Looking back over forty years I still can't remember what caused us to target the exclusive Saint Albans School for Boys. Was it the posh snobbiness of its Washington DC student body—almost all boys from rich families with powerful connections and grand ambitions for their sons? Both Jim and myself had applied for acceptance that fall and been summarily rejected, but I don't remember feeling bitter about it. Was it because they had the best football and baseball teams in the District of Columbia that year, and we were suffering from a severe case of sports jealousy? Or was it just the crazy whim of two bored fourteen-year-old boys looking for an excuse to explore the twilight world of a large city, slumbering in the hours after midnight?
Washington was a quiet place in the fall of 1960, quite unlike the gang and coke ridden scene it would become in later years. Dwight D. Eisenhower still reigned as president, cars had prodigal fins, and my allowance was one dollar a week—plenty for 5-cent candy bars, 10-cent comics and packs of 15-cent Hostess Twinkies. Things were so relaxed that on the hottest nights of summer, residents would head off to public parks at dusk, and bed down with blankets to escape their sweltering apartments.
Jim and I had become acquainted that fall while attending a small progressive school in the District for the academically disinclined called Hawthorne. We had both done poorly in the local junior high schools, and our exasperated parents were desperate for improvement. The same litany was drummed into our heads over and over. “When are you going to start thinking about your future? The only jobs open to high school dropouts are ditch digging and dishwashing. How would you like to try that for the next 50 years?”
From our first meeting I was fascinated by my new friend's remarkable ability to draw and sketch complex scenes in seconds--people, vehicles, animals, and buildings. He was also a fluent mimic, imitating eerily the sounds of a horse race, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and the wild enthusiasm of the Nazi hordes saluting their Fuhrer. On the darker side, Jim radiated a streak of reckless boldness and a flair for pushing the limits that I found both irresistible and terrifying. He became the acknowledged leader of our duo, nicknaming me “Sancho”, after Don Quixote's faithful sidekick, in Cervantes' classic novel. Together after school, we explored the upper rafters of DC's empty cathedrals, and the copper roofs of tall government buildings encrusted in dead pigeon debris. Memories of those dare devil days still make my hands go clammy.
Jim lived with his mother and sister just off Massachusetts Avenue, only two miles from Saint Albans School. It was the perfect jumping off point for our planned operation. Everything was arranged beforehand with military precision. I arrived at his place for a sleepover on a weeknight after solemnly promising to turn in early for school the next day. As we waited for the rest of the family to drop off, Jim quietly began to collect the tools needed for the expedition. Sneakers, flashlights, 40 feet of heavy rope, paintbrushes and a small tin of electric red paint. For some reason, now obscured in the mists of time, I also tucked into my belt a full size wooden model of a German Luger pistol.
By midnight the house was quiet and all lights were out. We waited another hour just to be sure and crept out to the Avenue. This primary artery into the city, packed bumper to bumper with traffic during the day, was almost deserted. Every five minutes of so a car or taxi would glide by on the well lit streets, and we would fade into the shadows. Once or twice headlights caught us out in the open, but no one seemed particularly disturbed to see two young teenagers skulking in the bushes at 2 am.
The attractive Saint Albans campus encompasses several ivy-covered buildings and extensive grounds with old trees, rustic sidewalk trails, and a number of statues and memorials. Our target was a larger than life equestrian statue placed high on a 20 foot pedestal and painted a brilliant gold. In a style common to these horse and rider statues cast during the 19th century, the “cajones” of the horse were truly monumental, and they cried out for attention. But the statue's platform proved higher than we had bargained for, and our rope was far too short. It seemed like a lost cause until Jim came up with the idea of jumping up and down on my shoulders while pitching the rope around the steed's thick bronze legs. It hurt like hell, but in seconds we were both astride the massive granite base. Surveying the empty campus from on high, the two of us were momentarily overwhelmed by a sense of triumph and accomplishment. We had actually done it. There was no sign of the watchman, and the victim was entirely at our mercy. Now, to work.
Unfortunately the paintbrushes had slipped out somewhere along the way, but no matter. We opened the can and applied the paint with our fingers, slathering it thickly over the golden scrotum. Within minutes, hands, sneakers, trousers and balls were covered in scarlet. On completion, the flashlight revealed our work in all its resplendent glory. The mounted general now displayed a jaunty dissonance that was hysterically funny—or so we thought. Too bad we hadn't brought enough paint for the rest of the horse's ample equipment. In a fit of violent giggles I almost tumbled headfirst off the pedestal. Obviously, such a grand prank would be appreciated by one and all.
