My grandfather used to be a high-level CIA operative. From 1953 up to 1982, when he retired, he had been in many of the meeting rooms at Langley when some of the biggest coups against Third World leaders had been hatched. In command tents and nondescript living rooms around the world—and in the Pentagon, itself—he had helped shape American foreign policy, enforcing not only the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas but directing and honing a global, fascist, military police force all over the world.
I didn’t know any of this, growing up. It was only after he died that my grandmother, with the casual wave of a hand, revealed it to me. (“That motherfucker put more effort into toppling the Castro regime than he did his own marriage!” is how it came slurring out.) And through several hours of unsupervised snooping in my grandparents’ home—grammie did love her some trash TV and Corpse Reviver No. 1—I was able to confirm the extent of it all.
One day, when I was eight, I was crying in my backyard about how some kids had just beat me up. My grandfather, who happened to be over visiting my mom, came outside and called to me.
“Hey, come here.” I went over to him, sniffling. I remember he was looking at me like I was on fire or something, and was contemplating whether or not he should put me out. “What the hell are you crying about?”
“They called me wimp and sat on my back so I couldn’t move,” I said. “And then I got dirt in my mouth.”
“Radek and Wade and Leontate.”
“Radek…?” I remember he trailed off. “They Communists?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where was this, at your school?”
“Well, what did they do that for?”
“Because I said I could beat Pam Berkelstein in a race around the soccer field.”
“So, they jumped you?”
“That’s an act of aggression, right there. But there’s more of them than there are you? At least three, you said? And they fight dirty?”
“I ate dirt.”
“So, how’d it all go down?” He took a knee and all of a sudden got real interested in me. Like, suddenly, a little kid on fire wasn’t all that repellent to him.
“They were hiding behind the backstop, and then jumped on me and held me down when we got there.”
“Guerrilla warfare,” he said. “All right, we don’t want another ‘Nam here. And we don’t want to get the press involved. You’ll get Cronkite telling people the war’s unwinnable.” He thought for a second. “This Pam Berkelstein, is she pretty?”
“A lot of kids like her?”
“Is she popular?”
“She’s fourth grade president.”
“Does she do a lot for the school?”
“She does volunteering. She does a program to help feed homeless people. And she’s in band. And she does plays. And started a…exchange.”
“What kind of exchange?”
“Needles. And she goes to church.”
“Hmm. Which one?”
“Commies, all right. The lot of ‘em. These kids gotta learn not to mess with the establishment. The school makes the rules, and because you obey those rules your rights as a student aren’t to be violated, not even by the school board itself, if they try to liberalize it. Or this Ratek, Vlad and…what’s the other one? Never mind. The school is the superpower, and this Pam Berkelstein is a radical that needs to be crushed.”
“Uh huh. She’s radical.” Of course, this was 1987. Everything was radical. Fourth grade. Girls. 9-year-old girls with mullet haircuts. Needle exchange programs. Overthrowing legally elected, Third World presidents. Overthrowing legally elected, fourth grade, 9-year-old girl presidents with mullet haircuts who start needle exchange programs.
“All right, we’re gonna put a stop to this. Before a domino effect kicks in. The school next to yours will adopt those policies, and then the next, on down the line, and before you know it the whole South will be radicalized. Feeding the homeless, giving handouts to drug addicts, marrying homosexuals. And the whole world will go to hell in a handbasket.”
“Here, here’s what you do. Same way we did Guatemala. First off, you got a kid in your grade who’s a real ass-kisser? Likes to tell on everyone?”
“Jimmy Dinkins. He’s always telling on people to the principal.”
“His dad’s a police officer, too.”
“Even better. Now, you got any small group of older kids who like to pick on you? Particularly one with an easily identifiable leader who seems to have some, even small, set of standards, despite the fact that he’s a criminal thug?”
“Chris Fibbler is captain of the seventh-grade basketball team in the next town over. Him and Nick Rodriguez are always riding their bikes around, spraying graffiti and throwing eggs at cars. And they know Teddy Graft. He’s a bully at my school.”
