"Sleep late, have fun, get wild, drink whiskey and drive fast on empty streets
with nothing in mind but falling in love and not getting arrested."

- Hunter S. Thompson

          The James Gang

(Circa 1983 to 1986)

From 1982 to 1986, from the seventh grade until I was a junior in high school, I attended Hattiesburg Prep, a long standing private K-12 school located outside Hattiesburg, near the old Beverly Drive-In Theater, and in the Palmer’s Crossing (which was itself a pretty wild area at the time and only got worse as the years and decades progressed).  My parents sent me to Prep because they felt that the Hattiesburg public school system left a lot to be desired in both social makeup and the providing of education and they weren’t incorrect in that belief.

Hattiesburg Prep had at one time been known as Beeson Academy and it had often been the haunt of the sons and daughters of Hattiesburg’s wealthier residents … doctors, lawyers and what have you.  Now it was a dumping ground for social delinquents and other misfits whose parents could afford to pay the monthly tuition … and I’m happy to say that I fit into that group.

Prep was unique in that we had four day school weeks.  We were off on Mondays (three day weekend) but went a little longer Tuesday through Friday to make up for it.  It was strange to go to school and be off on Mondays but I soon grew to love that about Prep.  Having a three day weekend to haunt Hattiesburg was great and a week day off, especially a Monday, to go hang out at the mall or go cruising or whatever I wanted to do while everyone else was in school was something that just seemed too good to be true and for years I took advantage of that aspect of attending Prep.  Sometimes I’d just cruise by Hattiesburg High, look over at the kids I knew were sitting there in school and laugh to myself.

Prep, more than anything else, was a private little playground, a school full of misfits from every county and school system around, from the teachers and staff all the way down to the students themselves.  Some of us were there because we wanted to be there, some of us were there because we had nowhere else to go.  We were all exiles from somewhere, something, somehow.  Everyone had a story and a reason to be there, including me I guess.

Prep was fun and I had a lot of good memories of my four years spent there.  I could probably write an entire story about my times at Prep and I might, one day but for now I’m going to talk about one particular set of stories that happened while I attended Hattiesburg Prep and those stories are based around a group of friends that I was part of, a group we called “The James Gang.”

From the fall of 1983 through most of 1985 I had two really good high school friends; James and Steve, each a year older than I was.

Our meeting ground was Hattiesburg Prep and I couldn’t tell you how we became friends just that one day there I was, a freshman and they were sophomores and somewhere in the fall of 1983 James and Steve and I became friends.

Together the motley three of us had a strong friendship and when we hung out we referred to ourselves as “The James Gang” since James seemed to take lead most of the time in suggesting what to do when it came to hanging out and having fun.  All in all we were t-shirt, jeans and sneakers wearing teenage hooligans coming of age and having a blast doing it.

I have to pause in the story telling to describe our physical attributes because the details are interesting.

James was tall and thin, maybe an inch or two taller than I was.  James had dark eyes, wore glasses, had dark unkempt hair, a lanky frame and a mustache.  He had a soft voice that only got hard when he got mad.  When he got mad, he often gestured and used profanity.  James’ father was a deputy sheriff with the Forrest County Sheriff’s Department, a teacher at the local junior college and a pastor at a local Baptist church in downtown Hattiesburg.  James lived in an older section of Hattiesburg, over near Peppertree Apartments, with his father, mother and two brothers.

James had a younger brother, Mark, who went to Prep with us, and an older brother, John, who was old enough (and big enough) to work offshore.  In fact, John was called “Big John” or “Bigfoot” since one time someone dropped a drill bit on his foot and John just reached down, picked it up, moved it away and told the drill operator “be careful.”  John was so big and strong that when he and James were wrestling in the kitchen of their house one day John drove James all the way back across the kitchen and into the wall, breaking the sheetrock and dry wall and making a James sized impression in it.  I got to see the James shaped crater in the kitchen wall one day when I went over to visit James.

You didn’t mess with Big John.

James had a great laugh and often referred to any of his friends as “Cuz” (cuz) as in “Hey, Cuz.” or “What’re you doing today, Cuz?” or “That’s not cool, Cuz.”  James was pretty laid back, most of the time.

Steve was the exact opposite.

James had a nickname for Steve, “Opie”, after Ron Howard’s character on the old “Andy Griffith Show” even though Steve looked nothing like the character of Opie Taylor.  Steve was a short guy, blonde bowl cut hair, blue eyes, clean shaven, with a slight dusting of freckles on his face across his nose.  I don’t think that Steve could grow facial hair … I never saw him shave and I never saw him with any kind of facial hair … it was almost like he was perpetually pre-adolescent, one of Pan’s Lost Boys, smooth cheeked to a curse.

Steve was outspoken, excitable and the kind of guy who would rather kick a door open than wait to turn the handle.  If there was something to do, Steve was doing it right now or he was ready to do it right now and the less we waited on doing it the happier that made Steve.  Steve went through life pretty much in an animated way that could only be described as having been loosely based off the behavioral aspects of the Warner Brothers cartoon character “The Tasmanian Devil.”  Steve had two modes of operation; standing still looking for something to do and wide open doing whatever he had found he wanted to do.  The only thing missing around Steve was the animated motion lines, the whirling dust cloud and the sound of some dynamo revving up inside a tornado.

Steve was almost always in constant motion and you learned quickly not to get in his way.  Steve was also very opinionated; if you questioned his opinion, he became agitated and liked to use profanity far more than James.  Watching arguments between James and Steve escalate to a frenzy was free entertainment defined … the kind you pulled up a folding chair, had a cold drink and took notes while watching.

Me?

Heck, I was the middle kid in the group and the youngest of the three.  I was brown haired, clean shaven, blue eyed and I fit in perfectly in size between James and Steve.  If you had put us in a police lineup (which it is a real wonder we never were in a police lineup) then you would have had a stair-step type arrangement; James, me, Steve, tallest to shortest.  I lived with my dad, my mom, a grandmother (my mom’s mom), and my younger sister in a four bedroom house there on Magnolia Place, over near Thames Elementary School.  My sister attended the Hattiesburg public schools … her choice … which I guess is what kept us from ever really bonding like brothers and sisters do.

She did her thing with her friends.

I did my thing with my friends.

Sometimes our paths crossed.

More often than not they didn’t.

In the fall of 1983 I was 14 years old.

I was a freshman in high school.

I was on the junior high basketball team.

James and Steve were sophomores.

Since they were a year older than I was, James and Steve both got their driver’s licenses a full year before I did.  The weird thing is that James and Steve both drove Mustangs … I don’t think there was any collusion on their part there.  James was just looking for a cool car to buy but Steve was a diehard Ford and Mustang fan.  Somewhere each found a Mustang for sale and …

James drove a 1972 Mustang Notchback with a 302 cubic inch V8 and a three speed automatic.  It was classic white with a black lower body and two black stripes running from the front of the hood to the back of the trunk.  The interior was a kind of baby blue color and the carpet was so old it felt like a scouring pad.  The interior wasn’t the greatest, it had no air conditioner but the Mustang looked cool, the stereo was loud and if we drove it reasonably fast with the big side windows down and the triangular shaped vent windows popped open we got enough of a breeze to stay cool.

Steve drove a 1981 Mustang Notchback.  Sometimes he called it a “Ghia” so James and I referred to it, on occasion, as the “Ghia Monster.”  It had a 4.2 liter V8 under the hood and a three speed automatic transmission.  It was painted a kind of baby sky blue, factory color, and had this funky command center in the dash that had an outline of the Mustang that lit up lights to show you if doors were open (or “ajar”) or there was a basic problem with the car.  Steve’s Mustang was in a lot better shape than James’ Mustang but not near as cool looking.  Steve often bragged about what he was going to do to his Mustang … an aftermarket bolt-on turbocharger kit was often referenced to though it never manifested itself under the hood.

Steve also drove another vehicle, a compact Ford Ranger, also blue in color.  This Ranger was tricked out with a white metal tool box on the rear and the equipment needed to mount caution flags and revolving amber lights on the roof so that Steve could use the truck as a “blocker” and “scout” for his father when his father was hauling mobile homes or other wide loads.  The Ranger was Steve’s work truck but sometimes he drove it to school, especially if the Mustang was down for the count with some mechanical ailment or there was gas in the Ranger but not so much in the Mustang.

Steve lived farther away, a lot farther away … almost 30 miles away in Perry County.  Steve lived with his father and mother out in the woods in a mobile home near the river, off a dirt road, out near Runnelstown.  Steve’s parents were older than mine or James, I guess Steve had been born late in their lives … still, Steve’s dad reminded me of Robert Duval and he was tough as nails with a stern demeanor and a voice that could only be described as Old Testament in power and scope.  Steve had an older sister but she was already married and living somewhere else so I never saw her even though the pictures of her in their home showed that she was quite pretty.  We used to kid Steve about his sister, looking at her pictures hung there on the wall of their house and asking Steve if he was adopted because it was evident that his sister had gotten all of the good looks in the family.

Getting to James’ house was easy.  A few main city streets, a few neighborhood streets … there it was, on a corner, on a lot and a half.  Getting to Steve’s house almost took a four wheel drive, especially if it had just rained.  He lived on a dirt road, a bad one; a winding, twisty dirt road the front part of which separated two cow pastures and a large cow gate allowed the cattle to move from one pasture to the other.  The amount of cow shit deposited on the road simply had to be seen to be believed and there was no way to avoid it for the most part.  It wasn’t so bad in the winter but in the spring and summer … yeah.  The road, for a good part of it, was paved in spackled cow shit … rural black top.  Getting that stuff in your tires, wheels, smeared down the side of your car, caked all under your car …

James and Steve kept the local do-it-yourself car wash in business.  I’m surprised that we never gummed up the drain system with the amount of cow shit that we had to hose and spray off of our cars after a weekend at Steve’s.

In the fall of 1983 I was 14 years old.

I didn’t have a car or a driver’s license but I was cool enough to be liked by James and Steve and the three of us quickly became friends at school.  That friendship spread to after school activities as well.  If they were going out anywhere for fun they often called me on the phone to see if I wanted to hang out with them.

I usually did.

In the fall of 1983 and spring of 1984 we did what most teenage boys did back then … we listened to heavy metal, we played Dungeons and Dragons, we played video games on our home Atari systems and at the stand up games in the arcades, we worked on our cars (their cars, actually, since I didn’t have one yet), we chased girls, we bragged about what we were going to do with our lives, we dreamed big, we talked big, we went to high school and we hung out after school at all of the popular places all the while trying to be cool.  Popular hang outs included inside and outside of the mall, the arcades, the local pizza place / arcade and most of the fast food restaurants in the area.  We prowled the city streets of Hattiesburg, Petal and Oak Grove, exploring, testing ourselves, finding ourselves, learning what we could do and what we shouldn’t do.

Hattiesburg was our territory thanks to James and my living there, Petal, Richton and Runnelstown, too thanks to Steve living so close to those locations.  Oak Grove was a frontier, full of “Grovers” that were basically rednecks with bad ass old cars (Novas, Chevelles, etc.) and hopped up four wheel drive trucks.  Grovers didn’t like city kids coming out to their territory, especially if those city kids were looking to meet up and date Grover girls.  The term “Grover” soon became standard slang for anyone from Oak Grove and it was used in a derogatory manner such as “Don’t be such a damn Grover” or “You’re dating a Grover?  What the hell is wrong with you?”

Oak Grove was, like I said, a frontier, newly discovered in the fall of 1983 and as full of opportunity for us as the Wild West must have once looked to settlers headed in that direction; the James Gang mounted many an expedition into that frontier … riding back roads, looking for cool places to hang out, trying to get into trouble and sometimes finding the trouble that we had been looking for.  This was the early 1980’s, a time when Hattiesburg didn’t extend much farther west than 40th avenue and Oak Grove was still more of an idea than any kind of urbanized reality.

Hattiesburg was kind of an urban utopia wasteland to me … it provided everything I ever needed but it was boring.  Having lived there almost seven years I knew Hattiesburg better than well.  Oak Grove was like a village of heathens in the wilderness and Petal was like a frontier town … the people in Petal seemed to be a higher quality than the people in Oak Grove, you didn’t have the usual “Grover” mentality of “stranger go home!”

Being able to get mobile and go places, even if you don’t have a car of your own and you’re just riding with someone else, is one of the most intense pleasures you can have as a teenager, especially in your early years when every other place is so brand new, so full of opportunity, so unknown.  Petal and Oak Grove were new, exciting, unexplored territories to me and they were full of new people that the James Gang had never met or interacted with before.  My world more than tripled in size when I was 14 and that was just one of the most incredible feelings ever to suddenly have not one area to explore but three.

Three times the places to go.

Three times the people to meet.

Three times the trouble to get into.

Pretty heady for a 14 year old.

When the James Gang wasn’t prowling the streets of the three areas we were usually out camping in Perry county.  Camping became a big thing for the James Gang, a kind of retreat and every few weeks we tried to go camping.

During the summer and fall of 1983, the spring, summer and fall of 1984 and the spring and summer of 1985 we went camping several times out at Steve’s parents’ place; some private wooded lands that ended in a sandbar and had easy access to Talahalia Creek, the local serpentine expanse of moving water that meandered through the area.  We’d carry our backpacks, our sleeping bags, our cooler, our food, our drinks, our knives, our hatchets, James’ machete and our .22 caliber rifles with plenty of ammo.  We’d throw our stuff in the back of Steve’s little blue Ford Ranger and Steve would drive us through the rough trail in the woods down to the woods near the sand bar.  It was a rough trail … sometimes one of us rode in the back bed of the Ranger to make sure that our gear didn’t bounce out and that only made it all the more fun for Steve to drive faster and try to bump whoever was riding in the back around as much as he could.  This was often met with a reply stream of vulgarity and profanity from whoever was in the back getting jostled around.

That night we’d build a camp fire, usually a big one, and listen to WHSY Rock 104.5 FM on the Ranger’s less than inspiring factory radio (cranked up through rolled down windows) or we’d listen to cassette tapes like Journey, AC-DC, Ozzy Osbourne, and Eddie Murphy’s “Comedian.”  Sometimes I’d bring my “boom box” and we’d listen to that since we could put it nearer to us in the camp.

We sat around, talked a lot, bragged a lot, threw wood and other stuff on the camp fire just to watch it burn and either threw firecrackers and cascades into the fire or shot off bottle rockets left over from the previous summer’s July 4th festivities.  Fire crackers were always a favorite on our camping trips and I remember one of our activities was using one of those professional hunting slingshots (the kind with the surgical rubber band and the forearm brace) to shoot Black Cat firecrackers as far as we could.  Sometimes one of us would take a Black Cat, put it in the slingshot, pull the band back and have someone else light the firecracker while we held it then we’d let the band go and shoot the Black Cat high into the air where it would pop and make a tiny flash before pieces of burnt paper would rain down around us.

We used Black Cats to blow up ant beds or dropped them down frog holes.  Sometimes we’d find a hole in the ground and put a smoke bomb in the hole, pointed down, and set it off just to see if anything came out the hole or if the smoke came up from the ground somewhere else (and we’d know that we had a tunnel if it did).

At night, if one of us walked away to take a leak, they were sure to have some firecrackers or bottle rockets thrown their way, maybe even a Black Cat shot their way with the slingshot.  It’s hard to take a leak in the dark, flashlight under your arm pit, your back to your friends and the flickering flames of the camp fire when firecrackers are landing all around you and bottle rockets come screaming past your head or hit you in the back and drop to the ground at your feet before exploding while you’re peeing.

Sleep didn’t come easy when you were camping on the creek with the James Gang but when it did come it came heavy.  All was fair until a certain point in time at which point the James Gang entered into some kind of mutual, understood but never really agreed upon cease fire.  You did well to sleep with one eye open because throughout the night you could expect to be awakened by a Black Cat or a string of Lady Fingers going off next to your sleeping bag, lit and thrown there by one of the other two hooligans you were camping with.  Sometimes we’d light smoke bombs and waft the resulting smoke towards one of us who was sleeping with their mouth wide open.

Gunshots also rang out during the night, especially if something like an opossum, an armadillo or (once) a raccoon managed to make its way through the camp site.  I don’t think that we ever hit anything but whatever we shot at is probably still running scared to this day there was just that much lead sent flying in their direction.

The next morning we’d wake up to cool temperatures and the early morning strata of fog that floated through the woods and hovered in smoke-like wisps on the water.  Birds called in the early morning cold and damp, the gray before dawn.  Sometimes we just lay there, in our sleeping bags, zipped up, talking to each other in hushed voices as early morning sunlight filtered through mist wrapped trees.  Rays of early morning light cut through the fog, everything was covered in dew, damp and the morning had its own smell to it … a new smell.  Amid deep burps, loud farts and the occasional echoing report of exploding fireworks mischievously placed by one of the others near the head of our sleeping bag we welcomed in the new day with all the excitement that three teenage boys could muster.

The long night was over.

We had survived the dangers of the deep woods.

The day was full of promise and opportunity.

We stirred slowly but eventually everyone got up, moaning and griping about the temperature and one by one we pissed on some poor bush or the side of some poor tree.  Whoever woke up the most managed to relight our campfire and after we sat around the roaring fire, getting warm and coming alive we’d cook something that passed for breakfast, sit by the fire and eat.  After that we would spend a little while walking around the woods near the campsite, seeing what the area around us looked like in the light of day, using our rifles or pistols to shoot anything we felt needed shooting or we’d find stuff to blow up with what was left of our fireworks then we’d clean up the camp site, pack our gear and load up the Ford Ranger before driving back to Steve’s parents’ house.  After double-checking our stuff to make sure that we each had our own gear we’d put our gear in James’ Mustang and he and I would leave with the promise that later that afternoon that Steve would drive into Hattiesburg and we’d all go out to get something to eat and either catch a movie or go hang out somewhere.

I’d get home, unpack and clean my gear, get a shower and more often than not take a nap before getting ready to hang out for the evening.  Those were good times … seriously good times for me.

