Boy story

Nostalgia time: I’ve spent the last few days in my home town of Ann Arbor, where the streets of my old neighborhood and the spaces of my parents’ house have about them a strangely denuded look — less the cratered remains of a bombed-out city than the blankly spartan truth of a theater stage once the sets have been struck and the house lights turned on. My visits here as an adult are riddled with little eruptions of personal history, the hot magma of memory oozing orangely through cracks in the sidewalks.

This morning I was driving my parents to breakfast, and the topic came up of a boy who used to live across the street from us. Ricky Clark (a pseudonym) was a little older than me, and in the mid- to late-seventies we were friends. Not a close, confide-in-each-other friendship, but a friendship based around our mutual appreciation of comic books and horror movies; Ricky had a ton of the former, arranged in neat stacks in his cool basement bedroom, and we stayed up late to watch the latter on late-night creature features, also in his basement.

Mostly, our friendship was a kind of partnership and collaboration in building cool things and pulling off stunts. We made Super 8 movies together, glued together model kits, launched model rockets and chased down their windblown nose cones adangle from red-and-white-checked plastic parachutes. We camped out in a tent in Ricky’s back yard to watch a lunar eclipse (his mom brought hamburgers out to us at the unprecedentedly late hour of 10 p.m.) and on August nights stayed up to watch the Perseid meteor shower.

I think our parents appreciated and approved of our friendship, because each of us supplied something that was missing in the other. I was a chubby, loquacious nerd who would rather stay inside reading than play outside. I was the intellectual, neurotically charming counterpart to Ricky, a compact blond kid with a toughness about him that had nothing to do with beating other kids up and everything to do with surviving dirtbike wipeouts and falls from his own roof.

For our most elaborate joint ventures invariably centered on risk and danger. Ricky built a go-cart powered by a lawnmower engine, and the perpetual smell of gasoline in his garage bay was a giddy miasma of peril and possibility. We raced the cart down the longest, steepest street in our neighborhood and filmed it using the slow-motion button on my dad’s movie camera. We launched bottle rockets from our own hands, our pink and unprotected fingers clutching the wooden stabilizing rod until a hissing shock of sparks carried the rocket away on its whistling trajectory, ending with a bang. We doused model kits in gasoline and ignited them on camera, squirting gas from a spray bottle to lift the flames into clouds of glowing glitter. We poured substances from one test tube to another, mapping the phase space of the chemistry set for colorful, smelly, or pyrotechnic reactions. Once we applied horror-movie makeup and tried to scare our mothers by pretending we’d been in gruesome, face-shredding bike accidents.

Last summer, on another of my visits, Mom called me outside to meet someone, a trim middle-aged man with a friendly smile and a brisk handshake. Irritated, I had no idea who he was. But of course it was Ricky Clark (now “Rick”), grown up like me, our experimental past buried under thirty-odd years of time.

Looking back on our friendship, I see that Ricky and I comprised two polarities of boy culture: the rough-and-tumble daredevil and the creative daydreamer. He built gadgets in his garage while I sketched in my notebook, and when, occasionally, our goals aligned, the results were vital and naive, stupid and clever at the same time. I’m glad we knew each other.