As my childhood wore on toward my early teens, I found that my Mom was willing to relax her steadfast stranglehold over my permissible roaming area. As such, I quickly immersed myself in other neighborhood microcosms in the general vicinity of my home. For me, it was like discovering a series of unknown tribes that had been there all along, and beckoned for me to study their ways, habits, and dwellings.
Of all the extended neighborhood friends that I met, the Block brothers stood out as those who would forever change and further shape my adult life. The Blocks were Doug & Kris, and their three children: Dan, David, and Amanda. Also present were Tiffany the poodle and, not long after, Perididdle the retriever – who was more like a smelly, drooling little horse than a dog. But, I liked him anyway because he liked to play with tennis balls and I’m a sucker for a dog that will play fetch.
If the name Doug Block rings a bell, you shouldn’t be surprised. For decades after his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps he was a well respected, and very able police officer on the Rockford Police force who was eventually promoted to Detective before retiring as a consultant. His early claim to fame was nearly dying in the infamous Rainbow Tap hold up, but saving himself at the last moment by forcing the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger into the hammer mechanism of the gun pointed at the back of his head. I’m pretty sure that some unseen force wanted to keep him around for a lot of reasons. Perhaps, even to influence my life. The world is funny that way. More recently, he gained notoriety as a Rockford mayoral candidate, only to see his hopes dashed by some poor choices made by his oldest son. This was a huge blow to me on two levels. First, I was disappointed that such a poor choice had been made by someone I knew should have known better. Second, the man that I had known and respected for so many years would have been the sort of Mayor that Rockford would have been privileged to have. I often wonder how much better off my home city might be, had we had his morally sound, sure-footed, and clearheaded wisdom to guide the city to a new and brighter tomorrow.
If the name Dave Block sounds familiar, then you probably run in my circles. After almost fifteen years apart, we once more found each other a couple of years ago on Facebook. Dave, the younger son, had become an independent filmmaker (founder of Block Films) and, as we rekindled our friendship anew, it set into motion a formal meeting that resulted in the formation of Digital Ninjas Media, Inc. with him as a co-founder. My wife (also a co-founder) and I now find ourselves working side by side with him on projects, as though all those years never happened. I’m pleased to have him back in my life, and my wife has taken a shine to him as well. He’s just good people.
The Blocks lived about 180 degrees around the block from my home, and just a squidge further North. I often sought refuge, and spent many summer and weekend nights, there playing computer games on their Tandy. This was also where I had my first run in with something called a BBS and a modem. Two things which would further alter my life in profound and massive ways (that’s a story for another time).
As the boys got older, and moved from Cub Scouts and into Boy Scouts, Doug took on the mantle of Scoutmaster and, because I was already joked about as ‘the third Block son’, encouraged me to participate in the program. It was one of the best decisions of my life, and I cherish all of the friends that were made, and developmentally moral lessons learned. My time in the Boy Scouts, both with Doug and, later, others, gave me a sense of place in a world that I didn’t feel that I belonged anywhere in. Doug was a large part of my male role model component during those years; years in which I used the best of a number of male role model’s traits to develop the individual who ultimately resulted. It was sort of like having several, part-time Dads. And for as screwed up as my deteriorating relationship with my Father was at that time in my life, it made a profound difference.
One idle summer, I developed a scheme to turn all of our hours of bicycling time into something more profitable. At the age of twelve, I had already begun to master marketing. Via garage sale, of all things. When I offered up my first items – working the sale, of course – at the age of ten, my Mom used to think that the way I sold things was odd or that the things I was trying to sell would never be bought. That was, until I began to make a goodly amount of money, and sell most of my items in their entirety. I developed bundling schemes, grab bags, large-lot discounts, and a few other tricks. Apparently, marketing has been in my blood for a very long time. So, when the notion that an old duffle bag that I had lying around could be used to collect aluminum cans and 8-pack soda bottles (which, when returned were worth a whole ten cents) around my extended neighborhood, I convinced the Block brothers that this was something we had to do. Dan’s entrepreneurial spirit (something he shows a great deal of, and with great acumen, even to this day) took over while Dave was a little less wedded to the idea. Even so, he came along on several of our recyclable recon missions.
The majority of the rides were Dan, the duffle bag, and I. We very quickly bent the rules – a whole lot – by expanding our territory more and more as the summer progressed in the hopes of finding that elusive recycling honey-hole. All that summer, there was scarcely a stray can or bottle to be found on our watch, as we made the rounds each day – sometimes for hours at a time. We found a number of spots that consistently produced and, then, figured out how to thwart the bees that always seemed to be one step ahead of us.
