Charlie

In fall, 1982, I was sitting in Mr. Runkle’s seventh grade Social Studies class and this gawky looking new kid came in and sat down right in front of me. Mr. Runkle continued the lesson, which was his standard mumbled textbook reading, and after a while the new kid half turned to me and said, This sucks, huh?

This seems like a pretty tame thing to say now, but at the time it was unexpected and rebellious and held the suggestion of interesting alternatives.

The new kid’s name was Charlie Lansing and when he showed up at my church the following Sunday I knew we were going to be friends. His family had moved up to Alaska from Colorado on account of his dad’s having cancer and needing some fresh air. He had gotten an accidental burst of radiation while he was working on a communications array in the Air Force, and they figured that’s where the cancer came from, although the Air Force didn’t seem to agree. In any case, they basically moved up to Alaska so his dad could die. It was a raw deal.

Charlie was sulky and easily bored, with a piss-poor attitude about everything, and he could insult anyone or anything with surgical precision. His don’t-give-a-fuck demeanor made him seem world-wise, and it made me feel like I had a lot to learn from him.

Charlie introduced me to AC/DC and Ozzy, and he taught me how to play poker and blackjack. Our main activity when I went over to his apartment was staying up half the night drinking iced tea, listening to heavy metal and playing cards, gambling with pennies or beans. And what else did we do? Talked about girls of course, made prank phone calls, and one time we shot his .22 rifle out his window into the courtyard of the apartment complex and shattered the window of a truck which – wouldn’t you know it – turned out to be the manager’s son’s. Oops! We had been home alone at the time, and later on his mom stuck up for us defiantly when they came around asking if she had seen or heard anything. Way to go, Mrs. Lansing.

Being at Charlie’s apartment gave me my first chance to see what impending death looked like up close. His dad was slipping away fast, and spent most of his time in a big recliner chair connected to an oxygen tank with a blanket over him. He had an imposing demeanor to start with, and the more sallow and sunken his face got the more his eyes seemed to jut from the sockets, making him look even more imposing, despite his frail and shrunken frame. The Lansings moved to a new house near the junior high school and I went over there one day to help them plant their garden. I remember Mr. Lansing holding the seeds out to me to put in the ground, his hands like a skeleton’s covered with a layer of soft parchment.

When his dad passed away Charlie was stoic. His family came from Iowa Dutch stock or something, so maybe it was just that. At any rate he didn’t cry about it as far as I know, and the only time he brought it up was when we were drinking. We got started on that right away, sometime late in the eighth grade, right around the time we became vandals.

We spent most of our time just hanging around his house or shambling around his neighborhood, talking and trying to keep from being bored. One night he suggested we go let the air out of some tires. He had already had some experience doing this back in Colorado with his friend Tony. All you do is stick the end of a comb into the valve stem of the tire and walk away, then come back in an hour or so to get your comb. I had never done anything remotely this illegal or exciting, so of course I was into it.

The excitement wore off pretty quickly because you had to wait for the tire to deflate, and also it was risky because you had to return to the scene of the crime. For those reasons we just took to stabbing the tires with a pocket knife. I did have some compunction for the unsuspecting, hard-working people whose property we were destroying, but on the other hand I was at that age in which boys and girls often transform into rampaging sub-humans incapable of empathy, so I didn’t let it get to me too much.

Charlie somehow got hold of a bottle of peach schnapps, which he stashed in his closet, and one night we tossed back a few shots of that before we went out vandalizing. We found that it was way more fun causing mayhem while fucked up, and it also gave you the power to try much more daring capers.

In the spring of eighth grade we and Jeff Sayles broke into the concessions stand at the local minor-league baseball field and stole a keg of Rainier beer. It was broad daylight even though it was nighttime (Alaska in the summer and all), and we made so much commotion wrestling it over the top of the concessions counter/window – the door lock being too substantial for our fledgling B & E skills – and into the woods, it’s a wonder we didn’t get caught. But we were all clear and mighty pleased with ourselves until a few days later when we realized that we still needed a tap. That meant going back and doing it all over again, which would be extremely hazardous since the proprietors would undoubtedly be alerted to the crime by then. But a couple of weeks later Charlie and Jeff pulled it off, and we now had ourselves quite a prize indeed. We filled two-liter pop bottles to take with us on the end of year school fishing trip, but unfortunately two weeks out in the warm woods had not done the beer any good. It was barely drinkable in fact. But we put on our game faces and manfully swigged it down as we tended our lines, sequestered from the other kids along the banks of the Funny River.

