People often ask me how I evolved into such an anti-establishment character and I explain it all happened in the 5th Grade. I’d moved around a lot, from Boston to Cambridge, England, to Munich, Germany, back to central Illinois, where I was born. So when I entered 4th Grade at Yankee Ridge I was bilingual and spoke German with a perfect Bavarian accent. It was hard making friends with all those changes. But it got even harder the next year because I was moved to Leal School when my Dad bought a Tudor-style brick house on Delaware Street.
Leal was very different from upscale Yankee Ridge, much more working-class. Phillip Patton (sitting next to me in the center of the front row above) had a little gang he started with three of his buddies. I sat behind Phil and he tried to recruit me. West Side Story had recently come to the Princess Theater and that movie deeply affected me. I understood instinctively that forming a gang was a noble quest, but instead of joining up with Phil, I decided to create my own. Andy Miller (top row, second from right) was my initial co-conspirator in this mission, and all the early meetings were held at his house. I must have pulled the rest from another class. There were about six of us to start. I do remember Eric Steffenson (who would die tragically young) was one of us. And, of course, Bugsy, who lived near Andy and would become the central figure in my early creative writing.
For some bizarre reason, I named us “The Roaring 21 Club” and we had a secret sign, which was a perpendicular line with two horizontal bars. Maybe it was a take-off on a Christian cross since I was still a Lutheran at the time, attending Sunday school every week. When a big snowfall hit town, I challenged Phil and his gang to a snowball fight in Carle Park. Unbeknownst to Phil, however, right after he accepted this challenge, I went around school recruiting about 30 extra members for my group, most of whom came from lower classes. I quickly gathered them all in the pavilion on the east side of the park and taught them the secret sign so they would be official members. At the appointed hour, Andy and I stood in the center of the park with three or four others, while the rest hid in the bushes around the perimeter.
Before long, Phil and his gang came screaming into the park with gobs of snowballs in their arms. When they got close, however, I gave the signal and everybody came running in, surrounding them, pelting them with snowballs. They valiantly tried to make a fight of it, forming a circle with their backs together, but it quickly evolved into a remake of Custer’s Last Stand, so they took off running towards Dennis Seth’s house, which was their nearest refuge.
We followed, raining snowballs on their backs. When we got to the house, we pelted it with snowballs. There was a jar of nails on the porch that got broken. As soon as that happened, I pulled my troops back to the park and boy, did we have a hearty chuckle, many of us bent over double, others writhing on the ground, as I recounted the engagement from the battlefield, pointing out where the various highlights had taken place. “Did you see the look on Phil’s face when he realized the was surrounded?!! Hahahaa!”
But the next day, Phil got called into the principal’s office over something he’d done, and while there, he told the story of the snowball fight. The principal wanted to see everyone involved and when we showed up, he had to move the meeting from his office to the gym. He lined up Phil’s gang on one side, and mine on the other; it was like 40 versus five. He looked at me and said, “Do you consider this a fair fight?”
I didn’t know what to say. It was just a snowball fight, fer christsake, I’m thinking. But that principal made sure when I moved to junior high I was put in a program for problem kids. My classes were weird, full of people with learning disabilities and serious issues with violence. It wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized other classes weren’t like mine. Other classes actually had serious discussions and were learning all sorts of stuff, while I was basically being warehoused in a room filled with dangerous bullies and idiots. I blame it all on West Side Story.
Phil later confronted me in the school yard and we had a fistfight to settle things that became quite a famous showdown at the school, gathering a crowd that was evenly split between who they wanted to root for. Phil boxed me in the ear pretty hard. It was my first fight so I just landed body blows. I didn’t have the guts to swing for the face or head, not yet, anyway.
When I look back on this now, I realize the creation of secret societies is probably wired into our DNA. Another thing that springs to mind: Within a few years The Merry Pranksters would become my biggest role models, accomplished scouts on the Fun Vibe trail, who actually replaced my media-induced street-gang mythology with The Magic Bus, the true secrets of which remain little-known today. I know some. Not as much as Babbs and Mountain Girl, and the grandmaster now resides in the unknown dimensions. This I know: The snowball fight was a prank. Nobody got hurt. Under Prankster rules, I should not have been shamed, and my education should not have been torpedoed. How many kids in America were there like me, shunted into a separate education system for lost causes and instigators?