Sunday, April 7, 2024

Adoption Series: Sleeping out

Read Time: 12 minutes

Acting out as a fostered and adopted child was my norm. 

“The lights are out.”

“Teddy! Wake up, wake up. The lights are out; we can go.” Larry was shaking me awake, eager to get going. I must have drifted off.

Lights out meant parents were in bed and out of the picture on the other side of the house.

We’re sleeping out behind my house with a scrapyard adventure planned.

Looking back at those days, I’m pretty sure I was trying to build connections the only way I knew how, by instigating adventures just a bit closer to the edge than my peers would do on their own. The scrapyard was one of my favorites.

“Okay-okay, enough! I’m awake,” I shake off my sleep. Larry’s already put on his heavy work gloves and camouflaged his face with some theater makeup he’d scored. Larry is like that, get him started on something, and he’d really dig in with his own prep. I feel around in our tiny tent for the gloves he brought me. Too dark to see in here.

I slip out of the tent; no moon, the shadows inky black; everything else is blue.

“Here, let me put this stuff on you.” I hold still while Larry spreads the black cream on my face.

We even attempted to blacken the white rubber on our sneakers with my dad’s shoe polish, another precaution only he would have considered. However, it didn’t work very well.

Scrapyard visits were always with purpose. Our quest tonight was for ball bearings. Steelies, as we called them, were marble-sized, polished balls, highly prized in the schoolyard as the big brother to ordinary marbles.

Our theory was that steelies, with their weight and heft, would overpower regular glass marbles on the playground. If nothing else, solid steel marbles would make us look badass.

As I write, I remember my need to enter games like marbles with a sense that I’d be accepted and respected. Coming with the extra heft that the steelies provided seemed like a way to get some schoolyard respect by pushing the edges of the rules. Having a little bit of extra something helped me overcome my feeling of inferiority, which has been a constant in shaping my behavior then and now.

I’d saved two strings of firecrackers to add to the power, risk, and excitement of our junkyard run. I handed one to Larry, and as I gave it to him, he smiled. I knew he’d be into it. Just the thought of firing whole strings, then running into the night to escape, was thrilling.

We were prepped and ready.

With the lights out, we slip away, out the gate –– careful to keep it from slamming shut –– down the dark, narrow alley to where it meets the street that’ll take us to the woods. Once out of the ally and on the sidewalk, we stay close to the bordering fences and houses to remain in shadow, avoiding blue-green streetlights and yellow porch lights as much as possible.

Shadow dodging, we called it. A dance of sorts. Brief bursts of speed to cross the street to the shadow side. A short wait to see if anyone notices. Then, a series of short sprints from shadow to shadow. Sprints separated with pauses to see if we’re in the clear. Hoping to remain undetected.

Silence and stealth are our goals.

We are secret agents, ninja warriors, shadowy night creatures living in our imaginary land. Unheard and unseen, far beyond the reach of any authority, we are cloaked in the pleasure of it all.

I feel pebbles through my thin soles as we cross the graveled street, the exertion of sprinting from shadow to shadow, my heart pounding during the brief rests, the cool night air on my blackened face, and the sweat on my back.

The excitement from “getting away with it” –– something Dad claimed was my primary purpose in life –– running high.

Once we reach where the street dead ends in the woods, we feel safe from being seen. Low leafy trees cover the hillside and separate our neighborhood on the hilltop from the industrial flats below. At night, the woods are black with shadow. Under the tree cover, my eyes adjust to what little light there is.

Larry and I know the woods and the trails through them well. Like all the kids in our hood, we mostly spend our summer days exploring and playing in this border of green. And we’ve spent enough nights sneaking through them to feel completely at home under their dark cover.

We think of the first section of the trail that leads down to the flats as the upper trail. It’s broad, with a series of switchbacks to accommodate the slope of the hill. It ends at a dirt road halfway down the hill.

We reach the dirt road and wait; the fear of being discovered is always on our minds. And it’s a good thing we waited. The sound of tires on gravel at speed stills us, and we wait for the car’s lights, holding back into the concealing trees. The car passes without pause, leaving a heavy curtain of dry dust in the air. All good.

We cross the road, breathing the dust.

