Heroland: Chapter 1

Introduction

Getting older sneaks up on you. No shit, right? I mean, I’m cognicent enough to know my age, but I don’t feel my age. Maybe it’s arrested development, maybe it’s just wishful thinking; I said I was cognicent, not smart or wise. What I do know is that I have a longer timeline with which I have to draw experience from; experience that helps me make decisions or regret them if I’m not quick enough to use that experience to my benefit.

The stories that I tell here, come from the benefit of a more experienced me, reflecting on things that shaped me into the man I am today, for good and bad. I try each day to take these trials and tribulations into account when making decisions, when feeling certain ways, and when my emotions begin overcoming logic. In this way, these stories have become a benefit, rather than a liability. What I’m saying is, this book is a long con. You have to get through all the tough shit, to get to the happy, semi- well adjusted adult at the end. 

I don’t tell these stories for sympathy, towards me or any of my family. We deal with these things in our own way. Maybe you can relate and take something from it; if so, great. Maybe you’ll be shocked at how adults can treat kids or at the bad decisions a seemingly intelligent teenager can make. Maybe these stories are weak sauce and you’ve been through so much more. One of the things experience has taught me is that there is always someone with a deeper tragedy, and that is the tragedy of life. I won’t give you sympathy or pity, but what I can offer you is understanding; not because I’ve seen what you’ve seen, but because I understand that it haunts you.

To be honest, I tell these stories for my own catharsis; to get it off my chest. I began writing with a blog about dating. Not advice, but stories of my misadventures. They were always humorous stories, at least I tried to make them that, and typically ended with me not being laid, back when that was more of a concern. I mean, it’s STILL a concern, but I don’t feel the need to use sexual prowess to be relevant anymore (Not that I ever had sexual prowess, but we’ll get there). There’s that ‘experience’ teaching me things again.

Occassionally, readers of my blog would compliment me , saying that they felt like I was talking directly to them. That wasn’t on purpose, that was a natural side effect of my writing only to myself. I realized that no matter how embarrassing or personally eviscerating my stories may have been, the telling of them dulled the emotional dagger that they would sometimes gut me with. In other words, writing, to me, is like taking a comforting shit. This story is the biggest shit I’ve ever taken and I invite you into the bathroom of my mind now, so that you can smell a story, I call….Heroland.

Glenwood Day 1

Part 1 – Monday, December 3rd, 1988 – 7:30 PM

A cold December wind swept across the campus from the east and whipped at our young faces, turning them red as we pushed against it. Flurries of snow whipped against the small amount of exposed skin available to it. I felt transparent and naked as the wind cut through my clothes like a thousand tiny razors, threatening to enter my soul; though I wore a heavy coat with a hood, a scarf wrapped around my face and gloves, it was as if I were wearing little but a colander.

We came from Campbell A, a cottage on the northern most tip of the sprawling 157-acre military school campus. A long one-lane service road wound its way hypnotically from the south and wrapped around the back of the ‘L’ shaped building, down a hill, and ended in a parking lot that hugged the ‘V’ of its back. Behind the parking lot, lay the woods. Dark and sinister, their bare winter limbs looked like the hands of a thousand skeletons reaching towards the sky. Beyond the woods, who knew? At ten years old, the world was huge and its secrets were not yet laid bare. As far as I was concerned, there be monsters in and beyond those woods. To my young mind, they may as well have been the edge of the world before Galileo proclaimed it round.

From the parking lot, another service road went up a hill and east, where we three boys, newly met, fought the winter storm towards the gym, to watch a high school basketball game. It was my first night in military school; I was terrified and alone. Now I was freezing and as we walked along the road, five feet from the perceived never-ending forest, with its unknown horrors, a full moon shown down upon us through a break in the clouds, and lit our way as it eerily reflected off of the hard packed snow. This was already proving itself a hard place, and it was a world I was thrown into unsuspecting.

