TV, as evidenced by this site, is a source of a great many memories for each of us. Often it gets a bad rap for keeping kids inside, when they should be out playing and getting exercise-but sometimes it can actually be the encouraging force that leads to outdoor adventure. Such is my tale for today.
While watching reruns of the old black and white Dennis the Menace TV show on Nickelodeon, I stumbled upon a plot which intrigued me. Dennis was being denied entrance into a secret club that some neighborhood kids had formed called the Scorpions. I guess they could have gone the defunct Stonecutters route and called it the NO-Dennis' Club, but that wouldn't have inspired anyone to join except Good Ol' Mr. Wilson.
I don't remember how Dennis resolved the issue, he probably had that annoying girl Margaret talk "The Scorpions" to death and then took over the organization when their minds had turned to mush. But the resolution of the story was not as interesting to my 8 year old mind as was the original problem: Exclusionary Clubs!
Before this black & white bombshell dropped, I had heard of only a few clubs in my day. Such as: The Get Along Gang, The Babysitter's Club and the Burger King Kids Club. All top notch organizations to be sure, but the element they were lacking was the idea of being secret and exclusionary. What a masterful plan these Scorpions had.
My first attempt at forming my own secret society was a bit uninspired, lackluster if you will. I basically just grabbed my next door neighbor, Kelly, sat in in my front yard and told him that we were now a secret club and would call ourselves The Scorpions. Why not think of a new name you ask? Hey, if it 'aint broke, don't fix it, Hombre.
I assumed that the name "The Scorpions" was long in the public domain since Dennis the Menace was originally on in the 50's and I wasn't yet aware of the Heavy Metal German powerhouse that would soon rock me like a hurricane...in court.
If we weren't original, at least we were exclusionary. With only two members what else could you call us? Our short roster was mostly a result of the fact that the only other person to invite into the fold would have been our 60 year old neighbor Rose, but we figured she might have known the original "The Scorpions" and we couldn't risk having anyone with prior allegiances in the club. In retrospect, the idea of meeting in my front yard was a bit silly, since I actually had a fully functioning clubhouse in my backyard! I guess I thought we couldn't be too obvious by starting a club in a club-house.
Well as fate would have it The Scorpions Mark II didn't last very long. Mostly because the only other member of the club, Kelly, broke into my house and stole my Star Wars toys while my family was away. But I've already chronicled this harrowing tale in a previous retrojunk article "I'm Down With O.P.T.". Go ahead and read it why dontcha?
So Kelly was shamefully stripped of his membership card and official "The Scorpions" multi-colored fanny pack. But the truth is he probably didn't really care since he now had a butt-load of Star Wars toys to play with, while I was standing in my front yard with a multi-colored fanny pack, wondering why I had chosen that to be the symbol of our brotherhood.
Sure I could have recruited new members, but I had already been banned from the kid across the street's house for almost breaking his arm while roughousing (I swear, I thought he was laughing, not CRYING!) But this momentary setback is far from the end of the story.
Once I started Junior High in 1994 I was looking for a group with which to align myself. My elementary School rep was far from desirable and so I had need of a new identity. I had some "School Friends" who I talked to about comic books and The Simpsons in between periods but I hadn't yet made the jump to "Birthday Party Friend" or "Let's Go Play Mortal Kombat Friend".
One day Lawrence S., Lawrence T. and Matt D. came into Humanities class all psyched up and talking about "The Tree". I was listening from afar so I didn't get all the details at first, but I heard them confirm that they would be going to "The Tree" after school. So curious was I that I got up the guts to ask them, "Hey guys, what's The Tree?" They looked at each other and then stared at me blankly, "We don't know what you're talking about".
The next day I noticed that they were talking to my pal Devin E. and in the course of their conversation they ended up inviting him to "The Tree". Hmmm? Now they remembered The Tree, eh? When I asked Devin about it he said they were just going to the local comic shop, no big deal. I was on to them now, for you see the comic shop was called Planet X Comics, not "The Tree". I figured I would have to employ more desperate measures.
In a very tactical move that Friday I invited them all to my house for a Bigfoot Pizza from Pizza Hut and beer, well, root beer to discuss the matter of "The Tree". After dinner, I took them to my backyard where in the shadow of my old clubhouse I asked once and for all to be given the inside scoop.
Surely on a sugar high from the IBC Root Beer (the good stuff) they revealed that upon riding their bikes to Planet X Comics one day they had ridden off the path and found a tree that was completely surrounded by other bushes and foliage. They had made it their secret headquarters. Jackpot!
