It was a weekend midafternoon in the very middle of summer. Big Bopper, also called Ace whose real name was Jerry S., six-foot six, 200-pounds, dumber than a blind-duck, never worked a day in his life, or if he did, it was on special occasions, a young man of twenty-five although goodhearted, was sitting on the wooden steps in front of Roger and Ronny’s house, parallel Cayuga Street, right across the street from my home, at 186 Cayuga; I’m Chick Evens, fifteen years old. Roger two years my senior, and the neighborhood charmer with his good looks, and all, and Ronny his brother my age, and buddy. Roger’s house was a four apartment complex, kind of ramshackle. Stretching outward in the back was the railroad yard, and Structural Steel Company. With the trees and lighter foliage, it was scarcely distinguishable from each other except in height and coloring, the steel company was more noticeable. Roger had just sold me his WWII, Army Jacket, that had on the back of it “I’m Just a Lonely Boy,” signifying the popular song of the day, a young national musician, Rock and Roll singer called Paul Anka (whom I’d see in person, in a nightclub casino, and actually bump into while in Las Vegas, in the 1980s, vacationing with my mother), for a trade of my bronze plated battle-axe, had put it into his house and with his elbows propped on his knees with Big Bopper, also called Ace alongside him, Ronnie, me, Doug standing by one of the porch 4 x 4 beams, whom was Roger’s age, my brother Gunner, Mouse, both reckless with their roadsters, Larry L., the boxer, who was called Lou, Steve L., who was called Reno, he was the fat man of the neighborhood (which had a nickname coined by the police: Donkeyland) and a few of the neighborhood girls, like Nancy M, Jackie, and Jennie: Nancy was going out with Dave, whom was my brother’s age, two years older than I, but he was at home working on his 1940 Fort, and Jackie, had dated me a year prior, now a free agent Jennie’s sister, and Jennie was dating Lou, who was twenty at the time. All us gazing out at the street, and at Lorimar’s and Mrs. Stanley’s house, side by side, right across the street, and Lorimar came out, gazing at us gazing, and wondering what was on our minds, and joined us; his father was a chef, and in years yet to come he’d be a top chef like his father. So here we all were gazing at the asphalt street trying to figure out, how we were going to get drunk that night, and nobody had a dime, it was 1962.
Sam his girlfriend Nancy, a different Nancy, Don Brandt and his sister, they all came by, and said hello, and went about their ways.
Cayuga Street was two blocks long, at one end was Mississippi Street that went from the neighborhood all the way down to the downtown area of St. Paul that bordered the Mississippi River. On the other side of Cayuga Street, was Oakland Cemetery that ran a good length of Jackson Street, where we drank at night if we couldn’t find another location, although we used the Church steps off Jackson Street, by Sycamore, across the street was the Jew’s Store- where we also drank quite a lot in those days. Other than that we found-Bill and I-garages to drink in. Or for that matter, we drank in someone’s car in what was called the ‘Turnaround’ or ‘Turnabout,’ an empty lot next to my grandfather’s garage, the garage was on a plateau, and the house on an embankment next to it. Old grandpa never said too much, and he slept those summers on the porch, and surely he heard a lot, but could not speak English well, being a immigrate from Russia, 1916, and had fought in WWI, for the Americans in France, thus acquiring his citizenship.
So here we were without a dime, and Roger was thinking. And Gunner (his real name being Mike), he had run away from home that summer, kind of runaway, it was more like a two week runaway-vacation, he was seventeen and was fighting for the rights to stay out until Midnight instead of ten-o’clock. He’d sneak back home when mother was working, she worked at Swift’s Meatpacking, as a meatpacker, and he’d steal grandpa’s beer, give it to the boys in the neighborhood, and grandpa, who had kind of a stale taste for me, blamed me for the missing beer. Not sure why Mike fought for the late hours, he snuck out the attic window anyhow and stayed out till God only know when, and he’d creep back in, tell me to hush up, and not tell ma, and I never did. Of course, we all lived with my grandfather, and he worked up until he was 80th -year, so he was gone all the time too. Anyhow, Gunner would come home, take can goods and then rush off and sleep in the vacant cars at night, after the neighborhood guys got in trouble with supplying him with a bed at their homes for a week. Oh, and he did get his late hours, after starving a few days, and losing a few pounds.
As I was saying, or about to say, Roger was thinking on how to get the booze. And Jerry, or Ace, was the only one old enough to buy. So we had to butter him up some, and he could be a hard sell now and then. I mean he was wise to us, and flourished in his free drinking spree those many years by going to the Liquor Store for us, and when he bought for us, believe it or not he got the lion share of the product, wine beer or whatever. As years passed of course, that went downhill when a few of the other boys could buy, like Jack T., and Tom T., brothers, they were part of the gang, but not part of this escapade. Actually there were some twenty-two in all that I can recall belonging one-way or another to the Neighborhood gang. And Big Bopper always complained on his increasingly many visits to the Liquor Store, that he was being questioned by the owner if he was selling to minors. But we didn’t care, we wanted our booze. By his own account, this was his only permanent job in those early years of my youth. He had shelter and food from his mother, and his father had a good paying job as the Chief of the Fire Station in St. Paul, and as I’ve said, he got his booze from us tax free.
