Waukegan, the early 1960s
Having the coolest kid in your class as your best friend is a wonderful thing.
Charlie Miller remembered the first time he saw Nicky Demo.
Teachers introducing a new arrival was a normal, though not a frequent part of your school day. The new student would slowly walk into the classroom in a very shy manner to the teacher's desk holding a note. The teacher would stand next to the new arrival in front of her imposing desk that was her symbol of authority, the female equivalent of a battleship or a heavy tank. She, for all the grade school teachers were females or effeminate males, would introduce the kids to each other with each student standing up when the teacher called his or her name. Every one of the new arrivals seemed either tragically shy or embarrassed; only one or two managed a 'normal' emotionless expression, This new arrival had a glint in his eye and brandished a smile that told you that he knew something that you didn't...
'Class, let's all say hello and give a big welcome to our new arrival, Nicholas De-mo-po-lis.'
'De-mop-ou-los', he corrected.
The teacher's expression froze, no kid had ever corrected her...save one...Charlie...
'It's OK, teach'...a lotta people get it wrong, no big deal.'
He looked at her with a smile that appeared polite but no doubt was a triumph for him seeing her expression. He turned back to the class,
'You guys call me Nicky Demo!'
There had never been a welcome that enthusiastic to anyone in Glen Flora School, save the fireman who came once a year for Fire Prevention Day. The bland faced but tough looking fireman would lecture in a permanent monotone where he'd show cool slides of fires, tell firsthand experience stories that every boy wished he could tell himself, and encouraged the kids to correct their parents or rat on them like the Hitler Youth or the Young Pioneers for having fire hazards in the family home. Just as much fun as the fireman's stories was the look on their teacher's face where her eyes would go wide and she'd cover her lower face with her hands amidst the loud gasps and squeals of horror from the girls. The fireman concluded by passing out the world's coolest comic book printed in lurid black, white and various shades of RED! featuring kids who payed the price for their stupidity by being burned alive and screaming, electrocuted in a blaze of smoke and sparks, suffocated in refrigerators, and no, the little light inside the refrigerator didn't stay on as one slowly and painfully suffocated to death, crashed through the floors of building sites to the concrete and steel floor far below, run over by trucks when they hid in piles of leaves in the gutter, impaled on wrought iron fence posts, had their hands blown off with blasting caps, etc, with the 'lucky ones' only losing their eyes and limbs instead of their lives. With the exception of the last day of school, and Halloween, where the kids came back to school after lunch in their costumes, held off on the schoolwork whilst people guessed who was hidden beneath their masks before classes began, then knocked off the schoolwork around half an hour before the freedom of 3:15 for a party with apple cider and orange frosted jack o'lantern shaped sugar cookies, Fire Prevention Day was the most enjoyable day of the year.
When Miss Landwehr called out,
Charlie rose, but the entire class shouted out,
'Yeah. Nick O'Demus, right?'
Nicky Demo gave a great impression of Lightnin', played by an actor who called himself Nick O'Demus, who Charlie always loved watching on the reruns of Amos n' Andy shown during the weekday afternoons when school wasn't in session.
The entire classroom broke out in laughter.
* * *
The pair met and bonded together on the walk home from Nicky Demo's first day of Glen Flora School. Charlie heard Nicky Demo singing The Coasters' Charlie Brown with the pair singing the song together as they walked home.
Nicky was taller and looked older than anyone else in the class. Sometimes there were children of the Navymen from Great Lakes who were transferred from around the US, sometimes there were children who had flunked a year, and there were those who just were big for their age.
The pair of them walked together to Nicky's home.
'I can't invite you in today, but can you come and visit me Monday after school?'
Once at home Charlie told his mother about his new friend Nicky Demo and could he go visit him on Monday? His mother said yes, but he had to start home at 5, the normal time he ceased playing with his neighbourhood gang.
Every Monday was 'Demo Day', as for some unknown reason Charlie could only visit Nicky Demo at his house on Thursdays; no other day. When asked why he could only come over on Monday, Nicky Demo would just reply,
'That's the way it is.'
