Have you ever had a childhood experience that was so out there that when you retell the story no one believes you, yourself included?
I can’t speak for city kids, but having spent my formative years in the affluent suburbs of Connecticut I learned one indisputable truth, namely that children have all sorts of bizarre adventures that their parents will never be privy to. Upon arrival in Westport, just a week shy of my seventh birthday, I was unleashed into a landscape of endless backyards that served as shortcuts — something I’m willing to bet is no longer in any way acceptable to local homeowners — , forests and swamps that seemed to go on forever (until you ran into the off-ramp for I-95), and the strange activities of the jaded rich kids who were my schoolmates. Frequent vacations to exotic international locations were routine for these privileged youth, along with every material possession imaginable, so the play that they engaged in was frequently more...unusual than four square or “house.”
The two sick-assed games that I recall most vividly from the time are “ghost” and “Viet Nam terrorist,” both exceedingly violent and, in retrospect, hilarious in a Three Stooges meet the Little Rascals sort of way. In “ghost,” some poor kid was unwillingly chosen at random and forced to throw a sheet over himself, thereby completely obscuring his body from head to toe and rendering him more or less blind. Once covered, the other kids who were not the designated ghost would mercilessly lob volleyballs, tennis balls, basketballs, or pretty much any non-lethal projectiles they could get their hands on at the hapless spectre, the bombardment only coming to a halt when it was apparent that the victim was about to collapse into unconsciousness. “Viet Nam terrorist” was only attempted when there was a large cardboard box available; the box was hauled up to the top of a steep hill — usually the rise in back of my elementary school — and the kid who was designated the “terrorist” climbed inside. The rest of the kids assumed the roles of disgruntled American G.I.s, one of whom was the platoon leader and as such got to deliver the dramatic “sentencing speech.” The extemporized histrionics and ludicrous dialogue were what made this game fun since it gave us a no-holds-barred forum in which to shamelessly overact, and once the outrageous hamming was over, the box containing the “terrorist” was unceremoniously kicked down the hill, at which point the kid in the box got into the act, shouting epithets such as “Die, Yankee scum!”
But the most unusual aspects of this particular suburban childhood were invariably provided by parents or relatives, especially because a lot of the grownups in Westport had really interesting jobs, both legal and not-so-legal. Kids were often exposed to wildly inappropriate and sometimes dangerous distractions by well-meaning adults, oblivious elders who overlooked the questionable nature of what they exposed us to in order to look big in the eyes of children.
My own adventure into such dubious territory happened in late 1972 when I invited a schoolmate, Johnny (I can't post his surname for reasons that will become apparent as you read further), over to play. As we ran about the backyard making noise and doing whatever it is that little boys do, my sweet but hyperactive pet collie, Corky, joined in on the fun, and Johnny commented that while a big dog like the Corkster may have been cool, his uncle — who shall remain nameless — had a much better pet, a mysterious beast by the name of “Supercat,” a mystery that deepened when Johnny refused to tell me exactly what this Supercat was.
I may only have been on the East Coast for a few months at that point, but I had already learned many bitter lessons about not necessarily believing what the kids around me had to say, so I sneered “Fuck a Supercat!” to Johnny, but rather than get upset, a coolness beyond his years settled over him and he offered to prove the existence of the wondrous creature in question. We stopped playing and went inside the house, where Johnny made a beeline for the kitchen and picked up the phone. He dialed his uncle and asked if we could come over and see Supercat, and the uncle replied that he’d be over shortly.
A sense of queasy trepidation possessed me as we waited for the uncle to show up; if this was a deception it had gone on way past the point of not being real, especially since an adult was now involved, so just what the hell could an animal with the prefix of “Super” in its name be? I mean, it couldn’t be anything more than a really fat house cat, right?
Eventually the uncle drove up, with Johnny's identical twin brother, Bobby, along for the ride. We piled into the finned sedan and took off into the Connecticut dusk, myself attempting to stay composed during my journey into the unknown, surrounded by a family of grinning sharks who couldn’t wait to see the little black kid shit himself. I have no recollection of exactly how long we drove or what town we ended up in, but it can’t have been too far from my home so it may have been Norwalk…
We arrived at the uncle’s house and crept stealthily to the cellar door, an imposing slab of steel whose handles were thickly looped with a dense network of chains and padlocks, all obviously intended to keep the curious out…or to keep something within from escaping. After the few minutes that it took to undo the locks, we descended a staircase to encounter another door, at which point the uncle moved to the head of our little procession and instructed us to be silent and not make any sudden moves, orders that twins had obviously heard before, as evidenced by their casual demeanor.
The uncle produced a series of keys and unlocked the door, sticking his head into the stygian blackness and calling out, “Supercat? Daddy’s home!” The uncle then herded us youngsters into the room and told us quite firmly to stay close to the wall. I obeyed, and as my eyes began to adjust, the uncle turned on the light, a single bare bulb illuminating a sparse basement space. And there in the middle of the room was a ring mounted into the cement and attached to a ten foot length of heavy chain, a chain that circled the neck of a full grown male cheetah.
Yes, there I was, all four-foot-pitooey of me, face to face with a Big Cat (as they were called on “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”), a top-of-the-food-chain predator and famously fastest land animal on earth. Chained or not, Supercat scared the living hell out of me and I wanted out of there immediately, but the uncle and the brothers were obviously not threatened by the animal, in fact it was quite the opposite; these humans exuded a mastery over the once-proud hunter, a humiliated badass who now was relegated to illegally residing in a dank Connecticut basement. Once I realized that Supercat was probably too weak to have even considered taking a chunk out of my pint-sized ass I was overwhelmed with a great sadness, and was even more eager to depart.
Soon enough the visit ended and I got dropped off at home, and the uncle suggested that I not tell my parents about what I had seen because it might cause him “some problems.” The brothers vouched for my silence, and then they all went home. Me, I just sat on my front porch, stunned.
Shortly after the Supercat incident, the brothers moved away and the whole bizarre moment faded into a memory that was so unsure that even I had trouble believing it ever happened. Then in 1989, after I had graduated from college and lived at home until getting my job in the Marvel Comics Bullpen, I went out for drinks with a bunch of my friends from the growing up years who also were at home awaiting the transition into real lives and careers, and we got onto the subject of weird shit that had happened to us as kids. As we got more and more inebriated our stories got wilder and wilder, and as the tales escalated in unbelievability I waited until just the right moment to break out the story of Supercat. My friends patiently listened to what just had to be me spinning a tall tale, and when it was over they erupted with laughter, all calling my story the biggest load of galloping horseshit they’d ever heard. And since I had no witnesses, other than those who were there, there was no way to verify the whole thing.
Which brings me to the punchline.
As I sat there unable to offer any sort of defense, a voice suddenly said to me, “Hey! Are you Steven Bunche?” I drunkenly turned to where the voice came from, and who should I behold but a seventeen-years-older Johnny, visiting relatives from out of nowhere!!! I almost fell over dead from shock and began to incoherently babble like a madman before I composed myself enough to blurt out, “Johnny! Tell these guys about your uncle’s pet!” To which Johnny nonchalantly replied, “What? Ya mean Supercat?”
The mouths of my friends all fell open in unison and I felt relieved to know that every once in a while the gods have my back.