The Night Watchman

owl 3

To the islanders, he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble – that I ever encountered.

(Author Herman Melville, writing about meeting Essex whaleship captain George Pollard, who ended his days as a night watchman on the island of Nantucket)

______________

As a teenager, I attended a boys’ boarding school for three years. It was a unique experience, as if 19th-century England had been transplanted to western Pennsylvania, and I could probably fill a book with all the craziness that went down there. But since I only have a small space here, I’ll share just one memorable episode that occurred my junior year.

Like every school, there were a bunch of auxiliary personnel that made the place function: maintenance, administration, food service, etc. For example, during my sophomore year in Clark Hall, there was a maintenance man named “Putt.” He was Native-American, and all the students loved him. I think he got his name because he was always “puttering around.” I remember he had an ongoing feud with the dorm master of Clark, Mr. Stokes. Putt called him “Stoke.” We never found out what the feud was about, but you couldn’t talk with Putt without him eventually bringing up “That damn Stoke.”

There were also the fieldhouse towel guys, Lyle and Howard. I’m sure they had other duties, but it seemed like their only role was to hand out clean athletic towels. Howard must’ve been in his 60s. He had a real soft voice, and he was one of these folks who can’t let go of a conversation. He’d go on and on, and you had to literally start walking away saying “Well, Howard, it’s been nice talking to you.” And he’d still be droning on when you were ten feet away.

But there was one person at that school that I don’t think anybody knew about other than me: the night watchman.

During my junior year, I had a bout of insomnia (it may have had to do with chemistry class). I remember lying awake one night, staring at the wood-paneled wall at 3 a.m., and hearing the downstairs door close. Then listening to footsteps on the stairs, and along the creaky hallway outside my door. Then up the opposite stairs to the third floor, then down, then out the door.

As far as I knew, everybody else was asleep. And this mysterious, nocturnal interloper somehow riveted me. Who the heck was he?

On the following night, at 3 a.m. precisely, I again heard the sounds. This time, I got up, opened the door a crack, peeked into the dimly lit hallway, and waited. As the steps became louder, I saw a yellow glow bouncing around the hallway walls, and heard a jangling sound. Eventually, strolling slowly down the middle of the hall, a man came into view. He looked like an oversized troll. He was short, bowlegged, mustached, and he wore a gigantic ring of keys on his waist and carried a monstrous flashlight. He looked somewhat like that Super Mario cartoon character, except he also wore glasses with really thick lenses.

I pulled my head back so he wouldn’t see me. Then I listened to the fading steps, and the door shutting as he left the dorm. I eventually fell asleep. But the following day, I saw the headmaster’s son and asked him about this strange apparition:moon_flashlight

“Oh yeah, that’s ____. He’s the night watchman.”

I asked him where ____ lived.

“He lives on the edge of the golf course. But nobody ever sees him. The school cuts him a paycheck every few weeks, and he picks it up on his nightly rounds.”

This fascinated me. Particularly when I realized there were no houses on the edge of the golf course. It was nothing but woods.

Later that day – instead of studying chemistry – I headed over to the golf course. I walked all along the line where the fairway hugged the woods. No houses… nothing. Then I saw a pathway that I’d never noticed before. It headed into the shadowy woods. Curious, I followed it.

After about a quarter-mile or so, I came to a building. I can’t really call it a “house.” It looked like it was made of cinder blocks, with a flat roof, and it had dark green moss and vines growing all over it. All the windows had closed drapes. No sign of life, and no sounds, other than a few birds chirping. Feeling a little creeped out, alone in the woods near this spooky building, I left.

Wow. This guy was Boo Radley and Bilbo Baggins rolled into one! As is typical with me, my mind started doing cartwheels. “Maybe I should visit him some time, as he’s probably really lonely.” Then a couple seconds later, “Better not, he could be a serial killer. I don’t wanna end up buried under his vegetable garden.” Those kind of thoughts.