The Buildings we passed were old. I’d never seen anything like them, and nobody had to tell me their age. Their imposing and judgmental exteriors demanded respect and only old things did that. The architecture and elegance of their gothic and huge brick facades, glowing in the moonlight, filled me with wonder. That would wear off in time as I would come to learn that these wonderous structures held dark secrets and misery. Their isolation, standing tall in a time far from their origins, mimicked my own as I would come to dwell within their halls, far from home. 

Part 2 – 1:00 P.M.

I’d been crying when I was pulled from the back seat of my mother’s car at around 11AM, in front of the administration building. I entered the campus as I’d entered life, naked and afraid. I had nothing with me, no suitcase full of clothes or essentials, no toys or keepsakes, no photos or remembrances; just the knowledge that I was thrust off-guard into a world I never even considered being a possible existence.

“A Man is What Happens to a Boy” is what the sign said in front of the long road that led to the Administration Building. I’d been ten years old for just under six months, and what I thought at first would bring me prestige at being in the ‘double-digit’ age club, now only brought me to the stark realization that I was no ‘man’.

After I was forcibly vomited from the vehicle by my mother, a kind older gentleman put his hands on my shoulders and I was led inside. Mr. Dunleavy was a thin man with a thick mustache that sat above a more or less consistent smile. I had no idea who this man was or what his role would be in my future, but his calm demeanor comforted me a bit; Mr. Dunleavy was one of those people who just has a natural ability to put kids at ease. He welcomed me to Glenwood School for Boys, and told me that two boys were dispatched to pick me up and take me to my cottage for ‘orientation’. Sounds Orwellian when I look back on it now.

I was sat in a large leather chair, in the vast, ornately decorated, vaulted lobby of the Administration Building. I would spend a lot of time in this room, awaiting punishment, as the years went by, and as I grew, it would come to remind me of pictures from the Capital Building in D.C. For now, though, I curled my feet up underneath me, pushed myself as far back as I could in this cavernous chair, and sobbed uncontrollably. I tried to hide my face, thinking that maybe this wouldn’t happen if I couldn’t see that it was happening. The room smelled old and combined with echoing footsteps and the chatter of unfamiliar adults in other rooms, I was firmly cemented to this harsh new reality.

Over the years, I’d come to see a lot of greeting parties do what Joe Szajna and Derek Pointer were tasked with doing that day, introducing new students to campus life at Glenwood, and I’ve always felt lucky that it was them who greeted me. I would come to learn that in most cases, orientation started with high schoolers picking up new kids, who were typically hazed and beaten most of the way to their new homes. But Joe and Derrek were my age; Joe was short and of Jewish descent. He spoke with a heavy New York accent. Derek was a tall and quiet, almost reserved black kid with a big 80’s afro.

As it turned out, my mother was supposed to have dropped me off at 7AM, when a high schooler would have been available to pick me up for orientation. Apparently, they didn’t know my mother; if she was up at 7AM, she was drunk, but she rarely made it that far into a bender. No, she wasn’t up before 10AM ever, so when I arrived at 11, Joe and Derreck were pulled out of their history class and sent to fetch me because high school was off-campus.

As they walked me to my first home at Glenwood Military School, Joe was definitely the talker, pointing out buildings and reciting their history as it had been told to him. Derek listened and occasionally stopped to pack snow and throw snowballs at trees we passed. I sobbed and trumbled along with my head down, still in a fog of disbelief.

It took us about 30 minutes to walk from the administration building at the front center of campus, to Campbell A at the back west. At the front of Campbell A, there as was an arched entrance with pillars on either side of it, however I was told that we don’t use that door, so Joe and Derrek led me to the back entrance. I’m not sure what it was, but when we reached the back door to the cottage, the finality of it hit me. THIS is where I was going to live now.

The night before I’d slept, warm and protected, in my bed, with my “Empire Strikes Back” sheets and my dog curled up at my feet. It hit me just then, that I wasn’t going to sleep in my bed tonight, and my heart sank when the realization hit that I wasn’t going to see my dog Pepper, after school. I went from a steady sob and broke down crying again. Joe stopped talking for the first time and looked at me sympathetically; Derek put his hand on my shoulder and said the first thing I’d heard him say since we started walking: “You’re gonna be OK man, this place isn’t so bad and you got us now.” Joe nodded in agreement and they were my best friends from that day until the day we all parted ways. 

