I’ve never been friends with anyone in the same way I was with Steve Demetrious. It was one of those “more than” relationships. We were more than schoolmates, more than movie companions, more than teammates, more than confidants.
It wasn’t just that we both had the same adolescent obsessions (fast bikes, World War II, The Twilight Zone). And was it so weird that we began obsessing about girls at the same time (sometimes the same ones)? Or that we played sandlot baseball, telephone-pole-hoop basketball, and vacant-lot-touch football?
I’m not quite sure why we related so well as adolescent friends. The weirdest thing, which I never experienced later in life, was that we saw each other every day. For hours on end. For four years. We walked to school together. We walked home together. We hung around after school, and even after supper. Together we built models: World War II battleships, complex toy soldiers, fighter planes we blasted with firecrackers. My personal best was the Renwal Field Cricket. We talked on the telephone, too. We couldn’t have been closer if we’d been rock musicians living in the top room of a two-story garage.
It helped that Steve lived down the street. And that we both had collie dogs. And that we both lacked artistic ability. (Nobody ever asked us to sing, dance, play instruments, or paint pictures.) And also that we were both Catholic, and rocksteady about it if challenged by some filthy Protestant about the Blessed Virgin’s ascend into heaven. What really sealed it for us was we both got challenged by bullies. Steve and his family had moved to Danvers, Massachusetts, from Portland, Oregon when he was eleven, and almost immediately, probably because of his Western accent, he was challenged to do battle by the alpha male of sixth grade, Billy Potter.
“Steve?” said Billy. “That’s your name, Steeeve? What’s with those fangs, Steve? Sure your name ain’t Count Dracula? I vont to dreenk your blooood.” (I heard he did a pretty good imitation. . . for a 6th grader.)
To my endless regret I was sick that day and missed what happened next. But I heard that Steve boxed Billy to the ground with three well-placed slugs.
“Okay, okay!” said Billy. “Don’t get sore about it.” He rubbed his jaw while getting up. “Where the hell’d you learn to box?”
“My father fought the Krauts in World War II. Hand to hand. Taught me stuff.”
No one ever bothered Steve again. I was mightily impressed, but later perplexed as to why such a good boxer could be such an awful wrestler. Even I could beat him. So whenever we had a disagreement, I got him to agree to wrestle it out. He never improved, and I always won.
We were both friends with the same people, like Channing Johnston, who was two years older. Channing had a paper route we often took over for him whenever he was sick with a “chronic nervous stomach.” But that didn’t impede our regular “tree talks.” Channing would convene with us on the bottom branch of a gigantic oak for “private” discussions. Oddly, no one heard us as we jabbered loudly about girls. “Talking about girls” always meant talking about sex. We rarely talked about specific girls. Channing told us why erections worked so predictably and efficiently: we were programmed since caveman times to get rock hard whenever there was a woman with huge tits so we could get into her before another caveman grabbed her.
“Makes sense,” said Steve. “I can see that.”
“Speaking of seeing, ever seen ‘em?” asked Channing. “You know, boobs? Knockers? Melons? Jugs? Ah, there’s a million names for ‘em. Stick with one, you’ll be okay. “
“Breasts?” I said.
“Breasts are okay. You can write ‘breasts’ on your school book covers and nobody’ll scream at you. ‘Testicles’ sometimes, but not always. But I go with ‘testes.’ Nobody knows what those are, not even the teachers.”
He was right. I didn’t know what they were and had to look them up, because he wouldn’t tell me.
Channing told us that an older buddy named Jason Manfred had talked him into sneaking into a Russ Meyer X-rated movie that was playing in Boston’s Combat Zone. The next day, it was all he could talk about for two hours. “I don’t know what she took to get them that big,” he said, and all we could do was shrug.
I figured he meant there were enlargement pills that girls could take to get such big boobs. So doctors must have been prescribing them, right? And all these chesty women I saw downtown? Dr. Lawrence, our family doctor, must have helped some of them. It was only logical. How long did the treatment take? I never asked him.
