When I was eight we lived in a little brick house in North Jax Beach, on a white dirt road a block away from our church. The neighborhood had fallen off the fence between suburban and rural, but it hadn’t rolled very far. It was still one of those places where everyone knew who’s cat was having a litter of kittens, who had gotten a new radio or TV set, and the names of all their neighbors’ in-laws. All the kids went out Trick-or-Treating, and nobody worried about razor-blades in their apples.
(Interesting side note: for all the hoopla surrounding the “I can’t let my child go Trick-or-Treating because some maniac might put a razor/poison/finger in with the candy,” this has never actually been reported to have happened… anywhere. Unless you count sugar as a poison.)
My next door neighbor was a sweet little old lady of the extremely stereotypical variety. She was kind, tolerant, a good baker, and lived with her sweet little (extremely) old mother. Mom didn’t communicate much, but she smiled a lot. The neighbor (I’m going to call her Mrs. Bennet because I can’t remember her real name but it sounds nice) drove an enormous gray cadillac that took up 3/4 of our street by peering through the steering wheel at the landmarks above her. Heaven knows she couldn’t see the actual road above the hood of that car. She was the bane of toys and inattentive squirrels wherever she went.
My best friend Billy lived right across the street. His parents, Ann and Charles, were kinda hippies in philosophy and insisted everyone call them by their first names, including the kids. I loved them both. Charles was a carpenter and built Billy the most amazing miniature house out in the back yard. It became the hangout. Billy also had a two-year-old little sister, (who’s name I no longer remember) a toe-headed little girl with a cherubic face and the temperament of a frustrated demon who was always making life difficult for her big brother. Her I did not love.
Billy and I were Cub Scouts, and Ann was the Den Mother. We learned how to tie knots and light a fire with a tender kit and to save a drowning person, (safety tip: only try to save people smaller than yourself. This is more important when you are eight.) and how to make a tiny stove from a coffee can. I got Scouting! magazine every month which was mostly about Boy Scouts but I read every word of it each month. My favorite part was a comic-book illustrated page at the end that told the story of some heroic thing that some scout had done. I really wanted to be on that page some day.
This particular afternoon Billy was elsewhere, unavailable for playing out in our yards. I had my Star Trek and Planet of the Apes action figures climbing the pine trees and desperately trying to avoid the alien insects scattered about. (There were always discarded husks from molting beetles on the trees which made great, and scary-looking aliens. Plus they were easy to crush when Captain Kirk defeated them.) We had a virtual forest of tall, skinny pine trees in our front yard. Pine needle lawn, zero mowing.
Billy’s sister was riding her tricycle in tiny circles in the road and singing to herself in that meandering way two-year-old girls will. I was trying vainly to ignore her.
The Vinn’s dog at the end of the street started barking and I looked up to see who was coming. It was Mrs. Bennet in her giant caddy. I saw that she could not see Billy’s sister and that the girl was facing the wrong way to see the largely silent vehicle. I yelled, but the two-year-old was in no position to get out of the way in time and Mrs. Bennet couldn’t hear anything inside her sound-proofed tank. (They built ’em solid back then.)
I hesitated for an instant and then dove out into the road. I scooped Billy’s sister up in one arm and the tricycle in the other, and didn’t stop running until I was well into the driveway on the other side. Ann, who must’ve looked up when I yelled, came bursting out of the house in tears and snatched the girl away from me, and ran back into her house. She was too distraught to even say thank you.
A little weirded out by the event and Ann’s reaction, I turned and went back home. My own parents had a very “Whatever, that’s nice” attitude about what I felt was an enormous deal. I couldn’t understand why no one seemed to think I had done a good thing. But the biggest disappointment, indeed the most crushing blow of all, was the next month when I opened up the newest copy of Scouting! to find a story in the back about some Boy Scout who had gone camping in the desert and had sucked the rattlesnake venom out of some dope who was too stupid to wear proper boots. Screw that guy! I saved somebody! It was almost as if they didn’t even know about it!
The next summer Billy and I accidentally burned down the hedge in Mrs. Bennet’s side yard. That didn’t make the magazine either, but everyone else sure noticed.