My brother and I grew up in apartment complexes in Southern California in the ‘70’s. Most them look the same. Four long, two-story buildings set in a square, a parking lot outside the square at one end. In the center of that square was usually a courtyard with a big swimming pool. The first one I can remember was very much like that except that it was more rectangular than square and had a fenced concrete pool at one end and walkways with grass and trees on each side at the other end. There were brown pebble embedded concrete stairs up the second floor apartments. When we were short enough to stretch out across a whole step, we would lay out and warm ourselves in the sun, one kid to a step, waiting for the inevitable adult to come by and scatter us.
Kids ran around that courtyard all day when school was out. You could hear mothers admonishing kids to “stay in the courtyard” and out of the parking lot. If you were bored, you could go outside and probably find other kids to chase. If not, they’d soon see you and come out. It was before the age where you were discerning about who you hung out with, every kid was your friend and just about everyone you met was invited to your birthday party.
I don’t remember much about those kids but I remember one very clearly. I don’t remember what he looked like. Probably the usual lanky kid with brown hair, brown corduroy pants and a striped gold and white polo shirt of the late ‘70’s. Wherever he went he sang “Lucy in the sky with diamonds!” at the top of his voice, not the whole song, just that one line over and over again.
One afternoon my mother told me to keep an eye on my little brother out in the courtyard and to “stay out of the parking lot.” He was two years younger than me. In my imagination, he was the instigator back then, always roughhousing with other boys and making me chase him all over the apartment complex to keep him out of trouble. It seems like I wasn’t in school yet, so that would make him three or four. Thinking about it, I’m imagining a five and three-year-old playing in the courtyard of an apartment complex without an adult in sight today. Someone would have called the police!
The singer, as we called him, came storming up to my brother and I as we played beneath a large tree. We were “catching rabbits,” a game where we laid very still beneath the tree and near the bushes and watched for any imaginary rabbits that may come out since they wouldn’t know we were there. The singer came running up and my brother and I were angry that he had scared the rabbits away. That boy got right in our face and said, “You want to hear a joke?!” He was so loud! He straightened up real tall and showed us a piece of paper in his hand. “I’m a policeman. Never never!” and then he threw the piece of paper over his shoulder and ran off laughing manically.
We stood there staring after him in wonder. My brother looked at me and quickly picked up the piece of paper and repeated what the singer had done and laughed. Of course, I followed suit and repeated the “joke” again. I remember hearing the singer loudly repeating the joke to someone else he found in the courtyard and giggling to myself as we went back to the “catching rabbits” game.
Later that evening, when our mother called us in for dinner, I remember my brother repeating the joke to her. She just stared at us as we laughed in childish hysterics. How could she not find that funny? Old people! She just shook her head and told us to wash up and get ready for dinner.
It was around 1978 and “Keep America Beautiful” was at its height that year. Iron Eyes Cody made us all feel so bad about how we trashed our neighborhoods. There were school programs now to clean up the neighborhoods and constant reminders to “never litter.” It took me years to realize that our neighborhood friend probably misspoke a joke he heard on TV or from his parents, maybe an older brother. He was only six years old too! Now I can see it, someone thought they’d be hilariously ironic and pretend to be a police officer that litters and tell you not to. Our young friend heard the joke, loved the laughter, and tried to recreate it for the kids in the courtyard. I wonder if he wondered why the joke didn’t go over as well as when he first heard it.