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Our Friend Steven - John J. Yezman

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The Summer of 1959 was an eventful one for the three young boys about to enter the sixth grade. All of them were at Jeff Wyman's house enjoying the last day of summer vacation, and all were admiring Jeff's baseball card of Mickey Mantle, the New York Yankees' hot new star. Jeff stood at the side of his bed as his friends, Steven Ellis and David Mahler, continued to look at the small image of the New York Yankee. Steven looked at Jeff and said, "Okay, I'll give you Al Kaline, Norman Cash and Whitey Ford." This was a generous offer, especially since Kaline and Cash were members of the hometown team... the Detroit Tigers. But Jeff couldn't be swayed to trade Mickey Mantle. Steven viewed Jeff's determination and said, "Okay, I know you won't budge." Dave spoke up, "Hey guys, it's the last day of vacation. Let's celebrate." Jeff replied, "Yeah, I'll go see if dad will take us down to the Avon Dairy." Mr. Wyman approved, and drove the kids to downtown Rochester, Michigan, a small rural community about thirty-five miles north of Detroit. The boys sat by Mr. Wyman at the counter of the 1950's ice cream joint with the juke box blasting and the pin ball machines clanking in the background. The boys talked about going back to school the next day and were a bit apprehensive about entering the sixth grade. As the boys continued to talk of tomorrow, Mr. Wyman noticed the counter girl and a few patrons looking at Steven, who was a bi-racial child, half black and half Caucasian. Mr. Wyman returned the stares, as if to say, "Knock it off", but Steven was used to such stares. Growing up a bi-racial child in a small conservative town in the late 50's, it was almost a daily occurrence.

The next morning, on the first day of school, the boys met in front of the Saint Ambrose parking lot, talking about how the day would evolve. Father Garner came out and instructed the students to line up according to the grade they were in, and they were all led to their respective classrooms. Upon entering their classroom, the boys saw Sister Marie sitting behind the desk and Dave whispered to Steve and Jeff, "Hey! I guess it could be worse... but not by much!" The class was instructed to find temporary seats. The students knew this meant sitting down facing the front of the room without talking, hands folded on the desk. Sister Marie, dressed in Dominican garb, her chubby face and brow protruding from the tight habit around her head, appeared menacing to the young sixth graders. She began to speak. "When you hear your name called and I touch the desk you will be sitting in, come take your seat. The person who is sitting in that seat will go to the back of the room until your name is called." Jeff hoped that, wherever he was seated, Steven or David would be seated close to him. The first row by the windows was filled without any of the three being called; then David was seated in the next aisle three desks from the front, and Jeff was seated two seats behind him. Jeff hoped that Steven would be seated next to him in the third row, or, if fate would have it, that seat would be assigned to Susan Martin, the blond, blue-eyed beauty of the sixth grade. As the seat next to him was about to be assigned, Jeff held his breath and crossed his fingers. Sister Marie blurted out, "Vinnchenso Minchella." "No, no... not Vinnie Minchella!" Vinnie should have been in the eighth grade, but had been held back twice, failing the fourth grade and the sixth. Vinnie was one of the biggest kids in school and considered one of the toughest. His five foot ten inch, 170 lb. frame topped with greasy, jet black hair combed back in a D.A., sat down in the desk to the side of Jeff. His black leather jacket reflected the florescent lights from the ceiling. Jeff looked at him briefly and said in a low, shaky voice, "Hi, Vinnie." Vinnie did not speak; he just gave Jeff a brief, blank stare as if to say, 'Don't talk to me, you worm.' Jeff thought, 'I hope this semester goes by quickly.'

