“Did you ever see a zip gun?” Calvin asked, looking up coyly from his wheelchair.
Zip gun? I thought. Where would I ever see a zip gun? I'd never even seen a real pistol, except for Uncle Wilbur' two antiques. Rifles, sure; we did target shooting at the “Y”. Zip guns? Hoods had zip guns.
An August morning in North Jersey near the Great Swamp, a hot-house in high summer. Katydids droned in the motionless air. The previous year, before the arrival of Saulk's vaccine, polio had swept the neighborhood, quarantining us into the boredom of our own houses. We made up for this summer it by being gone from our homes for as much of the day as we could. Calvin's house became our primary refuge.
Located on Deerlake Road, just outside the Elmwood Forest development in which the rest of us lived, his place had a basement, unlike our houses, all cookie-cutter split-levels with crawlspaces. It also had Mrs. Cottingham, Calvin's mother. Mrs. C. was very pretty and very built and all summer long mostly lounged around their backyard in a two-piece bathing suit, reading books and drinking iced tea.
Calvin was the smartest of us even though he got left back in the sixth grade. That was because he just stopped working, he said. He hated school, he said. Out parents said it was because being in a wheelchair made him feel self-conscious and he probably just didn't want to have to go at all. He aced math and science without studying. The rest of us had to coach him before tests about Old Yeller or the history of New Jersey, stuff he didn't even pretend to care about. We did this because there was always a payoff, something he would do that would redeem him, return him to our pantheon of flawed deities.
He was the only kid we knew who ever went a psychologist. It must have worked because by eighth grade he was back with us. We were now getting ready to go to high school and were all freaked out about it, although it was unimaginable anybody would admit it.
When I got down to the basement that morning, after checking out Mrs. C. on the lounge chair (“Hi, Mrs. C,” “Hi, Davy. Calvin's downstairs” –her inevitable greeting, though it would never occur to any of us that he would be anywhere else), Calvin was at the workbench his contractor father had build that came to about knee level on the rest of us.
We were twelve, thirteen. Calvin was our leader, a tyrant, a mythic figure with a congenital spinal condition, to whom we were willing to give over direction for our lives, at least the part of our lives happening during those summer hours, before we headed back into the folds of our own families by dinner time.
Calvin wanted not simply to be a part of us, a regular kid, because he had no idea how to be a regular kid. He wanted our attention. In this, he believed he had to compete with his mother who, he assumed, was the real reason that we came to his house.
“Why would you want to hang out with a cripple?” he would ask. “I know you just come over here hoping to catch a little boob.” Calvin talked about his mother and himself unlike any of the rest of us could imagine doing. Cripple? Boob? Our own mothers didn't have boobs. They had bosoms. Of course, he was right. His mother had boobs.
“A zip gun,” I repeated, feeling foolish, too easily impressed, too eager for him to think I thought it was outrageous. And cool. The coolest thing I'd ever known anybody to have. Cooler than Ricky Culbertson's Go Cart. Cooler than Mike Albert's dirty pictures.
Charlie Manning had shown Calvin how to make it out of pipe and rubber bands. Charlie had learned from a cousin from Chicago. Charlie wanted to be a hood, wore his hair greased back in a ducktail and said the “F” word a lot and always wore blue jeans, even on the hottest days of August, and white t-shirts with a pack of Luckies rolled up in a sleeve. He hung around with girls about whom there were rumors. I wanted to be like Charlie. The closest I got was turning up my shirt collars and slicking back the hair along the sides of my flat top.
“What are you going to do with a zip gun?” I asked.
“Self-defense,” he announced. “You don't know what it's like rolling around in this thing, a prisoner, not being able to move where and when you want. I have to be prepared in case some asshole tries to take advantage of the crippled kid.”
That summer we took almost daily refuge in the basement, where we could throw darts, which Calvin would predictably win, or shoot pool, which just pissed him off because he couldn't reach the table. This subterranean retreat was also where we read Peyton Place, which Calvin had gotten from Charlie. Kept in a small lock-box, taking it out was a sacred rite, removing it and re-reading the “good” places, dog-eared from being perused daily for a month.
“We need matches,” Calvin announced after we'd been duly impressed by the hand weapon. I offered to go upstairs to find some.
“I mean a lot. We're going to have to go into town. Stay for lunch and we'll go,” a command more than an invitation. When Mrs. C. brought lunch down into our lair, bologna and American cheese on white bread with the crusts trimmed off, Wise potato chips, Kool Aid, and Pecan Sandies for dessert, Calvin told her we were going to town for “for a soda.” Since the soda had never been discussed, we knew that our real mission was clandestine, that whatever the matches were for was not a matter for parental involvement. As he rolled himself out the garage door, he mother said, “Take turns pushing Calvin, will you. I know he wants to do it himself, but by the time you get back, he'll be exhausted and a bear to live with.” We sympathized, thinking of those times we were moved to dump him out onto the ground and leave him and then feeling guilty for thinking about it. We also knew it would be a constant battle to get him to let someone help. “What d'ya think I am, some kind of cripple?” he would say, and what could you say back?
Town was a three-mile walk and, although it was deep summer, in the ninieties with himidity to match, what was generally referred to as sweltering, it was never unbearable when we were going somewhere, when we were on a mission. On the way we entertained ourselves by breaking off cattails that grew in the drainage ditches along the road, ditches that in winter served as bunkers from which bombardments of snowballs could be unleashed at unsuspecting vehicles. The cattails became weapons we used on each other, something you could whack somebody with and not cause a wound. It was best when they had ripened and would break open, spilling their white, fluffy seeds in the air, and into the hair of an adversary.
