John Mueller, sitting quietly at his desk, disassembled his ball-point pen. He unscrewed the top and bottom halves and removed the thin ink cartridge around which a spring resided above the ball-point. He studied the pen’s components for a moment, then slid the spring off the tip of the ink cartridge. My attention, fixed on John and not on Mrs. Scarpell scribbling something on the blackboard, must have captured the attention of the eyes in the back of her head she often spoke of. Even as she continued at the blackboard, her words “Heaney, pay attention” brought my focus back to the front of the classroom. Mrs. Scarpell was something of an enigma because her sometimes playful demeanor was in such sharp contrast to the severity of the image she cut. Her cotton white hair was tightly curled on the sides, slicked down close to her scalp up top, and definitively parted from left to right. A moderately sized wave beginning at her widow’s peak, crested a couple of inches above her scalp before coming to rest opposite the part where it was anchored in place with a bobby pin. Rimless glasses and piercing blue eyes, her pale, lined face, often wearing an indecipherable smirk. Her wardrobe seemed to consist of a variety of cotton floral print dresses and clunky dark shoes. She was reminiscent of the teachers occasionally depicted in ‘The Little Rascals’, almost a caricature from a bygone era.
Now attending to the activities at the front of the classroom, as commanded, I was distracted again by John who quite suddenly bounced up from his seat then down again. I cast a quick glance his way only to note he was focused on the blackboard implying I had imagined what I had just seen. I turned back to the board until again – up and then down. And again, and again. The entire classroom now distracted but amused watched, wondering what John, a well-established class clown, was up to this time. Mrs. Scarpell turns and scans the room to see John bouncing up and down in his seat.
“Mr. Muller!” She is annoyed.
Surprised and wide-eyed, John pleas, “Oh…oh, wait…wait.” Then reaching into his mouth he extracts the spring from his ballpoint pen. “So that’s what it was!” he says, relieved. I start cracking up and so too does the rest of the class when they see the spring. I think it’s hilarious and Mrs. Scarpell can’t conceal the hint of a smile but, presumably to conceal her amusement, the piercing blue eyes land on me doubled over in laughter.
“That’s enough, Heaney…” I immediately stop laughing. She pauses with me still fixed in her sites; then adds, “Heaney…Weenie.”
The laughter surrounds me and I am stunned. I can’t believe she just said this. I hated my last name and she had just tossed a grenade into my lap that, no doubt, had the intended effect. Attention shifts from John’s need for attention to my overwhelming desire for invisibility. Two birds with one stone. There was no escaping the red face that betrayed my embarrassment and humiliation. My name, I woefully thought; so often a target for the humiliating darts others threw to get a cheap laugh at my expense. Oh, those little rhymes!
“Meany, Heaney in the cellophane bikini.”
Mrs. Scarpell tittered as the other children in the class howled.
I never forgave her.
Milton Elementary School, a gloomy, institutional, dark-brick, edifice was situated just up the hill from Milton Road. A large playground adjacent to it was a hub of activity before school started each morning until the bell rang signaling the start of the school day. Students played kickball, hopscotch, jumped rope or gathered in small groups to visit. The school gym teacher, Mr. Drago, took the boys outdoors when weather permitted. As I recall, girls and the boys had separate gym classes beginning around 5th or 6th grade. The boys often played a game aptly named, ‘knock out’. Three or four inflated rubber balls about two-thirds the size of a basketball were tossed into the center of the asphalt court where teams lined up on either side of a line down the center defining the opposing sides. The object of this game was to knock out of the game members of the opposing team by hitting them with the ball. If the ball was caught, the offensive player was knocked out. As the smallest kid in the class, I was simply unable to throw the ball as fast and furiously as my bigger and stronger classmates. The most vulnerable learned to hang back near the fence instead of approaching the line where you became a sitting duck for some bully who couldn’t wait to smack you in the side of the head. The more skilled boys scattered themselves near the line and taunted the opposing team, gambling their ability to catch was better than their opponent’s capacity to throw. It was fun, albeit sometimes painful to be struck in the face by one of those balls. I was an easy mark and more than once returned to class with one side of my face still smarting and sporting a red welt.
