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The alley was our world. For the entire summer we played and fought and made all kinds of discoveries right there in the alley behind our houses. My best friends lived at 4052 Delmar, and I lived at 4038. Joseph Whitfield was my best friend, and we called him Gooley. His brother Cecil was my nemesis, and we fought constantly. Their cousin Ronnie lived in the same building at 4052 and was also a part of our group. I guess one could say we were a modern day Little Rascals. The year was 1950.
I don’t remember when the Whitfield family moved down the block from us. I just remember that we became fast friends. It was as if I had known them all my life. We went to school together and played together as far back as I could remember.
Summer was especially fun for our gang. We often went to the playground that the school provided, and took part in activities our parents provided for us, such as picnics, swimming, and camping. But mostly we were left to our own devices.
Early on, starting around seven or eight years old, we played cowboys and Indians. Even when we weren’t playing cowboys, we rode our horses everywhere. Our horses were discarded mops with rope tied around the top for a bridle and the braiding on the head of the mop acting as the horse’s mane. So complete was this fantasy that at evening’s end, we would ride our horses home, tie them to the back porch, remount the next morning and continue with the new day’s activities, never leaving the saddle.
By the time we were ten or eleven, our interests had shifted to more mature things. We would sometimes find a garage heaped with junk and, without asking permission, go in and clean it out, thus claiming it for our club house. This didn’t sit well with the owners, and we would always get evicted. We would then try to put it back the way it was, but in spite of our best efforts to trash it, it remained a clean garage filled with trash.
Some of our more ambitious projects included building skateboards and go-carts. The skateboards were easy to construct, using one 2x4, about three feet long, with roller skates attached to the front and back. Then we attached another 2x4, or a box, (usually a wooden crate) to the front, like an “L” shape, with a cut off broom affixed at the top to serve as a handle bar.
The go-cart was more complicated. We would spend hours building and working on our go-carts. They were truly a group project. Shortly after we started building them, a new member joined our group. Bo and his mother had moved into our neighborhood sometime during our industrious period. He was a whiz at building go-carts; our go-carts become so sophisticated that they rivaled any in the area. We would race groups from other alleys. First we’d find a suitable hill, one with a smooth surface; then we’d give the cart a running push, and the race was on. Our carts were built with precision. We always won.
One day while we were working in Gooley’s backyard on one of our go-carts, a stranger came into the alley. None of us recognized him, and there was something sinister about his swagger that made us a little uneasy. He was around our age, maybe a year older, but he appeared to be much older. Maybe it was his demeanor; he had a tough guy look that gave him an instant advantage.
We didn’t invite him to join us, but he did nevertheless. Before long he had taken over, and no one objected to the intrusion. His name was Harold, and for the next three weeks he came down to our alley and dictated, like Hitler and his army invading Poland. We were all afraid of him, but no one would admit it. When he would leave, we talked about him taking over and the fact that we did not like it, but no one would challenge him. Unlike Hitler, who had firepower, Harold’s only weapon was our fear.
One Saturday morning my grandmother called me in from playing to go to the hardware store. “Here boy,” she said as she gave me five dollars, “put this in your pocket so you won’t lose it.” She also handed me a note with the measurements for the curtain rod she wanted. “Give this note to the man at the hardware store, and put my change with the receipt in your pocket. Don’t come back here without my change, you make sure you put it in your pocket.”
As I started back down the alley toward the hardware store, I saw Gooley, and asked him to come with me. As we cut across the vacant lot, we saw none other than HAROLD! Never knowing what his demands would be, we kept walking until he had caught up to us.
“Were ya’ll going?” Harold said. It was more a demand than a question.
“To the hardware store for David’s grandmother,” Joe blurted out.
Emboldened by our apparent fear, Harold directed his attention to me. “How much money did your grandmother give you for the hardware store?”
Before I realized it, I blurted out, “Five dollars.” I knew, as soon as I said it, that I’d made a mistake Instinctively I put my hand in my pocket where the five dollars was, and balled it up in my fist.
“Hand it over,” Harold said as he reached for the give-away hand. I stepped back, and he tried again. “I said hand it over.” This time he put all of his bullying power behind the words, grabbed my arm around the wrist, and attempted to pull my hand from my pocket.
The next thing I knew my free hand came out of nowhere and hit him upside the head with a startling blow. It was such a shock to him, and me, that we both just stood there for a couple of seconds. Then I saw it. The fear on his face revealed that he was no longer in control.
By now a crowd had gathered, and the next thing I knew, I had a cheering section. “Hit him again, David,” came the demands from the onlookers. I pushed him as hard as I could, and then pushed him again. At that point Gooley joined the melee and hit him. The next thing we knew, Harold turned and ran out of the alley, looking back and shouting idle threats as he went. “I’m going to bring my brothers back, and we’re going to kick ya’ll’s asses.” He never stopped running, and he never came back.