 

 

Cigarettes and learning to smoke

James started smoking sometime in 1984.  Other kids in his class were doing it and a few of the girls that James was going out with smoked so I guess he picked up that habit from them.   Of course, James hid the fact that he smoked from his parents so it became something of an act of rebellion and that made it all the more cool, especially at our ages.

Steve never smoked.

I don’t think he even tried a cigarette.

I tried smoking.

I remember riding around Hattiesburg late at night in James’ ’72 Mustang, windows down, WHSY Rock 104.5 playing classic rock on the radio, just cruising.  James had a cigarette in his left hand, arm resting on the top of the driver’s side door and I had a cigarette in my right hand, arm resting on the top of the passenger side door.

I guess we thought we were cool.

We certainly looked like pictures of cool kids, rebellious kids, kids doing their own thing.

I said that I tried smoking.

I tried smoking a few times, mostly with James, but I just couldn’t see or find the joy in the act so I never really started smoking and it never became a habit in my life.  In fact, the more I did smoke the dumber it seemed that the entire act of smoking was to me.  Maybe it was all the teen oriented anti-smoking propaganda that was finally taking a hold of me.  Maybe it was the fact that my dad’s father had smoked all of his life and while he was dying from lung cancer in a hospital room he told my dad that if he could go back in time that he’d never pick up the first cigarette, ever.

I guess, all told, I probably killed four packs, maybe five packs of cigarettes on my own before I discovered that smoking just wasn’t the thing for me.  I took no pleasure in it and could find none either.

James took a long drag on his menthol cigarette, held it, then turned to his left and blew smoke out the window as he drove.

“How do you stand these things?” I asked, picking up the pack of cigarettes and looking it over.

“It’s something you acquire.” James told me matter-of-factly.

“Yeah?  So is VD … doesn’t mean I want to get it.” I replied, putting the pack of cigarettes down again.

James laughed so hard he spit his cigarette out.  It hit the steering wheel, shed ash and landed on the seat between his legs.  James shouted profanity, rose up in his seat as far as he could with the slack in the seat belt and began slapping and beating at his crotch and the seat.  The Mustang swerved into the lane next to us and I grabbed the Mustang’s wheel as James frantically stomped the cigarette out against the floorboard while I laughed out loud and James cussed.

I never smoked past 1985 even though I carried a lighter out of habit for years afterwards just so I could give other people a light when they asked for it or when they needed it.  The weird thing about smoking that I did pick up on is that I noticed that it was a more than common occurrence for someone to have a cigarette and not have a way to light it because I was always being asked if I had a light by someone holding a cigarette.  I wasn’t ever able to figure out the reason why someone would have a cigarette and not have a way to light it but that seemed to happen a lot and being the Eagle Scout that I was, I prepared for that situation by carrying a lighter with me at all times.

I usually carried a Bic disposable lighter but by 1985 I had started carrying a bare metal Zippo and then I got a Zippo with an “Ace of Spades” card on it and that was really cool.   At first it seemed like such a simple thing to do but it was sometimes a great way to start a conversation and carrying a lighter with me at all times led to some interesting situations for me in the late 1980’s and the early ‘90’s.

 

Part-Time Jobs and Firearms

I remember James and Steve had part-time jobs.

Having a part-time job seemed like a really cool thing to me because it involved work (which I wasn’t scared of), it gave you a place to go and hang out and it offered you money (which I seemed to not only like a lot but to also be in short supply of most of the time).  I’d had a paper route since I was ten years old but that really didn’t count as a part-time job even though it gave me a lot of spending money on the side.  I wanted a real part-time job, I wanted to work some place cool and earn a paper check.

James worked part-time at Dairy Queen on Highway 49 North in Hattiesburg.  Often we would ride over there in his ’72 Mustang to pick up his paycheck and to check his work schedule.  His work schedule sometimes made it difficult for us to have fun on a Friday or Saturday night because he often worked until close.  James was lucky because the Dairy Queen was literally within walking distance of his house even though he drove his Mustang there every shift.

Steve worked for his father, private work hauling mobile homes and loads of cargo with Steve running the escort / blocker truck while his dad drove the big semi tractor.  They made good money.  Steve always seemed to have money, more than James most times.

Even though James worked for minimum wage his paycheck was often impressive to me, as a 14 year old with no car and no job, because it was usually like more than a hundred dollars.

After taxes.

In 1983 a hundred dollars might as well have been the GNP of a small third world country to a 14 year old like me.  Having a fixed allowance that was an outright joke compared to what James and Steve kept in their wallets most of the time meant that I was intensely jealous of James, Steve, their jobs and the amount of folding money that they blew on fun stuff.

I was getting maybe $50 a month allowance.

James and Steve were easily getting $50 a week, or more, at their jobs.

I was 14 … no one was going to hire me until I was 15.

That didn’t seem very fair.

I wanted to work but couldn’t.

Man, I wanted to be 15!

June 1984 and my fifteenth birthday could not get here soon enough for me.

James used his paycheck to go and buy cool stuff like video games, clothes, music, and to go pawn shopping.  Pawn shops were amazing.  They had all this stuff, neat stuff, cool stuff and a lot of it was priced low.  Going pawn shopping was like going on a scavenger hunt because you never knew what you would find and it was almost always different every time you went back.

I remember James got paid and wanted to go pawn shopping.  He picked me up at my house in his ’72 Mustang and I rode with him down to a pawn shop in the old part of downtown Hattiesburg, down near the old bottling company building.  James bought a full size Gerber combat knife with sheath and he also bought a waspish dull black Ruger Mark II .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol.  We bought two hundred rounds of .22 caliber Yellow Jacket high velocity rounds then James took me out to Wards and he bought me lunch.

That’s what I wanted to be able to do … to be able to go anywhere I wanted to, just walk in anywhere I wanted to and pay cash for anything that I wanted and in order to do that I needed a job and a car.

I turned fifteen years old in June of 1984.

I got my driver’s license on my birthday.

I got the keys to my first car, a 1978 Chevrolet Camaro Rally Sport that day as well.

Three days later I had a job working part-time at the area’s biggest high volume discount grocery store, County Market.  It was the coolest job in the world.

I was 15 years old!

I was finally 15 years old!

I felt complete, or as complete as a fifteen year old can feel, a fifteen year old who suddenly finds that he has everything that he spent the last year wishing so hard for …

I had a driver’s license so new it was still warm from the powers that be making it.

I had a red and black ’78 Chevrolet Rally Sport Camaro with a 350 cubic inch small block Chevy V8 under the hood … the biggest engine under the hood of the three of us.

I had a part-time job and suddenly I had spending money.  In fact, I had more money than I’d ever had before!  I counted that as something to remember.  I had finally gotten to the point where I was mobile, I had money, I could go where I wanted to, do what I wanted to and buy what I wanted to.

Needless to say I ran the tires off of my Camaro during the summer of 1984.

 

Going Shooting

James called me up one Saturday morning, early.  He wanted to shoot his pistol some so I suggested that we go out to the river on Pep’s Point Road and James immediately seconded the idea.  I got my old .22 semiautomatic rifle, about two hundred rounds of ammunition that I threw into a backpack along with my camping knife and I got in my ’78 Camaro and drove over to James’ house.  When we got ready to go James threw his ammo in with mine and we agreed to shoot the entire lot as a shared batch.  Between two teenage boys, armed with two .22 caliber weapons, and about 400 rounds loose between us, a mixture of standard and high velocity, I figured we had about half an hour worth of ammo to burn through, give or take.

After all, the only thing that was going to slow us down would be the physical act of reloading …

James said that we would take his Mustang which was fine by me since I had just washed and waxed my Camaro so we put our gear in his trunk and left.

The ramp down off of Pep’s Point Road was steep and James had to take it slow because his car had a long nose and a shallow draft.  We bottomed out a few times which caused James to get creative with his profanity.  After we parked, we loaded our weapons and set off across the river which required us to walk along a section of railroad tracks that included an elevated bridge.  Trains still used the tracks on a more or less regular basis so we crossed pretty quickly, not wanting to chance getting caught on the middle of the elevated track when a train came around the bend at full speed.

The other side of the river was a favorite hot spot because it had a bend in the river, a large sand bar and the location was a popular swimming hole for the locals who liked to come here to swim, to party, do drugs, get drunk and have sex.  This meant that every Saturday morning there was an abundance of glass beer bottles, beer cans and the remains of several large campfires (some with the still recognizable remains of mostly burned beer cases and boxes).  Sometimes we’d even find a few unopened beers (bottles and cans), wadded up empty packs of cigarettes, cigarette butts, the remains of blunts, roach clips, condom wrappers and the occasional condom.  Twice we found used syringes and a plastic bag that had what we thought was some left over weed in it.

Sex, drugs and rock and roll.

It seemed like everyone in the world was having sex except us, even ugly people were having sex, and that didn’t seem fair at all.

Looking around what we termed the “redneck orgy site” we found three unopened bottles of Miller High Life and an unopened can of Old Milwaukee beer, shook them up as hard and fast as we could and got ready to shoot them.  James took one of the beer bottles, told me to ready my rifle then started to throw the bottle out into the river.

“Wait!  Don’t throw it!” I shouted.

James stopped mid throw, took two awkward steps to cancel his momentum and then turned and looked at me.

“Why not?” he asked.

“If you throw it then it’s going to sink straight to the bottom.  Like a rock.”

James thought about that, hefted the full bottle then nodded.

“Yeah, good call.  I didn’t think about that.”

“Put it on the sand over there, build it up a bit then get on back here.”

“No problem, Cuz.” James said, moving to follow through with my suggestion.

I stood there, on the sand bar, rifle held resting on my shoulder and looking out at the slowly moving but still noisy river.  James finished building up a small bit of a mound and putting the unopened beer bottle on top.  The distance looked to be about twenty or twenty-five feet.  James hurried back and stood beside me.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Ready, Cuz.” James said.

I put my .22 rifle to my shoulder, took aim, used my thumb to flick the safety off and put my finger on the trigger as the front sight lined up on the beer bottle.  Beside me, James’ draw was fast and smooth, probably practiced in front of a mirror if I knew James.  Just as I put my finger on the trigger of my rifle, I saw the motion out of the corner of my right eye and James had drawn his Ruger Mark II .22 semiautomatic pistol, taken aim and fired.

Crack!

The Ruger Mark II spat a tiny tongue of fire, smoking spent brass, and a louder than expected report.  A plume of sand exploded into the air from about six inches in front of the bottle.

Crack!

The Ruger Mark II spat a tiny tongue of fire, smoking spent brass, and a louder than expected report.  The bottle exploded with a loud “boomf!”, throwing warm foamy beer all over the area around the bottle and sending broken glass in a wide area, one piece landing about eight feet in front of us.  I looked over at James, my expression half anger and half amazement.

James just smiled, held up the barrel of his Ruger Mark II pistol to his lips and blew away the smoke coming from the barrel.

“Not bad, huh Cuz?” he asked.

“That was my bottle!” I said.

“Oh.  Well, I guess it is my bad.” James said knowing fully what he had done.  “You can have the next one.”

I shook my head and we looked out at where the unopened bottle of beer had been.  All that was left was a jagged lower section, a torn label, dark wet sand and pieces of dark broken glass scattered around the small mound that James had built.

“Good shot.” I said.

“I thought so.” James said.

“Took you two shots, though.” I said.

“But my draw was quick and smooth … and I don’t even have a holster.”

“Yeah.  You need a holster.” I said.

“You think so?” James asked.

“Yeah.  A holster will keep you from accidentally shooting off your dick when you try to draw.”

James laughed.

“It’ll take more than two shots to shoot my dick off.” James said proudly, putting his pistol back in the waistband of his jeans, his thumbs in his pockets and rocking slightly back and forth on the balls of his feet.

“Yeah, it’ll take more than two shots but that’s only because your dick is so small and hard to hit.” I replied.

James’ expression changed.

“Aw, Cuz.  I walked into that one, didn’t I?” He laughed.

“Yeah, you did, Cuz.” I said, laughing.

We went over and inspected the damage that James had done.  It was even more impressive up close.  The power of a .22 caliber Yellow Jacket round hitting a shaken up, unopened, pressurized bottle of warm beer was about as close as two teenage boys were going to get to playing with any type of high explosives that day.

We built a new mound, put the second bottle of shaken up, unopened beer on it, walked back to our firing line and this time I popped the bottle with one shot from my rifle.  This bottle literally seemed to explode with a loud “bamf!” and pieces of broken glass even landed out in the water causing small splashes.  James and I each ooo’ed and ahhh’ed then high fived each other.

“That was cool!” James said.

“One more full bottle and then we do the can of beer.” I said, with some amount of regret.

We set up the last unopened, shaken up beer bottle and this time we both fired on it.  Two shots, I don’t know who hit first or if it mattered as the result was pretty much the same as the last.  We did the same for the unopened can of beer.  The beer can didn’t explode like the bottle but the holes that we made in it sure spewed foamy beer out across the sand.

And that was the end of the explosive targets.

For the next hour we took turns throwing empty beer bottles and empty beer cans out into the river and then shooting them.  The beer bottles exploded and sank from sight almost instantly.  The beer cans filled with water through the bullet holes and sank when they became too heavy to float.  We had to be careful how we tossed the bottles because if they went too high then they hit with too much force, went under, and filled with enough water to sink before they could bob back to the surface.  Through trial and error we worked out a system that seemed to work.  All in all I guess we murdered about forty-six beer bottles and fifteen beer cans that afternoon and when we ran out of bottles and cans to shoot we just shot at stuff that we thought needed to be shot at.

We had plenty of ammo and ammo was cheap.

My .22 rifle had a twenty round magazine, a tube, under the barrel and it could fire a round as fast as you could pull the trigger.  James thought it was cool how I could load my rifle and then empty the magazine in under ten seconds.  Firing into the river I could create a line of bullet surface strike water geysers from just in front of the sandbar to almost the first bend in the river.

Crack!

Crack!

Crack!

Crack!

Crack!

Crack!

The tell-tale crack of my .22 rifle, twenty times in a row, each crack ejecting a spent, smoking casing, followed by the echo of the shot along the river banks and the long line of expanding geysers in the water was something that we each took turns doing.

We swapped pistol and rifle.  I liked the waspish little .22 Ruger Mark II pistol and James liked my .22 rifle.

The pistol was a real joy to shoot, balanced, easy to aim, good trigger pull … the magazine was another story altogether.  I’m not sure who designed the magazine for the Ruger Mark II .22 semiautomatic pistol but it wasn’t the same guy who designed the pistol, that is for sure.  Whoever designed the magazine for the Ruger Mark II .22 semiautomatic pistol not only hated the designer of the pistol and the Ruger company, but he must have hated all of humanity as well.

The magazine for the Ruger Mark II .22 semiautomatic pistol was a real step-bitch to load and either pinched your fingers or threatened to remove your fingerprints (and the top layer of your skin) by just being hard to load.  It had a spring and a pull-down knob that fought you every single round to reload.

While the Ruger Mark II .22 pistol was hella fun to shoot, it was a pain in the ass to reload, a fact that tended to subtract from the overall fun quotient and led to blisters on fingers as well as pinched skin and not a small amount of creative profanity.

 

The Study of Recoil on Small Bodies at Rest

After that day, “going shooting” became a “thing to do” when James got his paycheck and I got mine.

Steve heard about what we were doing and when we told him about the “redneck orgy site” he had to go and see for himself what we were talking about.  Steve drove over from Runnelstown early one Saturday morning to “go shooting” with James and I.  Steve brought his Ruger 10-22 rifle with sling, a pair of 30 round banana clips, and a couple hundred rounds of loose .22 caliber rounds.  I decided to bring not only my .22 rifle but also my dad’s 12 gauge side by side double barrel shotgun and about 20 twelve gauge rounds (all that I could find).  I hadn’t fired that shotgun since I was a kid living in Jackson and I wanted to see what the shotgun would do especially to a bunch of beer bottles and beer cans.

We took Steve’s ’81 blue Ford Mustang Notchback, parked off of Pep’s Point Road, walked the elevated train tracks, found the sandbar where people had partied the night before (one bonfire was still smoking slightly) and began collecting beer bottles and beer cans.  We found the usual assortment of empty beer bottles, beer cans, sex and drug paraphernalia and this time a pair of light blue panties.  Steve picked up the panties with the barrel of his rifle and held them out for us to look at.  James commented that the cooties in the panties were probably going to eat the finish off of the barrel of Steve’s Ruger.  Steve got this look on his face then started chasing James around the sandbar, holding his rifle out like a stick with the panties waving from the end, trying to touch James with the panties or throw them on him.  James, for his size, could move pretty quick and managed to avoid Steve’s attempt to put the discarded panties on him.  After a few minutes of these antics, with all three of us laughing our asses off, Steve walked over to the still smoldering fire, tilting his rifle down towards the fire and letting the panties slide off into the still hot ashes.  A few minutes later the panties began to smolder and burn and in less than a minute they had vanished into charred cloth.

We searched the rest of the redneck orgy site and found two unopened beer bottles, shook them up and let Steve have first go.

His first shot hit the unopened beer bottle.

It exploded with a wet thump sending shards out into the river.

Steve was all smiles.

“Cool!” he said loudly, laughing and checking his rifle.

“That’s because you have a scope.” James said.

The second unopened beer bottle we lined up and all three of us unloaded as fast as we could on it … It didn’t take long to explode and then we just emptied our magazines into the sand around it, trying to dig a hole and seeing how much sand we could throw up into the air from the impact of sixty rounds of .22 caliber being fired as fast as our three weapons could fire.

Next we started lining up and executing empty beer bottles and empty beer cans.

The .22 rifles and .22 pistol were excellent for plinking and could take out a beer bottle with one shot … In fact, the cans were just as good because you could shoot them several times before they were useless.  The twelve gauge side by side double barrel shotgun was a different story all together when it came to the damage that it could do to a lineup of bottles and cans.

