The God of Felony Flats

Can a street game of flag football change a life?
July 13, 2010
I grew up in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. An area to the southeast commonly referred to as 'Felony Flats.' Personally, I think that makes it sound worse than it was; a middle-class neighborhood with families like mine, concerned about the price of gas, and who shot JR Ewing.

The Lenskis lived around the corner, about three blocks to the north of the beloved split level home I occupied with my family in the 70s and 80s. They lived in a modest but comfortable three bedroom home with a real picket fence, and a gravel driveway with the best basketball hoop in the neighborhood. I say "best," because it actually had a net but although the ground was level, the gravel made for some rather surreal trajectories when it came to dribbling the ball. To this day, I retain a scar on my knee from a failed dunk attempt on the basketball hoop in the Lenski's driveway. If I had been wearing the ankle-length baggy shorts kids today wear, I might have escaped unscathed. But no, I wore the crotch-high, tight, white shorts that kept my voice from lowering and made me look like an escapee from The Village People. That, along with a horizontally-striped red, white, and blue tank top that fit like a cigar wrapper was my basketball uniform of choice. I also proudly sported a pair of red and white sweat bands around each wrist and wore a pair of white Pro-Keds, which only stayed white for about two days after I first laced them up. I deserved scrape up my knee.

I won't bore you with a complete description of the Lenski family except to say that for my best friend Scott and I, John Lenski was a 70s god. John was 17 when we were about 12, but the age difference seemed much more immense at the time. To us, John was an adult - an amazingly cool adult. He was everything we wanted to be and had everything we wanted to have in 1978. He was cool, in the way Hutch from Starsky and Hutch was cool. Blonde, tan, thin, slightly dangerous and yet seemingly in control of his life.

John had a 1974 red Camaro, which he worked on almost as much as he worked on his blonde mane of Ted Nugent-like hair and mustache. It was (the Camaro, not the mustache) a thing of beauty. When started up, it roared like the cannons of Navarone, and rumbled like a Zeus' own thunder cloud. It looked like it wanted to kill something and I was pretty sure it would go from zero to the speed of light in about one second.

I discovered just what the Camaro could do one day when John allowed Scott and I to sit in the back seat of the car while John did a 'test run' to see how his newly installed carburetor was working. Once we were comfortably ensconced in the back seat, enveloped in smoky, black leather, John slowly taxied out onto the street. Even idling, the Camaro chugged like a locomotive. "Peel out!" Scott goaded as we sat at one end of a long straight-away about a mile from home. John revved the engine, cranked up Foghat on his 8-track, and obliged. I remember a cloud of smoke enveloping us as tires squealed to life against the poor, tortured blacktop, and we emerged with our backs pressed so hard against the seat I expected to end up in the trunk. We lurched forward and I distinctly remember feeling like an Apollo astronaut leaving the launch pad. The scenery outside seemed to shake and blur as the engine screamed and the little plastic hula girl glued to the dashboard went into a full convulsive seizure. It was the fastest I had ever traveled as a mortal human being, and I was sure we were about to either die in a fiery crash or escape the bonds of gravity, and either way I just didn't care. Thinking about it now, dying to "Slow Ride" was maybe not the most prosaic way to go (although ironic, maybe).

After what seemed like an eternity of deafening noise and violent vibration, we came to a screeching stop. My heart wanted to jump out of my chest, my stomach was crying like a thumb-sucking toddler in the corner, I was about to vomit, and I began seriously rethinking my career choice of becoming a race car driver. In spite of all that, Scott and I both yelled in our prepubescent falsettos, "Again! Yeeeah! Again!!" And, of course, John obliged again, deftly spinning the car around like Jim Rockford chasing cocaine smugglers, flinging us back into our seats for another stomach-wrenching launch.

This was the kind of thing that endeared John to us, but it was only one of the reasons we loved him. Another reason was because of his room. Somehow, he had managed to turn the attic of the Lenski household into his own private, glorious bachelor pad. You entered John's room by climbing a ladder into the attic (which, in and of itself, was pretty damn cool) emerging into John's room as though escaping through the hatch of a submarine. And what met your eye as you stepped up into the room was a kind of 70s paradise. The whole attic, extending the length of the entire house, was carpeted in lime green and white shag carpet. I'm not talking about the floor alone. I'm talking about the walls too, vaulting upward from each side to the peak of the roof. And this carpet was so thick, it was like someone had plastered the room in sheep. It smelled of the 70s - incense ash, leather, burnt wiring, and Brut cologne. It had the effect of feeling both expansive yet cave-like, with a certain hushed quality. It was so aromatically, acoustically and visually amazing, Scott and I could only stand in quiet reverence at the spectacle we beheld upon our first visit. It was the dimly-lit Cathedral of Cool and we were but humble acolytes.

