Before my days of Manhole Cover Tiddlywinks, I was, for the most part, a calm and collected child. I busied myself with normal tot sort of things; building with legos, playing tag with kids on the street (always having to come in at sundown, smelling like a wet goat sometimes), climbing around on my friend's splinter-infested jungle gym in his backyard, and imagining I was any one of a million people I kept inside my head whenever I got bored with being me.
There were two things which always stuck out more than anything else, though. The first one was riding my Big Wheel.
If you've seen the film ``The Shining,'' you'll remember the Big Wheel as what that little kid was riding around the hotel like a maniac. A Big Wheel was a real sit-down get-into kind of vehicle, almost like a cross between a car and and tricycle. It had a seat-back that you could move forward and back to accommodate the puniest wimp to the biggest galoot around. The whole thing was made out of injection-molded plastic. It had two smallish wheels in the back and one big wheel in the front, hence the name. This big wheel was about the size of a large pizza. On it were a set of pedals, the only things that were metal on the entire vehicle. The front wheel was attached to a fork on the main body and was steered via a large set of handlebars, which often had strips of colored plastic flying out the ends as a decoration and wind gauge so you knew how close to Mach 1 you were going. If your hands and wrists were bleeding, you were getting real close.
The best part of the Big Wheel was the noise it made when you were tearing around on it. It was like empty skulls being crushed by bulldozer treads. I kid you not. Irritating to parents and teenagers alike, but music to us kids. Back then I wondered what was the provocation for that horrible event. Now I know why Jack went insane in The Shining. How clearly I see now...
The other activity which I took great interest in was staying out of my older brother's way. Being my senior by five years, the interest involved was purely for my well-being. Many a time I'd gotten in his way and suddenly became the Incredible Flying 5-year old (how do you think I know what crushed skulls sound like?). It added of bit of flavor to an otherwise perfectly fine childhood.
So the scene is set for that stage of my life, where there were only absolute evils and simple answers (most of the time). So also sets the end of the tranquil prologue of my life, before my imminent coming of age. The calm before the storm.
Next to my house, for as long as I could remember, was the old Russell School, a very large brick institution which had been in disuse for longer than I had been alive. Condemned and taking up real estate space, it was eventually torn down by the city. I used to come home from nursery school and watch the huge wrecking ball swing and knock down enormous portions of the building's walls. I remember when the roof collapsed, and fifteen years worth of lost tennis balls fell to the ground below.
And after the enormous edifice had finally tumbled to the ground and all the rubble was almost completely cleared away, there was a barren wasteland of broken masonry and uneven ground, and suddenly there was a new place to play.
Our parents preferred it only slightly to the streets where we usually played; the field of shattered building material presented about as much danger as the neighborhood roadways. But who cared? Not us. It was a perfect Mars landscape, or a post-Apocalyptic North American setting (we had violent, vivid imaginations as kids). But we never brought our Big Wheels in there. No sir, we cherished our vehicles too much to risk driving on that rough, uncaring terrain. And I believe this became evident to all our older siblings. Thus sets the scene for the Darkest Day in the history of Larch Road.
There were about fifteen families in the Larch Road area with sets of older and younger siblings. And the youngers all had Big Wheels. We were all pals; little whiny Scott, who couldn't speak below 30,000 Hz; Leisha, whose last name I could never remember; Ben, the biggest kid in the neighborhood; Lee, the most aesthetically intuitive kid on the block; and all the rest.
One Saturday morning I woke up like I did any normal Saturday morning. I would get out of bed and wander around the house in my pajamas until my mother asked me what I wanted for breakfast. I would invariably say ``Pancakes,'' because, as a 5-year-old, that's all you really needed: it was sugar and starch (i.e. sugar and more sugar).
After breakfast (which would involve me politely turning down an offer of eggs) I would usually sit down with a bag of Legos in front of the T.V. and watch cartoons until my mother told me it was too nice a day to be doing that (i.e. 11:00 am). This Saturday was no different than any other.
However, things began to change as soon as I started getting dressed. Suddenly, I started to hear the familiar sound of several Big Wheels being driven around outside the house, and the shouts of people having fun. I hurriedly finished getting dressed, thinking I was missing out on some Big Wheel racing rally. I wanted to be in on the fun too.
But as I ran out of my room, I heard a noise I recognized as clearly as one can recognize their name being called amongst a backdrop of noise. I heard the distinct sound of my own Big Wheel being driven around.
Frantic, it suddenly struck me that my brother hadn't yelled at me yet that day. Then I really noticed what direction the sound was coming from: The Wasteland next door. The realization of what was going on felt like someone stuffing a five pound block of ice down my throat, jamming it sideways into my heart, and asking: ``Cold enuff for ya?'' I ran to the front door and threw it open, revealing the worst of my fears.
Out in the street in front of the wasteland there were fifteen Big Wheels being driven around by fifteen older siblings. Unable to fit behind the plastic adjustable seats, they had ripped off the backrests and were riding the Big Wheels like scooters; one foot on the chasis, the other foot pushing from behind. I could see the axles bending more than they were ever designed to, the poor plastic body turning white in certain spots and buckling from extreme stress. They wouldn't last much longer.
