Although every house in our neighborhood was cookie-cutter similar in that sea of sameness, one single house stood out, some said like a sore thumb. It wasn’t bigger or more stylish in times when those things were important. It was only notable because the people who lived there were so very different than the rest of the entire boring neighborhood. Everyone knew of the Freeman home.
The middle-class neighbors barely tolerated them. When something went wrong, the police would stop first at the Freeman house.
Much later the truth of the neighborhood would come out, murdered husbands buried under houses, children abused, suicides, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling addictions, but in those early days everything was successfully kept behind closed doors and on the surface the neighborhood looked picture perfect, except the Freeman home.
I considered myself lucky to have Kenny junior as my best friend. Every chance I got I was at the Freeman’s. There was always something exciting, exotic and often dangerous.
The wife had abandoned the family early in the history of the housing tract and Ken Freeman senior was left caring for three rambunctious children in the middle of mediocrity.
An engineer for the water company during the day, the moment he got home he’d magically transform into a sculptor, painter, inventor, musician, philosopher and almost present dad, though he was probably the most present father in the neighborhood.
Every time I went to the house, he had a different art project or invention sitting on the kitchen table.
He bought the first trampoline in the neighborhood. Punching bags, telescopes, roller-skates, go-carts, mini-bikes, model railroads, the Freeman house always had it first.
Sometimes he built the toys, but often he brought them home from some mysterious store that no one else knew about.
Since little Kenny and I were inseparable, I was invited to go on many of the hundreds of outings that the Freeman family ventured out to. Trips to observatories to look at planets and moons, journeys into the woods like Yosemite and Kings Canyon and numerous trips to the ocean. Once we even went to a nudist camp. Understand, this was the fifties. Mr. Freeman was the Disneyland of fathers and I was lucky enough to tag along.
As one of the kids got interested in something, Ken senior would expand on it. He’d search out or invent new devices that helped them understand the subject.
My fondest memory is when Kenny Jr. got interested in astronomy. During that two-year period, we went to dark meadows and looked at the stars while the older Ken would point out the constellations and read about the history of the formations. He helped us name every bright star in every constellation. He pointed out nebula and distant galaxies and when we couldn’t see them through binoculars he brought home a fifteen-foot army surplus telescope so we could.
As the obsession continued, he invented a flashlight device that had a six-inch square panel of Lexan attached to the end. In the dark, with the flashlight lit and held at arms length, one could look through the panel and see dots illuminated by drilled holes in the plastic. The pattern of dots were configured to match with a constellation. One searched the stars until the pattern matched up. Scribed into the plastic was the name of the constellation. It was truly an amazing invention for the pre-computer era.
Two things Mr. Freeman did or did not do. The first was during the twenty years I knew him, though sometimes he would get close, he never finished one thing.
I asked him much later and he said he’d get bored, put the project aside and never pick it up again. He got bored a lot.
I have to say that Ken Freeman senior’s single-minded artist endeavors was the biggest influence in me becoming the artist I am today. I was so impressed with his talent I adopted his creative philosophy, adapting the process by continuing to pick the project up even after I got bored and moving it forward a step or two each day until once again boredom set in, then put it aside until the next day. Any given day I have thirty projects in the works. I like finishing things, though I don’t like the empty feeling of being finished.
The second thing Mr. Freeman did was he never threw anything away. His house was the scourge of the neighborhood. There were discarded projects, dead cars, stripped motorcycles and broken lawnmowers. To get into the back yard one had to twist and turn through an obstacle course of defunct toilets and rusting bicycles. In the mix of broken blenders and abandoned TV’s were metal sculptures of amazing grace, unfinished of course. Wood and fired clay sculptures hid in every corner next to stone carvings, tiki heads and found objects for future use. His back yard was not just a junkyard but an amazing array of artistic discards.
The inside of the house was not a home to live in but a mausoleum of abandoned projects. Like the back yard, each room consisted of cluttered corridors with books, magazines and unfinished canvases.
When little Kenny was studying chemistry, and this is the reason I’m writing this story, one day Mr. Freeman brought home samples of chemicals that no one else was able to get. One of these chemicals was sodium. I still don’t know what possessed him to place in harms way such a volatile chemical, but consistent with the craziness of the Freeman household, he brought home a chunk the size of a golf ball. That weekend we went to Lake Merritt in Oakland.
Ken senior broke off a chunk the size of a nickel and tossed it in the water.
The chemical reaction that takes place when sodium is put in water is explosive. The little nodule hit the lake and before it could sink to the bottom it detonated and a thick column of water jumped fifty-feet into the air.
I was eleven and that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. We spent the day throwing sodium in the water and watching the explosions.
A week later, while the older Freeman was at work, little Kenny and I found the remaining chunk of sodium and took it out to the middle of the street with a two pound coffee can full of water. We dropped the sodium in the liquid and ran like hell. It blew high into the air and a stiff breeze spread the plume of water over the neighborhood.
What we didn’t know until later was sodium turns to lye when mixed with water.
No one ever knew why thousands of little white spots suddenly appeared on the paint of the neighborhood cars but consistent for that time, they were positive the Freemans had something to do with it. We never said a word.