Right before I went into sixth grade, we moved from the northwest side of Chicago to Elmhurst. At the time, Elmhurst seemed practically rural. Indeed, the old Atwood Farm was at the corner of Madison and Poplar, a block from our house, and on some mornings I’d wake up to a rooster crowing. I’d always thought of myself as a city kid, so it felt weird to be “in the country.”
Being a new kid in class was no fun, either. I don’t think it’s ever pleasant walking into a strange class of strange faces, all eyes upon you, even if you’re a confident and well-adjusted adolescent, which few kids are. I certainly wasn’t. I was an odd kid. I read a lot of Edgar Allen Poe.
For some reason, several guys in our class were enthusiastically endorsing “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” I got about 4 pages into it. Boring.
One of those kids, Doug, read that book and then quite proudly proclaimed that he was starting into ‘Mein Kampf.’ I had a feeling this young man considered this particular book about the early days of National Socialist thought and Hitler’s ascent to be less interesting as history and most interesting as a how-to for aspiring jack-booted thugs who knock in the night.
Kid was a monster, constantly saying things he hoped would hurt.
Some examples to illustrate the point.
I have eyes that some might uncharitably describe as narrow, always have, so Doug immediately pronounced me a “fucking Jap.”
We had a boy in our class who had hemophilia, guy with the last name Morbido. Anyway, Doug once said to him, “Shut the fuck up, Morbido, or I’ll hit you so hard you’ll bleed to death.” Then he added with a sadistic leer, “On the inside.”
Doug did have a soft side, though, as I found out during our brief and largely innocuous moment or two together. He idolized a guy by the name of Ken Rude – and I’m providing a last name here because I think the name kind of says it all. Rude was a tough one, intelligent but blunt, and a good athlete…at least by the standards of Yorkfield elementary school in south Elmhurst.
Doug, somewhat pathetically, worshipped Ken Rude. When his hero would enter our sixth grade classroom room, Doug would shout “Rude, Rude, Rude, ooo, ooo, ooo.” It reminded me of an Italian fascist chanting “Duce, Duce, Duce.” I believe he also, as a kind of salute to his idol, accompanied this chant with his arm raised in what now days would be called a fist pump.
Doug had blue eyes and dirty blonde hair, and he was a little plump for an Aryan superman. Still with a lot of baby fat, the kid had dreams…most of them, I’m assuming, unspeakably evil.
Doug was a bully, constantly picking fights. One day he asks me to fight. We were standing on the front lawn of my Boy Scout Master’s house. I forget the guy’s name, but his son once told me “some spics” had moved into our neighborhood. I had never heard that word before.
“What’s a spic,” I asked.
“You know,” the kid said, “people with dark skin. Not like jigs, but still dark. More like Mexicans. Puerto Ricans, you know.”
“Or Italians?” I asked, thinking of my grandmother, Ermine, who was from Genoa, and who was my best friend growing up. She had a lightly brown complexion for a Northern Italian.
“Yeah, sure, all those people are spics,” said my fellow Boy Scout, with the unshakable certainty of the deeply stupid.
Anyway we were in front of that house where I learned the word “spic,” and Doug is demanding we fight. I say no, I just want to go home. . He demands again. I say no again.
He persisted. We engage. I technically kicked his ass. Twice. Here’s how. I’m not a strong person. A guy with a good punch could lay me out. So my strategy for schoolboy fisticuffs was to come in close, grab the other guy’s waist, and then throw him over my right leg, with a twist. Sometimes, if I was lucky, as we both fell to the ground, I could bring my knee down into his stomach, which is a sure game-ender. It knocks the air out of the opponent, who will generally tend to stay on his back, gasping for air, giving me time to casually walk away.
Years later, this guy Jerry Vocalino, kind of a dark-skinned kid, demanded I fight him, too. I have a kind of funny footnote story about Vocalino. My grandfather, William, was a doctor from Naples who had left my Genoese grandmother for a fancy lady. This was after my grandmother had borne him four children, one of whom was my mom. My grandfather was visiting us in Elmhurst one day, and he asked me, “Are there any colored kids in your new school?” I had to think for a moment and then I said, “Yes, I think so, there’s this guy named Vocalino,” which happens to be an Italian name. That seemed to shut down my grandfather’s inquiry into the racial makeup of my grade school.
