Monday, April 27, 2009

Kids II

Here is another installment of the "Kids" stories.  I just have a moment for a short one.  Let me start by saying that our school, The Center for Inquiry, is a pretty casual place.  There is always a lot of conversation going on.  Even during our periods of work involving pencil and paper, most of the time kids help each other.  I learned long ago that it is best to maximize the teaching and learning potential by viewing all participants, tall and small as teachers and learners.  It's not rocket science to realize that merely dispensing information in the name of teaching is a big mistake (that was Sister Rachael Marie's issue in my last post).  

Another quality of our school is that we see each other as friends.  Not that we don't have issues from time to time.  Manners are overlooked sometimes, tattling happens, names called, etc.  Me too.  Rarely do I think back at the end of a school day and think that I did everything right.  I get short.  I run out of patience.  I can be too demanding.  I am human.  We all are.  But, we recognize that humanness and still seem to love each other.

We can also have fun with each other.  The classroom is what Ralph Peterson calls "Life in a Crowded Place".  I admit that I can be a teaser.   I do not tease to scorn or hurt feelings.  It's just part of who I am.  While I do dish it out from time to time, I can also take it.

Part of our informal atmosphere is casual Fridays.  The kids are always pretty casual.  In fact, our only dress code is informality.  Shorts on a hot day.  Tennis shoes or sandals.  It makes school picture day really special when the girls come in with their hair done, wearing their pretty Sunday dresses, the boys in a dress shirt and slacks.  Most can hardly wait for pictures to be over so they can take turns in the restroom changing into more comfortable attire.  

I used to wear a tie a lot to school.  I have a bunch.  Some are plain, others gaudy.  I have one with Wizard of Oz characters on it.  So last week, I decided to wear a tie.  No particular reason.  Why not?  I figured I would receive a few odd looks, because none of the children in the school have probably ever seen me in a tie.  No big deal, right?

I am sitting at my table when the kids come piling in from their early morning time in the great room before 8:00.  The time sort of snuck up on me and suddenly there they are.  One of my little guys with a great sense of humor (also an occasional teaser) busts into the room and stops at the door.  Without missing a beat, he drops his book bag on the floor and does a classic, super-exaggerated, double take.  "Whoa," he exclaims, his eyes fairly popping out.  Looking me right in the eye with a big old grin on his face he says, "Why didn't somebody tell me that this was some kind of weird dress up day?  If they had, I would have worn a costume too!"  Every child within earshot burst out laughing.  I walked over and gave him a noogie.  

"Thanks, man.  You look great too."  Like I said, I dish it out.  I can take it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I learned a lot in second grade.  I learned how to ride a bike.  A two-wheeler.   It was a hand-me-down.  It went to my big brother John first, then to Pat.  Finally to me.  I painted it so it sort of looked like new.  

I learned how to sing.  I was in the second grade choir for a couple of months. 

I learned how to shoot a basketball into a ten-foot goal.  The real deal. 

I also learned how to play the clarinet.  At least I was beginning to learn.  My mom told me that all the girls went for clarinet players.  At the time I thought girls were yucky so that didn’t have much bearing on my ambitions as a musician. 

I learned a lot about human nature that year.  I was quiet in second grade.  I was a good student.  I was afraid not to be. 

My brothers and I went to Saints Peter and Paul Elementary School. It was a big Catholic school in Merrillville, Indiana, just outside of Gary.  We may have had a Gary mailing address back then.  I was born in 1957, so I was in the second grade in 1964 and 1965.  It was a strange time in our history.  JFK was assassinated the year before.  The US was becoming involved in Vietnam.  The Beetles were just beginning to be huge.

Sister Rachael Marie was my second grade teacher.  She was not a big woman but she was a terror to me.  There were some tough kids in that school but everyone was afraid of her.  Beginning in second grade, I was one of those children.

Sister Rachael Marie pulled hair for talking out of turn and slapped faces when boys forgot their ties or the girls forgot their beanies.  Sister Rachael Marie tipped over desks if they were too messy to suit her.  She would accompany the tipping with shouting and in-your-face intensity.  One could miss a lot of recess time for having a messy desk.