I decided to compromise. So, during my next night of insomnia, I left him an unsolicited token. After everyone else was asleep, I placed a Three Musketeers candy bar on the edge of the hallway (I figured a white wrapper would help my new friend notice it better). Then I waited.

At 3 a.m. sharp, I heard the door, the steps, then saw the flashlight beam. Then he came into view. As I peeked through the door crack, I watched in anticipation as he approached the candy bar. When his flashlight beam landed on the bar, he stopped. Probably for a full ten seconds. Although I’m no mind reader, I can guess what he was thinking:

“Should I pick it up? No, I’m a night watchman, not a trash collector. But it sure looks tasty! No, I’d better move on.” And he kept walking, as I pulled my head back from the door.

I was crestfallen. How could he not accept my gift?? It never occurred to me to step into the hallway and offer him the treat.

The foolishness of youth.

Well, it was the last time I did something like that, because later on during that sleepless night, I had a terrifying, and typically insomniac thought: what if he discovers I’m playing games like this and reports me to the headmaster? I couldn’t bear the idea of a confrontation:

“Peter, we’ve had some reports about you.”

“S-s-s-sorry, God.”

Not long after that night, my insomnia faded. And for the rest of my time in that school, I never heard nor saw my hermit friend again.

***

Like so many other things (such as chucking apples at cars… see previous post), I have regrets. Instead of playing games with candy bars, I should’ve just stepped into the hallway and introduced myself:

“Hi, my name’s Pete. I know you probably don’t get a lot of recognition, but we students really appreciate the work you’re doing, keeping us safe and all.”

And it’s quite possible he wasn’t the lonely hermit my imagination made him out to be. He may have led a very rich life, with family, friends, places he visited, and hobbies he enjoyed. Maybe it was just me who was lonely.

Wilson Hall

Advertisements

We Glorious Bastards (Part 2)

blue delinquent

Last time, Bill, Dan and I were cutting up newspaper to make confetti. We were preparing to “decorate” the Parks house on Devil’s Night, a Detroit tradition held on Halloween Eve. In addition to confetti, we had several rolls of toilet paper, a bar of soap, and some candle wax (more difficult to remove from glass).

The night arrived, and it so happened that Wally and Mrs. Parks weren’t home. Their house was dark, the moon was dim, our parents were busy drinking martinis, and we were feeling bold. Bill had several grocery bags of confetti, and he “let it snow” until the front and back yards were blanketed. Dan went to work on the windows with soap and wax. And I flung my toilet paper with abandon, upward toward the stars, over the treetops, until every tree was dripping with thin, white, paper banner.toilet paper

Before we left the house, I added one final, personal touch. I transplanted their mailbox from the end of the driveway to the bushes by the front door. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I know it wasn’t so Wally could retrieve his mail easier.

Well, I slept like a baby that night. We’d done a good night’s work. Instead of “White Christmas,” the Parks property looked like “White Halloween.” We’d played our tricks, and tomorrow came the treats. But, as any addict will tell you: the higher the high, the lower the low.

Bill told me what happened the following day. Wally and his wife returned home about 2 or 3 a.m.   Wally must’ve had more than a few drinks. When he saw what we’d done to his house, he went nuts. “WHO THE HELL DID THIS TO MY HOUSE!!” he screamed, over and over, his voice echoing through the neighborhood. He was so relentless, one of the neighbors, tired of his yelling, called him a baby and told him to shut up.

Our parents instinctively knew it was Bill, Dan and me (the “Three Musketeers”). I don’t know if Dan’s parents ever confronted him, but Bill’s and mine made us go over, apologize, and clean up the mess. By then, Wally had calmed down (and sobered up). He was actually very nice. “Aw, don’t worry boys, I did that stuff when I was your age, too.” After which Mrs. Parks, smoking a cigarette in the kitchen, chimed in “And you probably did a helluva lot worse, Wally.” We felt another argument brewing.mailbox

It took us almost all Halloween day, but Bill and I cleaned the entire property. I never determined what Dan’s excuse was for not showing up. But Bill was livid with him, saying he always managed to slither out of things. I’m not sure he’s ever forgiven Dan.

