I liked to hang with Willis, this older guy who lived on a small farm just north of Glen Lennox housing development, where my parents rented an apartment. Willis was my lord-on-high god, for he was in high school, while I, mere I, was ten, a fourth grader, an outcast Yankee who got beat up walking home from school, and who got told, whether beaten or not, to save his confederate money, for the South would rise again.
I didn’t have any confederate money, and I didn’t believe that any of my classmates did either, although one boy showed me a stack of brown colored bills that had, I pointed out to him, the word counterfeit printed in small letters in the back left hand corner.
But Willis was not interested in our small school dramas. He was a junior in high school, and his family owned woods, more than 200 acres of tall, sweet smelling loblolly, where you could get lost in noble silence or lose yourself in games after school or all day Saturdays and Sundays. No hunting was allowed, but we’d play hide and seek, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, though none of the boys wanted to be a cop.
One Saturday in the fall Willis informed the gang that we were going to build a log cabin.
BUILD A LOG CABIN!!
“We can and we will, right here in these woods,” he said, putting one hand to his hip, nodding his head and giving a little ironic smile. “There are axes and saws and rope in the barn across the road.”
Willis sent us fanning into the forest to find and mark tall straight pines we could get our arms around. Some kids he sent shinnying up trees high to tie a rope. Others he told to chop a notch in the trunk. He and I set in the notch a two person cross saw. We cut through the trunk while other boys tugged hard on the rope so the tree would lean toward the notch, and then when we stopped sawing they’d pull hard and bring it down in a crash at a place where it wouldn’t damage other trees.
Willis had us selectively cut in the forest—a tree here, another there, so that we “walked softly on the land” (he called it). “We hold the land in trust, you know, like the Indians. Nobody really owns this land.” Willis’ dad, besides doing a little farming, was a botanist up at the university in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My father was a poor intern who trained with the pathologist father of the singer of James Taylor. Some days I would play games with James at his fancy house close to downtown.
Later Willis and I trimmed off the branches and cut through the trunk to make the logs the size we wanted and carried them to the spot chosen for the cabin. After that, we carefully and deeply notched the logs using an ax and saw. Putting it all together was very much like putting together a Lincoln log set you got for Christmas.
Harder was building the frame for the pitched roof and then covering it. Willis’ dad bought plywood and tarpaper and shingles, and he and Willis got up on top and nailed everything in place. His dad didn’t want us smaller boys to be up on top for fear we’d break our necks. After that we hauled clay from a ditch along the road and added water plus grass from his cut front lawn to make a kind of adobe to work in the small cracks between the logs, but our adobe always washed out after a couple of hard rains. We filled the cracks a couple of times, but eventually we gave up.
Building the log cabin, we discovered fairly soon, was much more fun than using it. The cabin was dark inside, with a dirt floor and no furniture or windows. When playing hide and seek you could peer through the cracks between the logs and keep an eye out, but you were trapped once someone stopped at the door. Although we may not have used the cabin much, just seeing it stand there made us stand taller. We knew we could do things necessary for survival. We could build shelter.
After a few months the gang’s interests shifted away from playing in the piney woods. We ended up after school that spring footballing in a vacant field across from Willis’ farmhouse, close by the barn.
I am still amazed at how rough we played on the hard grassy ground without shoulder pads or helmets, and how no one ever got injured beyond an occasional bruised knee. When I look back, that sand lot football seemed close to the ideal — not the reality — of war. Men on a team competing against another team draw close, and our teams were constantly shifting because new teams would be formed for each new day and game. Homosexuality probably did not occur to many third graders in the early 1960s South—but the close physical proximity
brought on an emotion one could call love, a kind of intense and sweaty brotherhood.
These days I don’t watch much football, but I can understand how a man could get enthralled and lost in the intensity of playing the game, or, even, when young, idealistic, and naïve, get enthralled and lost in the patriotic ideals of war.
Football wasn’t all the gang had going that spring. Willis had a few trusted lieutenants, and I was one of them. In the Indian circle that met once a week inside the log cabin, Willis let us know he was on to something big.
Willis gradually let us know that he had a special key, a master key. How he got it he never let on. The key opened every door at the shopping center on the main highway a mile from my school. After hours we could get into any store with the master key and take whatever we needed. New shoes, new clothes, new saws from the hardware store, all the candy and ice cream at the grocery store — you name it.
I loved being in the Willis gang. At home I had no brothers to hang with, only a sister two years younger that I did not share much in common with. She liked staying at home reading and playing with dolls. I found my main pleasures in life with Willis and the guys. We didn’t fight or run each other down—no, we were too busy exploring the piney woods and playing games. These were my brothers, and with the gang I became greater than myself.
“You are one of my key men,” Willis said one day, after I’d been coming to his home and woods for about a year. We were walking up to the backdoor of the farmhouse where the kitchen was to ask his mother for water. “I put my faith in you,” this tall, lanky boy said. “I’m gonna show you where I keep things hidden.”
