Forty for Forty – #5. Hard Times at Rockland High

Editor’s Note:   The Mayans say the Earth will end on December 12, 2012. I  turn 40 on June 6th of the same year. I say I’ve got them beat by 6 months and 6 days. As a little challenge to myself, I came up with this year-long project. Forty for Forty is my bid to write 40 articles that say something about my life. Little moments or anecdotes, likes or dislikes – that made me the guy I am today. Today we’re at #36. Yes – this one has been published before BUT it’s a pivotal real-life moment in my life, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna’ write it all over again. And, I did freshen it up a bit. So, sit back in shock and read the torrid tale of The Ed Zone’s resident probie.

From one bad mo fo to y’all, I’d like to dedicate this one to all my homies in Cell Block C.

Ya see, those that know me, know me as a kind, jovial sort – quick with the quip and always angling for the laugh (call me the bastard love child of Carrot Top and Santa Clause.) But beneath this robust, ribald surface beats a chilling heart of darkness… for I’ve done hard time. That’s right, it’s SHOCKING CONFESSIONS time here at the Ed Zone.

To dance with this particular devil, we need to take a spin back to the spring of 1990. In the home stretch of my High School Senior Year, with admission to the University of Massachusetts looming on the horizon, I was the undisputed King of the World while Leo DiCaprio was still in Eagle Scouts.

The adulation and honors kept coming my way. Class Valedictorian. All States Champion. Everybody’s All-American. Homecoming Queen. The 1990 Massachusetts Junior Miss runner-up (and I would have been queen bee if it weren’t for that bee-yotch Heather Masterson and the magic of a shear bikini.) Yes, I was a veritable Chairman of the Chalkboard.

Unfortunately All States leads to adulation. Adulation leads to arrogance. Arrogance leads to… (shudder) the dark side. It was this arrogance that was my undoing (that and a nasty midichlorian infection.)

Raising my fist towards Mt. Olympus (technically Olympia Sporting Goods) I brazenly declared myself untouchable, a God among insects. “Zeus, I stabbath at thee” I declared in the language that was the fashion at the time. The fates conspired. I was to be knocked down a few pegs for such pestilent insolence. They’d get all Sisyphus on my ass.

Darkness arrived, perched comfortably in the back seat of a hopped up cherry red ’87 Mustang.

The day began like all the rest. After busting my hump hauling the daily catch down on the docks of Rockland Bay, I ran the 13 mile stretch to Rockland High. There I would forego the prescribed shower in a bid to impart real world life lessons to my adoring peer group – this is what a real man was meant to smell like (all briny sweat with a hint of Dunkachino.) From there I’d pop from class to class – soaking up the essential life defining lessons that would carry me through the rest of my days (why, it was just this very morning that I used the Pythagorium Theorem to negotiate a 3 lane switch to the Fast Lane gate.)

So the hours flew by and eventually the 2:00 p.m. buzzer sounded. On a normal day it would be back to the stockade for me, where I rasseled oxen for peanuts, but on this particular day, I chose to stay at school and engage in a little extracurricular activity. Badgered by my buddy Jay* to stay and play some basketball (that’s ‘hoops’ for all you circa ’83 hipsters), I and a few other pals assessed the situation and deduced that yes, we in fact, did have a few ounces of game.

*(All last names except mine are stricken from this public record to protect the innocent all these years later – so even if you know you they are – keep it to yourself).

Fortunately we had smarts too – realizing very quickly that an intensive 10 minute game of H.O.R.S.E. would leave us deprived of our valued electrolytes and essential fluids. Thus, a trip to Cumby’s was in order to procure some Gator-Ade. Keep in mind that this was the Dark Ages of sports drinks. One did not have a choice between Artic Frost Lemonade or Subatomic Fusion Mango. An athlete faced with a thirst-quenching quandary had 2 choices of Gator-Ade: Original Lemon-Lime or Black Licorice. (“Blechh!!! I’ll take the Twizzler Tornado.”)