***

My last wave of delinquency occurred after we moved back to northern Ohio. Again, I was fortunate to have a bunch of adventuresome boys to play with: Kelly, who lived across the street; brothers Joe and Dave, a few doors down from him; and Jerry, Kurt, and Dickie, who lived in a dilapidated farmhouse on the outskirts of the neighborhood.

Dickie was funny. He had freckles and orange hair. And since he was the youngest, he got picked on a lot, especially by Joe. When he got really upset, he’d start screaming, and his face would turn as colorful as his hair. Which made Joe laugh even louder.

Their farmhouse was funny, too. It looked like a tornado had touched down inside. Dirty clothes and dishes everywhere, cat poop on the stairs, always dark, and the parents were never around.

It also had a huge apple tree in the back. Sometime around 1970, we formed a club, the Apple Chucking Gang (no, not “Apple Dumpling Gang”). We met periodically on weekend nights, after the sun went down, and worked on target practice. The targets were cars that sped along the road outside the house.

THUD… BAM… THWACK… The apples sounded like giant hailstones when they hit. Usually the cars kept going. Sometimes they slowed, but stopping was dangerous, since there was not much berm. Only once did someone jump out of his car and chase after us.apple

Fortunately, the farmhouse had a walk-in basement. When we heard the car door slam, and saw a shadow running toward us along the road, all five of us ran to the back of the house and into the dark basement, slammed the screen door, and cowered behind the moldy furniture. Dickie was slow, though, and the man saw him squeeze inside at the last minute.

“I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!!! YOU CAN’T HIDE FROM ME!!! COME ON OUT!!! I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!!!” he screamed over and over while pounding the screen door.

After numerous threats during what seemed like eternity, he finally left. But it scared us enough that we decided to retire the Apple Chucking Gang. About a year later, Kurt, who was in my homeroom, said something about “going chucking again,” but nothing ever came of it. Other than a few garden-variety pranks, like aiming hoses at front doors and placing firecrackers on windowsills, it was the end of my criminal career.

***

I hope no one interprets this two-part reminiscence as glorifying vandalism or delinquency. I’ll readily admit I did a lot of dumb things when I was younger, and I have many regrets.

But our only real crime was being young and energetic. Which is hardly criminal. We didn’t steal, destroy property, play with handguns, or do drugs. And, thank God, we didn’t have smartphones that gobbled up our childhoods. I feel sorry for young folks today. If only they knew what a world of adventure and excitement – and not necessarily prankster excitement – awaits them outside of those little screens they endlessly gaze into.

Today, I’m pretty sure my old partners in crime are ok. I haven’t heard much about little Dickie, though, so I’m not sure how he’s doing. He may be doing 5-10 at the Mansfield Reformatory, for all I know.

But I hope not.

We Glorious Bastards

blue delinquent

We turn into our neighborhood and make a right onto our street.  On the left side of the street is a large black Chevy.

“What’s that on the driver’s window?” I ask my wife.  “It’s too big for a bird dropping.”

Even before we pull into our garage, she’s already visited the Wethersfield Neighborhood page on Facebook.  The hot Facebook conversation concerns the Masked Egg Marauders who struck on Saturday night.  Seems while we were out of town, a bunch of juveniles decided to decorate all the cars on driveways and streets with smashed eggs.

I laughed.

“What’s so funny?” she said.  “I think it’s just terrible.  If I did something like that, and my father found out, I’d be grounded for six weeks.”

I kept silent.  Although she knows a smattering of my criminal past, she doesn’t know the half of it (unless she reads this).

***

When I was a boy, we didn’t have cable television, video games, internet or I-Phones.  If we wanted to have fun, we made it up ourselves.  We played neighborhood sports, had water balloon and dirt clod fights, played with G.I. Joe dolls, built go-carts, or ran naked in the woods imitating Tarzan.  Boys being boys, though, we occasionally ventured to The Dark Side.

