The Rough Boys and Treasure
Although it was steemin' hot and
quite late in October, Spiderman would not make for the shade.A
guard never leaves his post.So he stood by the entrance and
waited, his eyes looking up the block, his feet placed solidly on
the pavement, his intentions steadfast.He was like a large grey
rock. To him, guarding was more than a job.It was his duty.And,
as someone once said, "Dooty is dooty, to be sure."
Finally at 3:30 they showed up at
the end of the block on Alondra.Small they were and a little hard
to make out.But he knew it must be them.Besides, who else walked
together in threes all wearing white uniform shirts?It was them
They were, from left to right, or
from short to tall, whichever you choose:Juan Plata, short and
precious, his head buried in a book, Billy Huesos, taller and
almost skeletal, and Israel Manos, the leader, probably because
he was tallest of all.They were rough boys. They were the nicest
in the hood.It depended on who you talked to.
Israel pushed open the gate saying,
"Hi Spiderman." Billy patted him on the head as he walked
by.Johnny said nothing.Like I said, his head was buried in a
book.Spiderman wagged his tale.Now they would let him off his
chain.Now he could play or chew on a bone. His charges were home
The lot was there in East Rancho
Dominguez.Don't get me wrong.It sounds rural, all old
California.It's not.It's right next to the armpit of L.A.,
Compton.No one would stay there if they had the money to move
out.Not if they were in their right mind.So the boys lived in
Rancho Dominguez but they went to Roosevelt Middle School just
five blocks away in Compton.Still, the lot where they played
wasn't bad.It had a lot going for it.That's why they were
Number one it was safe.The
surrounding cement block walls plus guarding by Spiderman made it
so.Nowadays they'd call it a "safe haven."And there was
supervision.Juan's grandpa lived there in a trailer on one end,
one of those silver Airstream jobs.
It was much safer
than the park on Atlantic Avenue.There was no dope dealing or
scoring going on and no gangsters.The only crack pipes they found
were only there because people out on the street had thrown them
over the wall trying to hide the evidence just before getting
hassled by the Compton Sheriffs. Even then they'd be
broken.Gramps would have to clean them up with a broom.Naturally
he complained to Israel when it was his turn to hold the dustpan.
Being old he complained a lot.
" I got better
things to do than sweep up broken glass," he'd say, " at least
the junkies eat their bags of tar."
"Whadda you expect
the crack heads to do?" Israel replied, "Eat glass?"He was such a
The only other
problem was when they'd have to repaint the outer walls when
tagging crews from the 7Os would cross out the graffiti of the
CGs, or that of Lime Hood.But that was cool.Gramps had plenty of
paint.Juan would often do the job, trying to get kids in the hood
to help him, trying to convince them it was fun.He probably
thought he was Tom Sawyer or something.Always had his head in a
book.But lots of paint wasn't the only thing they had.They had
junk, plenty of junk.Other parks had leaky water fountains, rusty
swing sets, yellow grass and cigarette- butt sand boxes but they
had more than that. They had junk.
They sat down as
they always did at the round wooden spool table.Here they ate
lunch on Saturdays, had councils of war on Sunday night, and
plotted play the rest of the week. This was a Monday.So what
would it be?
"Cops and drug
fiends?" said Billy.
"King Arthur and
his Knights?" said Israel, "We already got the table."
They both looked at
Juan for his suggestion.None came.He was silent in his
"Oh shit," said
Israel, "he's deep in it again."
Billy knew what
this meant.Juan was deep in his book and wouldn't come out.He
wouldn't talk.No response. Not unless you broke the code.It
couldn't be done unless you knew the key.
Billy leaned over
and peered at the cover.
"What is it this
time?" asked Israel.
Treasure Island," he replied.
"Then we're in for
a quiet spell.I know nothing about it."
Israel sat back,
crossed his arms, put his fist under his chin and pondered.Juan
was so hard to reach when he was like this.He wouldn't come out
'till he finished, or until you spoke to him like a character in
the book. Sometimes it lasted a chapter.Sometimes it was the
whole book.He looked over.It wasn't too thick this book.
"Wadda you think?"
"I think we're
gonna hafta wait," he replied.
"But I gotta go
home in an hour. Just break the code," he pleaded.
"Like I said, I
know nothing about it.I'll never find the key in time."
Any code breaker
knows that to break a code you have to know the key.For Juan the
key was in the book.If, somehow you could talk to him through the
book, you'd break the code and he'd snap right out of it.But
Israel knew nothing of the book.Not too many seventh- graders had
read a novel.In class, when the teacher asked, "Now who here has
read a novel?Raise your hands." Only one hand went up out of
thirty-six kids.Thirty-six.And it wasn't like he had a copy of
Cliff's notes in his back pocket.He checked.