We dismounted with difficulty, almost losing the rope in the process, and started the long trudge back. But this time the stroll to Jim's place would not be so simple. By now it was 4 o'clock and we were feeling pretty cocky. There seemed little reason to hide as the city slowly awakened. There was more traffic, noisy newspaper and grocery deliveries, and clanging trashcans. About half way home a white and black police car slid up and hailed us. It was so sudden and unexpected-- there was no chance to run. We had to try and fake it. The cops looked with interest at the rope, flashlights and fresh red paint that covered our hands and clothes. They carefully inspected my wooden handgun and returned it without comment. The two even listened with seeming sympathy to Jim's preposterous story that we were merely early bird students wanting to start the school day six hours ahead of time. Fortunately there had been no recent reports of muggings from two paint-stained adolescents armed with a pistol, and it seemed we might get off. They chattered away on the radio for a few minutes, and then came those dreaded words. “Sorry boys, we're going to have to take you home. Where do you live?”
Understandably, Jim's bleary-eyed mother was not amused to be awakened out of a deep sleep by the police at 5 am. Of course everything was my fault. I was banished from the house for good, and cited ever after as a particularly pernicious influence on her son, who had never even thought of committing such a terrible crime before. Two days later I made it a point to stop by Saint Albans on the way home from school to view our handiwork. Arriving at the familiar scene I was shocked to see that the general's majestic steed was bright gold from nose to tail with nary a hint of red to be seen. Our artistic embellishments had been immediately obliterated.
Over the next few years my friend and I began to drift apart. We saw each other less and less after the paint job. Jim stopped attending class, and started hanging out with people twice his age. He was finally told to get back in school or move out of his mother's place—so he left. Several weeks on the street in mid winter had him hopping a freight, and heading south to warmer climes. Somewhere in small town South Carolina my friend was nabbed heisting a loaf of Wonder Bread and was sentenced to several weeks on the local chain gang. America's southern states have a long tradition of putting people into jail for extended periods for minor offences, especially if they are Black or poor white trash from up north. The work was brutal, the food inedible and the company tedious. It looked like he would serve the full term--no one even knew where he was, and who would go his bail anyway? Then one day a “saviour” miraculously appeared in the form of a US Army recruiter offering small time offenders a simple escape. Join up for three years and get out of jail free, plus receive a fabulous home, career, and health plan all in one. Like any sane person, Jim jumped at the opportunity and signed—just in time to be sucked into the maelstrom of the war in South East Asia.
I heard nothing from him for a couple of years other than he had been shipped off to Viet Nam and wasn't writing letters--then, one summer afternoon in 1966, a phone call. Jim had just left the army and proposed a meeting. I immediately accepted, and in due time, he appeared at my mother's place for a beer. My old friend was unrecognizable. It was soon apparent that the war had shattered him like so many other young men dragooned by the military during those troubled times. Jim was furtive, withdrawn and unable to concentrate. He was shockingly thin, and his face deeply lined from illness or worry. I was curious about the war experience, as we had both been interested in military history. One of his many eccentricities was a love of toy soldiers, and he would line them up for hours on a large table to re-fight the battles of Waterloo, Jena and others. When I asked point blank if he had actually killed anyone Jim looked away and couldn't answer. He preferred to talk about the lighter side of military life. How the men in his unit always knew which whorehouse hosted the most virulent venereal disease, and flocked there in hopes of picking up the infection to avoid front line duty. The dope, be it booze, heroin, opium, speed or grass, was cheap, plentiful and of the highest quality. Everyone, including the officers, was stoned all the time--day and night. It was great fun. The search for oblivion seemed to consume him—and them.
Our meeting was not at all what I had expected. It was as if Jim's inner soul had been wrenched out, beaten flat and returned to his body. The brilliance, love of life and humour had vanished. It was hard to want to see him again. I needn't have worried. A year later a batch of contaminated heroin hit the streets of DC. Thirteen people overdosed on a single weekend, and Jim was one. He died in the public toilet just off Dupont Circle. He was barely 21.
--Douglas Hamilton, June 2005
Last updated July 6, 2005