“Seen breasts lots of times,” said Steve, “My mother used to be a nurse and she’s got these books downstairs. Full of naked girls.”
I’d seen these instructive volumes and indeed they were filled with gloriously nude, but dispassionately clinical, photographs. One book alone had five highly educational pictures, which I felt the need to reference occasionally after we’d finished playing plastic World War II soldiers in Steve’s basement. There was one full frontal of a nude girl, and her pageboy haircut made her look like she was from the twenties. It illustrated her sadly deformed fingers, yet prominently displayed her vulva as well. How generous of the authors! In another book was a more astounding picture, a notated close-up showing the clitoral hood, the labia minora, and the mysterious Skene’s gland. I learned more about female anatomy from that than from any health class I ever took.
“Hey, put that away,” Steve said more than once when he caught me paging through the book. “My mom comes down here all the time with laundry or something.” She never did, and so I rarely put any book away without closely perusing it, to make sure I had memorized all the anatomical parts and how to spell them.
But Channing wasn’t impressed with our book learning.
“Not pictures, you ninnies,” said Channing. “The real thing.”
I was silent, and Steve sadly shook his head. Channing taunted, “Well I have, and right on my paper route that you guys have been taking. Surprised you missed ‘em.” It turned out that Mrs. Stahler once answered the door to pay for her weekly paper and hadn’t fully buttoned her shirt after breastfeeding. “It popped right out,” said Channing, “and she tried to pretend it hadn’t and stuffed it back in and forked over a dollar. I never fumbled so long for two quarters.”
Alas, on the many occasions we collected money from Mrs. Stahler, she never repeated this performance.
“What’d it look like?” asked Steve. “I mean, in full color?”
“Real pink and round and swollen and all sticking out. I hope to see a complete set real soon.”
Soon came sooner than we expected. We were playing in the woods one day when it happened. We called it “the woods” but it was more like “The Hundred Acre Wood” in Winnie the Pooh. The boundaries began in Channing’s back yard and were demarcated by centuries-old stone walls. It took a whole day to wander through it on miles of horse paths made to protect hikers from “pricker bushes,” a.k.a., thorn bushes. These paths led us past patches of fragrant New York ferns and down a slope to a babbling brook with stones so carefully placed you could walk over them without getting wet. A nearby hill had a hut someone had constructed within a grove of pine trees. Generations of kids used it as a club. We did for a while. There were no dangerous animals in this forest like coyotes or black bears; none were larger than brown rabbits. Dogs loved it. It was our woods and nothing bad ever happened there.
Except this once. Maybe.
Steve, Channing, and I were walking through and we heard a girl’s voice moaning “oh, oh, oh!” When we approached, we saw it was Shirley Mercer, who was a grade or two above us and had a reputation for acting like Tuesday Weld.
What Shirley Mercer Sort of Looked Like
She was every boy’s fantasy and you didn’t even have to go to the movies to see her. She probably spent hours working on her looks, because her hair was expertly teased into a symmetrical poof. She didn’t carry a pocketbook, but rather a ditty bag with the letters DHS on the side, even though it was too small to stuff much into. She was brash and unapproachable, unless you drove a car. She smoked Chesterfields because, hey, they were free because her father owned Mercer’s Apothecary, which had been in the family since 1850-something. Mr. Mercer refused to call it a “drugstore” and kept his ancestral mortar & pestle collection in a display case at the front.
Shirley worked at the store. She spoke to me once. “You gonna buy that Juicy Fruit or you just gonna hold onto it?”
Oddly enough, even my father knew who she was. He used to go there to pick up a paper, even though we had the same one home delivered. He’d watch her at the apothecary helping out. He noticed that she’d “filled out over the summer,” as if she’d been empty before.
Guys at school were sure she wore falsies.