"I suggest," he
said to Billy, "we make it two, Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain.King
Arthur here is busy."
So they found two
sticks of appropriate length, followed by two garbage-can lids
with appropriate shine, and repaired to Camelot, which was on the
other side of the lot, leaving King Arthur at his round table,
neatly wrapped up between the pages of Stevenson.
Two days later he
was still the same.They sat at the table again.But this time
watched.Billy turned to Juan and said, "Is that you Black
At this Spiderman's
ears went up.
"Not you Spiderman,
you're grey. Sit down boy.
He turned back to
"It is you Jim
brightened but he didn't respond.He did however lower the book a
intently.He sensed Billy had something up his sleeve.
"Watch this," he
said."Is that you Long John Silver?"
He put down the
book immediately, faced him and said, "Yes my lad, said he; such
is my name to be sure.And who may you be?"
He'd broken the
code.Israel was flabbergasted.How had he done it?He asked him
"I lucked out.I was
watching Disney's re-runs last night.They had on his first color
movie,Treasure Island.It was good too.It was about a pirate, Long
John Silver and about a treasure
So that was it. Now
Juan was talking.The problem was he was only talking like Long
John Silver. But at least that was something. From now on they
would have to call him John or Johnny. He would pay attention to
them, sometimes nodding in agreement, sometimes shaking his
head.If the situation fit, he'd talk, but only like Silver.It
wasn't much but it was something.
was no surprise that Johnny was dressed as a pirate. He even had
a stuffed bird, an old cat toy, glued to his shoulder.When they
asked him about it he said,
"I calls my parrot
Cap'n Flint, after the famous buccaneer."
No matter who he
thought he was, or how he dressed, he got no more candy than the
rest. A pirate can't pirate more candy than a criminal or a
ghost. They knew this because they counted it all right there on
the table, "dividing up the spoils" they called it.Even the
others had got into the spirit.After Halloween they found new
things to get into, new treasures.The grandpa would watch them
and fill the lot with the treasures he brought back each weekend
when he went collecting on trash day.When he was a boy people
called him a trash-picker.Now they called him "green".It
"I can't see why
they call an old fart like me green," he said, "It just don't
make no sense."
He went out on
weekends collecting junk.The boys would help him sort it out when
he got back.The lot was full of it.Old refrigerators, spools of
copper wire, glass antique door knobs turning purple in the
sun.New stuff every week.One day he came home with two large gray
"Come help me lift
'em out boys," he said, "they're mighty heavy."
They placed them
against the wall.
"What are these
Gramps?" Israel asked.
"Hell if I know,"
he shook his head, "but they're full of somethin'.Heavy things
are often valuable. 'Less they're rocks of course. Some of them's
valuable too, like diamonds, rubies, and such.Billy looked at the
cylinders. They were a dull grey and marked army.
"Well," said Billy
"if weight makes 'em valuable, those things must be a
Johnny didn't have
to agree aloud.His aching muscles told him it must be
The next day at the
round table Israel made an announcement.
"I know what's in
the bottles,' he said, 'it's helium.My mother bought some
balloons from the 99 cent store.Helium bottles are all the same
color.And I got better news, this!"
With that he
removed two packs of 99 cent balloons from his pocket and waved
"You're a lad, you
are, but you're smart as paint," said Johnny, "I seen that when
you first come in."
Their fate had been
decided.They became balloonists. They proceeded to fill the sky
of Compton, Rancho Dominguez, and Paramount with balloons.Who
knows where else they drifted.Red ones there were and blue,
yellow, and green. Naked balloons and one with strings. Then they
tied dirty notes to them and sent them aloft.I'm sure whoever
read them was shocked. Like I said, they were rough boys.
One day Gramps
said, "Winter's coming on and I need an Army field jacket.Want to
For a boy of
thirteen an army surplus store is impossible to turn down.They
all answered yes except Johnny. He said,
"Thank you kindly
sir," and saluted.
While Gramps was
looking for a jacket they foraged through the canteens, steel
helmets and backpacks hoping to find a Luger, or a Walther
P38.Israel found something even more valuable, a stash of surplus
air force weather balloons.Huge ones.
"Do you know what
we could do with these?!" said Billy.
Of course they all
"If we was only
rich." Israel said with a sigh.They knew what could be done with
them as much as they knew they were broke.