After a few turns, we set up a line of six beer bottles and two beer cans in a 2-1-2-1-2 pattern with the beer cans to each side of the middle two beer bottles.  We had been going through the available stock (which, given the sandbar’s popularity, seemed to be a self-renewing resource) at a pretty good clip and now we were down to just about twelve or so bottles and a handful of cans left.  As for ammo, between us we had about four or five rounds left per bottle or can that we could line up so we weren’t hurting there at all.

“Hey!  Let’s see what that old double barrel can do!” Steve said.

“Yeah!” James said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah!” Steve said.

I reached over, opened up the carrying bag for my dad’s shotgun and pulled it out, letting Steve and James look at it.

“That thing is old!” Steve said.

“Yeah, but it gets the job done.” I replied.

“I bet that thing is going to kick some ass!” Steve said.

“Yep.  And it’s going to kick your short ass, too.” James said.

“Screw you.” Steve said, laughing.

“Okay.  Stand back.”

I broke open the action, took two twelve gauge shells from my pocket and loaded the shotgun with birdshot which is all that I had at the time.  The idea of filling a cone of air in front of the shotgun with several hundred small metal pellets all moving really, really fast had a kind of appeal to it.  I flicked the shotgun closed, put it to my shoulder and took aim down the simple bead sight at the end of the shotgun, mounted between the barrels.

Long range accuracy was not this weapon’s specialty hence the simplistic means of putting it in line with its intended target.

“Do both barrels at the same time.” James said.

I had just intended to fire one barrel and judge the results.

“You’re serious?  Both barrels?” I asked.

“Yeah!  Hell yeah!  Both barrels.” Steve shouted.

“It’s gotta be both barrels, Cuz.” James said as he nodded.

“All or nothing.” Steve said.

Man.

Okay.

I moved my fingers to both triggers, took up the slack, took aim.

My thumb slid the safety off.

James stepped back and put his fingers in his ears.

“This is going to be loud, Cuz.” He said.

Steve stepped back beside him and put his fingers in his ears.

I, holding the shotgun and taking aim, could not put my fingers in my ears.

“Yeah.” I muttered.  “This is going to be loud.  Damn loud.”

I sighted in on the line of beer bottles, taking aim at the center bottle of the row.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Yeah!” James said.

“Do it!” Steve shouted.

My fingers started to pull back on the triggers.

One of the beer bottles suddenly fell over then.  It just fell over and Steve busted out laughing.

“It gave up before you even shot it!” He shouted, laughing and pointing.

James started laughing as well.  I took my fingers off of the triggers, slid the safety back on and put the shotgun to my shoulder, high and safe.

“Go fix that.” I said.

Steve, still laughing, ran across the sandbar to the bottles and stood the fallen bottle back up then he ran back to the firing line, as fast as he could, slipping in the sand once but catching himself before he could fall.  He made it back barely out of breath.

“Do it!  I want to see this!  Blow them away!” Steve shouted.

Steve and James put their fingers back in their ears and waited expectantly.

I took aim with the side by side double barrel shotgun, put the bead on the bottle that had fallen over, slid the safety off, put my fingers on the triggers, took up the slack, and squeezed.  It had been a long time since I’d fired this shotgun, almost ten years, so I didn’t remember two very important things about firing this particularly weapon …

One …

A twelve gauge side by side double barrel shotgun is loud.  How loud?  Voice of God loud.  Yeah, that loud.  Now multiply that by two, once for each barrel …

Two …

A twelve gauge side by side double barrel shotgun has a lot of recoil and it kicks.  Hard.   My dad had once been duck hunting on Mobile Bay in a friend’s boat and he had fired both barrels at the same time.  The recoil put him over the edge of the boat and into the water.  He managed to hang onto the shotgun when he went under and his friend helped him back into the boat.  I guess I should have looked at that story as a lesson rather than a humorous anecdote in my dad’s life.

When you’re fifteen years old and you fire a twelve gauge side by side double barrel shotgun while wearing a black sleeveless muscle shirt, rubber recoil pad firmly against the bare skin of your shoulder, the side by side double barrel is going to kick … hard.  Painfully hard.  Now multiply that by two, once for each barrel and …

… and I pulled the triggers, both of them, at the same time.

Maybe “pulled” isn’t the right word.

I leaned into the side by side double barrel and jerked the triggers like I was trying to yank start a lawn mower and when I did several things happened simultaneously.

The shotgun roared … voice of God splitting the heavens roared.

That hurt my ears.

Bad.

Two huge orange blossoms appeared in front of the shotgun along with a lot of smoke.

Fire and smoke.

That was neat.

The shotgun kicked back, hard, hitting me like a battering ram against the bones in my shoulder and arm.

That hurt my shoulder and arm.

Twenty feet or so away the line of beer bottles instantly disintegrated.  One second it was there, the next second all the glass was scattered in a cone behind the target line and the beer cans were rolling around the sand bar peppered with lots of little holes punched through them.

I stood there for a second or five, trying to get feeling back in my shoulder, marveling at the smoke coming from the barrels of the twelve gauge and at the destruction it had caused and admiring the ringing in my ears all the while hoping it wasn’t permanent.  I unlocked the breach, popped the shotgun open, turned the shotgun sideways and shook it to eject the spent shells.

This was epic!

James and Steve were smiling and shouting and pointing and laughing.  This was strange since the only sound that I heard coming out of their open mouths was a very loud ringing.

Steve and James jogged over to the line of bottles and cans and started gesturing and pointing at the debris excitedly.  Steve picked up one of the beer cans, riddled with small holes, and started to point and laugh.  I raised the shotgun in one hand, flicked it open, and let gravity remove the two spent shells.  Still broken open, I walked over to the target line and admired my handiwork.

Total destruction.

That’s the word I would have used.

Out of the line of glass bottles and beer cans, not one bottle remained unbroken.  Each of the cans was riddled with small holes all the way through.  The ringing in my ears started to fade and now I could hear James and Steve talking excitedly about the power of the side by side double barrel twelve gauge.

“That was cool!  Aw, man!  That was cool!” Steve shouted.

James nodded.

“Yeah.  Cool.” I muttered.

My shoulder hurt.

Bad.

It felt like Chuck Norris had given me a karate chop.

I held the broken open double barrel shotgun with my left hand and rotated my right shoulder, moving it around, trying to find some relief.  I found some.

Some.

When we went out in the woods I usually wore a black sleeveless muscle shirt.   Firing my .22 semiautomatic rifle had never bothered me before … but now, this was different.

This was punishment.

The twelve gauge punished you when you fired it, especially if you fired both barrels at the same time.  Whereas the .22 semiautomatic rifle just made a loud bark and had almost no noticeable recoil the twelve gauge side by side double barrel spat thunder and charged you pain as the admission price to the experience.

It was fun but it wasn’t fun.

You could shoot a .22 all day long.

The 12 gauge you didn’t want to shoot all day long.

I vowed then to work on building up my tolerance to its recoil and I failed to see how action movie heroes could fire something like this, especially when it was sawed off, one handed and both barrels at the same time.  That seemed like a sure way to turn your wrist bones to powder.

Apparently Steve had to shoot the side by side double barrel next.

He had to.

It was his turn.

Give it to him.

Not wanting an immediate repeat of the experience that I just had I gladly handed him the broken open side by side double barrel and another pair of shells taken from my pocket.  After Steve fired this pair, I had sixteen more shells left, either sixteen single shots or eight double barrel at the same time broadsides.  Steve looked the double barrel over, put the shells in his pocket, flicked the empty double barrel closed then started practice aiming with it, pointing it down river and trying to get a feel for the shotgun.

Steve was a little guy.

The 12 gauge double barrel was a huge gun.

He looked like a kid trying to aim a 2x4.

James and I took about the same amount of bottles and cans from our collected cache, noting that we were down to about an equal number of bottles and cans left so if we kept on using the twelve gauge shotgun then we had this group and one more before we were out of targets.  I guess that worked out okay, I had a chance to shoot the twelve gauge, Steve would get his turn and then James could try it with the last of the bottles.

We set up the bottles and cans.

We stepped behind the firing line.

We put our fingers in our ears.

Steve broke open the twelve gauge, shoved the two shells in and snapped it shut.  He put the twelve gauge to his shoulder and took aim.

The twelve gauge wavered.

Steve took aim again, put his fingers near the triggers.

“Both barrels.” James said.

“I know.” Steve said.

“Both barrels at the same time.” I said.

“I know.  Sheesh.”

The twelve gauge wavered.

The twelve gauge was a long shotgun.

It was a hunting shotgun designed more for bird and duck than, say for deer or moose.

Steve was a little guy.

He was having trouble holding and aiming something that was easily as tall as he was, maybe more so.

James started to chuckle.

“That thing is as big as you are!” he said, laughing.

“Yeah, well, watch this!” Steve said, dropping the shotgun to his hip.

James and I both saw what he was going to do and I know we both thought it was a bad idea.  Steve eyeballed the line of bottles and cans and held the shotgun ready, his legs spread slightly from side to side, bow legged almost.

“Uh … that thing has some kick to it.” I said.

“I’m good.” Steve said.  “I’ve shot a twelve gauge before.”

“It has a lot of kick.” I said.

“Not a problem.” Steve said confidently.

James looked at me, fingers in his ears, his expression one of concern and obviously questioning Steve’s assessment of the situation.  I shrugged my shoulders, poked my fingers tighter into my ears and waited.

“Ready?” Steve shouted.

“Yeah!” I shouted back.

“Shoot!” James shouted.

Steve lined the shotgun up with the bottles and cans, turned to us then smiled.

“Watch this!” He said.

His fingers jerked both triggers at the same time.

The twelve gauge side by side shotgun roared.

Even with both fingers plugged tight in my ears it was still the disapproving voice of God the Almighty.

The muzzle flash of the double barrel was even more impressive from this particular angle, fire and smoke.  Steve must have been aiming a little low because the line of bottles and cans disappeared amid a spray of glass shards and thrown up sand.

At the same time that Steve pulled both triggers together, Steve went instantly from a standing upright position to sitting flat on his ass on the sandbar.  There was no in-between, he was standing, he pulled the triggers, he was sitting, just like that.

His look was priceless.

There he was, utter confusion, abject surprise and dumbstruck amazement all at the same time on his face, sitting flat on his ass on the sandbar, legs slightly spread, shotgun held in both hands and smoke rising from the barrels.  Steve’s mouth was open, just hanging open and he was staring off into the space in front of him.

I think he was in shock.

I took my fingers from my ears.

I heard this strange sound then, turned, and saw James having some type of epileptic fit there on the sandbar next to me, just kicking and writhing, holding his sides, his mouth open and his face all contorted in a tortured expression.

I looked back at Steve.

Steve’s expression also seemed to be one of pain.

At first I didn’t know what was going on … maybe Steve had hurt himself … maybe James had been hit by some glass shrapnel … maybe a piece of glass had come flying back and hit him in the eye …

And then I realized that Steve, the smallest member of The James Gang, had been knocked on his ass, literally by the recoil of both barrels of the twelve gauge side by side shotgun firing at the same time.  I couldn’t help myself because as soon as I realized what had happened to Steve I started laughing my own ass off.  I realized then that James, still writhing on the ground next to me, was not having some kind of epileptic fit nor had he been accidentally injured but that he was instead falling down laughing his own ass off at having seen Steve get sat on his ass hard when he pulled both triggers of the twelve gauge double barrel at the same time.

Steve, realizing what had happened, slowly started to laugh and pick himself up.

He had some difficulty doing so.

“Daaaaamn!” Steve said loudly, handing me the shotgun and shaking his wrist then massaging it.

James stopped rolling around and when he sat up he had tears rolling down his cheeks from laughing so hard.  I just stood there, laughing, holding the shotgun.

A few minutes later we had all recovered our composure, investigated the ground zero site of beer bottle and beer can destruction and admired Steve’s handiwork.  Sloppy as his stance had been, off as his aim might have been, the spread from both barrels had been wide enough to get the job done.  Steve had, despite his bravado and now hurt pride, destroyed … utterly destroyed … the line of bottles and cans.

“Your turn, dumb ass.” Steve said, handing the shotgun to James.

James put his hands up and backed away, shaking his head, declining to shoot the twelve gauge double barrel now that it was his turn.

“Pansy.” Steve said.

James told Steve that he should shoot the shotgun again and that this time when he pulled both triggers at the same time that he had to have the rubber part of the stock resting firmly on his groin.

Steve flipped James off.

 

Comic books and gun safety

One Friday night Steve invited James and me to go camping with him out on his parents’ property.  We did a lot of camping out at Steve’s parents because his parents lived way back in the woods, it was a short hike to the local creek / river and there was plenty to do in the woods.  Steve also wanted to go floating the creek the next day in his flat bottom boat and with nothing really else good to do for the weekend James and I agreed without much hesitation.

I told James that we would take my ’78 Camaro instead of his old Mustang.

“It’s your gas, Cuz.” He said.

Late Friday afternoon I drove over to his house where we loaded up his stuff in the trunk of my Camaro.  I put five dollars of gas in the Camaro and we headed to Runnelstown to go camping and floating the Talahalia Creek with Steve.  It would be a long float, we’d end up making most of a day of it and wind up somewhere near Runnelstown on the back side.

James and I headed east in my Camaro at a fairly good clip, taking the old Highway 42 and stopping off at Hilltop Grocery for supplies.  After that, we drove out to Steve’s parents’ mobile home in the woods.  Steve met us in the front yard as we pulled up and since we were going to take Steve’s little blue Ford Ranger back into the woods and drive it down to the sandbar James and I threw our gear in the back of the little pickup truck and then followed Steve on inside to talk to his parents.

We were all excited and ready for a night of fun.

I had about two hundred rounds of .22 caliber high velocity and James easily had that much or more for his Ruger .22 pistol.  James also had his .30 M2 carbine, a genuine World War II vintage weapon with its slightly curved clips of ammo of which he had about a hundred rounds.  We also had a bunch of firecrackers, some bottle rockets, and several lighters.

We were ready to go … at least James and I were.

As it turned out, Steve wasn’t ready to go so James and I sat around in his room while Steve got his gear together and finished up some of his chores.  Steve’s room was pretty Spartan but there were a couple of car magazines (mostly Ford related) and a handful of comic books … a few Spiderman, a Hulk, a Thor and I found an issue of Marvel Comics’ “Micronauts”.

Ah, science fiction!

I noticed that this “Micronauts” was a different series, subtitled “The New Voyages”.  The characters on the front cover looked familiar but different, aged.  So this series apparently took place after the series that I had read years ago.  Cool!  I became immediately interested in this comic, since I’d followed the old “Micronauts” comic series, so I sat on the end of Steve’s bed and started thumbing through the comic book.  The first issue of a new, ongoing series and I was getting to start the series from the beginning.

James flipped through a Spiderman comic then excused himself to sneak outside and smoke a cigarette.

Steve still had some chores to do before he could go camping and he was running around doing those.  Every now and then he’d stop by to see if I wanted something to drink or he’d comment on a comic book I hadn’t picked up yet or suggest an article about some Mustang in one of the Ford magazines.  As he stood there talking, his father would grow impatient and shout out his name at which point Steve would instantly excuse himself and run off to finish whatever task or chore his father was having him do.  It was pretty evident that Steve didn’t want to do his chores, that he was ready to go camping and by dragging his feet doing his chores he was only delaying them and making it later and later before we got out to the sandbar and set up camp for the night.

Now you have to understand that Steve’s father was an older man, strict, no bullshit and he reminded me a lot of Robert Duvall if Robert Duvall had driven big trucks for a living.  I don’t know why but he did.  Maybe it was the fact that I’d never seen his father in anything other than a one piece speed suit, the kind that hard as nails workers and truck drivers wore.  Steve’s father was polite but quiet and kind of gruff.  You got the impression he wasn’t much for chit-chat, especially meaningless chit-chat.  My father was cool, easy going.  James’ father would talk to you all day long.  Steve’s father?  You better have something good to say when you talked to him and you better not waste his time with idle nonsense when you did.

Steve’s father called out again in a loud voice and I heard Steve call back.

If this kept up we’d be eight or nine o’clock before we even left Steve’s house for the woods.

I was about halfway through reading the first issue of Marvel’s “Micronauts – The New Voyages” when Steve walked back into his room.  I looked up and then did a double-take.  He was wearing well-worn hunting boots, old jeans, a camo green “USMC” T-shirt and a camo green headband.  In his right hand he was holding his scoped, sling equipped and banana clip loaded Ruger 10-22 semi-automatic rifle.  In his left hand he was holding a small semiautomatic pistol.

“How do you like it, Shields?  Thirty-two caliber automatic.” Steve said, holding the pistol so I could see it.

“Nice.” I said.

It was the kind of little semi-automatic pistol that pawn shops made their bread and butter money off of.  Cheap, small, single stack magazine.  It was what some gun critics would call a “contact gun” in that if you wanted to hit your target you had better put the gun right up against the target when you pulled the trigger.  It was a cute gun, not as reliable or as well made as James’ Ruger Mark II but … Steve was happy with it so I guess that counted for something.

In fact, Steve was damn proud of the little pistol.

“Dad got it for me for my birthday.  I keep it with me when we’re hauling trailers, you know, for protection.”

I nodded thinking to myself that hauling trailers must be pretty dangerous business if the guy driving the blocker truck, a sixteen year old driver at that, needed to be so well armed with a .32 caliber semiautomatic pistol in order to have even a chance of surviving the job.

Steve was certainly decked out in his gear.  That sandy blonde hair, those blue eyes, those freckles across his nose and cheeks … he looked like a cross between “Dennis the Menace” and “Rambo.”  It was hard for me to know whether I should take him seriously or not.  I decided on a middle ground, commented that I liked the pistol, and went back to reading the last few pages of Steve’s “Micronauts” comic book.

In hindsight this was probably the wrong attitude to take because having known Steve for almost two years now I should have known that he didn’t want to be taken any other way but serious.  The problem was that my choice not to take him serious was probably made out of my own selfishness … I was anxious to get started on camping and here Steve was posing with his pistol and rifle trying to look all badass and play Marine while he probably still had chores to do.