I asked them if they had a name for their group, if they had a charter, if they had plans beyond simply staking their claim on "The Tree"? They said they didn't, it was just a cool tree they had found. I told them of my previous experience with The Scorpions and suggested that I might be a great asset to the group. I was accepted on a trial basis and soon proved my worth.
This group had all the right ingredients for becoming the most awesome secret organization of the 90's: they had a hidden headquarters, they knew how to keep a secret, all they needed was a little fine tuning.
Just like The Monster Squad we needed a base, like The Goonies we needed something to explore and just like the 3 Ninjas we needed code names. The adventure was about to begin.
In looking for a name to call ourselves by, it was unanimous that the word "Cool" needed to be included in our title. But we needed an added edge to it, so as not to be associated with the semi-animated film Cool World or the Jamaican Bobsled team in Cool Runnings.
So we swapped the C for a K which gave us "Kool". We knew the Kool Kids or Kool School Bunch would get us beaten up (heck, we probably would have beaten ourselves up for that) so we decided to add a hardcore sword-wielding type ending: "-LANDER". Thus was born The KooLANDERS! It's supposed to be prounounced "cool-landers". I know it looks like it would be be "coo-landers", but it supposed to be...ok, we screwed up.
Much as with The Scorpions fiasco, Kool-Aid and The Highlander series could have brought a serious lawsuit against us for copyright infringement, but what were they going to sue a bunch of 13 year olds for? "The Tree"? We didn't own it anyway. Our Magic: The Gathering cards? Lawrence S. had so much Manna he wouldn't have even felt the pinch.
That brings us to the next step: Codenames. There's no way we could have maintained our "Kool" with 2 guys named Lawrence in the group so we had to have friggin' awesome aliases. As evidenced by the great idea of calling a tree "The Tree", this group was not the most creative, so I assigned most of the codenames:
-Devin became "K.B." (short for Knight Blade, a comic book character I had created)
-Matt became "Rust" because his hair was red and he always wore Rusty brand clothing
-Lawrence S. insisted on being called "Leaf", don't ask me why
-Lawrence T. decided he would be "P.G. Steve", short for Party Guy Steve who was a character from the Pizza Head themed Pizza Hut commercials from the era.
-And I became "Hoju" which was short for Homer, Jr. (see my profile for the full origin)
-"The Tree" was re-christened "KooLAND HQ" and the transformation was complete.
The territory we claimed as KooLAND was on the outskirts of a very large city park and adjacent to a very cool drainage pipe which I'll get to in a minute. We would act out this one scenario where one of us was "The Intruder" and the rest of us became "The Hunters". We had some pretty wild melees.
Another pastime was working out ways to avoid the Park Rangers (Hey, Boo-Boo!) since we were in actuality trespassers, but our most memorable adventures were found exploring that very large and spooky drainage pipe which we called The Endless Void.
The entrance to The Endless Void looked like it was some ancient Aztec temple, it had all these levels to it and you would be climbing to get the vine draped opening where a metal gate that looked like it was out of Jurassic Park was waiting greet you.
About 20 feet in all light disappeared and you had to rely on whatever tools you had brought with you. Sometimes we brought flashlights, sometimes fireworks and once we tried to make torches out of rubber cement and old t-shirts, Indiana Jones we were not.
Back then we really never made it farther than about 50 feet in, as we would usually get too freaked out by the total blackness and the belief that "Gangbangers" hung out in pitch black sewer pipes waiting to attack Junior High School kids.
It wasn't until after High School graduation at the KooLand Reunion that we finally made our way to the end of the Void using night vision on a video camera and after entering various chambers of sewery sludge found that we had travelled about 5 miles to Concordia University. Oh, the HORROR!
The KooLANDERS lasted for 2 years so there are a lot of adventures to speak of, but you get the idea. "Leaf" eventually went AWOL after he misinterpreted a meeting time and waited 2 hours for us to show up. When we got there he zoomed by on his bike screaming, "F-you!" except that we heard it as "Vaccum!". He thought we had set him up, it was sad day and he never spoke to us again. I met up with Leaf years later and I asked him if he wanted to come to the KooLAND Reunion, but he was still affected by the "Vaccum" incident and said, "Stay away from me! You and your elves, making cookies in your tree!" That's literally what he said to me.
Leaf was eventually replaced by a new member name "Quickfire" and there were a few adventures like a big rock throwing splash war on the steps of the Endless Void, but it was like Vinnie Vincent joining KISS as the Egyptian Warrior-it was the end of an era.
And to think, all those memories came from watching one episode of Dennis The Menace. So I say thank you to Jay North, but most of all thank you to "The Scorpions" for excluding Jay North from their club. I wouldn't have let him in the KooLANDERS either. There's no room for pretty-boys wearing overalls in our tree.