Our shopping list included four boxes of paper matches and a box of fake cherry bombs. The latter were necessitated because fireworks were illegal in New Jersey and only imitations were available in stores. I had never understood why anyone would ever both with 'dummies'; they just fizzled like sparklers. We were talking, the others of us, about how stupid they were, when Calvin announced we only wanted the fuses anyway, but you couldn't buy just fuses anywhere, and, “Quit talking behind my back; just because I can't walk doesn't mean I can't hear.”
Having let it out that we were buying fuses along with matches, we annoyed Calvin until he explained what was going on. He loved the power of secrets. On the other hand, we could also be insufferably irritating at times in order to get our way.
“What we do,” he explained while we walked together like drones around a queen bee, “is crimp one end of a foot length of copper tubing, then cut off the heads of the matches …”
It slowly dawned on us what we were doing.
We made a surreptitious entry into the basement on our return. Mrs. C never checked on us down there except to ask if we wanted food, like we were some kind of pets in a big cage, with sustenance made available to us at regular intervals, harmless creatures.
Our mood turned conspiratorial. We were about to cross some divide, to leave behind parts of us that could be quieted with a sweet goodnight kiss, moving into things that no excuse could explain away; a move beyond innocence.
We were about to make a bomb.
We set about cutting the heads off the paper matches. The end of the copper tube was crimped, a hole drilled for the fuse. After the fuse went in, Calvin directed us stuffing the match heads, making sure they were snug but not so tight that they would self-ignite. We held our collective breath as a bolt was turned slowly in the other end, taking care that it didn't crush the matches.
Although Calvin wanted to make another one right away. The rest of us, once reluctant munitions makers, were now caught up in anarchic romance.
Art Desmond's parents owned property across Deerlake Road with an archery range in back. We traipsed across the street, working hard at appearing nonchalant, hoping we wouldn't be spotted by Art's parents who would wonder what we were up to. The hay bales on which paper targets hung limp in the stodgy August air would be our bunker. The bomb was set on an old crate, fifty feet away. When everybody except me was crouched in safety, I took out a pack of matches, lit one, then the fuse and ran like hell until I reached the hay bales, jumping for safety as, simultaneously, an explosion sounded and an object whizzed past my head, the bolt having been transformed into a missile, missing my scalp by inches.
After a moment of stunned silence, we began jumping and shouting until Art could shut us up. We hurried stealthily out of the area and across the street into the safety of the basement, exhausted from the adrenaline hangover, the rush of having committed and gotten away with this outlaw act.
It was late afternoon. We were done for the day. We left Calvin and Mrs C and the basement, returning to our own homes to eat, play a quick ball game in the street, watch some TV after darkness fell.
The bomb squad reconverged the following morning. Art announced his folks had asked if he knew what the explosion was that they heard. He feigned ignorance but we'd have to find another testing ground. We made two more bombs that morning and took them out to a derelict orchard beyond the woods. Calvin hated the woods, the uneven terrain made it hard to maneuver the wheelchair, but he couldn't provide a better alternative.
When we told Mrs. C that we were going off to the woods, she packed a picnic lunch. We hid the contraband in the basket. It took only a few minutes to find a detonation site, an old stump standing waist high at the edge of the orchard. Having learned from our previous outing, we were careful that the tubing was turned so that the bolt was aimed away from where we'd be hiding. We positioned Calvin behind a tree and each found protection for ourselves except for Bobby, the new demolition man. He lit the fuse and ran for cover. The explosion sounded louder that the first one. There was a crash in the distance, from the direction of a nearby swim club.
Someone yelled, “Oh, shit!” and we quickly packed up the lunch. About twenty yards along our escape route, a wheel of the chair dropped into a hole, pitching Calvin unceremoniously to the ground, from where he let loose a string of obscenities. While we were getting him upright, a voice bellowed from among the trees. “STOP!” Turning to the direction of the command, we saw two Doberman Pincers standing on hind legs, stretching seven feet into the air, making no sounds but heavy breathing, drool running out the sides of their mouths. The man holding their leads hollered, “What the hell you boys doin'?”
“Having a picnic, sir,” Art managed to say.
“And smashin' windows, I'd say,” the man added.
The headline in the Town section of the Morristown paper the next day read, “BOY ACCUSED IN BOMB INCIDENT.” We had to meet with the school guidance counselors to try to determine how it was that nice boys from nice homes had suddenly turned violent. What were we so angry about? When my mind functioned properly between bouts of panic and shame, I understood that they were confusing stupidity with something more sinister. We had to pay for the windows to be replaced at the club and for Calvin's dad's copper tubing, taking all my savings and lawn mowing money. Worse, none of us would get to go to Calvin's for the rest of the summer.
As if in retribution for our sin, the summer grew hotter and more humid. I wasn't allowed to go to the town pool, but I heard Bobby was going which didn't seem fair. I lay around in the heat, reading Fu Man Chu mysteries from the library, the one cool place I had permission to frequent.
By the time school began again in September, we had become legends. We didn't try to dispel the notion that we had been on the road to becoming outlaws, thwarted only by an overturned wheelchair. Over the fall months, our true personae reappeared, passable to good students, soccer players and cross country runners, band members. Calvin kept seeing a counselor to help him deal with rage about his condition.
In many ways, we seemed no different than we had been he previous year although there was a certain something, a way we held ourselves, the idea that we were in on something.
A few years later, a late-night radio host who monologized over the air at midnight or so about the awkwardness of growing up, ended his show saying, “That's it. That's it!”
I knew what he meant.