That was making me kind of angry because Steve was dragging his feet way too much for my liking and the more he dragged his feet the later we were going to be getting out into the woods.  Now, don’t get me wrong … I loved me some comic books but if I had a choice to spend a Friday night sitting in someone else’s bedroom reading comic books or going out in the woods and burning through firecrackers, gasoline, heavy metal music and hundreds of rounds of ammunition … well, comic books just didn’t even stand a chance in that set of options.

I guess Steve realized that I wasn’t taking him seriously and that made him take his bravado up a notch.

“Hey!  Check it out, man!” Steve said excitedly, hopping up on the bed to stand near me, his head close to the ceiling and the light there.

I looked up from the comic book to see Steve standing there near me on the bed where I sat, just slightly behind me.  He hefted his rifle and pistol at the ready position, poised like he was about to stand off an entire army of Islamic terrorists all by himself.

“United States Marine Corps!  You mess with the best, you die like the rest!” Steve said loudly and proudly, hefting the rifle and pistol, his fingers on the triggers of both weapons.

… and then it happened.

It should never have happened but it did despite basic gun safety and even more basic common sense.

Bang!

Steve accidentally discharged the .32 caliber semiautomatic pistol while he was posing for me.  The fact that it was loaded was a moot point once the bullet left the barrel.  The fact that the little semi-automatic pistol was pointing in my direction when the pistol discharged was just part of the total serendipity that was about to unfold.  One second Steve was gesturing with his weapons, being gruff and fearsome.

Then came the discharge.

A loud crack, an angry little report of man-made thunder made even louder by the fact that it was both inside a small bedroom of a mobile home and it was within two feet of my left ear.  I felt the ghost-like touch of the passage of the bullet as it blazed past my face at supersonic velocity and all of a few inches distance.  All the fine hairs on that side of my body stood up.

The smell of spent propellant.

The clink of the empty brass as it rolled off the bed, hit the floor and rolled around.

The rather small but also rather obvious hole that had just appeared in the floor of Steve’s bedroom, about two inches to the left of the little toe on my left foot.

Silence.

Steve had gone from being all brave and boisterous to totally not believing what had just happened.  I looked from the “Micronauts” comic book to the new hole in the floor to the spent shell casing on the floor up to Steve and then back to the comic book and kept on reading.

Silence.

“STEVE!?” his father called out in a voice that seemed to both rock the entire mobile home as well as to be on loan from God Almighty.

It was the kind of voice that God would have used in the Old Testament … the kind of voice that God would have used when He was righteously pissed off and about to destroy a city or an entire nation of people.

Yeah, that voice.

Steve stood there, his eyes going from the smoking pistol in his hand to the spent brass on the floor of his bedroom to me and to the hole in the floor of his bedroom.  I just kept on sitting there at the end of Steve’s bed reading the comic book.  I only had a few pages left.

“STEVE!?” his father, using the borrowed voice of God, shouted out again.

Steve, trembling, looked back towards the other end of the trailer.

“Ssssssssir?” Steve asked, his voice barely loud enough to hear.

“STEVE!?  WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?!” his father shouted again and there was hell in that voice now.

“SssssIR!?” Steve managed to both stammer and shout back.

“WHAT WAS THAT NOISE?” his father shouted.

Steve dropped the Ruger and the pistol onto his bed, jumped off the bed and ran out of his bedroom towards the other end of the trailer.  I finished the page of the comic that I was on and turned to read the next page.  A whole lot of shouting went on in the other end of the house … there was Steve’s father, using the voice of The Almighty, and Steve’s cracking voice, barely heard.

Hell was on Earth and in this mobile home.

The shouting grew louder.

Closer.

I heard heavy boot steps and even heavier footfalls rattling the trailer as they approached.  Steve’s dad marched Steve into Steve’s bedroom and demanded to be told what had happened.  Steve told his father about the accidental discharge and showed him the hole in the floor.  If I had thought that Steve’s father was righteously pissed before, I had no idea … When Steve told him about the accidental discharge, when he showed him the pistol and the hole in the floor Steve’s dad went ape nuts ballistic.  Realizing that I was trapped now, with no way out, I just sat there and continued to calmly read the “Micronauts” comic book.

It really was like being in the eye of a hurricane.

I want to say that I really tried to lose myself in the comic book as Steve’s father took the next two minutes to chew his son up one side and down the other.  His shouting voice echoed throughout the entire trailer and Steve stood there in that fury and took it all.  Probably the only thing that kept Steve’s father from beating on him was the fact that I was sitting there in the room with them and for that I guess I was grateful.  I, as a bystander at the edge of the verbal apocalypse, also had to endure the withering ire of Steve’s father.  In the end, Steve’s father grabbed … no, snatched up the small .32 caliber semiautomatic pistol, ejected the magazine, racked the slide to eject the round still in the chamber and shoved the pistol in Steve’s face.  He threatened to go throw the pistol in the river, claiming that Steve wasn’t old enough or mature enough to have a handgun like that and that it had been a big mistake to ever buy Steve the pistol.

Steve was almost in tears, his voice was that of a little boy seeking reconciliation.  Steve took a bit more wrath from his dad then his dad eventually relented and told Steve that it would be a long time before he got the small pistol back and that he would have to prove to him that he was mature enough to have it.  Steve’s father then stomped out of the room, pistol in hand, and that was that.

Steve stood there, looking all the worse for having come through what could only be described as an Old Testament level ass chewing.  I finished the “Micronauts” comic, looked up at Steve standing there and asked if he had any more issues.  Steve turned to me, incredulous.

“Wha … what?” Steve asked.

“Do you have any more issues of the new “Micronauts”?” I asked, holding the comic book up.

“I almost blew your head off …” he said.

“Yeah, but you didn’t so that’s life.” I said.  “Look, man … do you have issue number two around here somewhere because I’m kind of hooked on this series now?”

Steve just stood there, staring at me.

About that time James slinked in like a whipped puppy, looking confused.  He sided up next to Steve and tried to figure out what was going on.  When it escaped him completely as to why Steve’s father was so angry and had done so much shouting and stomping around the trailer he turned to Steve.

“What was all of that about, Cuz?” he asked.

James smelled like cigarette smoke.  It didn’t mix well with the smell of propellant still lingering in Steve’s bedroom.

“I was showing Shields my new pistol that dad got me and when I tried to pose with my Ruger and the pistol … and I accidentally fired off a round.”

James’ eyes got really big.

“You shot your pistol inside?!”

“Accidentally!” Steve said.

“I heard that from out in the yard!” James said.

“I shot a damn hole in my bedroom floor.” Steve said, pointing to the hole.

James walked a few steps over and looked at the hole in the floor by my foot.

“Damn, Opie!  You did!”

James looked from the hole in the floor up to me.

“It’s a good thing you weren’t sitting there when he accidentally pulled the trigger.” James told me.

“I was.” I said flatly, turning the page of the comic book.

“Whuh?” James asked, his eyes getting big.

“He was!” Steve said.  “I was standing on the bed and the pistol went off and I almost blew his damn head off!”

“No way!  Serious?” James asked.

“As a heart attack!” Steve said, nodding and getting up on the bed like he had been, posing again, thankfully this time without weapons, and showing James just how the accident happened.

“Damn!  Really?” James said and his look became even wilder eyed.

I shrugged my shoulders, finding another comic book, Sergio Arrogonne’s “Groo The Wanderer”, first issue, and starting to read that, amused at the mixing of the slap-stick humor and stupidity of the Three Stooges with a warrior like “Conan.”

“What the hell did Shields do when the gun went off?” James asked.

Steve looked down at me.

“Nothing.  He didn’t even flinch.  He just sat there reading a comic book.” Steve whispered.

James shook his head and looked at me.

“Where were you when Steve’s father was reaming him?” James asked.

“Right there!” Steve said, pointing at me.  “He just sat there reading!”

“You sat through all of that?” James asked, disbelief in his voice.

I nodded and went back to reading the comic book.  I was really getting bored and I wanted to get into the woods now more than ever.  James and Steve just shook their heads.  James sat on the bed next to me and I put the comic book down.  We both looked down at the hole in the floor of the bedroom of the trailer.

“You came that close.” James said, holding up two fingers with only a little space separating them.

“You came that close to eating a bullet tonight.”

“By accident.” I said.

“You could have been dead, by accident.” James said.

I shrugged my shoulders, again.

James just stared at me. 

Disbelief.

I thought about what had just happened.  I can’t tell you why I was so calm when it all happened, it just seemed that it happened, no one was hurt and that was that.  It was a stupid mistake, it could have been a lot worse, a whole lot worse but it wasn’t so why waste time worrying about what if and what might have been.  It just didn’t make much sense to me to think or worry about something that didn’t happen or what might have happened if it had.  Going to pieces and getting hysterical like some girl wasn’t going to change the fact or alter the outcome and acting like that when something like that happened just never made any sense to me.

“I … I don’t think he even flinched when I pulled the trigger ...”

James looked back at me, smiled and chuckled.

“You’re pretty damn cool, Shields.” James said.

“Hell yeah he is!” Steve seconded.

I shrugged my shoulders.

“STEVE!” his father shouted from the other end of the trailer.

“Sir!  Coming!” Steve shouted back and took off running.

James stared at the wall in front of us.  I just put the comic book down, closed my hands together and sat there as well, staring at the floor and at the recently made bullet hole in the floor.  We could hear more shouting from the other end of the mobile home only this time more subdued, less intense.

“What do you think his dad is going to do?” James asked.

“Drag him outside and beat him with a tree limb, probably.” I said.

“Not that man.  Hell, he’ll beat him with a whole tree.” James laughed.

Silence.

More shouting from the other end of the trailer … a big, deep, angry voice and a little voice answering … James and I understood the gist of what was being said, we just couldn’t hear the exact words.  Regardless, it wasn’t pretty and it didn’t bode well for Steve.  By default, that didn’t bode well for James or me either.

“Well, this really isn’t how I expected to spend my Friday night.” I said, taking “Groo the Wanderer” and nonchalantly tossing it over on top of Steve’s dresser.

“What?  Almost getting shot in the head?” James replied.

“Well, there’s that … but I guess that doing something stupid like that … in his own room … you know.”

“What?” James asked.

“Think about it.  Steve just accidentally shot a pistol in his own bedroom.  I bet Steve’s going to get grounded like forever.”

James thought about that.

“Damn.  Yeah, you’re probably right.”

Oh, I was pissed.  I’d been looking forward to this camping trip for almost a week now and here Steve went and did something stupid and screwed it up for all of us.  Yeah, I was pissed … really pissed. 

“I bet we’re not going camping tonight, either.” I said flatly.

James turned and looked at me, sudden realization on his face.

“Damn!  I hadn’t thought about it like that but you’re probably right!  Steve’s dad is mighty pissed, Cuz.  Mighty pissed.”

I wanted to tell James that Steve’s dad wasn’t half as pissed as I was but I figured it was just bitching about something I really had no more control over anymore so I just kept my opinion to myself.  About then Steve came back into the bedroom with tears in his eyes. 

“Told you.” I said quietly as Steve leaned up against his bedroom wall, sniffed loudly and regained his composure before telling us about his punishment that his father had handed down from up on high.

Apparently his father had not only taken away the pistol that he had bought Steve but his father had also grounded him. 

Indefinitely. 

Probably forever.

And a day.

The three of us talked about Steve’s punishment.  His being grounded meant that James and I could either go camping on the sandbar by ourselves tonight or we could go back home to Hattiesburg.  I guess Steve was thinking that since we were such good friends and since he couldn’t be with us camping tonight that we would just go back home to Hattiesburg.  After all, without him it wouldn’t be the James Gang out in the woods raising hell all night long.

It was late, dark late, later than I liked.  I had wanted to be in the woods and down on the sandbar before sundown but that wasn’t going to happen and now I was just ready to go back to Hattiesburg and chalk this ruined evening up to stupidity and just bad luck but James said that we’d go camping since we’d driven all this way out here.  Steve seemed a little more crushed that we’d still go camping without him in the group.  Even I thought that was a little cold but I could see the argument … we drove thirty miles to go camping and since we were here we might as well go camping.

The hell with it.

It wasn’t our fault that Steve had dragged his ass for the past hour and a half or that he’d decided to Rambo himself into house arrest until he was 80 years old.  Nope, the reason that the three of us weren’t already down on the sandbar raising hell and having a great time was because of Steve.

“Sorry, Cuz.” James said, putting his hand on Steve’s shoulder.  “We’ll shoot a few cans for you.  Just lay awake tonight and listen for us busting caps way off in the woods and you’ll know that we’re having a great time without you.”

“Screw you!” Steve countered.  “Oh, screw you, man!”

James’ serious look faltered then he broke into a smile but until he cracked he had Steve going full believer.  James laughed and Steve forced a smile then sat on the bed and watched us go.

“Have fun without me.” Steve said loudly, dejectedly as James and I walked down the hall and to the front door.

It was a tense situation and I felt like I needed to blow off some steam and to get away from here as fast as I could.  Steve’s slacking and then the accident with the pistol had really messed our plans up tonight.  As it was, James and I were free to go camping down on the sandbar but Steve couldn’t go with us.  Since it was getting late, I guess it really was just easier to go camping here than it was to drive thirty miles back to Hattiesburg and try to find some trouble to get into back there.

Still … without Steve it just wouldn’t be the James Gang.

We thanked Steve’s parents for letting us go camping and for letting us spend the night on their land.  Steve watched from the front door as we grabbed our stuff out of the back of Steve’s old blue Ford Ranger and hiked the hard way through the woods to the sandbar that we always camped on down by the creek.

Each time that we’d gone camping with Steve, we’d taken his Ford Ranger and driven back through the woods to the sandbar and having done that often enough during late afternoons and early morning light James and I knew the way to the sandbar.  This time, however, with Steve grounded for eternity plus a day and without his Ford Ranger to carry us in style, James and I had to hump the distance on foot and even though we knew the way, even in the dark, it was still a pretty good hike and I began to question why I’d brought so much gear with me.  The answer was having always had Steve’s Ranger to carry the load I hadn’t anticipated ever having to hump the gear on my own and that had spoiled me for how much gear I had started to bring along on these trips.  I wasn’t alone in that rethinking … James complained about the amount of gear that he was having to hump down the trail as well.  I made a promise to myself that when I did get back home I was going to put my gear selection on a serious diet.

The mutual bitching back and forth seemed to lighten the mood and that helped the situation immensely.

Twenty minutes and a lot of general complaining later we had walked through the woods and arrived at the familiar sandbar.  There was something about clearing the woods and seeing that big sandbar with the creek running past it and starting to curve back around.  We dropped our packs and gear.  I sprayed myself with Off insect repellant then handed the can to James while I used his hatchet to cut some nearby wood.  We quickly built a fire, a big fire, adding a good bit of light to the sandbar and illuminating not just the woods around us but the woods on the other side of the creek as well.  Just as we were setting up our camp for the night, we heard the sound of Steve’s old Ford Ranger coming crashing through the woods and underbrush.  The little blue Ranger pulled up about twenty feet from where we were, illuminating us in its bright headlights and flashing orange safety lights.

Steve hopped out, excited.

“Man!  You can see that fire almost back at the house!”

James stood by the fire, hatchet in hand, disbelieving what he was seeing.  The firelight, mixed with the Ranger’s headlights and the flashing orange caution lights set the entire area alight in a hellish display of flashing and flickering while smoke wafted through the high beams of the Ford Ranger.

“What are you doing down here, Cuz?” James asked, hatchet still in hand.

“Dad said I could go camping tonight!” Steve said, hurriedly pulling his gear out of the back of the truck and picking a spot between where James and I were already claiming.

We didn’t ask how … or what Steve had to promise to do in order to get out of his pending prison sentence we were just happy that Steve could join us for this camping trip … even if he was probably still grounded for life.

The James Gang rode together.

Again.

“Just try not to shoot one of us accidentally.” I said.

“Yeah!  I think we should make him unload his guns before he goes to sleep!” James said.

“Screw you both!” Steve shouted back, laughing and putting down his sleeping bag.

 

We spent most of Saturday floating the Talahalia, taking our time, eating junk food, drinking water and soft drinks and generally wasting ammunition on anything that we thought needed to be shot or shot at or needed some holes put in it to improve its looks.  It was a fun day, more fun than we’d had in a long time.  The flat bottom boat didn’t have a motor so we had a pair of paddles to guide us and keep us moving when the water got calmer than we’d like.  Steve sat in the rear, paddling and steering.  James sat in the front, paddling and I sat in the middle, holding my .22 semiautomatic rifle and I guess riding shotgun.  It was that way for most of the trip.

James smoked.

Steve talked … and talked … and talked.

I was lost in thought.

We saw a lot of snakes that day and one time the current got a bit tricky and took us right into an old fallen tree that had a big snake on it, a moccasin by the looks of it.  That snake didn’t last very long.  James and Steve saw the snake, tried to avoid the tree and couldn’t.  The flat bottom boat hit the tree, the snake saw us, we saw it, the snake reared back and … the snake got beat to a pulp under James’ fury of paddle strikes.  I almost thought that James was going to break his paddle trying to beat the snake to death.

Whack!

Whack!

Whack!

“James.”

Whack!

Whack!

Whack!

“James?”

Whack!

Whack!

Whack!

“James!”

Whack!

Whack!

Whack!

“James!!!!”

James stopped whacking the snake with the paddle, caught his breath and turned to face Steve.

“What?!” he asked.

“The snake is dead, James.  You can stop beating it with the paddle now.”

James looked down at the pulped snake.  When James and Steve asked me why I hadn’t shot the snake I told them that I couldn’t get a clear shot with James going all Chuck Norris and kung-fu with his paddle on the snake.  For the rest of the day James’ new nickname was “Snake Beater” and when Steve wanted to switch paddles with James, James refused saying that the paddle he had was his “Snake killing paddle” and he wasn’t going to give it up.

We took turns putting our empty drink cans in the river, letting them get a little ahead of the flat bottom boat and then seeing who could fill the can with enough holes to sink it the quickest.

