third floor, quietly avoiding being seen by my parents who were entertaining some friends. The doorbell rang. “No, officer Mancuso,” I heard my mother say,” Rick is up in his room doing his homework. Rick honey!” she called. “Yes Ma”, I answered, coming to the next landing where I could see Mancuso with my mother. “Oh, hi officer,” I said. Mancuso looked sick, knowing he was once again defeated by speed and youth. Shaking his head wistfully, he said, “Sorry to bother you Mrs. Winsor.”
Sargent Mancuso and I knew each other well. The hound needs the hare. And cops were kids once too. Mancuso admired me. He was that kind of man. He just hoped things wouldn’t escalate. My flaming red hair made his job easier, but Pelham Manor had a couple of other boys in the same age group with red hair, enough to muddy the trail. Most people knew who it was who lit up the school, took a slingshot to windows, put smoke bombs in letter slots, threw snowballs at passing cars, or set the piles of autumn leaves afire bringing out the fire engines. I had a couple of cohorts who joined me on certain occasions. I told them “What would those fat asses do if it wasn’t for us? Just eat more doughnuts!”
“Rick honey”, my mother said as Mancuso shut the heavy wooden front door, “Come down and say hello to the guests.” Obediently, steeling myself for a performance requiring grace and charm, I descended the stairs. Clockwise around the room I went, shaking the hands of those assembled one by one, looking them in the eye as taught by my mid-western mother and saying “Nice to meet you” as she rattled off their names. These were executives and journalists and their wives from the rapidly expanding medium of television. They had taken the train twenty minutes from Grand Central Station in New York to cultivate their acquaintance with my father by “having some drinks” with the king of daytime serials- soap operas. As I went around the room some of the women said, “How polite he is” and “Look at that red hair. He’s nice looking”. And then my mother said,” That’s fine Rick. You can go back to what you were doing.” “OK Ma,” I answered and headed up the stairs again to my room.
How I loved that room way up there next to the attic on the third floor, a little sanctuary with its own toilet and sink, a small “eyebrow” window on the street side and a set of windows that cranked open on the other side, out to a flat spot on the roof. I could get out there but it was scary, way up high off the ground. Sometimes I went out anyway to feel the evening and to marvel at the monster oak tree that overhung the house. That tree was a town treasure, over three hundred years old. When I crept out on that flat spot, then turned around and placed my hands on asphalt shingles almost to the peak of the roof, I could be close to the branches of the oak reaching out above the house fifty or sixty feet from the trunk. The girth of those branches was bigger than the trunks of average sized oaks.
The company downstairs had gone and from my crow’s nest at the top of the house I could hear my father yelling at my sister Ann. At seventeen she was a special combination of ingredients, most of them trouble. She had that beautiful red hair passed down by our Swedish grandmother and china white skin, fine bones. But she was fat and fat defined her because in those days not so many people were fat. She was fat and she was smart and she was funny. But she hated herself and lied, stole, and stood up to all authority except our father. “Your Goddamed room is like a pig sty” he yelled at her. “Clean it up this instant”. The door slammed making the whole house and all of us shudder. There was silence and then the sound of breaking glass and sobs. I could hear ma’s voice as she opened Ann’s door, “Oh Ann dear,” she said, entering and closing the door. Right then I was on my way down the stairs once again, noiselessly floating down three floors and out the back door and into the night.
Stars sparkled, planets turned, way out in space. Sometimes they seemed just overhead but tonight they were just little pin pricks in the black shroud covering the world. I was not bent on mischief any more, at least not tonight. The neighborhood was quiet with its families settled in, finishing dinner, watching TV. I liked to walk the neighborhood and imagine the lives of the families inside those big old houses. I wondered if any of them were happy and peaceful and kind. I liked to think so. The ones I knew all had problems; fathers who were seldom there, fathers who drank, mothers who were serious alcoholics. There wasn’t a lot of physical violence then, at least any that was known, but there was psychological violence, emotional distance, and loneliness.