She didn’t need to. As I peered at her from ten yards away, I saw she was naked and lying on her back. Her Mamie Van Doren breasts moved up and down as the boy on top of her pumped away, completely clothed. My Boy Scout stalking merit badge came in handy as I signaled the other two to inch closer but to stay low so we could watch. It wasn’t just the fact that she was having sex in our woods, but that she was having it with two guys, one of whom was patiently waiting his turn. I wouldn’t encounter that scenario again until ten years later with the film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
Steve wasn’t in Boy Scouts yet, so he didn’t know you weren’t supposed to step on dried branches. The kid who’d been waiting his turn with Shirley (and who was huge, the size of a football player) heard Steve’s branch snap and saw us. He jumped up and yelled, “You kids, get the hell outta here!”
Channing stood his ground. “You’re not allowed to do that out here.”
“Who says?” said this humongous kid we’d never seen before.
“You and whose army?” He stomped one step toward us and Channing folded and so did we. Off we ran.
Five minutes later, we stopped by the big oak tree and Channing was so pissed he was twitching and pacing around. “Throw us out of our woods, huh? I’ll show them, I’ll show them!”
I said, “Let’s go back and watch them from the hill,” but was immediately vetoed. It was like Channing had turned off his hearing, because we quickly ended up at his house and he went in and retrieved . . . his father! Bad move, I knew it instantly. Mr. Johnston was a deacon in the North Point Evangelical Presbyterian Church. I could never understand the allure of staying after church and helping out when you could be doing better things (like nothing), but that’s what he did. He was that much into it. On top of that, he was also a Mason and made sure Channing joined DeMolay, their youth organization. My mother used that as one more reason to sever my ties with Channing: “I heard he belongs to that Protestant DeMolay. I ask you, what are the first four letters? D-E-M-O. One more and you know what that makes: ‘demon.’”
Mr. Johnston grabbed a hoe and shouted “Oh for the love of Mike! Well, we’ll see about this.” I had no idea what he was going to do with his chipped, rusty, dirt-caked hoe. But I didn’t want the image of the naked Shirley Mercer, hoe sticking out of her back, to haunt the rest of my days, so on the way to the spot I said, “Mr. Johnston, that hoe doesn’t look sharp enough to scare them off. Shouldn’t we go to the hardware store and get a new one? “He turned around and scowled at me for a half second and snapped into a swift walk through the woods. Trying to talk Mr. Johnston out of something was like telling the evil standard poodle across the street from us to stop barking. Anything you said just made it worse.
So I sang loudly to warn these nasty kids and Steve joined me. “It was an itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini/That she wore for the first time today/An itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini. . . .” The prospect that Shirley would still be naked no matter what we did also occurred to me. Maybe there’d be a big fight between the football player and Mr. Johnston, mostly over the hoe, and Mr. Johnston’d get soundly defeated because he wouldn’t know how to swing it like a medieval broadsword, because his paunch would get in the way. Of course Steve and I would not get involved except to protect the still-naked Shirley by spiriting her out of there as quickly as possible. It was the beginning of my long, long rescue-fantasy period.
Maybe our noise-making worked and maybe it didn’t, but when we got there, the three sinners were sitting in a semicircle, completely clothed and talking about . . .
“Pine trees!” said Shirley. “Don’t you just love the way they smell?”
“Uh, yeah,” said one of the boys.
“They smell like Christmas. Christmas trees!”
Shirley was wearing a dress with horsies on it so she must’ve just slipped it on lickety-split. And all the guys had to do was tuck and zip. Mr. Johnston muttered “afternoon.”
Shirley looked at me and said “nice pants.” They were just generic kid corduroys, nothing nice about them. I said “thank you,” and she scoffed.
We kept walking. A hundred yards later Mr. Johnston stopped and turned to Channing. “Don’t you ever waste my time like that again, you dumb shit.”
“I saw ‘em, Dad!” Channing protested. “We all did!” Steve and I didn’t want to get involved, so we mummed up. I later found out that Steve was thinking the same as I: that those boys might return with Shirley someday, so let’s not cause them any trouble. They might even bring her friends along.