“How old is he?”
“And how old are you?”
“Oh, we couldn’t script this better.” I remember he actually chuckled and smiled his massive horse teeth at me. The guy was a giant. Like, six foot five. With a face like a merino sheep. I mean, ugly. “So, this is how it’s gonna go down…”
And, so, this is how it actually went down:
The next day, we launched Operation: Boogernauts. That is, I launched it. Grandpa just sat back, smoking his Cuban cigars in my backyard, being fed the updates.
“First, we spread misinformation. Set up a radio station, drop leaflets from the sky, leak stories to the local newspaper. Tell them government forces are coming to slaughter them, burn their villages, rape their women. Stuff like that.”
The first thing I was tasked with doing was spreading rumors about Pam Berkelstein, to sow doubt about her fitness for public office. Nothing too obvious and nothing too harsh, and nothing that could ever get back to me. So, in the beginning, I enlisted only a couple people I knew I could trust and told them some bullshit—outcasts I only played with on occasion out of sight of my other friends because they had a ColecoVision and the best G.I. Joes in the neighborhood. I was a real duplicitous bastard back then. I would’ve made a great spook, politician, lawyer, Disney CEO, vitamin supplement salesman, cult leader, hitman, counterfeiter or Charles Ponzi.
“Did you guys hear that Pam has, like, three different boyfriends? They’re all thirteen, and they live in Florida. That’s what I heard. Her brother told my brother.”
That was it. That was all I needed to do. Rumors cast among little suburban kids about their popular and lusted after schoolmates spread like germ-covered snot in a pre-school play area.
“Next, we get a hold of some exiles—people who backed the losing party in the election and had to go underground. And, if we can, we get the losing candidate, too. Usually, he’s a coward, so it’s better if we get the coup leader who had the biggest horse in that race. That greedy son of a bitch never says no.”
The other kid who ran for class president was David Rosenthal. And, yep, that four-eyed, slick-haired butterball was indeed a coward. But Jimmy Dinkins wasn’t. And as for a coup leader? We really didn’t have one of those. So, Teddy Graft was going to have to do.
“Hey, Teddy, Kaplan wants to talk to you.”
“Huh? What’d you say? You callin’ me queer? Get over here!”
Thus, the extent of the conversation between my unfortunate envoy and General Graft. My envoy returned, swollen-lipped and with a bloody nose, pretending he hadn’t been sobbing like a Genovese granny who’d finally gotten to hold the Pope’s c(ass)ock, if you get what I’m saying.
Teddy Graft didn’t believe in much, but there’s one thing that gets a kid like that every time. Power. Which, in our world, meant popularity. Which, of course, is a currency he would exchange solely for the purchase of “getting more pussy,” as being intimate with the opposite sex was colloquially referred to back then. I was able to convince Teddy’s clenched fists and beetling brow that Pam was bad for everyone, and that if Jimmy Dinkins got in as the new president, Teddy would basically being calling the shots—Jimmy Dinkins who, by the way, was not only one of these kids whose sideways mouth and peanut head almost begged people to crack it, but was someone Teddy Graft could identify with, letting the air out of people’s bike tires after school and unlocking musical instrument cases so the second they got lifted, BOOM! Clarinet chunks, all over the commercial concrete.
I think, deep down, Teddy Graft respected Jimmy Dinkins. Though that hadn’t stopped him from beating him senseless about seventeen times already.
So, how did I get Jimmy Dinkins to decide to run against Pam? Simple. I told Teddy to tell him he had to, or else.
“See, there always needs to be a local militia—disgruntled folks who are dumb enough to get on your side to fight for you, because they think you’re gonna give them a better life when it’s all over. Contras, Cuban exiles, the Taliban. Or, when the fighting’s all over, that you’ll leave and the country’ll be better off than it was before the war. Which is never the case. ‘Cause it’s a goddamn war! But all they gotta do is invite you in, and, once they do, there’ll be nothing they can do to get you to leave. Not until you’ve taken everything you need.”