Out in the neighborhood at night I felt in control, like it was my world. I knew every passageway through the high hedges, every hole in the fences, every path through the back yards, and the habits of most of the people. I walked, feeling the cool evening breeze and the imagined friendliness of the glowing houses along the streets and felt relief from the troubles in my own family and my inability to do anything about them. I decided tonight not to pass by a window where I had seen an older girl undressing but went home, and after circling the house to take its emotional temperature, silently ascended the back stairs to my room, read for a while, and fell asleep.
“Georgeeeeee”!! “Georgeeeeeee”!! Mrs. Santori yelled from her house next door, her voice slicing the air, bouncing off the neighborhood houses and across the yards. “Georgeeee”!!!….. ‘Marone! ‘, I said to myself. ’I hope he shows up soon,’ but I had a feeling Georgie was nowhere around, hiding probably, and that Alma Santori was just exercising her lungs as an expression of power. “Georgeee”!!!!! Her voice could break glass; make the fillings in your teeth vibrate. “Georgeeeeee!!!!!” the high pitched bellow screamed again. ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!!’ I said to myself.
I got out of bed, pulled on my jeans and tee shirt, threw some water on my face, brushed my teeth, and headed downstairs to the kitchen where my mother, as usual, was drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette that hung off her lip, and working the NY Times crossword puzzle. It was a nice time for me and Ma, a little time when, once again, it was just the two of us like it was before the move to New York from Chicago, before Cathy was born, and before the cancer started.
Her crossword habit was unbroken and a source of amazement to the rest of the family because she was so good at it. She opened a well-worn Webster’s dictionary from time to time; it was next to her coffee and her ash tray. But to do the puzzle it only took her fifteen or twenty minutes during the week and a little longer on the weekends when the puzzle was more difficult. Sometimes she asked me for help on a topic I knew something about. If it had to do with snakes or natural history in general I could help but mostly I was at a loss. She would look over to me as I was working on a bowl of Cheerios and say, “eight letters for a venomous class of snakes.” I thought a minute, counting on my fingers and said, “pit viper.”
My knowledge of these kinds of things, especially reptiles and amphibians, was remarkable. Ma looked proud and said “Thanks boy.” Then she said, looking over at me through the smoke and over the steaming coffee cup, looked over at me with her strong clear blue grey eyes and said, “I have to go in on Wednesday and have another operation. They didn’t get all of it last time.” “I’m sorry Ma”, I said, which is all I could think to say. “It will be OK”, she said. “I just project past it, sort of leapfrog ahead in my mind. In a few weeks I will be playing golf again”.
I sat there a minute, put the cereal dish down in the sink, opened the basement door and descended the wooden steps down to the warm musty underneath of the house with its concrete floor and stone foundation, the pipes overhead covered in asbestos insulation, the furnace purring in the corner and, on the other side, the washing machine and drier. Across from the furnace I housed my collection of reptiles and the things they fed on, frogs and mice. I also had a pet skunk named Jimmy. Zoo keeping has its problems. Sometimes the snakes would not eat. I had an Indigo snake with a damaged tail brought from Florida by my parents. And he wouldn’t eat. I also had a box turtle I had sent away for and it came through the mail but only had three legs. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed and angry about all my crippled animals and my crippled family members. I made the rounds, feeding and cleaning where it was necessary, and picked up Jimmy who was a sincerely nice skunk as long as he was confined to the cage or the basement. But take him outside where he could smell the free air and the green grass and he became wild again and a hard-biting freedom-loving skunk! Once he was back cradled in my arms, he reverted again to the nice person he essentially was.
I was a little like that too. Around my own house I was a model of fine behavior out of respect for my mother and fear of my father. But outside the house I was a hunter. I hunted fun and mischief and what’s under girls’ skirts, and when I wasn’t in school or raising hell around the neighborhood or at my friends’ houses I was out in the woods with my sling shot or pellet gun stalking squirrels and rabbits and just about anything else that moved. My grandfather, Max, from North Dakota, was a big hunter so there was some precedent for my interests.
