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ROUNDING OUT the last of the Phenix boys that romped and stomped the basketball court on a regular basis were the Tuckers: Jay, Brandon, and Craig. Every night was the same.
“Are you going to get the lights,” I would ask. Or Jeremiah would ask. Or Robbie. Or Kevin.
“Yeah, we got ‘em,” one of the Tuckers would reply.
Though they never did. Every school night the lights would continue to shine into my bedroom window or Jeremiah’s until the automatic timer shut them off at 10:16. In turn, we gave the Tuckers a little grief during those days about the Boogie Man getting them on their walk home.
But the truth of the matter is I don’t blame them for saying they were going to turn off the lights and then not doing it. The Tucker boys used the lights from the basketball court to guide their way home at night, which was a further walk than the rest of us.
Sure, I gave them grief about the Boogie Man; but boy was I a four foot tall hypocrite for doing so. No sooner did I get into my house and run up the stairs to my room, I would jump like a spooked cat from the hardwood floor onto my bed.
Stephen King terrorized my childhood
Why you may ask? The same reason millions of kids did so back in 1989 and the early 1990s. Have you ever seen Pet Sematary? The film is based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
Do you remember the little kid Gage who is brought back to life after getting run over and the fate of the old man Jud who comes looking for him upon his return? Long story short: Gage is hiding under the bed waiting for Jud. And, he has a scalpel. And Jud has an achilles tendon which looks delightful. It doesn’t end well for Jud.
If you’re not prone to being scared sh–less, unlike me, have a go at watching the clip embedded below. After rewatching the under the bed scene just now, I have made the executive decision that tonight I will be jumping into my bed and under the covers from roughly five feet away while my wife looks on and inquires, “What’s up with you,” and I respond, “GAGE!”
So, yeah, sure, I gave the Tuckers some crap about the Boogie Man. I’m not proud of it; though the intentions, at that age, were more or less meant to be benign and in a joking, harmless manner like an unzipped fly or a cracking voice at puberty.
But it probably wasn’t the Boogie Man they were thinking of on their walk back home. It was more than likely the character of another creature invented by the Lord of Darkness, Stephen King: Pennywise the Clown, from It.
What’s crazy about It, perhaps more than anything, was that this horror novel turned movie was actually a miniseries broadcast into the homes of hundreds of millions of Americans in 1990. And not on cable TV either. We didn’t have such luxuries as cable TV in Phenix, Virginia, in 1990. It was aired on ABC, a family network, which everyone had.
So every kid in America, from the big city to the smallest of towns, including Phenix, Virginia, population: 200, got a taste of the nightmarish clown who picked off small children lurking about their town’s streets and alongside creekbeds. After all, Pennywise’s sole job in 1989 was to kill and eat the children of Derry Township for a full year before returning to hibernation. It says so on his professional resume:
Pennywise the Clown
Jobs and Responsibilities
- Prey and eat the children of Derry Township for a full year before returning to hibernation
- Terrorize the dreams and every waking moment of every single, solitary child in America in 1990
- References available upon request
In thinking about the current state of childhood in America, maybe it’s not technology that’s keeping kids from playing outside and forming rag-tag gangs like there was when I was a kid; maybe it’s that every single kid from 1990 who grew up and became a parent envisions in the back of their minds that Pennywise the Clown is still out there, calling out to their children from the sewer vents.
The good news is that, when I was a kid, John Ritter and John-Boy Walton decided they weren’t going to be clowned anymore (see what I did there) and the Loser’s Club, albeit RIP Eddie, took it to Pennywise in the Ritual of Chüd, part deuce, defeating the evil once and for all — well, at least until 2017.
WE HAD ALL done everything together: from playing War and backyard football to the traditional Phenix sport of tackle basketball in the wintertime when the thick snow would cover the blacktop slab of pavement our dreams rested on.
King of the hill.
The central location was forever the basketball court.
Tonight, though, I was here, alone. Only the ghosts of my childhood were present to keep me company.
And then it set in.
The reality of what was happening crept into my consciousness.
Never for a second did I realize when I was younger that one day all of these people I grew up with, faces I was familiar with, would all part. I kept to myself mostly after the shadows of friends faded off into the silhouette of yesterday.
I would be fine, I told myself. I still have basketball and I still have the court.
But the court was never what made me happy. There was something else. Something stronger than the game itself. It was the bond of friendship. In particular, the friendship of Jeremiah, Robbie, Kevin, and I.
And these are the characters of our story.
Of my childhood and theirs.
In a story of life.
In a story of friendship.
Up next in this story:
You just read an excerpt from When the Lights Go Out at 10:16. A story of a 1980s/1990s childhood growing up in small town America. A story of life and friendship in the face of terminal cancer.