A lot of you grew up with that one cranky, old neighbor that yelled,” Hey you kids, – GET OFF MY LAWN”! Well, in my case, that cranky, old neighbor was pedophile and convicted serial killer, John Wayne Gacy …
Luckily for me, Gacy was attracted to teenage boys, and I was still a prepubescent grade school kid during the years that he lived on the other side of the alley-way behind our house. I only had three encounters with him, with the last one having lasting and profound effects on the rest of my life.
John Wayne Gacy lived directly across from the main entrance of Kingsley Elementary School. My mother had told us not to cut across his yard. My little brother listened to her; but on the days that we had music class I had to lug my baritone to school, – and there was no way I was going to walk all the way around the block with that heavy thing. In it’s leather case, the big brass horn weighed as much as I did, and I could barely go fifty feet without putting it down for a rest. That baritone was the reason for my first run-in with the infamous John Wayne Gacy.
It was the first day of snow on the ground, and even though I wasn’t supposed to, I cut through his yard on my way to class. I would have gotten away with it, if I had just kept to the side of his house and been on my way; but I thought I could make the other kids laugh if I waited for the bell to ring, and then rode my baritone like a sled down Gacy’s terraced front lawn.
Well, guess who was watching the kids on the playground as they lined up to go inside?
He came out and shouted a weird variation on that familiar childhood memory, “Hey you! Stop leaving tracks across my snow”!
Later he complained about it to my mother. Apparently, he was worried that if I left a pathway in the snow it would kill the grass underneath. He freaked mom out, and I didn’t get in as much trouble as I usually would have, because of the weird vibe he gave her…
“Just stay away from that guy, – he gives me the creeps”.
The next summer an older boy that I hung out with talked me into taking my Dad’s 1964 GTO out for a joy ride around the block. I wanted to drive, but my legs weren’t long enough to reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time; so Grant was at the helm. He did okay going down the alley, but when we turned the corner to go up the hill past our school, we kept stalling out. Every time he let out he clutch, the Pontiac would surge forward, practically “popping a wheelie” – before the engine died. So, there we were, having a blast – burning rubber, lunging up the hill ten or twenty feet at a time, laughing our asses off, scared to death.
We finally made it back into the alley without getting caught, but when we got out to push the car back into the garage, there was Gacy, standing next to his garbage cans, – shaking his head and smirking.
“He’s gonna narc on us for sure”!
… but he never did.
After that I decided hanging out with Grant was only going to get me in trouble, and I was getting into enough of that on my own; so I planed on spending the rest of Summer Vacation reading The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz.
I was a Rosicrucian Scribe!
But my Catholic mother confiscated the enlightened summer reading material I had hidden under my mattress, leaving me with absolutely nothing to do. I hated baseball. I wasn’t allowed to go down to the river or the sand pits …
So how was I supposed to entertain myself?
1969 was the height of The Cold War and Vietnam. Television programing was non stop Old War Movies, Westerns and Spy Shows. Thus, predictably inspired, I spent the rest of the summer “playing spy”. At first this involved making a grappling hook and trying to climb up onto the garage roof, but after some nasty rope burns I focused my efforts on shop lifting salt peter from Walgreen’s, the A&P, and the Tractor Supply Store.
Through some Eagle Scouts I knew, – I’d learned that if you took one part salt peter, one part sugar, and one part ground up charcoal briquettes; melted it all down in a pan over a low heat, then poured the goop onto wax paper to cool, – you would have “smoke bomb discs” that could be lit and flung like little Frisbees .
That sounded dangerous to me, and by “dangerous” I mean – I thought I would get caught if I tried using my mother’s kitchen for any experiments in alchemy.
So instead of melting home made gun powder down into discs, my plan was to fill up a Styrofoam minnow bucket, and make a smoke bomb big enough to give the illusion that the school was burning down.
