When I reflect on the unorthodox contests of my youth, I’m struck by two truths:
First, even today’s sheltered boys – Cody, Taylor and Parker - burdened with yuppie last names as first names, regulated on Ritalin, cycling hesitantly around their gated communities in full body armor and titanium bike helmets clutching their mother’s Google Earth maps detailing the location of the community’s registered jay walkers; thoroughly sheltered from any hint of adversity by overwrought parents – are, in their depths, the acolytes of Pan. Whether we embrace it or not, most boys possess a biological imperative for mayhem. Either you let the kid blow off some of that evolutionary steam from time to time or know that one day when he’s 40, there’s a high probability that he will be involved in a slap fight with the sales clerk at Baby Gap when she can’t find the Espadrilles that will perfectly suit his cat Mr. Bigglesby who, I will grant, has tastes that are both subtle and discriminating, but also has skin allergies and needs to accept that jute of any kind is not for him.
The truth is that most boys, left to their own devices, away from the meticulously planned weekends and the dull regimentation of an antiseptic daycare, want to run on callused bare feet in the neighborhood streets, maul helpless insects, play a rousing game of Can This Object Be Set On Fire?, shoot friends in the ass with BB guns, wrestle until they broke Mom’s Favorite Knick Knack, and generally behave like Kim Jong Il on Spring Break in Panama City. Little boys don’t go through a dinosaur obsession phase because they are curious about the earth’s origins or science; they are enthralled by any entity that spends its existence going “Rooaargh!” and mindlessly wrecking shit.
This also explains the fundamental appeal of Lindsey Lohan. Or Islam.
The second truth is that my brother and I were innovative geniuses in the realm of violent suburban pseudo sport. You’ve probably heard of us. We pioneered such games as Fighting-With-Broomsticks-And-Trash-Can-Lid-Shields and Firecracker Tag. Both events describe their premise fairly accurately in their names. Only our lack of vision and ambition prevented us from landing several events in the X Games. Sadly, every adult year we’ve spent in conformity (what is work but daycare for adults?) has rendered our creative glands so flaccid that I can barely eke out the inspiration to finish this sentence, but there was once a time when I was an out-of-the-box thinker – long before I even knew that there was a box I was supposed to be thinking in.
I want to take you to that place of my creative youth: to that place beyond even the outside of the box. In fact, if you went to the outside of the box, you would have to walk down (or is it up? You tell me, smart guy) several flights of discretely concealed stairs – much like an Escher painting - leading you to a fire exit door and into the kitchen of a small tacqueria. It's just past there. However, if you go as far as the trash dumpster in the alley, you should probably turn around. Too far.
I call this process Not-Box Thinking. Actually, I just made that up. I was trying to think of something cool and edgy sounding for my creative process because I’m still pissed I didn’t copyright the games I created that I’ll be outlining below. I think this phrase may have some Wayne Dyer life seminar potential. So, Not-Box Thinking. I like it. It’s mine. You’ll need to pay me a nickel any time you use that. In any event, I welcome you to the games of my youth:
The Gauntlet. Not long after I learned to ride a bike, my older brother dedicated himself to taking me off of it - as abruptly as possible. I was a willing participant. The Gauntlet was a game of daring and risk, our veloway version of the Iroquois beatings visited on any brave who wouldn’t share his muskrat pelts or kept crapping too close to the creek. The game’s premise was simple. The older boys in the neighborhood would stand on both sides of the street – spaced every ten to fifteen feet - skateboards at the ready poised under one foot, prepared to be launched at us like wheeled torpedoes. The younger boys sat astride their Huffys at the top of the street, hyperventilating, readying themselves to stampede like two-wheeled wildebeests across a shallow croc infested river. Through some shared lemming instinct, we’d begin pumping furiously at the same time, a mad sprint to safety, skateboards whizzing at us like mobile land mines. The only sounds were the whirring of polyurethane wheels, the cries of children flying heads over handlebars, and whoops of triumph. The kid who completed the most Gauntlets won. The kids who caught a skateboard in their spokes or in front of a wheel ate concrete club sandwiches.
Ninja Roof Jump. An old favorite as it possessed equal measures of delusion, violence, and peril – key ingredients of the testosterone cocktail. My brother and I would scale our parent’s single story roof using a rickety garage ladder. Then, like Cortez burning his ships, we’d commit to the enterprise by kicking the ladder over. That done, we’d scurry like gibbons and skulk behind the chimney as Mom came out to investigate the ruckus, irate and clutching a Tab Cola, ranting about the cost of hiring a roofer to fix the damage we were doing to the tiles. After a few minutes of scanning the roofline and calling out to the squirrels, she’d lose steam and retire inside, muttering that we should at least clean the gutters if we were going to be up there. A key obstacle negotiated, we’d position ourselves at a dizzying height looking out over the lawn and leap, knees slightly bent in the hopes that we would roll softly and pop up deftly; keen to deliver a roundhouse kick to someone’s temple like Lee Van Cleef in The Master.
I particularly enjoy the portion of the clip where The Master disarms a man with an awkward kick while prostrated on the roof of a car, suggesting to the viewer that he had been there napping quietly. The Master was quintessential 80’s television as it featured an unbelievable premise, stilted acting, terrible synthesizer music, and a Van Patten. This show is the reason I spent a considerable amount of time in the summer of 1985 pitching Chinese throwing stars at a piece of notebook paper tacked to the backyard’s fence.