Sister Rachael Marie knew how to make kids cry.  It was kind of her specialty.  It was harder to make some kids cry than others.  Me?  I cried when she just gave me the evil eye for forgetting an assignment.  I was easy.  I was rarely hit, rarely had my hair pulled and I learned quickly to keep my desk clean.  I cried quickly as a way of defending myself.  Sister seemed to go easier on you if you could bring on the water works. 

My friend James was a boy who would not cry easily.  I had seen him slide into second base on the asphalt playground, ripping his trousers and skinning his knee, thigh and hip.  I mean I could actually see him bleeding through his tattered pants.  I would have been bawling at the sight of my own blood let alone the pain.  Not James.  He was tough.  He was also safe at the base.

James was cool too.  He had shoes that you could slip on with no laces.  His hair was considerably longer than the rest of the boys.  He had a brother in the public school junior high who was into the Beetles and the Rolling Stones.  James’ brother was kicked out of Peter and Paul, I never knew the reason.  That’s why he went to Merrillville Jr. High. 

James usually had his hair slicked back.  This bothered Sister Rachael Marie.  She ridiculed him about his hair.  She questioned how his family could even send him to a Catholic school looking like that.  She tried to embarrass him by saying that he looked like a girl.  James didn’t care what she thought.  That must have been what really bothered her about him.  I thought James was cool.  I wanted to be like him.  We played together at school and once he even came over to my house.  Nowadays we would call that a play date.

His brother wore Brylcream in his hair.  Brylcream is the equivalent to today’s styling gel.  Sister called it grease and thought it was disgraceful.  Sister despised him and often picked on him.  He didn’t care.

James was likable.  We all sort of looked up to him.  He was a nice kid.  He was tough.  He was my neighbor in school, that is, we sat next to each other. 

There was this time when Sister was walking up and down the aisles while we were busy doing seatwork.  She had the most beautiful cursive handwriting I had ever seen.  She even offered to give my father handwriting lessons after he sent in a written excuse for my having missed school once.

On that day, Sister Rachael Marie stopped by my desk.  She sniffed.  “What on earth is that smell?” she demanded.  She glanced at me accusingly.  I shrugged my innocence, getting ready to cry if she interrogated me any further.  Body language was the best strategy with Sister.  Words often got you into trouble. 

She looked to her right.  James looked up shrugging innocently.  She bent over him and sniffed again.  She turned to me.  I shuddered.  Then she snapped back to James.  “It’s you!” she shrieked, grabbing James by the neck.  He dropped the fat black pencil he was holding onto the floor.  That pencil, with its chewed end just rolled down the aisle. 

“What did you put in your hair?”  Each of her words made me cower lower in my seat.  He didn’t speak.  “Answer me!” she yelled.

“Bacon grease, Sister,” James choked out.  “I’m sorry.”

“What on earth were you thinking?  To the office!”  By this time she had jerked him out of his seat by the ear.  James winced in pain as he rose to his feet.  But he did not cry.  That boy had a high threshold of pain.  I would have been blubbering like a baby and begging for forgiveness, for release.  He simply wouldn’t or couldn’t cry.  Then she pulled his hair.

“How dare you do that to yourself?  That’s filthy!  It’s disgusting! What will your father say?”  If his parents were anything like mine, they would have probably laughed about it and called him a goofball.  It really wasn’t that big of a deal.  Somehow I think she felt like she owed him, like he had gotten away with too much lately.  Why else would she have pulled his hair like that?

“I… don’t… know…Sister…”  The words came out with little spaces between them, little puffs.  Spaces that I knew were filled with pain.  I could see his scalp rise at the front of his hairline.  His clip on bowtie was askew.  His eyes were squeezed shut.  He was waiting for her to let go.  We all knew that she wouldn’t until she got what she was looking for.

“What will your father say?” she repeated.  Now she shifted her grip from the front of his hair to his sideburns.  Of course we were too young for real sideburns but Sister knew what to do.  She grabbed that little piece of hair just in front and above his ear.  This was the foolproof way to make someone cry.  She knew it and James knew it too.  She grabbed that little piece of hair and pulled it hard.

James shut his eyes even tighter.  He wasn’t trying to be brave; it was just not in his nature to cry.  We all knew she wouldn’t stop pulling until he did.  It was her currency.