I spent the whole summer sneaking around in black. Black Chuck Taylors, black chinos, black turtle neck, and a black watch cap. Running around in a stocking cap in the heat and humidity of an Iowa June and July made people think I was crazy. Woo Woo Walker teased me, telling everyone I trying to be Mike Nesbitt, and even though it stung, I had to reluctantly agree. I couldn’t blow my cover …
“Yeah, – The Monkees. Mike Nesbitt, – you got me Woo Woo”.
Then she gave me a judo flip that I could’ve stopped, but didn’t, because she had older brothers that would pound the shit out of anyone that gave her any trouble.
The truth was, I thought I was Ilya Kuryakin, – Jesus Christ, I had a Man From U.N.C.L.E. lunch box, wasn’t it obvious?
On the last day of summer vacation I woke up before dawn, put on my spy outfit, and gave the final touches to the smoke bomb behind some bushes out in the alley. To the salt peter/sugar/charcoal gunpowder I added cinnamon, paprika, and red pepper flakes. For the cherry on top, I soaked the whole concoction in lighter fluid and duct taped the lid on. Then I cut through Mr. Gacy’s yard, ran across the street, and hid it behind some big pipes in a corner of The School’s new addition.
Back in my civilian clothes, I kept surveillance on my “package” from the back yard of the old lady that no one had ever seen. Nestled within the ancient, overgrown grape vine that covered a tall fence adjacent to the playground; I spent the rest of the morning crouched down there, listening to my transistor radio, smoking Old Golds and dreaming of the day when I would have enough Old Gold Stamps saved up for a motor boat. I imagined taking a brand new boat down The Cedar River to The Mississippi, exploring the swamps of Bayou Country, before heading out into The Gulf of Mexico, …
“We’ve got to get out of this place, – if it’s the last thing we ever do”.
My plan was to wait until exactly 3:30pm. That was when Dr. Max and Mombo came on Channel 7. Every kid in the neighborhood would be inside watching TV, – and I would have the playground to myself. It was a perfect plan.
I checked my Timex, and decided to go home and see what Mom was making for lunch. I cut through Mr. Gacy’s yard to save time, but when I got to the alley I was stopped by a pimply teenager that I had never seen around before. I judged him to be thirteen or fourteen. He had long, greasy brown hair, and a tee shirt that said, KEEP ON TRUCKIN. With a can of Schlitz in one hand, and a cigarette in the other, he sneered at me.
“John Wayne doesn’t want you sneakin’ around here, so you better get outta here, and I better not catch you back here again”.
“Who’s John Wayne”?
“He let’s you drink beer”?
“I’m old enough to drink beer if I’m with an adult, – that’s the law… and you better keep the fuck off John Wayne’s lawn or I’m gonna kick your ass”.
Mom had made us BLT sandwiches and tomato soup, my favorite. And even though it came with a lecture about how, “this year school is going to be different, you’re going to get good grades, and you’re not going to get in any trouble” – I didn’t mind. I pretended to listen, as I visualized Kingsley Elementary School going up in smoke!
At exactly 3:30pm I pulled my smoke bomb out into the center of the alcove, lit it, and ran like hell over to the old lady’s yard. Hiding behind her grape vine, I watched in horror as pink and orange flames shot up one hundred feet into the air! Sparks flew off to the side showering the building and bouncing back into the main main column of fire that was growing more intense.
It sounded like a jet engine.
Out of the pink and orange flames a purplish-grey mushroom cloud rose into the sky that could be seen from twenty miles away! I really didn’t plan on burning the school down to the ground, – I just wanted to make it look that way.
What I was going to do? Run away from home, and pick vegetables in California? No way was I going to let them send me to Juvenile Detention. I was too young to join The Marines, – god damn it!
Why couldn’t I be older?