Once across, we reach the top of the lower trail. It’s not really a trail  –– it’s more of a cliff — an almost vertical bank of rock and hardpan, covered with scrub trees and brush. It continues the path from the dirt road down to the foundry yard at the base of the hill. Footholds and handholds make the climb possible, but care is required.

I start down the cliff. Larry waits a bit, then follows.

Now, my gloves are hindering my grip. I lean into the cliff. Cheek against the bank, feeling the roughness against my skin as I take off one glove and then the other and stuff them in my back pockets, hoping I don’t lose them on the way down.

“Larry, hey, Lar,” I whisper. “Gloves make it worse. I just took mine off.” Not waiting for a reply, I move on down, first with my right foot, then my left, searching for the footholds I know are there, gripping branches when I can, and finding rocks and pockets in the hard embankment when I can’t.

I must have been ten or eleven when I carefully planned and made trips like this to the scrapyard. I now know they were my way of feeling in control. My way of pursuing closer relationships by being the bad boy in a planned way. Remembering the experience and comparing it to my professional life helps me see how important being in control has always been for me. I’ll initiate the risk and lead others only if I feel in control.

The smells of oil-soaked dirt and diesel exhaust drift up from the foundry, the junkyard, and the railyard beyond as I work my way down, Larry following close above me.

No talking now. A night watchman occasionally makes rounds. Sometimes, there are workers and homeless to be wary of, though there’s nothing easy to steal in the foundry yard. It holds giant cast iron pipe connectors stacked on wood pallets. Each is larger than a man and far too heavy for anyone to carry away, though they’re great to play in.

Once down but sheltered in the darkness of the stacked pipes, we wait, listen, and watch for movement.


“Gloves on,” Larry whispers. ” The last time I was here, I cut my hand on something and had a hard time explaining.”

First, I’d heard that. No wonder he brought gloves.

No pipe play tonight. I pull on my gloves, the rough leather softened by the warmth from my butt. Tonight, we are going straight through the stacks to the junkyard beyond.

We’d been planning our “steelies” trip for weeks. Larry had been bugging me to get more of the precious little balls with his schoolyard logic: “Hey, we’ll be large and in charge when the games begin. And! We’ll be able to trade for their best stuff. I’d introduced Larry to the scrapyard earlier, and he was, at this point, completely hooked.

Time to move.

To Larry, “See anyone?”


It looks all clear to me, too.

The foundry yard is quiet. We’re off, crossing as quickly as possible to get into the bridge’s shadow. The bridge separates the foundry yard from the scrapyard beyond. Stacks of pipe castings crowd the space under the bridge. Once there, concealed in the shadow, we climb through the tightly stacked pipe connectors to a point where we can see the piles of scrap cars, old appliances, and discarded machinery in the scrapyard beyond.

Again, we wait, watch and listen. There’s a crane loading railcars on the other side of the scrapyard. It’s far enough away that it’s not a problem. The sounds from the crane and occasional cars on the bridge mix with the switchers moving boxcars on the tracks beyond. It’s a moonless night, but enough greenish light from the streetlights on the bridge above makes us take care.

Now, the scent of the yard fills the air. Oil and grease, old upholstery, and assorted unidentifiable industrial smells. The passageways between the towering piles of flattened cars and other scrap are soaked with oil. It’s in this blackened dirt that we usually find the steelies.

Hidden in the dark shadow of the bridge, we wait, watch, and listen. Sometimes, the scrap yard operates through the night, and we can’t go in. Sometimes, there’s a watchman here, too. But tonight, we’re in luck; there’s the crane, but other than that, everything is quiet.

“Looks clear. Let’s go.” Larry in his whisper.

The deep rhythm of the diesel switching engines, the clunk of couplers, the groan of the cars as they’re moved, and the indistinct voices of the railmen drift to us on the night air. We’ve never had a problem with these guys. They seemed much too busy to bother with us, even if they did see us.

Into the scrapyard we go. Eyes down, looking for those shiny steel balls from broken ball-bearing cases. Even without the moon, it’s bright enough to see the steelies. We’re lucky to quickly fill our pockets.

With heavy pockets and the pleasure of success, we head back to the darkness of the bridge, and I get the idea of dropping my string of crackers into one of the giant pipe connectors. I feel my excitement rise at the thought. The big cast iron piece will amplify the sound. A great cap to our adventure.

