By Marc Gilson
You’re about to read an article from my series, “A Vintage Upbringing.” These pieces are stories distilled from my own experiences growing up in Portland, Oregon with my rather unconventional but loving family, including my mom, grandmother, grandfather, and a half-dozen cats and dogs. They’re snapshots of my own experience of the 1970s and 80s when I was in school. I don’t know that my experiences as a kid in the 70s were any more or less “typical” than anyone else’s. But I do hope these stories appeal especially to others of my generation – the latch key kids, Generation X.
As mentioned in previous articles, the tiny world of my neighborhood included brothers Scott and Chris, the neighborhood sisters, Laurie and Carrie, Arthur – the neighborhood Wanna-Be-Cool-Guy and someone I haven’t mentioned until now: Ollie.
Ollie was a bad kid. At least that’s what our parents told us. He was a few years older than Scott and me. He smoked, he swore, and while Scott and I were listening to Foreigner, Styx, and Journey, Ollie listened to Black Sabbath, and only Black Sabbath.
He would sometimes ride his bike down to where Scott and I were playing and make snide comments to us, usually involving his assessment of us as “wussies.” Actually, it was often hard to understand him because he usually had something in his mouth like a cigarette, toothpick, chewing tobacco, human femur. So I guess it’s possible we just assumed he was making snide comments. He might have been saying, “Righto chaps, what a bracing and glorious autumn day, don’t you agree?” But I doubt it.
Ollie always looked like the walking dead, or like an extra from Mad Max. He smelled like potato salad. But I felt sorry for him because he lived in the most run-down house in the neighborhood, and his mother was bat-shit crazy.
She was scary and ugly and she seemed to be constantly yelling at Ollie, us, birds, dirt, or whatever. You could be standing still and she’d just start bellowing at you like some banshee. Come to think of it, I never heard her speak at a normal volume. Ollie’s house was a half-mile from mine, but when his mother started yelling for him -“OOOOLLLLIEEEEEE!” – it was like an air raid siren you could hear throughout the county.
Scott insisted she was actually a man because she looked like she had the beginnings of a Burt Reynolds mustache. We never got close enough to check for an Adam’s apple. I’m sure this all seems very mean, but in her case, she earned the kudos. I was raised to respect your mother, and other’s mothers as well. But in the case of Ollie’s mom, well, we were kids and kids tend to give back what they get. What we got from her was a lot of ugly talk, ugly glares, and once she even flicked her lit Camel off the back of Chris’ head. We did not like her. At all. You know the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz? Ollie’s mom made her look like Farrah Fawcett. Remember the alien that went after Sigourney Weaver? That was Ollie’s mom.
Nobody knew what happened to Ollie’s dad. Maybe he died. Maybe he left. Maybe he was murdered and buried in the backyard by Ollie’s mom. Other rumors about Ollie suggested that he ate road kill for dinner and that he and his mother used an outhouse in the backyard because the house didn’t have a working toilet. We also came to believe that Ollie was something of a regular at Juvenile Detention Hall. When we wouldn’t see him around for a couple of weeks, we’d say, “Another stay at JDH.” To this day, I’m not sure what’s truth and what’s fiction where Ollie was concerned. My fear was that it was all much worse for Ollie than the rumors.
Compassion ran deep in my family (ok, except where Ollie’s mom was concerned). Ollie didn’t have any real friends aside from the broken down car he worked on all the time and a red-eyed mean dog that Ollie said didn’t have a name. Ollie was alone. An outcast, whether by fate or choice. And he had to live with that…that woman.
Being of the belief that even the angriest tiger could be tamed with a little love and kindness, I thought it my sworn Christian duty to help Ollie out of his angry, lonely world. If only someone reached out in kindness, maybe Ollie would somehow stop being Ollie and we could all be trusted friends growing up together in harmony.
I watched a lot of Disney movies as a kid.
So one day I made up my mind to befriend Ollie and got up the courage to tell him so to his face. He smiled at me sinisterly, with what teeth he could muster, and said, “If you want to be my friend, meet me down by the tracks at nine tonight.” The way he said the word “friend,” made him sound like a James Bond villain. The tracks, of which Ollie spoke, were the railroad tracks about a mile downhill from where I lived. Not too far. I could do that, I guess. Sure. “Ok,” I said, “see you then.”
