Background: The 1950s! Youth runs wild! In Amesville, Anystate, USA, the eighth graders are starting a gang, and there will be pretzels and ice-skating for everyone! When Lee Emerson’s mom decides to seek fulfillment through working outside of the home, it’s a recipe for TROUBLE AFTER SCHOOL!
The Plot: 14 year old Lee and his best friend Joe are “good serious students” who are well liked by their classmates and play many different sports. They also enjoy wholesome pastimes, like reading detective comics and telling their parents about their day. You know, real Rodney Budlongs!
But for Lee, going over to Joe’s house after school to do homework and eat delicious brownies is starting to get old. Surely there must be a seedy underbelly to this idyllic suburban existence, and Lee is determined to find it! He’s already taken note of the black leather-jacketed Terry Mason and his friends, and Lee knows that “The jacket and Terry’s haircut- longer at the sides- were typical of certain boys in the school.”
Yeah, the cool ones!
“They acted so sure of themselves. They put on such a bold, tough front. Lee, for instance, always became embarrassed when he talked to a girl. But he often saw Terry in the halls surrounded by girls, and taking it in his stride.”
Badassery 1; Propriety 0.
Unfortunately, Lee’s eye couldn’t be wandering at a worse time: over dinner one night, his Mother surprises the family by announcing that she has been offered a job at the department store where she used to work before she was married. Dad does not approve:
“‘But you don’t want to do that!’ Dad exclaimed.”
But millions of married women are working to help support their families! And Mom really thinks that she would enjoy “getting back into the business world, even if only for a little while-”
“‘I don’t know.’ Dad shook his head ‘You’d find it harder than you think.’”
Stop interrupting, Dad! Think of Grandma and how much she enjoys living in her own little apartment, and you know Grandpa didn’t leave her much money when he died. Mom could really pitch in and improve everyone’s standard of living around here!
“‘Well, we don’t have to decide on it definitely yet,’ Dad said. ‘We can discuss it some more’”
After several days of tense discussion, Mom finally decides to take the job, and Lee wakes up Monday morning to the unnatural sight of his mother cooking breakfast in a hat and her best dress. Things go downhill pretty quickly: when Lee runs into Terry downtown after school, he learns that some kids buy their candy bars at the Smoke Shop instead of at the drug store like upstanding citizens. Also Mom forgot to make the beds one morning and his parents left dirty coffee cups in the sink!
Joe tries to warn Lee that Terry is bad news:
“You should see how Terry lives. His mother used to come and clean our house, and we drove her home. I helped carry some things inside once. Terry has about six brothers and sisters, and what a mess their house is! I heard Terry’s father ran away years ago and hasn’t been heard from since!”
Terry is A Poor! With no dad! And like, a gazillion brothers and sisters living in some kind of potato-shanty! They probably don’t even own a proper television lamp in the shape of a magnificent panther!
Dad and Joe are right to be concerned. The novelty of being a latchkey kid is starting to wear off, making Lee ripe for corruption.
“He got tired of always going to Joe’s house. Or sometimes things happened in school that he felt like telling Mom right away, but there was only Ranger and Spotty to greet him when he arrived home. However, knowing how important Mom’s job was to her, he didn’t complain.”
Moms are so selfish, what with wanting to find fulfillment through outside work and interaction with other adults! Don’t they know that their kids have REALLY, REALLY important things to tell them RIGHT AWAY! Like that time the cafeteria menu said macaroni and cheese but they actually served tuna casserole! You are not off the hook either, Grandmas- if you didn’t enjoy living independently so much, your grandchildren wouldn’t be running wild in the streets!
When Terry suggests that he and Lee skip school one day, Lee jumps at the chance to take a walk on the wild side. They return to Lee’s house to engage in unmitigated acts of delinquency. Like watching TV in the middle of the afternoon and eating enormous sandwiches.
Lee also orders a baby alligator after seeing a very persuasive commercial on TV.
After one day of skipping school, Lee is overwhelmed with guilt. He literally makes himself sick with some kind of brain fever (!) and that night admits to his parents that he didn’t go to school. Well, admits-ish: he says that he didn’t feel well all along and that’s why he stayed home. His parents fuss over him and give him a note to take to school explaining his absence. Thus begins the web of lies.
Also, there is trouble brewing between Lee and Joe:
“’I don’t know what’s come over you,’ Joe said with exasperation. ‘You’ve been acting kind of funny lately. You sound as if you really like Terry and that crummy bunch’
‘I don’t think they’re crummy,’ Lee retorted. ‘I think we’ve been kind of snobby about them because they dress a bit differently and things like that. I think it’s nice to see other kids once in awhile.’
