It’s a warm summer evening last night… reminds me of California back in the late 1960’s when my Dad was stationed at McClellan Air Force Base just outside of Sacramento, and we lived in a military suburb known as “Capehart”. I had so much freakin’ fun during that time of innocence and discovery.
We used to “camp out” a lot when I lived in California which, in reality, meant a few kids in sleeping bags behind the fence of somebody’s backyard, giving us an excuse to run around all night creating general havoc. Harmless stuff, like peeling Crazy Daisies off Volkswagen and sticking them over doorbells; putting frogs in car ashtrays and glove compartments; letting the air out of bicycle tires; trying to elude the MPs …stuff like that. If we were really lucky, there’d be a girls’ slumber party going on and we’d go over and bug them for awhile.
But on the night of August 16th, 1968, things got a little rough.
We were doing our usual Friday night camp out. Earlier that summer, my friend Ricky Smith had swiped a 16 ounce Schlitz Malt Liquor from his old man, and we were so scared of getting caught with it that we’d stashed it on the garage roof to allow some time for the trail to grow cold. But now, Ricky and I decided that the statute of limitations on the Schlitz had probably run out, so we climbed up on the garage to retrieve our ill-gotten booty.
The trouble was, there were eight guys camping out, more kids than even a 16 ouncer could supply, and we didn’t want to share our hard-earned treasure with any of them.
Camp-outs always started late. First we’d run around with our girlfriends, or play a little football, or go to a movie, so it was usually around 10:30 by the time we all started gathering at some predetermined spot to decide where we were going to toss our sleeping bags. Then, somebody would get drafted into running to the vending machine at the Snack Mart for cigarettes. Base curfew was midnight, so going to buy a pack of smokes was an extremely hazardous maze of hiding from patrolling Military Police, and serpentining through a minefield of built in sprinkler heads which were near impossible to see at night and near fatal to trip over. We knew a kid who actually broke his ankle tripping over one of those babies in the dark. But we knew that the cigarette run was our only hope of getting the chance to partake of our treasured elixir, so Ricky and I volunteered.
Our cigarette mission completed, we popped the top on the beer. Now, there’s nothing quite like the taste of a warm Schlitz Malt Liquor that’s been fermenting under the hot California sun for three months. It was… awful, the worst thing I’d ever put in my mouth, really disgusting. So we did the only sensible thing and gulped it straight down, avoiding our taste buds altogether.
About halfway back, we saw the silhouettes of five figures coming towards us. It was a group of the “tough” kids… you know, those yellow toothed, greasy haired guys who wore the same pair of jeans to school every day, and whose sole accomplishment was the fact that they knew how to french curl cigarette smoke. We always tried to avoid these pinheads at school, but well roasted malt liquor has a way of building stupidity and, self-preservation being what it is, we asked them to come back to camp with us.
“Ok, man. We’ll come with you. We usually don’t hang out with wimps like you guys, but you look pretty cool, drinkin’ malt liquor and all. Here, have a shot of this Jack Daniels we stole from Jake’s old man,” one of the tough guys chuckled, tossing the bottle at Ricky.
We were so proud, standing there with our empty Beer Can Trophy, about to make the leap from Boy Scout to Hell’s Angel. All we had to do was drink a little whisky, and how much could that hurt?
Needless to say, our sober buddies were impressed, though not amused, by our new found courage when we showed up with the rat pack in tow. So, as the rest of my friends did their best cool impressions, complete with appropriate hand and neck gyrations and the all important “Gotta cigarette, Man?”, Ricky and I flopped down on our rolled up sleeping bags and began our little journey into the head spin abyss. The last thing I remember is a voice saying, “So what are you pussies gonna do tonight?”
I woke up about 6:30 the next morning to the sound of heavy engines, the smell of stale vomit, and surrounded by cigarette butts. A lone figure stood over me, his outline enveloped by the breaking sunlight. Oh, God! It was Jesus. I’d overdosed on stagnant malt liquor, and Jesus had come to carry me to heaven! The figure raised his arms, and I waited for the soothing words that would ease my troubled soul and welcome me through the Pearly Gates.
“Get up kid… you’re in some deep shit.”
Hmmm. Not exactly what I had in mind. But who was I to argue with Christ?
“Come with me, boy.”
Slowly, things were coming into focus, and as I reached out to touch the hem of Christ’s robe I noticed that he was wearing black, shiny combat boots with white laces. Peering through bloodshot eyes, I sluggishly raised my head to discover that either Jesus had enlisted, or there’d been a military takeover in Heaven. Either way, I was indeed in deep shit.
Everyone else was gone. All that was left of Ricky was one tennis shoe. I followed officer Jesus through the bushes and around the corner to the front of the house, to find a small crowd gathered around a fire truck. A long hose was stretched from the truck, down the street, and into the front door of the house next door. Must have been a fire while I was asleep. Funny, I hadn’t heard any alarms or smelled any smoke. “Did they put it out in time?” I asked.
The MP never even looked at me. “They’re not pumping water in, kid, they’re pumping water out. Guess you and your buddies had a good of time last night, huh? Yeah, sticking that garden hose in the mail slot of the front door and letting the water run all night was real fun, huh kid? Hope you’re still laughing when your old man gets a hold of you.”
“Yeah, but is right, kid. That’s what your old man’s gonna kick after I drag your happy ass home. Sure hope y’all can afford to live on less money, ’cause the military doesn’t take kindly to dependents flooding an Officer’s house. Probably gonna cost your old man a rank or two.”
A rank or two? A rank or two! Deep shit was an understatement.
I pleaded my case all the way home in the police jeep, “I didn’t do it!”, all the way up the walkway, “What do you think, I’m crazy?”, up to the moment my Dad opened the front door. “It was some other guys!”
My Dad stood in the front doorway. “Thanks. I’ll take it from here,” was all he said. I used to hate it when my parents stood in the doorway and made me slither past them to get into the room. I just waited for the hand up the backside of my head …their little way of helping me inside. But Dad didn’t do anything and, for the longest time, didn’t say anything.
“Dad, I didn’t flood that house, I swear! Ricky and I were on our way back from buying some cigarettes…”
“Uh…yeah, and we ran into these guys who had some Jack Daniels…”
“Uh…yeah. And they came back to camp with us and Ricky and I passed out…”
“Uh huh… and that’s the last thing I remember. But I know I didn’t have anything to do with that house being flooded.”
Finally, following a lengthy, parental, thoughtful pause, the old man spoke. “Ok, Michael, we’ll see.”
We’ll see? The worst possible scenario. Now I had to live in limbo until it was all sorted out. It occurred to me to pray, but the thought of Officer Jesus was still fresh in my mind, so I opted just to go to bed and wait it out.
The next few days were the longest of my life. The Military Police came by that afternoon to hear my story, and attempted to get me to rat out my friends. Having passed out prior to the actual deed, I was really very little use to their case, and knowing this I held out for a good, oh, fifteen minutes before breaking down and giving them the name of every kid I’d ever known. Mom was going bananas. The “incident” was the talk of base housing, and she just knew everyone was thinking ill of her. I was restricted for life without parole.
On Monday, my Dad was summoned to the Base Commander’s office. While I never did hear what was actually said, I’m still alive, so I assume they believed my story.
What I mostly remember from the whole experience are the calm words of wisdom my Dad shared with me upon his return. “If you ever do that again, Michael, I’ll break both your arms.”
Both my arms. Couldn’t argue with that.