Next, we needed an army. A covert one. Getting kids like that lined up would be tough, but if they had a strong leader, I knew the whole thing would unfold like a goddamn Nuremburg Rally.
Not that I knew what a goddamn Nuremburg Rally was. That was grandad.
“Plus, you get this Fibbler punk to stand in as a figure head, the whole thing’ll unfold like a goddamn Nuremburg Rally!“
Everyone was scared to death of Teddy Graft but, for some reason, they idolized Chris Fibbler. He just needed to show his face once, mention Pam Berkelstein, and the image of that would keep those weenies going the whole rest of the year.
The hotspot would be the garage basketball hoop in the alley next to the McDonald’s. I knew Fibbler always hung out over there. Somewhat surprisingly, the guy always gave me a nod when I saw him. See, I was sort of a popular kid. That whole incident getting pinned down behind the backstop was just a flex on the part Radek, Wade and Leontate. They were in love with Pam Berkelstein. And it was really only because I punched Radek in the balls while I was down that they shoved a bunch of dirt in my mouth. I actually really got along well with all of them.
But it was too late to turn back now. This silly escapade had a fucking name. It was like having a pet yeti. You name the fucking thing, and then guess what?
BOOM! Clarinet chunks, all over the commercial concrete.
Plus, I was kind of scared of my grandad.
Fibbler gave me props because my older brother was popular. And because he’d seen me one time hanging around three eighth grade girls who had a crush on my brother. One of them worked at the McDonald’s, and her two friends happened to be with her on her break.
One day, Fibbler was popping wheelies in the McDonalds parking lot while Nick Rodriguez sucked on a milkshake, and I stopped to watch.
“What’s up, Gownes?”
“Them eighth-grade girls giving you any trouble today?”
“Nah, I gotta break up with my girlfriend Pam Berkelstein first.”
“She put out?”
“Nah, she’s prude. And a bitch. A prudey bitch.”
“I’ll take some of that eighth-grade pussy off your hands, then.”
“You’ll put in a good word for me?”
That was all I needed. Shit, even Nick Rodriguez acknowledged me after that. I told Fibbler my brother knew those girls pretty well. I told him we should shoot some hoops Friday after school and, after my brother talked him up, we could go talk to those girls. I had zero interest in actually doing any of that, and was sticking my neck out because I didn’t know the fucking guy, but it was a sacrifice I knew I needed to make for the veritable figurehead that was to be Fibbler. Even if Fibbler wasn’t actually the Fibbler everyone Fibblered him out to be.
I then invited all the unwitting recruits and told them Fibbler was going to be there. It’s fascinating how strong a non-sexual, same-sex, older-kid mancrush can be for a pack of eight-year-old boys. K-pop fangirls got nothing on that shit.
“Now remember, everyone’s not necessarily going to be on our side for this. You’re even going to have some defectors. You’ll weed those out eventually. But get this Fibbler to give a rousing speech, and your backwater guerrillas will be on board for just the amount of time you’re gonna need to oust that Berkelstein girl.”
This is going to sound stupid, but it took me forever to figure out what gorillas he was talking about.
Friday after school rolled around, and we all gathered to play. Fibbler was already there, and everyone started to spaz out because of him. I knew his charm wouldn’t have worked on everyone, so I’d only invited kids who I knew didn’t have any older siblings. Like me, they wouldn’t have had any of that vicarious, bigger-brother-envy shit going on. But these guys…
“Beastie Boys are awesome!”
“Fuck that! Dead Kennedys are better,” Fibbler said.
“Cool, yeah! Dead Kennedys rule!”
“But Jello Biafra’s starting to sell out.”
“Yeah, they suck!”
“Just like Pam Berkelstein!” Fibbler called out as he went to dunk on the 9 ½ foot rim.
Everyone suddenly went quiet. The projectile had hit its target. That dunk had driven it all home. I swear someone even removed his beanie. More like a drone strike than a Nazi rally, all they could do was stare at the white noise, black-and-white monitor that used to be the shack where Pam Berkelstein had resided in all their hearts.
And with that fait accompli, military action was underway.