I said a little prayer for James.  I prayed that he would cry.  I prayed that Sister would let him go.  Perhaps I should have prayed for Sister to have a kinder heart, for her to have mercy on this little boy.  James, who was so cool.  James, who was my friend.

After what seemed like a very long time a tear welled up in the corner of one of his eyes.  He never squealed or moaned.  But he did begin to cry.  All of us who could see that tear hoped that it would signal the end of Sister Rachael Marie’s discipline.  That tear grew slowly until it slipped down his cheek and onto his handwriting paper.  A big round wet spot that blurred the pink and blue lines.

When she saw this she simply let him go.  James’ face was blotchy.  He sat back down.  Respectfully.  Now there were tears in both of his eyes.  His nose was runny and he wiped it with the back of his sleeve. 

Perhaps she had forgotten her demand that he go down to the principal’s office.  Or maybe she figured that her discipline had worked.  After all, she had brought James to tears, something I’d never thought possible. 

“Well, now,” Sister sighed.  “Where were we?  Oh yes, the letter Q.  You may think that it looks like the number 2 but there is a difference…”

At some point in our lives we stop crying for pain.  I’m sure it’s different for everyone but as adults we reserve our tears for the death of loved ones or bitter arguments or particularly sad movies or books.  At some time we forget about crying for pain.  We may cry out in pain when we hit our thumb with a hammer or close a finger in the door but, for most of us, physical pain does not bring on tears as it did in our youth.  But, in second grade most children cry tears of pain.  Everyone I knew did.  Everyone but James.

Did Sister know this?  Is that why she was so hard on him?  Was she conducting a subconscious experiment on human nature or was she just curious to find his threshold?

We learned lots from Sister Rachael Marie.  We learned beautiful cursive writing.  We learned our addition and subtraction facts forwards and backwards.  We learned to sit up straight and to keep our desks in order.  We learned to line up our desks in straight rows.  We learned to, “straighten up and fly right”. 

We learned to look into the face of Sister when she was talking to us and not to whisper to our neighbors.  We learned respect for authority.

That year my dad taught me how to tie a real necktie.  The girls learned how to clip their beanies to their heads with bobby pins. 

In second grade I made my first confession and took First Holy Communion.  I had my first real crush on a girl.  It was real to me. 

That year I learned how to build a model car from my brother Pat.  I learned how to bunt a baseball from my neighbor Rick and to play kick the can with my neighborhood boys.  I learned how to catch lightening bugs without squashing them and how to catch a garter snake without being bitten.  I learned how to catch tadpoles from the swamp and to change their water so I could watch them change into froglets.

I learned to cry that year too.  Of course I had cried countless times before (I had two older brothers and three older sisters who honed their teasing skills on me). 

On my way home from school the day that James cried, I cried too.  I didn’t ride the bus home as I usually did.  I didn’t want to be around my friends.  I remember sitting down in a weedy empty lot, setting my books down next to me and sobbing for James.  I cried until my head ached and my nose ran.  I cried until I coughed.  Then I pulled myself together, gathered my things and walked home.

When I saw James in school the next day he didn’t even mention the incident.  I never saw him cry again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Here are a couple funny incidents from school.  Or they could be considered gross.  When you work with little ones (second grade this year), there is always something funny going on.  Or gross.  It depends on your point of view.  

Last fall, we went to a local park for a nature hike and a close look at wildlife before winter set in.  Most of the wildlife we saw were insects and spiders.   We saw some squirrels and some faraway birds, but mostly what we saw was bugs.

I had the kids pretty primed for our insect investigations.  We had done a lot of looking closely at all kinds of animals so far and had many classroom visitors - which we dutifully released after spending a little time observing and learning from them.  We had hatched mosquitos, watched butterfly larvae metamorphose, photographed bird prints on our playground, looked closely at our wonderful eastern box turtle, Angelo.

One of my little guys had these clear plastic goggles of which he was pretty proud.  He wore them everywhere.  He played dodgeball on the playground with them to protect his eyes from dirt (not that anyone ever had a problem with flying dirt).  He wore them to traffic circle a time or two because you just never knew about rocks and cinders coming out from under car tires.  You get the picture.  They were cute on him and he liked them.  I figured he'd grow out of them or they would begin to chafe or something.  

