Growing up in the Willowbrook area of Compton, Calif., I was never a member of a gang. However, I was certainly a candidate to become a youth at risk. Like any youngster of my generation, I enjoyed a little mischief now and then. Unlike today's kids, I didn't have the Internet, Xbox, PlayStation to occupy my idle time.
Kids of my generation and from my neighborhood played baseball and basketball outside in empty lots, in the park, the school grounds, or in the streets. We also played hide and seek, rode bicycles, and engaged in mock wars in open parks and fields.
We were monitored by adults looking out their kitchen windows or walking by our games. We were the good kids. In that day, any parent or neighbor could scold any neighborhood kid for not following the universally accepted rules of conduct. Fair play and good sportsmanship were expected of us all and enforced by every adult.
My street, Largo Avenue, lay on the border of two jurisdictions. To the north, the area was patrolled by Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies from Firestone Station (closed in 1993). To the south, the area was patrolled by the Compton Police Department (disbanded in 2000). My tough neighborhood was policed by even tougher policemen. But that was not the deterrent I feared the most. My mother, father and grandmother were my most effective deterrents. "You had better pray to God if you ever get arrested by the police," my mother would often repeat, "because I'm not going to bail you out! You can just rot there in jail!"
I knew that wouldn't really happen. Though I feared being locked up in jail, I was much more afraid of what would happen when I got released. My parents weren't abusive, but they did not "spare the rod" either.
I was a prankster and enjoyed pulling practical jokes. In my case, an "idle brain" often became the "devil's playground." I lived in the time when firecrackers were being replaced by "safe and sane" fireworks, and potato guns and rubber-band guns were replaced by safer toy cap pistols.
This was intolerable to me, and I continued experimenting with fireworks and modified toy guns for several years. "You'll put someone's eye out!" — My mother would rebuke me. Luckily she never discovered the really dangerous experiments I did.
One of my favorite weapons was the water balloon. At the corner of Winona Street and Largo Avenue, there was a four-way stop, and if I stood by the brick building on the southwest corner, eastbound approaching vehicles could not see me. A huge yellow sign warned the eastbound traffic that a dip preceded the four-way stop. Armed with my best water balloons, I would stand at the southwest corner at night and wait to see the headlights of the eastbound traffic play against the buildings just east of the intersection.
When I saw the light dip suddenly, I knew that a vehicle had passed the dip on its way to the stop sign. I would estimate its speed and time of arrival and toss my water grenade high into the air. The unsuspecting victim would then stop at the stop sign and see only an innocent looking skinny kid standing to his right.
The balloon would then burst on the hood or roof of the car. This was funny to me, but often not to the occupants of the car. It was even funnier to me when I hit an open top convertible or some low-rider's freshly waxed bomb. I would often be chased by the victims. But my escape had been carefully planned. A half block west of this intersection was a dark dirty alley, which I could easily make. I would then run southbound in the dark dirt alley. I knew every inch of this alley because it ran behind my parent's home and the home of my grandmother near the other end of the block. One leap over the 6-foot-high wooden fence, and I could lay in my own backyard as anyone courageous enough to pursue me ran blindly by in the dark. Hee, hee, hee. So much fun.
One day I found an old ink bottle full of red ink. So I constructed a balloon grenade with this red ink. On a warm summer night I stationed myself on the southwest corner behind the brick building and waited for the tell-tale sign of headlights dipping. Nothing happened for what seemed a long time. But then I saw the headlights of a car approaching, I could see by the lights shining on the buildings to the east. When I saw them dip, I remember thinking that the car was apparently traveling unusually slow. I tossed my grenade high over the intersection kill zone, and stepped around the corner to watch the impact.
A Firestone sheriff's cruiser stopped in my kill zone. It was a two-man unit and a big Latino deputy was riding passenger (bookman). He made eye contact with me. Everything began to move in slow motion. In my mind, I was screaming "NO! NO!" It was too late. My legs bolted me toward the escape alley. Both alert deputies began to exit the vehicle to give pursuit, and they were out on either side of the patrol car when the grenade struck dead center on the black-and-white's windshield. The driver got most of the red ink in his face and chest, but a good part hit the big Latino deputy as well. The driver just stood there cursing, but the bookman was on my heels.
