Photo: Geof Kern
Was it true, as his father suggested, that he had the brains of a squirrel...or was there a deeper reason for lying down on a busy airport runway? Jim Shepard tries to explain...
How stupid were my friends and I, growing up in Lordship? It goes without saying that we were unsupervised (in the early '60s, most parents—at least mine—expected their kids, once past the age of, say, 7, to disappear on nice Connecticut Saturdays, and not return until dinnertime), and in that unsupervised state, it fell to us to keep ourselves entertained. We always came up with something. And all of it fell into two categories: things that were stupid and things that would have been fine, had they not been done stupidly. We gloried in the brainlessness of both. We had such an appetite for the kinds of activity that would cause a parent to despair that my father ran out of ways of insulting us, and he was easily one of the most verbally inventive people I knew. He got tired of announcing that I had the brains of a squirrel, for example, and started substituting around in the animal kingdom, and beyond: an ant, a flatworm, a walking doorknob.
Why can't you entertain yourselves the way the normal kids do? he would plead, searching for just a glimmer of reason. And we were always contrite to have upset him so much. So for a few days we would. We'd play basketball, and everyone who wore glasses would come out of the games with pince-nez or monocles. We'd play tackle football and tear shirts into court-jester-like strips and rip the knees and seats out of pants, and when none of that or none of the bloody noses and sprained ankles generated any stir, we took to playing on the empty fields above our beach, Russian Beach, with one sideline the edge of the bluffs. That lasted until two of us, Milton Harrigan and myself, caught a runner on a sweep and slung him out of bounds high out over the brambles. I remember an involuntary sound of awe on all our parts, including the runner's, as we realized just how much air he'd achieved before he experienced his Wile E. Coyote moment.
Who's "we"? Well, in my particular little pod there was probably a rotating group of six or seven kids, but three of the mainstays were my best friend and the bane of my father's existence, Jimmy Swift; my brother, John; and his best friend and the other bane of my father's existence, Kenny Swift. The Swifts and the Shepards were good friends, and Joanie, their mom, was hilarious and sharp-eyed and more or less at her wit's end when it came to her boys. Bill, their dad, I remember as hardworking enough that most of his disciplining occurred long after my brother and I had to go home for the evening.
My father was a worrier, and perhaps because of that he had an invincible need to believe that his sons weren't psychotics; that the Swifts were the problematic influences. It wasn't a bad theory—they almost always had better ideas than we did, in terms of the sheer inventiveness of the havoc—but adults always tended to overestimate the importance of the guy who came up with the idea. Sometimes you'd put forward a notion and everybody else would be more excited about it than you'd be, and they'd be the ones who made sure it happened.
However you dished out the responsibility, though, we were a precocious foursome when it came to mayhem. When we were 8 or so, without any discussion we all piled into our crabby neighbor's prized rhododendron bush, stomping it flat. He was nearly ungovernable with rage for more than a week, and we were grounded, but each of us in our private cell rode out the storm unconcerned. Less than a year later we spent an afternoon slinging marble-size rocks long distance at cars until one guy jerked his Rambler up onto the lawn, threw open his door and chased us for a good three minutes. He stalked back to his car and sat there. We hid behind some bushes, then decided we had to disguise ourselves to slip past him since we'd chosen to pelt cars from our own front yard. Kenny put his shirt on his head like a turban. I took mine off and held it behind me. You get the idea. We were grounded that time for more than twice as long as the rhododendron episode.
Where was my mother during all of this? She came from a big Italian family in Bridgeport, so she'd pretty much seen it all. Her role devolved into spending all her time trying to suggest to my father why what we'd done—whatever latest news had followed us home—was not the end of the world. And then later privately making clear to us that what we'd done was pretty stupid.
A year or two after the car stoning—my brother would have been about 14, and I would have been about 9—we were sitting in Kenny's upstairs bedroom when we heard Joanie's car pull in. Kenny and Jimmy looked stricken. It turned out that because of some other offense, they'd both been strictly forbidden from having anyone, especially us, in the house. "We have to jump out the window," Kenny told us. We all nodded and crowded up to his window. There was no "What are you, crazy?" or "Why do we have to jump out your window?" Joanie called up the stairs something like "You better not have anybody up there." Of course she'd already heard us. "Jump," Kenny urged. He jumped, hit the grass, and rolled. There were big stones bordering the little flower garden along the house, and we were glad he missed them. He yelled anyway, having, it turned out, broken his arm. Already caught and already having seen him get hurt, we all followed him out the window. Let me repeat that: Already caught and already having seen him get hurt, we all followed him out the window. The good news was that he was the only one who broke anything.
I'd have to suppose it was inevitable, then, that some of us would have developed our game of lying on the runways at Bridgeport Airport while the aircraft were coming in. The airport wasn't very big, and it still isn't, but it had a fiercely committed if understaffed security force, and that's where we got the idea. We'd been playing down the airport—that's what we called it when we roamed around in the brushy acres surrounding the thing, jumping a natural canal to see who'd be the first to land in the muck (which you also wanted to avoid because of the occasional rats)—when a yellow army surplus jeep rolled up to us; we were all piled into it and driven home. We hadn't been particularly close to the runway—maybe 70 yards?—but we were told we were being picked up because we might've gotten close to the runway. We got into a lot of trouble for that: Sikorsky Aircraft, where my father worked, had many ties to the airport, and he took seriously the notion that what his kids did in one place might impact him in the other. And so a nemesis was born: the yellow jeeps. I'm not sure the four of us even had to talk about it. It would now all be about the yellow jeeps.
