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When Arms Fired Oranges, Not Bullets

<i> T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month</i>

When old friends gather, old stories prevail. The past nudges out the present, and it’s not until later that you begin to wonder what those stories say about you now.

Two weeks ago, five old friends and their spouses came together at my house to celebrate a 40th birthday. We ate, drank and told stories about our teen-age years growing up in Tustin. Those 25 or so years ago we were mean little fellows, suburban guerrillas always looking for a mean little thrill; brats.

Thus:

One summer day we decided to assassinate the Helm’s Bakery man with water balloons. We conspired. My little brother, Matt, stopped the truck as it lumbered down our block and asked the Helm’s man--a tall, distinguished and not very friendly gentleman--to see his doughnuts.

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Matt then asked to see the cakes. Matt then asked to see the breads. So, as the regal Helmsman stood there on the blazing summer asphalt with all the drawers of his truck opened to show his wares, Bob and I peddled our Stingrays past as fast as we could and unloaded two untucked shirttails’ worth of heavy water balloons onto him, his baked goods and his truck.

A low-speed chase resulted, at the end of which my bike dangled from the Helm’s truck like a captured enemy, and the Helm’s man duly reported us to our parents. I am fairly sure we all caught hell for it.

Or:

One fall night during football season we each gathered up a shopping bag full of oranges (easy to do in Orange County, then) and eased beneath cover near the Tustin High School football field. We had recruited volunteers, so grand was the scale of our offensive. That night the marching band was rehearsing, led by a music teacher who was unpopular with us for vague, hypothetical reasons.

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There they were, the effete marching band being drilled under the lights. When this pompous, strutting musical body got as close to us as it was going to, we stood and unloaded approximately one ton of ripe Valencia oranges on them--pulp, tubas and orange juice arching through the stadium lights.

They screamed. They scattered. Led by their furious director, they gave chase. We vanished into the groves like ground squirrels and learned the next day that the principal had offered a reward for information on who would do such a thing. Some of us got caught.

Or:

On three successive days, we used more fresh oranges to bomb 1) the Columbus Tustin Intermediate School bus; 2) an Amtrak passenger train passing through Santa Ana, and 3) a throng of shoppers heading into a Sav-on drugstore, several of whom actually fell to the ground under the intense shelling.

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On the fourth day, still thirsting for mayhem, we got into a water fight with neighbor boys, who finally fled to the safety of a house. We got up on their roof, fed the garden hose down the chimney and blasted them out. We were rounded up later and summarily beaten by our respective fathers.

The tales went on and on, late into the night. As I listened, it struck me that all of us had gone on to enjoy relatively interesting adult lives that had no doubt produced stories more pertinent than these, but few were offered. There we were, 40-year-old former juvenile delinquents relishing each thrown orange, launched bottle rocket and hurled firecracker of our barefoot, bucktoothed, pimple-faced pasts.

In short, boy stuff.

Only a true dolt could have gotten up the next day and not been bewildered by the way the teen-age violence quotient has multiplied so dramatically since then. There was Robert Chan, 19, on the front page of this paper, just sentenced to life in prison without parole for murdering an acquaintance two years ago. Fresh in memory was the boy killed in San Clemente recently when a paint roller was thrown through his skull. There have been too many Orange County teen-agers shot in gang altercations to even remember all their names.

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Robert Chan wrote in letters to the court that he had read Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” some nine months before the murder and claimed that the book encouraged him to kill his victim because “everything (is) meaningless and nothing matters because we are all going to die.”

I clearly remember reading “The Stranger” as a sophomore in high school, the same high school where we bombed the marching band a year later. Frankly, in my lack of sophistication, I thought that the book lacked zest and that Camus’ dreary killer, Meursault, was much more of an abstraction than a character. My English teacher said as much, explaining that the existentialist view of life as meaningless sprung from the horrors of World War II, and that Meursault was meant to embody this philosophy.

My teacher implied that I was probably unable to grasp Meursault’s despair because I had not experienced the horrors of World War II, and that throwing water balloons at Helm’s men was hardly a good primer for existentialism. I think that was a sagacious observation, which leads me to wonder just what in Robert Chan’s life loosened his grasp of the larger, more obvious things, such as right and wrong, good and bad, decent and indecent. It’s not for me to even guess.

Sitting around the party table as the evening wound down the night before, I had begun to realize that these stories of misdemeanor and misadventure were valuable to us precisely because the acts they recount were so small, so particular, but so loaded with, yes, meaning.

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These acts meant breaking the law. These acts meant the thrill of flight. These acts--no matter how well we planned them, it seemed--meant getting caught. These acts meant getting punished. I can remember the first time I held a good firm orange in my hand with the intention of hitting an innocent stranger with it--how perfectly functional the orb seemed, how impossible it was not to throw such a well-made projectile at somebody. What the orange meant was pure, forbidden, rebellious, myth-of-the-West excitement. My friends and I were very clear on that.

Robert Chan grew up in a different county than I did, though less than two decades separate us in age. I juiced the school bus; Chan destroyed a living teen-ager. Somewhere along the line, the ante got upped, the stakes got higher and “meaning” got harder to find.

Rereading Chan’s words a few days later, I was struck by how close he was to the mark, and at the same time how far away. Because we are all going to die, he reasons, everything is meaningless and nothing matters.

But the truth is: Because we are all going to die, nothing is meaningless and everything matters. Even oranges. Old stories and old friends remind me of this. I am thankful for both.

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