- Politics and Social Issues
Street Gangs in my Hometown: the Beginnings
Sometimes things just happen
Despite our best efforts, most of us have found ourselves in situations we did not want or intend to be involved in at one time or another. We interact with people we shouldn’t be socializing with, make incorrect decisions or simply find ourselves in the wrong place when something bad occurs. We often never intend to place ourselves in circumstances that could be harmful or dangerous, but it can happen anyway. When I was a teenager I thought I was spending lazy Saturday afternoons with an old friend, but just by knowing him I became involved in much more. By wandering the streets of my hometown with a buddy from grade school, I found myself in a situation that escalated into something perilous and unsafe. This story is only the beginning.
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The face of conflict
The beginnings of the war
One warm Saturday afternoon in October of 1972, my friend Paul and I prowled the streets of downtown Lawrence. Paul was at a stage in his life when he didn’t want to meet me at his parents’ house very often, and if I did see him there we usually didn’t stay. This afternoon we met at the public library, but soon made our way toward the many retail stores that lined both sides of Massachusetts Street. As we walked south toward 9th Street, Jeff Tomar approached with several of his friends. I thought nothing of this since I knew Tomar from classes at school and considered him a friend, but I felt Paul tense beside me. He said nothing, but he was clearly nervous. Tomar’s friends maintained their distance as he approached us. Without acknowledging me, he stood in Paul’s path and punched him in the chest. The blow wasn’t meant to hurt him, but it wasn’t a soft punch, either. Tomar smiled and made eye contact with me for the first time as he motioned for his friends to come closer. He nodded toward Paul and proclaimed, “This is the guy we all want to kill. One hundred and fifty guys are all looking for him!” Jeff Tomar punched Paul in the chest a final time and led his friends away from us.
I was mystified and fairly alarmed, and Paul seemed relieved that what took place wasn’t worse than it was. He asked if I was okay and I told him I was fine, if a bit confused. I asked why that happened, but Paul shook his head and said he didn’t know. Despite my insistence that he had to know why someone attacked him and threatened to kill him, Paul offered nothing enlightening. I wasn’t sure how Tomar even knew Paul, but he smiled the entire time and I regarded the incident as posturing on his part. Perhaps it was a joke, albeit a cruel one. If over one hundred guys were looking for Paul, why didn’t they do more when they found him? I wondered if there was a connection between this incident and the stories of Lawrence street gangs Paul sometimes described. I didn’t think Jeff Tomar was in a gang, but conceded it wasn’t impossible. Other middle-class teenagers belonged to gangs—why not him?
Several weeks later I visited Paul at his house on Kennedy Drive. We walked through the surrounding neighborhoods as we chatted about school and girls. In one neighborhood, a situation similar to the one we endured on Massachusetts Street quickly unfolded. We were approached by five teenagers who clearly knew Paul. One of them was Doug Bachman, someone he told me about months earlier. I didn’t recognize the others.
Four teenagers surrounded Paul while the fifth pinned my arms. The huge Bachman punched Paul in the face and chest repeatedly with all his might as he warned him to stay out of their neighborhood. Paul endured the blows rather than involve me in a fight we had no chance to win. Bachman saw my long hair and suggested someone get a scissors to cut it off, but we were outside and it was clearly an idle threat. His massive fist pounded continually into Paul’s chest until he coughed. Bachman laughed at him, and they left when they felt they had made their point.
We sat on the sidewalk for a few moments and regained our composure. I felt humiliated that I was too small to help Paul but realized five against two weren’t very good odds, regardless of my size. For the second time in a month we were attacked while walking around town, and I asked Paul to tell me the truth about why this was happening. He clearly did something to make these guys angry, and I wanted to know what it was. It was crucial to recognize if I was placing myself in unsafe situations by wandering the neighborhoods with him.
Paul confided that one night a month earlier he snuck out the window of his house and prowled the neighborhood with Ted Mallory, a mutual friend from grade school. Ted enjoyed acts of vandalism such as keying cars or turning on garden hoses left outside and flooding lawns, and this was Ted’s motivation for roaming West Lawrence with Brad during the night. Paul never involved himself in the delinquent acts Ted favored, and mostly they talked and meandered aimlessly until they came upon Laura Holloway’s house and noticed one light was on. Laura was an attractive girl from school that Paul had an interest in. He approached the window and saw her sitting in her bedroom studying. He knocked on the window and Laura opened it. As Ted watched from a distance, Laura spoke with Paul for a few minutes. She wasn’t alarmed by his appearance at her house in the middle of the night and seemed friendly enough for Paul to be encouraged by the encounter. Several nights later, he once again slipped away in the darkness and roamed the streets with Ted. He returned to Laura’s house and again found her bedroom light on. For a second time, he tapped on the window and found her receptive to conversing with him. He stayed over an hour, and she even brought a glass of water for Paul to quench his thirst. Paul wondered if his odd encounters with this pretty girl could eventually lead to a romance.