We passed a pair of blue panties hung up on a limb sticking out over the river.  Steve stood up and tried to get the blue panties with his paddle, saying that he was going to snag them and drop them on James’ head but couldn’t quite reach them and almost fell in the creek when he rocked the boat.  While James was laughing at Steve almost going into the drink, I calmly turned at the waist and put five quick rounds through the pair of panties, the last round tearing the panties from where they were snagged in the tree and sending them falling into the river.  The panties soaked up the water and slowly vanished from sight beneath the murky surface.

“And that’s why you don’t get dates …” James mused.

After that, my nickname for the rest of the day was “Panty killer.”

After seeing the blue panties sink we mused on how we were, somehow, always finding blue panties when we went shooting or floating or camping and how a pair of blue panties could have come to be hung out on a limb over the river like that.  I don’t think we came to a consensus on the answer but we did think that it might be the same girl leaving her panties behind each time.  When I mentioned the fact that the panties were blue and that it might not be a girl that was leaving them behind all the time the expressions on James and Steve’s face was priceless.

James had a .30 caliber Iver Johnson World War II era carbine with a carrying strap.  It was loud as hell but didn’t kick very much.  We took turns firing it but because the ammo was a lot more expensive than the ammo for our .22 rifles we ended up saving James’ .30 caliber ammo for “big stuff” and “just in case” while we let James shoot our .22 rifles and he let us shoot his .22 Ruger pistol.

Sometime during the day when we were all lost in thought James lit a cigarette and started smoking.  The breeze was just right that when James exhaled his smoke drifted back on me and Steve.  After the third exhale, Steve lit a firecracker and tossed it over near James.  I saw it sail past me and land on the cross member of the flat bottom boat where James was sitting.

James was oblivious to what was slowly cooking right next to his ass.

I looked up at Steve who smiled and quickly put his finger to his lips.  James had his back to both of us, staring off into space, smoking and day dreaming.  I cradled my rifle to my shoulder, slowly reached up and put my fingers in my ears.  A second later the firecracker went off next to James’ daydreaming ass, rudely shattering the still and quiet that we had come to take for granted for the last few minutes of slow floating.  James jumped up in the boat, screaming, losing his cigarette over the side and rocking the boat almost to the point of dumping us all (and our gear) into the creek.  Steve and I busted out laughing at the same time trying to steady the boat and keep it from tipping over.  James flipped us off and sat back down in the boat.

“Cuz, that wasn’t funny.” He muttered, pulling out a cigarette and lighting up.

“That was funny as hell.” Steve said.  “You looked like you were about to step out of this boat and walk on water!”

“Your ass did levitate about this much.” I said, holding my hands a good bit apart.

“Yeah, well I jumped because I thought Opie there had another accident and had put a hole in the boat this time, you know, like he put a hole in the floor of his room last night.”

Steve gave a mock laugh and flipped James off.

James relented and laughed, sitting back down and checking his pack of cigarettes to see how many he had left.

The next few hours we snacked, shot at any snake or turtle that we saw and we used firecrackers as well as our .22 rifles and James’ .22 pistol to destroy any drink cans we finished up, sending the bullethole filled aluminum cans to the bottom of the dark creek.  After we put into shore near Runnelstown at the end of the float we loaded our gear and the flat bottom boat up in Steve’s old blue Ranger.  Steve’s dad and mom had walked through the woods down to the sandbar earlier to get the Ford after we left on our float and then they had driven the Ford down to Runnelstown and parked near the truck near the bridge so we’d have it later that afternoon when we got back.

Packing our gear and going through our stuff we had maybe enough .22 rounds left between us to load each of our rifles and James’ Ruger pistol fully with a few loose rounds to spare.  James still had almost half of his .30 caliber rounds and as for fireworks we had about half a paper bag left … consisting of bottle rockets wrapped and loose, black cats, lady fingers, a few smoke bombs and a couple of cat chasers and cascades.  When we turned the flat bottom boat over to clear it about a handful of spent brass fell out onto the sand, brass that hadn’t cleared the boat during our firing sprees.

I’d gotten a lot more sun today than I thought I had and I felt hot.  Thankfully I hadn’t blistered, especially with the sun reflecting off of the surface of the water all day long … still, I was red and there was temp in my skin, especially on my neck, face and forehead.  I’d go home and take a long shower, get a glass of iced tea, pop a few Tylenol and take a nap.  James didn’t get as much sun as I did but poor Steve, with his fair complexion, suffered the most of all of us.

Steve drove us back to his house and it was evident that we were all tired, dirty, sweaty and worn out.  After we said our goodbyes and thanked his parents once again for letting us come out and camp overnight, James and I loaded our stuff in the trunk of my Camaro and headed back to Hattiesburg.  After a hot day of floating the creek I was all I wanted more than anything was a long hot shower and maybe a nap.  James and I decided that later tonight, after we had cleaned up and rested that we’d get together and go do … something.

Maybe get some fast food and go see a movie or maybe go cruising and chase girls.

We flew west on Highway 42 at a pretty good clip, edging the needle on the speedometer to the north side of sixty.  We had the windows down and the air conditioner set on max with the fan speed set on high.  James had wanted to smoke and I didn’t want any of his cigarette smell to take to my car … if dad smelled cigarette smoke I’d be in for a short sermon and I just didn’t feel like going through that when I got home.

We cleared Runnelstown, the bridge where we’d put ashore for the day and on the west side of Runnelstown, near the community center, there was a long straight away that stretched almost to the horizon and had a pretty good grade to it.  It was right before this that James and I suddenly found ourselves behind a big group of cars and an eighteen wheeler tanker that was obviously having some trouble making its way up the grade.  I slowed down … way down … and then took my place at the end of the line of cars … creeping along.

“Why the hell is that tanker going so slow?” I asked, mentally counting the number of cars in front of us.

“Maybe he lost a gear …” James mused.

“Or maybe he’s just a spastic retard who can’t drive a big tanker.” I mused.

“Or maybe that …” James agreed.

Ten cars.

I counted ten damn cars plodding along like little lost sheep behind the 18 wheeler tanker.  I was the eleventh car in the long row behind the tanker trailer.  A minute and a half of doing barely 30 mph in a 55 mph zone had me gripping the Camaro’s steering wheel in frustration and it looked like we were slowing down even further.

28mph.

25mph.

My left hand on the wheel, my right hand kept clicking the Camaro’s automatic transmission button down, moving the gear shifter out of lock and then back up again.

Click.

Click.

James took a long drag from his cigarette, blowing out the passenger side window and keeping his cigarette in his right hand where he didn’t get ash inside my car.

25mph in a 55mph zone and all because some retard didn’t know how to drive a big rig up a mild grade.

“Well, I guess we’re going to be like this till Petal.” James mused, leaning back and putting his head against the back of the Camaro’s passenger seat, residing himself to the fact that we were obviously going to be stuck in traffic for a while yet and that it might be this way all the way back to the outskirts of civilization.

I leaned over and looked out the left side window.

It was clear as far as I could see in the oncoming lane.

I looked behind.

No traffic coming up behind me, either, no one trying to do what I was about to do.

I gripped the four spoke Rally steering wheel in my left hand and the console mounted three speed automatic gear selector in my right.  I reached down and slid Judas Priest’s “Defenders of the Faith” cassette into the Kenwood.  The Kenwood’s automatic music search feature found the song I was looking for and Judas Priest began to lay down some righteous heavy metal goodness with “Rock Hard, Ride Free.”

I felt better now that some Priest was playing but still … this was ridiculous and at this pace it would take us a half hour to forty-five minutes to get to Petal.

“Too many to pass …” James said, his eyes closed, his head leaning back.

“You think so?” I asked, annoyed at the traffic.

“Yeah.  I mean, just look at them.  There’s too many cars there to pass.”

“If we were driving your old piece of crap Mustang, yeah, it probably would be too many to pass.  Screw this!” I said.

“Huh?” James asked, opening his eyes and raising his head up from the seat.

My only reply to him was to whip the ’78 Chevy Camaro Rally Sport over into the oncoming lane of the two lane highway and stomp the loud pedal all the way to the floor.  Whamp-whooooommmmm!  The small block Chevy V8 under the hood roared as the Rochester Quadrajet opened its four barrels wide and the Camaro accelerated past the slower moving vehicles.

“Cuz!  What are you …?” James asked, disbelief on his face.

We passed the first car.

Second car.

“Oh hell!” James said loudly, letting his cigarette go and gripping the door tight.

Third car.

Fourth car.

I glanced over at James.  He was sitting there, staring straight ahead … smiling.

“Oh hell yeah!” James said loudly.  “Hell yeah!”

70 miles an hour.

Foot flat to the floor.

The 350 cubic inch small block V8 under the hood was screaming and the exhaust was roaring.  Judas Priest was providing the soundtrack to this stunt, loud and clear.

Fifth car.

Sixth car.

80 miles an hour.

“Row my God!  Go!  Go, cuz, go!”  James shouted, laughing.

Seventh car.

Eighth car.

90 miles an hour.

Tenth car.

100 miles an hour.

Tanker trailer.

100 miles an hour and some change.

I eased the Camaro back over into the right lane and let up off of the accelerator.  We began to coast and slow.  I looked back in the rearview mirror at the long line of cars that we had just passed.  That run had been … effortless.  Rob Halford was crooning out the lyrics and everything just seemed to fit perfectly.

A few seconds later an oncoming pickup truck came over the hill and shot past us going the opposite direction.  Then another car … and another pickup hauling a trailer and what looked like a bush hog for a tractor.  The timing had been right for that stunt … and it helped to have a good car with some guts under the hood, a car with an engine big enough and strong enough to eat up some real estate in a hurry if you had to.  The needle on the speedometer had run out of numbers at 100 but now it was starting to fall back past 90.  The roar of the small block V8 had subsided when the loud pedal had come back up leaving only the scream of the wind past the open windows and Halford’s vocals to keep pace.

James closed his mouth, a big smile on his face as he turned around in the passenger seat, looking back out the rear view window.  By the time that we had coasted back down to 70 miles an hour James looked back at what we had just done and the stretch of roadway that we’d just covered.

“Cuz!  We just passed ten cars and a tanker trailer!  On a two lane!” James mused.

“Yep.” I said, gloved hand on the steering wheel, gloved hand on the console mounted shifter.

“We just passed ten cars and a tanker trailer!  At one time!  In a row!  On a two lane!” James said again, this time more excited.

“Yes, we did.” I said flatly, reaching up a gloved hand to pat the dash of the Camaro.

James turned to me, smiling and laughing.

“That was totally bad ass!  How fast were we going?”

“Somewhere over a hundred …” I said, looking down at the speedometer.  “The numbers ran out at a hundred and the needle was in the black.  Maybe a hundred and five.”

“A hundred and five?!”  James asked.

“Call it that.” I said.

James let out a loud whoop and held out his hand, high and I gave him a high five in turn.

“Cuz!  Your Camaro has got some balls under the hood!” James said.

“And a big pair behind the steering wheel, too.” I said.

“Yeah, it does.  It does.” James laughed.

Behind us, in the rearview mirror, the tanker trailer and the ten cars that were slowly following it continued to get smaller and smaller as we put more and more distance between us.  Finally we were so far ahead of them that I could no longer see them behind us.

We drove in silence for a while then James muttered something.  I think he said “That was pretty damn cool, Shields” but over the roar of the V8 under the hood, the howl of the wind at 70 miles an hour with both windows rolled down and the Kenwood blasting out Judas Priest I couldn’t really be sure exactly what James said.

 

Late night introspection

We listened to a lot of music when we went cruising and camping.  Music was just part of our lives, it was an important part of our lives and our preference for music ranged from Top 40 groups like Journey and Hall and Oates to heavy metal groups like Judas Priest and AC/DC.  Music seemed to play a big role in our camping as well.  My memories of music and camping centered around three songs in particular and in the later years of my life, whenever I heard any of these three songs I would be instantly reminded of that big sandbar on the Talahalia Creek way out in Perry County and the nights spent camping there next to the creek and under the stars.

The three songs that always seemed to be playing on the radio when we went camping were Bruce Springstein’s “Born in the USA” and “I’m on fire” from his “Born in the USA” album (probably played by us way more than it should have been in the summer of 1984) and a few months later John Waite’s “Change” from the “Visionquest” soundtrack (a movie that I think all three of us went and saw together when it came out in February of ‘85).  All three songs were favorites of ours and we always turned them up whenever they came on the radio.  Change” was a particular favorite of mine even though I didn’t have a clue about how much the song “I’m on Fire” would come to describe my life and my relationships in the coming years.

I remember one Friday night in the spring of 1985, falling asleep sometime around midnight and when I woke up a while later my watch said it was nearly 2:30 in the morning.  The boom box was still on, volume turned down low, and John Waite’s “Change” started playing on WHSY 104.5 FM.  I loved that song!  The camp fire had died down to orange and red glowing coals, James and Steve were asleep and I just lay there, listening to that song, staring at the dying camp fire and the stars above and wondering where I would be …

Change.

Life was all about change.

What my life would be like in ten years (1995) … twenty years (2005) … thirty years (2015)?  Prince had a hit song “1999” and the year 1999 was still fourteen years away … right then 1999 was almost as far ahead of me as my birth was behind me.  That seemed pretty deep, that in 1999 I would be 30 years old.  That was a concept that was hard to wrap my head around, being 30 years old.

What would it be like to be a thirty year old?  That seemed so far away.  I couldn’t think that far ahead so I scaled my musings back.

Where would I be in ten years?

Still too far ahead to think about.

Where would I be in five years?

When would I meet the girl that I’d marry?

What would she look like?

How would I know that she was the one?

When would I get married?

Would I have any kids?

How many kids would I have?

What kind of car would I be driving then?

Would I still have my Camaro or would I have something else?

I hoped I wouldn’t start driving some boring four door car or worse … a minivan.

Hell, would the world even be around in ten years?

Would there be nuclear war?

Would we all be riding around, road warriors, wearing old sports gear, driving rusty, smoking old cars with spikes and blades welded onto every surface all the while fighting and killing over a can of dog food?

Who knew?

Right then, in the spring of 1985 who really knew.  The world was in turmoil, Russia, Poland, the Middle East … Judging all of that by the immensity of the universe and trying to put it all into perspective and suddenly a big sandbar on the Talahalia Creek in Perry County seemed like the last place that anything like that could bother a fifteen year old boy.  I remember staring up at the stars, hearing the campfire pop and just … wondering.  I was completely lost in thought as John Waite’s lyrics really started to hit home with me.

It really was just all change.

Everything in life was change.

All of this, my friendship with James and Steve, my Camaro, this camping experience … all of this was just temporary, a chapter in my life and one day this would be long gone and I’d look back on this and smile.  I realized right then that it didn’t matter what happened to you in life, what really mattered was how you dealt with what happened to you in life.  That’s what defined who and what you were and right then my fifteen year old mind was blown with that personal epiphany.

Steve turned in his sleeping bag, raised his butt slightly and cut a really loud fart.

James immediately whispered “Ugh.  That was nasty, cuz.”

Steve laughed and fluffed his sleeping bag loudly.

James hunkered down in his sleeping bag and zipped it all the way up like some kind of full body gas mask.

“You think Shields heard that?” Steve whispered.

“Naw, cuz.  He’s sound asleep.  A bomb couldn’t wake him up.” James replied.

“Wanna bet?  Throw a Black Cat over by the top of his sleeping bag!”

“I don’t have any Cats with me.”

“Where are they?” Steve asked.

“I put them back in the truck to keep the dew off of them.”

“Well … go get them.” Steve said.

“Naw.  I’m comfortable.  You go get them.”

“Naw.  I’m comfortable too.” Steve said.

“Sorry.” James said.

“Yeah.  Okay.  Would have been funny to see him jump in his bag.  Night, dude.” Steve said.

“Night, Opie.” James said.

Within minutes both James and Steve were asleep again, snoring.

I suppressed a laugh because it was all so surreal.  Life seemed so easy and so simple right then.  Just listening to John Waite on the boom box, sleeping under the stars, with a dying campfire and two good friends to keep me company, my life was perfect even if I knew that it couldn’t last forever but then that was life.

 

A Typical Friday Night

June 29, 1984.

The James Gang was going to go see “Conan – The Destroyer” which opened at the Broadacres Cinema that Friday night but James got called in to work.  When Steve and I decided to go on to the movie without James he pretended to be crushed.

“Aw, Cuz.  You’d go see “Conan” without me?” he drawled.

“It’s “Conan”, of course we’re going to see it without you.” Steve said.

James lit up a cigarette.

“All right.  Be that way.  Hey!  When you get through stop by the Queen and see me after the movie, tell me how it is.” He said.

“You got it!” Steve said.

Steve and I took his blue ’82 Mustang to the movie, watched “Conan – The Destroyer” and then left out headed towards Dairy Queen on Highway 49 where James was working until close.

“Hey!” Steve suddenly said.  “Why don’t we get some shaving cream and decorate James’ Mustang?”

The idea sounded like fun and I agreed.  Steve drove past Dairy Queen to the gas station just across the street and we bought two cans of rich, lather making shaving cream then drove around the back of Dairy Queen where James’ ’72 white Mustang was parked.  We got out and began to decorate James’ pony with all manner of foamy goodness including writing insults on his windows.  We were about halfway through when a customer at the drive through saw us, told the person working the drive through what we were doing and suddenly the rear door to Dairy Queen flew open and James and his manager, Marcus, came running out.

“Hey!  Hey!  That’s my car!  I’ll kick your ass!” James shouted.

He was still too far away to see who was shaving creaming his Mustang but for a tall, lanky guy I have to say that when James got up to speed he could cover some real estate in a short amount of time.  As he ran up to Steve and me we both stopped what we were doing and just stared at him, guilty smiles on our face.  James came to a stumbling stop and took the situation in.

“Were they trying to break into your car?” Marcus asked, stopping beside James and trying to get a feel for the situation, looking like he was ready to start fighting someone.

