By Tom Gilfoy
I had some pretty wild friends growing up in Sunland, but none quite so wild as my pal, Geronimo. He was the only kid in Sunland who my dad eventually told me I couldn’t have as a friend. I mean he really was wild, and dangerous too. He never killed any of his friends, but he came close. Once, he even came close to killing himself. I know his real name, but it’s just as well I don’t include it here. After all, he could still be living among us so why give him away. Besides, as a kid, he only answered to Geronimo, anyway.
He was part Indian, or at least claimed to be. He gave himself the name Geronimo, and I think the rest of us went along because calling him by that name reinforced our belief we were hanging out with a real live Indian. The fact he was a couple of years older than us, and only seemed to play with younger kids, is probably something a child psychiatrist would have a lot of fun analyzing.
Geronimo led our gang of young followers into many questionable activities. One was sneaking into the old Sunland Grammar School building at night where he organized rubber gun battles in the darkened hallways. These battles were, in their own way, sort of a poor man’s forerunner to the now popular games played with paintball guns. Geronimo taught us how to make the guns, which, basically, only amounted to a piece of wood carved to look a little like a long-barreled pistol with a clothespin serving as a trigger. With thick, powerful rubber bands, the guns were reasonably accurate. If you were hit at close range, you could get a pretty good sting.
It was fun shooting each other in the school’s halls this way, and we kept it up until my dad found out what was going on and put a stop to it. As best I recall, it was at about this time he put a permanent stop to my playing with Geronimo altogether. As things turned out, it was a good thing he did too –– getting stung by a rubber band was pretty mild compared to some of the things that happened later.
In fact, it was only a short time later when Geronimo shot one of us with a real pistol. About 70 years later I saw the victim of the shooting, my friend Johnny O’Connell, at a class reunion and asked him to refresh my memory about what had happened. Not surprisingly, Johnny has an indelible memory of the incident. He told me he was with Geronimo and some other friends at a neighbor’s house when Geronimo started horsing around with a supposedly unloaded .38 caliber revolver. It wasn’t long before he started pointing it at his friends and pulling the trigger. The click, click, clicking made Johnny so uncomfortable he got up to leave. As he was walking by, Geronimo pointed the gun at him, pulled the trigger one too many times and fired a live round into Johnny’s stomach.
Johnny recalled it didn’t hurt too much at first and that he remained conscious as he was driven down to the old Doc Mahon office on Foothill Boulevard. Doc couldn’t do much for him and called an ambulance. It was only later, when Johnny was being rushed to the hospital by ambulance, that he finally lost consciousness.
Eventually, Johnny fully recovered, but not before he became quite famous for being the only kid at Verdugo Jr. High with a real bullet lodged inside of him. In those days they didn’t dare remove the bullet until Johnny had regained enough strength from the initial trauma to withstand the operation. The result was he carried the bullet around inside of him for about six months before they finally operated and took it out. During the interim, I was among his many friends who were always asking Johnny to pull up his shirt so we could look with amazement at the rather pronounced protrusion on his back where the bullet had come to rest.
Another of Geronimo’s dangerously bizarre activities was playing with rattlesnakes. Not surprisingly, he handled them quite carelessly, with impunity really, claiming that even if one bit him it wouldn’t matter as his Indian blood made him immune to the snake’s poison. To the surprise of no one, he was eventually bitten and when his punctured hand started to swell, Indian blood or no, he rushed himself down to Hober’s corner drug store in hopes of finding some antivenin. Not finding any, he was leaving the store when he lost consciousness and fell down on the sidewalk out front. He was rushed to the hospital by ambulance where his life was saved.
An interesting epilogue to this latter episode is that Hober’s Drugstore (more recently known as Sunland Pharmacy) later gained a reputation as being the only pharmacy in the entire San Fernando Valley that kept a permanent supply of antivenin in stock. Lloyd Hitt, who later became the store’s proprietor, does not recall whether the Geronimo incident is what caused them to start keeping the supply on hand, but it does not seem unreasonable to speculate that this may well have been the case.
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