Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota

When Neighborhood Fun Takes A Terrible Turn

When Neighborhood Fun Takes A Terrible Turn

One of the advantages of growing up in a town like Sioux Falls is the wonderful parks and recreation system they have set up. You can hardly swing a cat without hitting a park in this town. It seems that the city planners make sure that every neighborhood has a park within walking distance.

In my case, the house I grew up in was only one block from Menlo Park. Menlo Park is home to the water tower that provides pressure for the central area of the city. This water tower sat in an elevated portion of the park, sitting on the southwest fourth of the block. The original water tower was replaced about a decade ago with a sleek modern looking blue beast that now sits on the northwest corner, although the original elevated area is still there with its granite walls.

Over the years the parks department has continued to upgrade the equipment and configuration of the park. When I was younger, the park consisted of four amenities: a merry-go-round, a swing set, a basketball hoop and a baseball diamond. The baseball diamond was never used for any formal team games, but was often used by neighborhood pick-up games. A favorite variation of the game was to run the bases on your bicycle rather than running.

Somewhere in the latter half of the seventies, the parks department decided that Menlo Park needed tennis courts. The tennis court was going to be placed in the ball diamond's location, and the ball diamond was going to be moved to the empty area on the northwest corner of the park. This was a welcome addition and we were all excited to see the courts being built. But most of all, we kids were excited by the two huge dirt piles that had been created while they were leveling out the area for the soon to be built tennis courts.

Now, before I give you a description of the antics carried out on these dirt piles, I must give you a little more background on a couple of the major players in this story.

Every neighborhood has them. These days under the guise of being politically correct we attempt to deny they exist, or give them a fancy name, but it doesn't stop them from being. Every neighborhood has that family that just isn't quite right.

You can point fingers at their economic situation or try to place the blame in their upbringing in order to justify the way they are. As a child, I didn't care about any of that. All I knew were two people who I didn't want to be around: Scottie, and his brother.

Scottie was a boy one year younger than I, if I remember correctly. He was often at the park. His clothes were always torn and dirty, and his face usually matched. This however, was not the reason I tried to avoid Scottie. The reason was Scottie's behavior. He was the type of kid that would call you a name unprovoked. If you brought a toy to the park, he would attempt to take it. If he was successful, the toy would most certainly get destroyed if and when you got it back.

My most vivid memory of Scottie was the day he relieved himself in a most exhibitionist fashion while squatting in the grassy area next to the water tower. Not having the resources to properly clean up afterwards, he merely pulled his pants back up and continued playing. With help from my olfactory receptors, I made the decision to avoid him the rest of that day.

As bad as Scottie was, he was nothing compared to his brother. The brother (whose name I don't remember, and I'm not 100% sure I ever really knew) was older than I. At this time I was probably in second grade. The brother was at least in junior high, which meant he attended a different school than the rest of us. This probably added to his mystery as we didn't have the chance to see him on a regular basis, which was fine by me.

The brother was a complete sociopath. He would beat kids up, seemingly just for the pleasure. He was foul mouthed and disrespectful to all of the adults, which thirty years ago was a much less common phenomenon than witnessed within our current culture. If you were riding your bike down the street and saw the brother coming, it was best to alter your path less you provoke an altercation. And you would lose the altercation. Everyone did. Seriously, if you told me today that he wound up gunning down innocent people from atop a bell tower, I wouldn't doubt you in the least.

The bright side of the story is that the brother ran with an older crowd so I never personally had a run-in with him. At least not until the day of the dirt clod fight.

Remember the dirt piles? Well there they were sitting in the park, two glorious mounds of soil each towering fifteen feet above the surrounding area, and probably thirty feet apart. They would later be hauled away once the construction of the tennis court was complete. But for now, they sang their siren's song lulling every child in the neighborhood to come and sample their forbidden fruits.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and I rode my bicycle over to the park. It didn't matter that it was a block away, I always rode my bike. I really don't remember if my brother went with me that day. I seem to think he was involved in the day's events, but the thirty five or so years that have passed since have clouded some of the details.

Over at the park, the dirt piles were bustling with activity, like two large ant hills with trails of worker children traversing to and fro across the mounds. Who fired the first shot no longer matters. What I do know was that at some point, dirt clods started getting tossed back and forth from one pile to the other.

We kids divided up into two factions. As analogous to many real wars waged, the sides were drawn fairly indiscriminately. Members of the opposing army were known, and outside of the territorial boundary they now represented, would otherwise be considered friends.

Chunks of dirt were being hurled like grenades. Kids were seeking shelter behind their respective pile, waiting for an opportunity to rise up and launch their lump of artillery before hunkering back down to relative safety. It was all in fun, a summer time cousin to the snowball fight. I remember we were having a ball.

Scottie happened to be on my side of the conflict. The camaraderie of warfare allowed us to set aside our differences for the time being and fight for the common cause.

Now like any typical dirt pile, there was much more than just soil lurking about. Pieces of sod, roots and rocks were invariably part of the dirt clods being used as projectiles. I'm sure it wasn't the first time a rock was thrown on this day, but it was the first time a rock made contact.

The rock impacted Scotties forehead. I didn't see the actual infliction of the wound, as I was too busy carrying out my own sortie. I do remember seeing Scottie running away from the battle, crying as his forehead bled.

Now, using my adult reasoning I can analyze this situation and determine that the best course of action upon seeing Scottie's bloody retreat would be to bow out of the war game myself and fall back to the safety of my home. However, being in second grade I had little realization that anything existed beyond the current moment in time. I remember thinking, "I'm glad that wasn't me," and continued to fling globs of dirt at the enemy.