Pinned to the carpeted walls and ceiling were around twenty posters. If an alien civilization were to visit our planet in a thousand years and wonder what the 70s were all about, all they need to know could be gleaned by a glance at the walls of John Lenski's bedroom. There was Boston, Peter Frampton, Styx, Rush, Journey, and - this almost goes without saying - Farrah Fawcett and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. There was a poster of Uncle Sam in his famous "We Want YOU!" finger-pointing pose, except this version added the phrase "to STOP WAR NOW!" There was even the "Hang In There, Baby" poster, with the kitten clinging to a thin string of yarn.

John had a row of black lights installed along the top beam in the room, which made things like our shoe laces and Farrah's white toothy grin glow like radioactive material.

As you might expect, John had an amazing stereo system. In the 1970s, the best way to judge the overall quality of a stereo system was to look at the size of the speakers (the bigger the better, unlike today). John not only had eight speakers, each the size of a Greyhound bus, he had somehow mounted them to the ceiling (I would later try the same thing in my own room, with disastrous results and some structural damage). The Marantz stereo receiver was always on, and always tuned to the hard rock station. It seemed to generate enough heat to hatch eggs. I used to love hearing the beginning of Fly Like An Eagle, by Steve Miller through John's stereo, that long opening drum fill rolling through the room like a row of five ton dominoes falling over.

John's closet was built into one side of the wall. Inside were enough polyester shirts and bell-bottom pants to make John Travolta weep with envy. Me? I still had Garanimals in my closet.
John slept in a heated waterbed covered with a zebra-striped comforter. Within reach of this was a stack of Mad Magazines and his own, private, miniature refrigerator. A refrigerator in his room! Can you believe it? This was no ordinary fridge. For inside, John kept a small stock of Schlitz Malt Liquor. Never mind that he wasn't old enough to drink; it was there, none-the-less. He never offered us any of his "magic brew," and we never asked. It was enough, at our age, to be in the mere presence of all this beer, rock, shag and polyester Shangri-La.

John had it all. But the one thing he had above the bitchin' Camaro and the ultimate 70s teen bachelor pad was something Scott and I would never have. Her name was Trish. Trish was the Cleopatra to John's Marc Antony. The Josephine to his Napoleon. The Farrah to his Lee Majors. She was the ideal girlfriend of the younger worshipers of a cool 70s high school teenager. Which is to say: she was a real live girl with curves in all the right places who smiled at us sometimes. And, damn, what a smile.

I'm not going to get into a detailed physical description of Trish and all her physical attributes because that's just rude, juvenile, and unnecessary. I'm an adult now, and fully understand that women are not just "objects" to be stared at. But if you were to ask me about her in 1979, I would have gotten shaken up in hormone-saturated teenaged lust, blushed, and looked away shamefully. Scott, perhaps more forthright than I was, would have just said, "Hells bells, what a fox!"

Trish and John were the "It" couple of the neighborhood and we often stopped riding our bikes just to watch them drive away in that Camaro, Trish checking her lip gloss in the visor mirror and tossing her gorgeous brown hair at us as they drove by. She was just one of those girls who always seemed to move in slow motion, like Bo Derick walking out of the surf while Scott and I stared with our jaws hanging open.

When John eventually dumped Trish, Scott and I decided to go to his house to basically say, "Dude! What are you thinking??" Of course we had no such balls to confront John Lenski as to his decisions where women were concerned. After all, what did we know? Maybe she was a bitch. Maybe she was mean to him or didn't like his car. Maybe…ahh, whatever! The girl was the pinnacle of hotness, and it was just hard to understand how John could have left her. In a way, the act itself made him all the more of a hardcore stud to us. We were friends with the guy who dumped Trish Morgan! Still, the break-up sent shockwaves through the neighborhood.