I fantasized that maybe one of her friends would be Channing’s cute sister Meredith (“Janey”). She was a year younger than I, with chestnut brown hair and chestnut brown eyes that narrowed when she first saw you, as if she were sizing you up for . . . damned if I knew. It would be fun to see her giggling in the woods with other girls, since I never ever saw her laugh.
One time Channing noticed me gaping at her. I denied it, but he saw through me like Saran Wrap on a Toll House cookie.
“Watch out for her. If she was a guy, she’d be a wise guy.”
“’Cause of that mouth on her.”
I didn’t believe him, so there was only one way to find out. I would give her the test. I would talk to her.
I didn’t know how or when that would happen. Meredith and I never had what you’d call “a deep connection.” She was wary of me right away, since she couldn’t stand her brother and I was his friend. No way she’d waste time talking to me.
I finally got my chance. “Hey Meredith,” I said one day at their house when Channing was in the bathroom puking.
“Don’t call me Meredith. It’s Janey.”
“Yeah, that’s what I want to talk about. Janey. That’s a nickname, right? So how do you get Janey from Meredith? Aren’t nicknames supposed to be like their real names? John, Johnny; Michael, Mike; Rose, Rosie. . . “
“None of your beeswax.”
“No really, I . . . .“
“What about Richard, Dick?”
I moved back a step.
She did that squinty thing with her eyes and leaned forward. “That good enough for ya? Well, is it? Huh? Petey?”
I snapped my head back as if she’d shot me in the face with an elastic at close range. How did she know I hated the name Petey? I’d never told her.
That’s when I flashed on conkers, the seeds of the horse chestnut tree, which have spiky casings that’ll sear your flesh if you pick them up wrong. But that’s not their nastiest feature. They’re not sweet and luscious like real chestnuts. And even though they’re called horse chestnuts, horses can’t eat them. Wild boars can, but anything else that tries usually dies a grisly death.
I didn’t plan it that way, but Meredith and I would meet again real soon.
But back to Shirley. I often wonder what happened to girls like her, the ones who indulged early in sex. Were their experiences so uninhibited and liberating that they continued their playful habits to become caring and attentive lovers as adults? Or were they so traumatized by callous boys that they were permanently scarred, as if from some grizzly accident? Or worse, did they become devoutly religious, blown far from the marriage pool by the parching winds of new celibacy?
All weekend I couldn’t stop worrying. I worried that Shirley Mercer would recognize me next time I went to the apothecary to buy a jumbo pack of Black Jack gum. I also worried that my parents would find out:
Peter, we just received a call from Mr. Johnston. We were shocked by what he said you and your friends saw in the woods today.
It wasn’t much. I mean, we didn’t see much.
You probably don’t know a lot about what happens behind closed doors between girls and boys . . .
Actually, it was between open pine trees.
But we want to let you know that if you have any questions about. . . well, what you saw, or didn’t see, and how long you looked, and how sinful it would have been if you’d continued. . .
I . . . I just saw them kissing! I saw nothing!
Mostly, I continued worrying about Shirley Mercer, whether she’d end up as a girlfriend of one of the jerky guys or if they’d just continue as a threesome, indefinitely. Channing told me that such stuff only happened in places like New York City, so that made me feel a little better. But I was still tense and wondered what would happen the next time I saw a naked girl. Would she remind me of Shirley?
My parents never did find out what happened in the woods, but my mood didn’t escape them. That Sunday I heard them low-toning it in the next room.
“Don’t know what’s wrong with him,” said my mother. “He’s been moping around all weekend.”
“Beats me,” Dad said, as I overheard ice getting dropped into a glass.
“Maybe it’s growing pains,” she said.
“What the devil? I never had ‘growing pains’ and I grew up.”
“So what could it be?” she asked.
“Probably lost a football game,” he said, “happened to me once.”
I made up my mind to fake it and started tickling my brother. Of course he tickled back and I started giggling. That flicked off the switch of speculation and soon they were discussing the Woodberry’s new breezeway.