Scottie lived about two blocks from the park. I am guessing that it took him about a minute to run home. Allowing for several minutes reaction time, approximately three minutes after the rock opened up Scottie's head his brother launched his retaliatory strike.

I can remember it plain as day. The brother came buzzing down the street on his BMX bike, cranking as fast a cadence as his legs would allow. He hit the edge of the tennis court construction at a speed that propelled him into the air. He never stopped pedaling until he pulled up between the mounds of dirt. His very presence commanded attention and he immediately took control of the situation. The dirt clods stopped flying.

At this point, running seemed like a valid option. A couple of kids tried to make a break for it, but the brother quickly caught them and threw them to the ground. He announced that nobody was leaving the area until he found the person who had hit Scottie with the rock.

Now, I am pretty sure that whoever actually did hit Scottie with the rock probably didn't even know. In the heat of conflict you often didn't know if your shots actually caused casualty or not. Once a throw was made you were too busy ducking the incoming barrage and looking to reload.

Nevertheless, the brother made it clear that we were hostages and that somebody was going to pay. Perhaps everybody would pay. He didn't care as long as retribution was carried out.

We were all paralyzed by fear. The younger kids were crying. The older kids stood in stunned silence. More than one child involuntarily wet themselves. Our play war had escalated far beyond what anyone could have anticipated. Mutual assured destruction was never considered as a possible outcome but now appeared to be plausible.

The brother began the questioning. He randomly called out kids asking them to confess. The air was thick with tension. I'm sure the guilty party would have broken under duress had they even known they were guilty.

The questioning appeared to be random, as there was no discernible order in which the brother was carrying out the interrogations. Sure enough, he called on me and asked me who threw the rock.

Now I like to believe I'm a fairly logical thinker. Even in second grade I was able to quickly produce what I thought would be an airtight defense. I responded with, "I don't know who threw the rock, but it couldn't be anyone on our dirt pile because we were on Scottie's side." I was hoping the brother was unfamiliar with the concept of "friendly fire."

As it turned out, he wasn't interested in logic. He wanted justice, or if that wasn't an option, then equally distributed punitive repercussions would suffice. Thankfully, at least for the time being, my round of questioning was over with all of my teeth intact.

Approximately five minutes into the standoff (which in second grade time is the equivalent of a month long impasse) I noticed some activity going on in the bushes above the granite wall surrounding the water tower. I recognized Brenda, the girl who lived next to me, and a friend of hers watching the conflict play out below them. I could tell they were wisely keeping a low profile so as not to draw the brother's attention.

At some point they must have realized how dire the situation had become, as they snuck away. As the deadlock continued on, I secretly hoped that they would bring assistance to liberate us.

The questioning was getting the brother nowhere, so his tactics changed. He grabbed the oldest kid from among the combatants, and began to unleash a beating. This kid, whose face I remember but whose name I do not, was not much smaller than the brother. He was probably in fifth or sixth grade, and I remember that he was a nice guy.

We watched in horror as the brother threw him against the granite wall surrounding the water tower, and began to punch him mercilessly. I still remember the sounds of him screaming and pleading for the brother to stop. For whatever reason, he never appeared to make an effort to defend himself.

Now, as the brother's attention was currently diverted towards delivering punishment to a random victim, we remaining hostages had an opportunity to escape. Had we all taken off running at this point in time, there was a good chance we could have gotten away. At the least, the brother would have only been able to catch one of us, allowing the balance to get away.

But nobody moved. We were too stricken with fear.

The boy upon whom the beating was delivered was allowed to rejoin his battalion on the opposing dirt pile. He didn't say anything; he just walked back and stood in silence. His bloody face and torn clothing spoke louder than any words could have. We just knew that this was the fate for each and every one of us. I remember the feeling of hopelessness as I stood there wondering when it would be my turn.

At that point, however, the cavalry rode in. More accurately, my neighbor Brenda had gone and gotten her parents. This was a time when parents raised children as a community, so even though none of their children were directly involved in the incident they came to put an end to the crisis.

They showed up and began talking to the brother. The exact words spoken between both parties I don't remember. I do remember that the brother was saying things that I would never say to any adult, probably even to this day.

At this point, the hostages seized their opportunity to bolt to freedom. We scattered from the park in every direction. I ran home as fast as my feet would allow.

I don't know how long Brenda's parents spent at the park. What was said and done to finally resolve the incident is a mystery, the answer to which I will never know. The whole ordeal was never mentioned again by them, or anyone involved. To bring it up would cause our adolescent minds to relive the trauma, and it was easier to just not go there.

Until this the time of this writing over thirty years later, I don't recall mentioning this story to anyone, except perhaps my wife who has to endure the tales of my childhood on a regular basis.

Safe at home, I made no mention of what happened to my parents. I remember being physically exhausted, and spending some voluntary quiet time in my room doing some sort of solitary activity. Only later that night after supper did I remember that in my haste to leave the park I had abandoned my bicycle.

I walked back down to the park hoping it hadn't been taken. To my relief the neighbor boy Brian, Brenda's older brother, was riding around on it. Knowing it was mine, he relinquished it without too much trouble.

A short time later, the two major players in the whole incident were removed. The dirt piles were hauled off, and Scottie's family moved away. I never saw Scottie or the brother ever again. Once again, there was peace in the land.

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This page last updated on 07/11/2018