My Favorite Pyromaniac

By eighth grade, Tommy and I had become best friends. There's more to this than meets the eye. Pondering our friendship in preparing to write this account, it suddenly occurred to me: Tommy would have been my very first close friend ever. Oh sure, I had tons and tons of cohorts earlier, but it was always sort of like a cocktail party amongst them, you know where you mill about having a brief snatch of conversation with each before moving on to the next.

But for the first time, I had a colleague with whom I spent extended periods of time, exploring the mysteries of growing up together, conjecturing aloud to each other what might lie round the corner, offering true confessions unashamedly, knowing the other would "get it." I really do recall long spells that warm sunny spring in which Tommy and I would lie next to each other on his lush green lawn under the elms, arms and legs akimbo, staring at the brilliant cumulus and radiant blue sky peeking through the leafy boughs, no agenda, punctuating the silence only occasionally with "I wonder what  would happen if..."

Before, the whole world was me. Now there was a yin for the yang, a response to the stimulus, a confidant.  So, I date that year as the Big Bang, when society was born within, not borne by, my being. The word us suddenly had semantic content. Bosom buddies of boyhood--would that everyone should be so lucky.

I was still exceedingly scrawny, but Tommy was sort of big and thick, not fat mind you. Because of his size (not to mention the switchblade in his jeans pocket) he offered a sense of security. He also sported a pair of those clunky horn-rimmed glasses so popular in the 1960s. They constantly slid down his beak, requiring a dainty one-finger push back up the ramp every ten seconds or so.

His homestead was a safe-haven in many ways. It lay just a block from West Junior High, even further westward--a good direction--down a street so completely canopied by elms that sunlight gave up. Elms matter. Every day, when school let out, it was only natural that we sought refuge at his pad. You see, his parents never forced Sunday School upon him, never felt it necessary to see what we were up to and let us drink pop whenever we wanted. Parents and kids living side-by-side under the same roof, never interfering with each other's activities. Very different from anything I was used to. A chance to make our own mistakes, not someone else's.

Tommy's mother was a bleach blonde fireplug. Short, always wearing sleeveless red-and-white checked blouses exposing beefy and inflamed sunburned freckled arms. Whenever we arrived after school, she was invariably stretched out on an aqua-and-white webbed chaise longue under the elms in the backyard watching some sort of soap opera on the black-and-white television set wheeled out to the paver patio, puffing on a butt, nursing an iced tea.

When five o'clock chimed, Tommy's father would roll in. He was the manager of the Sheldon-Munn Hotel, the premier establishment Downtown. As such, Mr. L. was always dressed to the nines, appearing almost like a model for some ritzy haberdashery. A full head of hair elegantly slicked back with Brylcreem completed his very cosmopolitan appearance. After a quick change into some garish Bermuda shorts and an open necked polyester Hawaiian shirt, he would join his wife out back, the two of them each imbibing a chilled alcoholic libation of some sort now, a tiny paper umbrella extending from each tumbler. And Mr. L. would also light up, but his Marlboro extended from the tip end of a cigarette holder a good one foot in length. My eyes grew big as saucers at the sight, having never witnessed such gay living. My neighborhood of Louise Elementary School was little more than Conestogas pulled into a circle along the Oregon Trail to keep the Indians at bay. But here, more westerly, was Beverly Hills incarnate. I could almost see palm trees.

I always marveled at Tommy's relationship with his mother. Of course, he was constantly getting into trouble, which is why we became such steadfast friends. Sociopathy is akin to mercury in more ways than one; two puddles of it always pool together. And she was constantly chastising him for whatever he had done, but it really was water off a duck's back. There would be a rebuke, he'd acknowledge it with a nod of the head, no eye contact in either direction, she'd return to the soap opera, and then it was on to the next bit of troublemaking, followed by more chastening, back to the TV action, ad infinitum. You know how dogs only listen when they want to (which is rarely)? This was the same. It was a ritual that Tommy and his mother played out regularly, simply because it was expected. But the outcome was never of any consequence.

One day after school, Tommy and I retired to his basement which housed a very fine, if eccentric chemistry set. Do you remember that list of attributes Dr. Watson assembled concerning his new friend Sherlock Holmes? The seventh stated:
"Knowledge of Chemistry: Profound."
It was the same with Tommy. Well, at least if the substances involved anything potassium: potassium perchlorate, potassium nitrate, potassium permanganate, and so on--in short anything capable of detonation with just a bit of an oxidizer.

