When I was in junior high school, my coach told me he was cutting me from the baseball team since I couldn’t resist going after the high inside fast ball. I could bunt, though, but that wasn’t enough, since I wasn’t fast around the bases. Thus, my life of crime began …
This explanation could well have fit a childhood acquaintance who was the poster child for trouble. When you grow up with a hooligan in the neighborhood, you learn quickly to stay alert and to fight back or forever be a patsy to his terrorist tactics. I have Frank to thank for my first bloody nose and other important lessons in life, such as how to handle a hard grounder to third base. But he was a tough kid and a bully. Only after I kicked him in the balls when he was pummeling me once too often did he leave me alone. I have never been a fighter so I tried evasion and placation first to stay on Frank’s “good” side, which was narrow and unaccommodating at best. Even as a child I tried to reason with him, which he would have none of. He was simply not going to have a eureka moment, to recognize the wickedness of his ways, to reform, to get along, to stop being a Richard Cranium. All he respected was a blow back at him since he was never going to change. At that tender moment in my boyhood, I realized that the first lesson of a civilized life is to accept the ineluctable without tears. Or so I thought.
When I met him again last year at our high school reunion, I was immediately taken back to a time nearly sixty years earlier. We were both kids again, circling one another and growling. I believe I even felt a trickle of sweat run down my back just seconds before our own personal reunion. I know for a fact that my heart had picked up a beat just at seeing him across the room. Frank had disappeared somewhere in the early years of high school in search of other “homes” in juvenile delinquent centers. I learned later that he had graduated along the way to the city jail after he assaulted a judge on the street who had recently read him the riot act at a hearing for charges of running amok in a parking lot with a piece of jagged metal leaving long scratches on the sides of cars. He eventually found a cell in the state penitentiary for armed assault and for doing unspeakable things to an elderly lady. He was incorrigible.
Imagine how gobsmacked I was to discover he had found his way back to the world of the living, had reunited with his old girlfriend, and had become a respectable member of society, even a Rotarian and member in good standing at his church. Without a break in his stride, he marched up to me smiling and held out his hand in friendship. All I needed was the proverbial feather and I would have been horizontal once again in front of him.
As Frank explained apologetically, he just woke up one morning in his barred space and said to himself that he no longer wanted to live his old life. He was in his late thirties at the time, a “hardened” criminal in the eyes of many, and a recidivist in the revolving world of prison, the outside, and prison again. I was afraid he was going to corner me with tales of a “Jesus moment,” but he confided it was not some convenient religious enlightenment that threw the switch for him to start jogging on another track. Here was a guy who was allowed to keep his hobnailed boots when tossed in the slammer for his first night in jail as a teenager. The only cot was up top and the room had bright lights that were left on all the time. Those boots were his life saver as he kicked his share of intruders in the face who tried to scale the bed frame to assault him. To survive, he had to become mean and to befriend the strong to shield him from the predators who hankered for his body and soul. His fighting skills were his passage to survival.
So what had happened and how had he turned his life around, especially under such bleak circumstances?
Frank had become a bit of a philosopher, gone back to school, even graduated from university. He loved to tell his story and was in demand on the talking circuit. Lots of skeptics challenged him and many were always suspicious of the “real” Frank, never giving him the trust that seems to be automatically bestowed on the rest of us. As best he could explain, his Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment came with the death of his grandfather whose funeral he could not attend. This man was the only person left in Frank’s life who still held out hope for him, who visited him and told him stories. One was the parable of the old man who planted the seed of the carob, a long-lived tree that takes many years to reach maturity and to bloom and produce fruit. When asked why he did this, since he would never live long enough to see the tree in bloom, the old man said it was for future generations to enjoy. Just as he enjoyed the fruit of the carob planted years earlier by people he never knew and were long gone, he had a connection with them, with the past. From the carob is made Saint John’s bread, a nourishing food that can be seen as a symbol of assistance to the poor, the indigent, the lost ones to accompany them on their journey to wholeness.
Frank’s moment of rebirth came from a moment of death and the promise of a genesis of things to come. He had been shown a new way out of the darkness. The death of his grandfather had revealed a simple truism: In his loss, he had finally realized how grateful he was simply to be alive and to know that he had been presented with the ultimate gift, a second chance. He had learned that his heart had been freed from asking for more. This was all he needed. He was now in the airport corridor, the never-never land between where you have been and the place where you’re going. He had learned that his “home” would be the piece/peace in his soul, not the various pieces of property where he had sat confined these many years. Somehow through his grandfather, he had learned to leave behind the ball and chains that had prevented him from seeing and valuing others. He no longer was intent on eating from the bowl alone simply to survive and satisfy his primitive needs and urges. The sense of the value of “others” took on meaning.
When I recently learned that Frank died this past summer from pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t contain the many emotions I felt. Here was the end of a life that totally puzzled me. He had been a thug most of his days with no apparent redeeming qualities. He was a throwaway, one you were glad was locked away. His story at times was beyond belief and my credulity, however stretched.
In trying to make sense of what Frank brought to my life and understanding of human behavior, I remain puzzled and befuddled for the most part. There is some glimmer of meaning, though, in knowing that he found himself in the end. I know he meant more than I’ll ever know to the woman who forgave and embraced him. For me, I find some solace and meaning in the simple wisdom garnered from the words of the actress, playwright, and novelist Alice Childress, who wrote A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. In the end, she said, “Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave, and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way.”