Charlie and I were inseparable friends by now. We spent the summer hanging out, watching MTV, Stallone and Schwarzenegger movies, practicing nunchucks and throwing stars, teaching ourselves to smoke and chew tobacco (which we shoplifted or swiped from his older brother), and occasionally procuring alcohol and going out on little rampages. That gave me plenty to write about in the letters to my long-distance girlfriend, Michelle Baker, the metal chick I had met the previous summer, and I was happy to show her that I was keeping up with her level of lawlessness. Charlie and Krystal had started going out by this time too, so we spent a lot of time speculating on what sex was going to be like.

This was also the summer that my previous best friend Corey had spilled the beans about him and me fooling around, and this revelation put a bit of a strain on Charlie and my friendship, since Charlie had a clearly defined position on fags. Fortunately though, Charlie was able to rise above and give me the benefit of the doubt – I obviously wasn’t a fag because I had a girlfriend and wanted to have sex with her. He understood that I had only done it out of pure horniness and curiosity, and that understanding solidified our friendship even more.

We were excited and only a little apprehensive about starting high school in the fall. We got our hands on a bottle of whiskey a week or so before school started, and one sunny evening Charlie and Jeff and me pounded five shots each and went out to get crazy. The meandering path of our hilarity led us over to the high school, just across the sports fields from the junior high. We staggered around the outside of the school looking for something to mess around with. Jeff walked up to a side door and gave it a good kick, and the recoil knocked him back on his ass. While we were laughing our heads off about that Charlie said, Hey it’s open! and before I knew what was happening we were all three running inside the building.

There was no plan of course, and we didn’t even check to see if any teachers or janitors were around before we started knocking things over. Jeff started trying to kick in the front of a pop machine, while Charlie grabbed a folding chair and smashed it through the glass case of a fire extinguisher. Having no imagination of my own for this sort of thing, I just followed suit and pretty soon we had smashed all the glass we could find in one corner of the school, using the liberated fire extinguishers to do it. After a little bit it dawned on us that we should probably get away while the getting was good, and that is what we did.

Another flawlessly executed caper, with absolutely no consequences for us. We entered ninth grade feeling pretty bad ass.

That fall we ditched school one day to shoot guns. He had a .410 shotgun loaded with buckshot for me, and a .357 magnum pistol for himself, and we headed out for the woods around his house. I didn’t have much experience shooting guns, so we squeezed off a few rounds along the way at stumps and things to get a feel for it. The kick from the shotgun wasn’t too bad, and it was impressive watching the wood just disintegrate in a puff when the buckshot hit. The same thing happened to the sparrows and chickadees we took aim at, only with a fluttering rain of little feathers, just like in a cartoon.

At one point a squirrel entered the scene. This guy moved around a lot more than the birds. First he was down low, then he was up high, then he was in back of us, and then back in front. Charlie couldn’t hit him, and neither could I, and the more noise we made the faster and more erratic he got, and that’s how I almost blew my friend’s head off.

The squirrel came up from my left, so I swung left and fired just as Charlie lurched in, also from the left. The image of his profile frozen in space just a few inches from my gun barrel is still crystal clear my mind. He stayed like that, we both did, not moving, just breathing hard for several moments. He said, I felt the wind from it go past my face. We stayed silent a while more, letting it sink in how differently the rest of our day could have gone, and eventually we packed it in for the day. I have not had much to do with guns since then.

Did that experience reform us? No, it did not. We didn’t play with guns after that, but stuck to safer pastimes like getting drunk before school, or during church youth group outings, shoplifting small items like chewing tobacco, cinnamon oil for making cinnamon toothpicks – a required accoutrement for a young teen badass at the time – and cheap perfume for my faraway girlfriend. Charlie got a black Members Only jacket, which looked enough like a leather motorcycle jacket but was a lot cheaper. I talked my mom into buying me one too, but they were all out of black so I had to settle for light blue. I convinced myself that that was almost as cool.

