When I was in the fifth grade, for some reason, the school I attended had an influx of new students. A great deal of them ended up in our class, and as the year got under way the new kids integrated into the class with seemingly very little effort. I remember there being about six new boys that joined us as our teachers reiterated multiplication tables and bible stories (this was a Lutheran day school). Recess was dominated by the equalizing game of kickball where kids in striped shirts and jeans with the brand name of Toughskins punted an over-inflated red rubber ball over (and at) each other.
Of all of the new kids in the fifth grade the smallest was a boy named D. He was unfortunately about the size of a third-grader, although I don’t remember his size being much of issue as we became acquainted with our new classmates. He had a standard issue bowl-cut which didn’t necessarily set him apart from the crowd, and large round glasses which gave him an owl-like appearance. He seemed shy, but once he got to talking he could be very funny, and he seemed comfortable with his size and his new environment. The girls, habitually nurturing, took him under their wings.
D. had two younger brothers, twins, who were in the third grade. They were equally small, although one was a little bigger than the other (they weren’t identical). Their names were E. and M. They all had a quality of innocence about them, they seemed placid and harmless. They were kind of like characters from Sesame Street, happy, smart, and fun to be with.
The first thing I can remember about D. was the way we became friends. I wonder if George Lucas knows how many kids bonded over the love of his movie Star Wars. The movie came out the summer before fifth grade, and all I know is that I had seen it around eleven times and still didn’t know what the plot was about. I knew Hans Solo was cool, R2D2 was funny, and Princess Lea created a new and slightly uncomfortable feeling within me. Anything about Star Wars captured my attention like mica to a novice gold-miner.
So when D. came to school with several hundred Star Wars trading cards whatever was being taught in class that day was forgotten. I ended up striking a deal with him, and the next day I brought him cash for the entire collection. I think I paid the astronomical price of ten dollars for the cards, which was about a month of saved allowances. The grin on D’s face when he got the money looked just a little out of character, and for an instant I caught a flash of something that was a little unsettling, but we became friends and sometimes I acted as arbitrator when a bigger kid decided to take out his sugar-jones on D.
We moved to England the following year, and when we returned it was time to start the seventh grade. D happened to be going to the same school as me and it turned out that we had three classes together. This is the time when I believe we really became friends. Before long we were sleeping over at each other’s houses and D’s mom, Mrs. H. had successfully recruited me to join D’s Boy Scout troop.
The H’s house was a marvel compared to our antique-riddled farmhouse. Everything was modern (the H’s had designed it themselves, both were engineers) and there were three stories of balconies, vaulted ceilings, decks, game-rooms that included an Apple II computer, TV viewing areas, and workshops. The most attractive part about their house (not including their older sister) was a lake out back, with a canoe and a kayak.
When I started going over to the H’s house I began to really get a sense of what diabolical boys these guys were. When we were kids, if you had another kid over for the first time it was sort of a ritual to give him a show and tell of all the cool things you owned. For me it was model airplanes that I had glued together sans directions and National Lampoon magazines. But when I went to D’s room for the first time he showed me a disturbingly large amount of fireworks. Endless amounts of bottle-rockets, back-cat fire crackers and, the most powerful firework out there, the notorious M-80. It looked like a scaled-down stick of dynamite. In fact, D claimed its power was equal to a fourth of a stick of dynamite. When he described these things to you he would sort of squint and grin and give a nervous laugh. All of this was slightly unnerving. This is how he got around fire and explosives. Later, in high school, you would go to his room and he would display fire-arms, switch-blades and one very dangerous and ominous looking hand-grenade.
I had him over to my house one weekend, and we had just invented a game where we took old tennis rackets and soaked a tennis ball in gas, lit it, and knocked it around until it went out. D suggested that we make a bonfire. I tried to divert his attention to another subject, but he started looking for a suitable area and I, being the eternal sheep, gave way and joined the search. We decided on a sunken area of the yard where an out- building had once been, and started finding combustible material. We found the perfect fuel in the form of some old shingles that had recently come off our house during a re-shingling. These shingles were covered with an adhesive similar to tar which made them quite flammable, and soon we had a fire that was threatening the garage and causing me to panic acutely.
I rushed about fifty yards over to the outside faucet and started filling one of those aluminum wash basins with water to put the fire out. As I carried the basin toward the fire and saw it flaring up, it appeared to me that D was just gazing at the fire, seemingly fascinated. By the time I got to the fire, the basin was noticeable lighter. Years of being left outside had caused the tub to rust, creating a hole and allowing all of my water to escape. I ran into the garage to try to find another container, and by now I was on the verge of hysteria, because I could really get the mental image of my parents coming home from work to find their property looking like Dresden circa 1944. I probably started vocalizing my distress by this time, and as I arrived back at the fire, trying to remember how to call the police department, I realized that D had put the fire out somehow, using a couple of trash can lids. This guy knew what he was doing.
D would come to school with fascinating news such as, “we found a network of caves by our house,” or “we built a rope-swing that lets you jump into the lake from about thirty feet in the air. This would lure you to their house the following weekend. The cave, which was possibly an abandoned Beaver den, was barely large enough for one person to fit in. We were smoking by then, and D claimed that the only place it was safe to smoke without getting discovered was the cave. We lit up, and soon were completely without oxygen, making a mad scramble backwards to escape the gas-chamber like hole. D would be outside (he never smoked) waiting, with his maniacal grin.
The rope-swing was another matter. It was awesome to behold, but there was one catch. To swing off of it you had to climb a ladder that was perched precariously on a muddy bank. Then you had to reach up from the top rung of the ladder while someone hurled the bar of the swing at you, and if you grabbed it you would be automatically committed to the process, with no time to back out. Any hesitation could be fatal. If you didn’t like the idea of letting go once you were over the lake, your fate had only one conclusion, to be slammed into the tree which contained the rope. So getting up the nerve just to mount the ladder was about an hour process. The H-boys always made their brother M go first, as their tester. He was a very good natured kid, but when you arrived at the H’s house he would be the one who was scrapped, bruised and bloodied.
I survived the rope-swing, but one poor kid who was a little short lost his balance and fell off the ladder, sliding down the bank and into the lake only to be stopped by a stump. He was okay, for the most part, but I didn’t see him around the H’s house very much after that.
As for me, I got it on the bob-sled run. The H’s had one of those sleds that look like a snow-mobile without the motor, and one year after an ice-storm they created a sled run down the back of their lake’s dam which included a high jump and then a circuitous route through a bramble orchard. The weather had warmed up considerably, and for some reason I had decided to wear shorts. When I hit the jump, made out of a plywood board and some cinderblocks, I managed to turn myself sideways and parallel to the ground and, after landing hard, I slid the rest of the route on my exposed side collecting briars and scrapes that wouldn’t heal for a month. This, right before a camping trip with the scouts. I had never seen D laugh so hard.
I went over to the H’s once and they had created a similar run for their mopeds. I declined the privilege of attempting this form of suicide.
The H’s are all grown and married now, and for being the smallest kid in the fifth grade, D grew up to be bigger than me—his mother was always force feeding him vitamins. I doubt that they create rope-swings anymore, but I still imagine that they, at least D, can still get that diabolical look on his face from time to time.