Now it was on our way back to school, our lips painted black thanks to the watered down tar we were guzzling, that destiny up and bitch slapped a bunch of reckless teens into reality.

As I sat in the backseat of the Mustang, reflecting upon the important decisions that lay on the road ahead (“Jeez, should I wear my Jams or my Parachute Pants to the party in the Pits?”), suddenly the world went several shades of gray. The situation was this: my pal Rich was driving (his hands permanently fixed at 10 and 2), I was lounging in the backseat and Jay drove shotgun. As we headed back to school, Jay (doing as all class clowns are taught to do) held his head out the window braying and booing all passersby’s. Really innocent stuff. Put it this way, in this era where drive by shootings are passé’, having a guy shout “Hey Noah, where’s your Ark” because you were caught wearing ‘floods’, was not much of an infraction. Of course, he was getting very annoying, and after a short stint, Rich and I got on him to shut his mouth.

Alas, our complaints fell on deaf ears. Rich continued driving, I continued minding my own business and Jay continued braying.

As we neared the High School, we passed a Junior High School that was letting out. Kids were everywhere – whole gangs of ‘em. Jay, in a rare moment of unbridled idiocy, yells “Hey, wanna’ go for a ride?” – which coming from a car going 35 mph in a 20 mph school zone came out as “heyyyyyywannnaggggahhhhhh.”

It was strange, because as stupid as he’d been, Rich and I had chalked all his prior remarks up to “no big deal.” With this latest remark, not much had changed. Rich was still going about 35 mph. We were very close to our destination. I was still just sitting back observing the fairly nice day. But for some reason – that brief remark haunted me. It just sounded ‘wrong’ – despite the notion that we knew it was him just being a stupid punk kid yelling things out the window.

Regardless, I tried to push it out of my mind, and roughly 30 minutes later, as I was fending off Jay’s flagrant fouling, the one-second incident had gone the way every one-second incident goes. Devoured and digested by blissful ‘short term memory.”

Eventually I made my way home. I grabbed a snack. I watched some television. I did my homework. I ate dinner. Just a standard, run-of-the-mill, weekday evening. That is until I was visited upon, all Scrooge-like.

As I was watching the tube, a news teaser flashed across.

“Tonight at 11. Kidnapping Scare in Rockland. Police on the Prowl. Stay tuned.”

My mind quickly jumped to conclusions. Kidnapping scare in Rockland? “Wanna go for a ride?” – No, it can’t be. That’s ridiculous. Just a big coincidence. That being said, my tiny little hick town was gonna’ be on the news. I’ll stay up and watch.

The feeling of creeping dread is the worst sensation one can encounter. When you know that no matter how much you rationalize and try to toss the nagging notions aside– you’re still calculating the sum of all your fears correctly. That’s what the next 2 hours held. Feverishly gripping the remote – flipping from station to station – getting partially absorbed into a sitcom or T.V. movie before having my suspicious thoughts violently ripped back to reality. The most anxious 2 hours of my life.

Finally, the clock struck 11:00 p.m. Jack Williams glared from behind his desk at Channel 4 – Liz Walker by his side – both wearing faces of doom and gloom.

Kidnapping scare in Rockland. We go live to the scene.”

Then some reporter, bathed in halogen, speaking from her live shot with a familiar building, “Hey, that’s my school”, standing sentinel in the background.

Jack, tonight in the quiet South Shore town of Rockland, MA – police are on the lookout for an attempted kidnapper. Police say that the individual or individuals tried 3 times, unsuccessfully, to lure children into their vehicle.”

Hmmm, 3 times. Whew… Not Jay. He just yelled that that one time. Just a big coincidence. (Pulse returning to normal.)

“Police describe the vehicle as a red sedan, with black striping.”

– Oh no, that’s Rich’s car to a T.

“Police are asking the public to be vigilant.”