One day, we were in the alleys in the neighborhoods to the North of our homes, when we spied a scarcely opaque garbage bag packed full of Coke cans (someone had had a party, it was clear). This got us thinking: What else was in all those bags, lining the streets and alleys on garbage day that we COULDN’T see? So, we developed a method of inspecting garbage bags by tapping them with a stick or looking for tell-tale signs of a protruding can that paid off. As we did so, we made a mental map of the worst offenders to the planet, and returned there each week to reap our refuse rewards. Once in a while, an angry adult would holler at us, until we explained what we were doing. Sometimes, they kept hollering anyway (and we made a mental note to avoid that place entirely or, be far more discreet in the future.) Other times, however, they would turn the anger into kindness and often offer to leave the booty in a separate bag or, better still, go in the house or garage and return with a stash of their own to give to our cause. Those were the best days. I wonder how many strangers would do that today? Hell, I wonder how many kids would see the value in doing what we did, in this day and age.
As we expanded our territory as far as we dared, we one day came across something odd. There was a dense copse of trees on Kilburn Avenue, on the West side, just before the curve toward the country near the Feather Club. I found a can in the weeds and, as I took in my surroundings more acutely, I saw a well-hidden path into the copse itself. I had passed by this area a hundred times, and had never noticed it – it was that well hidden. Dan was busying himself behind me, searching for more cans in the weeds, as I ventured further and further into the progressively darker, wooded area. The tress here weren’t ancient, but they weren’t exactly saplings, either. Their canopies fought valiantly for every square inch of available sunlight, and vines and weeds joined the throng below as well.
About twenty feet in, the path dog legged, and I could make out a blue tarp that had clearly been engineered as some sort of shelter with rope and limbs. It was tough to find access but, once I did, I found evidence of habitation: more tarps, telltale signs of a small fire, boxes of Little Debbie snacks, water, and other odds and ends. Now, of course, we know it was a hobo camp but, back then, we just couldn’t figure out who would leave such a neat, well-stocked fort in such a place, where any kid could come and play in it. I don’t remember how it came up in conversation but a few days later, Dan must have mentioned it to his Dad, who explained to him what we had stumbled upon. As a police officer, it made sense that HE would know it was there. We both decided that we respected the squatters’ rights and so we never entered the copse again for fear of startling someone or making them feel exposed. It was enough for us that we had found it and seen it, so we let it be, thereafter. In truth, I felt sort of bad for the guy (I always pictured it as a guy, for some reason) but was glad he had such a cool fort to sleep in, if he couldn’t have a home.
My worst day began cold and rainy. I didn’t have a lot to do, so I decided to go on a solo ride, Dan and Dave being somewhere else for the day. I went due West – a direction we usually avoided. As the morning turned to afternoon, the sun came out and it got very hot, very quickly. Behind what would later become the Anytime Club (and home to several suspicious fires), I found a good score of a number of cans all in one area. As I reached to pick up a sun-bleached can of Lite Beer, I was startled to find that it was still full. This had never happened before, and I felt like a criminal already (I was a knob, I know, I know). I figured a can was a can and, decided to pop the top and dump its contents. As soon as the seal was breached, I was blasted with foamy beer from head to toe. First, I was grossed out. I mean, I smelled like hot beer most days from monkeying with the cans to begin with but this was a whole new level of beer stink. Second, I panicked: my Mom was going to kill me. I finished policing the area for any more cans and decided to go home and clean up before she got home from work.
When I arrived home, to my surprise, my Mom was home from work already. I panicked, but decided to just go in and be honest. In hindsight, I have no idea why I thought this was such an Earth-shattering problem. I entered the house and, upon finding my Mother, I explained the whole situation, swearing up and down that I had not been drinking beer. I was stunned when she proceeded to laugh, mostly because she didn’t usually crack up like that. Apparently, I was adorable, and my situation – and angst about being seen as a ‘bad kid with beer’ – was hilarious to her. Who knew?
By the end of the summer, we had my basement jam-packed with cans. My Mom (who was a damn good sport) took us to Behr for the cans and Logli’s for the bottles and, all told, I think we earned $140.00 and some change. In hindsight, it was pennies on the hour for all the hard work that we had done, but I didn’t see it that way then. I saw it as a reward for all of our efforts, and it taught me that there are opportunities everywhere, if only one took the time to find them, and exploit them. Moreover, it further solidified an already solid pair of friendships, gave me a ton of exercise, and allowed me to not just see – but come to know – the neighborhoods around me, while meeting some of their kinder inhabitants. If I had it to do all over again, I would do it in a heartbeat.