I was never the fastest runner in my neighborhood, but that night I broke every record. Into the mouth of the dark weed and debris filled the alley I sprinted with a super burst of energy, then slowing a little I heard, "I'm gonna kill you, you little s.o.b.!" right behind me in the dark. I jumped up and over a 7-foot-high chain-link fence into somebody's backyard. I knew the resident owned a big mean dog. By the time Butch woke up, I was up and over the fence on the other side of the yard. The deputy was not so lucky. I heard the deputy's pants tear on the top of the chain-link, and Butch must have torn more of his uniform by the sounds of his yelling and cursing.
Next, I ran over the rooftops of some carports in a small apartment complex. I thought I'd lost him. But no, he was madder than ever and gaining on me in the dark. He continued cursing at me, and I could hear his heavy breathing and boot steps only a few feet behind me. With a long Olympic-class broad jump, I vaulted from the building over another fence and back into the alley heading south. I was running out of gas.
Behind me, I heard the big Latino deputy jump and tumble in the alleyway. He got up again and, running just a little slower now, he continued his pursuit. I could see the patrol car's headlights pulling into the south end of the alley to block my escape.
With the last of my energy, I jumped and pulled myself over the six foot wooden fence of my grandmother's back yard, and collapsed. The big deputy jumped and grabbed the top of the 6-foot-high fence, but being exhausted, he was unable to climb over it. He was yelling at me just on the other side of the fence. "I'll find you, you little f***er, and I'm gonna kill you!"
I could hear him loudly gasping trying to catch his breath, as I tried to stop my gasping. I lay in the weeds until the cops and radio cars stopped looking for me. I then went home and didn't leave my backyard for the rest of that summer. My young teenage mind doubted that the Firestone deputies would really kill me, but I wasn't going to test them.
I grew up quickly and put the incident behind me. When I returned from military service in Vietnam, I joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. I looked into each deputy's face that I came in contact with, dreading the possibility of seeing one of the two deputies from that night in Willowbrook. But what were the chances of that in a county so huge and in a department of over 7,000 sworn?
Near the end of my academy training, each cadet was assigned to ride with a regular patrol unit at one of the many LASD substations. One weekend, I was assigned to ride on patrol in West Hollywood. I arrived early, dressed in my uniform and went to the briefing room to read all the briefing bulletins before shift. Real deputies arriving for duty walked past the briefing room on their way to the locker room. A deputy with a name tag that read Villa entered the room, and my blood turned to ice. My brain returned to my early teen years and screamed silently, NO! NO! It was him, my big Latino pursuer. He was a little older but still dangerous looking.
He asked, "Don't I know you kid?"
"No Sir," I squeaked out in a falsetto voice. "I'm just a cadet, and I have never been here before." But he looked dead into my eyes and said, "I know you." My legs trembled and I swallowed hard as he walked away into the locker room.
During briefing, I found a seat farthest from Deputy Villa and closest to the exit. The watch sergeant began to read the briefing bulletins, and suddenly Deputy Villa swung around and pointed at me. I tried to shrink into my chair but Villa announced, "You used to live in Willowbrook near Naples Winery!"
He had me! This was the liquor store and neighborhood market on the south side of Winona and Willowbrook. "Yes sir," I said. Before I went out on patrol he talked to me for about 10 minutes about his time at Firestone Station. I waited for him to draw his pistol and shoot me. But he never made the connection with the red-ink grenade, foot pursuit or me.
Yes, there is a God in heaven. I had escaped with my life. Since that time, I find it hard to be too stern with teenage pranksters. Some say most of the best cops could have gone either way in their youth. I don't know about that, but I'm truly grateful to that good Firestone sheriff's deputy. Deputy Villa never knew, it but on that warm summer night he ended my malicious mischief and possible criminal career. The whole experience made me a better cop.