And with that they were onto other regional matters. Well, some of the details fit and some of them didn’t. I leaned back on my coincidence theory and actually drifted to sleep. I was praying that was the case.

The next morning. Rich, as usual, picked me up for the ride to school – in that red Mustang with the black striping. That car was my Public Enemy #1. With dwindling enthusiasm, I shuffled my way into the back seat. Once we got to school I scrambled to exit the car – pointed my nose towards the welcoming halls of our High School, and didn’t look back.

One thing I did do is find a few moments to pull Rich aside and tell him about the news report. He shared my philosophy. It happened in a flash. Jay yelled something stupid from a moving car. It’s doubtful anyone even heard him, given the speed we were moving and the environmental noises of the daily grind. Just a stupid punk kid. Just a coincidence.

But there was that description. And in a High School of 500, with less than 150 with licenses and probably a quarter of that with cars, everyone knew what everyone drove. And Rich drove a red Mustang with black striping.

Well, the day passed without incident. There were reports that police were checking the cars in the parking lot, but as one period melted into the next, and nary one visit from Officer Friendly to haul us all off to ‘juvie’, my fears subsided.

Now, the way things worked in my High School was, if you were a Senior and your last period was a Study, you were entitled to leave early for the day (unless you had extracurricular activities at the school.) I was one of those fortunate few who met both criteria – although I did have a part-time job awaiting me on that particular day. So at 1:15 p.m. I walked out of Rockland High and headed home for a quick snack before my 3:00 p.m. start time at Peterson’s Card & Gifts.

At 2:30 p.m. I began the 2-mile trek to work. As I rounded my street and headed up the tree-lined hill that would bring me to Peterson’s, a familiar red Mustang with black striping turned the corner and headed my way. It pulled over to the side of the road. Inside were Jay and Rich – their faces drained of blood.

You see, approximately 5-minutes after I had skipped school on my sanctioned release, Rich had suffered a catastrophic meltdown in Advanced Math. Apparently, all day long, he had been on the receiving end of jabs and ribbing by those who knew the type of car he drove. For the most part it was just teasing and taunts – nobody actually believed he was a kidnapper. He was a straight A student. He hung with straight A and B students (that’s me – the B with some As). But he drove a red car with black striping. What the mob didn’t know is that he came from a family wracked by divorce, getting by on minimal means, and his psyche was slightly fragile.

He cracked and divulged all. Within moments the Advanced Math teacher heard the whole tale. We were driving to get Gator-Ade. Jay was being an idiot (just a dumb kid) yelling stuff at people. Ed was practically sleeping in the back seat. Rich was driving. It was all very harmless and certainly not planned nor condoned by he nor I. Just one off-color statement, just one second you wished you could erase, and now all this insanity.

In short order the teacher got the Principal. The Principal got the cops. The cops got Rich and Jay.

That is the tale they related to me. That is the tale they sent me off to work with – quickly infesting my brain and turning bright, cheerful thoughts into a brewing neural tempest. The storm hadn’t kicked off yet – but it was gathering strength. The lone bright spot – they told me that the cops asked about my involvement. They said that I had done nothing. It was all Jason and it was all just he being stupid and goofing around. The cops said they were fine with that and wouldn’t need to speak with me.

I worked my shift – tried to push these revelations out of my head – chatted up a few friends that stopped by (making plans for a trip to the China Panda after this Friday’s big game against Duxbury) – and finally headed home.

The clock struck 11, again.

The same duo, Jack and Liz – looking grave.

“We update you on that kidnapping scare in Rockland. We go live to the scene. Sarah, what have police learned?”

There stood Sarah, the same reporter from last evening, once again awash in halogen, speaking from her live shot with a familiar building, “Great, there’s my f’n school again,” standing sentinel in the background.

“Jack, earlier today police revealed that the kidnapping plot was actually a hoax perpetrated by three students at Rockland High School, the school you see behind me.”

