I Was a Teenage Vigilante: An Unfortunately True Story
My favorite anecdotes are the ones that start out badass, then quickly veer into ridicule and embarrassment. If you've ever saved a man from a burning building, turned him over to his grateful family, and then, pivoting on your heel for a dramatic exit, tripped headfirst into a pile of diapers, I want to hear about it. Recently, I realized why these stories hold such a special place for me: They're my entire life. My whole existence, from birth until this day, has been unquestionably, exotically badass ... just so long as you don't ask me for the details. For example:
At the age of 13, I was arrested for armed robbery. It wasn't a case of mistaken identity. I was there -- the cops caught me with a 6-inch combat knife and a club. They shoved me into an interrogation room, but I clammed up. I didn't even give them my name. I stonewalled them all night, until they gave up and had to release me. I wasn't worried; I knew I was innocent. Because, you see, when they caught me, I was in the process of chasing down the real thief.
Every single word of that is true.
He is not the hero we need right now, because it's past bedtime. Try again tomorrow.
And I really hope that a feral owl flies in through your window right now and starts flapping over everything in your living room. I hope it tries to take your cat. I hope a dramatic chase and capture sequence unfolds that ends with you bleeding in a veterinary clinic, telling the baffled vet that "he fought honorably," so that you will be too distracted to ever finish reading this post. Because here are the details that ruin everything:
It was the summer between seventh and eighth grades. I was 13, and slowly being swallowed by puberty like Artax in the Swamp of Sadness. Thirteen is a terrible goddamn age: You have all the deluded self-importance of a teenager, but none of the mental or physical capacities to do anything about it. It's important that you understand that mindset when I tell you what happened next. I was cutting through the park on my way home from the comic book store when a bunch of kids flagged me down.
The first thing they said to me was: "Please, you have to help us!"
If they had said literally anything else, I would have just gone home to masturbate to Nintendo again (or whatever it was we did in the '90s). But they knew the magic words -- the universal, subliminal trick to mastering a preteen nerd. They appealed to me like I was a dragon slayer, and they the hapless villagers who needed rescuing.
"Yes, I shall save you! For I have just finished reading Dragonlance, and I am pretty sure I can do all that stuff!"
"Please, you have to help us!"
Fuck. Of course I did it. To this day, I swear to God that lightning clapped dramatically behind me when I accepted.
It turned out that the kids had organized a fight in the park (childhood fistfights, if you've never attended one, are dignified events that one has to RSVP to well in advance), and they knew that they couldn't take the other boys. They were 12 years old. Only a year younger than me, but that particular year is very important. Being 13, I was technically in my teens, and to a 12-year-old, there is no more dangerous weapon in the world than a teenager. We waited for an hour or so, and when the other kids showed up, all hell broke loose. By which I mean that we called each other names for ten minutes, then I pushed one of them, and everybody scattered like black guys watching a magic trick. You know, standard little-kid fight procedure.
"Somebody touched somebody else! Never stop running!"
The boy who recruited me to the Great Outdoor Fight of '93 turned out to like Ninja Turtles as well. Who could've guessed? Of course we were immediate friends.
That night, he asked to sleep over. His mom dropped him off and met with my dad, and everything seemed on the level, so she left. After amping ourselves up with some Street Fighter II, we decided that those kids were probably out there right now, so enraged by their humiliating defeat that they were taking it out on the innocent townspeople. Bend, Oregon, was burning beneath the fiery rage of an evil band of sixth graders, and only this chubby barely-teen and his loyal 12-year-old sidekick could save it.
I reached under my bed, and as a symphony of mental electric guitars raged into life, revealed my little-kid arsenal:
"Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds!"
I have no idea if the childhood arsenal was exclusive to boys, because up until the age of 16, girls were like tigers: Sure, objectively I knew that they were real, but damned if I'd ever seen one, and if I did, I'd probably just run for my life. I can, however, tell you with absolute authority that every single boy I've ever met had a personal armory underneath his bed, in his closet, or buried under some bushes in the backyard. The weaponry varied -- some firecrackers, a pellet gun, cheap aluminum shurikens bought at a county fair -- but we all had The Stick. Yes, that needed capitalization. It was not any stick, or a stick -- it was The Stick. It was our Excalibur, our Masamune. Ask any grown man today, and he will reminisce fondly about The Stick -- the perfect weight, counterbalance, flexibility, maybe a little sharp bit at the end for added menace -- like it was his first love.
There's probably something symbolic about little boys and their precious sticks. Let's never, ever talk about it.
And so we armed ourselves. I grabbed The Stick and my incredibly dull combat knife (I literally did not know that you could sharpen knives; the thing couldn't cut tension). He grabbed some throwing stars, because he was the guest. He was player 2; he got the broken controller and liked it.
Now, obviously, we knew those other kids weren't actually out there wreaking havoc, but we were still hyped up on puberty-adrenaline and wanted to relive some itty-bitty drama. We knew that nothing was going to happen, and we weren't really looking for a fight -- we just wanted an excuse to do some somersaults and maybe jump off a tall rock, if things got particularly adventurous. In short, we went back to the park that night to play ninjas on the scene of our greatest victory.