I remember my first brush with delinquency.  It occurred one winter day while walking home from grammar school.  We lived in back of a high school, and some of the teenagers liked to rev their hot rods down our street after the afternoon bell rang.  One day, tired of throwing snowballs at trees, I decided to try a moving object.

Akermitlthough no Luis Tiant (he pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the mid-1960s), my first throw smashed into the side of this one high schooler’s car.  I was also no Lou Brock (he was a great baserunner for the St. Louis Cardinals), because the teen caught me before I ever reached the shelter of the woods.
I think my fear melted his anger, because he let me off with a warning (and I remember him grinning when he let go of my jacket).  Although coming dangerously close to being pummeled, I received such an adrenaline rush from this snowball incident, it was a matter of time before my criminal behavior escalated.  The stage was set.

In 1968, we moved from Ohio to a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.  Downtown Detroit had just undergone a series of civil rights riots.  We kids in the ‘burbs had our own version of rioting, called Devil’s Night, which occurred annually the night before Halloween.  Before I get to the infamous “Night of the Parks House,” however, allow me to touch on a couple other crimes:

Rubber Band Lunacy: It was much later when I took up the game of golf, but at 10 years old, I possessed intimate knowledge of the interiors of golf balls.  Some golf balls, just inside the hard outer shell, had yards and yards of thin rubber band wrapped around a hard, core rubber ball.  When unraveled, this rubber band had enough length to be stretched across a street and tied around two trees.  The band was virtually invisible… until you were right on top of it.golfball

Long story short, a lot of car brakes were slammed on Westbourne Drive during the summer of ’68.  This stunt lasted until, one day, a motorcycle came along.  Tucked inside my hiding place in the juniper bushes, I watched in horror as a leather-clad member of the local Heaven’s Devils gang “lay down” his bike after confronting my rubber band barrier, which he probably mistook to be a long, thin wire.  To this day, I don’t know if he saw me pop out from the bushes and skedaddle 15 blocks until I collapsed from exhaustion, since I never looked behind.  But this incident ended my rubber band period.  Instead, I shifted to less risky delinquency…

Bloody Bicycles: One day, at the end of a long session of “What do you wanna do?”  “I don’t know, what do you wanna do?,” Bill, Dan and I hatched a plan that involved our kid brothers.  We took their bicycles and placed them on their sides alongside the curb, their wheels skewed at different angles.  Then we positioned our brothers on the pavement near the bikes.  We used Heinz ketchup to resemble blood.

I think it was the fifth or sixth car before one finally stopped.  She was an elderly lady who got out and frantically inquired “Are you hurt??  Are you alright??”  It was probably the smell of ketchup, or maybe my brother Steve’s bad acting that assured her, yes, Steve was alright.  Although enjoyable, this foray into Hollywood lacked the despicable element that we so craved.  On Devil’s Night, 1968, however, we received our Master’s degrees in delinquency…ketchup

Night of the Parks House: Wally Parks and his wife had no children.  They were about 40 years old and lived in a ranch house directly across from ours.  I remember that Mrs. Parks had blonde hair, usually tied in a bun.  Wally was tall and athletic-looking, and according to my friend Bill, had a propensity for alcohol.  Very nice people, but very private.  And once in a while, they argued.  Loudly.  Bill, Dan and I used to sneak up to their bushes and listen to them fight.  One time, Wally angrily flew out the front door with his tie flapping, and he hopped in his car and zoomed down the street.  “Probably headed to the bar,” said Bill.

It wasn’t my idea to target their house.  But one day, after my monthly allergy shot, I rang Dan’s doorbell, and he led me down to his basement.  Bill was there.  They were cutting up piles of old newspaper, and they were totally absorbed in the task.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“We’re making confetti,” said Bill, as he clipped away.  “We’re gonna get Parks’s house on Devil’s Night.”

***

(End of Part One.  If you want to find out what happened on Devil’s Night, please check back in a couple weeks.  And like my blogging buddy Neil says, if you like what you read here, don’t be shy about clicking “Like” or “Follow”)