Within that block, our gang knew no boundaries. Our front yards were all connected with no fences in between and our back yards formed a long maze interrupted only by free-standing garages. In summer, the school across the street had a recreation program, basically a giant box of kick balls, horseshoes, jump ropes, tether balls, basketballs and soft balls available for us to use on the school grounds for free.
At its peak, our block was populated by 22 kids who played together every day. You could join the girly girls, like my little sister, and play Barbies or paper dolls. And if you were one of the girly girls, you could often be found in someone's garage where stray furniture had been pulled together and covered with blankets, transforming the dusty concrete space into a makeshift house where you were the mother, carefully dressing, bathing, wrapping and rocking an assortment of baby dolls.
I was a crossover who found myself some of the time with the girly girls, but I grew bored easily. Playing house strangled me after a while, and I'd rush outside to join a baseball game, do backbends, play balance beam on the low concrete wall that bordered the far end of our back yards, or climb a tree.
My sister Kim, just 14 months older than me, was never a girly girl. She was the only kid on our block with an obvious handicap -- she had Down Syndrome and wasn't allowed to go to regular elementary school -- but she ran with the biggest and the toughest. When the summer recreation program was on, she didn't jump rope and couldn't even be convinced to turn an end. She went for horseshoes, the heavy metal kind that rang loudly when they hit the steel spike. When the other girls played house, she was the husband, but not the garden variety. Her husband swaggered like Marlon Brando and took off for work on an imaginary motorcycle.
Most often, when imaginary play was the order of the day, Kim took on the fictional personality of a hero, John, often referred to as "Big John" after the popular song of that time. Her imaginary foes were a brother-sister team, Judy Boy and Judy Girl, rank villains she pursued with boundless energy. She chased them through the dust on a stick horse, then beat them up and locked them up in jail. She carried a sword or a plastic rifle. She wore an army helmet or a baseball cap.
Though we all watched out for her, there was not a kid in the neighborhood, I'd wager, who thought of her as disabled. She was one of us -- one of the best of us.
Only once did I realize the vulnerability that was a direct result of her fearlessness.
Behind our house, on the next block down, our neighbors had a rare fenced yard, a dirt pit surrounded by high chain link that no one dared enter. Inside, a snarling Doberman named Penny went berserk when we came anywhere near the fence. Rumor was the little blonde girl who lived in Penny's house had once been mauled by the big black dog and she carried a scar on her face to prove it. The family drove a station wagon with a metal barrier between the back seat and the cargo area to keep Penny away from passengers.
One afternoon as I was lollygagging along the concrete wall, balancing on one foot, then the other, I glanced ahead at Penny's pen and saw a dirty little girl sitting in the middle of it, cuddling the jaws of the big black dog. I thought it must be the little girl who lived there, but quickly realized it was Kim. Paralyzed with fear, I didn't dare speak. My sister sat there, gently petting and singing to the scariest dog on Earth.
I ran to my house as fast as I could, careful not to alert Penny, and breathlessly entered the house. "Mama," I sputtered, "Kim's in the pen with Penny."
I don't remember how we got her out. I know we did not approach the pen directly. We probably went to her owners' front door and asked them to bring Kim out. I remember that she was not in the least shaken by the experience. The rest of us quickly turned it into legend.
I remember understanding on that day that Big John needed watching and I have watched her ever since. But I have never forgotten her undeniable bravery. To this day, she has never let us down.
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