Think “The Wonder Years” on crack, and you sorta have my childhood. No, I never actually did crack, but I was hardly a role model. It was hard to be a skinny balink growing up in Manville in the sixties and not get beat up from time to time. But then again, it’s all Yin and Yang baby, and I wouldn’t take a do-over if you wrapped it in gold.
We lived in the Weston section of Manville; kind of an island cut-off from the rest of town by the Royce Brook, railroad tracks and parks and fields. We walked or rode our bikes everywhere as kids; about a mile to Main Street and, later, about a mile to the high school. No school buses, no worries about kidnappers; in fact, sometimes my Dad would tell me, “Rich, remember… If you ever get kidnapped, we don’t know you!” Ok, I’m kidding about that.
I guess you could say, that aside from the bullies and getting beat up or occasionally tortured by wanna-be serial killers in fifth grade, we pretty much had no fear, and we were all in the same blue-collar, low-income boat. Well, that’s not entirely true, there was, well, one other fear; one that I and the kids in my neighborhood all shared, but one that only I ever actually experienced… on that summer night.
Today, all you have to do is blink, and an entire day slips past you. Not so on those summer nights in Weston. They went on forever; watching the bats fly in the street lights, swatting mosquitoes while sitting in the grass and bullshitting for hours, catching night crawlers with flashlights, sneaking cigarettes, or walking downtown and trying to get up the nerve to talk to that girl that I already married in my mind, while believing all the time I was just too goofy to ever have a chance.
My friends and I needed to be home by our individual curfews each night. Mine was 10 PM. As our group of four walked home together from downtown on that one summer night, one by one we would say good-night and peel off from the group until I was the last one with still about eight blocks to go.
The fourth block prior to my house was a dirt, tree lined road with only one house in the middle of the block, set way back and partially obstructed from view. It was a dark old Victorian job (think Adams Family) with an unkempt lawn and bushes rising wilding skyward to mask the entire front porch and lower level. The house and street were dark, except for one window on the third floor. No one knew or ever saw who lived there, but this one window, with the shade pulled down, was always lit up. Whoever, or whatever, was in this illuminated room behind this shaded window was what stoked our imaginations and ignited our nightmares. THIS is what we Weston kids all feared.
Now, on the last leg of my journey home, I held my breath and quickened my pace, as I’d always done on this haunted road. And, as I’ve always done, I couldn’t help myself but surrender one final glance up toward the dreaded window. Only this time, the muscles in my face contracted with such sudden force, that they nearly snapped my jaw from my skull; and I froze. I froze like in a dream, where you’re trying to grab the thing that will save your life, but your hands and arms are not responding. For there, in the window… was the blackest silhouette. For there, behind the shade… stood a person.
The street was dead quiet. No crickets… no nothing. Just my heart throbbing, and the gulping noise from me swallowing my fear? It was just me, and the shadow. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, but then, something happened that unchained my feet and legs from their choke-hold. The silhouette was gone, and I could hear the frantic sound of heavy boots plummeting down the wooden stairs though the house, and I was suddenly running like the proverbially wind. I didn’t, I wouldn’t, look back, even when I heard the sound of the old wooden door on the front porch creaking open, the screen door slamming behind it, and the thumping sound of boot-steps against the dirt road closing quickly behind me.
I was too panicked to cry, but I don’t mind telling you, that if I could have, I would have. I just ran; three blocks from home… two blocks from home. The boot-steps stopped. I did not. I got to our old 1948 cape cod and raced to the back door. Although our street was dark except for a single street light buzzing on and off as its ancient bulb burned away, I was overcome by the relief of seeing other houses and knowing I made it home. On that one summer night, I made it home.
My house was dark, and I remembered that my parents had told me they were going to the movies with the neighbors. “Shit. Not tonight.” But, it was ok. I’m still ok. I reached down and felt around under the old milk box for the house key. It wasn’t there! In the distance, I could hear the boot-steps resume.