So as I say, there we were in his basement laboratory mixing this and that, pondering the implications of combining one with the other, just in general carrying out our researches in a most excited yet methodical fashion. And then Tommy lit the blue touch paper and we retired quickly to the other end of the basement. 


It was a magnificent explosion, with a magnificent report, with magnificent volumes of black smoke issuing forth. It literally shook the house.

Mrs. L. flung open the door at the top of the staircase, stuck her head in and spouted:
"Shame on you Tommy. Shame, shame, shame!"
Then she closed the door with no further investigation or intervention, returning to her soap opera.

That was it! This way of life on State Street was very different from anything I had ever encountered, and I quite liked it.

Incidentally, I have no inclination to tell the story of the train trestle, the Mason jar and the time-fuse, in case you were waiting.

But I will mention that it was Tommy who introduced me to spirits. One night we two were raising Cain down at the Student Union, when he reached to his back pocket.

"Look what I've got!" Out came a flat one-pint bottle of cherry vodka. Yum! It fulfilled an important need then, but by high school was considered strictly a girlie drink. 

Another day that I well recall, again it was warm and sunny--it's a funny thing, but every time I hung out with Tommy, the weather was like that and we two felt we had an eternity ahead of us--but now we had cracked open our guitar cases in his living room, the television having migrated to the patio yet again with his mother in tow so that we had the room to ourselves. Tommy also owned a Les Paul Junior electric, arguably one of the premier rock instruments ever made.

Even by ninth grade he occasionally hung out with much older and more dangerous guys--something that would bring about his all too early demise I think. Anyway, one of these older fellows played in a band and taught Tommy the guitar solo from Little Latin Lupe Lu. Well, if you haven't figured it out by now, our relationship represented all that is good about boyhood friendships. So, immediately he wanted to share the new learning. He patiently ran through it note by note with me and in a flash the veil of the temple was rent.

For this guitar solo was nothing more than an exercise in the pentatonic scale, my introduction to what I consider the very heart of hard rock music. I had heard it unconsciously the year before; now I was actually playing it.

Do you remember the song?

Oh my! The record company back then really should have included one complimentary pack of Trojan-Enz with each purchase of the 45.

I was just about to make some extended musicology comments on the piece, but will leave it at this. Notice the stereophonic drums in the introduction, the prominent bass guitar throughout, Mitch's spectacular voice which introduced a new style (no Johnny Mathis, he), and most importantly, the use of blank spaces, especially near the center of the song. The Detroit Wheels were masters of the tacit, knowing when to leave holes in the fabric of the music.

Piecing it all together these many years later, I now see that the afternoon Tommy and I spent together with our guitars was a seminal moment. Music would never be a lackluster grey limp dead fish again. I owe him so much, but most of all, that he freed my fretting fingers from the societally pure diatonic scales of "safe" music. The edge seemed within grasp now.

By high school, Tommy and I had found different circles. He gravitated to a greaser-gang, a hot-rod crowd often involved in altercations with Des Moines hoodlums. I, on the other hand ran with the hippies: tie-dies, Peter Max and flower-power. We always remained friendly, of course, but no longer hung out together for mutual moral support.

In junior year, Tommy acquired an exquisite 1957 Chevy that he labored months and months over. It was quite possibly the hottest car in town, enormous engine with all sorts of customized frills to make it a genuine terror. For example, he devoted considerable attention to designing and installing an auxiliary gas tank in the trunk. Attached to this was a cleverly modified electrically operated fuel pump. Thus, he could pull up next to another car in a parking lot, insert a special hose through its fuel flap and while idling his Chevy, siphon off all the gasoline from the hapless victim.

The only trouble is, the very first night Tommy used it (in the Fareway parking lot), he got nailed by the cops. The heat approached him with a shoulder shrug and sighed: 
"Tommy, just turn around right now and head straight home to dismantle this gadget tonight or we'll throw you in the slammer."  
The police knew Tommy all too well by this point, but I always got the feeling they sort of had a soft spot for him. I'm not sure why, but there is no doubt that for all his bad-boy antics, Tommy never had a mean bone in his body. For all I know, the cops may have even seen a bit of themselves in him.

Not long ago, I did a Google search for newspaper entries containing his name. A smile came to my lips when I counted no fewer than 12 appearances in the court report section of the local paper. Tommy really was the first and best sociopath I've ever known. He certainly taught me more than guitar parts.

All throughout high school he constantly reiterated to anyone who would listen:
"I've just got to move to California. I've just got to move to California."
He got his wish in 1971. And that was that.

Next installment: Priapus in Our Midst

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