by T. Duren Jones
The Trail to Juvenile Delinquency
It still amazes me that I’m not writing this article from prison. I wasn’t bad; I just did bad things.
I’ve always been one for adventure, but I didn’t always head out into the wilderness to find it. There were plenty of opportunities close to home when growing up in Sierra Madre, California.
This is a confession, and an apology, to many who resided there in the late 1960s to early ’70s. Depending on what street you lived on, I may have:
And the list goes on.
It still amazes me that I’m not writing this article from prison. I wasn’t bad; I just did bad things. I like to think that most of my aberrant boyhood behavior fell into the category of mischief-making rather than actual crimes (debatable, I suppose, where it came to trespassing and property damage). But had the pattern continued and escalated, I might today be looking at the world through steel bars and trying not to be my 300-pound cellmate’s wife.
My friends and I took a rather lax view of the law. It seemed like—in our young minds—that if you didn’t get caught, and no one got hurt, then the act was permissible. I know, sounds like twisted logic and murky moral morass. I didn’t get this graying of right and wrong from my parents—I developed this worldview all by myself, well, along with peer influence (admittedly, more of a nudge than actual pressure).
I liked to explode things. Sure, what boy doesn’t, but I took it to a new art and science. I could make accelerant and things that go boom out of many varied materials: matchstick heads, firecrackers, paint thinner, aerosols and something called Jetex that a kid could purchase at Toy & Patio Village. Jetex could be used to launch plastic rockets into the stratosphere … but was also handy to blow things up, if used just wrong. Other neighborhood junior crazy scientists and I would build things just to explode them to pieces, sometimes right in the middle of the street.
Some of my friends had traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, and brought back cherry bombs and M-80s. Someone told us that M-80s were equivalent to a quarter stick of dynamite. True or not, we could blow things up real good with those. If, back in the day, you heard an explosion in your front yard and you came out to see your mailbox in barely intact pieces, I apologize. I think that if the federal government doesn’t own mailboxes, it at least owns the space inside, so this may have been a federal crime. I trust the statute of limitations has run out on this.
On one 4th of July picnic in Sierra Vista Park, by the wisteria vine-covered pergola below Heasly Field, a group of us explosives experts went up to the Little League field, detonation devices in hand. By each dugout there was a drinking fountain set in a large concrete pipe, half filled with stones. Conceptually, this engineering was done for natural, slow drainage, but the cylinder barrel was always filled to the top with water. Someone (I’m not saying it was me) thought it would be fun to blast the water out of the fountain. Lighting and dropping a cherry bomb on the surface of the water brought a loud but unsatisfying result, splashing little water over the sides. So someone (okay, it was me) suggested that, with the waterproof fuse, we attach a weight to the next cherry bomb so it would sink down to the gravel at the bottom. This we did, and lit the fuse. “Back up! Back up!” several shouted. Good that we did.
The concussion was deafening and could be felt, knocking us backwards. The explosion under pressure in the water sent a geyser 30 feet into the air. The concrete pipe crumbled into pieces around the base. We were sprayed with water and peppered by gravel. Mouths agape, we stared at the damage, our focus broken only by the screams and shouts from our parents running up from the picnic tables that were loaded with cold fried chicken, potato salad, chips, watermelon and soft drinks. All that remained was a twisted freestanding water pipe.
Surprisingly, and fortunately, no one was hurt. We did have to share the cost of a replacement fountain structure. And we had to put in hours of community service for Little League field maintenance that included trash pickup, raking, weeding, painting and gopher control, eating up days of remaining summer fun.
I would like to say that incidences like this were life changing and put me on the path to reforming. But, alas, there were a few more misbehaviors I had to get out of my system, I guess. I’m sorry to those folks driving on Orange Grove Avenue at whom I threw firecrackers or spit peas through a straw. I feel bad for those cars on Baldwin Avenue that were pelted with water balloons from the cover of bushes. And for any inconveniences that my friends and I caused to neighbors and the Sierra Madre Fire Department by setting small blazes in the middle of the street on Sunnyside, I apologize.
Residents of Sierra Madre, please forgive me for swimming in your drinking water. On many occasions, my friends and I would scale the chain link fences at the reservoirs above the baseball fields, strip down to our boxers, and go for a refreshing swim. Why we didn’t just go the Sierra Madre Community Swimming Pool, I don’t know. Maybe because that cost something, or because trespassing and swimming in a forbidden place was just more exciting.
I am sorry if on a Sunday morning your fat L.A. Times newspaper came up missing. I’m sorry if you had to chase me and my friends (or enemies) off your grove property, after having been engaged in an all-out war of orange salvos. I feel bad that we would call Robert’s Market and ask if they had chicken legs, then giggle and tell them to just wear pants and no one would notice. I’m sorry if we thought your house was haunted and snuck around at night trying to empirically prove it. I am so sorry to those costumed children on Halloween who were clobbered by water balloons and had your candy bags taken from you (I know, terrible, right?), probably thereafter spending years in therapy well into adulthood.
And I apologize to Roess’ market for the five-finger discount of that candy bar on the other side of the register, by the drinking fountain. Not sure what I was thinking … clearly, I wasn’t. I later felt really bad about this—especially since the meat man would always give kids a free slice of bologna for the asking. Lest you think I was completely without a conscience, I did go back one day and secretly leave money on the counter by a register.
You might be glad to know that I (mostly) grew out of these poor choices of youth, and my trail to juvenile delinquency didn’t lead to a life of crime. If I did have to pay any penitence, it was that my own kids, at times, misbehaved similarly, and it grieved me to no end. But, thankfully, they made it to responsible adulthood … with a little fun along the way too. Did I just say that?