Episode 6 – The Laboratory
Roger’s Mom’s house faced south on the northeast corner of 22nd Avenue and Highland. The house looked gingerbreadish. Directly across the street was a much larger house with a very large covered wooden porch. Three steps up and you were greeted by a crooked screen door that hung open a few inches.
The house was green with darker green trim. A white slatted fence surrounded the entire lot with two openings. A trestle was the front gate and two gates for the single-car driveway.
The backyard rear was naturally fenced with the unpainted cement blocks of a large building in the lot behind it. A tall gray cinderblock wall of the building we referred to as, the Laboratory.
There was one window protected by a wall of oleander. The front of the building faced 22nd and had two windows and a door with a small cover over it. A single bulb was lit every night lighting up the front door. It stayed on all night. A scientist lived inside but we never saw him. We just knew it. Someone must have told us but where the myth started I will never know.
A boy in the neighborhood lived in the green house with his Mom, Dad and three commonly ugly sisters who were each a year older of each other. He was the youngest. They lived there forever and I still can’t remember their names nor his for that matter. I’m going to call him Leroy but that memory doesn’t really matter either.
They were Jehovah Witnesses and his parents seemed on the outside to be very strict. All of us heathens called The Stingrays only knew on thing about them. They didn’t celebrate Christmas so we would make it a point if we were out on our daily patrol, we would sing, ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, as loud as we all could when we rode by.
So-called Leroy, would be outside in his front yard sometimes when we would go by and we would wave as if it wasn’t us who was doing the taunting. If no one was outside, the singing was going to happen.
“Hey Leroy,” one of us would say. He would only wave back. I don’t remember seeing him outside the fence except at school where he hung out with Stanley Frisbee. Both Stanley and Leroy, , , hold it, things are becoming clearer. His name started with an E, I think, were giant kids. Both were tall and daunting.
Stanley had some type of learning disability and was a little off on his social skills but he was an ally of The Stingrays in our opinion. The kid whose name starts with an E, Leroy, had always hung out with Stanley since First Grade.
The Stingrays didn’t start liking Stanley until the day Kim Ramey called big ol’ Stanley out for a fight in the field between the oleander south of the school on 23rd. The Stingrays moved like a pack of street dogs on bikes following the large crowd of Ramey followers to watch Kim kick some Stanley ass. Stanley was about a head taller but Kim was a Golden Glover, at least that’s what he said.
Stanley had only one follower and it was Leroy. As Stanley neared the crowd the chatter and talking increased.
“Get him Kim,” someone in the crowd of kids said.
Stanley and Leroy approached Kim and the kids parted to let Stanley get closer to Kim. As Stanley walked up to Kim the throng closed the circle. The Stingrays circled like Indians on a covered wagon fight. I saw Kim start dancing, moving back and forth with his hands held up like Cassius Clay. Kim moved left, then right.
Dust started to get kicked up, the horde of onlookers began to salivate. Kim moved inward as the chanting, “Fight, fight, fight,” grew louder. Stanley stood with his shoulders hunkered and arms falling down to his sides. The boxer in Kim could not hold back any longer, he pounced.
Kim goaded, “C’mon doofus, take a swing,” he said as he pushed Stanley on his chest with both hands. Most of the crowd didn’t see the punch. I saw a glimpse, a flash of bullet speed, I heard the smack. Kim’s expression went from confident bully to ‘I just got hit by lightening’.
I ditched the Huffy, letting it land where it landed and pushed my way through masses to see what happened to Kim. I nudged the last person aside and there he was sitting on his butt in the dirt and Stanley towering over him. Not a word was said. Leroy stepped up to Stanley’s back and grabbed his upper arm pulling him away. The sea parted as Stanley and Leroy walked away.
“Get out of the way,” I shouted as I cleared the crowd and did a Tonto back onto my bike. The Stingrays followed and began circling in long sweeping, far-enough-away-to-be-safe orbits of the two biggest kids in school. We followed them all the way to Leroy’s house and watched from outside the white fence as Leroy and Stanley walked up the steps of the porch.
The screen door opened as a dark figure from inside the house appeared. “Dad, Dad, Stanley whupped up on Kim Ramey. One punch and that was it. You should have seen it Dad,” Leroy said, his voice filled with pride. The foreboding figure didn’t move.
Suddenly a huge hand reached out and grabbed Leroy by the collar of his shirt and pulled him into the darkness of the home’s front room. “Go home Stanley,” a demanding gruff voice said. Stanley turned away and walked out where we were parked on the curb. The door slammed as the screen creaked closed as far as it could.
“Hey Stan,” Fred said in a welcoming tone.
