IN MY LITTLE TOWN:
Deserted, the mansion was a haunted house. Occupied, it was a home for hoods.
There was an enormous, deserted house in our neighborhood, on the northwest corner of Laurel and Oxford in St. Paul, Minn. We kids assumed that being deserted it was haunted.
One boy, two years older than most of us, bragged he was not afraid of hauntings. We dared him to walk the talk, and so on Halloween night in 1955 he said he would walk up to the front door and ring it.
And so he did, while we all cowered in the bushes.
The moment he rang the bell, a voice called down from the attic, “Whooooo arrrrre youuuuu?” Then a slate from the roof came down and crashed near where he stood.
I didn’t stop running until I was home under my bed. I think I jettisoned the pillowcase full of candy because it was slowing me down.
But the real horror story about this house came two years later
My buddies in the mid-grades in the mid-fifties would today be called geeks, though the word meant different back then. We had identified certain local drug stores in the area, that were air cooled, with soda fountains, next to the magazine counters, where the pharmacist would let us stay all morning as long as we didn’t disturb anyone.
My friends back then took to Popular Science and Popular Mechanics and though we lost touch long ago, I suspect they went on to productive career in those fields.
I was attracted to a new magazine called MAD, created by William Gaines and the usual gang of idiots, which claimed it was cheap for only a quarter-dollar, but it was really 250% more than a Dell comic.
Our street, Ashland Avenue, was a very genteel street with big old frame homes built in the 1880s, each lot shaded by its own Cathedral Elm tree. All together those trees, and those for several miles around, gave our streets an air of respectability much favored by primarily Irish families that by 1950 were a full century past the famine boats, and a half-century beyond the ‘shanty’ stage. By the late 1960s, many of them would be gone to the new split-level homes in Highland Park. But this was then.
Two blocks to the South was Summit Avenue, one of the most beautiful residential streets in America, and the gateway to the very tony Crocus Hill neighborhood with its expansive and expensive view of the Mississippi valley below.
Two blocks to the North is where the hoods, or hoodlums or JDs or juvenile delinquents, lived; from Selby Avenue, going east down to the imposing St Paul Cathedral. And every year the ‘blight’ as it was called crept one block closer to our ‘turf’ at Lexington.
These were not cutesy hoods as in Grease. They were the hoods in West Side Story. Black leather jackets, dungarees, engineer boots, DA haircuts, reportedly armed with shivs and zip guns.
My friends and I had block loyalty; we were the Ashland Ashcans. And like Superman, we stood for ‘truth, justice and the American way.’
We had formed The B/S Patrol, the Bike and Sled Patrol, to fight crime, restore justice and keep peace in the valley, using either bikes or sleds, depending on the season.
In 1957, a family of juvenile delinquents moved in the neighborhood. Into the big house on the next block that had always been deserted up to now.
There were three sons, and the youngest was our age. Each one had his own motorbike and they took to riding them in our neighborhood late at night, on Sunday afternoons, and during summer vacation when they would stop and harassed little kids of seven or eight and swipe their pocket money.
The father of one of our gang was an FBI agent. We venerated him. He helped us get our Merit Badges in Fingerprinting at the FBI offices in the Federal Building downtown.
I believe it was in the spirit of trying to live up to that high standard that we knew what we had to do regarding these hoods. Shut them down.
So we hatched a plot with only one flaw which I will get to soon.
We would ride our bikes down the alley till we came to the huge, three-car garage behind the huge and formerly haunted house. We parked our bikes and climbed up to the top of the pitched garage roof so we could not be seen from the back yard.
There they were, sprawled out on lawn chairs in jeans rolled up to their knees, getting redneck tans on their legs, listening to the Everly Brothers who, back then, resembled the hoods.
(We were Buddy Holly fans. Not as threatening as Don and Phil, but not as white-bucks as Pat Boone.)
The three brothers were drinking beers from long neck bottles, even the youngest that was our age. The the two old brothers also had their debs with them in short shorts and halter tops; debutants who hung with hoods.
We had brought our pea shooters and a pocketful of peas intending to rain holy hell on these hoods. And if that didn’t tame them, we could always have our friend’s dad arrest them in the name of J. Edgar Hoover.
We synchronized our watches, and then with a blood-curdling scream we let fly a fusillade of peas from out straw-shaped shooters.
Only now did the shortcoming in our plan reveal itself. We had only thought the scheme out to this point. We had not considered an effective exit strategy. And that was a serious error.
Their surprise at the attack gave was to a blistering fury when they saw us up on the garage roof. Even without a plan of what to do now, it was clean we had to get down off the roof.
So we jumped down and got on our bikes. I don’t mean we landed on them, like some cowboys could jump from a roof and land on a galloping horse. No, we took the safer, two-step process. Jump then mount.
And we were off. And then they were off on their motorbikes in hot pursuit. Our strategic advantage was that we knew the neighborhood; we knew yards we could cut through; the alleys that dead-ended; until we finally came to the alley behind our home on Ashland.
We dragged our bikes into the backyard, thinking they would not dare come into private property. We were fighting the Communists who wanted to take our private property. This would not stand.
They jumped off their motorbikes and came into our backyard. The hell is this…? We ran up the back steps and into the kitchen. Surely, they would not dare come into a private home. I was so sure of that I neglected to lock the back screen door. They came up the back steps, three at a time. And into the kitchen.
This was too much. There were four of us and three of them, so it might seem we had the manpower advantage. But we were wearing black Converse high-tops. They were wearing black Engineer boots that could be lethal on the feet of someone in a killer rage.
So here are four of us on one side of the kitchen table, and the three hoods on the other, itching to kick us to kingdom come.
Except, they had not planned to invade a private home that morning. They were as surprise to be there as we were to see them there. Even the realized they’d overstepped the boundaries.
But there they were and they couldn’t just say Pardon Us and retreat.
Now, my grandmother lived with us. She was in her late 90s, mentally alert but she tired easily. So every afternoon she took a nap.
The commotion in the kitchen downstairs awakened her and she decided to source the noise on a summer afternoon. She came down in such a hurry she had not put her dentures in or combed her wispy hair. She did, however, remember to carry her cane for support.
She entered the kitchen behind our backs, but very visible to the hoods who suddenly stopped their threatening actions and stood stock still frozen in place.
Grandma’s sepulchral face, her sunken, toothless cheeks, wild white hair, and wispy cotton nightgown were terror enough for these guys unaware of the fury of an Irish grandmother seeing her brood in danger (think Mrs. Rose Kennedy).
Then she raised her cane as she moved past us and began to bear down on the hoods. They did not run out of our kitchen, they flew, leaping the back steps in a single bound.
I am happy to say that the younger kids on the block were never robbed of their pocket money again after that day.
© 2022 Thomas Mahon
Copyright of the photo belongs to the registered copyright holder