Throughout the course of history, there have been key events, seminal moments that acted as a catalyst for igniting the flames of war.
For example, there were the shots fired at Bunker’s Hill that started the revolutionary war. The assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand triggered the start of World War One. The Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor escalated World War Two and pulled the U.S. into the conflict.
And we must never, ever forget that it was the potty-training of Sprinkles the kitty cat that opened up the floodgates of the War of Yorkville Avenue.
A little background:
I grew up in the town of Union Grove, Wisconsin in the sixties and seventies. In the house next to us, to the north, lived a family that we will call the Brady’s. They were cut from the same middle class, rural, blue collar cloth that we were cut from. I’m going to give them alternate names. We’ll call the parents Fred and Wilma. Fred and Wilma Brady. They had three kids, we had four. Their two older children were girls (who we’ll refer to as Laverne and Shirley) that were about the same age as my brothers, and their third was a boy (Mork), about the same age as me. My younger sister completes the cast of characters.
Fred and Wilma were hard working, simple people. Wilma worked as a nurse, and Fred drove truck, a fuel truck for the Pugh Oil Company that he kept parked in his driveway, while my dad drove semi-trucks out of at first Chicago and later Milwaukee.
When I was six or seven years old, my dad built a big sandbox just outside the back door that I loved. I’d spend a large part of each day playing in it, with my toy trucks and cars. At some point, I became aware of the fact that one of the apparent properties of sand was that occasionally, it would roll itself up into these little black balls. I thought nothing of these anomalies, using them as freight for my trucks to deliver.
Then came the day my mom looked out the window just as Mork dropped his kitty cat, Sprinkles, into what until that moment we’d thought was simply a sandbox. What we soon discovered was that, unknown to us, for some time it had been doubling as an enormous litter box, and that the little black balls I’d so enthusiastically loaded my Tonka trucks with were in fact cat turds. Deeper digging revealed levels of contamination so prevalent that it (The sandbox, not Sprinkles) had to be destroyed.
When confronted by my Mom with the evidence, Fred, instead of being contrite, took a “so what” attitude. Thus the bad blood began. It was as if the Brady’s had declared war on the Gourdoux’s.
They had no way of knowing the Hell they were about to unleash.
In the immediate days and weeks following the Sprinkles incident, things remained relatively calm. It wouldn’t be until a couple of months later, after the pea-shooting crisis, that tensions would really escalate.
The Brady girls, Laverne and Shirley, had horses that they boarded in a barn off the end of the street. They’d ride them and bring them home, letting them graze in the back yard. The lead that they tied them to was just long enough to reach past the border between their yard and ours, under the clothesline my mom used to hang our laundry out on to dry. After grazing their horses in the back yard, they’d eventually do what it is that horses frequently do after grazing for a while – right under my Mom’s clothesline.
Hopefully, you’re noticing a trend here … first, cat shit, then horse manure.
My Mom complained about this to my Dad, with no results other than him shooting the horses with my brother’s BB gun – all it did was made them jump, but it didn’t move them away from the clothes line.
Sometime later, on a warm summer Sunday afternoon, Laverne and Shirley, armed with hands full of horse manure, and myself, my weapon being a pea-shooter I had purchased at the Ben Franklin store downtown, were engaged in a minor skirmish. For those who don’t know, a pea shooter was nothing more than a big straw, and its ammunition was dried and hardened peas. You’d shoot it like a blow dart. I was only about seven years old at the time, but I could get enough speed and distance into my shooting to leave a little red mark on an exposed arm or leg that would fade after a second or two.
Meanwhile, my mom was complaining again, for the “umpteenth” time, (I still don’t know the precise numerical value of the number “umpteen”) about the obstacle course her clothesline had become. My dad, for whom the number umpteen apparently represented his breaking point, finally snapped. He went out, grabbed a handful of the stuff, and knocked on the Brady’s back door. Fred came to answer, and my dad proceeded to take his handful of horse shit and smear it all into the mesh of the screen door that divided the two hulking men.
“You’d better be careful,” Fred said. “I’ve already called the cops about the pea-shooter.”