The playground was where you hung out with your friends, plotted mischief, and sometimes harassed the poor kids who were unlucky enough to be branded outcasts. These were the ones who just didn’t fit in and tended to hang by themselves. One such boy I remember all too clearly. He was one of the unfortunate victims of the cruel things’ kids do to those who were viewed as not fitting in. On this particular occasion, one member of our small group of friends discovered a condom on the playground. It represented everything salacious and forbidden and therefore was an object of fascination and curiosity for us. The boy called us over to have a look at his discovery, and there it lay dead in the grass like a deflated and wrinkled old balloon evoking a range of reactions from disgust to wonder. How was it, this… this…foreign… this strange and for most, never before seen, device found its way onto the playground. Not lingering on what may have taken place the condom became a prop in a cruel act perpetrated on a boy regrettably named, Billy Seaman. Those who made the startling discovery do what boys do- poked it with a long stick finally snagging it so it hung like a small flag dangling at the end of a long branch. Meanwhile, I had smuggled Billy Seaman’s prized pencil box out of his pack. The procession of boys led by the condom bearer, dropped the condom into the second drawer of Billy’s pencil box. Within the hour, the perpetrators of this act were summoned to the Principal’s office. One by one we were brought before Mr. Roger’s where we sat alone in an oversized chair before a scowling face behind the desk. One by one, we were grilled regarding our respective roles in this heinous act and punishment was meted out accordingly. Sometimes I wonder what became of Billy and hope he was able to dismiss the act as a stupid and insensitive act of immature and obnoxious kids. Yet, kids are more resilient than most think. I soon forgot the incident and enthusiastically resumed the reckless adventures of the young. However, I was surprised when the memory of the event re-emerged as an adult. Experiences that seem to quickly fade from the consciousness of the young are perhaps escorted to some secret place where they will wait to emerge in later life. It was a vivid reminder that the experience of childhood resides somewhere within us long after having abandoned it for adulthood.
But, as kids, we are thankfully unreflective and always anxious for new discoveries. Indeed, all of us were quite inventive with the management of our time before TV was really worth watching. Rarely lacking for things to do, we enjoyed a level of autonomy to actually do them which today seems quite alarming.
I walked to school each day generally meeting a few friends along the way. Just before the street crossing where a member of the safety patrol escorted us to the other side was a large field of tall grass with a well-worn path we trod every day. One of my classmates, Ed Reilly had recently learned how a magnifying glass could focus the sunlight so intensely it could set something on fire. Ed perfected this skill in that field we crossed each day, set the field on fire bringing fire trucks and school teachers working late to witness the entire field burned to the ground. The story captured everyone’s attention and Ed was variously shamed by some and lionized by others in a tale told over and over. The upside of Ed’s field-clearing exercise was to inspire a group of us to build an underground fort. Collecting shovels and a few sheets of plywood, we dug a trench that emptied into a large pit of sorts. Next, we covered the trench and pit with the plywood sheets and covered the plywood with dirt and burned grass. Barely visible was the dirt-covered hatch through which we entered the fort. Once inside, you passed through a short tunnel and dropped into the ‘living space’ which accommodated no more than four boys with a candle for light.
We learned sitting in a hole in the dark with a couple of friends offered limited after-school entertainment, so it was off to Mongen’s down on Milton Road across from the Marina for a ten-cent chocolate egg cream as the afternoon faded and it was time to go home.
Curiously, I had an entirely different set of friends at home. While home, life revolved around activities and friends that converged on Van Buren Street, a gravel-covered road behind my home. My two ‘at home’ friends, both older than me came from dramatically different families. Sean Finnigan was an only child; a cerebral, red headed fellow with a face covered with freckles. He attended Stepaniak Catholic School yet spent very little time with his school mates. His home life was perplexing. Sean’s parents, who never once did I meet, allowed us to visit only in a playroom off the garage. Going upstairs was strictly forbidden. On one occasion, his parents running an errand, Sean allowed us up the stairs. The spotless white carpet, the living room furniture and lampshades covered with plastic were all meticulously clean. No pets, no noise, and little quilted covers on countertop appliances. It remined me of an episode of The Twilight Zone’. Sean’s wasn’t at all like John Avery’s home. John’s home, was in a perpetual state of chaos. The family, comprised of five kids and two of the most relaxed parents I have ever met seemed forever unconscious of the disorder that swirled about them. They had a one-acre lot behind their house where all the neighborhood kids gathered. Every night after dinner a baseball game was organized and played until sunset.
Sean, John, and I were very close friends and branded ourselves, The Three Links, adopting a dog’s chain slip collar which each of us kept as our trademark. Our self-imposed rite of initiation was to earn your slip collar by shoplifting it from the local hardware store. We pretended to be something like a gang, but the truth is we did little more than hang out, rode our bikes, played baseball, and, incongruously collected insects which we pinned to and exhibited on white display boards; hardly the Sharks or Jets.
As I reflect on it all now, I am struck by how busy we were exploring and absorbing the lessons available from such an assortment of experiences. An age of innocence? No, but one of intense curiosity and hunger for what we had yet to taste. We possessed an under-developed capacity for empathy that fostered unrestrained exploration that yielded to caution with age. The recklessness that accompanied such hunger, and the wealth of knowledge, both good and bad, it offered, shaped who I became…who we all become. It was all very rich, sometimes very painful, and often at other’s expense; my parent’s especially. Indeed, as I matured my mother said more than once, “I never thought you’d make it to sixteen…I never thought you’d make it to eighteen…I never thought you’d make it to twenty-one…” and so on. And now, as a parent and grandparent myself, I do believe she felt my having done so was her reward.