So, off to the park for some "insectigations". We had our clipboards, white paper for sketching, lined paper and pencils for taking notes.  We were ready.  My little buddy had on his goggles, of course.  He wasn't going anywhere without them.   When I asked him about the goggles on this day he said, "You just don't know about wild flies."

"Oh, what do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, you wouldn't want any wild flies to land in your eyes and lay eggs in there, would you?  The fly eggs might hatch and then you'd REALLY be in trouble!"

"You're right, of course.  I wish I had a pair."

"Really?  Because you could wear mine if you want to."

"No, that's okay.  You wear them.  You thought of it first."


Over the past few weeks a  little girl in our room has been having stomach aches.   Every day she would complain.  "Mr. O. it really hurts today," she would say as soon as she walked in.  Her mom is very aware of the problem.  She had been to the doctor several times about this issue and they are trying different medicines.  

Now it seemed to me that there were patterns emerging about this stomach pain.  It would hurt when she first got there every morning, just before math, and just after (not before or during) recess.  Hmmm.

I didn't doubt her pain.  It was real, but there were definitely patterns emerging.  She would be laughing and carrying on at lunch, playing hard at recess and, as soon as we came in, her stomach ache would reemerge.  I asked the school nurse about this and she mentioned somatazation, or changing anxiety into physical symptoms.  She told me that coaching the child into not talking about her discomfort so much would probably lead to less physical pain.  Made sense.

I noticed other children doing this too.   One can never tell when someone else's pain is real and I didn't want to take any chances but all of this outloud talk about pain was taking on momentum.  "Mr. O'Keefe, I've really got a headache...  My foot hurts from running so much...  This hangnail is killing me."  It was catching.  Several kids were beginning to share their aches and pains.  Often I responded with something like, "Really?  I've got a little headache too.  What a coincidence," or, "Yeah?  I get stomach aches too.  I hate that," and just moved on.  

Second graders are like that.  Sometimes the momentum that is a part of who they are is very positive.  The science area may take over exploration time and we have many wonderful observations reported.  Or chess may become the thing to do for for a while and you could walk into the room and see five or six chess games at once during exploration.  At other times, less desirable things take over - like talking about pain.  

So we just had to ride it out.  I tried to give sympathy but not send kids to the office; let kids know I cared but not call parents unless it was obviously very necessary.  I was walking the line.

So the other day, the little girl who had been discussing her stomach aches so often, was holding her stomach but didn't mention anything to me.  A step in the right direction, I thought.  I kept an eye on her but I didn't want to bring attention to it by asking how she felt.  

We were cruising through the morning and I had not given it much thought when she walked up to me with her eyes open wide, her cheeks slightly puffed out and a panicked look on her face.  She was waving a wrinkled piece of paper around frantically.  "What's wrong, honey?"

She pushed the paper at me, eyes wide.  I just throo up in my moth!  she had written.

"Well go in the bathroom and spit it out," I said.  "And rinse your mouth out."  Why hadn't she done that in the first place?  I'll probably never know.


Saturday, April 11, 2009

Old Song

The other day I went on about a conversation from several years back that pushed me to think more about God.  It was sort of pivotal for me, helping me to come to grips with and think more deeply about our existence and our blessings.  

I wrote this song about six or eight months ago.  Going through my notebook the other day, I stopped and played it and thought how it connected to my last post.  It's not the most awesome song ever written, I'm not even sure that it is all that good, but it is sincere.

Yesterday we went to see a friend's newborn twins.  They were beautiful and sweet and sleepy and burpy.  They smiled and cried, stretched and squeaked.  I had not held a little one in a while and, of course, it was beautiful.  Their smell, their warmth, their newness was just so... God.  Holding them close and realizing their potential to change the world made me think back to our boys as babies.  I love the young men they have become, but I miss those little babies.

