My association with my all time best friend and pen pal Randy and his crazy dad began when I was about seven or so on Halloween in Milwaukee, when I got a dancing lesson from a talking plastic skull mounted in a lamp post.
I must have been about seven or so when I walked past Randy's house that first time on Halloween evening. My folks and I had just come up to visit my Grandmother in Milwaukee (we did this maybe once a year or so back then) from Peoria. My ass was still sore from sitting in the family car all day on the trip up from Peoria, and I was in the mood to go out exploring Grandma's neighborhood and get the stiffness out of my legs and my rear end, and Halloween seemed the perfect time to do it.
By the time I'd gotten most of the way down the street from where my grandma lived, I saw something that looked pretty damn cool...if not a little unsettling. it was a plastic human skull mounted inside the light housing of a lamp post outside of a very ordinary looking ranch style house, with a very out of the ordinary and very large radio tower mounted on the roof (as I found out later, both Randy and his Dad were licensed ham radio operators, hence the radio tower). The skull was brightly lit by a light bulb inside of it
As I approached the lamp post, the skull spoke to me: ”Hey you, kid...”
I froze in place instantly...mesmerized and shocked by this talking plastic skull, and I think I may have peed my drawers just a little at something this unexpected (yes I think I did, it's hard to remember...this being over fifty years ago, but I believe I did just that).
“W-what d-do you want” was all I could think to say in reply, that skull sounded to me like it really meant fucking business, and I wasn't about to smart off to it...no sir, not at all.
“Dance for me boy,” the skull said in frightening tones.
“W-wh-whaaat?” was my shocked reply—I was petrified, too scared to move.
“I SAID DANCE FOR ME BOY! HOP TO IT....MOUAHAHAHAHAAAA!”
That skull sounded to my seven year old ears as though it wasn't fucking around, so I got to steppin.’ I danced for the talking skull in the lamp post, I wasn't about to argue with something that in my mind's eye could fly down from it's perch in the lamp post and eat me alive. Then the skull began to play music for me to dance to: “I Told the Witch Doctor” by Alvin and the Chipmunks if memory serves me right. The talking skull would periodically tell me to “step it up some” as I, in my utter terror danced like a little white sawed off version of Mr. Bojangles out there on the sidewalk.
After a few minutes of me dancing around as though my life depended on it, the talking skull magically developed an angry female voice that said; “Honestly Dick, can't you see he's terrified?” while the skull's original voice howled with laughter in the background. Then it was then suddenly cut off in a screech of electronic feedback. A few seconds later, a pretty brunette lady came out of the ranch style house with a bowl full of Halloween candy and an apology and invited me inside. This turned out to be Randy's mom, and this is how I wound up being introduced to Randy and his family.
Dick, (Randy's Dad) was still wiping tears from his eyes and trying to get his laughter under control while Mrs. Dick stood there with her fisted hands on her hips and giving Dick-o the old hairy eyeball. Randy was standing at the entrance to the kitchen with a sheepish grin on his face looking at me. There was a microphone on a stand and an amplifier on the coffee table with a cable running out of the house and buried under the grass and leading out to the lamp post. Turned out this was one of Dick's favorite annual gags, and he'd done it many times before, but not with the kind of memorable results that he got with me. To the best of my knowledge, nobody ever sued Dick because of this, he was lucky that way I suppose.
Randy came over and introduced himself and mumbled an apology concerning his dad and this was the beginning of our long friendship, a friendship that few of my Peoria friends were willing to believe or comprehend...especially when I tried to tell them about the devils in the basement.
Dick was a traveling salesman of sorts. He sold wholesale cosmetics to retail outlets all over the upper Midwest, ramming the roads in his Cadillac Brougham. That Cadillac was Dick's pride and joy, and one of the quickest ways to get under his skin was to refer to his Caddy as “The Broom." This was a guaranteed way to get a wild eyed response from Dick and Randy and his mom would use this repeatedly and with fiendish glee in order to obtain exactly this kind of response from Dick).
I personally saw Dick chase another motorist around a parking lot with a golf club once because he came within an careless inch of putting a scratch on Dick's precious Brougham while he was driving Randy and I to a MacDonald's to get some burgers and fries. Dick, with his smooth bald head, looked like a hybrid cross between Telly Savalas and the actor that portrayed The Amazing Colossal Man—a mostly forgotten B horror movie from the late fifties. Dick could be every bit as scary as the Colossal Man if you screwed with his Brougham, let me tell you.
Dick definitely had a taste for the unusual, and I suppose those twice-life sized paper mache demon heads on the walls of his finished basement / rec room bore testament to that. God only knows where Dick got those devil heads...gifts from a client maybe? Or perhaps he had them custom made...I never asked. All I know is at the age of seven thereabouts, I thought those devil heads were way, way cool! There were at least five of them, and they were real works of art—seriously they would have looked right at home in an art gallery.
With their jutting fangs and their glaring red eyes, they were damned scary looking. And at the very end of the rec room, adjacent to the bar, was a life sized paper mache statue of Satan himself, standing on a paper mache outcropping of rock, and lit from behind with a red spotlight! It was so, so, cool as far as I was concerned but how in hell was I ever going to get all my friends back in Peoria to believe me about this? I know I tried at times, but most never believed me. It was just too wild for most of them to accept.
