Boyhood

We are ten or eleven years old in this photo, taken in our back yard. I am the tall one, as my friend Lynell pointed out, not without a little spiteful envy, when I showed him this picture many years later.

Lynell Johnson was the pastor’s son at Salem Gospel Tabernacle. My family had only recently come in, following a scandal at Ebenezer, the other Norwegian Pentecostal church in Brooklyn, one short block and a social universe away. My father’s status shrank overnight, from a sort of elder or deacon at Ebenezer to nothing; my mother’s swelled into influence and fulfillment in a busier, younger world. I was swept out of childhood and into a gang. Millie Börresen, Esther Andersen, Dorothy Carlson, George Mattson, Walter Madsen, Lynell and me. Boys and girls went together to the ice cream parlour and on expeditions by subway to the museums. Boys collected at Walter’s to play with his electric train or lie on the floor and listen to Boston Blackie or The Shadow on the radio.

Lynell and I were inexorably drawn together by a similar obnoxious precocity. We played elaborate mind games, jostling for control of our made-up fantasy adventures, inventing terms for things, posing philosophical conundrums, such as whether it were worse to spit on the cross or on the flag. Lynell easily bested me in these games, having a killer instinct for changing rules or mood without warning. And another advantage, a peculiar and not quite accountable attractiveness. Lynell, like two of his elder siblings, Maxine and Harmon, spoke in a curiously locationless and non-idiomatic English, a flat but precise intonation devoid of ideosyncracies or any of the buzz phrases common in those days. Coupled with an aloof yet penetrating manner. A charismatic family, always ironical, unpredictable at every turn. Unnervingly private, compelling, seductive.

Then it ended. The Johnson family left Brooklyn for Chicago in 1951. I turned twelve that year. I passed out of boyhood as abruptly as I had left childhood three years before. My brother and I made room for a baby sister and slept together at night on the dining room floor. Imaginary adventures became real ones, on bikes, buses, trains, wild hitchhiking escapades. Speculations about kissing turned into clumsy experiment. Making money in all its grubby immediacy grasped as the essential medium of independence. All inevitable, maybe necessary, but something lost and, in a way, never recovered.

That something is sometimes described as innocence. But Lynell and I were not innocent. What I see, rather, in that three-year passage through boyhood, that magic zone of love without possession, of work as game and game as life itself, the heart unprotected, the imagination unbound, was an incipiency, a hint or sketch of what another kind of human life might be, and never is. Except perhaps for holy fools, madmen, geniuses.