Before the weekend hockey trip that turned me into a fan of a Finnish new wave band, and before I started to grow my hair long, accordingly, but after my favorite band was Alvin and the Chipmunks, I got into rockabilly. Of course I wasn’t alone in this, because that was an era when the 1950s came back in style.
Even Elvis was still alive, although, at that point, I was basically still rocking to the sounds of a chipmunk band, and loving it. I caught the trend a couple of years after his death when a friend of mine and I saw Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s movie on Elvis. And we thought Kurt Russell was perfect as Elvis, but then again, we already knew Kurt was cool, because The Quest, a TV show, had been a big hit in Finland.
We had Fonzie and Richie, too, and the rest of the Happy Days gang, and white T-shirts and brown leather jackets were cooler than cool. Then we got Danny Zuko, in a black leather jacket and a white T-shirt – very cool – and Grease was not only the word, it was a whole sentence.
It was also the stuff that all cool kids put in their hair to get it slicked back like Danny Zuko’s in Grease, and the stuff that I wasn’t supposed to use. Instead, Mom and Dad let me use sugar water, which worked wonders, too. Caramelized hair. How sweet.
Well, I did get a tube of Suave as a birthday present, and sometimes, in the afternoons, after school, I’d spread it on my steel comb – always in my right back pocket – slick my hair back, then look at myself in the mirror, spread my arms, and go, “heeyyyyyyyyy,” like Fonzie.
Then I’d wash my hair and go to hockey practice.
My best friend, though, went all the way to the bottom (or top) of the 1950s subculture. And I was there to help him every step of the way. Well, almost every step of the way.
I sure was there when he wanted to draw a confederate flag on a piece of white cloth, then sew that on the back of his jeans jacket. I helped him draw some of the stars, and I was there, lying on the floor next to him, coloring it red and blue, staying inside the lines, while Matchbox or Crazy Cavan “N” The Rhythm Rockers were playing in the background.
We worked at it an entire afternoon, and then some, but when I left, it still wasn’t finished. My buddy finished it later that night, though, so the next morning when we saw each other at school, he was proudly wearing his jacket, with a brand new confederate flag on the back. He was a real rockabilly guy. A real teddy boy, with his brothel creeper shoes and all.
Not everybody was a teddy boy, though, and there were even gangs in Helsinki at the time. Not where we lived, but there were a few gangs downtown, and in some of the suburbs. There were the punks and the teddy boys and the skas and skinheads and others that I’ve forgot.
My buddy had picked his side, though, and he was with the teddy boys. There was something about his style, and possibly him, that annoyed a few girls in our class. Even if they looked like the Pink Ladies in Grease themselves, that confederate flag – even if it was nicely colored – just got to them.
A couple of days after my buddy had come to the school wearing the jacket for the first time, the Pink Ladies were on his case, trash talking him, and following him home after school. Since we always walked home together, I thought the girl gang was following us, but it soon got apparent that they weren’t interested in me. They were after my buddy.
We walked across the gravel soccer pitch that was our shortcut, not paying attention to the girls’ shouting at us. At my buddy. We kept on walking, our eyes fixed on the goal at the other end of the pitch, making sure we wouldn’t look back, and acknowledge the challenge. Because it definitely was one.
We walked a little faster, but they caught us before we got to the other goal. My friend was quickly surrounded by the three girls, each of them taking turns at shoving him. Some other kids from school had followed them, too, anxious to see what was going to happen next.
Nothing happened next because my friend just kept on walking, and I was trying to keep up. We crossed the street, and I thought we had made it. I thought the girls had got enough and would just walk their way, as usual, and we’d walk down the hill, unfollowed, as usual.
But I was wrong.
Just as we had crossed the street, the girls made their move. One of the girls attacked my buddy, who simply lifted his arms to protect his face. They hit him more, and he just curled his upper body up into a ball, waiting for the hitting to end.
“Hit them! Hit them back!” somebody yelled.
“I don’t hit girls. I never hit girls,” said my friend in a muffled voice.
The girls delivered a few more punches, but when my friend didn’t hit back, they stopped hitting him, and turned their attention back to the confederate flag. Somehow they manage to rip it off my friend’s jean jacket. Their mission accomplished, they turned around and went their way, leaving my friend sitting on the bike lane next to his flag.
I wasn’t much of a help to him that day. I never tried to break them up, but I did walk my friend home, and I tried to make him feel a little better. I’d like to think I offered to help him draw and color a new flag, too.
But we never did that.
A few weeks later, I went on a hockey trip and heard a song by Hassisen Kone, a Finnish rock band, on the bus. A year later my father would be working in a store next to the one that gave its name to the band, but of course I didn’t know that then.
I did know right away, though, that my teddy boy days were over, as secretly as they had begun.