A hoax??? A hoax is planned and executed. This was one stupid seventeen year old kid acting immature – acting his age. This was no hoax. Rich and I had no part of anything – we just happened to be near the kid when he opened his big f’n mouth.

“Sarah, have police said anything about pressing charges?”

Pressing charges??? What? For yelling out a window. What is this, Russia??? (Bear in mind that the Berlin Wall hadn’t been down long so the natural response to the slightest infringement upon one’s civil rights was “What is this, Russia???”)

“Jack, they plan to press assault charges. While nobody was physically assaulted, police say this fits the model of a threat, which under state law, is considered verbal assault. The crime carries a $5,000 fine and a sentence of up to 2 years in jail.”

And with that I lost it. The tenuous hold on my emotions shattered, what shred of rational thought I clutched to was obliterated, and the carefree innocence that saw me, a good student who had never been in any sort of scuffle in his life, was violently executed right before my very eyes.

Now to try to bring some closure, I’ll speed things up a bit. Time flew and the 3 of us found ourselves at the Hingham District Court before the Clerks Magistrate. The Magistrate we drew, as my lawyer helpfully pointed out, was known in legal circles as a real “hard ass” (apparently a technical term.) My lawyer had primed me not to worry. Having not done anything and having no control over what my friend was going to say and having no premeditated thoughts to head out cruising for kicks, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As we filed into the Clerk’s office, we saw three sets of parents across from us – a product of the hysteria. Three sets of parents whose kids were in three different places across town and were approached by kidnappers at exactly the same time. Somebody here wasn’t telling the truth. Thankfully, the Clerk saw right through that.

Perusing his call sheet, he looked at the parents first and said:
“This sheet cites one complaint – why are there three families here?”

The first group said that their child was approached by a guy with a beard on a motorcycle.

“Do any of you drive a motorcycle?” he asked us.

A chorus of “No.”

The clerk looked back at the first family and uttered a terse “Get out of my court room and stop wasting our time.”

They stuttered to say something and he called for their removal. And then there were two.

“My call sheet says one complaint – who made the complaint about the red car?”

One family raised their hand. The other family looked down sheepishly. The Scarlet Eye of Sauron fixed on ‘em.

“Why are you here, then?”

“Our daughter said 2 guys in a pickup tru…”

“Get out of my court room and stop wasting this court’s time.”

No objection. Grabbing their coats, they got up and shuffled out the door. For the first time in a long time, I actually felt things would go our way. However, there was still the one.

So they told their story – daughter was leaving school with a group of friends. Car drove by and yelled out “wanna go for a ride.”

“Did the car stop?”

“She says no. It kept driving?”

“Driving slow?”

“No, pretty fast.”

He then asked for our tale and one by one we told the same tale all culminating with the same fact – Jay was being a dumb kid. The facts meshed all around. Just one big stupid misunderstanding – no harm , no foul – right???

The clerk had heard enough – however he had one final line of questioning for each of us.

To Rich: “When your parents heard about this, did they punish you?”

Rich: “Ahmmm, ah… (stop stammering Rich) No.”

Clerk: “Fine… then it’s my job to punish you. 100 Community Service hours.”

To Ed: (Oh no…) “When your parents heard about this, did they punish you?”

Ed: (just say yes… they chained you in a dungeon… you were forced to chimney sweep with a Q-Tip) “No…. because I did not do anyth…”

Clerk: “I don’t care. 100 Community Services Hours.”

To Jay: “When your parents heard about this, did they punish you?”

Jay: (You better say yes!!!) “No.”

Clerk: “No… and you’re the supposed ring leader. Hmmm… 100 Community Service Hours to you.”

Then Jason speaks up and implores the court to place all the hours on him – “I’ll do all 300.”

Clerk: “I should give you each 300… wise ass. Shut your mouth.”

