Youth: a tale of the '40s told by an 11-year-old, signifying nothing . . .

Part One, Derring-do in the twilight

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By Jim Bowman


We had a grand time dumping ash cans. It was Friday night. We crawled up and tied twine to cans on third floors of apartment buildings, then tiptoed down taking the twine with us. Then we took the twine out behind the garage in the alley and pulled it. Down would come garbage can with a mighty clangor.

With luck the yard was paved. Some are like that, more areaway than yard. When the can hits the pavement, the noise is tremendous. We take off down the alley. What a blast!

It went like that all night. Bill and Charley and Mel and I, plus others. Our neighborhood has lots of apartment buildings and lots of alleys. In one we found an empty gallon bottle, maybe for cider or the like, and Mel, who has a knack for this sort of thing, swung it around and pitched it down the alley. It smashed three buildings down. We ran for it.

We were due home by nine, but we made the most of it, starting about six or so. Tying twine to garbage cans was the most fun, especially if we sneaked up while people inside were having dinner. Made my stomach crawl to do it. Exciting. Made up for the boring things we had to do the rest of the day.

I mean boring. I just wait for trouble, to break the monotony. School is O.K. some of the time. I like when we read stories and talk about them. And some arithmetic is fun to solve. But usually it's a lot of coming and going and staying in line and doing what you're told.

It's a dead town. We dump garbage cans to liven it up a little.

But the other night got me wondering. Mel and I were leading the way. He was a really funny guy, always leading our conversation, full of funny comments about teachers and people in the news. He was a bright guy who read a lot. He had the latest about strange happenings all over the world. He always had a book going and dipped into supermarket magazines too, the ones that told about two-headed space creatures coming for dinner and so on. We listened to Mel. He had a lot to say.

He led the way up Mr. McLaughlin's back stairs. Mr. McLaughlin was a tall, hard-eyed guy who looked like he already had lived forever. Hard-eyed and lean. My dad told me he complained a lot to the village board, about garbage collection and you name it. Once or twice thumbing through the local papers, I found letters from him, also complaining.

All the more exciting to tip his garbage can. And his back yard, which wasn't very big in the first place, was mostly paved. We expected a wonderful clatter.

Up we crawled, Mel and I. It was about eight on a Friday in the middle of May. We could see well enough in the daylight that was left, and the porch lights hadn't gone on yet. So it was dark enough to give us some cover.

Mr. McLaughlin lived on the third floor. We had to get past two neighbors first. One wasn't home, we were pretty sure, on the second floor. But on the first was someone we didn't know, new people. A husband and wife was all we knew. We figured no problem. No kids of their own, they would not be so strict about it all. That's been our experience. Young people without kids were tolerant. We expected no trouble.

Still, we weren't happy to notice they were in their kitchen as Mel and I walked quietly past on the way upstairs. We looked ahead, as if all was perfectly normal. Again, we figured the new people would ignore us. Nice neighborhood and all, they would figure "just kids."

On we went past the second landing. Nobody home there. Then softly, softly, now on all fours up to the third. One stair creaked, then another. A bird or a bat, we couldn't tell which, whipped past us in the now darkening air. Mel and I stopped. Not a sound from above or below. We were five steps from the third floor, rounding the bend to Mr. McLaughlin's level, when a godawful racket shook the air from below.

"Tommy, don't do that," a woman shrieked. Mel and I froze. "Don't do that," she shrieked again. I shivered. Then the woman let out a long laugh. A screen door slammed. Then there were giggles. The door opened, slammed again. Then soft laughter.

Mel and I relaxed but still waited -- just a minute, but it seemed longer.

Then we started up again.

Mel had the twine. We reached the top, staying low. We could see a light in a room toward the front of the apartment. No one was in the kitchen, it appeared. He lived alone and didn't have a dog. We knew that much. He didn't have many visitors. He was all we had to worry about. Still, between us and him there was nothing but a screen door.

Now we had to lift the can up on to the porch railing. Because it was Friday, there was only a day's garbage in it. Otherwise, it might have been too heavy. Mel took one side, I took the other. With a grunt we pulled it up to railing height, then set it down it there. A dog started barking in the next yard. (To be continued)

Email: Twitter: @BlitheSp

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