As they drove home
Gramps noticed they were quiet for a change, like they were lost
The next day they
were attaching toy soldiers to the strings instead of nasty
notes.It might have gone on that way forever, or until the gas
ran out, but Billy changed all that when he announced one day
that he'd seen a movie called Danny Deckchair.
continued over their round-table discussion, "the guy attached
his balloons to a chair just like ours and took off!"
he flies right away!"
They bought two
packs, filled up 10 balloons and attached them to the
chair.Nothin.,Ten more.Nothin. Twenty more and it hadn't moved an
inch. The next day the news was even worse when Israel
"I googled it
during computer lab and you know how many balloons it takes?Four
party balloons.But it would take only four the size of the ones
we saw at the surplus store."
"Yeah," said Billy,
" but we can never afford it.That's twenty bucks!"
Just then Johnny
walked up.He could see they were obviously sad about
"Why there you all
are together, like a happy family, in a manner of speaking."
There's nothin' like a sarcastic pirate.
They told him what
they'd found out and how impossible it all seemed.
"I know when a
game's up, I do; and I know a lad that's staunch."
Israel took heart
from his words.
"I'm a staunch lad
I am," he said, "and I'm not going to give up.We can do this
He looked at them
both and stood up straight and looked even taller than
"We can do this
thing if we really want to.Once we set our course I'd hate to be
the man who'd stand in our way.Let's do it men."
"We can split the
price three ways," offered Billy, "What man of us can't raise
"But dash my
buttons!" said Johnny.
then.It shall be done.We'll sign articles on it."
"By the powers,"
said Johnny, "but this tops the stiffest yarn to nothing!"
And so it was
A week later they
all had the money.Billy got it from taking back dead car
batteries to Liberty Battery on Atlantic Avenue where they
rebuilt them. Gramps had two in the yard.He got the last one with
a five finger discount from a dusty car parked in an alley.They
weren't going anywhere anyway.Johnny got his money up when he cut
up some soap and bagged it up.A dealer who posted up in a garage
worked through a hole in the garage door. When he left for lunch
Johnny took his place.He sold it as a dime to a crackhead.He
figured he was doing him a favor.Israel got a pizza from
Two-for-One Pizza on Alondra.Someone had ordered a big one right
before closing time and never picked it up.Wonder who it was?He
happened to stop by and picked it up for free. They knew him
there. Then he went door to door and sold the big one for a
dime.They took it at the third door he went to. So the money was
up.They were rough boys.
For the ship they
choose the lightest aluminum armchair they had, the one that
"We should name our
craft," said Billy, "people name boats and aircraft all the
time.We'll name her," he said looking at Johnny, "the
Hispaniola."Being Hispanic, all three were of one mind.So the
Hispaniola she was.They attached thick nylon cord for the
balloons and stepped back to look at her. She was completely
makeshift, totally unsteady, and no doubt dangerous. So they
loved her to death.I've known women who were the same.
"Ah, she's a
handsome craft, she is," said Johnny.It was a sentiment shared by
There was only one
thing more to decide.Who'd sail her?She'd stand only one.
"That's got to be
either you or Johnny," Israel said looking at Billy, "I'm too
heavy.I guess you'll have to flip."
They flipped and
fate sealed it in a flash, snap, just like that.It was Billy.
Johnny's face showed instant disappointment.But he was one of the
crew.He'd share equally in the glory no matter how small he
was.They'd signed articles.
"Shall we launch it now, or shall we wait?It's almost
Johnny answered, "
Wait is what I say; but when the time comes, why let her
It was decided
then.They'd launch it in the morning.
was clear and warm.Spiderman had assumed his post.He didn't know
it was Saturday.So when he saw some figures down the block
approaching, not wearing white uniform shirts, and not at the
proper time, he was a bit disconcerted. He stood at
attention.When they got close enough to make out he saw it was
the three alright, but not dressed as usual. Israel Manos looked
almost the same, but walked with a measured pace, a bullhorn in
his hand.Billy Huesos had on a steel army helmet and was wearing
fatigues and a BB pistol in a holster. Johnny Plata had on his
tri-cornered hat from Halloween, the stupid cat-toy bird Captain
Flint plastered on his shoulder, and a wide belt with a plastic
cutlass looped through it.They were keeping step together like
soldiers on parade.