Laura Holloway viewed these interludes differently. She told her friends at school that Paul tried twice to break into her room, and accused him of being at least a peeping tom, and likely far more than that. In an act of faux chivalry, the class jocks rose to her defense and vowed to teach Paul and Ted a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. Paul assured me nothing dangerous occurred so far and believed their talk was simple posturing. I argued that the situation we just endured was quite real and feared it was only the beginning. He insisted there were no incidents other than the two I had witnessed and believed I was safe with him, but I wasn’t convinced. To convince me I was in no danger, he revealed that several of his friends believed Laura lied about him, or at least exaggerated her claims about Paul’s behavior. They had other friends that would help if there was any trouble. It sounded like a gang war was brewing, and he smiled and said that might be the case. When he saw my reaction he implored me not to worry—there wasn’t really a gang war. That didn’t allay my own fears, however. We were surrounded by a group of tough guys wanting to hurt Paul twice in the last month, and Jeff Tomar boasted of 150 people looking for him. Gang war or no, I didn’t like the odds.
Weeks later Paul told me of further trouble, and we speculated it was indeed the beginnings of a conflict. I had heard of local gangs with names such as Alpha, the Mothers of Destruction, the Northmen, the Riverkings, and the Rainbow Brothers, and it was not beyond Lawrence’s scope for restless teenagers to organize and cause trouble. Paul asked if I wanted him to teach me to fight, but I declined. He suggested I try not to be alone at school or around town if I could help it, and that I confine my activities to my own neighborhood. I asked why he thought that was necessary, and he conceded my friendship with him could bring trouble my way. He indicated that gangs were active in Lawrence, but most of them confined their activities to their own “turfs” or neighborhoods. He vowed to put bodyguards at my disposal to ensure I could move about freely at the first sign of trouble, but didn’t want to commit people to watching me if there was no need. I asked him to tell me truthfully if he had bodyguards available because he was in a gang, and he said he was. He needed this for his own safety. He was already influential and able to make some choices for the group, and subsequently felt capable of guaranteeing my safety. I wouldn’t feel safe again for a long time, however. Knowing Paul meant trouble.
Along for the ride
This was only the beginning of a situation that involved Paul and other friends for the next several years. Just by knowing him it involved me, as well. His connection with the gangs wasn’t a laughing matter and presented odd challenges that persisted and grew more perilous. Real and pretend gangs sprung into being to menace us and other Lawrence teens periodically. They were children mimicking older teens and pretending to be tough, but that made the situation no less dangerous. Midwest gangs in the early 1970’s were not the deadly crime organizations gangs would later become but the knives, box cutters, chains and occasion gun were all still real. Soon Paul would be fighting for his life and whether I wanted to or not, I was coming along for the ride……
A 2012 Update
This article was a remembrance of teenage life as it existed in a Midwestern city nearly forty years ago. It was only the beginning of the story and my involvement with Kansas gangs. This article focused on street gangs and violence, and how these gangs sometimes involved innocent kids in circumstances they didn't bargain for. It was a look at far simpler times. Street gangs in Kansas forty years ago were not the deadly threat that gangs in the 21st century are. Gang wars were fought late at night in parks and cemeteries by groups of teenagers battling as groups. The era of drive-by shootings had not yet been imagined. These kids were playing an entirely different game. It was still on occasion a deadly game, but violence and death weren't the primary tools for gangs imposing their wills upon each other. In those days if a gang member died, it was an accident. It was still a circumstance that shook everyone involved. It was not a rite of passage.
This realization does not diminish the threat of danger that existed. I have referred to the gang activities of that era as a game, but it was not. It was serious business and extremely dangerous. The societal problems that led kids to gang life was as real then as they are now. The psychology of gang life was largely the same. Frequently the end result of life among the gangs was the same, also. The primary difference was the specter of death that lurks in the shadows and streets of American cities now. Death was not witness to gang activities then--at least not to the same degree.
This article only tells part of a story and, in many ways, it cannot tell the entire tale. Why not, you ask? This story has no ending. Decades later, disconnected teenagers still roam the streets of our cities, threatening each other and the many innocent people they encounter. The problems still exist, and forty years have done little to provide answers. We can only hope answers can someday be found and that our children can grow up safely, without the threat of violence hovering over their heads--or the specter of death.
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