A Neighborhood Rite of Passage
The game was walking the plank, only this game was enacted over a ten story silo in a abandoned chocolate factory, at one time the employment epicenter of the Lower Mills, Dorchester, MA area. The now defunct Walter Baker Chocolate factory had pulled out of the area in the early 1960s leaving the run-down, ghostlike structures in its stead. It soon became the perfect forbidden playground for many of the surrounding neighborhood youth. Even today I can vividly recall the overwhelming, bittersweet aroma of cocoa lingering in the air, and from the constant dumping of the excess chocolate powder, it had tainted the length of the Neponset River, as far as the eye could see, a brackish hue of murky brown water.
Years of neglect made the factory ruins an irresistible neverland, far from prying, parental eyes. For years we had heard the urban legends and outright tall tales about what supposedly went on at the top of that silo and that had only served to pique our curiosities and imaginations that imagined pirates, damsels in distress, and hell’s demons working in concert to entice young victims into their traps.
For weeks now the older boys of the neighborhood were actively recruiting us to join their select group that was only accomplished by completing the legendary walking of the plank. They constantly and consistently harassed and intimidated us making our low self-esteem work against us and guaranteeing we would no longer be considered wussies and wimps if we simply completed the legendary plank walk that presently loomed before us.
I was not alone in the fearful task ahead of us: it was myself (age 10); Stuttering Stevie (Age 9), a notorious neighborhood Momma’s boy and possibly the most picked upon kid in the known galaxy; and Johnny Numbnuts (Age 7), who’s noted claim to fame was his unflinching ability to masticate the live bug of your choosing as well as hold open flames to his fingertips without so much as flinching. Johnny came from an abusive family and never spoke much, mostly keeping his pain bottled up.
We were being slowly and methodically led up a dimly lit, dilapidated, creaking iron stairwell for the harrowing ten-story climb. The older boys leading the way were Jimmy Dupas, a scrappy and tough-as-nails local bully, and his faithful henchman/cohort Mike Caroll, a moronic jokester whose idea of humor usually entailed a pink belly, a painful wedgie, or a sudden sucker punch to the belly for no apparent reason other than his immediate pleasure. They were taking abject delight in our hesitation to ascend when we came upon entire sections of the spiral stairwell both collapsed and missing. Jimmy smirked at our uneasiness and proclaimed, “No pussies past this point, boys!” Trying not to show my fear I fed off Johnny’s courage to continue the upward climb with Stevie reluctantly trailing behind me. To compound the tension we were constantly heckled by our arrogant tormentors with persistent nuggies from Mike Caroll along the way whenever we slowed or stopped.
During the climb the tension was welling up in my gut and I sensed none on Johnny’s face and absolute terror on Stuttering Stevie, who was already tearing up and openly weeping for his momma. Mike grabbed Stevie by the collar, getting in his face and screaming, “No mommas here! You finish the plank walk and you can go home to your Momma a man!” At that point I desperately wanted to flee down those broken stairs to freedom, but not wanting to be branded a coward made me grab Stevie’s arm and lead him reluctantly to the top of the tower. The relief upon finally reaching the top quickly evaporated with the sudden realization of the task ahead of us. The view through the broken windows was spectacular, as far as the eye could see. The neighborhood kids seemed like ants and made me realize that no one even knew where we were, which only confounded my anxieties about what we were about to do. Turning from the window I took in the entire length of the open floor which was riddled with rocks, bricks, and broken beer bottles along with the detritus of what appeared to be crude, obscene devil worship–related graffiti, some in marker and others painted, evident on both walls and ceilings. In the center of the 20-foot high area was a makeshift altar behind a badly worn mattress with what appeared to be human blood splattered the length of it. I could only wonder whose blood was on it and if any of us were going to be the next contributors. Stevie was openly balling his eyes out to the joy of our tormentors, and all I could think was how his mother would go ballistic on me for not protecting her “precious wittle baby,” as she used to call him in front of everyone. Her emasculating mothering had made him a total spazz, and I only thought a little adventure was what he needed to finally break away from his ball-busting mom’s still-attached umbilical cord. I wanted to run head-over-heels down that spiral staircase but my feet were unable to move. It was then that I noticed the only open silo behind me that measured at least 20 by 20 feet wide and the level of fear grew palpable upon realizing that the only thing to prevent our falling into that yawning pit was a badly weathered, battered pine wood plank that appeared woefully inadequate for what was about to transpire. Jimmy and Mike were beaming from ear to ear as they motioned us closer to the edge of the pit. Upon compliance they then lit an old, discarded newspaper, waited for it to get to full flame, and slowly threw it down into the dark depths of that foul smelling, ominous abyss. We all watched with bated breath as the brightly lit paper slowly spiraled its way down, seemingly forever. As the glowing embers finally reached bottom and began to fade out, I could barely make out the literal moving floor of disrupted and annoyed rats, bats, and other unidentifiable vermin scurrying quickly from the intrusive light that dared to invade their dark domain.
