by Joe Eliseon
I was sitting at a desk in a big, dusty office down the hall from Juvenile Court, a high-ceilinged office of two desks, four or five side chairs, tall double-doors with frosted glass windows tucked under a stone archway through the fortress wall of our late nineteenth-century courthouse, its windows facing on the shadowy interior courtyard where the judges parked their cars. I had finagled a temporary appointment as a juvenile probation officer, a good job for a college kid, as far as money went. But I would have accomplished more digging ditches, which would have been better suited to my skill level.
Except for the case of Hector D.
I’d been assigned to the boys’ side of a program handling younger kids who weren’t case-hardened yet, usually about twelve, thirteen years old. The chief judge felt that, if you could get to these “problem children” before they did anything too serious, you had a better chance to straighten them out. He made room in the budget and pushed the program through the legislature and there we were. Instead of filing a criminal complaint, the cops could petition the court to commit the kid to our program. Even parents could file a petition and commit their “problem” voluntarily. It didn’t happen too often, but it did happen.
So there I sat when young Hector D. got pushed through our double-doors by, not one, but both of his parents. I can’t tell you how surprised I was to see his mother and his father at the same time. Only seldom did an intact family grace the halls of juvenile court. I asked the couple to sit down and took some preliminary information while Hector sat off to the side wearing the obligatory defiant and sullen expression of the delinquent child. Oh, sorry, the child “in need of services,” to use the language of our enabling statute.
My surprise grew into amazement when I learned that both Hector’s parents were employed. They didn’t have great jobs, they lived in the projects, and they were struggling to make ends meet. But, as my father would have described them, these people were “broke, not poor.” They were older than most parents we dealt with. They’d married in their mid-twenties and they’d stayed married. Hector had been born in wedlock, which was downright astounding. His father came across as solid and dependable, if a little stiff-necked, but so was my old man. His mother showed all the signs of being diligent, caring and concerned. Both of them were mystified by Hector’s behavior, which I’ll describe in a minute, and at a loss to know what to do about it.
I wanted to help this couple. They were trying hard to make a home for their son. Unlike most of our clients, their trouble didn’t appear self-generated. They deserved help. But what they told me was so puzzling, I knew I wasn’t the man they needed. Their son wouldn’t talk to me at all. He’d hardly look at me. They needed a surer hand, someone who could split Hector’s thick, sullen skull gently, with the precision of a Hassidic diamond-cutter. I asked them to wait a few minutes while I tracked down my boss.
I labored under the tutelage of an affable, bulldog of an Irishman named Brian “Mac” McCormick. He didn’t look the part of a man with the requisite skills. He was short, broad-shouldered and thick-waisted, to put it kindly. He carried a .38 police special in a shoulder holster, his fists were the size and texture of coconuts, and he loved a good joke. He had a piercing laugh that could crack crystal. Legend had it he had participated in the Korean War as a CIA interrogator. “No torture,” he had told me, summing up the agency’s interrogation protocol, “just one bullet in the head.” Coming from a large, Catholic family, he’d raised his own large, Catholic family. He loved kids so much he could morph in a wink from the jovial to the implacable if one of them stepped out of line, and Mac had a lot of lines. I honest-to-God liked the guy. I admired him. But don’t get on his bad side.
I found Mac in the Clerk’s office. As soon as I told him about Hector and his parents, he made a beeline back to our office. All he said was, “It’s a mystery.”
Once back in our office, introductions and greetings exchanged, cups of coffee furnished the adults, Hector’s reluctant hand shaken in Mac’s ebullient fist, we listened to Mr. D. give a full account of the problem, punctuated by Mrs. D’s nods and affirmations.
Mr. and Mrs. D.’s goal had always been to provide Hector with a stable home. They worked hard at it. Mr. D. had seen too many boys in the neighborhood go the wrong way, so he set a good example and kept a firm but affectionate hand on his son. Hector had always been a well-behaved boy, their pride and joy…
Until a month or so ago, when Hector had begun to exhibit bizarre behavior. His father had discovered that each night, after he and his wife had fallen asleep, Hector would sneak out of bed, open his fourth-floor bedroom window, climb down the rickety drainpipe against the outside wall, run off to the neighborhood playground, and play basketball and do who-knows-what until the dawn’s early light with older boys of suspicious habits.