There's one last story to tell about John Lenski, and I've wrestled with just how to convey it. John was our idol for all the reasons I've described above. But it was an incident in June 1979 that actually solidified him as a bonafide mentor in my life, and that shaped a portion of my character as child and adult. And the funny thing is that I'm confident that to this day, wherever John is now, he has no idea…

During the summer, we used to play flag football in the street. John and his brother James were both older and more athletic than Scott and I. So in our two-on-two games, I would often be paired with John, who served as quarterback, while I attempted to use what little agility I possessed to avoid getting flagged and gain some yardage. Our "flags," incidentally, were strips torn from one of John's old greasy mechanics rags, so it was always hard to explain to mom how my hands ended up with engine grease all over them when all we were doing was playing football.

During this particular game, John and I were tied with Scott and James and the hour was getting late. Scott had already been called home for dinner, and I knew I would be called home soon as well; a lukewarm tuna casserole and peach slices on cottage cheese awaiting me.

John and James were highly competitive individuals, and I always felt the need to do my best to help him win against James. Being on John's team could be a blessing or a curse depending on the outcome of the game. He wasn't a good loser, and would often mope for a day or two after a loss. John, being bigger and stronger, often overthrew the ball to me, and being a gangly kid, I wasn't exactly Lynn Swann. But this game had turned into a real slugfest, and I knew John wanted to win, at any cost. Scott and James had already tied the game when Scott eluded me and ran between the two bean bags in the street for a game-tying touchdown.

When John huddled with me on the last play, we were both sweaty and tired. He leaned in and just said two words in a very deliberate tone of voice: "Go long." I hated this, because it meant he was going to launch the ball and I would run like crazy only to watch it bounce wildly on the pavement about ten yards beyond where I was. And as we lined up for the play, I realized that, unlike most times, James was going to cover me this time, instead of Scott. James; fast, mean, rough, and built like a tank. He was more than willing and ready to send me scraping onto the pavement without an ounce of remorse.

Too late to protest. "Hut, hut, HUT!!" and I was off, down the street, prepared for the worst. James was matching me step for step, but - I noticed - huffing and puffing like a locomotive. I was a scrawny kid, but my lack of heavy musculature was paying off; I was gradually outpacing him. A few yards down the street, I glanced back to see John side-step Scott easily, and launch the ball into the air like an Apollo rocket. I instantly knew I wouldn't catch this pass. This pass was like a Kenny Stabler hail Mary pass. It was going to end up in the next zip code. It was showing up on NORAD's radar. As the ball began its decent from the ionosphere, I heard John shout from behind me. And what he said changed me as a person. "You're going to catch it, so run your f*$&ing legs off!" The voice was desperate, intense, and certain. It was also cursing, which always scared me as a kid. I wasn't used to being sweared at. Of course I didn't have time to think about this. Nor did I realize that I was going to be a different person by the time the ball came down. All I knew was that, yes, I was going to catch the ball, and yes, I was going to run my legs off doing it. Somehow, I flushed my legs with a fresh supply of adrenaline and, despite feeling like I was about to collapse, I kicked my scrawny legs into a higher gear, left James behind me, and leaped forward, hands outstretched, as the ball plunked into my fingers. I cradled the ball like I'd caught a baby falling out a three story window, and slid about eight feet along the rough pavement.

I got to my feet, bloodied, bruised, and, for one of the few genuinely rewarding times in my life, victorious. Looking back up the street, I saw John leap into the air yelling, "Yeah! Yeah! Yeeeeeah!" I didn't receive a high five or get carried around the neighborhood. But John looked me in the eye as I staggered back, poked me hard in the chest, grabbed me by the shirt and quietly said, "I TOLD you, you'd catch it." That, such as it was, was the high point of my summer.

Kind of a silly story, maybe. But it was a life lesson for me. Every so often, life launches a hail Mary pass in my direction. It often seems so far away and unreachable that I just want to sit down and give up. The older I get, the more I realize that life's full of such passes, and to be perfectly honest, you won't catch most of them. But the odds don't change the fact that there are ultimately two kinds of people. Those who throw themselves against the pavement with their arms outstretched, and those who don't. When life throws a pass my way, I know I have a decision to make. That's when John Lenski's voice enters my head and reminds me that, yes, I am going to catch that pass. Even if I have to run my f&$%@ legs off.
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