The Master was second only to BJ and The Bear in my pantheon of childhood must-see TV; not even ninjas can compete with a guy driving around in a Big Rig with his chimpanzee bosom friend. Sadly, after reviewing some of these clips again, I’m not certain that BJ and the Bear had an entirely platonic relationship. That filthy monkey couldn’t keep his hands off of him. The chimp was inappropriate too.
Where have you gone, Greg Evigan? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
I defy you to listen to that theme song, observe the formulae of the opening credits, and not be taken to a gentler, more innocent time. If you watched that clip and didn't break a smile, you're a hard nut. Let's review the lyrics, shall we?
Hey there where ya goin',
Not exactly knowin'
Who says you have to call just one place home.
He's goin' everywhere,
B.J. McKay and his best friend Bear.
He just keeps on movin',
Ladies keep improvin'
Every day is better than the last.
New dreams and better scenes,
And best of all I don't pay property tax.
Rollin' down to Dallas,
Who's providin' my palace,
Off to New Orleans or who knows where.
Places new and ladies, too,
I'm B.J. McKay and this is my best friend Bear.
He owns a big rig. He hangs out with an adorable ape. The ladies are into him and they just keep improvin'. He's having adventures all around the major highways and thoroughfares of the continental United States. Yet, he's most psyched about the fact that he doesn't have to pay property tax. Clearly, a Milton Friedman devotee.
Anyway, I was jumping off of the roof. Regrettably, and despite my best intentions, I tended to land with the grace of a suicide. I bit through my tongue, twisted both ankles, sprained a knee, and knocked myself senseless at least once. In fact, I may have knocked myself out more than once, but that’s the bitch of head trauma, isn’t it? Where are my car keys?
Dunk Ball. The rules of Dunk Ball were simple. The adjustable basketball goal in our front yard was set at eight and half feet. The only way to score was to dunk. There were no fouls. That was it. We played on a slightly slanted driveway discolored with various engine leaks, faded pools of rusty ochre from countless bloody noses, and bleached discolorations faintly spelling out “Go Trojans” – a shaving cream brand semi-permanently seared into our concrete courtesy of a Homecoming guerilla mission from the high school dance team drill team. When I was in high school and my brother was in college, Dunk Ball was our game of choice. I didn’t have the skill set to play him in one-on-one basketball in any meaningful way – he’d played basketball in high school and I was a football player. A game to 30 was a guaranteed 30-14 loss for me. So we adapted. Though four years his junior, I was 20 pounds heavier and two inches taller and Dunk Ball’s inherent disincentive to go for the steal protected my shoddy ball handling. These were closely contested, physical games. As you’d expect, when the only way to score is by dunk, the lane gets fairly crowded. The only way to clear space is to drive a low shoulder into a stomach, swing your elbows high to clear some more, drop step, and go up strong. If you were strong enough and went up with enough intent, you could still power a dunk through with the other’s guy’s hand firmly blocking the ball. Needless to say, having your hand bent back into the cylinder on a failed block attempt was relatively invigorating in a writhing around on the ground sort of way.
Garage Pugilism. Before anyone knew Kimbo from Thai-Bo or Royce Gracie from Grace Jones, the kids on my block understood the basic appeal of a good organized fight.
From eighth grade through my sophomore year of high school, we met secretly in neighborhood garages and backyards to don dilapidated boxing gloves and football mouthpieces and battle it out. Headgear was a backwards baseball cap. Some of the fights were intense. We had knockouts though we always stepped in to prevent a slaughter. Several fights were ended by TLS: technical laughter stoppage. Once the culprit was a thunderous fart that erupted just as a body shot landed – I wonder, did that ever happen to Joe Frazier? We also called a TLS when a friend put his entire arm through the sheetrock in his parent’s garage while attempting to deliver a wild haymaker.
We also got silly. You haven’t really lived until you’ve seen a 6’1 245 pound guy riding a Big Wheel with a mop handle couched under his arm like a lance attacking a 6’5” 170 pound guy wielding a whiffle ball bat while saddled on a child’s red wagon like a massive flightless bird.
On at least two occasions, we had cattle prod duels. They were every bit as outstanding as you’d think a cattle prod duel would be. I’m recommending the event be added to the ’08 Olympics in Beijing in lieu of the massive gay fest that is Individual Men’s Epee. Sometimes we would videotape these Clashes of the Suburban Titans and re-watch them while swilling Gatorade in a friend’s cramped living room, fifteen guys bleeding and holding icepacks battling for three couch seats, two chairs, and a beanbag. We’d offer brutally funny fight post-mortems and they often led to colorful nicknames such as No Mas, My Little Pony, and Kool Aid. Kool Aid was coined by a shy stoic country boy from Lufkin, TX who could go days without speaking. During one of his fights, he tagged a guy in the mouth that none of us really liked and, noticing the crimson staining his opponent’s teeth and lips, Lufkin quipped with an air of quiet contentment: “Well, I reckon I put the Kool Aid smile on him.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, was Not-Box Thinking.