Stanley didn’t look at Fred and just walked away without saying a word walking in the direction of his home on Coolidge street.
“Hey Stan? His name is Stanley you dork,” I said to Fred.
Fred shrugged, “I think he likes me for sure. Stan’s my man.”
Roger piped up, “I never seen Leroy’s Dad before. He’s a monster!”
Zeno couldn’t believe what Roger just said. “No way, you never seen him before? The guy is like John Wayne big. Hey Rog, I bet he could rip off your skinny girl arms if he wanted to. Poor Leroy. He’s already dead.”
We backed our bikes up and rode away.
Months later toward the end of the school year I was riding toward Zeno’s house to see if he wanted to do something. I was about a block away from the Laboratory and could see a small man dressed in a white coat standing under the cover of the front door. The man blew smoke and flicked a lit butt out onto the street, turned back into the doorway and closed the door.
I moved to the other side of the street as I passed by the closed door and stared at the two windows, wondering what really was inside the secret building. I rounded the corner and carefully bounced up the curb onto Zeno’s driveway and under his carport. I kicked the kick stand down and let the Huffy take a rest. Zeno was in his backyard swinging at grapefruit with a baseball bat when I approached him.
“I saw the Scientist!”
“I know, I saw him today too. Some guy in a green Studebaker wagon pulled up when I was getting the garbage can and took out a bunch of boxes. The Scientist opened the door and took them inside. The guy took off in a flash. He looked like a spy for sure.”
“We have to see what’s in there. I bet that J. Edgar would like to know too. Especially if he’s a spy. We need a plan.”
A week or two later, The Stingrays met up at Zeno’s for the last briefing before we enter the Laboratory. It was about 6 at night and would be dark in just an hour or so. Everyone had black t-shirts on and dark blue Levis. We all wore black Keds.
Once safely down in the irrigation ditch across from the front door we gathered ourselves for the assault. The plan was simple. Make our way to the north corner of the building and try to pry open the door with one of Ronnie’s Dad’s crowbars. If that was unsuccessful we were to make our way between the oleander in Leroy’s yard and the side wall where the other window was and pry that up to get in.
“Go,” Gary ordered. Zeno and Ronnie sprinted across the road with the crowbar to the door. Zeno set the steel pry bar down and crossed his fingers together to give a boost to Ronnie to unscrew the bulb.
“C’mon, hurry,” Zeno whispered to Ronnie.
“It’s really hot,” Ronnie answered as he was trying to turn the bulb.
Everything went dark and the rest of us darted across the street to our friends. Zeno tried to get the pry bar in the door jamb but the seal was too tight. The door had a latch lock on the inside. The knob would turn but the door remained secure. Knowing this would not be the way in, Gary ordered everyone to the side facing Leroy’s house.
“Let’s go through the window in the oleander. And be quiet, no talking, just use sign language like they do on Combat.” Gary pointed a finger and made some kind of sign meaning, ‘Go’.
Together we made it along the block wall and inside the overgrown branches. No one could ever see us when we went in. Zeno slipped the end in the bottom of the window and pulled down on the bar. The window moved.
“Okay, it’s going to open,” Zeno whispered. “When I get it up enough, stick something in it to keep it open. Then I’ll be able to push it the rest of the way.”
“Shhhhh,” Gary added, “We can use the bar to hold it up so we can crawl through it.”
The window was up and Ronnie’s foot was in Zeno’s hand standing high enough to go inside.
“Can you see anything?” Dan whispered.
“No, it’s all dark.”
“Get inside and turn on the lights. Then see if you can unlock the door.”
The light suddenly came on inside the room. Ronnie ducked and Gary put his hand over Fred’s mouth. Ronnie stood up slowly and could see the mad scientist rummaging through a drawer for something. He pushed the drawer closed and went out another door we didn’t know existed. The light went out.
Ronnie turned toward us, “He’s got a secret door,” he said in a hushed voice.
I turned to Zeno and Gary, “See, I told you so. He’s a spy. Why else would he have a secret door we can’t see on the outside. We should call the FBI.”
Ronnie was halfway in when a light from behind us came on. “Boys?” the deep voice of Leroy’s Dad filled the quiet. “What do you think you all are doing.”
We turned toward the light, Ronnie’s butt was sticking out and Zeno had already released his helping hand holding Ronnie’s foot.
“Help him down and out of there, now.”
With Ronnie safely on the ground the six of us wasted no time in developing our excuse.
“We saw him.”
“The spy, you know the Scientist spy who works in there. He wears a white coat and another spy came by and deliver stuff to him. We saw him,” I blurted.
“Yeah, and he has a secret door. We need the FBI.”