James saw who it was that had been bothering his Mustang, shook his head, smiled and pulled out a cigarette to light up.  He took a long puff then blew it out.

“No … I know these two idiots.” He said.

“Hey!  We’re not idiots!  We’re your friends!” Steve exclaimed.

“Some friends …” Marcus said, bumming a cigarette from James.

“We thought we would surprise you, you know, decorate your ‘Stang.” Steve said.

“Oh, you surprised me all right!” James said, taking another drag.  “I haven’t run that hard in a long time.”

“If you put those cigarettes down, you’d run a lot faster.” I told James.

James flipped me off as James and Marcus walked around James’ Mustang, looking at the “damage”.  There was shaving cream in the spokes of his wheels, in the pony corral of his hood, and there were “cake decorations” going up and down the rim of his windows.  Across his windshield Steve had written “DORKMOBILE” in big letters.

“What do you think we should do?  Call the cops?” Marcus asked.

Steve got a worried look on his face.

“Naw.  Just let them get the hose and clean it all off.” James said, taking his keys from his pocket and underhand tossing them to Steve who caught them.

“Aw.  We weren’t finished.” Steve said.

“You are now.” James said, finishing his cigarette and grounding it out under his shoe.  “Go wash my car then come in and hang out for a while.  I’m almost about to close and if you want something to eat you better hurry because Marcus is going to start cleaning the grill.”

Steve and I hopped in James’ Mustang, drove it over to the side of Dairy Queen where there was a hose then used the hose to rinse James’ Mustang clean of the shaving cream.

Man that was a lot of bubbles and suds.

At one point there was so much white coming off of his Mustang that I told Steve that we might be actually washing his paint off but when we were finished James’ Mustang looked better and shinier than it had in weeks.  We hung up the hose, parked James’ old white Mustang next to Steve’s blue Mustang then went into Dairy Queen and ordered food.

“And that’s hold the spit!” Steve said as James made his hamburger.

“After what you two did to my Mustang?” James said.  “You get the special sauce.”

“Hey!  We washed your car!” Steve said.

“You HAD to wash my car!” James replied.

“Yeah, well, it’s cleaner now than it was before.”

“I appreciate that.” James called back from the kitchen.

“Yeah, so, maybe you can get a date in it now.” Steve said.

“First he has to clean out the inside.”

We saw James’ hand and middle finger rise above the ice cream dispenser and we all laughed.

Steve and I hung out with James and Marcus after the Diary Queen had closed and after they locked up we all hung out in the parking lot until after midnight, talking, with James and Marcus smoking and Steve and I finishing the last of our drinks.  We talked about the movie, how it wasn’t as good as the first “Conan” movie but we still liked it.  About 12:30 we broke up and went our own ways.  Marcus left, James went home and Steve drove me back to my parents’ house.  It was almost one in the morning and Steve still had to drive past Runnelstown to get home so that would put him almost two in the morning before he got home.

I wished that I had a curfew like that and in the next few weeks I managed to get just that from my parents.  The rest of the summer would be like that … hanging out, staying out later and later, sometimes even until dawn.  It was a heady time to be a 15 year old guy with a pair of really good friends and a set of really cool, really lenient parents.

 

Losing Our Virginity

All through the 1983 and 1985 school years I remember that there was this kind of unspoken race to see which one of us would lose our virginity first.  It was a lofty goal and one that seemed as reachable as it was unreachable.  Sex was the great conundrum for us … often serious, often a joke.

As young boys often do we bragged a lot about what we would do if we were ever presented with the situation where we could lose our virginity.  We thought that we were full of knowledge on the subject and we may have been, limited as that knowledge was and gained as it was from less than credible sources.  In hindsight a lot of our bragging and boasting was just that, we had no experience with sex or a naked girl other than pornographic magazines like “Hustler” or “Penthouse” or the occasional porno movie itself.  In 1983 I doubt that any of us had ever seen an actual naked girl let alone any of the good parts of her.

When you are in your early teens, “Hustler” might as well be “National Geographic” when it came to your quest for sexual education.  Growing up in Hattiesburg and being a teen made me realize that there was just so much wrong information out there and the whole AIDS thing was beaten into you by public service announcements and the news media on an almost daily basis.  Sex was out there, but it was booby-trapped.  If you had sex it was going to be the greatest thing that you ever experienced in your life then you’d get a really horrible disease and you’d die a really painful death and people would make fun of you when you were dead.  Sex was everywhere but it seemed like the whole world was conspiring to keep us virgins.

In 1983 and 1984 AIDS was misunderstood … it was really, really misunderstood … and the irony of the situation was that I turned to pornography, mainly skin magazines, to try to find answers to questions that I had and that no one else seemed to know the answer to.

I’d been reading pornography for years now, ever since I was 8 years old and had found my first Playboy in the woods near my house.  After that, I slowly accumulated what would become the largest collection of pornography in my age group.  I was the first kid on my block to see (and have) a dirty magazine hidden under my bed.  By the time I was thirteen I had probably sixty or seventy men’s magazines in a box in my closet.

My parents never talked to me about sex.

I’m not sure why they never did but they never did.  Maybe they were embarrassed to … maybe they thought that my friends would just do the job for them.  Maybe they thought that if they didn’t have “the talk” with me that I’d either absorb the much needed sex knowledge through the act of osmosis or that I’d just never get interested in sex.  That was denial on their part, my sex hormones or whatever it was that drove a teenage boy crazy, were in full overdrive.  Other kids may have had a sex drive but my sex drive was a supercharged, fuel injected, nitro boosted big block and I was idling at the tree, ready to tear out of the hole for that first run to glory.

So, not having any valuable input or feedback from my parents and having gotten basically a whole lot of misinformation and nonsense from my friends and peers, I got my sex education from pornographic magazines, the spreads, the articles, the humor and cartoons and the real life stories sent in by the readers.  I loved the girls of “Beaver Hunt” because they weren’t glossy … they were real, amateurs, the girl next door.  I loved the stories in Hustler and read each one over and over again, trying to figure sex out, trying to answer my own questions and trying to discard all of the nonsense that I’d heard and been told.  The funny thing is that when I was thirteen and fourteen years old I really did read the dirty magazines for their articles … that’s how I learned all about the female body, the parts of the female body, the myths and legends, the truths and the lies and what you should do to and with a naked girl.

Mentally I’d made notes.

Sex seemed so … wonderful.  So … odd.  Two people sharing their bodies, doing things … that just seemed … strange and wonderful and odd and weird.  I couldn’t wait to try sex.

There was a joke that I’d read when I was thirteen years old, I think I read it in one of those old double sided adult joke paperback books where one half of the book was the “Official Sex Maniacs Joke Book” and you flip it over and the other half was the “Official Virgins Joke Book”.  I read this one joke and I understood it even then because while it was funny it seemed to match my exact outlook on life and on sex.

Basically the joke goes that a pretty young woman goes on tour to an Indian reservation and gets lost from her tour group.  As she is walking around the reservation she runs into an Indian chief in full tribal dress.  She stops to take a picture of him and he raises his hand and says “Chance.”  Confused, she says that she thought that all Indians said “How.”  The Indian chief smiles, looks her up and down and replies “Know how.  Want chance.”  That one joke pretty much summed up my quest to lose my virginity at the earliest age possible.

I knew how to have sex (at least in theory), I just wanted the chance.

As for James, Steve and I … The three of us had ideas on what to do we just didn’t have the chance yet to do it and I’m sure that we all prayed that if the chance presented itself that we would at least make a good showing of our first time and not be a total dork … the kind of dork that couldn’t last or couldn’t perform and got talked about badly or even laughed at in the girls’ bathroom or gym locker room for the rest of high school.  While we understood the theory of what was supposed to happen, our experience was lacking but it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying to get that experience.

We knew how.

We just needed a chance.

Now I have to say that virginity is different for guys than it is for girls.

A lot different.

For girls virginity is a delicate flower, surrounded in myth and mystery.  It is precious.  It is delicate.  It is fragile.  It is something to be guarded and protected … by security systems, laser beams, guard dogs, big rusty pad locks and ex-Vietnam veteran fathers who still draw psycho pay for post combat stress disorders.  For guys, virginity is a piece of ugly luggage that we were born with.  We didn’t ask for this piece of luggage, we didn’t pick it out ourselves yet we had to carry that ugly piece of luggage around through puberty and our teenage years all the while spending most of our time trying to get rid of it as soon as we could.  It’s the kind of luggage that when other guys know you still have it they laugh at you because apparently they got rid of their luggage the first chance they got.

If you’re a teenage guy and you’re a virgin, you’re in a group of guys you don’t want to be in and that group is getting smaller and smaller all the time.  Being a virgin says that you haven’t found anyone who would let you have sex with them, let alone anyone who would actually want to have sex with you.  There’s a difference there …

For a girl, losing her virginity is something that is frowned upon.

For a guy, losing his virginity is a rite of passage, a bragging right and a first class ticket out of a dwindling club of losers.  It is also usually accompanied by the heavens opening, rays of holy light shining down and all the choir of heaven singing in rejoice at the act.

Or at least it feels like that … or at least it was supposed to if I could believe even a tiny bit of what I’d been told, read and heard.

When I was 14 I was determined to lose my virginity the first chance I got.  After all, I saw no real need in keeping my virginity and it wasn’t like I could put it on my resume or job application like I could if I told an employer that I was an Eagle Scout.  Yeah, virginity just really didn’t carry much weight on anything.

Girls seemed to be looking for guys with experience but to get that experience you had to have been with a girl.  It was the catch-22 of sex.

I guess that losing my virginity was as big on my mind as it was because sex was such a big part of my high school years.  Ninth and tenth grade were full of sex for everyone but me.  It’s not that I was getting any sex but I was certainly exposed to it … it was happening all around me and apparently everyone else but me was getting sex which only frustrated me to no end since sex seemed so pervasive yet so elusive.  If sex had been a Jehova’s Witness then my house was the only front door in the neighborhood that they didn’t knock on.

In 1983 it seemed like sex was everywhere at my high school.  Rumors.  Stories.  Conversations, sometimes hushed, sometimes spoken out loud.  Who was doing who, what was being done, when it was being done.

It didn’t help that in 1983 every member of The James Gang was a virgin.  Oh, we talked about sex a lot, especially on camping trips, when we floated the creek and when we went shooting.  We talked about girls we liked and what we’d like to do to those girls if they gave us half a chance.  In hindsight we didn’t have a clue … but we were eager and willing and that certainly had to count for something.  Call it an “A” for effort.

Sex became a goal and the first one of us who actually did lose their virginity was going to get some major respect among his peers so it actually became kind of a contest of sorts.  James and Steve seemed to have a better than good head start on me because all of the girls that I wanted to date were in their class (or the senior class a year ahead of them).  It was 1983 and at the age of 14 years old I realized that I just had this thing for older women and that I’d had this thing for older women for years now … probably since I was 7 or 8.

I was a freshman.

Ninth grade.

Girls in my class didn’t interest me at all (and I certainly had no fantasies about them).

Sophomore women seemed prettier.

Junior women were beautiful.

Senior women were simply gorgeous.

College women, on the many times that I rode through the campus of USM, were simply out of this world.

The more I thought about losing my virginity the more reality set in.  The truth was, given what I had to work with, I really didn’t have a chance in hell of beating James or Steve to the goal that we’d set for ourselves.  The higher the grade in high school the better looking the women … and the less chance I had of ever getting one of them to willingly drop her panties around me let alone go all the way.

I had a crush on at least two juniors and one senior that year but there was no way that I’d get anything out of them other than a bitter laugh if I had ever let them know that I was interested in them let alone ever asked them out.  These women were beautiful and so far out of my league they might as well have been lightyears distance away.  James and Steve, on the other hand, could have asked them out no problem and could probably have gotten a date with any of them.

It was 1983.

I was 14 years old.

I had no car, no job, and no money … three things that I was pretty sure that you really needed to have in order to even think about having a chance of losing your virginity.  During 1983 I didn’t have one single date and it didn’t take much to understand that I just didn’t have the infrastructure to support a relationship with a member of the opposite sex at that point in time.

1984 arrived.

The year held a lot of promise!

When I turned 15 in June of 1984 things changed!

Oh, how things changed!

Suddenly I had a job, a cool car, money to spend … I even had a kind of confidence that I’d never had before and I used that confidence to rapidly close the gap between James, Steve and me and our goal.

Okay, I was more cocky than confident but it was close.

I was a sophomore.

Tenth grade!

I didn’t ask out sophomore girls.

I asked out junior girls … and on two occasions I asked out senior girls.  One of them went out with me … She was two years older than I was.  Nothing happened but she couldn’t believe that I was just a tenth grader.  God, I loved older women.  Yeah, I got turned down more often than I got a date but I didn’t let that bother me.  It was trial and error from the start and definitely a learning experience to be sure but the more girls I asked out the more confident I became, even when I got told “no.”

I was cocky and playing with fire.

I kept asking girls out.  If one said “no” I marked her off the list and moved on.  Eventually I got more dates than I got turned down and for the first time in a long time I felt that I not only had a real chance at beating James and Steve in this private little bet that we had going but I thought that I just might.

During the fall of 1984 James dated several girls from his class, some of which we even competed against each other for, especially girls on the basketball team since I played high school basketball and spent long bus trips sitting next to and talking to some of the very girls that I had lusted after just a year before.  Now that I had a car, and a job, and money … and now that these girls were getting to know me better suddenly I wasn’t so young any more, suddenly I felt like I had a real chance with some of these older girls.

During the fall of 1984 I also dated a few girls from Oak Grove high school out in Lamar County.  Steve seemed to date only girls from the Richton / Runnelstown / Perry County area, mainly those from Perry Central.  He said it saved him a lot of gas if he didn’t have to drive thirty miles just for a date and to make out.

And then it happened … not to me, of course, but it happened just the same.  Sometime in the spring of 1985, after almost two years of trying and competing against each other the race was over.

The goal had been reached and the prize had been won. 

Yes, despite all of my and Steve’s attempts at winning the bet, James … long, tall, lanky James with the pornstar ‘stache and the big eyeglasses claimed victory in that he was the first of the three of us to lose his virginity.

Life just wasn’t fair.

James won and I remember the night that James lost his virginity because afterwards he drove over to my house to brag about it.

It was about 10:45PM on a Friday night.  I was standing in my bedroom at my parents’ house talking to my dad when there came a loud knock on my bedroom window.  Loud, frantic … excited.

Huh?

Then the knock again.

Louder this time.

More frantic.

And again.

Even louder this time, almost desperate.

“Shields!” a voice called out from right outside my bedroom window.

“What’s that?” My dad asked.

“Someone’s knocking on my window.” I said.

“Who?” Dad asked.

“Probably James … or Steve.  More likely James at this time of the night.” I said.

I stepped over to my bedroom window and looked out. 

It was James. 

“It’s James.” I told my dad.

James was standing there in my father’s well maintained shrub row, in the dark, smiling and rocking back and forth in place.  He had the biggest grin on his face, match that with his pornstar mustache and his big eye glasses and he looked like a kid that had just been given a gold star for doing something good in school.

“What?” I asked loud enough that he could hear me through the window.

“I GOT LAID!” James shouted again, loud enough for my dad and probably all of my neighbors on the street to hear him.

And like that James had won.

He had won.

Yeah, great.

Like I needed my friend standing outside my bedroom window at a quarter to eleven on a Friday night happily shouting loud enough for all the neighbors to hear that he had lost his virginity.  I quickly motioned for him to go around the back of the house to the back door and I’d meet him there.

“Who was that?” dad asked.

“Oh, just James.” I said.

“What was he screaming about?  What did he say?”

“He was telling me that he just got paid.” I said, thinking quickly.

“Oh.” Dad said, thinking about that.  “Why was he shouting about that?”

I shrugged my shoulders, keeping a straight face while doing so.

“Are you two going out?”

“Yeah, we’re going out to cruise and talk.  I’ll be back in a while.  Don’t wait up.”

Dad nodded as I walked into the other part of the house, opened the back door and met James under the carport.  He was animated.  He was bouncing in place, smiling, happier than I’d ever seen him before.

“I just got LAID!” he said loudly.

“Yeah, great.”

“You don’t understand!” James said.  “I GOT LAID!”

“I understand that, dude.  What you don’t understand is that you’re shouting.  Do you think you could say what you just said a little bit louder?  I don’t think people in Oak Grove heard you the first time.”

James suddenly got a sheepish look on his face as he realized just how loud he had been.

“Oh!  My bad!  Sorry, cuz!” He said.

“So … you got laid?  You really got laid?  No bullshit.” I asked.

James put his hand on my shoulder and got very serious.

“Christopher, I am here to tell you that I am officially no longer among the ranks of the virgins.”

I smiled and nodded.  Despite having lost a nearly two year running bet I was happy for James because if James could get laid then there was no way that I couldn’t!

It felt like a release for me.

One of us had finally done it!

One of the James Gang had finally had sex!

With all the sex happening all around me all the time I finally knew someone personally who was having sex or who had at least just had sex and that meant that sex was closer to me now than it ever had been before.  Maybe I’d lose my virginity soon.  Maybe the stars and planets or whatever it was in the universe that had to align in some particular way would align in that particular way and I’d finally get to lose my virginity.

One could hope.

Oh, one could hope.

“Let’s go cruising.” I said.  “You can tell me all about it.”

We did and he did and they did.

It happened after a date.

Under an old bridge near Glendale over by the old Hercules plant.

In the backseat of his Mustang.

They made out and she put out.

And that was pretty much it.

I don’t think James saw the girl again, it seemed like a one-time thing, a friend that he had known from his childhood, but it still counted even if it was only once and probably never would have happened with her ever again.

James was first.

James had won.

As for me, I was the last member of our little group to lose his virginity and it would be about six months after James lost his virginity before I lost my virginity but I didn’t mind because I got my wish!  I lost my virginity to an older woman!  I was a junior in high school, she was a freshman in college but that’s a story in and of itself and it’s certainly a story for another time ...

 

 

Kim

In the fall of 1984 I had my first steady girlfriend.

Her name was Vicky.