Willis took me, and me alone, to a spot deep in the woods, to a place a good mile from the cabin, off his family property. There was a big tree—not a pine—a cottonwood or something, all by itself in a little clearing. Ten spaces out from the tree was a boulder that I could barely move. Under the boulder Willis had dug a hole and put in a piece of ceramic pipe about four inches in diameter and eighteen inches long. Inside the pipe was a plastic sack sealed with a knot, and in the sack were watches that had been taken from the drug store at the shopping center. Gold colored, chromatic style, shiny watches. Also in the plastic sack was a large ring with a single key on it—the master key he had been telling us about.
“This is the key to our future,” Willis said. His slate blue eyes looked into mine. “This will get us in almost anything we want.”
Sunday morning Willis and I and four other boys went to the shopping center. Willis led us around the back to an alley. He opened the door with the key and went up some stairs to an upstairs area that as yet had not been finished out.
The guys began to move sheet rock around that sat on the concrete floor in a large stack. They would take off one piece, slide it so as to lean it over a couple of concrete blocks, and then they would jump up on it to break it to pieces. Then they got another piece and another. One boy found some bags of Sacrete, got them open, and from the restroom brought water in a bucket and dumped the water in the Sacrete bags. All my friends began to throw the wet Sacrete against the windows. I was shocked by what my buddies were doing, disgusted by their pleasure and their laughter, but I had to go along or they would grow suspicious.
“Fun, ain’t it, Chuckie boy?” Willis said. I wondered if he noticed my lack of enthusiasm.
For a week I mulled over what we had done. This was the gang I loved. They were my brothers, but our behavior was stupid, without purpose. I couldn’t get the images out of my head. At least if we had stolen from the stores, we would be fulfilling dreams and needs. We were kids without money, hungry for things we could not buy. I didn’t even have a bicycle—someone had stolen it when I left it unlocked downtown in front of the Chapel Hill hobby shop. A bike would make it easier to get over to Willis’ farm from my apartment, and harder for boys to catch me and beat me up. Young as I was, what we had done brought on a bit of a crisis, like the time a boy I didn’t even know at school had pushed me off a rock wall into a muddy ditch. I loved the gang, and I loved Willis. Being with them gave my life meaning and passion. I had a place I belonged—yet my spirit felt uneasy.
One day when my parents were not home I picked up the phone and called the local police. They called back a short while later and sent a squad car out to pick me up. I pointed the way as I rode in the shiny car out to woods near Willis’ house. The officers parked down a ways where we could not be seen. I had to backtrack a few times to get oriented from the cabin we’d built. There were a few moments of doubt, but in an hour I was able to take them to the boulder where Willis kept the key and stolen loot. There were more things than last time, some diamond wedding rings and pendants from a jewelry store. Seeing the evidence—the key and the stolen goods — was enough to convince the police that I wasn’t living in a fantasyland. They took the key and the merchandise and brought me back home before my parents returned.
I was feeling bad for having snitched on Willis and the boys, but I was feeling better also. The confusion in my spirit had eased.
The next week one of Willis’s boys came up while I was getting things out of my school locker. The boy said that the police had gone to Willis’ house and told his parents about the master key and the stolen property, and that Willis was now in serious trouble with his dad. He was no longer allowed to play with the gang in the woods or to use the cabin.
The boy said that Willis knew I was the one who had snitched, and that Willis had asked him to deliver a message. That message was that someday, when I least expected it, he would come for me. He would beat me to a pulp. When I had relaxed and thought the incident was forgotten, he would take his revenge.
I wasn’t taken aback by Willis’ threat. It fit the boy code of that era and was what I had expected. Sure I was nervous and scared, but I felt I knew Willis and that he would never go beyond making threats. Still every afternoon I dashed out of school before everyone else and ran all the way to our Glen Lennox apartment, hoping that no classmates would follow. I waited for the hammer to fall, but as the months went by and nothing happened, I began to lose my worries. Then I would say, “Oh, no, if I lose my attention, if I get comfortable, that’s just when revenge will happen.”
I also began to get a sense, in a very murky way, that nobody liked me much at school because I was a Yankee. Although I was little, bad at sports and had few friends with my after-school gang gone, I was not interested in destroying things in the pleasure of anger. I dreamed someday that I would be accepted, and to be accepted, I thought then, I needed to be decent and good. While I was an outsider, I wanted to be a heroic one like the Lone Ranger on TV. The masked man was not alone in the world. He traveled with companion Tonto, and though the two of them didn’t fit well into any community, they still had one another and were dedicated to doing good.
It would take me until my junior year in high school to figure out that I would never be accepted and to accept that I would always be somewhat the outsider in American culture. My family just did not participate with enough vigor in the rituals of the mainstream. My father never decorated the house with Christmas lights. My parents did not take us to church, and no TV was allowed in our living room. My mother did take us to the library every month — but that just made us more different.
It would take until college, where I did extensive reading and reflecting, to figure out that being an outsider had advantages – you could step away not only from the violence and immorality of outlaws, but also from the violence and immorality of a main culture that we’re told is moral and even noble. You could be a truly independent and like Mark Twain, who I was reading at the time. You could be a free thinker.
What did Jesus say—you could be “in the world and not of it”?