“Get out of those dirty bushes and come over here.”
We walked in single file along the wall coming out on 22nd and lined up against the white fence. Leroy’s Dad came over to the fence.
“Why do you think the man in there is a spy?”
Gary opened up, “Because he wears a white coat, has a secret door and look at that,” he points at the building, “that’s the Laboratory.”
Leroy’s Dad nodded his head as he put the light on each of our faces. “You know you might be right about that. The laboratory part might just fit and once in a while he may be a spy of sorts. But boys, that man is Leroy’s Grandfather. He fixes televisions in there as a hobby. He has the very first television ever. That’s the secret and I don’t think there’s any secret door inside there. I’ve been in there a lot. Now if I know him, he’s gonna be really upset you boys tried to break in and turn him in to the FBI. Because of that you can’t say anything about tonight when you meet him this weekend.”
All of us shook our heads sideways, “No, no, no, no, no,” I don’t want to meet him. He’ll know us then,” Fred said.
“I’ll make you a deal. You boys show up here Saturday morning and I will take you on a tour of Dad’s place. You’ll enjoy it I guarantee. If you don’t I’ll call the FBI myself and they’ll take you all to jail. Deal?”
No one said anything. “I’ll take that as a yes. See you boys on Saturday morning around 9.”
We walked away from the fence and went to Ronnie’s house catty corner from Roger’s. Ronnie put the crowbar back in his Dad’s tool shed.
Dan looked at Roger with his head tilted like a dog would, “I thought you said Leroy’s Dad was a monster. He seemed pretty cool. He could have stuck that crowbar up one of our’s ass. Don’t know about you guys but I’m going Saturday morning to see what’s inside the Laboratory.”
Come Saturday at 8:55, The Stingrays were just right of the front door of the Laboratory, bikes in perfect alignment. No one said a word.
We listened as the latches on the inside of the door made sounds. The doorknob turned and the door opened with an old door squeak. Leroy’s tall Dad and the Scientist wearing his white coat with a little hunch in his back came out onto the small landing.
“Dad, these are The Stingrays I told you about. They want to know if you’re a spy and if they need to call the FBI on you.”
The old man who was once the Scientist to us stepped off the stoop and walked up to Fred who was first in line. He held his hand out to shake Fred’s.
“How are you young man? Leroy calls me Boppa, you can too. What’s your name?”
The man moved to the next bike. “How are you? he asked Zeno.
“Pretty good or good and after pretty?”
Zeno smiled as somehow the old man knew Zeno was the womanizer. “I like pretty. My name is Zeno. I live right over there,” he said as he pointed across the street and down a half of a block.
“That’s a good name Zeno. I had a friend named that when I was young man like you all.”
The old man went to each of us and shook our hands while we introduced ourselves. After that he took us inside and what we saw then kept us in complete disbelief. Radios, telegraphs, televisions were everywhere. Shelves bulging of parts and pieces of things we never had seen before. He showed us one of the first television and started it up so we could look through and see a cartoon character in the screen as it spun.
“I’m not a spy, I’m an inventor. I like making things and this is where I do it. My son said you all thought I had a secret door. I do, right there,” he pointed at a door that was closed on the other side of the room. “That’s just a way to my backyard. I live next door. Nothing secret about that.”
We spent the next hour or so listening to all the things Boppa talked about. Leroy’s Dad stayed with us the entire time.
I asked, “Where’s Leroy?”
“Saturday is Leroy’s day to study our God. If he get’s done early, he’ll come out and see us.”
Leroy never came out. We walked out and Boppa waved at us as we turned to the street to leave. “Come back whenever you want to and we can make something,” he said as we pedaled away.
“Wow, I’m going to be an inventor or a scientist,” I said to the guys.
“No kidding,” Roger answered, “All this time Boppa was right across the street.
“How did Leroy’s Dad know we were The Stingrays,” Gary brought up. “I never said that.”
A couple of weeks later we rode by Leroy’s house. No one sang the taunting song of Christmas ever again.
During a routine patrol one day, we cruised by the green house with the white plank fence with a gray block building in the back with oleander for a fence. Loose goose were everywhere.
Leroy was standing next to the driveway by himself looking up at the tree’s leaves moving. The gates were all shut.
“Hey Leroy!” we shouted. Roger and a couple others waved.
Leroy looked up at us as we passed without a word. We were almost past the corner when he yelled something to us that answered the questions we had about his monster of a Dad and his Grandfather, Boppa the spy, knowing who we were as a gang. We became famous that day because of Leroy, the kid whose name I forgot but I think it started with an ‘E’.
“The best part of life starts at the top of the stretch.” The WiseGuy