And so, after taking care of the animals, I put my slingshot in my pocket and broke down the pellet gun into two pieces which allowed the stock to go in one pocket and the barrel into the other. When I put on my jacket it was completely concealed. “So long, Ma” I said as I headed out the back door. “Be careful son,” she said and off I went. My usual hunting companions were not around so I recruited another kid I had recently gotten to know, another red head who lived a few blocks away and had no clue about hunting or snakes or things of that nature. But he was a good dude, nice personality, well behaved; the kind of kid I tried to be when I was around my own house. This boy, named Rory, was not doing much in particular when I passed by and called,” Come on Rory. Let’s take a walk and I will show you some new territory.” Rory had never spent any time with me outside of school. We had gone to separate elementary schools but now we were in seventh grade in the big high school. So today was a time for us to hang out and get to know each other. “OK Rick. Let me get my jacket and I’ll go with you.”
We headed down the suburban streets toward the south end of town where the Pelham Manor of Westchester County became Pelham Bay of the East Bronx, about a mile’s trip. Twelve year old legs can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. As we got down to the railroad tracks which took the commuter trains in and out of New York City, took my father every morning and Rory’s father too, the landscape began to change from suburban to rural.
The rural aspect did not come from farmland and old country villages; it came from two public golf courses nestled into this unusual corner of the Bronx between Pelham Manor and Long Island Sound and stretching over to Pelham Bay and City Island. The two golf courses, Pelham Bay and Split Rock, covered at least two or three hundred acres of land and had large swaths of forest and saltwater marshes where they bordered the Sound- a great variety of habitat. I knew every inch of it. This was a little remnant of an ecosystem that was one of the most bountiful and beautiful in the world before being overrun by people, their highways and parking lots.
Giant oaks, maples, sweet gum trees, and the long-plumed phragmites of the marshes still grew there undisturbed. Skunk cabbage, blackberries, mushrooms, and all kinds of flora flourished in large patches of woods bordering the fairways. Grey squirrels found a perfect haven in the oaks, making nests in the dead hollow places of the trees.
The hunting game required two hunters because a squirrel is very good at keeping the tree between you and him. Flattening out or hiding in a crook they can be hard to see if you have to go around looking for them. Or, they just keep going around the circle keeping the tree between you and them. Knowing that maneuver probably saved me a real bad experience with my father. A few years previously in a show of young machismo, I snuck up on him and dealt him a decent blow to his kidneys. All hell broke loose and in a flash I made it to the big round dining table and kept the table between him and me just like the squirrels until I worked around the circle and out the back door. Whew!
I trained Rory to take the sling shot and go around the tree to chase the squirrel to the other side where I waited with the single shot pellet gun. It was a pump up Benjamin and with seven pumps it was deadly on small game with a range of a couple of hundred feet.
Hunting was not great on this cloudy day as summer moved toward fall. The strong breeze had a chill to it for the first time and the leaves looked tired of it all and their trees ready to stand down after a long season of cleaning the air and supporting life. So we kept on moving. I was excited to be introducing a new friend to the wonders of this little known and slightly unusual world. Rory seemed to be keeping up and enjoying it. Maybe because of that, I decided to take him all the way to Pelham Bridge, a place I knew well. There was a stable where you could ride a horse, pay by the hour; where I rode recalcitrant and intractable old nags and an occasional crazy discarded race horse, a place where I knew odd characters from the Bronx: Puerto Ricans, blacks, drunks, rodeo riders. That was not something I wanted Rory to know about; it was too much, too seedy for a good boy, but it did give us a destination, just to get there and observe it from up on the embankment of the railroad tracks and then go back home since it was already getting into the afternoon and the days were shorter now.
Sharp rays of light broke through the clouds in the west as we got near our destination and could see the stable below and the corral and some riders moving their horses onto the bridal path. It was a group of two older boys and their girlfriends dressed in the punk gear of the time, the boys in leather jackets with lots of grease in their black hair combed back into duck tails and the girls in white synthetic jackets and curlers in their hair, scarves covering it all- typical Bronx teenagers with attitude, because the Bronx was tough and still is. Growing up there was not easy. Even in Pelham Manor we had to fight but in the Bronx it was scarier.
