CHILDREN have changed a good deal, and it is understandable that they should have. Everything else has changed right along with them. When I was a child on a California orange ranch, the seventh of my parents’ eight viper-thin, mercurial children, our idea of speechless bliss was the promise of a Saturday-night movie. We almost suffocated with anticipation, waiting for the undulating curtain of the Monrovia Theater to roll fountain and woodland glen, ice-cream parlor, hardware store, and patent-medicine ads up and away from the pitted screen.
My clearest memories of these movies are the facts that Father greatly admired Pola Negri, that my mother did not, and that most dramas reached a climax when the mop-haired heroine was backed against a cliff’s edge by the villain. When he had Mary Miles Minter good and cornered, the villain took the belt off his pants, undid his top button, and lurched purposefully toward the cringing girl. At the last possible moment, Rin Tin Tin, the United States Marines, Douglas Fairbanks, or Tom Mix saved the day — singly or collectively — and my mother whispered hoarsely that the bad man intended to whip the lady with his belt. We knew better than that.
The change that bothers me the most is not in the attitude toward entertainment. It is that children now are either hopelessly well adjusted or members of the switchblade set. There seem to be no middlemen such as we were — controlled when under observation, larcenously experimental when out of range of the adult eye. We learned our morals through trial and error. We weren’t born with, or without, them.
For one thing, there were no juvenile officers with the police of the nearest town. We just had cops, the chief of them a hard, squatty, redheaded man named Ross, who as a boy used to have fistfights with his teachers in school. We didn’t have very much to do with Ross, outside of saying “Hi‚ Ross” when we passed him, except for the time Ross put my brothers Frank and John briefly in jail, for the damage they had done to an abandoned house, and made my father pay five dollars to bail out each one.
They had collapsed the chimney, working at the bottom bricks with a commendable singleness of purpose that you don’t find in children anymore. But as there wasn’t anyone else around to punish them for it, and as the denouement raised a cloud of dust conspicuously visible for miles, Ross had to take a hand. John and Frank were deep in peonage to my father all that summer, each working out the five dollars, but that’s another story. What I mean to tell is how we stole, and what happened when we did, which was about as often as we got the chance.
In those days, anyone who caught a child redhanded doing wrong was, by a kind of unwritten law, allowed to punish the child — any child — and we younger ones were whipped by just about everybody adult in the township as time went by. My parents wouldn’t have thought to object to this, because they, in turn, got mad and whipped the children who stole or committed vandalism on their property.
It all came out about even in the end. None of the combatants would have dreamed of a psychiatric consultation with a trained juvenile officer. There was just Ross, charging up and down Huntington Drive after the out-of-state motorcars. If anyone had consulted him, Ross would have shifted his powerful broad rump on his brutal black motorcycle and the toothpick among his glittering gold teeth and said the same as everyone else: “Whyn’t you ketch the little bastards and give ‘em a good drubbing?”
The important points were a detailed report on the crime, which never was supplied by us children — thought too unreliable and prejudiced for accuracy in minutiae — and whether or not the welts on our scratched, bug-bitten brown legs and lean, flat white buttocks were sufficiently elevated, If we couldn’t display impressive marks, in keeping with the seriousness of the complaint, my father took over and whipped us again, generally out in back of the barn, so my mother couldn’t hear us yell. This must have been an effective method of child raising, as all of us grew up to be law-abiding, uncomplicated people.
We knew exactly what we were doing when we stole, and what the odds were for probable embroilment. We liked it that way. We must have, because we often stole things that were readily available to us at home. A certain amount of living dangerously and accepting the consequences would thus appear rather wholesome in the prepubescent years.
On our infrequent trips to the stores in Los Angeles, generally to see Santa Claus, we were cowed by the magnificence of it all and never thought of shoplifting. Our knavery was of a distinctly different kind, calculated to irritate the people against whom it was perpetrated. For instance, we were supposed to ride the school bus to school in the mornings, but we almost never did. If the weather was fair, and all mornings are alike in southern California, we put our shoes and long, dusty, mended black stockings in the mailbox — which was outside the visual range of the house — and streaked across the fields. The bus wasn’t a bus anyway, but an old touring car operated sullenly by a man who despised us all. We liked the thought of his waiting and honking uselessly on our pickup corner.
On the way to school in late spring and early fall, we would crack open watermelons in the growers’ fields and eat just the hearts out of them, arriving at school all stuck together down the front with pink mud. Or we would detour around by Johansen’s loquat tree, dump out the plain bread-and-butter sandwiches from our lunch bags, and fill up the sacks with dead-ripe honey-sweet fruit. We kept the hard-boiled egg, though.
On the way home, we specialized in small livestock, particularly baby bunnies and ducklings. We even took a big turkey out of the pen of a man we didn’t like. Pomegranates, lily bulbs, sporting equipment, goldfish, small dogs, tools — we were very lucky. Of course, our mother was curious about this good fortune and sufficiently doubted our explanations of having “found” things to help us hide the evidence from my father, who could be counted upon to fly into eye-bulging rages. My mother was considerably more scared of him than of blots on our characters. She had a normal component of concern over her brood. She grew quite frantic when we swung standing on our heads in the pepper-tree swing, or shot each other with BB guns. But this maternal worry simmered at low point when we were beyond her sphere of awareness. I think it was pure weight of numbers that gave us so much freedom. My mother was by necessity a homebody, invariably buried by keeping a family of ten reasonably fed and clean.