Some perspective: At the time, Union Grove was a very small town, population less than two thousand. The town had only one policeman, who, being as it was a Sunday evening, was off-duty at the time. So Fred’s call was forwarded to the Racine County sheriff’s department in Racine, about a half hour away from Union Grove. At the time, Racine had one of the highest rates of violent crime and murder in the country. So when Fred’s call about a seven year old kid armed with a pea-shooter came in, I’m guessing that it didn’t exactly jump to the top of their priority list.
Several hours later, a police car, its lights flashing brightly in the dark, pulled into our driveway. I remember sitting on the couch in our living room, feeling infinitely smaller than my minuscule seven year old frame already was, waiting in abject terror for the police to pull me out of my home and take me to prison.
Two policemen got out of the car, and we could hear the muffled sounds of laughter as they made their way to the porch. They entered through the front door, revolvers holstered in their belts. My Dad pointed to me and said, “There’s your culprit, officers.”
I was crying as the officers were trying their best not to laugh. They lectured me. “A pea shooter is a dangerous weapon,” one of them said, and after having a good laugh at my expense, they left, making the half hour ride back to their headquarters in Racine. I stopped crying and started thinking the whole episode was pretty cool, since it didn’t include jail time, and that they turned on their flashing lights just because of me.
But one thing would soon become clear – the pea shooting crisis galvanized my family into a series of strong and decisive responses. The war was on. Some of the noteworthy battles included
Borderline protest: First was the picket line. While Fred was as usual in his garage tinkering on some old car, my brother and sister, now about four years old, and I marched up and down the property line between the two houses, carrying protest signs with things like “Bradys go home” and ”Pugh! Something stinks” written on them
It was apparent to us all by this time that Fred didn’t have a very refined sense of humor, if he even had one at all, and didn’t appreciate being protested against while in his own home, especially by a seven year old boy and a cute and pudgy little four year old girl. The fact that by this time we were calling him “Old Man” didn’t help matters. From our vantage point, we couldn’t see Fred in his garage, but when we heard the occasional metallic crashing sounds from him throwing a tool of some sort, we knew we were getting through to him.
Suds Away: The Brady’s had a little swimming pool, about two feet deep. Mork would put on these big flipper shoes, goggles and a snorkel, submerge his head under water, and kick his feet violently, pretending to be Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt. One day while the Brady’s were gone, my brother Don and I emptied an entire bottle of dishwashing soap into the pool. The next day, we watched as Mork, decked out in his scuba diving best, “dove” into the pool, face down and snorkel in, and proceeded to kick, like he always did. What he couldn’t see with his face underwater and aimed at the bottom of the pool was that on the top of the water, a tower of suds that reached as high as the roof of their house was developing.
Attack From the Rear: Wilma Brady was a rather large woman with a sour disposition. What Fred lacked in the sense of humor department, she made up for in girth. She didn’t seem to handle stress very well, and was often angry. We could hear her frequently yelling at her children. My brother Don came up with what would now be considered a horribly politically, incorrect nickname for her – “The Fat Fury.” I know, that’s wrong on so many levels, but you have to remember, these were extraordinary times – we were, after all, at war.
Wilma took solace, she found peace, by tending to her back yard vegetable garden. Keep in mind that she was a large woman, and when she weeded her garden, she’d bend over at the hip, without bending her knees, her butt in the air, assuming what looked like an NFL offensive lineman’s stance.
Our Aunt from up north had recently visited and left, but not before presenting her nephews with the gift of a toy Bazooka air-gun slash cannon thing that made an epically loud ka-boom when fired. We were eating dinner when my dad looked out the window and saw Wilma, in her weeding stance, her backside facing us. “Dave,” he said, “take your bazooka and very quietly get as close you can without her seeing you, and shoot it.”
I had no choice bur to do as my dad instructed. I was able to get about five feet behind her behind without her knowing I was there, and I pulled the trigger. The ka-boom echoed through the early evening air, and a startled Wilma went airborne, her feet and hand leaving the ground while she maintained her three point stance. She landed and bolted upright, and looked at me, bazooka in hand. I thought, here it comes, I’m going to feel the brunt of the Fat Fury’s fury, but she just turned her head and proceeded to walk back to her house, all the while muttering words that I hadn’t learned yet.
Snow Job: Months and years went by and still the war raged on. There was the time, during Christmas break, when a big snowstorm hit, dropping about five inches and ending in the early evening. Fred spent about two back breaking hours shoveling his driveway so he could get out and get to work early the next morning. After their house was dark for a couple of hours and it was apparent everyone inside was asleep, my brothers and a couple of their friends went out and silently shoveled all the snow back into Fred’s driveway, only piling it eye high right behind his garage door.