Well, as Roger was thinking, the Big Bopper said he was hungry, so for a half hour he resigned himself to becoming a permanent pest, and was going to go home and eat. What could one do with such a person? Roger knew should he go home, we lost our booze-ticket, and we all knew after he ate obviously would run off to some bar and mooch drinks off someone else. And to get him out of that bar would take a lot more inducement. You couldn’t be sorry for him, just alert to his cleverness. So Doug advised Roger to go with him, and get his false teeth that he left at home, and bring them back here, and Roger would get him a few sandwiches out of his house, when no one was looking. Oh yes, I should mention, the sandwiches were mentioned first, and then came the false teeth, simply a smokescreen to evade us, his gums were so hard he actually didn’t need them teeth.
So Roger drove him home, he got his teeth, and transplanted them in his mouth, thus, his cheeks were no longer sunken in. And he came back to take up his old friendships with the boys, and once again we in general could rely on the help of our bosom buddy.
But the booze, how were we going to find some way to get the beer or whatever: wine, whiskey, any kind of alcohol would do, although I preferred beer. And all Rogers’ ideas, efforts hitherto had miscarried. We had nothing to sell, not even copper to sell, sometimes in the night we’d jump over the junkyard fence, feed the police dog who watched the yard a steak bone, a bribe to be quiet, and he obeyed, and we take some copper, and the next day we’d sell it back to them, and hence, we had our money for drinking, but we had no copper, or car batteries or hubcaps to sell this late afternoon. Everyone gaped at everyone else, as if we were all prodigal, reckless and careless for not having an idea. And Ace was just a big child who stood waiting to be fed his bottle of booze, and in the back of his mind, he knew, and we knew what he was thinking: escape! Yes, escape from us because he was feeling the pain of sobriety, and we were sure he didn’t care if he had to, he would, inflict his pain onto us, and find his own waterhole. For such reasons we kept an eye on him, as if he was our golden goose. He was just not laying any golden eggs, he seldom had money, and if he did, he’d never tell, his money was for his personal booze, and ours was for his collective booze drinking. In that sense, he was the cleverest of all small business-men.
Then Roger came up with a plan. This is what he said, although it was a microscope chance, we take it, it was: do or die:
“At nine o’clock, there’s a train coming,” he said, as I shrank a bit when he said it feeling I had an idea what was coming next, or what he was about to say: so, he assured one and all, this business would be a success, and everyone seemed to know about this escapade he was about to mention, in that it wasn’t new, it was just he knew the timing for some reason or another, than anyone else: “those who do not want to be in on this, just say no and go!” he commented. And Lorimar and Ronnie and I were now retrospectively uncertain, everyone thought us peculiar, and I confined myself to giving in, Lorimar and Ronnie left, but it would be the first time and the last for me, -as I look back it was random and half hazard ‘okay,’ I said, as my memory brings back that split second decision, not wanting to be sent to Redwing’s boys reformatory, or Boys Town, for delinquents. It was a Federal Offence.
“We can break the seals off the train, it will have a stopover right in back of our house here at nine o’clock, and we have only about twenty-minutes to do the job because it will leave and be headed for Chicago, and usually one of the cars will be filled up with cases of beer, but I can’t promise that!” Said Roger.
I was breathing quickly under these thoughts.
“Those who do not carry any cases of beer, don’t drink,” he ventured to say. All the same I felt upset. With that thought in hand of having no other way to get any beer, I agreed. It was no big thing to the guys if I stepped out, and went home, they’d just have more to drink, for Roger or the boys barely acknowledged me one way or the other, and would simply give me an absent smile, greet me goodbye with a wave from the street, as often I would not participate with their shenanigans; treat me as if I was a passing acquaintance, but Gunner was different, they kind of expected him to go along.
At last the train came, someone pulled out a wire cutters from his pocket, and jumped up on a edge of the boxcar, and cut the Federal Seal off, what was attached to the door, opened up the door-matter of fact, there was no need for anyone to enter the boxcar since the cases of beer were so tightly packed an inch away from the door-all one needed to do was reach and pull, we took twenty-five cases of beer, it was so dark an evening so hot a summer, not a watchman cared to check a thing, so it was overshadowed so much as that the high wall of cases behind the cases we took, we could have emptied them out too, but no one wanted to press their luck, and time was of principle.
Well, we didn’t need Ace that night of course, and he was the laziest of all of us, and he only took two cases of beer, and was too scared to make a double trip to the boxcar, yet out of consideration we let him drink all he wanted to which perhaps was three cases himself. We stockpiled the cases of beer in two locations. We were all good friends, and never stole from one another, but when it came to drinking, it wasn’t stealing, and we all had enormous drinking habits, so we all kept an eye on the two garages we kept the beer in for our night drinking. Although no one wanted to stir up matters, and no matters got stirred up over the drinking of the twenty-five cases that I know of, and some of that beer got drank in the cemetery, and the girls had their share, and it didn’t last but the long weekend, and after the last bottle was drank, which was a trivial affair, and it’s hardly worth mentioning, we sold the twenty-five cases of empty bottles on the following Monday, and bought two cases of can beer. The Big Bopper was a tinge embarrassed to bring in so many cases, but we did odder things for a drink. And that my friends was one hell of a weekend.