The task now seemed to me insurmountable suicide with failure almost a certainty. Sweat was freely flowing on my and Stevie’s faces to match our fight-or-flight impulses. That is except for Johnny Numbnuts who coolly and calmly stepped up unto the decrepit, cracked and well-worn wooden plank. Stevie and I inwardly cringed upon hearing the wood creak and moan as if it were warning its unwanted trespasser it was incapable of taking much more. Although it was high noon the high ceilings of the tower and the limited amount of sun rays penetrating through dirty cracked and broken glass made dark shadows throughout the open space for the rats running freely to and fro in relative safety around our feet.
In spite of the obvious oblivion below us our tormentors gleefully stood on each end of the chasm opening to facilitate any possible slips or falls. Jimmy stood facing Johnny, slack-jawed and obnoxiously giggling, sensing possible bloodshed like a shark preparing for a feeding frenzy. His partner in intimidation, Mike, tried to verbally intimidate Johnny by saying to him, “Don’t worry, if you fall I’ll throw down a coupl’a matches. They’re afraid of the dark and will leave you alone until the matches run out. It’ll take the rats and crawlers down there weeks to eat ya.” Stevie and I were freaking out, but the comments didn’t rattle Johnny in the slightest. As he assumed a gymnast stance with his arms fully extended, he slowly continued across the bouncing, bending board.
I felt my heart beating and my blood pumping as Johnny more than once almost lost his balance, his arms frantically pinwheeling all akimbo in a desperate attempt to avoid certain doom ten stories below us. All time and gravity seemed to freeze in that silo as Johnny continued to inch further along with his arms acting like an insane gyro that somehow kept him on that plank and from an undeniable fall to his death. To my and Stevie’s relief and to our captors’ utter dismay, Johnny leapt the last length of the wood to fall face first in the dirt and debris and relative safety. The audible sounds of relief we issued for our friend’s success was short lived with the realization that one of us was next up on the plank of doom.
Trying to take command of my inner panic I stood behind Stevie, attempting to bolster his fast-fading enthusiasm for the required initiation into the brotherhood of the plank. “This is it, buddy. If you wanna cut those mommy apron strings, it’s now or never. You can do it. I’m right behind you!” But I was talking to a dead man walking who had already turned a whiter shade of pale alongside his thousand-yard stare. The sheer terror in his eyes was imploring me to find an effective means of escaping our death-defying obligation.
I looked into Stevie’s wide-open eyes and used my shirt sleeve to wipe the sheen of tears and sweat from his face. I told him if he could do this it would mean the end of being picked on and bullied by the neighborhood. I told him it would give him the courage to stand up to his nagging mother who always embarrassed him to tears and made him frightened of his own shadow. But Stevie was buying none of my bullshit as the tears began to freely flow from his pale, pimply face. “I—I—I d—d—on’t wanna do this. I’ll fall for sure and the rats will get me. I—I—I d—d—on’t wanna die down there!” he stuttered as snot suddenly shot from his nose in tandem with his sweat and tears.
I searched the area for Johnny to give me backup support but he was already bored with the plank drama. I watched him methodically tracking down a now frightened river rat between the shadows, finally trapping it into a corner and mercilessly crushing its head, confirmed by a sickening thud. He was totally oblivious to the danger of the situation and I had no doubts whatsoever that he would have reenacted his death-defying feat in an instant.
The overall truth of my motivation for Stevie walking that plank was a self-centered smoke screen that hid my own deep fear and loathing of getting up on that treacherous plank myself. Stevie’s blubbering protests continued to the point where I was unable to think of an effective escape for us both. While closely watching our captors for a chance to run past them to freedom, Stevie somehow found the inner strength to step up to the precipice and robotically take a first step onto the dreaded plank that issued a loudly audible crack that sent our bullying facilitators into a veritable frenzy of delight. Like participatory predators sensing a more satisfactory ending this time, they began to verbally taunt Stevie’s next step by warning me in no certain terms that if I opened my mouth or helped him in any way I was going over the side—no questions asked.
Stevie then gamely and bravely inched a few more steps forward, mimicking Johnny’s stance, though barely able to see through tear-stained eyes. Although I had been strong-armed into silence, while our hecklers watched me like a hawk, I felt almost certain that Stevie would not make it across that board and the very thought of those two jackals feeding off his pain drove me to a berserk boiling point. We had to be crazy to actually want to do this for a group of older kids that we didn’t even like. I ran at Mike from behind and pushed him out of the way, shouting “Stevie, don’t go any further. Screw these guys, you don’t have to do this.” I stepped up onto the board directly behind Stevie, making it creak aloud and as he turned to face me I looked him firmly in the eye, telling him calmly, ”Just look at me, Don’t look down. Walk back to me slowly. Just grab my hand, buddy.” Stevie had to pirouette completely around causing him to violently sway off balance to the verbal encouragement to fall from our small-minded peanuts gallery. Stevie froze up, waiting for both the wood and his tormentors to cease moving. “Don’t listen to them!” I inched out a little more attempting to reach him. What seemed an eternity to me ended when I finally took hold of his hand and I led him backwards for a few hairy moments when I wondered if Stevie would pull me with him into the pit of death. The final few feet I violently jerked him towards me propelling us both into the floor detritus of dirt, glass, and trash. We both lay there, sweating profusely, torn clothing, cuts on our elbows and knees until our respiration was once again normal.