The Simmons Conundrum: One day, we discovered, in the classifieds of the Racine Journal Times, that Fred was selling his Station Wagon. After listing all of the vital info, the ad ended with Fred’s phone number and a “call after 5:00.” My oldest brother Mike’s friend, Bill M., was recruited because his voice was deep enough to sound like an adult and foreign enough that Fred wouldn’t recognize it. We picked a random name and address out of the Racine phone book – an “Ed Simmons” who lived on the far north side of Racine, somewhere on four or five mile road. We then had Bill play the part of Ed Simmons and call Fred up. Suffice to say that Bill gave a brilliant performance, feigning enough interest in the car that Fred promised to drive it out to the Simmons residence for a test drive the very next day. So if the real Ed Simmons happens to be reading this. a fifty some year old mystery of why a stranger named Fred Brady showed up at your door one day to give you a test drive in his station wagon is finally solved.
The Final Conflict: Things went on like this for a couple of years, very one sided in our advantage, until the epic Halloween Conflict of either 1965 or 66.
The sixties were about the last time that innocent mischief like soaping windows or egging or TP’ing a house was accepted, and even condoned as the “trick” in response to the question, “trick or treat.” For us, Halloween represented an opportunity for escalation in the war that we’d been looking forward to for a long time.
There was a whole series of events that night that my brothers, (with encouragement from my Dad, no doubt) perpetrated that I ‘m simply too old now to remember. I do remember my brother Don, taking a pumpkin and raising it to his shoulders and shooting it just like I’d seen him launch a thousand jump shots in our driveway at the hoop my Dad had installed above our garage door, only this time it was a pumpkin, and the target was the Brady’s roof. It bounced loudly down the peaked surface of the roof and landed and smashed into pieces on the ground, next to the Brady’s house, while their dog, Nikki, barked insanely.
The next thing I remember is both families, everybody but my little sister, standing facing each other in the dark between the two houses. The excrement was clearly going to hit the fan. We noticed that the Brady’s had a basket full of ripe tomatoes, from their garden, nearby and at their disposal. They were prepared for battle, we weren’t, until my oldest brother, Mike, slipped away in the darkness to his friend Bob Pink’s house, two driveways to the south of ours, and came back with Bob and a basket full of tomatoes of our own.
The battle lines were drawn when Fred started loudly complaining about the blatant lack of respect that us kids showed for their elders when, in mid-sentence, I interrupted him by yelling, “Shut up, Old Man,” proving his point powerfully and succinctly.
Fred was incensed. “You see? That’s just what I was talking about.” Shortly after that, someone fired the first tomato. I don’t remember which side it came from, but it smashed against the other side’s house. Soon all the tomatoes were released. I don’t recall anybody on either side getting hit, which seems unlikely, given my brothers and I were normally pretty accurate when it came to throwing things – apparently, even we weren’t ready to cross the line that hitting a Brady with a tomato represented – both sides settled instead for the cathartic release of firing as many tomatoes that our baskets would hold at the other’s house. It was dark there between the houses, and it wasn’t until the morning that we could see the full extent of the carnage afflicted to both houses, big red splotchy stains that would remain uncleaned for months.
Peace An uneasy peace soon settled between the two families, with the tomato stained sides of the two houses serving as a mute reminder of the childish antics that we’d engaged in for so long. We finally started acting our age, and came to a tacit understanding of where each side stood. Fred, or Old Man Brady, wanted nothing more than the respect that he felt children should show their elders, and he had a point, although there is also something to be said for having to earn respect. On our side, we just wanted Fred to acknowledge that he was wrong in letting his horses shit under my Mom’s clothesline, and for letting their cat ruin our wonderful sandbox.
Now, well into the 21st century, when everybody is so sensitive, the war of Yorkville Avenue could have never occurred. Police, doctors and lawyers, if not guns, would undoubtedly be part of the equation. Whether that’s good or bad, I’ll let you decide, but I will offer this: there’s a place for mischief in the world, so long as no one is hurt. The war of Yorkville Avenue not only brought our family closer together, it also provided us with a lifetime of stories. And in the long run, that’s worth fighting for, if you ask me.