Larry agrees.

“Love it!” With this, Larry whips out his Zippo –– he loves being the man with the fire. He flicks open the cap with that distinctive hollow metal cap sound, thumbs the wheel, and puts the open flame under a punk. Once it’s smoldering just right, he puts the punk on the edge of a pipe, and we both get strings ready to light. Nothing like the rapid firing of full strings of crackers to awaken the night. I tingle with excitement and anticipation.

Moments like this, where I’m at the strike point, have been a lifelong theme. Moments I carefully planned yet knew would push me into the unknown. Moments where my efforts led me, knowing that what’s next is unpredictable. All of this was mostly unconscious. Maybe known, maybe not. I do know I’ve created these moments to push me forward into new territory. Territory I’d be afraid to explore any other way.

Fuses lit, Larry drops his in a big one, and I do the same.

And we run.

BAM-BAM-BAM… The sound, deep and rich from inside the cast-iron cannon…

“ASSHOLES!” A man screams before the strings even stop firing.

I look back and see the dark shape of a man pushing himself out of the pipe as the last of the firecrackers goes off.

Fear strikes me like a lightning bolt. I try to run harder

“I’ll kill you! You little bastards.”

Pockets full of steel; I’m slow, waddling like a duck.

“Larry, lose the steelies!” I yell as I pull the dead weight from my pockets, dropping steelies left and right while running as fast as I can.

Larry’s doing the same, and I slip and fall on some he’d dropped.

Up again. Knee ripped and raw, running on raw fear. The guy yelling, screaming-mad. Reaching the base of the hill, I throw myself up the steep trail, grabbing at handholds, pulling, climbing with no thought of my torn pants and bloody knee. There’s only fear of the madman hot on my trail. A man who has every right to kill me.

I do know this trail. Every handhold, every foothold is fixed in my mind. I grab, I pull, I stab my feet into the bank. I climb-crawl up as fast as I can. Terror driving every move.

I catch Larry before we reach the dirt road. We cross and plunge into the safety of the darkness on the other side. We can still hear the man screaming, but he’s further from us now.

Larry breaks the silence with, “Teddy, I think…”

I hush him with a finger on my lips and whisper in his ear, “We need to be totally silent now.”

Larry nods. We move slowly, silently up the trail’s switchbacks.

Safely back in my little pup tent, we’re exhausted. Spent. We talk it over. Deflated at the loss of the steelies. Elated from our narrow escape.

Larry grips my shoulder hard: “He was sleeping in one of the pipes.”

And I erupt in laughter at what I’d done. At the power of it. The audacity. Still in the grip of my wave of adrenalin.

Then the shame of it hits. And the meanness of my own spirit.

Larry says what I couldn’t, “Maybe he lost his hearing or shit… even an eye.”

My thrill of getting away with it gives way to the horror of our violent acts.

We’d gone too far, over the line of acceptability. My solution is repression. We never speak of that night again.

I’d known this could happen, yet Larry’s words still shook me, the way my mother’s words shook me when I knew I’d hurt her, and I feared I’d lose her too.

I’d planned; I’d engineered this adventure to seal my relationship with Larry. To be the bad boy that drew others to him.

 I knew what would happen now—the sinking despair, the gradual recovery, and the knowledge that maybe this would also drive Larry away from me. And I felt myself on the verge of falling into that sense of separation, of aloneness that was my biggest fear.

Larry and I stayed friends but not close friends. Going forward, I knew I needed to limit my risk-taking or risk the loss of what small community I did have.


  • Great writing.
    Would be even better without the paragraphs of analysis looking back.

    • Ted says:

      Thanks, Ellen! So, I included the ‘looking back’ bits in my somewhat desperate attempt to make sense of myself. I do agree that those bits interrupt the flow of the story. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this!

  • Marianne Shapiro says:

    Dear Ted, Riveting story, well done with good detail. I can feel the pounding hearts. The scramble, the dare, the desire to find a way to both be empowered and to belong are palpable. Thank you , Mariann

    • Ted says:

      Thank you so much, Marianne, I really appreciate your insights. As you know, I’m on a journey to discover the why.

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