From the bright wildflowers
To the starry sky at night
To the sunset in the west 
And every beautiful sight
From the baby's first cry on entering this world
To the lovely musical laughter 
Of every boy and girl

God is there - He hears my prayer
And I am grateful - God is everywhere

From the burning fall colors
Filling up the trees
To the windsong whispering
As it rushes through the leaves
From the mockingbird's joy
Early in the dawn
To the twilight blue
And the mourning dove's sweet song

God is there - He hears my prayer
And I am grateful  - God is everywhere

This old world keeps turning
And spinning round the sun
A plan of perfect motion
Until each year is done
Every wave upon the ocean
Every particle of sand
A gift come down from Heaven
Straight from God's own hand

God is there - He hears my prayer
And I am grateful - God is everywhere

From the colors of the desert
To the bright pastels of spring
To the sparkling crystal snow
And in every living thing
From the rain that falls onto the earth
To the rainbow after the storm
From the music of the waterfall
And the sun that keeps us warm

God is there - He hears my prayer
And I am grateful - God is everywhere

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Am I Blessed Or Am I Lucky?

I am a lot of things. I am a dad, a husband, a teacher, a brother, a son. I am not a preaching man. I could never be. I’m not preaching here. Just telling a story.

Our lives are made of critical incidents, right? When you think back on the people and episodes in your life, there are some really big ones and some lesser ones, which make you who you are. These stories and events changed our worlds.

Among mine are… 

*Deciding to go to college, although it never felt like a choice, more like an assumption. Thanks, Mom and Dad. 

*Living in Wright Quad when I got to college, only because my high school girlfriend and one of my best friends were going to live there. My girlfriend immediately broke up with me, leaving me thinking that I should be living ANYWHERE else but that dorm. 

*Taking this Crafts and Design class where I met Heidi Mills (who lived in the afore mentioned dormitory), and we started walking home together from class, and we started sharing our stories, and we started dating, and we fell in love, and we made our lives together. 

*Moving to South Carolina because it was the first place Heidi got offered a job teaching at the university after receiving her doctorate. Within days she got other offers, but it was SC first so this is where we ended up. 

*Trying to have kids. Not being able to have kids. “The great science experiment” trying to get pregnant. Getting pregnant – identical twins. Heidi miscarrying. 

*Finally deciding to adopt. On that very day – that critical day we made the decision to adopt – our friend Amy connected us to a doctor, a birth mother. Six weeks later Devin came into our lives. 

*Nine months later getting pregnant with Colin.

Any and all of these critical incidents in my life could have gone another direction. Any small change could have altered everything that followed. My entire future may have evolved into something completely different over something really small. What if I worked in the steel mill the way my dad did and didn’t go to college? What if Heidi and I ended up in different sections of that art class and we didn't walk home together? What if Heidi got a job offer closer to home before getting the offer from USC? There are countless ways my life could have been different. But this path, this life led me here; to my people, to this area. Was I just lucky?

Several years ago, I went to a show with a couple of buddies. It was a Jack Johnson and Ben Harper concert. The concert was in Charleston at a baseball field. It was incredible. The weather was perfect; sunshine, skin temperature, low humidity. The music sublime. I mean Jack Johnson and Ben Harper, how could it not be? They even did a couple songs together. It was one of the best musical experiences ever for me.

My friends and I almost didn’t go. One of the guys wasn’t feeling well. We didn’t even know if there would be tickets still available. We took a chance and it worked out.

As we were leaving and sort of letting the event sink in, we were driving across a bridge and watched as the sunset filled the sky with brilliant light. Every sunset is special but this one, on the heels of such wonderful music seemed extra somehow. I said, without thinking it through very much, “You guys, are we blessed or what?”

Well, my buddy Dean said, “I’m guessing you mean lucky, as in, ‘Are we lucky, or what?’”

“Yeah. Sure. We are lucky. But I mean, to be in this place, that music, this sunset, all of it is just so… God. You know what I mean?”

“Not really,” Dean said. “It’s all chance.”

“What do you mean, chance?”

“I don’t really believe in a god, per se.”

“Per se,” I repeated.

“No, god is an invention of man.”

“Really,” I replied flatly.

“Sure, we are the products of evolution, natural selection, mutations. It’s all chance, man.”

“Chance. You think all of this is chance.” We looked out at the beautiful horizon. Beams of brightly colored light were spokes across the wheel of sky, the setting sun the hub. Where the sky was clear it was deep blue, almost indigo. “Tonight’s music? What we felt about the music? That’s just the result of evolution?”