Joe, Derrek and I became friends in that way only kids can be friends. Innocence, light hearted joking around, and a feeling of utter invincibility. You don’t think about things that divide adults when you’re a kid.  You don’t think about the future or potential problems. We spend all of our time as adults wondering what’s going to happen to us when we get older: Where am I going to be in 10 years? What’s my plan for college? Marriage? Kids? When you’re a kid, all you have to think about is how much fun you’re going to have with your friends tomorrow.

In most cases anyway; in my case those romantic fantasies of childhood wonder were swept away from me on that first night at Glenwood Military School for Boys, as the unavoidable life lesson of unfairness set me down the path of bad decisions in furtherance of rebelling against authority.

Part 3 – 7:45 P.M.

As the three of us walked to the gym that night, I let my guard down for the first time since arriving. Midway through the campus, in front of the central most building, Butler Hall, which was the mess hall where all of us would eat, Joe and Derrek started a snowball fight and I joined in; laughing for the first time, in front of my new friends. Kids are smart, and now that I’m older, I’m sure both Derrek and Joe started the snow ball fight to get my mind off of my worries, and it worked. Maybe this place wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.

Just as Derrek nailed Joe in the back of his hood with a snowball, we heard someone screaming and turned to see if it was directed at us.

“HEY! MOTHER FUCKERS! YOU MOTHER FUCKERS!” We turned and saw a black man running toward us, arms flailing, trying to get our attention.

“DON’T YOU GO NOWHERE YOU MOTHER FUCKERS!” We looked around to see if he was talking to someone else.

“YEAH, I’M TALKING TO YOU MOTHER FUCKERS!” Joe and Derrek were more curious than scared, but I was terrified. Although I’d heard curse words before, nobody had ever directed them at me like that. I mean, when you’re older you get used to confrontation with strangers, hell you almost expect it. You might not like it, but it’s within the realm of possibility so it’s not a surprise when it happens, but that was yet another new experience, and I was in shock. As the man approached, out of breath, Joe being the talker, tilted his head and said sarcastically “Why do you keep calling us mother fuckers?”

The man stood in front of us, caught his breath and looked at us with brows furrowed, breath heavy in the cold air. “Who’s in charge at this mother fucking place, you little mother fuckers?”

Before Joe could make another snide comment, Derrek slapped his chest with the back of his hand, and said “the dean’s office, over there.” He pointed south of where we stood in front of Butler Hall. “There’s a dean there twenty-four hours. Everything OK?” Derrek recognized that this could turn bad.

“NO, EVERYTHINGS NOT OK, LITTLE NIGGA; what’s your names?”

Derrek said “I’m Derrek, this is Joe and this is Mike” nodding toward us.

“WELL, I GOT YOU MOTHER FUCKERS NOW! You wait here, I’m going to get your ‘DEAN’ and someone’s going to pay for my mother fucking car.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Joe said incredulously.

“DON’T you curse at me you little cracker mother fucker!” the man shot back at Joe, and grabbed him by the coat.

Derrek kicked him in the shin, hard and when the man let go of Joe to grab Derrek, Joe backed away, picking up and packing a quick snowball, then whipped it at his back. Surprised, he turned to Joe again shouting “YOU LITTLE MOTHER FUCKER!” Derrek ran back picked up and packed a snowball and did the same, the two of them laughing.

I stood there stunned. I didn’t know what to do.

The guy turned toward Derrek again and started to chase him. The thing I learned about Derrek that night is that he was fast. I’d come to find out that he was known for being the fastest kid on campus, only to be rivaled by another boy named Rondell Baker.

Derreck got some distance, turned and ran toward Joe and I. “C’mon, let’s get out of here!” he shouted as he ran past us. Joe and I took off after Derrek, leaving the angry man shouting curse words at us in the moonlight in front of Butler Hall.

