We were called The Vail Marauders. We didn’t coin that name. Two old men sitting on a bench outside of a bar watched a few of us Vail kids walk across the street. One said to the other: “There goes those marauders.” We liked it!
Not every boy in the small town of Vail, Iowa, was a Marauder, but The Vail Marauders was a large group of teenagers and a handful of preteens. That’s a pretty good-sized group considering the town was populated by fewer than five hundred residents. My sister compared us to the Our Gang short films from the early Twentieth Century. There was no comparison. A few Marauders served prison terms later in life, some served time in jail, and most were on a first-name basis with the county sheriff. You weren’t an official Marauder unless you served at least 6 months of probation. I never went to prison on the order of a judge, but met the other requirement twice. I never met a probation officer.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, you were foolish to leave the keys in your car. It would be used for joyriding. Although I was in on a few joyrides, I never once turned the key of a vehicle without the owner’s permission. I never shoplifted and I never vandalized. I did have some scruples. As a teenager, I asked my mom for permission to go somewhere once. She denied permission because she “didn’t want us hanging around with the wrong crowd.” I had to break it to her that “the Ryan boys ARE the wrong crowd.”
We knew every backyard in town. Clotheslines were numerous in that time, and any Marauder could tell you how far a line drooped and where the clothespin basket was located on the line. In the late summer, we knew where the best tomatoes were ready for harvest. In the middle of the night, we would sneak out with a saltshaker and raid a few gardens. But since most kids in town worked for farmers during the summer putting up hay, walking beans, hoeing thistles and other noxious weeds, or detasseling, they also knew where the watermelon and cantaloupe patches were hidden within a particular field. If you haven’t raided a watermelon patch and had a farmer shoot a shotgun above your head, you don’t know how sweet a melon can taste. They were always the best!
Our favorite activities occurred after dark. Vail had a curfew of 9:00 pm in which all teenagers under the age of 18 had to be home and off the streets. That’s when it got exciting. Most of us had to sneak out of the house, some just left. The town cop was a retired heavy equipment operator, J.C. McCullough. His official duties were to make sure business doors were locked after hours. He was supposed to make rounds walking the main street area, but we had other ideas.
Marauders would gather at some predetermined location, usually the corner of the deserted funeral home or a small walking bridge on the west side of town, and go downtown. One of us would run across the street to get J.C.’s attention and the chase was on. J.C. would gun the engine of his pickup and throw pea gravel around a street corner trying to catch one of us. We were popping up or appearing from out of nowhere all around town. He would abandon his chase of one Marauder to catch another he thought was easier to catch. The scenario was sort of like a dog chasing a car, or Wylie Coyote chasing the Roadrunner. He never caught any of us. He came close to catching me, once. He surprised me by coming around a bend without his headlamps on. I hit the ground so that he wouldn’t see me, and I slithered into a shallow ditch. His tires missed me by fewer than two feet.
If the Marauder running across the street was not noticed by J.C., he most likely was sleeping. That matter would cause us to take more drastic steps. We were known to let the air out of his tires. Not all of them; just enough to let him know that someone was aware of him sleeping on the job. He wouldn’t want that to get out. We never found out how he got air back in his tires by morning without raising red flags to city officials about why he was often having flat tires.
When you think about it, the curfew ordinance probably prevented burglaries in town. There was too much nighttime activity for a potential second story thief to operate safely.
As the Marauders aged and left town, a younger group succeeded as the Young Marauders. That group was big into carrying cases of beer from beer trucks parked in the alleys behind the bars. And Vail supported four bars for the longest time.
I’ll take the Fifth Amendment on whether I participated in any break-ins around the area, but each time there was a burglary in Crawford or Carroll County, the first accusations and suspicions of who the culprits might be was directed at the Marauders. The reputation was notorious, but often inaccurate.
We were bored kids in a small town doing what kids in small towns used to do when bored.
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