Dean went back over what he knew about evolution. Mutations. Some mutations are favorable. Those organisms with the favorable mutations have a better chance of reproducing effectively and passing on their traits. Over millions of generations…

It was a pretty long recitation and I knew the information. I totally believe in evolution too. The question isn’t if evolution occurs. We know it does. That’s the fact part. The theory part of evolution is… how.

But that music. That couldn’t be merely passing on favorable mutations. That music was too much. Too beautiful to be just the result of chance.

The conversation was a long one. We were a couple of hours away from home and it lasted the whole way. Dean with his chance and mutation way of looking at how we turned out as humans.  
“What do you think happens to us when we die?” I asked.

His body was just meat, he said. “What happens to meat?”

I said, “Don’t forget the potatoes!” I’m sure it was sarcastic of me to coin his view of the universe and human change as meat and potatoes. But of course, I did.

I had no empirical evidence to the contrary but it just seemed logical to me that there had to be some guidance in the process. Some overarching hand.

My proof? Well, that was unclear. Because I do believe in evolution. But I don’t believe that I am where I am today just because of chance. Proof? I guess it comes down to love.

Could the accidental mutation of chromosomes which resulted in more positive outcomes for some members of the species and a quick end to others be responsible for the love I feel for Heidi Mills? For my boys? For my family and my students? I don’t think so. Could that feeling I get when I am kissed be the result of chance? Of meat and potatoes?

Love is the only proof that I need that this life isn’t just an accident. I see God in lots of things now. More proof that the universe wasn’t just a big mistake. God is in kindness, forgiveness, compassion. Yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Way over a million people were killed in three months. Over ten thousand a day. Fifteen years later they have picked up the pieces after that terrible time. They are forgiving and being forgiven. That is God. That is my proof.

That ride home with those two friends was one of those pivotal, life changing episodes for me, one of those critical incidents. Honestly, I had been going to church for several years. I mostly did it for our boys so they could grow up in a church. I went to church because Heidi wanted to go. I went to church for the music and the fellowship. I went to church for the occasional sermon that moved me and made me think. I was on cruise control. I hadn’t given the existence of God a whole lot of thought. Like going to college, I was just operating under the assumption of God. Not the white-bearded God who sits on a throne in judgment, surrounded by cumulus clouds with an angry look on HIS face. Not the lightening-bolt-throwing-God. Just… God.

Talking to my atheist friend helped me fit together pieces that had been floating around in my mind for my whole life I guess. That simple experience helped me to clarify and distill a lot of basics. Proof? I had all the proof I needed that God exists. I just hadn’t put the pieces together for a while. I needed that conversation.

I am not a preaching man. I could never be. My friend didn’t change his mind about the existence of a god. Maybe I wasn’t convincing enough. I would never claim to know the specifics; I would never claim to know what God thinks. I don’t know, for example, why bad things happen to good people.

I can tell you what DID happen to me that day. My friend, who is as devout an atheist as anyone I know, helped me to understand that God does exist and that all of this isn’t just a big mistake. Ironic, huh?

I’ll end this post with the lyrics to a favorite song by a favorite singer/songwriter David Wilcox. In this tune, David fits together more “proof” that this life isn’t just a big mistake. “To have lips that smile as I swim your kiss…” "The fact that anyone could find their only one along this darkened path..." No, it is so much more than a Big Mistake. Am I lucky, or am I blessed?

Big Mistake – by David Wilcox

They taught us kids in school between the recess breaks
That the universe just sorta fell together like a Big Mistake
It started with a bang that sent the pieces flying
Then it cooled and twirled into dinosaurs and dandelions

It was a Big Mistake to have eyes that see
To have love like this inside of me
To have lips that smile as I swim your kiss
To have minds that will forever be every part of this
All the moonlight shrouded in the clouds above and
The autumn leaves and the falling love
The still reflection in the moonlit lake
All, they said, it was a big mistake, it was a big mistake

Now back to science class through the looking glass
We were magnifying little ancestors of our ancient past
Watch 'em break a couple chromosomes, wait a zillion years or so
And get an ostrich, a jellyfish, a kangaroo, and a Romeo

It was a Big Mistake to have eyes that see
To have love like this inside of me
To have lips that smile as I swim your kiss
To have minds that will forever be every part of this
All the moonlight shrouded in the clouds above and
The autumn leaves and the falling love
The still reflection in the moonlit lake
All, they said, it was a big mistake, it was a big mistake

The choreography of a coincidence
At the turning point there was eternity behind a moment's glance
It was for you and me the timing made us laugh
The fact that anyone could find their only one along this darkened path

It was a Big Mistake to have eyes that see
To have love like this inside of me
To have lips that smile as I swim your kiss
To have minds that will forever be every part of this
All the moonlight shrouded in the clouds above and
The autumn leaves and the falling love
The still reflection in the moonlit lake
All, they said, it was a big mistake, it was a big mistake

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Jumping Eddie

“There’s no way you can do that without getting hurt,” I said.

