by Allen Whitlock
My first memory in life was of my father standing at a scarred block of dark wood, holding a chicken. He grasped its head, a camping axe raised high, and then exposing a surprisingly long neck, he brought the axe down. Freed from both grasp and head, the body ran around the yard—eponymously, one might say—flapping white wings splattered in red blood spurting in time with its still beating heart. I watched the chicken as it fought against the pull of gravity, splayed wild legs bracing this way and that, wings seeking balance until the end.
It was 1954, and I was three. Our street sat within a misbegotten jink outside the city limits line on the northeast side of Portland, Oregon. On a map, it looked as if the cartographer got bumped while drawing an otherwise straight line. It was a rural island at the edge of a large city. Chickens were common, as were ducks, and at least one goat that I knew of. We had a detached chicken coop on the far side of our one-hundred-and-fifty-foot-wide lot which itself sat mid-point along Alberta Court, a thousand-feet of straight dirt road. The over-sized block was ringed with lots and the center filled with grassy fields, small orchards, and wild blackberries briars the size of houses. A long bike ride would take you to real neighborhood, the kind you saw on TV, with sidewalks, picket fences, yards with grass, and homes with a second story.
When bored I’d look down the long street each way waiting for something to happen, anything. In the summer I’d watch the heat ripples, hoping for a desert mirage of fabulous treasure or piles of food as I’d seen in cartoons and vultures circling—even carrion birds waiting for me to die would have been a welcome change. I hoped to see any movement, even for a car to drive by kicking up dust, so that I could pretend it was a rocket. I’d grab handfuls of dust and run, arms outstretched the grey-brown dust streaming from my loose grip like contrails; pretending I was a jet. I was alone a lot, but sometimes there were kids, mostly boys and we’d throw rocks at a telephone pole, or each other, or chuck a large rock straight up in the air with the admonition to “think fast!”
Dogs roamed free; some were nice, some would tree you until the owner called them off. The humans received more supervision. The neighborhood was rife with characters, bound for or just back from prison.
Inanimate objects were unregulated, and yards held broken refrigerators, junk cars, engines, transaxles, wheel hubs, and other dysfunctional car innards. For some reason, there were several fifty-five-gallon steel barrels in the back yard, next door. We had one. We called it The Burn Barrel, as in “Toss it in the Burn Barrel,” when there was any flammable garbage.
The large lots accommodated large trucks. To the right of us, the garbage man and his trucks, to our left were the Ketchum Carnival people and their trucks, rides enfolded like flightless butterflies at summer’s end.
Across the street were The Cabins, low-rent shacks stacked five deep with their flat black-tar roofs and sided with fake red brick made of the same gritty material as roof shingles. They shared a common driveway bordered on one side by a high wooden fence. If someone needed out, they had to get their neighbor to move their car. If you were brave enough to walk down that driveway, you might see a thick paper notice from the Sheriff’s department adorning one of the doors. I witnessed a few dramatic arrests, marked and unmarked cars screeching to a halt, car doors already flying open. Even later, in the hubris of invincible adolescence, I rarely ventured down that narrow dark drive alone, where each step forward, even with the promise of the easy cut-through to the next street, felt like dry ice dropped down the back of your shirt and each step felt like the molasses step in a nightmare. Those who live there seemed doomed.
All the people on our street came from somewhere else. Races and cultures mixed like refugees from some unseen natural disaster. Many houses on our street came from somewhere else: a WPA worker city called VanPort, halfway between Vancouver Washington and Portland Oregon that was flooded out of existence. After the waters of receded, the shacks were moved to higher ground. We lived in one.
My father was often away, either a distant road construction job or the VA hospital for a nervous disorder. A Captain in the great war, he flew his little P1, a precursor to the Piper Cub, with the Big Red One, spotting enemy artillery as a liaison pilot. The stress of war, or a nasty head injury, for which he received a Purple Heart, or perhaps just the nature of the man left him jangled and angry. He was handsome, although short, with jet-black hair, pale skin and blue eyes; a peculiarly Irish trait I’ve noted. His deep voice was full of curses, complaints, and frustration. I’ve joked that I got my extensive vocabulary from two sources: the dictionary, and helping my dad fix the car. There was the constant threat of an unexpected eruption of curses, banging, or a thrown object. But we were never abused, my mother never hit or disrespected, and they never argued angrily.