She was a grover.

I met her through a friend at my church that went to school with her.

I had picked my friend up from school one day, kind of babysitting him and his little brother while their dad was out of town, and Vicky saw me.  She got a crush on me and started asking my friend all about me.  He told me about her interest in me, he showed me a picture of her in the yearbook, I said I was interested in her and suddenly we were introduced and started dating.

I won’t say that Vicky was a knockout but she wasn’t hard on the eyes either.  Vicky was my first and last brush with mixed nationalities and Asians.  Her father was American, her mother was Asian and she was a mix.  Long black straight hair, hauntingly pretty eyes, tall and thin, literally the best of both worlds.  We dated a couple of times and then went steady for several weeks.

Suddenly I had a girl’s phone number!

A phone number that I was asked to call over and over and over again.

Suddenly I was talking to a girl all the time and seeing her every time that I could.

Vicky was the first girl that I kissed.

I remember my first kiss.

Magic.

I’d say that she was a good kisser but I had nothing to compare her to so I simply took what I had and enjoyed it.  Since Vicky was my first kiss she became the benchmark for which all other kisses would be judged, at least in the foreseeable future.  Some girls don’t like kissing, some girls like kissing, some girls really like kissing and some girls will try to suck your face off and shove their tongue down your throat.

Vicky liked kissing.

And holding hands.

Vicky dressed nice.

She wore perfume.

These were firsts for me.

First girlfriend.

First kiss.

First time a girl had dressed up nice to go out with me.

First date.

First perfume.

Vicky was fun to be with.

I’m saying this even though I had nothing to compare her to.

What the hell did I know?

I thought I knew everything.

The truth was that I didn’t have a clue.

One night I got invited over to her house and her friend, Kim, was there.  Vicky and Kim were the same age, my age.  They had classes together and often talked about me.

Kim.

Kim was a cute little blonde, prettier by far than Vicky and much more fun to be around.  Kim and I hit it off pretty quick which strangely didn’t bother Vicky at all.  In fact, it was almost like Vicky was trying to set the two of us up by inviting me over when Kim was there as well.

I guess it wasn’t so much Vicky trying to set us up as she was simply trying to pawn me off on someone else.  For the rest of that night and for most of the next week my thoughts were on Kim.

Vicky broke up with me a week later, she wouldn’t take my phone calls and she didn’t even tell me that we had broken up.  I only learned about our breakup from the mutual friend that had introduced me but that didn’t bother me because Vicky had only been going out with me because she liked my car.

She even told my friend that.

Normally that might hurt a guy’s pride or ego but for me it was like being handed a get out of jail free card.  In fact, Vicky breaking up with me was right then the best news that I’d had since I got my driver’s license because it meant that I was single again and being single meant that I could date Kim.

I really liked Kim … and Kim really liked me.

My friend from church told me that Kim liked me.  When I asked him how he knew he said that the fact that my name inside a bunch of hearts was written all over her school notebook told him so.

I was fifteen, Kim was fifteen and Kim was a knockout … an absolute knockout.  She was petite, thin, shoulder length blonde hair, a light dusting of freckles across her cheeks, sparkling blue eyes and a knock-out body.  Kim had developed early, she really filled out a bra and a set of jeans nicely, she had a great ass and she had a really pretty smile.

I was smitten.

Kim and I dated a few times then went steady.  Kim was easy to be with, effortless.  We did what most teenage couples did … I drove my ’78 Camaro over to her house, I’d pick her up, take her out to eat somewhere, we’d go see a movie and then I’d have her home at whatever hour her parents told me to have her back.  I could stay at Kim’s house later than her curfew but she had to be in by her curfew.  After we got back to her house, we’d often slip outside, lean up against the side of her house and make out there in her driveway.

I had liked Vicky.

It may even have been puppy love there for a while.

It was different with Kim.

I was in love with Kim and Kim seemed to be in love with me but when you’re fifteen what do you really know about love other than it feels good and you want it to last forever …  All I really knew for certain was that Kim had pretty blue eyes, a nice body, she liked to kiss, she liked to stick her tongue in my mouth and she did it well … and since I’d never had a girl do that to me before … so, yeah, I was in love.

Head over heels.

The three major things that set Kim apart from Vicky was that Kim was real, Kim was honest and Kim loved to French kiss (and she was really good at it).  Vicky and I had kissed lots of times but we’d never French kissed.  My second kiss with Kim, both in the same night, and her tongue slipped past my lips and found my tongue.  Like I said … Some girls don’t like kissing, some girls like kissing, some girls really like kissing and some girls will try to suck your face off and shove their tongue down your throat.

Vicky liked to kiss.

Kim liked to try to suck my face off and shove her tongue down my throat and if I had still had my tonsils she probably would have tried to take those as well.

Kim’s kiss was …

Hot.

Wet.

Wow!

My tongue against hers.

Kim sighing in my arms.

Deep breathing.

Kim’s hands roaming up and down my body.

My hands roaming up and down her body.

Kim pulling me tight to her.

I liked that!

I liked that a lot!

Being with Kim was easy … all I had to do was just be my natural outgoing self and she loved it.  I remember one time we had a pizza and movie party at her parents’ house and I made Kim laugh so hard that Coca-Cola came spewing out her nose and it must have burned because she started crying.  I could always make her laugh and she was really, really ticklish.  If you ever got her cornered on a couch and found her ribs or under her arms you had her right where you wanted her and if you ever pinned her down, pulled one of her shoes off and started tickling her feet she would almost wet herself laughing and giggling.  I made her cry a few times, from laughing so hard, while I was tickling her and then we would just slow down and make out.

Kim was so much better than Vicky had been.

Kim and I shared one interest … we both roller skated.  I’d been skateboarding since 1976 and roller skating since about 1977 and I’d owned my own pair of skates since 1978.  Skateboarding and roller skating had been all the rage in the late ‘70’s and I’d done both though I found that skateboarding with friends, especially in concrete ditches and culverts was fun but it was the roller skating to disco songs that I really liked.  Moving fast to good music … I really liked that.  In the late ‘70’s, I used to love to roller skate to stuff like Blondie’s “Atomic”, Rod Stewart’s “Do ya think I’m sexy?” and The Knack’s “My Sharona.”

During the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s skating rinks and skating parks rose and fell in the area.  I had started skateboarding and roller skating in ’77 but by the time I’d turned 12 in 1981 I’d lost interest in skateboarding though I still liked to roller skate.  When I met Kim roller skating still hadn’t faded from my list of favorite things and not only was roller skating still a popular thing to do when dating it was something that we shared.

Kim loved to roller skate and she could skate backwards as well as she could skate forwards.  Seeing Kim skate backwards, her bottom swishing and her hips and legs power stroking, was something that drove my fifteen year old mind crazy.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of her body when she was skating.  Skating became our thing because in 1984 roller skating was still a big thing if you were a teenager and it was still cool to go and hang out on a date at a roller skating rink, shooting pool, playing arcade video games, hanging out with your friends and just skating … especially couple skating.

I had a set of skates and Kim had her own set.

I’d call Kim up on a Friday night, ask her out and we would go get something to eat at some fast food restaurant somewhere and then spend the rest of our date skating at the local skating rink there on Highway 49 North in Hattiesburg.  When it was couples only skating time and the DJ would play love songs and dim the lights down to almost nothing Kim would grab my hand and we’d head towards the skating floor, her hand in mine, with Kim dragging me along with her.  We would skate together, facing each other, staring into each other’s eyes.

She told me that she loved me.

I told her that I loved her.

That made her smile.

I told her that she was beautiful.

That really made her smile.

Kim had a great smile, one that would melt icebergs at ten paces.

She skated backwards, I skated forwards, her hands on my shoulders, my hands on her hips, Top 40 love songs playing on the speakers, lights flashing, reflections from the mirrored dance ball rotating around the floor in crazy patterns.  Sometimes we skated fast, sometimes we skated slow.  I liked to skate slow because that let me lean close to her.  When we rolled into the dark parts of the floor we would kiss and her tongue would find mine.

The motion of the skates.

Her mouth to mine.

Her tongue around mine.

My hands holding her close to me.

Her whispering that she loved me.

Kim was a much better girlfriend than Vicky and a lot better kisser as well.

While Kim and I were dating, because I had Monday’s off, I’d sometimes go and see her at her high school there in Oak Grove, after she got out of class and before she left for the day.  I quickly found that dating Kim took up a bunch of my free time, almost all of it because if I wasn’t actually with her, on a date or just hanging out at her house then I was on the phone with her.  In fact, it got so bad that my parents decided to just put in an extra phone line in my room so that I could talk all I wanted to and they could still use their phone.

I was fifteen and had my own phone number and my own phone line.

Heady stuff.

I remember one time I had an away basketball game at Sylva Bay Academy in Bay Springs.  I was going to get back around 7pm … if I was lucky, if the game didn’t go into overtime … and if coach let me take my Camaro.  He did, after I explained the situation, and another teammate, Todd, and I hauled ass up to Bay Springs.  We left Hattiesburg, hit Laurel, blew on threw and were hauling ass running around 75mph all the way.  I kept up with some truckers, using my CB radio to keep in touch with them and talk to them along the way.

I had been shadowing one big black truck, the owner went by the CB handle “Dirty Deal” and while we were talking on the CB I blew past the exit to Bay Springs.  I was cutting it a little close on time so I hauled down on the brakes, pulled to the shoulder of the road, put it in reverse and backed down the on-ramp to the exit that I’d missed.  Dirty Deal laughed his ass off on the CB radio, telling me that I was crazy.  I told him I had a hot girlfriend that I had to meet later and there was no way that I was going to be late for my date.

Saying goodbye to Dirty Deal and thanking him for letting me run at high speed with him, I backed the Camaro down the on-ramp, back off of I-59 and made it to Sylva Bay Academy on time to dress out and play my game.  We won.  Afterwards, I got a quick shower, changed back to my date clothes, threw some cologne on and told Coach I was leaving.  As I got out to my Camaro I found that I had been kind of blocked in by some other vehicles.  Working the Camaro out I had to go partially off road into a field and that field was soft so within a few minutes my ’78 Rally Sport was stuck in mud.  A group from the other team saw me and walked over, asking if I needed help.  We tried to rock the Camaro free but all that did was sling mud everywhere and dig the Camaro deeper.  I was watching my time slip away with each spin of the Camaro’s rear end and each roostertail of mud I was slinging out behind the car.  Eventually, I managed to dig the Camaro down almost to the rear axle and I knew that I wasn’t going to make my date with Kim that night.

A guy named Brad came over to the driver’s window and asked if I needed him to get his four wheel drive truck and winch and help pull me out.  I told him that I really needed that because I had a date back in Hattiesburg.  I was supposed to meet Kim at 7pm at the Hub City Skating Rink on 49 north just outside of Hattiesburg.  It was 6:08pm right now.  Even if I could get free I’d have to haul ass and bend space and time to make it to my date.

“Is she hot?” Brad asked.

I pulled out my wallet and showed him a picture of Kim.

“Yeah, she’s hot.  Okay, let me go get my Chevy.”

A few minutes later a lifted 1984 Chevy Silverado rumbled slowly into view, red and silver, with mudders, a winch on the front bumper and a roll bar with running lights.  Brad and another guy that I recognized as the captain of the other basketball team hopped out, grabbed the winch and stuck it on the frame under the front of the Camaro.  Brad then used the winch to slowly pull my Camaro out of the muck and once the axle was clear and I was back again on halfway solid ground he had me stop while he unhooked the winch cable.  The only way to get out of the field I was in, past all the cars that had blocked me in, was to go farther out in the field then loop back around and hit the pavement at the end of the parking lot.  That would put me back on solid asphalt.

Brad stood by the driver’s side door and pointed all of this out to me.

“Now … once you start to get moving, don’t let up on the gas or you’ll get stuck again.  Just drive like hell and you’ll make it.”

I nodded, Brad slapped the roof of my Camaro and told me to go.  I drove like hell, sliding and slipping and praying and hoping that the Camaro didn’t bog down again.  I left a pretty good trail of ruts behind me as I left the soft field and hit the asphalt of the parking lot.  All I could hear was the roar of the V8 under the hood and the wet slapping of mud and grass against the underside and tire wells of the Camaro … but I made it.  Once I was on level ground I got out and looked at the Camaro … it was covered in mood from the back of the front wheel wells to the rear deck spoiler … covered in thick slapped on mud.  The tires were a muddy mess, the wheel wells were caked and when I glanced under the Camaro it was unbelievable how much mud had been slung up under the Chevy.

Brad, the other basketball team captain, and some other people all came over to look at the Camaro.  I thanked Brad for the pull and the help and then told them that I had a date to keep.

It was 6:28pm.  I had 32 minutes to get from Bay Springs to Hattiesburg.

I pulled my driving gloves on, buckled up and left Sylva Bay Academy with mud still being slung from my Camaro and falling off in clumps with each bump I hit.  I found the exit to Highway 59, took the ramp at high speed and winced for the next five miles as mud fell off of the Camaro or slung itself around the wheel wells.  I slung the Camaro from side to side several times to shake off what mud I could and that seemed to help.  By the time I hit Laurel I had 25 minutes to meet Kim and over 30 miles to go.

I put the loud pedal down and hauled ass.

75mph.

80mph.

85mph.

90mph.

95mph.

100mph.

I was passing other cars and trucks on Highway 59 like they were standing still, using the CB radio to try to find any highway patrol and to avoid going to jail … all because I had a hot girlfriend.  I was young and stupid and the best there was and had a bad ass car and knew how to drive it.

I pulled up to the Hub City Roller Rink at 6:59pm, parked my Camaro, got out, grabbed my backpack with my skates in it and went to stand by the entrance.  Kim’s mother pulled up in her Toyota minivan.  I met them and was told to have Kim home by 10pm.  After her mother pulled off, Kim and I kissed, a long, deep kiss.

“I missed you.” She said.

“I missed you, too.” I said, putting my hands on her hips and drawing her close to me.

“How was your basketball game?” she asked, edging her lips back closer to mine.

“We won.” I said.

We kissed again.

“Hey!  Where’s your car?” she asked.

“Uh, over there.” I said.

Kim looked where I had motioned and her eyes got wide.  She started walking over to my Camaro and I fell in step behind her.  When we got there she looked at all of the dried mud along the sides and rear of the Camaro, the dirty wheels and dirty tires, the muddy windows with the wiper tracks on them and she put her hand to her mouth, laughing and shaking her head.

“Don’t they have paved roads in Bay Springs?” she asked.

“Yeah, but I got blocked in at the game and when I tried to leave I got stuck.  Had to have a guy use his four wheel drive to tow me out so I could get back to Hattiesburg.”

“Is that all you did?” Kim asked, using her finger to pry off a big chunk of dried on mud.

“Well, I had a little time to kill so I chased some cows around a field, did some doughnuts, threw up some roostertails of mud, jumped some stumps …” I said.

Kim nodded, smiling.

“You did doughnuts and chased some cows around a field?” she asked.

“Well … they might not have been cows.  They might have been the Sylva Bay cheerleaders … it was dark, kind of hard to tell and they look similar.”

Kim let out a loud laugh.

I patted the dirty Camaro.

“Yeah, the only thing missing from earlier tonight was Waylon Jennings strumming a guitar and narrating how sucky my life was going.”

Kim laughed even harder.

I told her all about being stuck, getting pulled out and then having to do 100mph for the better part of my trip back to Hattiesburg just to make my date with her.  She stepped up close to me, pulled me to her and kissed me again, long and deep.

“So you bent space and time to be with me tonight?” she asked, picking up on how I had described my plight.

“I wasn’t going to let some bovine cheerleaders or a bunch of mud keep me from seeing the most beautiful woman in Oak Grove tonight.”

Kim smiled and blushed.

“I love you, Christopher.” She said.

“I love you, too.” I said, holding her.

And I did.  I really did, as much as a fifteen year old guy can love a fifteen year old girl.  She shut her eyes and put her head to my chest and we just stood there, next to the dirty Camaro, holding each other and slowly swaying in place.  A few minutes later we got our tickets, went in and spent the rest of the night skating.  I got Kim home by ten, stayed at her place until eleven then spent fifteen minutes out in the driveway with her just kissing and holding each other.

The next day was Saturday.

I cleaned the Camaro from front to back.

I made a mess.

Dad wasn’t happy.

 

Kim introduced me to a pair of sisters that she knew, Joanna and Karen.  Long straight haired Joanna was Kim’s age while bushy haired Karen was a senior.  I introduced James and Steve to Joanna and Karen, since I’d told them about how well Kim and I were working out and they wanted to know if she had any available friends.

Introductions were made and Joanna and James and Karen and Steve immediately hit it off.  James started dating Joanna and Steve started dating Karen.  It was like all four of them were just waiting to be introduced.

Suddenly, James and Steve were really interested in Oak Grove High School.

Suddenly the James Gang was dating three girls from the same high school.

Sadly, Kim and I only lasted about four months but they were really good months.

The end came through our own dumb fault.  Like I said, I went to Prep and Prep had a three day weekend which meant that James, Steve and I didn’t go to school on Monday … but everyone else did.  Being young and stupid, the three of us made plans to get our girlfriends to skip school one Monday and we spent the day together eating at McDonald’s, cruising around Hattiesburg, going to the mall and then going parking and making out.  We weren’t alone … James and Joanna as well as Steve and Karen did the same thing.

The three of us and the three of them.

The James Gang and their girlfriends.

Real outlaws, we were.

Rebels.

I got Kim back to her school before it let out thinking that she could just ride the bus home and no one would be the wiser that she had skipped an entire day to be with me.  The only problem was that the school noticed Kim’s absence and sent a notice home to her parents.  When her parents asked her why she wasn’t at school her parents found out what we had done and blew a gasket, especially her mom who had always been overly strict and controlling with Kim.

The end result was that Kim was grounded, more or less permanently.

I couldn’t see her anymore, by order of her mom, and that was it for us as a couple.  My first true love, my longest relationship so far, was over.  I had a rough few days, read all of her letters to me and realized I had been really stupid and that I had lost something very grand.

