Crystal City Polar Bear

Submitted into Contest #140 in response to: Write a story inspired by a memory of yours.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Friendship High School

Crystal City Polar Bear

Christmas 1955. The brand new Philco 45 RPM all-transistor record player was encased in a puke-green plastic box with a lid of the same putrid color. Despite the extremely heavy use over the next three years, in 1958, the Made in America turntable, still rotated without a glitch. A white plastic mesh cover on the front of the box hid the speaker. With the precision of a skilled surgeon, I lifted the lid. Inside on the left, I rotated the round white plastic knob to ‘On’ and waited for the virgin transistors to warm-up. Carefully lowering a thin slice of hot wax onto the turntable, I placed the needle on the edge of the 45 RPM record, then twisted the round white plastic knob on the right all the way to High Volume. Hell yes, Rock and Roll.

The warm, scratchy sound of the needle finding its groove gave way to Bill Haley’s Dim Dim the Lights. At the age of thirteen, I was a passionate connoisseur of everything Rock and Roll. With a spit curl plastered to his forehead, Bill Haley was a very popular crooner from Texas. His music made anyone under the age of thirty want to get up and move. Haley was at best an average guitar player and a so-so singer. What made the Comets streak across the Rock and Roll filament was Rudy Pompilli, a genius on tenor sax, and a jazz musician who didn’t much care for Bill Haley’s teenage be-bob.

With the Philco’s woofer and tweeter cranked up to full-blast, sound waves bounced off the walls. Due to the airborne turbulence, a model plane hanging from the ceiling swayed from side-to-side. I stepped into a pair of fireman-red long-handles, then pulled on thick white cotton socks that were guaranteed not to make my feet sweat. A red and black checkered flannel shirt, an X-large gray sweatshirt, a pair of Levi’s, plus oversized corduroy pants completed my wardrobe.

I sat on the edge of my bed and looked at the wall on the opposite side of my room. There was Mona the Serpent Woman, Cleo Moon Girl, The Bearded Lady, The Strongman, Ape-man and The Amazing Amazon Woman. Every summer traveling circuses and carnivals came to town and pitched camp in vacant hayfields. Once the rubes had been fleeced, the tents torn down, the carnies skedaddled to their next grift. Hoarding comic books and baseball cards was for those who saw themselves in the eyes of larger-than-life heroes. I collected the left-behind garish carnival posters of freaks.

Rising to my feet, I stuck my arms in the bulky sleeves of the WWII fleece-lined bomber jacket given to me by my bombardier uncle. Next, I picked up the trusty .22 rifle given to me by my Seabee uncle, who swore the antique shooting instrument belonged to nonother that Randy Oakley, a sharpshooting-son-of-a-gun. It seemed Randy was a second cousin to that famous female dead-eye-duchess, Annie Oakley.

Unfortunately, due to an early onset of monovision, my eyesight was in such bad shape that even if the rifle had actually been owned by one of the famous Oakley’s, which was in serious doubt considering the story’s source, not one bit of their mystic marksmanship rubbed-off on me. I stuffed a handful of .22-long bullets into the pocket of my jacket and waited until the last notes of Dim Dim the Lights turned into a scratchy ending. After placing the tonearm back on its stand, I twisted the white plastic knob on the left to ‘Off’. With the rifle’s barrel pointed at the floor, I quietly slipped out of my bedroom and slunk down the hallway.  

It was on my way through the kitchen, that I ran into Mom. The woman with a critical eye for the least hair out of place was standing in her usual spot next to the stove. She gave me the quick once-over, and asked, “Where are you headed with that gun, Road?”

           “Out.”

           “But Road, it’s in the teens outside. You’ll freeze to death.”

           “Uh-huh,” I muttered and kept walking.

           From behind, Mom shouted, “I know now why your grandma wanted me to name you Road. You’re never home, always on the road.”

           I shot back, “I want some atmosphere. Later gator.”

           Fifteen minutes later I met-up with my three friends at the railroad tracks. Each face carried a nickname, although, with my weird first name, Road was my handle. Shouldering my .22, we marched four abreast along the railroad tracks.

“Mom said the temperature is in the teens,” I muttered, wiping a frozen something or other from the tip of my nose.

           “Colder than a well digger’s ass in—”

           Boa finished Dutch’s thought, “Antarctica.”

            Dutch said, “I was gonna’ say Fargo.”

           “Who in the hell cares?” I sniffed.

           “Hey, Road.” It was Jace. The tall skinny kid, his body encased in several layers of woolen scarfs, looked at the watch on his wrist. “You’re late.”

           “Give it a rest, Jace,” I said. “You and that damn Buster Crabbe watch.” I tried to lower my voice to sound like Jace. “Everybody’s got to synchronize their watches. Hello?” I said, returning to my higher nasal sounding Ozark twang. “I don’t even own a watch.” I pulled the sleeve of my jacket up and looked at my bare wrist. “Besides, it’s only five minutes after my ding-dong.”

“Hey,” Boa butted in. “We all know why we’re here today, right?”