I had no idea what Ollie had in mind, but I was about to find out. I was also about to come about as close to dying young as I was ever going to.
I rode my blue Schwinn down the steep gravel road to the tracks and arrived at 9 sharp. Ollie was already there, straddling his bike and smoking, somehow managing to look like James Dean – after the wreck.
“So what’s up!” I said in a high-pitched voice that sounded like Mickey Mouse and that betrayed my nervousness about whatever shenanigans Ollie had in store for me this evening. He took a long drag from his Winston red and said calmly, “Not much. Just wait.” So we waited. It was a dry, quiet night, the summer sun leaving a light pink daub in the sky to the west and frogs already singing their croaky song in the creek south of the railroad tracks.
After awhile of waiting, I thought I should be getting home, as nothing much was happening, and I didn’t get the feeling anything good was going to. But being easily swayed by the preferences of people who could gut and skin me with a hunting knife, I waited there, uncomfortably but obediently, with Ollie. I was, after all, on a mission from God. I was there to make a friend of this reprobate, and turn him away from the dark side. Nobody ever said it would be easy.
A few minutes later, a freight train began to hum into view from the west. The trains tended to move pretty slow at this point along the tracks, as there was a switching station another couple miles east. As the train chugged and huffed up to us, Ollie got off his bike and said, “Here’s where we see what you’re made of.” The engine had passed, dragging its haul of dozens and dozens of boxcars behind like a lazy 10,000 ton snake.
The next thing I knew, Ollie walked up to the train, began bouncing on his toes like a boxer, and then dove beneath the train, rolling over the tracks in-between the moving wheels of one of the boxcars. Before I could pee my pants and faint, in one smooth motion, he rolled to his feet on the other side like some plaid-clad ninja. The whole thing happened in the blink of an eye. “Your turn,” he said, patting the dust off his jacket.
Now, I’m not completely stupid, at least I am not always completely stupid. But I was definitely in the presence of stupidity, and, as stupidity tends to do, it had rubbed off. I knew if I chickened out, Ollie would dislike me forever. Why I felt I needed Ollie’s approval, I just don’t know. I wanted him to have a friend and I wanted to be that friend, for some reason that completely eluded me at that moment. All I know is that I got off my bike, knees shaking, and prepared to dive beneath A MOVING FREIGHT TRAIN.
Here’s what should have happened at this point: I should have said, “This is ridiculous. I’m not doing this. I’m going home and going to bed where I will peacefully read my Mad magazine, or maybe a nice Hardy Boys mystery, and listen to Journey.” But that’s not what happened.
The next few seconds seemed to take longer than a school day in May. I watched the moving train, mentally timing the click-clack of the steel wheels along the rails, and finally, after several boxcars had rolled by, I made up my mind to do it.
After bouncing on my toes like I had seen Ollie do, I ran toward the train, ducked, and rolled under the boxcar. While I had timed the entry perfectly, I hadn’t accounted for the need to actually push myself out the other side, over the opposite rail, and down the gravel to safety. I had successfully rolled under a moving train. But that’s where I remained: under a moving train. For a moment I thought I was finished, and it occurred to me that my mother would be very unhappy to discover that her son – her only son – had gotten himself killed like a common drunken hobo. “He was a good boy. But not very smart, apparently,” she’d have to say at my memorial service, while Ollie would be shaking his head in disappointment and spitting a gob of chew on my coffin.
The noise under the train was deafening; creaking and droning. The massive box car was swaying inches from my nose and the ground beneath me was vibrating. I knew the back wheels of the boxcar were making their approach toward my head, and I realized there wasn’t enough clearance for me to just lay there and let it pass overhead. I suddenly heard Ollie shout supportively, “Move, asshole!” In a burst of energy I can only describe as primal, I somehow launched myself to the right, out of the way of the approaching wheels, about one second before they screeched behind my airborne feet. I rolled down the gravel embankment in a pile.
I was bleeding from the gravel, face down, with a dandelion in my mouth, and sobbing in fear. But I was alive. Most of the time, being alive is something you just take for granted. When you are almost crushed by a freight train, being alive is suddenly a very exciting and unexpected thing to be! But I was not in a celebratory mood.