Heartache and sadness.

My spirit was crushed.

Somewhere inside me a part died.

James and Steve went through hell with Joanna and Karen’s parents but they fared better than I did.  After some trials and tribulations all four were seeing each other again though under much stricter rules and definitely on extended probation.  James and Steve continued to date Joanna and Karen for a while longer but eventually they broke up with the girls from Oak Grove and The James Gang went into the summer of ’85 like we’d gone into the summer of ’84; single, together and always looking for our next good time.

After Kim I realized that girls my age just were not going to do it for me.  Too many limitations, especially if they didn’t even have their own car.  No, I had to have someone older, someone with their own place, someone who didn’t have to answer to their mother or father … someone who didn’t have a curfew or wouldn’t get in trouble if they took off somewhere with me … someone who was both mobile and free.

Kim had been great but she had been shackled by her parents and I realized how limiting that was in what I was looking for, no, expecting from a steady relationship.  My parents pretty much let me run wild, to come and go as I pleased and that was a kind of freedom that you could not begin to understand unless you had experienced it.  As long as I didn’t do something stupid like drink and drive or do drugs or get some girl pregnant or wind up calling them from jail then my parents trusted me and gave me wide limits on what I could do.  As long as I didn’t bring shame to the Shields’ family name I had nearly unlimited freedom.

As a fifteen year old that was worth more than anything.

Not so with Kim.  Kim lived her life by someone else’s rules, in their shadow and under their thumb, a thumb that had just come down rather hard on her for what her parents had probably done in their youth plenty of times.

I couldn’t live like that and I guess my parents realized this.  I lived my life by my own set of rules, albeit within my parents’ rather loose framework of their own rules.  Sure, it caused friction between my parents and me every now and then but for the most part it was seamless and no problem.

Kim was gone and I realized right then that I needed someone who didn’t answer to any sort of rules, who had no artificial limits and who could adapt her life to meet my life.  In short, I needed a college girl, someone who was out on their own and someone who could come and go with as much freedom as I could.

Older women, it seemed, were the answer to everything I needed.

After my breakup with Kim I stopped dating girls my own age and just concentrated on … older women.  Girls my age stopped being interesting and I sought the freedom that older women seemed to offer.  For better or worse, that decision would lead to a pattern of behavior that would dictate how I lived the next eight years of my life.

I spent the rest of spring 1985 and summer 1985 mostly to myself.  I dated a few times, girls older than I was, true to my decision, but nothing serious and generally never the same girl twice.  After the heartbreak of losing Kim I just didn’t feel like getting close to anyone again right away.  Life, as far as romance was concerned, was kind of in a funk there for about six months after Kim and I stopped dating with me just meandering through life as a restless, often bored teenager looking for some kind of fun or trouble to get into.  I spent my work money on my car, on my music and on my hobbies and I came to discover that I liked being alone.

I really liked being alone.

I liked going where I wanted to when I wanted to.

I liked doing what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.

Being a loner had some real advantages and since James and Steve were still dating their girlfriends (and thus had little time to hang with me) I quickly made being a loner my new standard of living.

 

Tragedy and Family Loss

Tragedy struck The James Gang in September of 1985 and it struck as hard and swift as it struck unexpectedly.

James’ father, a deputy with the Forrest County Sheriff’s Office, was on active duty and responded to a disturbance call at a convenience store just outside of Hattiesburg on Highway 49 North.  While inside the convenience store James’ father was attacked by a white male, wrestled to the ground, had his .357 service revolver taken from him and was shot several times at point blank range with his own sidearm.  One of the officers responding to the call of a fellow officer being down drove his patrol car so fast and hard that it caught fire on the way to where James’ father had been shot.

After shooting James’ father, the suspect fled the scene but was later apprehended.

The damage was bad.

Even after extensive surgery James’ father was paralyzed from the waist down and was kept at Forrest General Hospital where he stayed in intensive care.  During that time, when I could, I visited him in the hospital and visited James, his mother and his two brothers at their house as much as I could.

Two weeks later, just when things started looking better his father suddenly died from a blood clot, a complication from the surgery.

The family was devastated.

James’ dad was … gone.

Just like that … my friend’s father was gone.

I had never experienced something like this before.

I had no guide, no set of rules to tell me what to do, how to feel, what to say.  I didn’t know what I was feeling only that it was bad … really bad … and that somewhere inside me part of me went cold and dark and I knew that it would never, ever be the same again.

A part of me had died as well and that seemed to be what happened whenever I lost someone … I just discarded the part that hurt deep down inside and got on with my life.

Going to James’ father’s funeral was one of the hardest things I’d ever done.  Knowing what his father was, and what kind of person had taken James’ father from him made me want to put on a badge and change the world for the better.  The crack of the rifles at the twenty-one gun salute nearly brought tears to my eyes.

I changed then … somehow, deep down inside, I could feel that something in me changed.  Harden.  Die as well.

I came out of September 1985 different than when I’d gone into that month.

James also changed then but no one could blame him.

Suddenly it just wasn’t the same.

Life was different.

All the silly stuff was … trivial, pointless, needless.

The James Gang felt hollow, empty … broken beyond repair.

Unfixable.

Torn asunder by the loss and in the fall of 1985 is when James, Steve and I started to drift apart.  Our little band, inseparable for two years now, was fracturing and splintering and there was nothing that I could do about it but watch it happen and ride it out as it happened, doing the best that I could.

James sold his ’72 Ford Mustang Notchback and used some of his father’s life insurance money to buy a brand new black and gold 1985 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.  The TA had the LG4 305 V8, four barrel carburetor, four speed automatic overdrive transmission, T-tops, tan cloth interior and a hell of a factory stereo system complete with the optional factory subwoofer system.  It was a beautiful car and for a while I was jealous.  Even when James wanted to race his new TA against my old ’78 Rally Sport out on Airport Road late at night and I blew his doors off without breaking a sweat I was still jealous of his new Trans Am and I promised myself that one day … one day … I’d have a black and gold Trans Am just like James did.

We cruised around in James’ new TA several times but even then I could tell that The James Gang was starting to come apart if it hadn’t already come apart for good.  James started smoking more … he grew quiet and distant.  Our leader was broken.  His smiles were gone, his laughs were silent and his outlook on life was grim at best.  The sense of camaraderie just wasn’t there.  The magic or whatever it was that had made the three of us inseparable was now gone and we were separating.

Slowly but surely we were separating.

It was like we were drifting, each to his own path now and unable to reform the bond that had once held us together.

We stopped hanging out together.

We stopped calling each other on the phone.

We stopped doing anything other than going to school together and talking sometimes in the hallway between classes.  James I saw every now and then, either on the street, at the mall or he’d come over and we’d hang out for a little while.  I hardly saw Steve any more other than at school.  He tended to stay in his area, back in Perry County.  I think he had a girlfriend, a serious one at that, and that she was a cheerleader.

Steve always had a way with cheerleaders.

I didn’t go out for the basketball team my junior year.  I don’t know why other than I just didn’t feel like playing basketball any more.  I’d grown to enjoy the time I spent alone, I’d grown not to like being around other people and having to take long bus rides to faraway places, wait for four games to be played of which I would only participate in one of those games, and then have to ride the bus back home again … I’d just had enough of going places without having any control over where I went, when I went and when I could come and go.

Something in me had died … something had grown dim … and suddenly basketball just didn’t mean as much, if anything, to me anymore.

 

Sometime in the fall of 1985 James started dating a wicked looking short haired brunette named Donna.  Donna was a freshman at USM and she looked like she had just stepped off the stage of a rock video.  I felt happy for him because at that time he really, really needed someone in his life with all the changes he was going through especially with the loss of his father.  I saw James every now and then, maybe once a month after that.

James was in a steady relationship.

When he wasn’t doing something with Donna he came and looked me up which was pretty seldom.  Jame’s luck just wasn’t all that great.  Sometime in the early spring of 1986 James’ girlfriend Donna cheated on him and even worse he caught her in the act.

That tore him up even more.

On the inside James was a wreck.

So many lies.

So much betrayal.

So much loss in such a short time.

He came to me to talk, agitated, mad, sad, frustrated.

It was 8am Monday morning.

He wanted to go out cruising … just cruising.

We drove around Hattiesburg in his new Trans Am.

James drove a lot.

James talked a lot.

James smoked a lot.

James beat on the steering wheel a lot.

James used profanity a lot.

And I just sat there, in the passenger seat of his new black and gold Trans Am and gave him what I had left to lean on.  I gave him a friend’s ear as James tried to reconcile how someone he loved as much as he had loved Donna could have betrayed him like she had done.

I had no answers for him because I’d just come out of a bad relationship myself with a college girl I worked with, Pam, and I was still trying to figure things out myself in this thing we called life.

James wanted to buy a cassette at Camelot Music but the store wouldn’t open for another 45 minutes so James just cruised me around Hattiesburg, talking to me about Donna and his feelings and his life and we wasted time until the record store opened.

The clock on the dash said it was 9:05am so we drove over to Cloverleaf Mall, we went to Camelot Music and James bought Rod Stewart’s “Camouflage” album on cassette.  After that, we just drove around Hattiesburg, for almost an hour and a half and we listened to Rod Stewart’s “Some Guys Have All The Luck” over and over and over and over again, at ear bleed volume but I sat there like the good friend that I was and let him vent at me.

It was a long time after that before I could listen to that particular Rod Stewart song and not immediately want to switch stations on the radio or just turn the radio completely off.

A really, God awful long time.

 

The End of the James Gang

The James Gang lasted from the early fall of 1983 until late May of 1986 and the end of the 1986 school year but by then it had pretty much disbanded in anything other than a really good memory and even though the James Gang did go as far as late spring of 1986 we were pretty much through as a group of friends by mid-fall of 1985.  The rest was just the process of growing apart, friendships fragmenting and going our separate ways and doing our own thing.  The disintegration of a group of close friends is something that is painful to watch, let alone to actually be a part of but there I was right in the middle of it.

James and Steve graduated from high school in May of 1986 and pretty much that was the end of The James Gang as after high school graduation James and Steve vanished from my life … gone.  The bonds had grown so thin that James and Steve simply vanished from my life and like that I was alone but by then I’d grown accustomed to being alone and I had even started to enjoy it so I guess that the breakup of our group came at a time when I no longer needed anyone but myself to be happy.

At the end of the 1986 school year an announcement was made that Hattiesburg Prep was closing its doors forever.  Even my high school was going away.  Poor business and other factors contributed to the final closing of Prep but the end result was the same regardless of whom or what took the blame.  Next year I’d have to find a new school to go to … I’d spend my last year in high school at someplace I’d never been and I’d stay there for just one year until I graduated.

My last year of high school.

My friends were gone … my school was gone … and I was alone.

I remember James’ and Steve’s graduation night … the last senior class that would ever graduate from Hattiesburg Prep.  I had planned on going for both James and Steve, to maybe get one last picture of us all together but my boss at County Market had asked me to come in and work and I’d told him that I would.  I guess a few extra dollars in my billfold next paycheck was worth more to me then than seeing my old friends one last time and it was then that I guess I realized just how much had died inside of me and just how mercenary I’d become in the last eight months of my life.

I was working a 4 to 10 shift at County Market the night of Hattiesburg Prep’s last graduation and I happened to be outside on shopping cart detail when I saw a bunch of the seniors roll past County Market on the highway, a small convoy of familiar cars and trucks all jostling with each other, playing, happy, flashing their lights and honking their horns in victory at having escaped high school forever.  Among the cars going by was James’ new black and gold ’85 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, flashing its lights, honking its horn and rumbling on down Highway 49.

I doubt he even knew that I was working that night let alone that I would happen to be outside getting the shopping carts gathered up when he rolled by.  I stood there, leaning on a stack of buggies, and watched their taillights fade from sight on down Highway 49 north.

And so it was over …

It was finally over.

James had graduated.

Steve had graduated.

… and they were gone.

I was happy for them.

They had made it.

They had escaped high school and had the diploma and tassel to prove it.

I still had a year to go in serving my time.

I was a year behind them.

I was always a year behind James and Steve.

In a couple of weeks I’d be seventeen years old.

Next fall I’d be a senior in high school.

One more year for me … one more year and I’d be out of high school.

I’d escape.

I’d finally escape.

One more year and I’d finally be free like James and Steve.

 

Epilog …

After high school graduation James really disappeared.  He had his own life now, he was free.  He would get married, cheated on again, divorced and remarried.  His mom, now a widow, sold their house and moved to somewhere else. I never knew where because James and I had grown apart and we never talked again.

Years later I heard that his mother had remarried and I think it was to another law enforcement officer but I can’t be sure.

My sister had limited contact through school with Mark, James’ youngest brother, but I never saw his youngest brother again and if he ever said anything to my sister about me she never told me.

In the decades that followed sometimes I’d find myself in that part of Hattiesburg and I’d drive by James’ house … whoever was living there now wasn’t taking good care of the house.  The grass was tall, the hedges were unkempt … it was like a dream fading away.

Many years later John, James’ older brother, would eventually follow in his slain father’s footsteps and become a deputy sheriff with the Forrest County Sheriff’s Office.

I did run into James once more … in the late 1990’s, at the funeral of a mutual friend in high school, a friend who had died from medical complications while recovering from surgery in the hospital.  It had been the same hospital that James’ father had died in over a decade earlier.  James and I talked but it was small talk and after the funeral we again went our separate ways and I haven’t seen him since then … and that’s been over a decade and a half now and almost three decades since the James Gang disbanded.

Steve?

I saw Steve once more, just once, in the fall of 1986, at the start of my senior year of high school, when I was going to Petal High School over in Petal, strangely enough part of Steve’s prowling ground just a few years back.  We met by chance at a gas station one afternoon when I was filling up my ’79 Pontiac Trans Am.  Steve and I talked for a few minutes, each of us surprised and happy to see the other again.  Steve’s hair was longer, he had shaped up, lost some weight and he looked more like a soldier now than he ever had.  Just from how our conversation drifted and paused it was easy to see that we really had grown apart and any attempt to try to steer our conversation towards what we used to share seemed blatantly artificial, forced.  There just wasn’t the magic there anymore.  Whatever had kept us as good friends in the era of the James Gang was gone now, that magic was gone forever.

We finished with the small talk then shook hands and said goodbye and I think that each of us knew, we just knew way deep down inside, that when we said goodbye that day that we were probably saying goodbye for the very last time.  Loose ends tightened up, all old business finished.

Steve drove off and I watched him go.  After that I never saw him ever again but three years later when I got to USM I ran into someone who knew Steve as well and when I asked about Steve I learned that Steve had gone into the Marines, just like he wanted to, and that made me smile.

The war in Iraq was starting up then, Desert Shield / Desert Storm, and a lot of people I knew went off to fight in that war, a lot of my fraternity brothers among them.  All of them came back without exception.  I always wondered that if Steve had joined the Marines then had he gone off to fight halfway around the world as well?  If he had gone off to fight in Iraq I wondered if he had made it back okay.

I hoped so.

I really hoped so.

I never found out either way.

I don’t know what happened to Joanna after she and James broke up.  The usual, I guess.  Married, kids.  She was a Grover.  I’ve never run into her again, not once, in all the years leading away from 1985.

Joanna’s sister Karen joined the military after she and Steve broke up and that’s the last I ever heard of her.  I think she joined the Air Force.  She may have been stationed in Germany.  I wonder if she ever got deployed to the Middle East?

I never found out.

Vicky?

My first girlfriend?

Not a clue.

No one seemed to remember her or know what happened to her after high school.  Not that it really mattered I guess.  We weren’t together that long, I didn’t have too many memories of her and she seemed more like a stepping stone leading me to … Kim.  Whatever happened to Vicky I hope she had a good life because she just wasn’t that important … or memorable … in mine.

And that brings us to … Kim.

Ah, Kim.

So, whatever happened to Kim?

I never saw or heard from Kim ever again after we broke up there in March of 1985 although seven years later I did see a black and white picture of her, in the newspaper, towards the end of my senior year of college.  It was in the wedding announcement section of the Hattiesburg American.  My dad found it, recognized Kim for who she was, and brought the paper to show me.  It was May, 1992, a few months before I would graduate from USM with my BS in Business Administration.  Kim was getting married and that made me smile because I was happy for her. 

Seeing that picture of her, there in the paper … really took me back because she didn’t look any different than when I had known her.  Still petite, still pretty, still blonde and she could still bring back some really good memories of when I was a clueless, na´ve teenager head over heels in love … memories of roller skating with her, my hands on her thin waist, her hands on my shoulders, me skating forward, her skating backwards, our lips touching as the DJ played some hot new Loverboy tune and the rotating mirrored disco ball cast a shower of white light squares flung across the wooden skating floor like God had spilled a bucket of stars …

But that was a time seven years ago and even farther away.

I wasn’t that kid anymore and I doubted that she was the same girl either.

Twenty years after I saw her wedding announcement in the Hattiesburg American I would see her account and her picture on Facebook, strangely enough under a list of friends for one of my own childhood friends.  How and why she knew my childhood friend or was one of his friends (he was a year younger than she was and had gone to a different school) was a mystery to me but she listed herself as one of his friends and she listed herself with her maiden name.

Apparently she was in some kind of medical profession, maybe nursing.  I looked at her picture and if that was a current picture (and it looked to be) then time had been really kind to Kim.  Even though she was in her early forties, like me, her profile picture still looked like she was fifteen.  I couldn’t say the same about my own picture as I’d put a lot of wear and tear on the old body that God had given me when I was born and I'd had a lot of fun doing it, too.

Kim was using her maiden name on her account.

She didn’t show that she was married or in a relationship.  A few days later when I went back to look for her account  she was nowhere to be found.  

Disappeared from Facebook.

I guess her marriage from ’92 hadn’t lasted and that made me sad because if anyone deserved a really happy life it was Kim.  Kim who had a great laugh, Kim who had a great smile, Kim who had a great body, Kim who could roller skate backwards and Kim who was a really great kisser.




 

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