Nicky's mother perpetually dressed in black and spoke little English, with Nicky explaining that dressing in black for a long time was the tradition in 'the old country' when one's father died. Nicky Demo, his older brother George, for in every Greek and Russian family where there was a Nick there was a George, and his older sister Maria would speak to their mother in Greek, but she always had big warm smiles for Charlie that he loved. When the days were nice the boys would wear plastic helmets and carry toy Tommy guns as they played 'army' in the neighbourhood. On the frequent days of bad weather they would play with Nicky Demo's The Blue and the Grey Civil War playset with Charlie wearing his grey Confederate kepi and the pair of them shooting down each other's toy soldiers with rubber bands. For some reason Charlie always enjoyed shooting the Abe Lincoln figure and shouting 'Sic Semper Tyrannus!' They would watch the Three Stooges or an after school 1950s movie program called The Big Show featuring the Bowery Boys or sleazy American International Pictures involving juvenile delinquents, trashy women or monsters and sometimes all of them together, until it was time to go home.
One day Nicky Demo came over to Charlie's house and played with his neighbourhood gang, but he found their games in the Foursquare Churchyard dull and 'squaresville', for Nicky Demo spoke in the manner of the 50's punks from AIP films and Kookie from reruns of 77 Sunset Strip. He impressed them all by climbing the drainpipe of the Foursquare Church up to the roof in what the gang regarded as a death defying act. The members of Charlie's gang later told him one at a time away from the others that they didn't really like Nicky Demo and they hoped he wouldn't bring him to play with them again.
Mrs. Demo would always bring the boys a glass of milk and sometimes oily sweet pastries that Charlie had never seen before, but he loved the taste of them. Nicky told him that the Greek word for 'tremendous' was 'tromerós , and his mother would love him to say that the next time she brought some sweets.
Charlie proudly exclaimed the word after some wonderful Baklava and Mrs. Demo seemed hurt. Nicky began shrugging his shoulders and talking with his mother in Greek, but she wisely paid more attention to the surprise and hurt in Charlie's eyes. She slapped Nicky in the head and said the apt English word,
All was forgiven.
Charlie never met Daddy Demo, and Nicky Demo's brother and sister weren't prone to speak to them. When walking home from school with Charlie, Nicky Demo would always complain how George, was 'the golden boy' who could do no wrong and Maria, who was also an excellent student as George was, hated him.
The pair only met on one Saturday a month, the reason for that again was unexplained. They would have a malted milk or an ice cream soda or sundae at the neighbourhood Rexall drug store soda fountain, then walk downtown to see double feature action or comedy movies. Nicky Demo was so proud seeing The 300 Spartans and was an expert on ancient Greek history that he would regale Charlie with on their way home.
The pair seemed to go together as they were the class clowns, but in their role as court jesters, they were opposites. Charlie would do no more than make a non offensive corny joke or play on words of what the teacher said, but occasionally he would unintentionally upset the teacher. On one occasion the teacher had a series of written instructions on the blackboard to follow for doing assignments in a variety of their textbooks. The final instruction read 'When you have completed these tasks, you may read The Story Road', that was the name of their story book. Charlie followed the instructions, and when he completed all the assignments he began drawing cartoons in his Nifty Notebook.
'What do you think you're doing, Charlie?'
'Cartooning, Miss Landwehr.'
'Did you read the instructions on the chalkboard?'
'Yes, I did.'
Charlie began showing her all his completed assignments but she emphasised the final instruction.
'What does that say, Charlie?'
'It says "When you have completed these tasks, you may read The Story Road".'
'Why aren't you reading The Story Road, Charlie?'
'Your instruction said that you may read The Story Road, it wasn't written as a command like your other instructions. "May" is a modal verb expressing a possibility, not a necessity, like "must". As I've already read The Story Road in my spare time, I decided to do some cartooning, Miss Landwehr.'
'You're staying after school with me, Charlie.'
'Why's that, Miss Landwehr? By your saying may...'
'You're staying after school with me, Charlie!!!'
'Women', thought Charlie...
On the other hand, Nicky Demo not only went in for stunning practical jokes, for he was a one man Johnson-Smith Novelty Company, but he seemed to deliberately wish to antagonise the teacher.
Once when the pair were allowed to go to the Boys toilet together, Nicky Demo stuck a pin in a light switch in the hallway that caused an impressive explosion of sparks and made all the lights in their classroom go off.
During an art assignment Charlie noticed Nicky Demo covering his left hand with Elmer's Glue. He held it out palm up and let it dry as he completed his art project with only one hand.
Quite some time later Nicky Demo ran up to Miss Landwehr's desk clutching his left hand.
'Miss Landwehr! Miss Landwehr! My jungle rot has come back again!'
'What are you talking about, Nicholas?'
'My Dad was on Guadalcanal where he got it and he infected our family, it comes back every so often!'
