When I was growing up, we had a playhouse in our backyard. I don't think my parents bought it, or built it, because they were Depression people and didn't believe in spending money on anything so frivolous as a playhouse, and my dad was all thumbs when it came to home improvement. Besides, it was old and beat up, so it must have come with the house when my parents bought the place in the 1940s, a few years before I was born. Nevertheless, my sister Nancy and I spent a lot of time out in the playhouse. We'd head out there in April, with our winter coats still on, and spend most of the summer using it as our base of operations.
The playhouse was made of plywood, with slatted wooden swinging doors in the front -- like the bar room doors from western movies. Two windows peered out on either side of the door, just square holes with no glass in them. This was our hangout, or our hideout, for we were always pretending to be the bad guys, which seemed more interesting to us than thinking we were the law. Sometimes we were train robbers in the Wild West. Other times whiskey runners from Chicago, or Mafia big shots in New York City.
I had another sister, six years older, who never played with us. But my older brother George joined in occasionally. He had a lot of friends and was very popular in the neighborhood, and could never resist the chance to socialize with anybody, even his little brother and sister. One Saturday afternoon Nancy and I were sitting in the playhouse, when George appeared at the door. He was too tall to fit in the door without ducking, so he just peered down inside, hands propped against the door frame, looking at us with the slightly disdainful attitude he had acquired when he got to junior high school. "What are you guys doing?" he asked.
"Nothing. Just sitting here," we shrugged.
"We’re hiding out from the police," Nancy explained. "They’re looking for us ‘cause we robbed a bank."
"Oh? You robbed a bank?" George asked. "How much money did you get?"
"Ummm. A million dollars," Nancy told him.
"A million dollars? That’s a lot of money. What are you going to do with it?"
"I don’t know," said Nancy.
"Where is it?" asked Georgie.
I didn't like the way he was smirking and making fun of us, so I chimed in, "We’re just pretending, stupid. We pretended top rob a bank, and we pretended to bury the money in back of our hideout."
"But you know," Georgie said, ignoring me and looking at Nancy, "With all that money, and the cops after you, you need someone to help you out."
Nancy took the bait. "Want to play?"
"Yeah, I’ll play. But only if I can be the boss."
"No. That’s not fair," I interrupted. "You can’t be the boss."
"Well, who’s the boss now?"
Nancy and I looked at each other. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that a boss was necessary. She was two years older than me, but we played together a lot and we had no problem sharing our playhouse. Sometimes we had other gang members from the neighborhood. My sister's best friend from down the street. My friend Danny from across the street. But often it was just the two of us, hiding out in our fort next to the bushes that grew up alongside the garage.
"You guys need a boss," he pressed.
"No, we don’t," I said, "’cause you know why?"
"I’m the boss," I said determinedly, standing up to face George.
"Jeez," he said, rolling his eyes. He turned his back and stared out at the yard. I could see him gazing over toward the house, shaking his head a little. Then he looked around again. "The boss. Tommy’s the boss."
"Yeah, I’m the boss."
George looked at me and then at Nancy. "Is that right, Nancy?"
"Well . . . umm . . ."
"Nancy, are you going to let Tommy be your boss?"
"No, I guess not. I think I should be the boss."
Soon Nancy and I were arguing over who was boss. She gave me a push, and I stumbled a step or two backward and sat down hard on the bench that lined the back wall of the playhouse. George bent over and entered the playhouse, then folded himself down to sit on the bench next to me, his knees sticking up because the seat was too low for him. He looked at Nancy, then me, and said, "Listen, I have a plan." He leveled a look at the two of us, daring us not to want to hear what his plan was.
"Yeah, okay, what?" Nancy said.
"You can both be bosses."
We looked at him. I wondered what he was getting at.
"Nancy, you can be a boss," he pronounced. "But you'll be a little boss. And since there are two little bosses, Tommy, you can be a boss too.”
I thought that one over for a couple of seconds. I looked at George, then over at my sister. I decided that little boss was better than nothing. I knew my tough guy stance was a total bluff, and if I didn't agree, George would probably cut me out altogether. Both George and Nancy could beat me up – they'd done so on many occasions -- and so I wasn't in any position to object. Besides, at least this would put me on an even keel with Nancy. I looked at her. She seemed agreeable. I looked at George and shrugged, “Okay,” I told him.
"Fine," said George. "So here’s the deal. You two are both boss when I'm not around. But when I come by, then I'm the boss. Because I'm the big boss. Actually, I’ll be president. You two can be vice presidents."
I wasn’t sure which was worse. Having George as the big boss, or being called a vice president. We were supposed to be a gang. Gangs don’t have vice presidents.
But George wasn’t a gang sort of person. He was more the vice president type. He was tall and thin, and seemed confident about everything. When he'd started junior high he began to dress well. He didn't wear sneakers and dungarees like I did. He liked chinos and penny loafers, and he had a dark green pea coat that he was very proud of -- he was cultivating the preppie look, which he thought was cool and which also, I could see, attracted the girls.
So George had been our leader for maybe two minutes, and already he’d put his own personal stamp on our game. I didn't like that, but there wasn't much I could do. Anyway, before I could object, George got up and ducked out the door, heading across the lawn. "Nancy, come on, follow me," he called.
They were walking quickly up the driveway toward the street, maybe to meet some friends, maybe to play kickball. I didn't want to be left behind, so I scampered out of the playhouse and ran around the side of the house, trying to catch up, yelling, "Hey, wait for me! Don't forget, I'm the boss!"