When we got to the gym, we immediately took off our heavy coats, scarves and gloves. We were sweating. Joe and I were out of breath, Derrek was not, though he just ran half the campus. I had the feeling Derrek had gone slow to keep pace with Joe and I. We weren’t runners by anyone’s standard.

The three of us watched the basketball game in silence. We were a bit stunned still. During half time Joe looked at us and said with a smile “You mother fuckers wanna grab a coke?” and we laughed uncontrollably. The tension was broken and we forgot about the accusatory stranger for a time.

Part 4 – 1:30 P.M.

After comforting me outside of the cottage, Joe and Derrek led me up a narrow staircase, to the inside of Campbell A.

Campbell A and Campbell B were two separate cottages, connected into an ‘L’. A lot of the newer cottages on campus had this configuration. Campbell’s A & B were slightly different, in that the front of both cottages were one level, but when you went down a hill to the back, you could see that it was actually two stories from behind. The upper part, was Campbell’s A & B, while the lower part was the campus ‘Clothing room’. This is where all donated clothing went, where the military school uniforms were made, and any clothes that needed it, were repaired. Kids who had been on the campus a long time derisively called the clothing room “Boys Town”, and bullies would use its existence to harass any kid who was in need of its services. As throughout the ages, status was king at Glenwood, and being poor would put you in low regard.

I was introduced to Ms. Burnett. Ms. Burnett was the houseparent of Campbell A, and she had the distinction of being the oldest houseparent on campus, at 82 years old. Houseparents were essentially the foster parents for the boys who lived in their cottage. Ms. Burnett was a sweet old woman, with white hair that was meticulously swirled into a near beehive on top of her head. She showed me around the cottage as Joe and Derrek went back to the school to finish out their day. Ms. Burnett went over the rules with me as I half-listened in somber contemplation.

At around 2PM, Ms. Burnett asked where my things were. I told her I didn’t have anything. “We can’t have you sleeping in those clothes; come with me.” She said kindly.

We bundled up and I followed her downstairs and outside to “Boys Town”. Once there, I was introduced to the woman who ran the clothing room, Ms. Crotty. She was of an age with Ms. Burnett, but she was much shorter. The two old women took my measurements and I was given clothes, all of them either too baggy or too tight. I was a tall, but heavy boy. During the week, except for Wednesday, students had to wear a shirt and tie, dress pants and dress shoes. On Wednesdays, we had to wear the school military uniform with a blazer instead of the heavy wool uniform coat which was reserved for special occasions.

In “Boys Town”, I was given one pair of dress pants that were too tight, one yellow short sleeved dress shirt, a clip-on tie, a few baggy t-shirts, a new set of striped pajamas, and dress shoes with a hole in the bottom. Everything smelled of moth balls, bleach and piss. I distinctly remember those shoes because my feet would be freezing and soaking wet by the time I got back to the cottage from school every day in the winter. Other than those clothes, the uniform I would eventually get, and what I had on when I arrived, that’s all I had to wear for my first year in military school. I was the poor kid; not because my mother was poor, but because she never sent me new clothes.

Most cottages had the same layout; a few of the very old buildings were different, but Campbell’s A&B each held 12 kids. There were four bedrooms in the back of the cottage, two on either side of a long hallway. Three kids to a room. The rooms were cedar brick and painted a neutral color, with three beds. In front of each bed was dresser, mirror, and closet built into the wall. Above the dresser was a cubby near the ceiling. On one side in the front of the hallway, there was a bathroom with three urinals, three toilets, and one tiled shower room with a three headed shower machine on the wall. On the other side was the houseparent’s quarters. In the front of the cottage was a kitchen which was only used by the houseparent and their family, a dining room where we would sometimes play games, and a living room with an old couch and 19-inch TV. There was a vestibule before the front entrance, which was never used in Campbell A so the only point of egress was the long narrow staircase in the back.

Houseparents, and sometimes their families, lived in the cottage 24/7. If they went on vacation, we would get a ‘relief’ houseparent who would stay in their quarters. Sometimes houseparents would leave a larger cottage, and a houseparent in a smaller cottage would be moved into the larger one as a promotion. Ms. Burnett had been the houseparent of Campbell A for thirty years.