Israel pushed open
the gate and said seriously, "We expect you to do your duty today
Spiderman."Billy patted him on the head with his gun hand.Johnny
said nothing even though his head was not in a book."Dooty is
Dooty, to be sure." thought Spiderman.This day was going to be
different. Spiderman went on high alert. They marched to the
launch site and grabbed the helium canisters.
his helmet.Johnny straightened his parrot.Israel checked the
batteries in the bullhorn.They began filling the balloons.They'd
fill up pretty quick. Attached by the nylon cord the first one
rose skyward until it peaked over the wall. That left three to
go.Number two wasn't any harder.The chair rose about two feet,
straining on the ropes attached to the stakes in the ground, the
"You better get in now," said Israel, "me and Johnny can handle
it from here."
Billy got in.He was
beginning to sweat.The chair settled back down immediately. The
ground wires went slack.
matter?" he bawled.
"We still got two
to go.Don't worry.It's just your weight." said Israel.
They filled up
number three.Still nothing.Ground wires slack, movement
nothing.Still, Billy sweat even more. He wasn't sure this was
going to work.
"We still got one
left," announced Israel.The three balloons, attached as they were
by six foot ropes to the arms of the chair were in the air now
and way over the height of the wall. People on the street were
beginning to take notice.That wasn't good.
They started to
fill the last balloon. Johnny's eyes were as big as saucers.This
afternoon was going to be big he just knew it.Israel grabbed the
bullhorn and announced to Spiderman,
alert, don't let anyone in.It's almost launch time."
"What did he say?Why's he telling me to stay alert?I'm always
alert for lunch. It's my duty.Dooty is dooty , to be
And he had a duty
to perform as now a crowd was forming outside the gate. It was a
chain-link gate and he could see right through.Men were carrying
their children there on their shoulders. Women were pushing their
babies in strollers there to see what was going on.Soon the
police would probably come.
The last balloon
had filled.The ground wires were straining but not enough.The
wind was flexing them.Slack then taut, slack then taut.Sweat was
running down Billy's face in torrents.
"What the Hell's
the matter?" he bawled.
"The weight's too
much," Israel answered.The balloons are full!We got to cut down
on the weight!"
Outside, a crowd
was heading toward the gate.A police siren started wailing off in
Billy knew what he
had to do.He jumped off.The ground wires went taut again. They
were under unbelievable strain.He pulled out his gun and turned
"It's all your
fault," he said, "so you've got to face the consequences.He
stepped towards him with the gun.Then he handed it to him.
"When you want to
come down," he said, "just shoot a balloon or two.They're BBs,
not pellets, the holes should be small.She should come down real
Johnny took it from
him with care and placed it in his belt.A friend is a friend even
if he is a rough boy.The siren stopped.A black and white had
pulled up to the gate.
Johnny looked at
the balloon.Three seconds earlier he would have never considered
sitting in the deck chair.Three seconds later he couldn't imagine
having sat anywhere else.
They cut the ground
lines and he was off.It may be noted by fans of Stevenson that
this was the first time the Hispaniola, carrying Long John Silver
and Captain Flint, set sail since her first voyage in 1883.It
only confirms my suspicion that such risky occupations such as
treasure seekingare not exclusive to any age, be it of man or
Asthe ship with
balloon sails ascended, Long John looked down. Two sheriffs were
approaching the lift off point and the two remaining rough
boys.He shouted down,
"Did any of you
gentlemen want to have it out with me?"
But he never heard
their answer.The men, the boys, even massive Spiderman were
getting too small now.He could see the whole block, then two
blocks, then more.Soon he could see from Alondra to Compton
Boulevard. At first he was scared, being up so high.But now
everything appeared like a model train set.Look, the tiny cars
were there.Then there were the tiny trees.And look, there was the
train too.Everyone knows Compton was on the other side of the
tracks, the wrong side.And so it was.He could see it quite
clearly, though it was getting smaller and smaller.The only
problem was, how could he steer a course for Treasure Island?But
not to worry, the wind would see to that.
Treasure Island was out at sea next to Catalina.It wasn't. It
must be inland somewhere, as that's where the wind was carrying
him.It took him up near some big smog-congested city, then over
green hills.That's when he caught a glimpse of it.The
Yes, that must be
it.He was in the right place.Because couldn't he see birds?It
looked like large pink birds.He turned to Flint, who was still on
his shoulder and said,
"Ah, "says he,
"this here is a sweet spot, this island- a sweet spot for a lad
to get ashore on.It's a pleasant thing to be young, and have ten
toes, and you may lay to that."
