Surviving our Night in the Park

Toilet-papering was a rite of passage for my generation; more a matter-of-fact part of childhood than a taboo act perpetuated by delinquents. It was basically expected that we, as teenagers, would pillage the bathroom cabinets of our homes to gather as much toilet paper as we could before sneaking out in the middle of the night to create a white fluffy toilet paper topcoat on an unsuspecting friend’s house. Later in my teens, my friends and I became fixated with more inventive ways of pranking people. Toilet-papering was well and good but there was something magical about filling a someone’s truck bed full of off-brand Fruit Loops or creating a renaissance maze out of an entire alley’s-worth of trash cans in someone’s driveway. Still, tossing an unraveling roll of toilet paper across the landscaping remained a tried and true method of wreaking harmless havoc on our peers.

My first experiences toilet-papering people’s houses were during summer nights when a group of us would stay at my youth pastor’s house. We’d be up late playing video games and at some point in the middle of the night, we’d take to the streets of their neighborhood. Between the congregants from church and the people I knew from my high school across town, we always had a handful of houses as options—all of which had trees that were perfect for becoming a T-P teepee.

On one such night, we were in the mood to toilet-paper someone’s house and we chose the house of a guy I knew from school who lived nearby. He liked to pick on me and that seemed like as good enough a reason as any to make a mess of his yard. Usually, we pranked our friends in the spirit of playfulness but that night carried an air of boredom-based vengeance. We gathered as much toilet paper as we could, pulled on our shoes and headed out into the night.

No one really knew what the laws were as pertained to tossing toilet paper over the roofs and treetops of someone else’s home, but we knew it didn’t end well if you got caught. This of course made it feel thrilling and subversive. With caution, we silently yet swiftly tossed our rolls of white paper over the house and into the tree branches to transform it into a mid-summer winter wonderland. Constantly looking over our shoulders for cars on the move, each of the six of us took a different part of the yard. One the hedges, one the tree, and so on.

As the house was beginning to feel appropriately covered, headlights turned the corner. “Go! Go!” we exclaimed in a hushed yell as we took off running between the houses and down the alleyway. It was the cops. I ran through the gap between two houses and when I emerged huffing on the next street over, our clan of delinquents felt safe and proud of ourselves having evaded capture. The only thing more humiliating than being caught by the cops would be when the cops woke up the people in the house and made us apologize before then making us clean up the mess we’d made. I’d heard of such embarrassment actually happening to people and I wanted no part in that level of summertime shame.

There was something invigorating about walking around the neighborhood in the middle of the night. We were free from all constraints or bedtimes, able to laugh and live freely after the rest of the world had gone to sleep. It’s a tangible freedom at an age when that’s all you really hunger for. So within that breezy freedom, we walked down to a playground at a bend in the road, climbed up onto the equipment and continued our conversations there. After a while, we decided we were done with our nighttime freedom-of-youth bit but as we got up to head back to our youth pastor’s house, those same police headlights turned the corner ahead of us. Crap.

Looking to the left of the playground, there was a field of incredibly tall, incredibly dense grass, the tips of which came up to our waists. Of all the ways Jurassic Park has affected my life—a list far too long to ever fully articulate—perhaps this was the only time when it taught me something tangible. In the span of a moment, my mind transported me to The Lost World and I remembered the stealth effectiveness of the camouflaged Velociraptors in the tall grass. It wasn’t the practical takeaway I ever expected to have to utilize but it was one I was entirely prepared for nonetheless.

“Run into the long grass!” I shouted in a raspy whisper. I figured if we were lying down in the dense grass, we could hide like the raptors and might have a hope of surviving the night without any embarrassing doorstep apologies. I felt like I was actually in the movie—you can imagine how thrilling this was—and the cops were flocking this way.

We sprinted into the tall stalks and stopped, dropped, and rolled like men on fire. In the process of rolling, we inadvertently slid down a small hill. It was maybe only a foot deep but it sunk us deeper into the grass than we’d been before. Laying there, we froze as the grass returned to its upright salute. The world lay silent for a moment—only the sounds of our hurried breathing and the chirpy bugs filling the starry night air.

We heard the police car as it approached the bend in the road. The silent seconds seemed to wear on like minutes as the car’s tires slowly approached the playground. Staring up at the starry night sky through the treetops, I smiled at the adventure of it all. This was the sort of teenage thrill I’d seen in the movies and now I was living it in real life.

Click. A spotlight turned onto the park.

I felt my throat sink into my butt. The police were actually using a search light to inspect the dark bend in the road! I closed my eyes as tightly as I could, as if that would change anything, and held my breath. The light passed by slowly, illuminating the tall grass but not us. The light moved onto the playground and as the police drove slowly around the bend in the road, the glow of their red break lights faded into the night. Like the Velociraptors emerging in the field of tall grass, six heads popped up to make sure the coast was clear. We’d done it. Thank you Jurassic Park. Thank you The Lost World. We’d survived. Not seeing or hearing any sign of the cops, we brushed the dead weeds off our clothes and started walking back to the house.

Effectively spooked, we knew it was time to get back to the protection that being indoors provided. Only a couple blocks from their house, we walked in the shadows near the trees in order to stay out of the orange colored street lights. Like a pack of paranoid dogs, we slunk down the street. Rounding the corner, we were only a few houses deep before the police car slowly turned ahead of us onto the other end of the street. We were trapped. The house was too far ahead of us to run to before being spotted and we were too deep to turn around. Add to it that their spotlight was illuminating the yards all around us and I was certain we were going to jail. That’s how it felt anyway.

One of the guys exclaimed, “Under the cars!” and like soldiers blindly following orders, we ducked behind the cars that lined the street. But this wasn’t enough to effectively conceal us so we began sliding underneath them. Dirt, dead leaves, sleeping cats, none of it mattered because we had to get out of sight.

As the spotlight slowly moved down the street, I could feel the impending moment when we’d either get caught or go free. Laying under strangers’ cars, we were perfectly shadowed but as the police approached, I realized if the spotlight shone down the street as opposed to in the yards, it could potentially illuminate half of my body. So I shimmied and slid like a snake against the curb. My shoulder slammed into the concrete curb while the rest of my body was snuggly wedged under the chasse of an old compact car. This is another direct-from-a-movie moment, only this time in the place of the dinosaurs were Nazis and I was a hiding Von Trapp kid. Friedrich, obviously.

The police car crawled by us—the teenage toilet-papering felons on the run for their lives—and again, no one made a sound. I don’t think I even took a breath for fear that they’d hear the sound of my heart bursting out of my chest. Like keeping silent and still so the Tyrannosaurus couldn’t see us, we stared at the road. How was it that we’d found ourselves in this predicament twice in the same night—in the same hour even. The police car’s tires snapped twigs and leaves underneath them and each crack and snap made me twitch with anxiety. This wasn’t as invigorating as it was the first time. At this point, I just wanted it to be over—a past tense adventure from which we’d emerged victorious. We lay still as the police passed us and didn’t budge until the car turned the corner at the end of the street.

Without hesitation, half a dozen teenage boys who started the evening thinking they were kings of the world ended the evening by shimmying out from under cars—oil and dirt marks on our clothes and skin—and sprinting like scared rabbits to get inside the house. Once the front door was closed behind us, the evening was over. No one rejoiced. No one celebrated. We all just lay down and went to sleep.

The following morning, as I left to go home, I drove past the house we’d toilet-papered. The yard was still coated in white and in the daylight, I could see our handiwork. We’d done well. Pulling out of the neighborhood, I felt like I was in the helicopter, flying away from the island and the havoc of our night being chased in the park.

Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon

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