Ms. Burnett got me situated in my room. She was a nice enough lady, but not very warm. I distinctly remember feeling odd that I got more comfort from Joe and Derrek than I did this adult. I mean, isn’t that what adults were supposed to do? Isn’t that what Aunt Bee would do on “The Andy Griffith Show”?

As the kids came home from school that afternoon, I was afraid of being introduced to them. I’d been a fairly solitary kid up to that point in my life, with TV as my only true friend. After all, it was an interaction with a girl named Jenny Lurch and my reliance on television that were given to me as the reasons for my being in this situation, before I was dragged out of my mother’s car earlier in the day and watched her drive away.

She didn’t even drive away fast, giving me an indication that maybe she regretted doing this to me and needed to escape her mistake lest she change her mind; no…she drove away very slowly. I swear I saw her whistling as she contently looked over the steering wheel of her giant Lincoln Town car and made a methodical half turn onto the main road and out of my life for the next four years. Watching her drive away took forever and I still see that image clearly in my mind. That image in my mind’s eye is everything that abandonment is to me, and it would not be the last time in my life that my mother would burn an image of abandonment into my consciousness.  

Ms. Burnett had me change out of the clothes I was wearing and put on a weekday dress outfit, so that I could better fit in with my classmates as they came home from school. “We’re going to introduce you to the boys with style Mr. Mike.” She said with a batshit crazy grin on her face. The shirt was too small, and you could see my stomach through the buttons that were working hard to contain it. The pants were too loose, and Ms. Burnett had forgotten to get me a belt, so I had to bunch them up at the top and hold them up with one hand. My clip-on tie had a long-forgotten stain on it.

The first kid up the stairs was Richard Shipley. Richard was a big boy. Heavy set, but you could tell from his demeanor that he was a bully. He looked at me in surprise, taking me in. His eyes were wide at first, then he doubled over in laughter and pointed at me. “GUYS, get up here, you gotta see this!”

Ms. Burnett told Richard to stop, and introduced me to each of the boy as they came upstairs. I could feel their contempt as each one looked over my ridiculous form. Most joined Richard in laughing, a few were indifferent, and when Joe and Derrek came up last, Joe grabbed my arm without looking at me and said “We’re gonna take Mike Ms. Burnett.” And they led me to the back of the cottage while she tried unconvincingly to tell the other boys that it was rude to mock others. “C’mon, let’s go change.” Joe said.

In Campbell A, there were four white kids, including Joe, Tom and myself and eight black kids, including Derrek. At ten years old, I didn’t know from racism and social orders. I knew that at my previous school, which I’d attended just the week before, there were no black kids. I wasn’t ever around black kids in my life. My first impression of a black person was Derrek, and I already looked up to him.

Derrek, and eventually Rondell Baker, Jesse Mitchell and a few years later, Chris Reeves, would become my best friends at Glenwood. They taught me how to play ‘The Dozens’, and my youthful quick wit, would eventually make me a force to be reconned with. I learned how to make fun of others to the point that they had to walk away, rather than beat my ass, lest their taunting make them a pariah on campus. I’m sure this ability saved my life on more than one occasion. But it would take years to hone that ability.

For now, I was assigned the same room as Derrek and another boy named Brian Willey, who we just called “Willy”; Joe was in a different room with two others.

After the laughter died down, everyone followed Joe and I to the rooms and we all changed out of our dress clothes and into street clothes; soon it was time for dinner at Butler Hall.

Part 5 – 8:45 P.M.

After the basketball game, we walked back to the cottage, the three of us laughing and telling each other our stories along the way. I’d left my fear behind in that way that a child can easily bounce back from it. We’d forgotten about the man who accosted us earlier and being with Joe & Derrek made me forget about Richard Shipley and his throng of boot licks. I was ready to give Glenwood a try, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

When we got upstairs at Campbell A, some of the boys were playing cards in the dining area. Ms. Burnett approached us with something like disappointment on her face.

