[From time to time I am struck by memories of my youth. I try to write them down for posterity.]
I had no idea I was growing up in an idyllic slice of America that would shortly disappear. We lived on a “court,” a neighborhood in which a single street forms a large rectangle, with three cul-de-sacs at the corners and only one entrance and exit. We called it “The Block.” At the south end was a large, well-appointed city park, and a sidewalk cut through the middle of the interior section which made it easy for kids on the north side to cut through to the park without walking all the way around.
“Idyllic,” I say, because even though these were the days of putting “missing children” on milk cartons, very few people were concerned about child abduction. Yes, Mrs. Harper always kept close watch on her kids—they were notoriously not allowed to “leave the block.” Not even a toe could touch outside the confines of our haven. But mostly, parents just let their kids run free, especially in the summertime. We’d have late-night games of “war” with all the neighborhood kids, and the entire neighborhood was the field of play. Sporting full combat gear (purchased from the Army/Navy store), you could jump any fence or cut through any backyard without incident. Even the dogs knew every kid on the block.
In the cul-de-sac to the west of our house lived a family that was different from the rest of the block’s upwardly mobile lower-middle class. I always avoided going near their house. Not because Boo Radley lived there, but something much more terrifying. Mr. Simon was a hulk of a man. He sported a thick black beard, had long hair covered by bandanas, and was never seen without his signature biker gang leathers. I have no idea what he did for a living, but whenever he was home he seemed to have only one occupation: tinkering in his garage with some kind of classic car that no matter how long he worked on it never seemed any more “restored.” He chain smoked, which, while I do not recall my parents ever saying anything about it, gave a whiff of scandal for a budding Pharisee like me. If my friend Todd and I were hanging out in my front yard, we’d scurry to hide every time we heard that Harley Davidson fire up down the street. We were petrified of the man.
The Simon children (I recall two boys, and later, a younger sister) were of the annoying sort. They did not fit in with the rest of the neighborhood gang. I do not recall for certain their names, but the the younger son—let’s call him Jake—is the relevant subject. One fine summer day the gang (Which we called the “A-Team,” after the television show dominating the airwaves at the time) was hanging out on the Harper’s driveway. My two older brothers, Jeff and Dan, the Harper boys Troy and Todd, Jay Whittington, and me. I could not have been more than seven or eight years old. Also among our group was a cranky, cocky, arrogant kid of very lower-class, mysterious parentage named—I kid you not—Rogue. We were doing the typical “What should we do today?” mulling about when we heard the squeaky wheel of Jake Simon riding down the street on his tricycle. Squeaksqueaksqueaksqueaksqueak! When he got to the front of the driveway, he made a left turn and rode right up to the group.
Rogue stepped forward, puffed out his chest and replied, “Nothing. And if you run over my foot I’ll punch you.”
Jake immediately put the pedal to the metal and ran over Rogue’s foot. (Did I mention annoying?)
I remember the sound like it was yesterday because it was the first time I’d ever heard that sound outside of the volume-enhanced versions of the movies. It was even louder than the movies. Rogue right-hooked Jake squarely in the eye. Jake fled, bawling and squeaking his way back down the street. We were all appalled, and in pathetically meek, weak, and mumbling fashion said things like, “Rogue, you really shouldn’t have done that!”
Now, I don’t know what got into Jake, but an hour or so later we heard that same familiar Squeaksqueaksqueaksqueaksqueak! He was getting back on the horse after getting bucked, I guess. Or bravely facing down his bully. Or he had just gone insane. Because, after riding back up the driveway, this time with one very puffy black eye, the conversation went exactly like this.
“If you run over my foot I’ll punch you.”
Directly in the other eye.
Bellowing wails and lamentations once again echoed and resounded over the entire block as he squeaked his way back home. The A-Team was on edge the rest of the day. Our Commander, my oldest brother Jeff, instructed everyone to lay low. We all knew trouble was brewing. It was all particularly humiliating because the A-Team, despite how it sounds just now, was a pretty welcoming gang. We were not mean. We were not bullies. We fostered esprit de corps and brotherhood and discipline. (Seriously, we did military drills in our backyard, in preparation for the inevitable Russian invasion.) We just happened to have a really bad seed at that moment in time, a character with a very appropriate name: there is no doubt in our minds he was “rogue.”
The afternoon drifted late. We decided to cut through the block and head for the park. As we made our way up the grassy hill to the playground, I heard another thing I had never heard outside of movies: squealing tires. I jerked my head around and saw a car rounding the corner sideways. The engine roared and the blacktop was indelibly marred with hot rubber.
Mr. Simon was gunning for us.
We all watched in awe as his car careened into the parking area to an abrupt halt. He leaped out of the car, screaming at the top of his lungs. He loped to the top of the hill, towered over us, and gave us a piece of his mind. It was all such a blur I cannot remember the soliloquy. I’m pretty sure it was profanity-laced. There were dark threats. Not the “I’m going to tell your parents” kind, either. The “I’ll bury you alive if you ever touch my children again” kind. He openly shamed my older brothers. That I recall. For Mr. Simon, they bore responsibility: the more powerful must protect the weak.
It was literally the first (and last) time I ever heard Mr. Simon speak. And the impression—if not the actual words—was unforgettable.
Nobody ever dared harass the Simon children again. Ever.
I faintly recall now something odd. Mr. Simon was a very scary guy we reasonably thought was in a biker gang. He was by definition something of a misfit, especially for our neighborhood. But I now remember one of the things that made his children so annoying: they rarely uttered a sentence without the words, “My Dad.” Nobody could ever top them in the childish game of “My Dad is better than your Dad.” I was terrified of him, but they worshiped the ground he walked on. They admired him. And they loved him.
And, as everyone (the A-Team and his own children alike) discovered that day, he loved them, too. Whatever his social deficiencies, he was their lodestar, their hero, and their defender. Tire marks were laid down as testament for years.
My brother Jeff flourished into an exceptional leader. He had a highly unusual interest in the weak. He was popular in high school, part of the cool crowd, but it was his befriending and mentoring of shy, nervous freshmen that made him Captain of the Cross Country team. This, when he couldn’t even run fast enough to obtain a Varsity letter. He always had an eye for misfits and wallflowers, always bending over backward to make people welcome. It was this kind of leadership—servant leadership—that awarded him an eventual appointment to West Point and his subsequent service in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Dan, too, became a man of service to others, earning a full-ride ROTC scholarship to pursue a nursing degree. As a nurse anesthetist, he served two tours in Baghdad during the most gruesome and violent period of the war. He, too, had an eye for serving the weak and wounded in unusual ways. Once, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stood muttering under his breath near the bed of a terribly wounded soldier. Dan intervened, saying, “Sir, he can hear you. Please talk to him.” The Secretary and that soldier shared a quiet moment of powerful intimacy they will likely never forget.
Fatherhood is not an abstraction. That day the A-Team saw it in its raw, untamed, flesh-and-blood reality. As unlikely as it seemed to us, that “unlovable” man’s children had something utterly irreplaceable: the love of a Father, protector, and defender.
It made us all better men.