Ollie was standing there, laughing at me. He said, “Holy shit I thought you were a gonner!” He didn’t help me up. Just stood there. Laughing and slapping both hands together. Pumped full of adrenaline as I was, I knew all I wanted to do was to go home and never, ever, hang out with Ollie or see a freight train up close again. But I had one more thing to do first. I don’t know why, but I got up, dirty, shaking like a leaf, bleeding all over, took two steps toward Ollie, and punched him in the right eye. “F*&k you!” I shouted at him in my Mickey Mouse voice as he glared up at me from the ground in stunned silence. Now, I could count the number of times I used the F word on one hand up until that point, and I had never thrown a punch at another human being before. But should you ever find yourself in a similar situation (and I hope you don’t), you might do precisely the same thing.
The train had passed, and I got back on my bike and rode home. I could have sworn I heard the air raid siren, “ROOOLLLLIEEEEE!” as I dropped my bike in the driveway. I snuck into the bathroom, cleaned myself up, and went to bed. Henceforth, I avoided Ollie at all costs although I still occasionally heard the blaring screech of his mother calling for him.
I’m not one to strive to attribute some deep, profound meaning to every experience in life. In one sense, the experience with Ollie and the train was nothing more or less than a moment of poor judgment on my part. It wasn’t really his fault, after all. I guess it’s also a cautionary tale about choosing your friends carefully. But in telling this story, several more intelligent and well-read friends have comments in effectively the same way. “Oh,” they’ve said, “a rite of passage story.”
One of the unique things about our modern, western culture is that there is a marked absence of what is known to sociologists and cultural anthropologists as a “male rite of passage;” a ritual, challenge, or trial undertaken by a boy that, in the eyes of his culture, transforms him into a man. These rituals, usually dangerous, sometimes fatal, are the gateway for young men to pass from childhood into adulthood. And some of them are downright terrifying.
The Satere-Mawe tribe of Brazil forces young males to wear a glove woven with hundred of Bullet Ants, said to have the most painful sting in the ant world, each bite like a hot knife slicing into flesh. The boy must wear the glove for a full ten minutes without making a single sound of pain. The torment doesn’t stop when the glove comes off; the boy can then look forward to several hours or days of convulsions, paralysis, and severe nausea.
The people of Vanuatu like their pain preceded by a few seconds of utter terror: they engage in Land Diving. This is much like bungee jumping except that you do it mostly naked with a handmade rope tied around your ankles instead of a safety harness and hefty cable. Injury is common and death is not unheard-of. Not for the faint of heart.
In ancient Sparta, a much more odious rite of passage was practiced. It was called krypteia. To be considered worthy of Sparta’s army, the young man (really more of a boy of about 13 or so) was sent into the countryside in the middle of the night with nothing but a knife and orders to kill as many Helot’s – state-owned slaves – as possible and then making it back undetected before dawn. Spartans were jerks sometimes.
These practices may seem barbaric to modern sensibilities. But some sociologists maintain that without definite events – and we’re not talking pizza parties here – to demarcate childhood from adulthood, individuals never fully mature. They’re stuck as perpetual children, a circumstance that shows up in their relationships and other life choices. This extension of adolescence is exacerbated by a culture that encourages individual achievement over communal participation and contribution. Without an identity firmly defined by ritual, could we be left adrift and without a clear sense of self? Could we be doing our youth (and ourselves) a disservice by protecting them from a life-and-death challenge that might somehow concretize their ownership of life?
I can’t pretend to know the answer to that. As a parent, my initial reaction is, “No!” But I do know that I was a changed person after my experience with Ollie. Did it make a man out of me? Probably not. But I was different, perhaps even a little wiser.
About twenty years later after that experience with Ollie and the train, I pulled my car into a gas station, not very far from my old neighborhood, and asked for a fill-up. I smelled something like potato salad and it took a moment to realize that the attendant gassing up my car was a familiar face. Topping off my tank, Ollie chuckled and without any other small talk at all said, “Hey man! I was sure you were a gonner that day with the train!”
“Me too, Ollie,” I said sincerely, “Me too.”