“Boys…. you’re wanted at the dean’s office right away.” She said with judgmental tone.

“ooooooooooooooohhhhhh…y’all in troooooooooouble” from the table of card players, followed by snickering.

The dean’s office was a bear cave dug into the east side of the administration building. You went down a flight of stairs into the gaping maw of a set of old wooden double doors with paned glass panels. Inside, you entered a dank, wood panel walled room with two pay phones on the far end. Overhead fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed; you winced more from the bitterness of the light they assaulted you with, than their brightness. To the side of this room was the dean’s office, which was half wood paneled wall and half glass so you could see inside. Through a further entrance was a vast dark basement, with 3 offices to one side for the campus (not the ‘school’) counselors.

A dean was stationed in this den 24/7 to deal with just the type of situation I was about to find myself in. Tonight’s dean was Mr. Whittaker.

The three of us assumed this was about throwing snowballs at the guy in front of Butler Hall, but we didn’t think much of it. Joe and Derrek were not trouble makers, so they’d never been called to the dean’s office. No big deal, we’d tell Mr. Whittaker that the gentleman came upon us, yelled at us, grabbed Joe, and we threw snowballs at him in self-defense. No big deal. I mean, in our experience, adults were on our side so we didn’t think much of it, other than it was a chance to go back outside and play. 

As so ordered, so did we do. We trekked to the dean’s office in the snow, laughing and throwing snowballs at each other along the way, without a care in the world.

Part 6 – 5:00 P.M.

At five PM, a high school boy came to the cottage to march us to Butler Hall. Butler hall was the second largest building on campus, the Administration Building being the first. It was located at the back, northern most part of the campus and all roads that wound around the 157-acre campus led directly to it. There was a large paved area in front of Butler Hall, and a vast courtyard with one-foot-high black posts, connected by a black chain that ran through the top of each post, surrounding it. The courtyard stood between Butler Hall at the very back of the campus, and the Administration Building at the very front; the two stoically faced each other.

We were lined up in front of Campbell A, in two rows of six, for formation. Our NCO was a high school boy named Mike Cottrell. As I was the new kid, Mike took me out of formation and showed me how to stand at attention and how to march. I was honestly like Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. I had no idea what I was doing, I was nervous and I could feel the laughter of the other kids as I tried my best to learn all the moves Mike was teaching me. After about 10 minutes of rudimentary training, Mike had me fall back in with my platoon and we marched to Butler Hall.

As we came up the hill from behind Campbell A, I could see other platoons marching toward Butler Hall from different directions all over the campus, like snakes returning to a den. There was a one lane paved road to each cottage, and all led to the middle of campus, where Butler Hall and the Administration Building sat, separated by the courtyard. There were fourteen cottages spread all over the campus. The Older ones ranged in age from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s and were much larger; Rathje, Ryerson, Straus, England, Trees, and Peck. The newer ones, built between the 1930s and 1950’s, were in the “L” shape and were two connected cottages. Campbell’s A & B, Johnson’s A&B, Scarborough’s A & B, and Kaufmann’s A & B.

 As I tried to keep my eyes front, I couldn’t help but take in the majesty of the march. I’d never seen order like that before, and to be honest, it kind of comforted me. You could hear cadences being shouted from the distant platoons, and soon Mike started one for us.

“Yo left, yo left, yo left, right, left!” then the platoon leader on the front right, which in our case was Richard Shipley, shouted “MY FEET ARE ACHIN’, MY BELT’S TOO TIGHT, MY BOOTY SHAKIN’ FROM LEFT TO RIGHT!” and back to Mike, “Yo left, yo left, yo left, right, left!”

NO idea what a ‘booty’ was.

All platoons met and stood in formation in front of Butler Hall. Some were sixteen kids deep, some were twelve. After ‘inspection’ by our NCO’s, Mr. Dunleavy, who I’d met earlier in the day, came outside and gave us information about upcoming events. It was dead silent. I couldn’t believe that that many kids could be that silent. He told us we were all invited to a basketball game being held by the high schoolers in the gym later that evening.