After a few days, things appeared to be settling in. One morning, Sister Marie asked the students to clean the erasers during recess. Each student in the class would smack the small felt erasers together to get the chalk dust out of them. After Sister Marie passed all the erasers out, she began to teach the math lesson. David, who sat a few seats in front of Jeff, patiently waited for sister to write the math problem on the huge chalkboard in front of the room. As soon as Sister Marie faced the chalk board and began to write, David turned around and tossed one of his erasers at Jeff's head, striking him in the forehead. Jeff wiped the chalk from his head and picked up the eraser. As Sister Marie continued to write, Jeff threw it back at his friend David, but the throw was high and the eraser continued on, hitting the nun right in the back of her black veil, leaving a square chalk impression on it. Within a split second, Jeff thought, 'What am I going to do?' To talk during class was a misdemeanor, to get caught chewing gum was a felony, but to hit Sister with an eraser surely meant a death sentence. Jeff frantically searched his mind to find a way out before sister turned around and looked for blood. As she turned around with her fists clenched and her face as red as could be, Jeff opened his mouth, opened his eyes wide, and looked over at Vinnie Minchella, as if to say "Vinnie did it." Sister caught Jeff's expression and centered on Vinnie. "Mr. Minchella, stand up and come with me out in the hallway!" she yelled. Vinnie could only reply, "Sister, I didn't do it." Vinnie had witnessed the whole scenario of the eraser throwing and he had also seen Jeff looking at him with his 'pointing the finger' expression. Sister Marie then asked Vinnie, "If you did not throw it, then who did?" Vinnie stood mute; he had a code of not tattling on another kid, even if that kid had thrown the blame at him. None of the other students said anything, not daring to interfere in Vinnie's decision. As Vinnie walked away with the enraged nun, Jeff thought, 'I'm dead... dead! Vinnie is going to kill me the first chance he gets.' Jeff knew that he would have to face the music, but he thought that taking his lumps would be better than having his parents find out that he caused trouble in the classroom. At recess, Steven and Dave talked about Jeff's predicament and tried to help him find a solution. Jeff told them, "I want to get this over with as soon as possible... I hope by the end of the day." "I'm sorry," said David, "If I hadn't thrown the eraser in the first place, this wouldn't have happened." When the boys came back from recess, they passed Vinnie in the office. He gave Jeff the death stare as they walked by. Vinnie was no stranger to the office. He was usually in there at least twice a month for not doing his homework. Vinnie wasn't a bully or a trouble maker in the traditional sense, and he was not ignorant; he just found school boring. He was a hard worker, and helped his father in his grocery store. The day went by without incident as Vinnie was kept in the office for the rest of the afternoon. Jeff would get very little sleep that night. His father noticed his silence at the dinner table, but didn't pursue the matter. Steven called him and said, "I talked to Dave and we're going stay by your side all day tomorrow. We're not going to let our friend get hurt; Vinnie will have to take on all three of us." Jeff felt a bit better, but did not want his friends to get hurt for something he initiated. That night, as Jeff lay in his bed, he knew that the coming day would be the day of reckoning, and he hoped he could get through it without dying.

The following morning the boys arrived at school. As they got off the bus, Dave said, "We're not letting you out of our sight." The boys looked at the bike rack at the end of the parking lot and saw that Vinnie's Schwinn Flyer was not there. Jeff said, "I gotta use the bathroom", so all three went in. Steven said to David, "Stand outside; if you see Vinnie coming, warn us as fast as you can." Steven and Jeff went into the lavatory and, while Jeff used the urinal, Steve stood a few feet from his friend ready to shield him if Dave came running through the doorway with the alarm. Steven looked around the lavatory and thought it strange that no one else was in there. As Jeff zipped up his pants and went to wash his hands, Steven noticed that one stall was occupied. Just as he began to bend over to peek inside to see who was in there, the door of the stall flew open and out walked Vinnie. Vinnie had hidden his bike and told the other students that if Jeff or any of his friends asked if he had arrived at school, the answer had better be no. As Vinnie moved toward a startled Jeff, Steven was ready to pounce. Their friend David was still on guard outside, unaware of what was going on inside. Jeff's face went pale and he was speechless as Vinnie moved towards him and grabbed his jacket collar. Steven then jumped on Vinnie, trying to hit him as best as he could, but Vinnie pulled him off, holding him under his right arm as he held onto Jeff's collar with his left hand. He said, "Why did you act as If I threw that eraser?" Jeff replied in a shaky voice, "I don't know, Vinnie... I was afraid that my parents would find out and I would get into trouble." Vinnie replied, "And you think you're not in trouble now?" Jeff gasped, figuring he could be taking his last breath, as Steven struggled to loosen himself from Vinnie's grasp to no avail. Vinnie continued, "I sat in that office with Sister Marie yelling at me, calling me a delinquent and worse, and I didn't tell her that it was you. Now, I've thought of pounding your hide into the ground, but that wouldn't give me any satisfaction. This is what you're going to do. You are going to come down to the grocery store at 10:00 am this coming Saturday. My dad says he wants me to clean and scrub the whole back room. He said that I could even get someone to help me and he would pay them ten dollars for the day. You're going to do all the scrubbing and cleaning and when you get your ten bucks, you give to me. Do you understand, you little weasel?" Jeff replied in a blubbering voice, "I understand." At that point, Vinnie let go of Jeff and Steven and left the lavatory, adding, "And don't you ever mess with me again!" Steven ran into one of the stalls to get some toilet paper so his friend could dry his eyes. David, who was still standing at the door of the lavatory, was shocked to see Vinnie leave. He ran into the bathroom, yelling "What happened?" Steven told David the whole story and David said, "He's going to work your butt off, but it's better than taking a beating." All the boys were glad that it was over and glad that Vinnie valued the money more than the satisfaction of administering a beating. David and Steven told Jeff to tell his parents that he would be with them on Saturday so he would have a cover story for what he really had to do. That Saturday, Jeff arrived at Minchella's Grocery Store and, true to his promise, Vinnie made Jeff scrub the walls, the sinks, and every nook and cranny in the back of the old building. Mr. Minchella came into the back room for the final inspection and he couldn't believe his eyes. He said, "Hey, Vinnie... you and your friend did a good job here." He paid Jeff his ten dollars and went back out to the front of the store. As soon as his father was out of sight, Vinnie turned his palm up in front of Jeff's nose, and Jeff put the ten dollars in Vinnie's hand. Vinnie said, "Now that we're even, you can go."