These terrorists were riding in what was seemingly a random pattern, though staying mostly lined up parallel to the sidewalk, like a fleet of sailboats tacking in front of a starting line, waiting for the whistle to start a race.
My normal reaction to this type of injustice would be to scream at the top of my voice for my mother to come yell at my brother. But this was not one of those times. This was personal.
I ran onto the sidewalk, yelling at my brother to get off my Big Wheel or he was going to ``get it'' via Mom. No sooner had I made my presence known than he broke off from his pack and tore down at me on my own vehicle, screaming at me to clear out or I was going to ``get it'' via my own Big Wheel.
I yelped and dove for cover on the sidewalk as he ripped by, executing a tight turn that caused one of the pedals to scrape against the street top.
Dazed, I looked around for any other of my pals. I saw Leisha a few houses down, his face pale. I ran over to him.
``Leisha!'' I screamed, pointing at the massacre. ``Aaaaaagh! ... Deh... They...'' I couldn't put it into words. But he understood me anyway. He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me.
``Hani!'' he screamed, ``Get ammo!'' He ran around under his porch and pulled out two milk crates filled with old roofed tennis balls from the destruction of the old school.
I immediately knew what to do. My brother had also collected a large amount of this treasure when the school was torn down, and I knew exactly where he had them. I ran back into my house and into my brother's room.
Had I been older, I would have been able to appreciate the irony that was dripping from this method of attack. But I was young, and had about half a pound of sugar running through my system.
I found the brown paper bag my brother kept all his tennis balls in and ran back outside. When I got out, I saw that we had added Lee to our ranks, and seeing as he had gotten a bike with training wheels for christmas, he was the closest thing to a fast attack vehicle we had. We began to try to coordinate our forces, but tacticians we were not, so we ended up just deciding to run over and start lobbing the tennis balls.
It was at that point that the race began.
Fifteen Big Wheels, with 120+ lb loads on them, jumped the curb onto the sidewalk and began carreening around the broken wasteland within. Pushing the poor machines past all limits of tolerance, the terrorists laughed and screamed whoops of victory over their younger siblings, reveling in the destruction of all that was dear to them (except their Legos). We could see bits of plastic flying off our wonderful vehicles, beyond all possibility of being repaired.
And at almost the same time, the front door to Ben's house flew open with a crash. Bill Cosby's neighborhood had Fat Albert. We had Ben Breaubeater. Ben was not a fat child, just big. He just about compared with the rest of our older siblings, and he was the best weapon we could possibly have.
He looked out to the wasteland, saw what was happening, and said in a normal tone ``Well? What are you waiting for?'' That was all the motivation we needed. We looked at each other, and attacked.
Looking back on it, I can't say now that they didn't expect a kind of mass retaliation, but they certainly didn't expect what Ben was planning. While we were doing our best to run around pegging our older siblings with tennis balls, Ben was gathering all his ammo into a garbage bag and cutting slits in the bottom.
Lee made pass after high speed pass on his bike launching handfuls of tennis balls at the perpetrators, Leisha hit tennis balls with his bat, trying to get good enough aim, and I just threw or kicked them. None of us was doing much at all. Then Ben arrived on the scene.
Without a word, he sprinted into the wasteland, clutching the huge bags of tennis balls to his chest like a child he was protecting. There were cries of ``Get Him!'' and ``Run 'im Down!'' from all sides, and we were sure that he had had it. But Ben managed to dodge all attempts on his life, leaping and bounding gracefully from one pile of broken masonry to another. It was incredible to watch, like high speed ballet. He was evidently running toward a pile of plaster fragments that our siblings were driving around. He mounted it just as Scott's older brother plowed into it at full speed. A cloud of white plaster dust exploded all over the two of them, but Ben was still standing. Scott's brother was trying to remove the large plastic Big Wheel handlebars bent around his groin area. I didn't see how bad the damage was, but didn't really want to either.
Ben was now in the position of power, three feet higher than anyone else because of the pile of plaster. The pack of terrorists began circling closer, closing in for the kill. And that's when Ben began swinging the garbage bag around his head as fast as he could.
From my relatively safe distance, I suddenly got the impression of a large popcorn machine. The tennis balls were flying out of the slits in the garbage bag at an incredible speed. They were bouncing off older sibling right and left as if being fired out of a tennis practice ball launcher. Some flew as far as fifty feet after ricocheting off the skull of one of our kin. Cries of pain and anger rose like pillars of smoke from an effigial burning, filling the air and our souls. For that brief moment, watching Ben up there swinging his garbage bag around like there was no tomorrow (which was a decent assumption to make for some of us at this point), keeping fourteen mortal enemies at bay single-handedly with old tennis balls (Scott's brother was still hurtin' pretty badly) made me feel like I could... well, do just about anything. And I knew for sure that Ben felt that way too.
Until he ran out of tennis balls and the fourteen terrorists mauled him.
I'll never forget that day, the pure rage I felt, and the utter elation at watching Ben stand his ground for us in the wasteland.
There wasn't a whole lot left of our Big Wheels after that. The older siblings got yelled at a good deal, but as that and the joy of Ben's short-lived victory wore off, the bitterness of the inhuman act remained. I vowed that day never to do anything for my brother ever again, for as long as I lived. And I haven't, except for taking a urine test for him once.