After dinner, I went back to the cottage while the other kids went their separate ways to play. I was still in shock; I’d been introduced to so many things that were just unsettling. I was trying to come to grips with my new lot in life, so I lay on my bed and cried into my pillow, since I was finally alone. I’d gotten used to being alone at home, and liked it. Solitude was not to be in my future at Glenwood Military School for Boys.

Later that evening, Derrek and Joe came to talk me into going with them to the high school basketball game and I did.

Part 7 – 9:15 P.M.

When we arrived at the dean’s office, we were greeted by a short thin black man who looked like a cross between Sherman Helmsley and Prince (It was the 80’s, mind you). Mr. Whittaker had (What I would come to learn was called) a Jerry Curl hair situation, and wore a baggy multi-colored sweater. My first impression was that he was cartoonish and silly looking. I was comforted by the air of buffoonery that he exuded, but that impression was almost immediately dismissed. After we walked in, we approached Mr. Whittaker’s office and we could see him notice us through his wall. He jumped up and crossed his office to his door. He opened it with forceful anger and pointed inside “GET THE FUCK IN HERE!”

 He immediately began yelling at us. “WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG TO GET HERE? YOU THINK I’VE GOT NOTHING BETTER TO DO THAN TO WAIT HERE FOR YOUR ASSES? WHEN I CALL YOU HERE, YOU GET YOUR ASSES HERE QUICK! IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?”

Joe and Derrek, contrite: “Yes, sir.” I nodded.

“And who is THIS one?” he asked pointing at me. “You got a hole in your head boy? Well MAKE A NOISE FROM IT when I ask you a question!”

“YES SIR” I said WAY too loud, with a nervous quiver in my voice.

“That’s better; now who is YOU?” he asked, leaning slightly forward with his hands on his hips. There’s the Sherman Helmsley in him.

“I’m Mike. It’s my first day.” I said in a low voice. Derrek and Joe were looking at me expectantly.

“I’m Mike, SIR!” Mr. Whittaker mocked and corrected me at the same time. “I’m not your buddy, Mike; you call me SIR, got that?”

“yes, sir.”

              He turned, and clasped his hands together behind his back and started pacing like a detective working out a mystery at the end of a movie. But there was no mystery; Mr. Whittaker had already made up his mind.

              “So, it’s your first day, Mike, and you go out with these two idiots to throw snowballs at cars on Halsted Avenue? Not a very good first impression, is it?” He turned back, looked me in the eyes and said “So who’s idea was it? Yours, or theirs? Because far as I know, these two have never been down here before. Then you show up and now I’ve got the police coming here.” He looked to all three of us again and began yelling “YOU KNOW THAT MAN HIT ANOTHER CAR BECAUSE OF YOU THREE? SO WHY ARE TRYING TO KILL PEOPLE ON HALSTED AVENUE ON MY WATCH?! WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THAT!”

Joe and Derrek were quick in their response, making denials over each other. “We didn’t do it Mr. Whittaker, we swear; we just walked from Campbell A to the gym, were weren’t anywhere near Halsted!”

“BULLSHIT! I GOT WITNESSES SAW YOU THREE ASSHOLES OVER THERE! WHY’D YOU DO IT? WHAT WERE YOU DOING BY HALSTED ANYWAY?” Mr. Whittaker bent down and yelled into our faces, moving from Joe to Derrek, to myself in turn.

“We never were Mr. Whittaker; some guy started yelling at us, we weren’t by Halsted, we were in front of Butler Hall” Joe said contritely; a look of fear on his face.

“BULLSHIT; you were throwing snowballs at the cars on Halsted, now WHAT THE FUCK were you doing by Halsted?”

“Man, Mr. Wittaker, we weren’t near Halsted all night. We didn’t throw snowballs at no cars.” Derrek said as Joe and I nodded.

Mr. Whittaker drew his hand back quick and slapped Derrek hard in the face. A loud “WHAP!” echoed in the small office. Derrek fell into Joe standing beside him and began to cry.

“DON’T YOU call me ‘MAN’, boy!”

