The locals beat me up every hot summer day in 1950s south side Chicago. I was in late middle school and didn’t fit in as I was not from the neighborhood, merely a seasonal, summer visitor every year for three long summers. My status changed dramatically in the second year when the local Italian street gang found out that I made a better zip gun than anybody else. That was a good thing, because I was skinny, relatively weak and a bad fighter. Instead of being a victim, I became one of the boys, but a boy who didn’t have to carry a knife, a car antenna, a baseball bat or any other object that might be useful when you ran into rival gangs. I had status.
We were a motley group of kids. Some of us were already seasoned wiseguys in training, having worked as spotters outside gambling parlors, always on the lookout for the cops. On the street, we would menace any adult we felt like, simply because there were so many of us, but if we mistook a wiseguy for a citizen, we would quickly learn our place in the local pecking order. They would simply pull back their suit jackets and we would see a revolver and immediately scatter.
Fights were routine. Numbers counted. If there was enough of us and enough of them, we would often fight. The local emergency room would fill up with cuts, bruises, broken bones, but the local morgue stayed mainly empty. Seldom did anybody die, even though tempers ran hot and the stupid kids would often start fights that were not intended. Kids who would become wiseguys learned their future trades through youthful emergency room visits and lived to fight another day.
Kids, particularly male kids from the ages of 12 to 18, only have half a brain: by that I mean we boys are not yet socialized, not yet developed, not yet men. And so we are dangerous beings who bait strangers, nurse oversized grievances and magnify the importance of everyday neighborhood living into actions that often end in violence.
Back then, there were no Bushmasters, AK-47s, or Glock automatics floating around on the street. The cops and the wiseguys had the guns, not the youth of the country. The NRA of the time supported the use of shotguns and bolt-action rifles and had not yet gotten around to assault rifles and 30-round magazines. It was a simpler time, we like to say now, but perhaps it was just a much smarter time.
Today, I would never confront a teenager. You never know which kid is harboring an easily obtained handgun and even with my street-wise skills obtained decades ago, I know that unless I get nose to nose with a young killer, I have no chance and it has nothing to do with my aged body and old, slow reflexes. Give a kid 3 feet of space and you are dead, dead, dead.
I’m just saying.
—Karl DeBord (c) 2012