After a particularly bitchin' shoulder roll where I almost got my knife to stick in a tree (you should've seen it! It was like "shuck!" and I swear it actually stayed for a second before falling!), we wandered up to where the park bordered downtown. There was a short back alley behind the main drag, and as we reached it, we saw a for-real teenager come bolting around the corner and take off up the alleyway. Ten seconds later, a frantic fat man chugged after him, crying "Robbery! Robbery! Please, you have to help me!"
Of course we did it. To this day, I swear to God that dramatic fanfare accompanied us as we took off up the alley, trying to chase down the thief. We were good men pushed too far. We were heroes. We were the very avatars of Justice itself.
There is no way in hell that we would've gone after him if that guy had been anywhere remotely in sight.
But we still ran up the alley, me holding The Stick aloft, as if to harness the power of Grayskull, my friend with a ninja star clutched in each fist. (What were you even going to do, man? Were you going to punch him with shuriken, like brass knuckles? I mean, awesome, yeah, but they would've cut into your hands too!) We ran until I was out of breath, which was, like, maybe a block, because I was kind of a chubby kid, and being possessed by the ephemeral spirit of Justice doesn't exactly counteract a summer of Frito Pie lunches.
"Look, does Justice come with a chili topping? No? Then shut the fuck up and let me eat four of these in a row."
When it was clear that we'd put forth enough heroic effort to warrant at least a small parade and maybe a medal from the mayor (who we were pretty sure had the authority to give out medals), we jogged back to the fat guy for our reward. And saw that the cops were there.
Yes, we were absolutely going to be deputized on the spot. I would buy a pair of aviators, and people would call me The Wolf, because I never lost a criminal's scent. My friend would be called Skinny Pete. Skinny Pete and The Wolf. Yes.
"There they are!" the fat man said. But much to our surprise, it was not followed by "my heroes!"
It was followed by: "There are the kids that robbed me!"
He'd never actually seen the teenager running up the alley. He just came around the corner and saw us bolt.
The cops full-on movie arrested us: twisted arms, shoved up on the hood of the car, handcuffs behind the back, rights being read ... they even did that thing where they pushed your head down as they put you in the back so you didn't hit the roof. The whole deal. Looking back, I think they knew how terribly disappointed we would be if getting arrested didn't turn out to be exactly like on Miami Vice, so they put on a show for us. Either that, or they were bored small-town cops who'd seen the same movies as us and liked to play pretend, too.
"Dispatch, we've got a suspicious-looking cat here. Requesting air support and proceeding on foot. Jim's going to do that thing where he slides over the hood. It's gonna be sweet. Over."
At the station, they separated us and threw us each into a tiny, sparsely furnished white room barely bigger than a closet. Each had a plain plastic chair and table and a large two-way mirror on one wall. I knew what that meant: The chief was back there, just watching me, waiting to see if I'd break. In the next room, I could hear my sidekick sobbing loudly.
And I wanted to sob as well. It was terrifying -- and I was in so much trouble. But I couldn't. Being a teenager is a privilege, not a right. You have to earn that shit. This was my life now. Look at it! Not even into high school, and The Man is already persecuting me. I did what was expected of me in my role as rebel and outsider: I spat at the glass. I gave it the finger.
"I won't talk!" I screamed at it, "Pigs!"
Of course, I know now that there was nobody on the other side of that glass. They arrested a couple of really stupidly embarrassing children and had to put them somewhere isolated so the real criminals -- mostly just small-town drunks and a couple of vandals -- didn't harass us. But I didn't think of that at the time, because I was too busy playing out a scene from Lethal Weapon -- "I want my lawyer! That's the guy with the hammer, right? He's gonna hammer you so bad!"
"Objection! Habeus pluribus unum! Laws! Hammer-time!"
Precisely one police officer came in to see me. He asked my name and where he could reach my parents.
"I won't talk," I whispered savagely, "You'll never get me to talk."
He sighed, picked up my bright orange G.I. Joe wallet, loudly broke the Velcro seal, and took out the card that I'd written my address and phone number on because I couldn't always remember it.
After a few hours of isolation, they finally caught the teenager who'd actually robbed the fat guy and released us to our parents, who were apparently sitting in the lobby the entire time. I left the station glowering and defiant, which absolutely nobody noticed.
"I fought the law, and I used the Dragon Punch. The law didn't stand a fucking chance."
Obviously, I never saw my new friend again. I mean, imagine this whole thing from his mom's perspective:
"Mom, I met a new friend, can I stay over?"
8 hours later ...
But even more tragically, that was also the last I saw of ... The Stick. To this day, I suffer from Phantom Weapon Syndrome. There is an empty space in my palm where I can still feel its confident weight, wavering there, ever loyal and always at the ready. I loved you, The Stick. There will never be another.
July 1991 - August 1993
"Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong."
Buy Robert's stunning, transcendental, orgasmic science fiction novel, Rx: A Tale of Electronegativity, right here. Or buy Robert's other (pretty OK) book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead. Follow him on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.
Check out more from Brockway in Choose Your Drug-Fueled Misadventure: Dragon Ass, Takin Names and 8 Amazing Stories of Ninja Failure.