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  • Gary Gruber

Friendship


What price can you place on the moments etched so deeply into your mind by the people who helped make who you are today?


It was the winter of 1954. We had just moved into a duplex on North Dawes Ave. and I was playing in the snow outside the front door. My grandfather spied something racing down the block on a tricycle. It was my bud-to-be Charlie. He was a year younger than me, but at five years old, that was the least of my concerns. He arranged the parlay between us, and my second friendship was kindled.


My first friendship ended dramatically outside of Harrisburg a year earlier when the young lady’s mother returned from shopping and found me with my hand on a thermometer placed gently up her backside while she was sprawled naked on the floor. While this would not be the last time I’d have my hands on a girl’s butt, it was the last time I’d be caught doing it.

Charlie and I would be inseparable for the next eight years. But there were Three Stooges, and the final position was quickly filled by Maxie, who lived across the street. His buoyant personality and slightly round physique so clearly echoed ‘Curlie’ that we were often mistaken for our Hollywood counterparts.


Danger was our middle name, and the three of us engaged in enough questionable pursuits it’s remarkable we ever made it to adolescence. Charlie’s father was a wealthy doctor, so he was always the first kid on the block to have the latest toy. We were so driven by the need for toy guns that fired real projectiles (albeit lightweight pieces of plastic) that when Charlie got his, Maxie and I launched a full scale nuclear assault on our parents, a round-the-clock effort that yielded positive fruits in well under 48 hours.


It only took about six minutes on Maxie’s front lawn to lose all of our ‘bullets’ in the grass. Undaunted, we discovered some of the earliest known secrets of cardio asphyxiation. With judicious placement of our arms under the ribcage of one another, and then squeezing tightly from the rear, we were able to quickly place each of us into a state of oxygen deprivation – from which we quickly passed out. We took turns with this ritual, trying to see who could re rendered unconscious the longest on the front lawn.


It was fun to almost die. Unfortunately, a nurse living next door to Maxie read us the riot act when she observed our exploits, so we went back to combing the lawn for our lost ammunition. The greatest part of childhood back then was not getting caught; but when upbraided for our actions, we ceased and desisted immediately. Lesson learned.


Long before Indiana Jones was nearly killed in a South American cave, the three of us explored the subterranean plumbing conduits of the then-under-construction Hebrew School across the street from the Third Ave school we all attended. There was plenty of room underground for the three of us to crawl the 100 feet or so from one wall to another, but in the dark one day, as we slowly made our away along the pipes and electrical wires, Maxie blurted out “What if there are spiders down here?”


It was truly a pants on fire moment, and we scurried out of there so quickly that I do believe we left permanent skid marks on the concrete. After carefully examining one another for signs of an infestation, we trotted down to Brown’s food store on Market St. for a bottle of cold Coca-Cola to ease the strain of another near-death experience.


Our second most favorite activity after almost dying was the Friday night / Saturday afternoon rituals of trying to not get arrested by the police. Remember now, we were only 10 at the time. My father had a carpenter build me a ‘clubhouse’ in the back yard. It was about 10 x 10, and six feet high. We’d put three army cots in it and camp out every Friday evening. But the staying outside part was the dessert of the evening, the main course was going to the Kingston High School football game. We never actually watched the game -- we were having too much fun wreaking havoc on any and all that were there.


While our parents dutifully gave us each the fifty cents required for admission, we never ever bought a ticket. The manly way into the event was to scale the six-foot fence and outrun the police who chased us. It was an early form of ‘catch and release’. Once nabbed by an officer, we’d be dragged by the collar to the gate and unceremoniously booted out, with an emphasis on the booted part. Undaunted, we would work our way around to another part of the stadium and try again. It rarely took more than two attempts to scale the fence and disappear into the crowd.


Once inside, we would head to the refreshment stand and fill our pockets with sugar packets. Since all we ever thought about back then was being cowboys or soldiers, we took this opportunity to practice aerial bombardment, to learn the ins and outs of the timing required to hit a moving target. We proceeded to the top of the stadium directly over the walkway used to access the food area. Our target was always the girl part of date night at the stadium. When a young couple walked by, we would carefully drop a sugar packet with the top ripped off. If our aim was good the packet would explode on the girl’s head, depositing sugar all over the hairdo she probably lavished hours preparing for the evening.


