The Toil of Tic Tacking
“What time yinz going tic tacking Joey?”
“Probably ‘bout seven…seven-thirty, just show up at Eddie’s house at seven. Hey, you got room in your sack for more corncobs?”
“Yeah, I got room. Wow! We have a lot of corn to rake we get back,” Rich responded.
Joey Retter and Rich Canato were years apart in age, but not in mischievous thinking. The two neighborhood friends were tearing dried corn cobs from the farthest rows of stalks on Miller’s Farm. Dano, Joey’s younger brother was the look-out for Old Man Miller, who would sometimes take a late drive to see anyone was stealing from his cornfield.
The late October evenings would tend to lend a lease to kids from the N. Belle Vernon area to scare people, especially those who owned a house with aluminum siding, with throws of dried corn at their homes. The approaching Halloween holiday gave way for kids to spray random homes with bags full of bullet sounding corn crashing on their windows or sidings.
“Let’s go,” Dano whispered from a path that leads to the now barren circle of cornstalks.
“Yeah, I think we’re good,” Joey said to Rich.
The three walked through the red and gold fall foliage of the woods and onto a street in the direction of their neighborhood. A brisk breeze moved into N. Belle Vernon as the once clear sky began to fold with deep blue hues of the early evening.
“Are we going to rake this corn at your place, or over at Eddie’s?” Rich asked.
“What do you mean ‘we’?” Dano answered. “You’re not going with us tonight.”
“Why?” Rich said.
Dano looked over to Joey with his eyebrows raised over the rim of his glasses, “He’s not coming with us tonight.”
“C’mon Dano,” Joey responded as he moved the sack from his right shoulder to the left.
“You’re too young Richie. Go find friends your own age. Imagine what will happen if we get caught with an eleven year old, for Christ sakes, what will happen if his parents find out?” In his rant, Dano rolled his eyes at Rich and then removed the sack he carried.
Rich lowered his head because he knew Dano was right. When his brother was at home, he’d bring Rich with him sometimes to tag along, but not always. His brother graduated from the high school two years earlier in 1982 and left the small Western Pennsylvania town for the Airforce. Rich realized that the boys in the neighborhood were older, closer to his brother’s age. Although the Retter brothers and others would let him play with them at the park or pick-up games in the neighborhood, an invitation to roam the streets of N. Belle Vernon on any given night was not offered. Thus, Rich’s eagerness to enter the social clique was apparent, but more so on this evening.
“I won’t tell anyone, I promise. It’s cool.” Rich said.
Joey stopped and said, “C’mon Dano, let it go.”
“No,” Dano said.
The brothers became tangled on the idea of Rich tagging along. Joey dropped the sack to the ground and told Dano that he was finished arguing. He picked up the sack and his pace as he left Dano and Rich in a stare down before Dano delivered Rich an ultimatum: “You wanna go? Ok, I, that is, we, have an initiation to go tick tacking with us. Give me those raggedy shoes.”
“You heard me.”
Reluctantly, Rich took off his shoes in the expectation that this ‘initiation’ would be painless and prudent.
“Here. Man the ground is cold. Ok, now what?”
Dano placed his sack on the ground and held Rich’s shoes in the air. “Look at these Blue Light Specials, didja get these at Kmart?” Dano said with a laugh that continued with more comments, “I know you bought your shoes on Sunday because these are holier than thou.” He looks down at his socks, “You have sacred socks as well.”
“So much for the painless part,” Rich thought. He then he realized that Dano was just tying his shoe strings in a knot. He placed his hand out as Dano held the knotted pair.
“Do you wanna go with us tonight?”
Rich answered “Yes,” and stepped forward to retrieve his shoes when the unthinkable happened…
Dano tossed his ‘Blue Light Specials’ into the darker blue sky as they passed the backdrop of a barren Buck-eye tree. The shoes turned like a minute and hour hand of a clock gone haywire. While gravity pulled the shoes down, it also punched Rich in the stomach with regret for this rite of passage. His shoes landed on a powerline…and that’s when the time stopped for him.
He stared at his shoes in disbelief. He then stared at Dano who was wearing a smirk as he walked away. Rich shook his head and said, “Dano, you’re leaving my shoes up there?”
Dano passed the Buck-eye tree and what he deemed as Rich’s rhetorical question: “Be at Eddie’s place, like Joey said.”
Rich walked two blocks home, most of it along the shoulders of damp gravel alleys on a layer of sodden socks. He entered the porch of his house where an older pair of shoes was on the steps. Rich discretely changed and walked into the kitchen for dinner. An hour later, with his initiation at large on the powerline, he saw Eddie and the Retter brothers at the corner of Eddie’s house.