He took the gun out
of his belt, and shot one balloon.He descended slowly, just a bit
at a time. Yes, they were tropical birds!He'd seen pictures of
them.They were flamingoes. And there were the trees.Certainly
trees like that never grew in Compton!And there were other
animals too he'd never seen before.So this must be the place . It
was surrounded by water as any island should be.And there was an
open area where he could land.He made another shot as he drifted
over it.He came down same as before, and landed with a gentle
thump. Now he'd unbuckle the seatbelt and disembark.But he had
one problem.His seatbelt was stuck.He thought he had all the time
in the world to get it loose but he didn't, because behind the
log right in front of him, just catching his scent, was a full
grown male Bengal tiger.What was he doing on an island?Nothing.He
wasn't on an island.He was right at home in the L.A. zoo.So he
got up to investigate. You can imagine how shocked he was to find
a young tender pirate there on his island surrounded by its
moat.He wondered just how he'd got there.He wondered again just
what was it about this young tender pirate that smelled so
good?He decided to find out.
Long John saw the
tiger.He was too terrible, too big, and much too close for his
liking. Right now you probably think the Juan in him was
trembling.It wasn't.The Long John in him wouldn't let it.He was
as cool as a sea cucumber.The tiger was within two feet.His
whiskers were as thick as pencils.His eyes glowed like flaming
coals.Before he could duck, the tiger let out a terrible roar,
and swiped his paw by Long John's face, knocking Captain Flint
off his shoulder.The claws were like needles and left five marks
on his cheek. He wouldn't take any more.He was a Rough Boy.He was
long John Silver.The tiger had finished his roar, so he said to
"Put a name on what you're at; you ain't dumb I reckon.Him that
wants shall get it."
The Tiger stood
down and walked over to the already senseless Flint and pawed him
a bit.He wasn't going to fight at all.
Long John finally
got the seatbelt unbuckled.He said to the tiger who was now
rubbing his face against Flint,
"That's your sort,
is it?Well, you're a gay lot to look at, anyway.Not much worth to
fight you ain't."
By this time a huge
crowd had formed outside the moat.People visiting the zoo that
day were there along with helicopters flying overhead, reporters
arriving by the score, and dozens of cops including the swat team
in their Hummers.They didn't know what to do.The tiger seemed
completely occupied with Flint, rubbing his face on him, pushing
him about with his paw. Long John looked up and saw them
staring.It irritated him. They seemed obsessed with finding a way
to get him out but didn't want to enter the tiger's layer. Really
they had nothing to fear.The answer was simple as soup.
wasn't a real parrot, remember?He was a retired cat toy.Being
that he was stuffed with catnip, he had little to fear but a
severe mauling.Right now he was doing a somersault in the back of
the enclosure. (the tiger not Captain Flint)Someone found a long
ladder and persuaded Johnny to come over the moat.He did, but at
the last moment they wouldn't give him a hand up.
"Who'll give me a
hand up?" He roared.
He had to shinny
over the cement wall, and doing so he skinned his knee. That
pissed him off.He stood on the top of the wall and looked at the
crowd severely.Being a Rough Boy, and being Long John Silver, he
spit in front of them all, right on their precious cement.
"There!" he cried,
"that's what I think of ye.Before an hour's out I'll stove in
your blockhouse like a rum puncheon."
They'd never heard
a boy talk like this before.They started laughing, all of
"Laugh, by thunder
,laugh!Before an hour's out, you'll laugh upon the other
side.Them that die'll be the lucky ones."
what he said.They considered how he said it.They considered that
he'd tamed the tiger.They fell silent.
A cop approached
him with a blanket, bundled him off the wall, and stuck him into
an ambulance thinking he'd gone quite mad.
Now you're probably
thinking there was no treasure in all this but there was.It
started with interviews with CNN.There were the interviews first,
for all of them, all three.Then that was followed by their
appearances on the Tonight Show and Saturday Night live.Then
there were book deals, followed by the movie, and finally the
television series.All three cashed in on the treasure and shared
it equally. They'd signed articles.In short, the three poor boys
from Rancho Domingues were rich.I can't tell you what they all
spent it on but I'll tell you about one thing.
Long John, who was
back to Juan now he'd finished the book, bought a wonderfully
smart African Grey which he named Captain Flint. He taught it to
talk. He gave me a present of a Moroccan bound first edition of
Treasure Island we bought at Christies in London.Why me?Because
I'm his Gramps of course. I'm older now than I was then and I was
old then.I have trouble sleeping at night.I have dreams of the
whole affair."And the worst dreams that ever I have are when I
hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed,
with the sharp voice of Captain Flint still ringing in my ears;
Pieces of eight!Pieces of eight!"Damn bird.
any of this seems too familiar it's probably because every bit of
Juan's dialogue is pirated word for word from Long John Silver's
statements from the classic book Treasure Island.I had to admit
it because didn't Long John say, "Dooty is Dooty, to