One hot July day, I among a mix of four or five boys, the oldest probably eight or nine and I was four. We were running from one yard to the next, barefoot and careful not to step on bees (our yard was a field of dandelions with lawn grass interspersed) when one of the older boys spied the ice truck. The Cabins all had iceboxes at that time. One of the older boys called out for everyone to hide because we were going to steal ice from the truck. I hid with another kid, behind a shrub. We waited for the call from the boy who’d put this mission together. I found this thrilling. As soon as the iceman was out of sight, down the dark driveway of the cabins, we ran to the back of the truck. One boy boosted another, and he handed down pieces of ice that had been broken off the blocks. I received mine, a watermelon wedge as beautiful and as clear as glass. The iceman’s curses sent us flying.
The following Halloween we were, again, as was typical, all out on the street. It was just after sunset on a moonless night—there were no streetlights. One kid was going on about how, the night before, the pumpkin he had carved had been stolen from their porch and smashed. There was a local plague of the same crime, and they suspected it was the work of foreign elements. As it grew darker, we could barely make each other out. Someone saw the silhouette of some kids as they ran between us and porch and window lights.
“It’s them!” one of us called out. “They were on my porch!”
We ran down the dark street in pursuit. When I caught up, I saw that two young boys in the grip of four or five of us. I was enraged. It’s the pumpkin smashers! I ran at one and gave him a push. They’d already been shoved and slugged, not a few times by the time I got there. Then, out of the darkness stepped an adult just in time to see my contribution. It was a nicely dressed woman. She said, “What are you doing?” with some intensity and my insides froze. “Why are you attacking my boys?” She pulled each to her and examined them. One had a chipped tooth from falling down face-first upon something hard, perhaps a rock in the road.
“Look what you’ve done!” the woman cried.
“They’re smashing pumpkins. I saw them on my porch!” someone yelled.
“We’re collecting for UNICEF!” Her voice was angry but steady. She held up a clip board and showed us the boxes that had been knocked out of her boy’s hands. They disappeared again into the darkness, and we dispersed. I walked home crying.
Young as I was, I only grasped the meaning of our wrong from her tone, and I have ever since been terrified of mobs and mob thinking and guarded against ever finding myself in one, feeling that self-righteous anger, and harming someone, only to discover that you’d harmed a good person. When I hear the word mortified, this event comes to mind. After this, I could hardly stand to see mob violence in movies, even when it was torch-carrying villagers tracking down the Frankenstein monster.
When we got older, among the boys, the gathering place was Terry's back yard; next door. Terry's dad, the ex-prizefighter, ex-boxing gym owner, ex-Brooklynite and current garbage man greeted us boys with, "howz youze guyz do'in" or as a jab with a laugh as "youz girlz.” His name was Reynold, and he had us call him Renny. Terry’s mother, Stella was another New Yorker, high wired, and a chain-smoker who seldom left the house. Prominently displayed on an end table in the haze-filled living room was an autographed photo of the actor famous for his gangster roles, George Raft, cigarette in hand, white smoke curling artistically.
They seemed to have no religion, but they were Masons and Renny was intrigued with arcane knowledge. He would tell us things like that the body replaces itself every seven years. He knew where and when we could look for Sputnik. It was a time when everyone took for granted that flying saucers were real. Renny had the current magazines and tried to keep up on the latest information. The UFO’s used anti-gravity, he told us, and magnets. There were so many reports I felt it only inevitable that I would see a flying saucer.
The trash Renny sometimes brought home—still in the truck when the trip to the dump was more convenient the next morning rather than the end of that work day—wasn’t the normal house garbage of coffee grounds, banana peels, and chicken bones—but rather downtown garbage. It was the junk that department stores threw out and that was now to become a child's wonder. We tried to find a stunt or use for every load. One day it was monofilament fishing line, reels and reels of it for God know what reason it was garbage. So, we spent days stringing it like spider webbing in Terry’s basement (a claustrophobic area under the outspread octopus arms of an oil heating system.) We’d turn out the lights, making our way in a grand circuit around the central furnace imagining giant science-fiction tarantulas were after us.