           Instead of an answer, we silently looked at the ground and kept walking along the railroad tracks. For a mile there was only the crunch of the soot blackened snow under our boots. Then, we splashed through semi-frozen slush pooling between the railroad ties. At every exhale four mini-steam locomotives chugged north toward Hugs Landing.

We were almost to the turnoff when Dutch reached inside his parka and pulled out a pistol with a black barrel and grip. The fingertips had been cut from his gloves. Dutch was able to pull the pistol’s hammer back into the firing position.

           “Is that thing loaded?” Boa asked, shifting the heavy Stevens 311 double-barrel shotgun he was carrying from one shoulder to the other.

           “Of course, it’s loaded. And,” Dutch said, his voice getting all uppity, “this thing is a Walther P thirty-eight, semi-automatic pistol. My uncle told me that the Kraut who once owned it is now in Valhalla sleeping with Herr Hitler. Watch and be amazed.” The three of us turned our heads in the direction that Dutch was pointing the Walther. “See the insulator on the top of that telephone pole?”

           “Which one?” Jace asked.

           “The one leaning to the right,” Dutch said.

           “The green insulator or the blue one?” Boa asked.

           “The damn green one,” Dutch replied, the sound of his voice escalating.

           There was the sharp crack of the Walther discharging. The green insulator shattered into a thousand pieces.

           “Very good, Dutch,” I said.  

           Boa wasn’t much impressed. He turned to the three of us, and said, “We’re here today because one of the members of our club has violated his oath.”

           Dutch and I turned to look at Jace, who stared straight ahead. Finally, after a long difficult silence, Jace said, “She jumped me. I didn’t have a chance to say no.”

           “Do you want to belong to the Woman Haters Club, or not, Jace?” Boa asked.

           Keeping the answer to himself, Jace reached underneath one of the thick woolen scarfs he was wearing and pulled out his weapon of choice. Loading a steel mini-ball-bearing into its leather nest, he pulled the slingshot back until the rubber bands sung, then aimed the weapon at an insulator. We all watched the steel mini-ball-bearing whizz through the air.

           “Damn,” Jace cursed, lowering the slingshot.

           “To the right,” I said.

           “Well?” Boa asked. “What about it, Jace? You in, or are you out?”

           Stuffing the slingshot back under a scarf, Jace still refused to answer. We kept walking and in a short while turned off the railroad tracks and headed East in the direction of the Mississippi River. A sign tacked to a dead cottonwood tree read, “Hugs Landing.” The question of Jace’s membership in the Girl Haters Club was quickly forgotten. We each found a spot along the shoreline to take potshots at the huge chunks of frozen water that were floating South toward the Gulf of Mexico.

           Holding his German-made Walther pistol with both hands, Dutch fired off a succession of six shots at a mini-iceberg. It was hard to tell if he hit anything. The same could be said for Jace’s mini-ball-bearings. Boa zeroed-in with his blunderbuss on an ice-flow about twenty yards away, then let loose both barrels. Shards of ice exploded in all directions.

Without a clip for my .22, I had to laboriously load one bullet at a time. With no feeling in my frostbitten fingers, I was finally able to jam a bullet into the breech. I slammed the bolt closed, pushed the safety to red, brought the rifle up and sighted down the barrel. Slowly letting the air out of my lungs, I placed my finger on the trigger and--.

“Shit, Boa,” I exclaimed, letting the barrel of the .22 drop into the snow.

The pecker-headed idiot turned, and laughed, “What’s up, Doc?”

“I almost blew your goddamn head off. That’s what’s up. Watch where you’re going.”

“Watch where you’re aiming that thing,” he shot back.

Neither Boa nor I had time to fully digest the seriousness of the situation. At that moment there was the crunch of car tires on the snow-packed road leading down to Hugs Landing. We all turned to see who, besides the four of us, would spend time in such a godforsaken place on such a shitty day.

“Look,” Dutch said, waving his Walther in the general direction of the car. “It’s Too Tall.”

“And look who’s with him,” Jace said.

“None other than his main squeeze,” I added.

When our high school’s star basketball player saw the goofy-looking underclassmen waving, he made a hasty U-turn. Too Tall’s brand-new 1958 Chrysler roared back over the railroad tracks, leaving the four of us inhaling his exhaust. We stood and silently watched, each probably wondering why he belonged to such a stupid girl hater’s club in the first place.

Suddenly, Jace sniffed the air and turned to face the river. “You guys smell that?”

Dutch hummed, “Mmmmm. Dead fish?”

“No,” I said. “Anchovies.”

“Who-chovies?” Dutch asked.

“Little tiny fish you put on pizza,” Boa replied. “It smells like pussy to me.”

“As if you’d know,” the rest of us said in unison.

When the four of us were standing on the water’s edge, Jace puffed-out his chest. “Up north, my uncle belongs to a polar bear club.” When his comment didn’t bring the desired results, he continued, “On a day like today? He’s probably taking a dip in Lake Michigan.”

Dutch laughed and said, “Go ahead, Jace. Why don’t you jump in?”

“Don’t say that, Dutch,” Boa said. “He might take you up on it.”