The tickling respite only lasted about seventeen seconds, so the next incident must have happened because of all that corked-up sexual tension I’d been feeling since the woods. Monday afternoon my temper flew up, screeching like Rodan through the streets of Fukuoka, Japan. It was mostly the fault of this kid named Ronnie Becker.
The Rodan Within
Our antipathy toward Becker was one more thing that Steve and I had in common. Soon after he moved in, neither of us could stand him. Becker was about my size but flabby around the waist and he put Vitalis in his hair to stop the huge cowlick in back, which resembled Alfalfa’s on the Little Rascals. (It didn’t work.) He had a scrawny Siberian Husky he named King after Sergeant Preston of the Yukon’s dog, even though his dog was female.
“So what?” Becker said. “The dog can’t tell.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “But a husky? Around here? You’ll probably have to keep her indoors all summer or she’ll collapse from the heat.”
“Oh yeah?” said Becker. “I bet you didn’t know this. The Siberian Husky’s coat is so thick it can survive temperatures as low as . . . −58 to −76 °F. Your collies would probably freeze up in weather like that, stiff as boards.”
Ronnie Becker as Alfalfa pretending he’s Sergeant Preston of the Yukon
It didn’t take long before we drew a caricature of Becker on a telephone pole and started sticking knives into it. We hooted at him from across the street, usually when other kids were around. At school we drew simple declarative sentences like “Becker sucks” on the sidewalk with yellow chalk. What else could we do? He’d bad-mouthed our dogs. It also didn’t help that he was Protestant.
So on this day we were playing sandlot baseball with Becker and some other kids. I’d tagged him out, and he said I’d missed and called me an asshole.
Steve came over and said “You going to take that from him?”
“No way!” I said and jumped him. We wrestled for less than a minute, stopping when I heard his fire-engine-red shirt tear, a long rip that lasted for what seemed like twenty seconds.
“Damn you, Bates!” He screamed. “My grandmother gave me this shirt for Christmas! It’s silk!”
“Hell, Becker, sorry about your shirt.” I tried shaking his hand to make up, but he jerked away.
“Never mind! Never mind, you fucking jerk!” He yelled this over and over, so much so that even I felt sorry for him. As he went home, red shirt flapping in the wind like a Russkie flag, I was reduced to brooding about what was going to happen next.
“Don’t let him get to you,” said Steve on the way home. “You showed him, and that’s what’s important.”
When I told my father about it that night, his response was something like “Who gives a crap? He must’ve deserved it.” He went back to reading the paper but only for about fifteen minutes. Mr. Becker showed up at our front doorstep and complained about my “needless and brutal bullying” of his son Ronald. Mr. Becker was a postwar immigrant from Germany and had a thick accent. Ronnie claimed his dad had never been a Nazi, but we all knew better..
My father didn’t say much during his rant but his first reaction after Mr. Becker had left was: “That guy’s got some weird accent. What is he? Russian?”
My father’s recognition of foreign accents extended only as far as the ones he heard on TV, which back then were 98% Russian. The first time he watched a whole episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, he saw Natasha as the cartoon embodiment of the perfidious Russians. Whenever he heard her voice, he rushed to the television and laughed each time she spoke. It was one of the only occasions we liked the same thing.
Had there been a fan club for June Foray, he would have joined on the spot.
“Twenty dollars for a goddam shirt,” my father said. “What kind of kid knocks around in a twenty-dollar shirt? Anyway, I paid for it.”
“Wow, thanks, Dad.”
“Don’t thank me. Consider it a loan.”
“A loan? I gotta pay it back? How’m I supposed to do that? I don’t have it.”
“We’ll work something out.”
“Quiet! I’ll get to that. You know, the communists are stirring up trouble in Cuba, right? I mean they must teach you something in that school with all my tax money. I got the feeling our president’s gonna do something about it real soon and when he does . . .”