Anyway, with Vocalino, I used the same technique of coming in close and throwing my opponent over my right leg. I did that two or three times before Vocalino screamed, “Is that the only trick you have.”
Yes, in fact, it was indeed my only trick. And I used it twice to knock down Doug, though I was unable to execute my bonus knee drop into his belly, which was too massive to maneuver around. I’d just hold him down for a while. Then, I wasn’t sure what to do. I got bored. I got off. Doug then jumps on me again, and this time I just gave up. I was losing interest. He pinned me. Now what? Doug demanded I “give.” Fine, “I give,” I say.
That’s what the Aryan superboy wanted: surrender. That seemed to please him, to feed his fantasy of being an invincible monster.
So that was that.
Halloween was coming up, and now that Doug and I had become sort of acquaintances after wrestling, and pinning each other, we went house-to-house together.
Now, trick-or-treating for me was a marathon, a timed event that I undertook with one goal in mind: to gain the most treats as quickly as possible in the time allotted, which was basically the hours from when school let out until sometime after dark. In those few hours, I tried to cover as much ground as I could. I was never a sports guy, but I liked to run, and I was moving fast from house to house.
Doug was a little round, as mentioned, so he was moving slowly between houses. I got a house or so ahead; it was just too hard for me to walk slowly enough for uber-boy to keep up. I think he fell down as he shouted, “Thanks a lot, Hammond,” like I owed it to him to walk slowly with him, keeping him company, monster that was. He ate most of the candy he received as soon as he got it. He liked Three Musketeers, which I loathed: just big crappy, waxy chocolate, I thought. I slowed down, whether to be nice or to end Doug’s bleating, I can’t remember…it’s been half a century.
Doug and I went up the tall steps of a house. There was a pumpkin at the top of the steps. Doug saw it, grabbed it, and threw it off the porch, without a thought. I didn’t even see him do it.
The owner of the house, the dad, came out and started yelling at us for smashing his kid’s jack o’ lantern. “That was a little boy’s pumpkin,” he said to us with a choke.
I didn’t know what he was talking about. Oh…then I got it: I looked below the tall wooden stairway and saw that Doug had thrown the pumpkin off the front porch. It lay in big pieces on the ground. Doug hadn’t even thrown the pumpkin to the ground as a way of showing off to me – I didn’t even see him do it. He did it for his own private, sick amusement. What an ass, creep, and monster.
We were turned away without candy from this house where Doug had messed up the kid’s pumpkin. I couldn’t blame the family – and I imagined the dad explaining to his son why someone would do something so pointlessly mean. On the way down the long stairs, Doug admitted he had thrown the pumpkin. I didn’t even ask why. I knew why.
That night was probably the last time I talked to Doug. He was never a friend, just a kid who I was briefly thrown together with …and the brevity our relationship was fine with me. I gave Doug two Three Musketeers bars from my trick or treat bag. This seemed to please him, though as I recall, he didn’t say thanks.
Years later, at the Golden Pheasant in Elmhurst, I ran into a woman who was in the same class with Doug and me and Ken Rude at Yorkfield School.
I remembered this lady. She used to be a serious kid, but with a hearty laugh, full of life, good at kickball, kind of pretty. This young woman went through what for most kids is an unbelievable horror: the death of a parent. What happened is that one day her mom had died in the bath tub. No one knew the cause of death: she just died, probably a heart thing.
Now, standing at the bar of the Golden Pheasant, I remembered that this now old and grey lady, so long ago, was actually the kid who’d discovered her mother, blue and submerged and lifeless in the tub, when she came home from school. All the other suburban youth at Yorkfield felt sorry for her at the time, but we stayed away from her, kept our distance. She had suffered a tragedy none of us could understand or bear to think about. So instead of comforting her, we avoided her.
We talked about other classmates who we knew from a long time ago, names were dropped, and finally the name of Doug came up.
“Doug,” she had said to me in the bar, in a low and hurt voice, “said something horrible.”
“Was it about your mom?” I asked, barely able to imagine what insanely hurtful utterance might have erupted form the monster’s mouth, long ago.
“Yes,” she said thinly. Then she added abruptly, with power rising in her voice, “Doug is dead now.”
I asked: “Was his death in any way related to a hate crime?”
“I believe so,” she laughed that same hearty laugh.