“Who invited you?” Eddie said as Rich approached.
“We’re not doing this again.” Joey said. “He’s coming with us.”
“I passed the initiation,” Rich eagerly said, “and I’m ready to rake the corn for tic tacking.”
“What initiation?” Eddie said, “We already raked the corn.”
The three followed Rich’s hopeless eyes as he looked at a silent Dano, who broke the stares and picked up his bag of corn, only to say, “Joey invited him.”
A perplexed Rich began to speak when Eddie cut him off, “Regardless, here’s the plan.”
Rich spoke up, “What about my corn.”
“I’ll share my bag with you Rich, go ahead Eddie,” Joey answered.
“Thanks,” Eddie said with a serious overtone: “The plan is to go to a house near the cemetery. From there, we’ll go to the elementary school and then make our way back here.”
“Why go outta the way to the cemetery?” Joey asked.
“It’s my English teacher house, Mr. Kopinski,” Eddie responded. “If we get separated in a chase from anyone, meet back here, but don’t go to knocking on my door. Go the back where the cellar door is located, not the den, but the cellar.”
“How do we know which door is the cellar?” Rich asked.
“It has a sword engraved on it.” Eddie answered.
“Ok, let’s go,” Dano said.
While the four boys walked toward the cemetery, Rich asked about the sword marking to Joey. “He’s into that whole Renaissance Era thing, just be sure to meet there if we get chased.”
The boys stood, stealth-like, on a street parallel to the cemetery, Eddie gave instructions on how they would strike the home of Mr. Kopinski: “Dano, you go to the right side; I’ll go to the front. Joey, you go to the left and Rich, you hit the house from the back, but remember, don’t forget about the clothes-line in the back yard. I’ll throw first, and then everyone else attack. We’ll meet behind Vernon’s Drugstore before we head to the elementary school.”
Rich grabbed a handful of corn from Joey’s bag, stepped under the clothes-line, and raised his arm to throw while he waited for the sound of tic tacking to hit from Eddie.
Rat-tat-tat-tat! Eddie ran…
Rat-tat-tat-tat! Dano and Joey ran…
Mr. Kopinski turned on his back porch light as Rich released his corn.
The Rat-tat-tat-tat was followed by Mr. Kopinski calling out the tic tackers. Joey ran by Rich laughed and dipped under the clothes-line. Rich looked back as Mr. Kopinski called them out once more with a threat to call the police. He forgot about the clothes-line…
Rich’s feet lifted as he landed on his back. There he lay in a lateral spread atop the damp blades of grass on Mr. Kopinski’s lawn. He looked up at a bony silhouette tree while he held his neck with both hands. Everyone ran away while Rich was momentary incapacitated. He wore the mark of the clothes-line on his neck from a deep scratch that caused minor bleeding. Mr. Kopinski saw him on his lawn, because Rich grunted as he got up, and a flash light beam bounced off his body from the back porch. Mr. Kopinski yelled to his wife, “I got one of them Hellen.” But as he stepped down, Rich stepped out of the yard and bolted from the scene.
Eddie and Dano realized something was wrong when Joey and Rich hadn’t arrived at the drug store. Eddie was notably angry; Dano was nodded his head as he stated that Rich shouldn’t have been with them.
“We need to go back to cellar and meet,” Eddie said.
“What! Fuck that little kid,” Dano said.
“What about your brother? We gotta go back, that’s the plan. We gotta see if they arrive, ‘cause if they don’t that’ll mean the police will be around look for tic tackers,” Eddie demanded.
Inside the cellar basement, the two sat around for a long 10 minutes before the door opened. Rich entered…
“Holy shit, Kopinski cut his throat.” Dano said.
“Man look at the blood on his shirt. What the hell happened?” A shocked Eddie said.
Rich held his new identity of manhood with two hands as he walked closer to explain what happened. In his mind he grew a tale of torture that would make his tic tacking experience one that would not be forgotten. It wouldn’t last long…
Joey entered the cellar: “You ok?” he said to Rich. “I never saw anyone get clothes-lined. I waited in the cemetery to see if you were going to be ok, than you ran, so I ran too, but I couldn’t find anybody.”
“Wait a minute,” Dano said. “Take this wash cloth,” he said to Rich.
“No I’m fine.” Rich responded in preparation to present his story.
Dano wiped his neck and said, “Hey man…it’s a scratch. He’s got no bad cut.”
Rich stood there as the three laughed before they told him to clean up and get ready to go tic tacking.
“Yinz taking me with you?”
“Yeah,” Dano said, “but I still think you’re too young.”
“You owe me a pair of shoes Dano.”