‘All right, if that’s the way you feel about it.’ Joe shrugged his shoulders. ‘Ben Fedder asked me if I want to go home on his bus to his house after school. I was wondering what you’d do, but I think I’ll go.’
‘Sure!’ Lee said. ‘You can see somebody else sometimes, too!’”
Boy, boys! You’re in the 8th grade! Don’t feel like you have to settle down right away, go out there and date other guys!
When Lee gets his report card, however, he wonders if he’s been spending too much time being up to no good. His parents are very disappointed in the spattering of Cs and his Mom worries that it is all her fault. If only she didn’t try to have a life of her own! His parents suggest having Grandma come over to keep an eye on him, and Lee freaks out and promises to study harder. But being responsible is booooor-ing:
“When he arrived home, he didn’t have anything to do. Homework took up some time, however, and he went over his stamp collection again.”
Seriously, just reading that makes me want to go out and start a knife fight just to keep from dying of boredom.
Mom is very excited to take her family to a special sale night at the department store where she works. Lee is thrilled to see a rack of leather jackets on clearance, especially after Terry has done such a great job selling him on the merits of black leather:
“I wear one so people will know I’m tough. And besides, they’re warmer and more comfortable than any other kind of jacket that’s made. You ought to get one.”
That is… very sensible-sounding, actually. But Lee’s father isn’t convinced:
“Aren’t they the kind you always read in the paper about young hoodlums wearing?”
Oh, Dad, you and your hoodlum papers! Still, being an endlessly indulged only child, Lee gets the jacket:
Where does Mom work, JD Maxx?
Remember that baby alligator Lee sent away for? Well, just when he thinks he got conned by one of those sneaky alligator scams, a box arrives in the mail. A tiny box with no air-holes in it. Miraculously, it does indeed contain a live baby alligator. Lee’s parents think it is just marvelous, and agree that naming it “Gater” is very clever. Jeez, Greatest Generation, stop indulging your kids already! It’s like you’re trying to raise a crop of shiftless hippies!
Terry convinces Lee to let Gater loose in their biology class, which results in hysterical screaming girls and a firm scolding from the teacher who also informs Lee that he actually has a crocodile, not an alligator and:
“It’s too little to be living away from its mother. It’ll probably die soon. Just be careful that it doesn’t get out and frighten people again.”
Sure enough, within a few pages Gater is found belly-up in his aquarium and is unceremoniously discarded with the morning’s trash. Lee feels “a little badly”, but reflects that it’s not like the dog or cat died: “You couldn’t get attached the same same way to an alligator, or even a crocodile, Lee knew.” Poor Gater. He never even had the chance to become a gigantic albino sewer-dwelling alligator!
Meanwhile, Terry has become inexplicably enraged when he learns that the local school board is sponsoring a club for high school students in a refurbished barn. He calls the gang together for a number of well-thought out and highly organized meetings to discuss how they can vandalize the club before it opens and really teach those high schoolers a lesson about wanting nice things:
“We all have to bring tools of some kind. Hammers are best for busting things.”
Vandalism requires planning, guys!
Lee feels another bout of guilt-induced brain fever coming on, and goes to seek advice from the school guidance counselor, Miss Raymond, who encourages him to be a good influence. At that afternoon’s Gang Meeting, where they are to finalize the details of smashing stuff, Lee makes an impassioned plea to his fellow gang members to join him at the Junior High ice skating party instead. It mostly works, leaving Terry to do the vandalizing himself.
But come Saturday morning, the high school club opens as planned and Terry has mysteriously disappeared! Lee runs over to Joe’s house for long-delayed reunion:
“‘Hey, wake up, lazybones. It’s nice and cold out. There’ll be ice-skating at the school this afternoon-’
Joe sat up in bed, looking at Lee as if he were dreaming. A slow, happy smile widened on his face.”
Aw, those crazy kids! They never really wanted to see other people.
On Monday Terry reappears in school and tells Lee that he spent the weekend in bed:
“‘I couldn’t do anything.’ Terry’s voice wavered. ‘Sometimes, when I feel low, I just can’t do anything except sleep.’”
Lee sends Terry off to Miss Raymond for guidance, and she’ll probably send him for electroshock therapy. It was a tough decade for clinically depressed teenagers and baby crocodiles. At least Mom gets to keep her job for the moment, although I predict a Miltown prescription in her future once Lee gets to high school and discovers Rock-and-Roll music.
Sign It Was Written in 1957 Department: People still “look at television” instead of “watch television”.
Unnecessarily Harsh Judgment Department: “Besides, you’re not even an alligator!”