Since it was getting late we turned around, following the railroad tracks overlooking the bridle path. After a few minutes the riders overtook us below. We could see them but their attention was on their horses and the trail. For some unknown reason I put two pumps in my pellet gun- a harmless charge I thought- and, giggling stupidly, took aim at the rear end of the last horse, one being ridden by the trailing, gum chewing Bronx babe. My aim with that rifle was like Davy Crockett. I had so much experience with it and for such a long time. It would be impossible to miss and with only two pumps the pellet would just feel like a bee sting. But I was laughing so hard to myself that I did miss and the pellet hit the girl on her left arm, on her naugahyde jacket, thank God, but it made a big “whack” and she screamed and the tough guys saw us and charged.
The long railroad embankment stretched for at least a mile forward before leveling out. On our side there was a large marsh of reeds, phragmites, those long graceful stems standing eight feet tall with wispy feathery ends blowing in the breeze. They were part of the giant marshes which surrounded New York in earlier times and became the Jersey Meadows a little farther south. Remnants still survived in certain places and this was one of them.
As they galloped up the bank I led the retreat in the opposite direction at the speed of light, down the incline and right into the marsh. It was wet and sticky. Rory lost a shoe. “Forget about it!” I said “Move”! We ran as far as we could and ducked down just as the riders reached the top of the embankment from their side. “Down,” I said. “Don’t move.” I was tough with him because I saw Rory was terrified and about to give himself up which I knew would be a very bad mistake. I knew more about the Bronx than he did. The horsemen were on top now looking down on us, scouring the landscape with their eyes. I was sure they couldn’t see us where we were if we just didn’t move. It was getting dark and I doubted they would have the presence of mind to follow our tracks. But I was wrong. I saw one of the guys gesture to the other and point to our trail where we had knocked down the reeds getting away. Then they were on their way down the embankment. They started into the marsh. Stopping a moment, they scanned the horizon again trying to get a glimpse of us. They were only thirty or forty yards away now and I prayed they would just give up and turn around. But they kept coming. I grabbed Rory and whispered “Don’t move!” I could see he was ready to bolt but I still felt that this was our best chance. We weren’t going to outrun the horses. The swamp right now was our friend. They guys moved into the reeds, following our trail, encouraging their horses forward.
Just as they were closing in and only twenty or thirty feet away and with us flat down in the muck, the sticky wet swampy marsh gave way under the weight of the horses and they sunk into it up to their bellies. Now I knew that we could get away from them on foot because we were both fast enough and because I knew every inch of the territory. As long as they didn’t see us, the hound seeing the hare, and as long as the marsh mud protected us, I felt they would turn back. Also they knew we had a rifle of some kind. I thought about that too but never had a chance to pump it up again, the seven pumps it would take to defend us. So we held our ground glued to the marsh. And it was a good thing. I could hear the leader talking as he pulled a pistol out of his jacket, “Those fuckin shit kids deserve to die.” And he aimed his pistol just above our heads and shot six times, the reports echoing across the marsh and the bullets zinging as they cut through the reeds. “Let’s go Frankie”, the other guy said. “The girls are waiting for us and we got to see about Janey’s arm.” “Fuck them anyway,” Frankie said. They turned around and struggled back over the embankment, this time leading their horses.
We didn’t move and waited a long time because I figured they might just hide and wait a while for us to expose ourselves, thinking we were out of danger. That’s what I would have done. It was almost dark when we got up from the mud shivering and then, crouching down, made our way through the marsh to the border where it meets the parkway, all the while stopping and checking for tracks to see if perhaps they might have circled around which could have been possible if they knew the territory. We were nervous until we crossed under the thruway and into the protection of Pelham Manor. I don’t remember that we said another word that day or even later about the incident and we had no more outings together. Rory stumbled home very muddy and missing a shoe and I headed to my house, in the back door, silently up the stairs, to the sanctuary of my attic room.