But after a few seconds the pillar of fire simmered down to a low, growling glow, and thick black smoke roiled and churned up into the clear blue sky like a giant king cobra set to strike…
Every Engine Company in The Waterloo, Iowa Fire Department showed up a few minutes later; along with Police, The Sheriffs, Highway Patrol, and a fairly large crowd of on lookers that had formed in front of Mr. Gacy’s house. I watched as they shaded their eyes and pointed, and I wondered what they were saying. I thought about nonchalantly working my way into the crowd to hear what was going on, but then I thought better of it.
I needed an alibi !
I beat feet straight to The Glidewells. I ran into Grant and his older brother Greg on their bikes in the alley behind their house.
“If the cops ask, – I was with you guys all afternoon”!
Their jaws dropped and their eyes snapped wide open, they looked at each other for a second, then back at me, – and in unison, “THAT WAS YOU”!?!
I nodded, and Greg took charge.
“We were playing pool in the rec room all afternoon. At 3:30 we were watching cartoons, and when we heard all the sirens we decided to see what was going on … Come on”.
I hopped on the back of Grant’s banana seat, and the three of us sped over to the school yard to see all of the excitement. By the time we got there things were winding down, and nobody gave us any notice. All eyes were on the thin stream of black smoke that mushroomed into a purple grey cloud thousands of feet up in the sky. The firemen were rolling up their hoses, – laughing and shaking their heads.
The word was that it had been a smoke bomb.
There was no damage to the school.
I felt my mood shift from utter dread and despair to something like relief. Seeing Grant and Greg laughing and smiling made me feel even better, and by the time the detective asked us our names, and “Did you boys see anything or anyone”? I felt total confidence.
“No Sir, we were watching cartoons when we heard all the sirens.”
“We just got here, – what happened”?
“Do you think we’ll have school tomorrow”.
Just then there was the continuous clanging of our “dinner bell” about half a block away-
The detective took notice, as The Glidewells explained, “Wup, – Mike ‘s gotta go”.
Three clangs meant lunch or dinner, – non stop ringing meant, “Come Home – NOW”!
“Alright, – I’ve got your names. If I have anymore questions, I’ll call your parents”.
Normally I would have cut through Gacy’s yard and raced home to stop my mom’s ringing of the bell; but the guy was standing right there, so I had to take the long way around the block. And as I did, I noticed Mr.Gacy talking to a Fireman in a dress uniform. I didn’t see the kid from earlier in the day, and I wondered if Gacy was his Dad. Maybe he was divorced and his son was visiting for the summer, or something like that. The fireman was nodding, listening as Gacy spoke. He had a goofy hair cut, and he reminded me of the sheepdog from The Road Runner and Coyote … He was wiping sweat off the side of his freshly buzzed head, and he watched me out of the corner of his eyes as I jogged past them.
I broke into a sprint. She wouldn’t stop ringing that fucking bell until I was in eye sight.
The next day was the first day of school, – but not for me. I didn’t know for sure how they found out it was me. There was no way the Glidewells would have told on me, and I hadn’t let anyone else in on my secret…
Who could have known?
It had to be that fucking Gacy and his son!
The Waterloo School Board had convened an emergency meeting, and unanimously decided that I wasn’t to be allowed back into school until I had gone through a thorough psychological evaluation …
For two weeks I spent every day with a psychologist. I don’t remember his name, only that he was young, – about the same age as my parents. He seemed to be sincerely interested in me, and after a couple of days of talking and finger painting, he began administering a battery of tests to me. There were Rorschach Ink Blot Tests, The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, The Iowa Basic Skills Test, The SATs, IQ Tests, and more Rorschach Ink Blots, (probably because we had so much fun with them).
Towards the end, he let me know that there was nothing wrong with me, – quite the contrary; and that he would be recommending that I be allowed back in school.
Then he said. “I’ve been asking you a lot of questions, … do you have any questions for me”?
“Ah yeah, – one thing I noticed was that there was one question that kept coming up in all of the tests; it was worded in different ways and given as examples in different scenarios, but it was always the same question”.
“What question is that”?
“Do the ends justify the means”?
“I don’t know, do they”?
“I don’t think so.”
[to be continued]