At that, my lawyer spoke up, earning every penny of the thousands we entrusted him with. Here he was, my white knight. My savior. Shout it to the rafters, Clarence Darrow!!!

My Lawyer: “Your honor, my client accepts.”

And with that he sat down. “Your honor, my client accepts???” Damn Harvard Remedial Law School!!!

And with that everybody shut their mouths, took our lumps, and headed home – looking forward to a wet, hot crazy summer with the Rockland Municipal Parks Department. We were given the choice to break up the 100 hours whichever way we wanted. I chose to just buckle down and get it over with – divvying up the hundred over 2 and 1/2 weeks. During that time, I continued to work my part-time job at Peterson’s, as my Dad and I had a plan where he would cover my tuition, room & board, and I would make enough scratch during the summer to cover books and booze. The agreement between Dad and I was for the books – the booze was a rider to the contract which I don’t think he ever saw.

Anyway my day went like this. 6:00 a.m. Rise and Shine. At the Park Department by 8:00 a.m. where I would toil away on one of the following activities – painting the structure of the football stadium, mowing the traffic islands or prepping the baseball diamond for that evening’s game.

The first week, I worked every day from 8 – 5 in the blazing July heat (“All this for busting open parking meters???”) – where at quitting time (which was signaled by a siren perched atop a kindly brontosaurus) I would sprint home, take a quick shower, report to work at Peterson’s, close the joint, head back home for the last slice of Letterman before dozing and starting it all over again the next day.

My compadres lacked my discipline – which came back to haunt them in a number of ways. What we had here was a failure to communicate. Either they were no-shows or they were late – Jay and Rich always seemed to have an excuse for the commandant. So while I slaved away hanging from rafters with a bucket of green paint gripped between my dentures, these guys were finding new and creative ways to ditch work and head to the beach. They showed up enough (1.5 days of that first week) to work to my favor – as the ‘jefe’ used their inaction as a fine barometer of my ‘mad skillz’. By the end of the week he had accomplished two things – he notified the court that Jay and Rich weren’t pulling their weight (which a stern phone call and veiled threats of “going to the big house“and all the tossed salads you can eat” soon remedied) and he promoted me to Head Delinquent which meant that for the remainder of my incarceration I got to ride around with him, the park department boss, and yell at Jay and Rich. In between those stops, he and I would head to his house to have lunch and play Nintendo (this was 1990 after all), stop by the town hall offices where he would meet his mistress and I would stand sentinel outside his office with stern instructions to knock twice if I saw anyone approaching (apparently fraternizing with town employees is a strict no-no), and hang out at the local Dunkin’ Donuts chatting up Rockland’s Finest.

Speaking of them, I’ll have you know that there are happy endings to be found in this sad tale. One detail that I left out, and will merely touch upon here, is this case (which was blown way out of proportion) was largely done so on behalf of the chief of police who made this as his personal crusade to curry favor with the populace. There were whispers of an election scandal a few months prior and conventional wisdom suggests he took this much-ado-about-nothing case and made it something to erase the specters that dogged him.

In my job at Petersons, I got to know a number of the police officers over the years who served and protected my quaint little hamlet. During the entire incident they would grant me whispered asides that conveyed how horrible they felt for what the chief was doing, that he hadn’t dismissed this as a non-event and a complete mistake, and that they thought it was very honorable of me to own up to something that I did not do and just take the lumps.

Oh well – I just wanted it all behind me before I headed off to college. So, I put my head down and plowed forward.

And when I finished my stint at the Park Department I came away with four great perks:

1. I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in.

2. I received a handshake from the chief’s 2nd-in-command (a frequent customer) who apologized for the chief’s actions and said he was “proud” of what I’d accomplished.

3. I received a commendation from the Park Department that said in the 14 Years of their Community Service participation, I was hands-down, the greatest felon they’ve ever met.

4. The knowledge that when I grew up, I wanted to be a Park Department Superintendent. Those guys get all the chicks.