'Nicholas! What do you mean?'
'I lose all the feeling in an arm or a leg, then my skin comes off!'
Nicky Demo grabbed some of the dried clear glue on his palm and pulled off strips of it.
'Look! I can't feel my skin coming off! It's like leprosy!!!! Help me, Miss Landwehr!'
'No I'm only kidding. It's Elmer's Glue.'
The class burst out laughing, as Charlie would tell the story, Miss Landwehr went into orbit like John Glenn and the Three Stooges.
'Go to the principal's office right now, Nicholas!'
Nicky Demo waved goodbye to his laughing classmates. Miss Landwehr twigged on to the fact that her being visibly excited incited her students like gasoline on a fire. She thought she'd get 'last bark' before Nicky Demo left for the principal's office
'I'm surprised your parents didn't send you to Catholic school, Nicholas. A lot of parents who aren't Catholic send their problem children there.'
'Oh they're pretty rough there, teacher.'
Miss Landwehr gave the class a look of intense satisfaction.
Donny meekly asked,
'How rough were they, Nicky?'
Nicky Demo acted like a comedian performing in front of a night club and faced the class. Miss Landwehr was behind him still wearing her snark of triumph.
'Man, they're really rough! My Mom brought me there and I swear to God when I went inside the place I saw they had a kid nailed to the wall!'
Nicky held out his arms in the crucifixion pose, Charlie was the only one to roar with laughter, that soon set off the other kids laughing.
'Get down to the office right now, Nicky!'
She pointed to the door like the Grim Reaper pointing towards eternity.
'This way out'. smiled Nicky Demo.
Charlie laughed again.
'Disrespect is never funny, Charlie.'
Charlie answered honestly and respectfully,
'Sorry Miss Landwehr, but it was funny.'
'You can stay after school with me, Charlie.'
'Yes, I beg your pardon..but it's still funny, Miss Landwehr.'
'Keep it up and I'll tape your mouth shut, Charlie.'
'I changed my mind, Miss Landwehr.'
Everyone in class burst out laughing, once Nicky Demo left both Miss Landwehr and Charlie took their seats and class resumed as it had before.
Nicky Demo's Saturday jokes were much more spectacular. He was one of the lucky deeply admired kids who could get his hands on firecrackers that he would demonstrate using his brother's model tanks. Once he covered a nickel balsa wood glider with lighter fluid, ignited it and sent it flying.
Back in the classroom during an art class, Nicky Demo did the old finger in the cardboard box with cotton wool covered in ketchup when the art class was using their scissors. His screams were truly frightening, Charlie couldn't believe that Miss Landwehr had never come across that old gag before, but apparently she hadn't as she actually fainted. Nicky Demo thoughtfully removed the flowers from the vase on her desk and revived her by throwing the water in her face. He demonstrated his hand was fine and sucked the ketchup off his finger.
'I got better, Miss Landwehr.'
'GET TO THE OFFICE RIGHT NOW NICHOLAS!!!!'
* * *
Charlie was walking back to school after his lunch break where he'd eat with his mother, then laugh with Bozo's Circus on the television. Nicky Demo was waiting on the corner of Massena and Chestnut Street on Charlie's well travelled road to school.
'Charlie! This is important! Come home with me, now!'
'I'll tell you when we get there.'
Nicky Demo's mother was away, his sister Maria was there, where she was off from her school on sick leave. He explained that his sister 'owed him a favour'. Charlie watched in shock as Maria telephoned Glen Flora School where she imitated her mother saying that Nicholas was not feeling well and would not be at school. She then telephoned and spoke in a non Greek accent that she was Charlie's mother explaining that Charles had taken sick after his lunch, but would be in tomorrow.
Charlie waited until she hung up.
'Nicky, I can't skip school!'
'It's OK Charlie. You're lucky that your family doesn't have a phone, so they can't check on you. You've GOT to skip school with me this afternoon. I've got a secret to tell you.'
'What is it?'
'I'll tell you, but I'll tell you later. Please...'
He couldn't recall Nicky Demo ever using that word in the entire time he knew him.
Their first stop was going into a treehouse with a bag of old comic books and a giant Hershey's chocolate block, both provided by Nicky Demo. It was a brilliant afternoon, Nicky was his best friend, who could pass up the nirvana of those three treasures in life?
He noticed that Nicky Demo was wearing a wristwatch, something that he had never seen him wear before. He explained he had borrowed it from his father as the key to a successful skipping of school was not to be seen and to come home at the usual time.