We started going down there at night, and flirting with the runway's margins until we could see the headlights of the yellow jeeps fire up and head our way. Then we'd sprint for the chain-link fencing surrounding the airport—it was a few hundred yards uphill—scrabble underneath, and disappear. The jeeps started hiding in the brush to ambush us. They finally did, successfully, and the resultant punishment settled upon by our parents was so draconian in length that my brother and Kenny lost interest in the whole thing and declared themselves out of yellow-jeep-baiting business.
That left Jimmy and me, when we were finally allowed back outside. We weren't out of anything. There is a scene in a goofy Western that was sometimes on the Million Dollar Movie—John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven—in which James Coburn, handed his gun and one last chance to come to his senses by the beneficent-feeling leader of the army of Mexican banditos, says by way of explaining why he's heading back into town to fight those same eight million banditos with his six friends, "Nobody throws me my own gun and says, 'Run.' Nobody." It was like that with Jimmy and me.
We decided to lie on the runway—just short of the huge numbers of the runway designation.It was at night. We lay on our backs with our feet toward the incoming planes and our heads toward the touchdown points. Whose idea was it? I think it was mine. I'm pretty sure it was mine. We didn't tell our older brothers. I think we knew that we'd strayed into a territory even they would no longer support.
We lay there in the darkness and waited, and eventually we heard a plane and when the engine noise got loud enough and we looked, our chins on our chests, we caught the landing lights full in the face and then came the red and white running lights and the underside of the wings and fuselage and the wheels swaying below them and the whole thing thundered to the tarmac a hundred or so yards up the runway. Not that close, really. But it felt like the trailing wheels had parted our hair.
Of course the pilots would have reported us; of course the jeeps were immediately on their way. We ran all the way home. We were too happy even to shriek. We were grinning with terror, beside ourselves with gleefulness, shaking with joy. Now that, we thought, that was stupidity.
I wrote a short story about it. Years later, in graduate school, my teacher, John Hawkes, was nudging me away from the niche in which I seemed to be most comfortable—wry suburban comedy, and sensitive suburban children—and toward the weird. It was by far the most valuable instinct he helped instill in me, that instinct to ferret out and further distress the unexpected strangeness wherever it surfaced in my work. You want weirdness? I remember thinking. And I wrote an account of what we did on the runways. I made the narrator adult, and solitary, and happy with his life, because I remembered that what was most striking about what we did was the way it seemed to coexist with our everyday and mostly happy existence. In order to put pressure on the situation for the purposes of the story's dramatic development, though, my guy had resolved to move farther and farther toward the touchdown point of most aircraft: In other words, his actions were designed to become progressively more and more stupid, by which I suppose I mean more and more inevitably catastrophic.
This is all by way of saying that for all our gender stereotyping about the way men fetishize the rational, here's one of the more notable things about us as a group: We often seem to make bad choices. Shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot kind of choices. The kind of choices that make our loved ones cluster in little informal discussion groups afterward, trying to figure out what on earth their boy was thinking.
It's not an unimportant point. Whether we're falling off the wagon or gambling away our families' savings or having to resign the governorship, the impact we generate through those choices never goes away. My father to this day has never recovered from what he calls my night rider days. He's still waiting for the news that I've done one more calamitously stupid thing to undo all the good fortune that he feels I've enjoyed up to this point. How many other parents or wives or siblings or children are living, one way or the other, under the shadow of the very same thing?
Adult, and solitary, and happy with his life. That character of mine was a guy who cherished his intimate connections and at the same time sought to undermine them. That paradox turns out to explain a lot of seemingly inexplicable behavior. Of course we wanted to believe that the sorts of things we did as boys had nothing to do with aggression toward our parents; we loved our parents. And of course those things had everything to do with aggression. It was as if we were grateful to have been granted the space and the trust to maneuver and to screw up, if we had to, and, simultaneously, were enraged at having been left to do so: Was there really no one minding the store? Was someone really going to suggest to us that we should have agency? It made for a state of mind, familiar to so many of us, in which you take a risk and deny the risk at the same moment, out of rage. It's a way of protesting, and subverting, a feeling of individual impotence, perhaps: I'm not helpless. Look, I can shoot myself in the foot. Even at 11 or 12 or whenever I did it, when I spread myself out on that runway, a part of me found it inconceivable that one of those aircraft would touch down early and turn me into a gruesome local mystery. But the other part knew the risk and could begin to imagine the damage to those who loved me and went ahead with its activities nonetheless.
One thing that is certain is that we'll never get men to fully explain themselves on that score. That's one of the reasons the laconic is and always has been so deeply attractive to men in all genres of popular entertainment. In that same Western I mentioned earlier, The Magnificent Seven, the Mexican bandit chief asks Steve McQueen why he came back to face impossible odds: why he'd commit, cheerfully, something like virtual suicide. McQueen tells him, "Well, it's like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day he took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, 'Why?'" The Mexican bandit chief says impatiently, "And...?" And McQueen smiles bemusedly and tells him, "He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time."