We would then quickly scatter to another part of the stadium to avoid retribution by the boyfriend. After a successful evening of dive bombing the enemy, we headed back to our ‘camp’ to retell our tales of valor and glory. On the way down North Dawes, Charlie issued a challenge. He unzipped his pants and pulled out his pud. He dared us to do the same and walk down the streets so exposed. Naturally, Maxie and I followed suit and the three of us ambled down the block with our peckers hanging out. We were so amused by our antics that we failed to notice Mr. Youngman sitting on his front steps.


Now Mr. Youngman was the sourpuss of the block, the obese guy who made all of the kids’ lives a living hell for trotting on his precious lawn. He was an unsuccessful candidate for city council, going so far as to drive voters to city hall to cast their ballots. The next day he saw us and exclaimed “I saw what you did last night!” He said nothing to our parents out of an abundance of caution for fear of losing votes.


Saturday afternoon was movie day. The Paramount theater on Public Square had a gala multi-hour kid’s show. Cartoons, westerns, popcorn, hot dogs and tons of candy were the order of the day. But before that treat, we had to stock up on ammo. Right off the Square was the Anthracite Coal Souvenir Shop. One of the first products imported into the U.S. from China were cap balls. These were small pieces of metallic paper filled with a minute amount of black powder. When thrown on the sidewalk they would explode with a bang and a spark. When dropped from the top of the Boston Store parking lot next to unsuspecting shoppers, the effect was startling.


After the purchase of several bags, we would head to the top floor and shower passersby with small explosions – that is until security caught us and demanded our names and phone numbers. We were great liars back then, and almost always gave the men the info of classmates we despised. After being released from custody we headed to the movies with whatever cap balls we had left. When the theater went dark we would grab the slingshots we had stashed in our back pockets and with the deft and skill of a Ninja quickly pelted the screen with small explosions. We never got caught.


Charlie was always the bravest of our trio and the first to find and explore new construction sites. When a dentist’s office went up on Market Street down the block, he led us there to swing on a rope over a cavern that appeared as deep and foreboding as the Grand Canyon. Ultimately, I put to use everything he taught me about surveillance and reconnaissance.

Sunday was our day to swim at the Jewish Community Center in Wilkes-Barre, and since most of the employees were away for the day, we would sneak up to the second floor and peek into the offices, snooping here and there. The biggest find was the director’s office, Miss Julia. She had a secret, hidden room behind her desk. It had a couch and a chair – a place she could nap when needed. There was no door to this secret place. There was a swinging panel about three feet high behind her chair.


One day, another friend and I crawled inside, seconds before Miss Julia returned to her office. We were trapped there for nearly an hour, unmoving, barely breathing,


eavesdropping on her private phone calls, until she got up to stretch her legs. Rolling out of the back room and behind her desk, we made a break for the door and scurried to the stairs. Exhaling for the first time in an hour, we split up and headed in opposite directions to avoid drawing attention to our thoroughly exhausted selves.


Ninjas, commandos, and Special Forces had nothing on us. We were the best of the best and had the imaginary scars to show for it.


At 12 the three of us began attending different schools so we didn’t get to spend as much time together, but I began to branch out into a new direction: explosives. There was a candy store in Edwardsville that sold fireworks, and I was the only guy with the guts to try to procure them. With a convoluted story about why neither of my parents had me in tow, the owner agreed to sell me a bunch of cherry bombs and firecrackers.


The first skill I mastered was in creating delayed fuses so the fireworks could be planted and lit with sufficient time to escape prior to the explosion. This is where the phrase ‘plausible deniability’ was created. I once tossed a cherry bomb into the sewer in front of a friend’s house while his father was on the toilet. The force of the explosion propelled the sewer contents back up the pipe and out of the commode. Fortunately, since his father was plugging the hole in the toilet with his backside, no damage was done to the bathroom.


A more sinister encounter with our neighbor across the street had different results. This neighbor did not like the fact that our cat would wander through his yard and chew on his flowers, so he poisoned him -- admitting this to me. Late one night, after my parents had gone to sleep and the lights had been extinguished on his property, I crept across the road and planted time delayed explosions inside all of the underwear he had drying on the clothesline; taking my inspiration from the final scene in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. I also took my father’s WWII knife and neatly sliced his garden hose up into small pieces. I was safely tucked back in bed when the explosions erupted. He confronted me the next day after viewing the carnage in his yard. He couldn’t prove I had done it, and unlike him, I admitted to nothing,


Paybacks are a bitch!

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