Charlie had no idea of the time, but they eventually tired of reading and began to talk. They talked of their memories of the fun times they had together and the funny things they had seen.
Charlie asked again about the secret, Nicky Demo replied that it wasn't time yet, but the time would soon come...
They continued their funny stories as their forbidden afternoon passed in laughter and pleasant recent nostalgia; Nicky Demo kept glancing at his watch..
'It's time, Charlie Brown! Let's go!'
They dashed down the network of Waukegan's back alleyways that they intimately knew like the back of their proverbial hands then ran on the pavements through the streets of their deserted neighbourhood. Charlie forgot his fears of the houses they ran by having their curtains moving like those in the street of The Magnificent Seven where the entire town was gunning for Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. The Old Crabs, housewives and Moms wouldn't shoot them with Winchesters, but they would ring the Truant Officer like the one on the Little Rascals comedies who wore a giant star badge reading TRUANT OFFICER. He would catch them in large butterfly nets, then take them in a Paddy Wagon to the Reform School. They'd be forced to wear striped outfits and break rocks in a pit where up above their pit of shame, teachers would show them off to their students taken to scoff at them in school bus excursions where they were given rocks on the bus to throw at them.
They had reached the Foursquare Churchyard in Charlie's neighbourhood where his gang would probably be playing after school, but the classes had still not ended.
'C'mon, follow me, Charlie!'
'I'm not going up there, Nicky.'
'Please, Charlie. I won't tell you the secret unless you come with me. Just don't look down...Please...'
Without asking him to say 'pretty please with maple sugar on it' he followed Nicky up the drainpipe on the outside of the Foursquare Church and was soon on the green roof. The roof went ever higher to the very top; there was a groove where two parts of the roof came together. Nicky Demo demonstrated how to use their hands and feet to safely work their way up, until they could go no higher.
They sat side by side, Charlie gasped in astonishment of the view of his neighbourhood that he had never seen before. They were at the height of the tall trees that shaded the streets from late Spring to early Autumn. The streets he played in and the houses of the members of his neighbourhood gang and their parents looked so different...he had never felt as he now did, looking down upon his world with his very best friend.
'This is incredible, Nicky!'
'There's a couple secrets, Charlie.'
Charlie looked at his best friend, the wonders of the view from up high as if the pair were the only ones in their world completely overshadowed any fears of falling from the heights.
'The first is a bit of wisdom. It's something my Dad once told me. He said you'll regret the things that you didn't do more than the things you did do...and one day you'll have regrets of not doing those things when you could've. That was important to him, he repeated it to me a few times until I understood. Now here we are, Charlie. This is something we'll always remember!'
Charlie looked around again admiring the views up and down his Chestnut Street and up the alley and Center Street to the parallel Poplar and Jackson Streets. They were one with the wind blowing the leaves in the trees...They were free in their minds and their hearts and not only because they weren't sitting in the cramped dull classroom.
'Wow! What's the other secret, Nicky?'
'I'm going away. My parents are sending me to military school.'
Nicky looked sad, Charlie looked surprised, then happy.
'Wow, I always wanted to go to a military school...Just like McKeever and the Colonel!'
Charlie had always enjoyed that television show about two boys in a military school led by the comedians Allyn Josyln as the Colonel and Jackie Coogan as his Master Sergeant. As Charlie wanted to someday be a Marine, he thought there would be nothing better than going to an academy that would mostly teach history with an emphasis on strategy and tactics using sand tables, dioramas and watching and critiquing historical movies together. They'd dress like West Point cadets or soldiers of Napoleon. In their spare time they would be able to read war books all evening and play war games instead of sports. He would be with people with the same interests that he had, for his mother and teachers called him a 'warmonger'.
'You're crazy Charlie! That's where parents send kids that they don't want!'
Charlie recalled his Dad's tales of his first days in the Army where he was conscripted during World War II with the first thing being their sergeant challenging everyone who didn't like him to go behind the latrine where he'd remove his stripes...and he'd beat them up, with the smart aleck who told their drill sergeant 'You go to Hell, I'm going home', getting the worst of it. He had visions of an intense sadistically smiling Jackie Coogan beating Nicky Demo to a pulp.
Nicky Demo was looking as if he was about to cry, and he did so.
'Why are they sending you there, Nicky? My Dad says those places cost a lot of money.'
'My Dad hates me.'
'My Dad gives me heaps sometimes, but that's how Dads are. Your Mom seems pretty nice.'