The seriousness of the situation was quick to grasp us and tears began falling from each of us.

“Now you assholes are gonna TELL me why you were doing what you did, or I’m going to beat the lies right OUT OF YOU!” He shouted the last part as he poked each one of us hard in the chest with his finger.

Derrek sobbed, but was silent; Joe and I were more vocal in both our crying and our denials. “but we didn’t *huh-huh” DO nothin’ Mr.  Whittaker, *sniffle* I swear.”

Mr. Whittaker was glaring at us with pure hatred in his eyes. I could feel it more than I saw it, because I couldn’t look at him. Each of us was staring at the floor, but his anger was a presence and as sure as Derrek felt his slap, we felt the sting of his vitriol. Each time Mr. Whittaker would move, the three of us would flinch fearing another blow be rained down upon one of us. It’s hard for me to describe the feeling of sheer terror I felt in that a basement office. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever felt again in my life, but it’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of it.

He stood back; hands clasped behind his back again, then let out a huff, and spoke. “Alright; the hard way.” He pointed to Derrek, me, and then the door. “You two, out. Sit out there in those chairs and if I see either of you talking, it’s gonna be light’s out for you both; you understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Derrek and I said through tears in tandem.

The two of us in the hallway, clutching our green hard plastic chairs with our tiny hands, could see everything that transpired in Mr. Whittaker’s office from our vantage point under the pay phones. I’m sure that was intentional.

We could see the beating being delivered on the other side of that door and it still haunts me to this day. Every loud ‘THUD’ of a hand hitting that kid was followed by the sound of a frightened and confused child wailing into the dead, empty, fake wood, panel board and flickering overhead ‘Joe vs. The Volcano’ neon lights.

Derrek and I dared not talk, but we had to look away at times. It’s not something you ever want to see as an adult, a grown man beating a child. But if you do see it, you have options. You can intercede; you can call the cops; you’re not helpless in that situation. From a child’s perspective, watching a grown man beat another child, and knowing you’re likely next…well that’s a kind of powerless horror that no child should have to face.

After a few minutes of this, Derrek and I looked at each other with both fear and understanding. We knew what we had to do lest we suffer that humiliating fate, and we’d have to do it in order to STOP it from happening to our friend any longer. Derrek looked at me and whispered “I’m sorry, Mike.”

In a slow steady motion, we hesitantly stood up in unison; we cautiously walked to the door and pushed it open. Our eyes were saucer wide and filled with tears. We didn’t know it at the time, but what we were about to do was compromise a basic principle of life: innocent until proven guilty. We walked in and told Mr. Whittaker what he wanted to hear.

Part 8 – Day 1 Epilogue

I didn’t know this man, I didn’t ask to be in this place with him, and I knew we’d done nothing wrong. I didn’t know how to convey this to him. Frustration mixed with fear is a powerful combination, and when your desperation turns to hopelessness, the feeling will either shape you, or break you. I like to think it shaped me.

Now that I’m older and understand authority a little better, I realize that Mr. Whittaker didn’t really care if we did it or not. We were going to get the blame because someone complained about kids on HIS watch, and blaming us was easier than going out to find who ACTUALLY did it.

I can trace back a lot of who I am today, all these years later, to that exact night. It led me down a path of rebelling against authority that as anyone who goes down that path knows, only leads to trouble. That night made me cling to a sense of justice that led to my reading and entertainment preferences. For example, I love a good John Grisham movie where the lines between good and bad are clearly defined and the bad guys always gets their comeuppance.

I don’t suffer blame. I will fight, tooth and nail, to get out from under the yolk of unfounded accusations, and I’ve done this successfully a few times in my life, though for more banal reasons. I take responsibility for my actions, because I won’t let someone else suffer for my mistakes. The lesson there was empathy.

But because of how my mother handled my transition to this dark place, I also have abandonment issues. I tend to idealize women because I want so much to be loved, and break ups hit me particularly hard, especially when they’re not instigate by me.

There were many more lessons to be learned at Glenwood, but that first one…that hit the hardest.

Be a douchebag!

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