Jimmy and Mike were instantly in our collective faces screaming at us, “I knew you two wussies couldn’t cut it. You never had it in you to be a brother of the plank like us.” With that accusation I saw red and got right in their faces yelling, “Who would want to be part of your stupid brotherhood anyway? If you are such real men from being in the brotherhood, then show me by walking the Goddamn plank right here and now!” My tirade managed to push both of their anger buttons as Mike swiftly sucker punched me in the stomach, dropping me instantly to my knees. Jimmy loomed over me with a large stick in his hand that he pointed at Stevie, demanding that he get back on that plank or we were both getting thrown into the pit. Stevie showed a lot of courage by standing tall and not flinching when Jimmy came closer and closer with the stick. “Screw them,” I said. “You’ve already showed these two you’re man enough for their stupid group!” I slowly got to my feet and wary of Mike’s fists, hobbled over to Stevie.
“We got nothing to prove to you maggots,” Jimmy proclaimed with his stick held on high. I quickly replied, ”That’s funny, neither do we!” as we dusted each other off what dirt we could and pushed our way past Jimmy and Mike, despite their aggressive stances. “Come on, let’s leave these real men to themselves,” I snarled as we made our way between the shadows towards the rusted stairs.
I then realized that we had forgotten about Johnny and as I turned back to call for him I found him subserviently standing with a thousand-yard stare behind Jimmy and Mike. The emotionless Johnny silently looked past us as Jimmy proudly proclaimed with a smirk, “Johnny boy ain’t going anywhere! He’s proven that he’s one of us now. Ain’t that right, Johnny boy?” The awkward silence of Johnny’s unexpected betrayal lingered in the air like a rancid smell. I thought to ask Johnny to change his mind, decided the hell with him, and Stevie and I slowly and carefully began our descent down the treacherous stairs and a return to reality.
As we were pausing along the stairwell to avoid any slips or falls I couldn’t help but think to myself that things had somehow changed in my rush to adulthood. Stevie and I never saw much of Johnny after that day until I attended his wake after a fatal heroin overdose at the untimely age of 19. Johnny had lived his brief life much like a blazing comet attempting to mask the pain inflicted by his dysfunctional family. As I lit a candle in his memory I prayed that he was finally in peace. His siblings soon followed suit when his older brother Tommy blew his brains out during a drunken game of Russian roulette and his sister Lisa, who was a renowned local prostitute, died of AIDS not long after that. The family curse continued with the youngest brother Joey ending up at Walpole State prison after a failed bank robbery that had left a bank guard dead. The death that had the most personal impact was when I heard that my childhood tormentor had died in a drunken car accident that ended up with him being literally impaled on a fire hydrant. I regretted ever having wished him any ill will as a child, and I found myself more empathetic in his passing.
All in all that day in the silo had taught me an important life lesson in my rush to grow up and fit in with my peers. By Stevie and I actually risking our very lives for someone else’s acceptance, I learned how to better trust my own instincts and gut feelings and to never, ever let someone bully you into doing something so stupid. I had learned to always stay true to your friends and most importantly to yourself. Never let fear and indecision rule your every thought and deed. It wasn’t my first or my last lesson on that particular subject growing up, but by surviving them, I eventually evolved into the man I wanted to be.
Jimmy and Mike never again bothered us after that day, and all during those summer months, we often wondered who those two had recruited as willing victims whom they had brainwashed into promising instant adulthood for simply completing as simple a task as walking the plank and the glory afforded them for passing their initiation. At the end of our traumatic day, I remember walking Stevie home where he was ambushed by the harpy we all knew as Stevie’s mom. She threatened and gestured and bit her hand in anger at her disobedient and only son could be the death of her yet. “You come home this instant, and I don’t want you hanging around a bad influence like your friend here who will only get you in trouble.” As I started to walk away, I was shocked to hear Stevie loudly say, “No ma, I’m not a baby anymore. I’m almost a man and I need you to stop treating me like a child. As for my friend, well he’s my best friend whether you like it or not!” Stevie’s mother was absolutely stupefied and fumed and huffed for several moments much like a bull about to gore a matador. “You just wait until you get your little fanny back home, mister. Me and your father will straighten you right out.” She then turned her nose into the air, spun around, and stormed off, leaving me in incredulous silence at the transformation of my formerly meek friend. We looked at each other as if we were in a staring contest until Stevie could no longer contain himself any longer and burst out laughing like a madman, with me right there with him until we laughed until we were weeping. We both agreed that after our hectic day that we were in no rush whatsoever to join the brotherhood of the plank or any brotherhood for that matter. We then rehashed the whole event, making fun at our idiotic behavior for even agreeing to it and then both ran off like Butch and Sundance to enjoy what was left of the spectacular, childhood sunny day.