“No, really, no problem,” Ed responded. We were on my back porch, my patio. Ed was sitting on his cool little bike with the banana seat. I think it was called a mustang. Like the horse. Like the car. Our patio was about three feet high, soft grass all around.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” I sang out.

“What are you, scared?” said our buddy Milenki. Mike was always daring us to do nutty stuff. Most of the time we weren’t crazy enough to go through with it.

“Ed. It’s suicide.” I was trying to talk him out of it. “The best thing that would happen would be for you to land in the grass and the bike hit you right in the crotch.”

“Hmmm.” I couldn’t believe Ed was even considering it. Milenki never even took our dares unless they were easy or a sure thing.

“Don’t do it, man,” I said.

“Do it,” said Mike.

“Don’t, Ed.”

“Do it!”

“You’ll get hurt, Ed,” I said.

“I give you a dime,” said Mike. It was all he had. “Don’t be a chicken, Schutz.” Milenki was a relentless teaser. “You said you were gonna do it, now don’t punk out on us.”

I loved Ed’s new bike. It was a shimmering gold and it had, what we all wanted, a banana seat. It wasn’t a full sized bike. Not quite. But it was really cool to an eleven year old in 1968. It was tough, groovy, radical. It was far out, cool beans, righteous, awesome. I wish I had a bike as cool as Ed’s.

My own bike was a leftover from my big sister Ruthie. It was a girl’s bike and it was obvious. That’s the way it was in my family. If something wasn’t broken it was handed down. With seven children it had to be that way. Ed only had one brother and he was way older, seventeen I think. So Ed didn’t have-hand-me-downs.

So here was Ed on this late spring day. It was after school, almost dinner time. There were dinner smells wafting over from my neighbor’s house. Sausage? Syrup? Maybe the Kadars were having breakfast for dinner. Maybe it was the Grynovich family from across the street. We’d all be splitting in a little while. Then homework, then the late evening stuff. No TV for me on a school night. I loved this time with my friends.

The sky was deep blue, just a hint of breeze. The three of us were on the patio. Milenki was teasing Shutz. Taunting him into jumping off the patio. I was trying pretty hard to talk some reason into him, but it was clear that Mike was winning. Mike won most of the time.

“Bock! Bock! Bock!” Milenki did his terrible chicken imitation.

“I’ve made bigger jumps than this before,” Schutz said. And he had too. I had seen him jump really high on a wooden incline we had built in Maysack’s Woods.

“Right, Ed, but you were jumping off a ramp. This is straight down. If you land wrong you could get racked really bad. It might mean the end of the Schutz family name, if you know what I mean.” He knew what I meant.

“Bock! Bock! You little chicken,” Milenki mocked.

“What’ll you give me?” Ed Turned to Mike.

“You’ll prove what a man you are, Schutzie. We won’t think you’re a chicken Schutz any more. We won’t think you’re ‘Yellow Eddie’.”

“Don’t listen to him, Ed. You think he would do it? This could be bad.”

“I know I can do it.” He eyed the distance to the end of the patio, to the ground. He inched forward ands looked over the edge. “No prob. Really. I’ll do it for a quack, Milenki.” It was our lingo for a quarter.

Mike reached into his pockets. He had his house key. He was the only one of my friends who had a key to his house. He was a latch-key kid before I had ever heard the term. He also had a little super ball, the kind you could get from one of those machines for a nickel. He had a paper clip, pocket lint, a nickel and five pennies. That was it. “Like I said, alls I got is a dime, Eddie. Will ya do it for ten cents? I throw in the super ball.”