My grades had been A’s and some B’s up till seventh grade, but by the 10th grade they were C’s and some D’s, and I did not care.

My older brother Nathan had come back from college in Oregon listening to the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys; he said heavy metal was just a lot of pretentious noodling. Although punk rock kind of made me feel sick to my stomach at first, the rawness, speed and brutal honesty of it got me hooked. Charlie was offended by my brother’s comment about metal, and he was offended in general that I tended to idolize my older brother and ape everything he did. Nevertheless, he got into punk too, and that’s what we listened to as we drove around town aimlessly in Charlie’s VW Bug after we got our licenses. Punk rock was one of the very few things that I influenced Charlie on.

In the summer between 10th and 11th grade we got jobs at a salmon cannery. That is, we signed up to work there, and we parked his family’s Dodge van on the cannery grounds where a lot of the cannery workers had their tents, and we lived in the van and waited to get called up to go on the processing line. But in fact we were passed up most of the time because we were young and inexperienced, and the foremen would always fill up the line with older, more experienced people. Also we did not try very hard unless we were completely out of money for cigarettes, booze and acid. Then we would apply ourselves and work as many shifts as we could to restock our party funds.

Getting cigarettes, booze and acid was ridiculously easy because most of the people around us were college students, and even when we couldn’t get one of them to buy alcohol for us, we had our friend Robby, the police chief’s son, who could grow a full beard at age 15, and anyway the lady at the takeout window of the Hunger Hut Bar across the road from the cannery would sell to just about anybody. So we partied a lot more than we worked that summer and we had ourselves a blast.

Things slowed down considerably after we started our junior year. Our routine had gotten pretty predictable by this time anyway: drive around town, try to get booze, watch HBO at his place, drive around town, try to get booze… Most of the thrill had worn off. When the weather got cold my job as copilot was to keep the ice scraped off the inside of the windshield because the heater in the Bug was fried. That, plus our general boredom, plus my having a new girlfriend, Nina Perkins and the new and ever-present prospect of getting laid, all made me less and less enthused about hanging out with my best friend Charlie. The times we did hang out were usually in conjunction with Nina, like the time we stopped her from killing herself, and the party where she tried to get him to have sex with her to get back at me for something.

I felt bad for Charlie because he didn’t have a girlfriend or any other best friends to hang out with, but I also felt I was on an irreversible new trajectory that didn’t involve him. Neither of us really knew how to talk about it, and in any case I couldn’t imagine any resolution that would have been good for him, so I just didn’t think about it. We had been best buddies who could talk openly about anything under the sun, and now I was shutting him out. I regretted this a few months later when the Nina situation started hitting the rocks and I had no one to turn to. But pride dictated that I soldier on in solitude, so that’s what I did.

One of the last times we hung out like old times was also the only time that the law caught up to us. It was late summer right before senior year started. We had a half-rack of MGD, our beer of choice, and we were drinking it in his Bug, parked way down at the end of a long, straight dirt road on the outskirts of Kenai. We had Kim with us, my rebound girlfriend after Nina Perkins, and that’s all we were doing. Sitting in his car drinking and listening to the light rain on the roof.

After a while he said, Somebody’s coming. Sure enough, a car was coming from way back down the road behind us. As it got closer we saw it was a cop. The cop pulled up behind us and turned on his lights. He came up to the window and talked to Charlie, who was keeping it totally cool. The cop said, Is that alcohol I smell on you? and Charlie didn’t have anything better than No for an answer.

Kim got a ride home and Charlie and I got a ride to the police station. There were no charges for underage drinking, drinking in public, drinking and driving, or statutory abduction or whatever since Kim wasn’t 16 yet, but our moms had to come and pick us up, and that was mighty awkward. My mom was beside herself with humiliation and shock. She had no idea her son could be so lawless.

Charlie started hanging out with Jeff Sayles after that, and from time to time I would hear about their exploits – similar stuff to what he and I used to get into. After high school they both went into the military, Jeff to the Marines, and Charlie to the Air Force, just like his dad.

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