The only exception to this on-premise rule that I recall was the time she walked down to the railroad track and had an unobstructed view of Jean and me riding the caboose of a slow freight. Somebody must have tipped her. We were in the clear on this, however, as it never had occurred to her to tell us not to jump on and off moving freight trains.
“My little girls,” she moaned in shocked horror all the way home. She took it so seriously that we forbore to tell her that the most fun was running the length of the train on the tops of the cars, leaping from one big red box to the next.
OUR major thieving project went on over a period of months and was so stupendous in conception and execution that it kept us quiveringscared inside for years. It was about this time that people began to admire the southern California climate, which we had always considered an abomination because there were no streams or lakes or snow to play in. All of a sudden, in the middle of a field that for as long as we could remember had been sacred to rotating crops of black-eyed peas and cantaloupes, a garage would go up.
Cars were not put in these garages. Instead, curtains appeared at the windows and families moved in, living in genteel squalor while the main house was under construction. We, in our settled big brown house, felt very superior to their pale, flat-voiced children. Not all were from Iowa. Some were oddies. Among these threats to our pseudo-ownership of all the flat land and the gullies and horned toads and railroad underpasses and baked hillsides covered with rank mustard weed for miles around was an elderly archaeologist, retired to classify his diggings of a lifetime.
My parents were quite excited about this man because a story about him appeared in the Los Angeles Times. They cut out the story and gloated over it, citing it as evidence that a new aura of culture was imminent in a region once populated solely by sparse Mexican hovels. We children resented him.
Eventually the man was invited to dinner, and he returned the compliment by showing us children the immense packing cases and bins and sacks filled with bits of Indian pottery and bones and arrowheads in his cellar. Now, we didn’t attach any value to these things, but we coveted them nevertheless. The difficulty was that you couldn’t just come home with four hundred and twenty-two arrowheads and maintain that you had found them. Some hiding place would have to be arranged. The stealing was easy. The old man was deaf as a post and, furthermore, was away a good deal of the time.
We started like ferrets by tunneling between cement-foundation footings into the dirt cellar. Thereafter, whenever opportunity arose, we removed tremendous quantities of fossil remains, buffalo bones, Indian artifacts, and pottery shards from the cellar and hid them among the luxuriant growth of the surrounding black-eyed-pea field. Every day and every night that summer, we trembled hideously and deliciously with fear that the Mexican crew would return to harvest the crop. We even picked peas and studied them to see if they were beginning to dry. Burial of the hoard occurred to us as a possible solution. Burial was far easier and more practical than attempting to return the things, finally, we couldn’t put it off another day. Deep in the field on the bank of a dry wash we dug a hole wide enough to accommodate a large horse, put everything in the hole, and covered it over. As a final touch, we piled tumbleweeds on top. The harvest moved over the field without incident, and we came close to forgetting what we had done.
The following spring, activities centered terrifyingly around the dry wash. A tractor plow and Mexican planting crew arrived and pitched dirty gray tents on the bank of the wash. My mother was always very nervous when these crews were around, convinced that, because their skins were brown, they were capable of nameless offenses; but we loved them. In the soft evenings, the glow and fragrance of their cooking fires and the plaintive beat of their guitars stirred us. Ordinarily we would have hung around their camp close enough to smell mashed beans frying in grease and to collect empty wine bottles for their heady redolence, but now our stomachs churned.
We quit eating and were too scared to look at each other, lest the enormity of our crime be written in the tense air between us. The suspense went on until the Mexicans dug a latrine near their camp, penetrated our cache, and turned up all manner of evidence of New Mexico Pueblo Indian civilization in a southern California dry wash.
We primed for the most terrible whippings of our lives, knowing that if pressure were put on Jean, who was the youngest and the most timid, she would break the code and tell. Of course, the crew boss told the archaeologist, and the old man came on the trot and dug up his things. It took all the Mexicans quite a while to carry them back. We watched from a safe distance until the erection of the burlap sides of the privy indicated that all was over. We were then ready for out just deserts. But the archaeologist was smart and thought up a most refined punishment.
He let the people of the valley surmise that it was, in truth, a find, an old Indian burial ground turned up unaccountably after innumerable plowings of the soil. He returned the relics to his collection and never said another word. He did, however, stare at us cold-eyed and knowingly whenever we were so sluggish as to meet up with him. So we were never sure, never sure at all. We suffered right up until the time that it washed away in the back eddies of our minds. I still can get an empty, queasy feeling in my stomach in the Indian room of any museum.
The old man had birds, too, an aviary filled with agreeably noisy bright yellow and blackand-yellow canaries in the garden in back of his house. We figured the canaries were probably always breeding and raising new ones anyway, or maybe dying, and how could he know how many he had at any one time? They were too hoppy to be counted accurately. We swung by the twittering aviary countless times, but such was our queer truce with the old man that we never stole one.
So profound was our unquiet that we even quit stealing other people’s things. The rules of the game were broken, and it was all spoiled.