Dick's rec room had a red color scheme (naturally) with red spotlights recessed into the ceiling for effect. And over to the side wall where the statue of the Dark Lord was standing and recessed into the wall, was a small bar, and just under the bar was a small button with a quarter moon emblem painted on it. That button was hooked up to an air horn from a semi-tractor trailer that was hidden in the wall behind the toilet in the basement bathroom. Dick had a warped, somewhat mean kind of a sense of humor and so did Randy.
Randy got me good with that air horn once. He waited patiently for me to get situated on the toilet while keeping a perfect poker face and then—bam—he hit the button. I left one hell of a big brown stain on the bathroom floor after that little stunt don't you know, and Randy's mom was furious. She made us both clean it up with a mop and a bucket and some paper towels.
On the wall in the back of that bar was a black light painting of hell, complete with damned souls floating on hunks of rock in a river of molten lava, and a demon with a pitchfork and his claw on his chest looking as though he were about to deliver a Dante-esque oratory of epic proportions. It looked so cool when Randy turned on the black light...there are no words. It was fucking wonderland to me, and once a year, when my folks and I would make the trip to Milwaukee to see Grandma, I'd head straight over to Randy's house, and then down to the basement, where we would spend hours hatching our nefarious schemes. That basement rec room was the perfect place for such shenanigans.
Randy had perhaps the best stories to tell of any of my childhood friends. The best one was about the time Dick had decided to get a spider monkey for a pet, and Randy came home one day to the spectacle of that monkey swinging merrily back and forth on the living room light fixture, grinning a fang-filled grin and crapping and pissing on everything in sight. Dick, excitable by nature, went straight to the closet and grabbed a nine iron out of his golf bag and went after the monkey, yelling and screaming at the crazed animal like a lunatic.
The monkey outsmarted Dick, ran into the upstairs bathroom, doubled back and hid behind the door. As Dick burst into the bathroom, his eyes wild and brandishing the nine iron, the monkey jumped on his back and bit off part of his ear. Next thing you know, the monkey was on his way to the animal shelter and Dick was on his way to the emergency room, exercising some choice and highly creative vocabulary that shall not be repeated here. Needless to say, Dick and his monkey became something of a neighborhood legend.
Randy and I were a highly precocious pair. Between the two of us, we found out about all the really cool gadgets and toys long before any of the other kids we knew found out about them and some of them could be pretty dangerous if mishandled. For instance, it was Randy who introduced me to Estes model rockets, but I was the one who figured out how to turn a standard payload carrying rocket kit into a scale model I.C.B.M. with a warhead that really worked!
Please keep in mind that during the 1960's there was a lot of stuff that kids did back then that passed for good clean fun...things that might get you a dossier with the Department of Homeland Security in this day and age. I'm not going to tell you how I managed to turn a balsa wood model rocket nosecone into a warhead that would explode on impact, (I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.) But I will tell you it involved some carving and woodworking skills, a string of paper cap gun caps (remember those?), a small round steel plate the size of a quarter, a ten penny nail and some rifle powder (some of our friends had dads who were into hunting and reloading their used shells, and didn't miss the small amount that we swiped).
I made my first functional I.C.B.M. when I was in junior high school, a couple of years after my move to Minnesota. When I launched it in the athletic field of the school that I attended, it went into a curving arc that took it straight into the side of the school and blew a really nifty hole in the brick wall of the school. Randy would have been impressed had he been there at the time. I grabbed up my six volt battery and my rocket launching apparatus and ran like a weasel. It's possible the cops may still be looking for whoever did that, you never know.
Then there was the time I spent over a month building a scale model of a Saturn 1B—it was a masterpiece and it took over a month to build and detail. This particular model was designed to take four engines that needed to ignite at the same time (a word about Estes rocket engines, they are real solid fuel rocket engines with ceramic nozzles that generate thrust the same way as the solid rocket boosters that NASA uses) if the rocket were to fly properly.
On launch day, I made a big to-do of the affair, and by the time I was set up and ready to go, there was a sizeable crowd of kids at the bottom of the hill I was launching from, with the big kids in the front of the crowd and the little kids forced to the back of the crowd. Dad brought his super 8 movie camera to record the event. The countdown began and dad was rolling film at zero minus seconds when I pushed the button and only one of the engines in the Saturn 1B ignited. Over a month of hard work rose five feet into the air, keeled over on it's side and headed straight down the side of the hill under power and straight for the kids at the bottom of the hill. The big kids, their eyes wide with horror, promptly got up, turned and ran over the little kids getting out of there as the rocket, hissing and flaming like a rabid dragon, bounded down the hill after them. Dad got it all on super eight film, and I know Randy would have given himself a stroke laughing had he been there to see it.
Well, the years went by and after our move to Minnesota our trips to Milwaukee diminished and Randy and I went our separate ways. I graduated from high school and went into the Army, and Randy (from what I've heard from my grandmother and predictably enough) eventually became an engineer
We lost contact over time and a fun and decidedly bizarre period in my personal history came to an end. But I never forgot those times, and a few years back, I found a framed plastic devil head in a gift shop and purchased it immediately when I saw it in honor of the memories of all the fun Randy and I shared in that weird rec room of his. I hung it on the wall of my place and it hangs there still.