Grant Keltner

Mean Mike

“Mean Mike” By Grant Keltner

Back in 1970 there actually use to be rumbles in Wallace Park. Gangs would gather at night and fight each other well into the early morning. The park was closed down a few times during the summer. The Portland Police department would block traffic coming into the park. Some of the gangs would meet and plot their next rumble. Several of these kids came from broken homes, many lived on the streets. I can remember several kids pitching coins against walls in Wallace Park, gambling to make change to buy smokes.

Mean Mike was involved with a gang from Northwest Portland. His gang would hang out in the park, drink, smoke, and break bottles. Sometimes they would steal lunch money from smaller kids. His gang would perform car break-ins, steal things, fight, and were always trying to cause problems. I can remember seeing them traveling by foot like a pack of wolves as they piled into old broken-down hot rods. The car engines would scream in the night, tires spinning, brake lights glistening as they sped around the streets.

Mean Mike lived in Northwest Portland. He came from a broken family that lived down off of Northwest Vaughn, close to the industrial area. At night the sounds from the factory at ESCO and the clatter of trains would help him fall to sleep at night. His father worked odd jobs, barely making enough money to support his family. In 1970 there were areas located off of Vaughn that were rundown slums. I can remember dock and industrial workers meeting in old warehouses at night, holding pit bull fights.

Mike was tough, had tattoos on his arms, and carried chains and knives to school. He wore leather jackets, smoked and wore brass knuckles. He wore big black boots, greased his hair back, and wore white T-shirts, rolling up the sleeves to look even tougher. He was fourteen years old in sixth grade. He was held back in school a few times and had been through juvenile hall on several occasions. Mike was big. He had a scar or two from scraps he had been in. He was always looking for a fight, always in trouble, and always in the principal’s office.

In our seventh grade class, Mean Mike would sit in the back of the room at his desk and make jokes, pick on kids, and give himself tattoos using a straight needle with black ink from a ball point pen. He would carve images on his knuckles and wrists. Nazi signs were popular, gang signs, anything that would make him look even meaner.

He had a few buddies in a gang of his that went to Chapman. Leslie was Mean Mike’s sidekick, kind of like Tonto to the Lone Ranger. Leslie had tattoos and carried chains to school, smoked, and his lower lip would stick out about a mile when he got angry. He hid behind Mike and backed him up if they were picking on someone.

I just can’t imagine what Leslie’s parents would say to him when he left his house in the morning to go to school. “Leslie, don’t forget your chains! Honey, I packed you your favorite knife!” It was crazy. Back then, Northwest Portland was a real cross-section of people. We had wealthy, middle class, and poor families. There were hippies, hoods, and preppies.

One day, Mean Mike was in trouble. He had beat up some kid. One of the teachers locked Mike in the janitor’s closet as punishment. The janitor’s closet was located up on the second floor of the school. While locked in the closet, Mike opened one of the windows and tried to jump down onto the roof one story below. He missed and instead, he crashed through a skylight and landed on the first floor cement hallway. Glass was all over the place. He had received cuts to his face and arms, severe cuts that needed to be stitched up. There was a trail of blood leading down to the principal’s office. School officials took him to the hospital. Most of the kids were amazed by the incident.

Mean Mike wanted to beat me up in sixth grade. I don’t know why; I guess he had to prove that he was a tough guy. I was pretty scared. He was two years older than me and about fifty pounds heavier!

“Hey Keltner, I’ll meet you over by the portables. I’m gonna beat your ass!” he exclaimed while I ate my wiener-wrap in the cafeteria. Great, I had just pissed off the toughest guy in the school, the one kid that nobody wanted to mess with. Why was he going to school, I thought to myself? Why couldn’t he enlist into Vietnam? Why couldn’t he get a day job?

The night before he was going to beat me to a pulp, I talked with some close friends, friends that were big and strong. I thought these friends could help me if need be. Most of them agreed to help and that they would meet me the next day in my showdown with Mike.

I showed up the next day, after school at the portables. My friends didn’t show. Great, I was going to go it alone, no help and no protection. I waited close to an hour shaking in my shoes. Mean Mike never showed up. I went home relieved. The next day he wasn’t at school. Word had it, that he and a few of his buddies had run into some trouble with the law. I guess he picked on the wrong kid, I thought to myself. Thank god!

I don’t know what happened to Mike. In eighth grade he moved. It must have been a pretty rough life for him. His father didn’t give him much supervision, didn’t show much love and probably used to beat him.  Mike had no mother. All he had was a father that was drunk half of the time.

Compared to the mid 1960’s, things have drastically changed in Northwest Portland. Developers went into the area and rebuilt some of the rundown areas. Northwest Portland has become a closed gate community. Metal detectors are common in most of the schools. The black leather jackets, knives, chains, and the rumbles have given way to Starbucks, microbreweries and cute boutique shops that line Northwest 23rd Avenue.

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