“Wait, wait, which commies? Russkie commies or Cuban commies?”
“Russian! And don’t you ever call them ‘commies,’ Fred Pratt calls them ‘commies.’ That makes ‘em sound cute. They’re not cute and in this family we call them what they are: communists.”
“What? What are we gonna do about them?”
“We’re gonna build a fallout shelter, right where the orchid greenhouse is. No time for flowers any more. And that’s where you fit in.”
“If you knew anything, you’d know that a fallout shelter’s made of concrete walls stuck in a hole under the ground. But first, somebody’s got to dig that hole. Somebody in this room.” He folded his arms in front of his chest for a few seconds, then started walking away. He got about two steps, then turned around.
“Same rule goes for ‘Russkies.’ Not cute.”
I started digging the next day after school and quickly realized I wasn’t cut out for it. Two hours to fill two pails full of dirt and I was already getting my first backache ever. At this rate it would be another month before I finished. I was trying to think up other jobs I could do to make up the $20 to my father, when Steve showed up.
“Hey what? What’re you doing? Digging your own grave? Remember when Robert Taylor did that in Bataan?” I didn’t know how he did it, but Steve knew the names of movie actors.
“Very funny, asshole. Father’s making me dig a fallout shelter to pay for Becker’s shirt.”
“Fallout shelter, eh? Can our family come in when they drop the big one?”
I ignored him and went on digging. I was furious he’d goaded me into this.
“You’re doing it wrong.” He jumped into the hole and grabbed my shovel. “Not very good at this, are you? You’re supposed to step on the shovel while pushing it down.” Then he kept on digging. “Don’t just stand there, go get another shovel. I’m not doing this alone.”
When I returned with another shovel, Steve asked me what I was getting for the job. I repeated that I had to do it for free because my father was making me work off the $20 debt for Becker’s shirt.
“Okay, so we go halfsies. You pay me $10 and I help you dig this.”
“Don’t you ever listen? I just told you it’s a debt. I haven’t got it to give you.”
“So pay me when you get it. And you better, ‘cause I’m never gonna let you forget it.”
I last saw Steve at the Topsfield, Massachusetts state fair, after one of our high school reunions. I offered to buy him a candy apple, the kind we both eagerly consumed at fourteen, dental fillings be damned. We both had a good laugh at that.
What we didn’t say was that those years we spent together were a lot sweeter than that daunting confection.
- Possibly The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959), the first of Russ Meyer’s “nudie cutie” movies released to adult cinema chains. Relatively tame by today’s standards, it featured widely copied tropes like narration about the history of bathing to justify showing women skinny dipping. ↑
- The adult entertainment district in downtown Boston, Massachusetts, begun in the 60s. It featured strip clubs, peep shows, X-rated movie theaters, and adult bookstores and lasted into the 1980s. It was the focus of many moralistic and religious jeremiads. One of their competitors, the Sack Theater Chain, called the Combat Zone “Satan’s playground.” ↑
- Tuesday Weld is an actress who played the alluring “bad girl” Thalia Menninger on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963). ↑
- Mamie Van Doren (born Joan Lucille Olander; February 6, 1931) is the third famous “blond bombshell” from the Fifties, right behind Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. She is considered naughtier than either because of her nude appearances in films like Slackers (2002). Her most famous roles were in exploitation movies like High School Confidential! (1958) and The Beat Generation (1959). ↑
- She didn’t recognize me. Either that or she did a good job of pretending she didn’t. ↑
- Frame from our neighborhood feature Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde (Shoestring Pictures, 1965). Dana Warren (1949-2004) was the director. His signature line was, when actors didn’t arrive in time for a shoot, “If nobody shows up, I’m gonna film air!” Here he is playing an innocent bystander, given the third degree by investigator Steve. Available on Youtube: https://youtu.be/Fxg9NAErTaI ↑
- June Foray (1917–2017), notable voice actress. She is famous for having voiced Rocky the Flying Squirrel from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but she also voiced Natasha. ↑