For many people, the 1950’s conjure up images of Rock-n-Roll, the Korean War, Sputnik, Jazz, “The Golden Age of Television,” and the sleek and classy cars. On February 3, 1959 “The Day the Music Died” a chartered plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson Rock-n-Roll musicians crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa in foggy conditions killing everyone.
For me, 1959 conjures up memories when I was involuntarily recruited into the predominantly Chicano/Latino White Fence gang which was considered one of the most violent and powerful gangs in East Los Angeles, while I was living with my single parent family and attending junior high school. The White Fence was the first gang in East Los Angeles to use firearms, chains and other dangerous weapons. I remember having my homemade zip gun consisting of a metal tube taped to a wooden stock and firing a .22-caliber bullet.
I also carried a large switchblade knife which is a type of knife with a sliding blade contained in the handle which is opened automatically by a spring when a switch on the handle is activated. Most switchblade designs incorporate a locking blade, in which the blade is locked against closure when the spring extends the blade to the fully opened position.
As I was the youngest and one of the few non-Chicano/Latino gang members I began as a ‘look out’ during the gang’s criminal activities. Over a two-year period, my involvement escalated. Furthermore, as I earned respect and trust, I was invited into the homes of several significant members. I was introduced to their girlfriends, “hoodrats,” good girls, and relatives. I did not speak nor understand Spanish which was the language most used by the White Fence. Somehow, I found ways to communicate through nods, gestures, and my growing familiarity with the language.
The neighborhoods were primarily Hispanic as were most of my classmates. Frequently I would watch medical personnel carrying students who sniffed glue or used other substances, out of school. Other times, ferocious racial fights sometimes with weapons, would break out in the school yard and expand to the surrounding area until a large force of police arrived.
Since I lived out of the area allowing me to take the bus to school, I had to walk through several blocks controlled by different gangs. It was fortunate that I was fast enough to evade them safely. After being recruited by the White Fence and acknowledged as a member, I was pretty much left alone with some exceptions by the lesser violent gangs.
During the years with the White Fence gang, I experienced powerful exposure to violence, inhumanity, personal vendettas, support, order, solidarity, community, antisocial behavior, lucrative drug-trade, and more. There were times of humor, nurturing, and playfulness between the more violent situations.
I learned a lot about myself and the nature of people and cultures from the gang experience. In many ways, this shaped who I am today.
When I was drafted in 1968 and sent to serve a 14-month U.S. Army tour of duty in Vietnam, I initially felt that it was like being in the White Fence gang, just with bigger and better guns and other weapons but that is another story.