Ed thought about it. Back in the day you could get two pretty big candy bars for a dime. Or two big bags of Sugar Babies which were Ed’s favorite. “Okay, but you gotta pay me in advance.”

“Uh uh – after the jump,” Mike said. Ed nodded and backed up his bike to the wall. We watched as Ed did a couple of pop ups, yanking the handlebars up and letting the front tire bounce back down.

“Careful, Ed,” I said, as if that would change a thing. He’d probably be okay, but I was worried. I’d never do anything like that, dare or no dare, chicken sounds or no. I was never any good at balancing or jumping. I could barely ride my bike no handed. Most kids in my old neighborhood could pop up, cat walk, do wheelies. Not me. I was worried for Ed.

The time had come. Ed backed up as far as he could go. Melinki and I jumped onto the grass. Ed put his right foot on the pedal. The look on his face was a blend of determination and fear. The breeze blew back his hair as he launched himself forward. He only had about ten feet to accelerate. He pushed those pedals as hard as he could and pulled up those fancy upraised handlebars as he approached the end of the patio.

The front of the bike flew up about a foot. But Ed was not going fast enough. He hadn’t timed the pull just right. The bike came down on its new chain and shiny sprocket. Ed’s eyes were wide with surprise and shock. The high handlebars twisted sideways as the bike came to a sudden stop. He arced upward and forward, seemingly defying gravity.

Not a sound came out of Ed until he hit the grass. He did get his hands out in front of him but it didn’t help since he landed squarely on the top of his head. When he did, Ed squeaked. Not the high soft squeak of a rodent, rather the loud falsetto squeak of a preadolescent boy in pain and surprise. After landing head first in the grass, he tumbled loosely onto his side. Milenki and I knelt down next to him.

“Oh my God! I think I broke my neck!” Ed screamed. “Call my mom! Call My mom!”

“Okay, man. I’ll call her right now.” I raced inside passing Ed’s gleaming bike in the grass. Its shining handlebars had dug a deep divot into the soft grass of the backyard. Otherwise it looked in great shape. I doubted if Ed would be jumping his new bike anytime soon. I wondered whether or not Milenki would give over the dime. I doubted it.

Ed was writhing on the ground when I returned from the phone. Mike offered, “If you can move like that I don’t think you’re neck is broken, Ed.”

I don’t think it was much consolation.

Ed’s mom and dad were there within minutes. My mom came out too. She overheard my phone call to Ed’s folks. Ed’s parents knelt down next to him. He was really wailing then. It’s funny how things seem worse as soon as you see your mom. He had pretty much quieted down until he saw her and then he cried harder than ever.

We were all scared about moving him. What if he had broken something? We were always told never to move someone if you thought there was a broken neck involved. We wouldn’t want to make things worse.

Soon an orange and white ambulance came screaming down the street. The white clad EMT’s raced to our backyard with a stretcher. It was rigid. Maybe they call it a neck board. They fitted a neck brace onto Ed and carefully shifted him over the board where they strapped him down so he his neck and head wouldn’t budge.

Neighbors were standing around their porches whispering about what might be happening at the O’Keefe’s. Soon Ed was put into the back of the waiting ambulance. A bit of color had returned to his cheeks and he had stopped that pitiful wailing. His mom was holding his hand which would have seemed pretty sissified under other circumstances.

Ed’s mom was crying. His dad, who was much older than his mom, was stoic as the ambulance guys popped him into the back and clunked the doors shut. I figured that he probably wasn’t hurt that bad since the ambulance left at normal speed, the lights swirling but no siren. If they thought he had a broken neck, they would have raced out of there with the siren blaring.

The neighbors went back inside and closed their doors. The street became quiet again. Folks went back to their regular diner routines. Milenki and I were standing at the end of our driveway. Now it was the end of our play time. Now we were back to our school night routine. Moms and dads were turning into their driveways from work; laundry hung on clotheslines, Garrison’s Jack Russell terrier yapped, starlings gathered on the power lines and TV antennas.

We kicked a rock back and forth like we sometimes did. I felt a little guilty. I wasn’t the one who dared Ed to jump off the patio, but I couldn’t talk him out of it. As we turned to go in for the evening, home to dinner, homework, baths and bed, I had one question. “You give Schutzie his dime?”

“Sure,” he said. “You think I’m a cheapskate or something?”