During the following months, Jeff avoided any contact with Vinnie. The three friends spent the rest of the school year doing what most eleven year olds do... going to the monster movies, going to carnivals, and playing combat on weekends. One warm spring Saturday, Dave rode his bike over to Jeff's house. Together, they rode over to Steven's. When they reached Steven's driveway, they heard yelling coming from the house. As they listened, they heard Steven's stepfather say, "Everything would be fine if it wasn't for that half animal bastard of yours." Jeff and David looked at each other; they knew that Steven was going through hell. Steven's stepfather was tolerant of him when he was sober, but when he drank it was another story, and today he had been drinking heavily. The two boys felt completely helpless as they sat on their bikes waiting for Steven to come out. Within a few minutes, the stepfather staggered out of the house. He saw the two boys on their bikes and gave them a brief, glazed stare before getting in his yellow and white 1957 Chevy and speeding away. Both boys knew that the man was abusive when he drank, but this was the worst incident they had ever seen. They heard Steven's mother crying and heard Steven trying to console her. The two boys tried to regroup their emotions when Steven finally came out. David noticed a red mark on the boy's left cheek, although Steven acted as if nothing had happened. He went and got his bike, rode over to the two and said, "You guys ready?" They rode over to David's house to play combat, as his yard was the biggest of the three boys. His parents owned an eight acre parcel on the south side of rural Rochester next to a square mile of open fields and woods. David and Jeff had initiated the play of combat. The boys would play soldier, each trying to invade the forts the others had built, and pretending to machine gun each other. As the boys played, the earlier traumatic episode was temporarily put aside, but it would indeed burn a dark memory into their young minds. Steven's stepfather sobered up and was even apologetic; he would stay that way until his next episodic drinking binge.

The rest of the school year was pretty uneventful until the second to the last day of school. It was now June, and the three boys had been running around the huge fifteen acre schoolyard during lunch break. They had walked around to the side of the school to take a breather when an eighth grader named Tim Murray, a tall mature looking fourteen year old, and his two buddies came up to the three boys. Tim stood directly in front of them with his buddies on either side of him, forcing the three younger boys against the wall of the school. Tim said, "Hey Steve... how are you doing?" He didn't give Steven time to answer before he said, "Steve, I always wanted to ask you something. You are a pretty dark kid; I just want to ask you before I graduate... just what in the hell are you?" Jeff and David caught the drift of Tim's statement, and realized that he was trying to humiliate their friend. Tim stood towering over the three, and his piercing hazel eyes and crew cut looked menacing to the younger boys. "You know what you three look like with Steven in the middle? Sort of a reverse oreo cookie, vanila outside and chocolate inside." Tim's friends chuckled and he continued, "You know, Stevie, I gotta come right out and ask the sixty four thousand dollar question. Are you a nigger?" Again, Tim's friends snickered. Jeff spoke up and said, "Leave him alone" and attempted to push Tim. He was quickly punched in the stomach, and doubled over on the ground. Steven tried to help his friend, but was also punched in the mid section and collapsed on the ground. Tim then said, "You are gonna tell me, boy. I've seen your mom and dad and they're both white. I want to know where in the hell you came from." Steve and Jeff were still on the ground, doubled over and gasping for air. Their friend David was being held by his neck against the school wall by one of Tim's buddies. As the boys continued to gasp for air, they heard a loud "WHACK!", and then a huge thud. They looked to see what the sound was and, to their amazement, Tim Murray was knocked out on the ground, his mouth open and his eyes set in a unconscious stare. The boys looked up in wide-eyed disbelief and there, in all his glory, stood Vinnie Minchella. His face had a blank expression and he was rubbing the knuckles of his right hand with his left palm. Vinnie looked at Steven for a brief second and then looked at Jeff, giving him a brief cockeyed smile, and then he walked away. David, who had seen the whole thing, told Steven and Jeff what had happened. He said "While you two were on the ground bent over, Vinnie was at the side of the building sneaking a cigarette and peeking once in a while to make sure Sister wasn't around. He saw us over here and came over to see what was going on. When he heard Tim say that stuff, he pushed Tim's buddy Ryan, the guy that had me pinned against the wall, out of the way, and then he smacked Tim on the right side of his head. As soon as Tim was hit, he hit the ground. Ryan and Ed, Tim's buddies, ran back to the front of the school when Tim was hit."

The rest of elementary school passed quickly for the three friends, as did high school and college. The world changed dramatically during that time and eventually the three friends parted.

Jeff, now over fifty, still calls his friends Steven and David once in a while. He also remembers when they were kids, and thinks of it as one of the happiest times of his life. To this day, when Jeff reads in the newspaper about an isolated incident of racism, or sees something on the news, he remembers a time many decades ago in a school yard in Rochester, Michigan, when he and David stood by their friend Steven, and experienced first hand the disgusting evil of racism. Then he remembers Vinnie Minchella, and he smiles.

Copyright 2001 John J. Yezman



John J. Yezman lives in Clermont, Florida (USA).



 Notice © 2001 IP and the author

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