One other time it was a dump truck full of mannequins. We dressed a boy-sized mannequin up in some of Terry’s clothing and then hid with it behind a car. Waiting for traffic on our street took patience, but we scared the crap out of a few motorists by tossing the dummy out in front of them. Then we timed one badly giving the driver little time to react. The screech of brakes and strings of cursed threats let us know we’d crossed some line with that stunt.
One day it was out-of-date Pillsbury, Pop’n Fresh dough. Those are the tubes that pop open in a spiral when whacked against the edge of a counter. White dough puffs out—you bake it—simple. There were many more cans than the neighborhood mothers would ever use and, in the heat—for it was hot that day—some were already popped and oozing dough. We were twelve or thirteen at the time. We thought first of opening them all, making a pile, letting it rise, and then jumping on it from the roof. There was a lot, but there wasn’t going to be enough for that. We sat on Terry’s back patio, and someone had the idea to electrocute it, to see what would happen. We always had lamp cords laying around—many things brought home had motors, but no cords and we’d attach cords to various half-destroyed animated window advertisements to see them move or to combine them hoping for something cool, perhaps robot-looking, or to make some Rube Goldberg thing. When, I stuck bare wires in a lump of dough and plugged it in, nothing interesting happened, it didn’t come to life, blob-like and try to eat anyone, it just burned a couple spots in the dough. We hefted ever-expanding pieces of dough while we talked and thought about what to do with it. This quickly evolved to flinging bits of dough at each other. For a substance that looked so light, it was in fact quite heavy, and there was a satisfying WAP! when a handful size lump hit an unsuspecting friend in the side of the head. As with a boxing glove, that looked soft until it hit you, a pound of dough could also ring your bell. Soon it was all out war with every man for himself as we spilled out into other yards. Kids from up and down the street joined in—the word had spread like margarine on a hot Pop’n Fresh Crescent Roll. At day’s end, exhausted dough-caked children returned home and the sun set upon a scene that could have been in some science fiction fungus-invasion movie. Dough hung from and on all possible objects, from telephone wires, car doors, fences, and I’m sure, a few dogs and cats. As the sun set, it took on a lovely, subtle pink glow cast, cloudlike and self-rising. It fell, in glops for days after.
On days when no interesting refuse appeared, the trucks themselves were great fun and we'd ride in the back on a pile of broken display cases, old mattresses, and God knows what, to the dump. It was the dump, and it was only called The Dump. When Jesus says Hell, the word is Gehenna, the name of the city dump in his town. Similarly, we didn’t sweeten it by calling it a land-fill, and Renny was a garbage man, not a sanitation worker. We rode in the big blue Vogel Bros. Garbage Service trucks, teeth jarring with every bump. If you could pile up and climb a stack of junk to see over the cab, letting the road wind hit your face, so much the better, there was a stench in the back of the thing from accumulated garbage, no matter what you hauled. Used tissues from the ladies rooms of department store bathrooms stuck to greasy black muck or floated free like butterflies. We'd jump around where there was room or climb up to see the road ahead with someone sure to challenge you for the spot and start an impromptu King of the Hill in our iron box—most surfaces rustless and paintless, shined due to constant wear but black with gunk in untouched crevasses. We struggled, legs bracing this way and that, trying to stay upright as the truck rattled forty-miles-per-hour down a bumpy two-lane toward a distant flock of sea gulls rising, circling, landing, and rising again as we rolled towards them.
Allen Whitlock was born in Portland, Oregon in 1951 and has a BS/BA from Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has studied acting and writing at Portland State University, Western Oregon State College at Monmouth, and Grand Valley State University. Allen has survived playing in '80s Portland rock band and far too many odd and often dangerous jobs. He now lives happily in Grand Rapids with his partner Dr. Judy Whipps and their chipmunk-fixated dog Hailey. Allen is the author of two self-published books: collected short stories, "If I Should Die Before it Wakes," and the novel "The Last Border," and soon-to-be-published novel, "Toanan, the Heretic."