Heathens and Hellions

Sonora, California 1948 Dad left their guidance to the Church, Mom left it to the winds. Their children ran through the house like heathens and hellions, and not only did they have the run of the house, they had the run of the town. Most summer days the three older ones spent Kelleytheir time exploring and swimming, roller skating the cracked sidewalks, and riding their bikes up and down the steep hills. Claudia tried to keep up, but she was too little. The rest of the time they spent terrorizing each other. Across the creek, Kelley’s Central Motors sold new and used cars, mostly Chevrolets, and the mechanics working there witnessed the kids’ shenanigans. While Mom and Dad were at work, it was free rein for the pack of wild animals who passed themselves off as children.

Larry, Carleen, Betty, Claudia, 1948

Larry, Carleen, Betty, Claudia, 1948

At twelve and thirteen, things changed between Carleen and Larry. It became the three girls, Carleen, with Betty (who was seven) and Claudia (who was five), against Larry. He was now a young boy with too many sisters whose sole purpose in life was to torment him. They were constantly sneaking into his room, so Larry talked Mom and Dad into letting him put a padlock on his door. However, no lock could stop Carleen and her two skinny-legged little minions. The next time Larry was off working, she pulled a chair into her closet, balanced a stack of books on the seat and then herself on the stack, removed the wallboard between the two bedrooms, hauled herself up, pulled up her two younger sisters—Claudia first so Betty could help push her—then wormed through the crawlspace. Dropping one-by-one down into Larry’s adjoining closet, they were now locked in his room. They whiled away the afternoon on his bed, reading his diary and comics, rifling through his coin and stamp collections, chewing his gum and pilfering his money.

When they heard him coming down the hall, his key in the padlock, they realized there wasn’t enough time to climb back through the closet. The door swung open. At first they laughed nervously, but Larry was mad, madder than they had ever seen him.

“Run!” Carleen hollered. She and her two shadows, their four bony legs scrambling after her, terrified they’d be left behind, escaped through his unlocked door while he surveyed his crumpled gum wrappers, spilled coins, and scattered magazines. He hated that he had no control, resented that he had no privacy, and was furious that he had no peace. Squealing and howling, the girls raced to the bathroom, the only room in the house with a real lock. Panting behind the bolted door, Betty and Claudia cowered in the corner. Carleen lay in wait.

“Shhh, be quiet,” she whispered, filling a glass with water. When she heard Larry coming full speed down the hall she sloshed the glassful under the door. As his soles hit the wet linoleum he slid right past the door, crashing feet first through the white balusters of the banister.

He was determined. Silently climbing through the double window in our parent’s bedroom and onto the sloped ledge of the Sonora house croppedporch roof, Larry crept toward the single opened bathroom window. Carleen heard the scrape of the double hung window opening. She was ready, and threw another glassful of water onto the roof, making the moss shingles slick as snot. When Larry hit the wet moss he slid right off the second story roof, sailed passed the first story, and landed on the grass below. Because of the roof overhang they couldn’t see or hear a thing; no splat, curse, nor cry. Less concerned that Larry was dead and more terrified of what Dad would do to them if he was, they raced screeching through the hall, down the stairs, and through the front door, their dirty, bare feet pounding over the painted front porch, the pockets on their cotton jumpers catching the wind.

“C’mon,” Carleen commanded her corps.

Skidding to a halt in front of the old tree, they examined the earth and spied only lazy sowbugs. A lizard skittered away. The ants continued their maneuvers as if nothing had happened. The scrub jays took wing to the phone wires, away from the disturbance.

The girls shrieked bloody murder when Larry, resurrected, leapt from his hiding place. He was going to wring their necks before Dad had a chance, but he couldn’t catch them: each headed in a different direction.

The mechanics at Kelley’s, raising their heads from under car hoods, drinking coffee and smoking, looked on. “Little hellions,” they’d mutter through their cigarettes. They were used to the comings and goings of these kids with no parents at home, accustomed to the banging windows and slamming doors of the old wood house across the creek. They thought nothing about a kid falling off the roof. Lowering their heads, they disappeared back under their hoods.

An unpublished excerpt from the full book, BEHIND THESE DOORS, A FAMILY MEMOIR.
© August 2016, Catherine Sevenau

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  1. Pat Brown says:

    What a great story—so real it has to be true, and evokes so many memories, as like Michael and I grew up in 1965 on a farm in Nebraska. I had three younger siblings, and my brother Bill (now called John) and I were one family, and our younger sister and brother lived in a different family. We do not share the same memories as a foursome. I love your writing and thank you for sharing it with me.

  2. I love the way you write Catherine. As I was reading I was transported through time and felt like I was right in the middle of the shenanigans. My older sister and I tormented my little brother too.

    • Thank you Bonnie. My brother and sisters told me the stories and I tried to write them as if I was there. I was born the year that picture was taken, right around the time of the story.

  3. Thank you Jeff, and would love to hear the story. Looking forward to seeing you in October. Who knew we’d be having this conversation fifty years down the road?

  4. Jeff Elliot says:

    I love your story telling! It’s so simple and clear, and yet it somehow evokes a world of my own memories. I had three brothers, and despite an at home and very disciplined Mother, we also had our ongoing battles. Remind me to tell you the story of the ‘last fight’ when I see you in October. Thanks for gifts you send out in your blog! Jeff

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