'I treat her awful, I treat everyone awful. They think George is the great one.'
He had never seen Nicky cry.
'George may be better in school, but you're the fun one. I wouldn't want to be around George, or your sister, but I can be around with you all day!'
'You're the only one who likes me. I feel like jumping off the roof!'
'Don't be a chump! If you're dead there's no more fun.'
'You're fun to be around, Charlie. your gang is fun to be around, even though they're square...but now it's over...'
'When do you leave?'
'Next day or two. This was supposed to be my last day of school. I just wanted to spend time with you. Not with a psychiatrist or a juvenile officer or my brother and sister. You're the funniest guy I ever knew, but you don't get into any trouble. Everyone says I just want to get attention like it's some sort of bad thing. It is a bad thing, because they're sending me away!'
He paused and reflected in silence, 'That's the way it is.'
So this was it. This was the reason for all the strange behaviour, he was one of those juvenile delinquents like they watched on the 1950s movies who did what they did for attention, as any attention was better than none. He couldn't stop and now his schemes had backfired.
Charlie felt that there was no doubt that he would be severely punished by his parents, for his being AWOL from school. There would be his father's beating, his mother's crying 'woe is me', and no doubt the lengthy times of being kept after school, but for the first time in his life Charlie felt that all those fears that manifested itself as his own personal hell was somehow worth it for this one and only day of days. He somehow knew that this would never ever happen again. Nicky Demo was right; it was something to be forever cherished.
'You can write to me.'
'That's not the point, Charlie. I'll never see you again and I'll probably never have any fun again.'
'It sounds better than Reform School.'
'That's the next stop after military school.'
The ways of grownups and parents were like the wind. You didn't know why it came or where it came from, it just was there. You could shelter temporarily, but you had to face the music as his Dad told him.
They sat together in silence, the wonders of the view seemed to be cancelled out by the tragedy of never seeing Nicky Demo again.
The silence seemed to be a glimpse of eternity.
Charlie had no idea how long they were up on the roof until Nicky Demo looked his watch,
'It's time now for you to go home, we'll walk up Poplar Street, then you can go down Massena to Chestnut and you'll get home at the time you normally would.'
They said their goodbyes at the corner of Massena and Poplar...
* * *
Charlie's prayers were answered, for his parents never found out that he had missed an afternoon of school.
The next morning Nicky Demo's desk was empty.
Miss Landwehr, a teacher who some of his classmates had said had been teaching at their school when their parents were there had a triumphant look.
'Nicholas De-mo-po-lis is no longer a student at this school. His family has sent him to a military school to learn respect and discipline, and I hope it's just like the MARINES!'
She was impressed with the deafening silence in her classroom.
A few minutes later she opened her desk drawer and a series of coiled spring snakes jumped out at her and made her go backwards in her chair where she crashed to the floor.
'WHICH ONE OF YOU DID THAT????'
Every boy in the classroom stood up.
'I said, "which ONE of you did that"?'
The girls rose as well.
She called the name of the bespectacled bookworm who the class would ridicule as 'Teachers Pet'. Everyone in the class loathed him because he was a toady, a tattle tale, and an actual crybaby, but most of all because he attended school every day without a single day of sick leave.
'Tell me who put those snakes in my desk!'
'I did, Miss Landwehr.'
Nothing was said, but an incredible electric feeling permeated the classroom.
Everyone was suddenly proud of Eugene. Miss Landwehr decided to pull out all the stops and no doubt make him cry in public like she had done before.
'Just...who...do you...think you ARE?'
Eugene instantly forever more became the hero of the class.
'I'm Spartacus too, Miss Landwehr', added Suzy.
'I'm Smartacus!', smiled Charlie, as he imagined writing to Kirk Douglas himself to tell him all about it. He hoped Mr. Dimple would walk into the classroom and slap Miss Landwehr like he did to all the leading ladies in his movies and make some insult that would make everyone laugh and cheer.
Everyone in the class shouted.
Realising she was beaten, she sat back at her desk.
'Let's continue with our Geography lesson....'
Author Notes: I am the author of three Extra Dimensional/Ultraterrestial military science fiction novels MERCENARY EXOTIQUE, OPERATION CHUPACABRA and WORK IN OTHER WORLDS FROM YOUR OWN HOME! as well as two travel books THE MAN FROM WAUKEGAN and TWO AUSTRALIANS IN SCOTLAND (all from Lulu.com). I live happily ever after with my wife in paradise (coastal Kiama, NSW Australia).