           “That’s right, Dutch,” I said. “You know how Jace is susceptible to dumb dares. Remember that day when his finger got stuck in a vice?”

           Our tall skinny daredevil friend crept closer to the water until the toes of his boots were wet. He mumbled, “Polar bear. Polar bear.” Jace turned to face us. There was a bright light emanating from his eyes. “I’m gonna’ do it.” He looked directly at Boa. “I’m outta’ the Girl Haters Club. I’m startin’ my own club. The Crystal City Polar Bear Club.” Jace looked at me, then at Dutch. “You two in?”

           “Join your polar bear club?” I asked.

           “Are you crazy, Jace?” Dutch offered.

           “He is,” Boa said.

           Jace placed his slingshot on a rock and started to unwrap the scarfs from his body one at a time. When he was all the way down to his skivvies, he did a series of knee bends and jumping-jacks, exhaling white puffs of air.

           “You guys think I’m jokin’,” Jace panted. “You don’t think I’ve got the balls. Well, I got ‘em alright.”

           “Listen up, Jace,” Boa said. “If you’re gonna’ be an idiot, give me the Buster Crabbe watch.”

           “Ha.” Jace held his skinny wrist in the air so we could all get a good look at his timepiece. “Buster Crabbe takes a dippin’ and keeps on tickin’.” Fists clenched tight, his whole-body trembling, Jace held his nose, and hollered, “Geronimo.” He stepped off the riverbank and completely disappeared into the chocolate-colored water.

           I looked at Boa. “The goddamn fool did it.”

           “I didn’t think he would,” Boa said, his voice somewhat shaky.

           “Look,” Dutch hollered. “There he blows.”

           Leaning our long-guns against a fallen tree trunk, the three of us rushed along, hollering, “Stroke, Jace. Stroke.”

           Making like a wounded porpoise, Jace blew water from his blowhole and dog-paddled toward the steep shoreline. In an effort to snag Jace from the icy grip of Old Man River, the three of us made a human chain. Boa anchored himself to a tractor tire that had become embedded in the sand. I was the middle link. Dutch grabbed my foot with one hand, leaned out over the water. Somehow, he managed to drag Jace up on the riverbank.

Boa looked down and muttered, “He looks like a frozen fudge bar.”

“Sit him up,” Dutch ordered.

“Pound on his back,” I said.

Dutch and I took turns pounding on Jace’s back.

“Do it harder,” Boa advised. “Make him puke.”

After much gurgling and coughing, Jace finally emptied his stomach. He started shaking like a ’52 Chevy that needed its frontend aligned. Boa shed his extra coat and wrapped it around Jace’s upper torso.

“Dutch,” I said. “We need to warm him up. Let’s get some firewood.”

While Boa rewrapped Jace with woolen scarves, Dutch and I scurried up and down the riverbank gathering odd pieces of flotsam and jetsam. Although, he didn’t smoke cigarettes, Dutch did remember to bring his older brother’s Zippo. Down on my hands and knees, I huffed and puffed on wet smoldering straw until I was blue in the face. Finally, the fire came to life.

****

The weak, yellowish sun, partially hidden by low gray clouds, was slowly sinking in the west. The four of us were huddled around what was left of the blazing fire. The jagged lumber of discarded wooden pallets, chunks of driftwood and the split end of a telephone pole had burned down to a pile of glowing embers. Dutch used a long piece of rusty rebar to poke at one of the logs. Red and yellow sparks, mixed with the distinct smell of burning creosote, filled the air.

           Boa reached over and gave Jace a hearty pat on the back. “The Jace. Crystal City’s own polar bear.”

           Dutch asked, “What did it feel like, Jace?”

           Jace tried to smile and shrugged. “Once I hit the water, I didn’t feel a thing—until I got out.”

           “Brain freeze,” I said. “Say, Jace. It’s getting kind of late. What time does your Buster Crabbe say?”

           Jace peered down at his wrist. His weak grin evaporated. He held out his arm, and said, “Damn. Would ya’ look at that.”

           We all saw that Jace’s famous timepiece, the one Buster Crabbe guaranteed not to leak, was filled with muddy water and had stopped ticking.

           After a good laugh, I said, “I’ve been thinking.”

“Hey, Road. That’s a new one.”

“Ha, ha, Boa. I’ve decided to resign from the Girl Hater’s Club.”

Dutch stirred the fire with the rebar, and said, “Me, too.”

“Me, three,” Jace added. “But you guys already knew that.”

“That just leaves you, Boa. The last member of the Girl Hater’s Club.”

“Oh, Hell,” Boa said, a wide grin spreading across his face. “I dropped out of that dumb club a couple of months ago.”

What?”

“That’s right, boys. Now I can make it official. Me an’ Helen Higginbottom are going steady.”

“Well, dim, dim the freaking lights."

April 01, 2022 16:02

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2 comments

Vin Saber
04:33 Apr 10, 2022

The transition from Girl Hater's Club to Polar Bear Club is really good.

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Bill Kemp
18:12 Apr 10, 2022

Thank you. I can only write what I know.

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