Not unreasonably, Mr. D. feared Hector’s getting involved with a gang. Not to mention that climbing down a four-story drainpipe in the dark was dangerous all by itself. Hector’s mother was beside herself. His father forbid the boy’s nighttime rambles. Hector disobeyed. He tried to reason with the kid. Hector turned a deaf ear. He punished his son. Hector became defiant. He nailed the window shut. Hector pried it open.
In desperation, Hector’s parents had decided to surrender Hector to the tender mercies of the Law, which in this instance boiled down to Joe and me. He wanted us to put the fear of God into Hector, to read him the riot act.
Understand something: Joe could read the riot act with the best of them and he and God were two peas in a pod, but he preferred the Father Flanagan approach, at least initially. He sent Mr. and Mrs. D out to the snack bar and, with me observing, tried to establish some rapport with Hector. He talked about growing up on the streets as a boy Hector’s age, in an Irish neighborhood; he talked about going to school, Catholic school; he talked about having fights with bigger kids, who used fists, but nothing else. None of it seemed to penetrate. Hector grunted a few times, but that was it.
The boy, Joe concluded, must have some psychological problem. He called the parents back in and had them sign a commitment petition. We took Mr. and Mrs. D. into the courtroom. The judge satisfied himself that the child’s parents were in their right minds, asked Hector a couple of questions to which the boy did not deign to respond, then heaved a sigh and signed the papers. We let Hector go home with his parents but, legally, we owned him.
In the ensuing weeks, we sent Hector to the court psychologist, a curvaceous brunette any boy in his right mind would’ve been glad to talk to, but not Hector. We shelled out real money to have him examined by a Harvard Med School psychiatrist, but he remained incommunicado. We had him tested by a neurologist at the Mass. General Hospital. He turned out frustratingly normal.
I started taking Hector on walks around town, figuring the exercise might do us some good. The first few times, Hector trudged along as if he he’d been invited to join the Bataan Death March. I sweetened the deal by treating him to ice cream, pastries, cookies and Italian subs. He gained a bit of weight, but he still wouldn’t open up. All this time, he was still breaking out of his room at least every other night and hanging at the basketball court.
Following an intuition I to this day do not understand, I went historical on Hector. We visited the Old State House, Faneuil Hall, the Paul Revere House, the Old North Church. Boston is lousy with such places and I always got a kick out of them when I was a kid. They had an effect on Hector, too, because he started to talk to me. No more than a few phrases at first, mostly “Oh, yeah,” but I could hear his inflections changing. “Oh, yeah,” went from meaning, “So what?” to meaning, “Are you kidding?” I could tell.
Everything changed the day Hector and I walked into the Hall of Flags in the State House. I don’t mean the Old State House. I mean the Thomas Bullfinch-designed State House atop Beacon Hill with its tremendous golden dome. The Hall of Flags occupies a marble rotunda beneath the dome. Illuminated cases recessed into its walls exhibit the colors carried by Massachusetts’ Union Army units in the Civil War, some of them still bright, most dulled by the mud and smoke of battle, frayed, torn, punctured.
“Are those bullet holes?” asked Hector.
He asked a question. He engaged. I felt like I’d been hit by a mini-ball. (They weren’t using bullets in the Civil War.) Hector and I started to talk. We ended up having a real, two-way conversation. The flags and pennants had struck a chord in the boy. Hector displayed historical imagination. By the time we got back to the courthouse, I couldn’t shut him up.
At first, the new, talkative Hector, buoyed Mac’s spirits. We’d gotten the kid to say something. It was progress. But it turned into a dead end. He’d never talk about his nightly excursions. He kept his reasons locked away from us and he kept prying his window open and shimmying down the drainpipe. We couldn’t make any headway against his behavior.
The strain began to tell on his parents. They didn’t come together to our office anymore. They alternated, one spelling the other. Hector was wearing them down.
Then, one afternoon, Hector’s mother arrived alone. She’d left Hector behind. She had to talk to us without him. Fate had dealt her a bad hand. Mac was out on a case and all the court system could provide was me. But she was at the end of her rope. She would’ve talked to anybody.
As far as I could gather, there’d been some kind of blow-up between Hector and his father the night before. Mr. D. had resorted to tying Hector to the bedpost. Hector screamed all night. Nobody’d gotten any sleep. Mrs. D. sat across the desk from me close to tears, one hand propping up her forehead, her eyes downcast to our unswept floor.
Mac had taught me that, when you see people on the verge of breaking down, the best thing to do is to keep them talking. So, I said, “Mrs. D., let’s think about this. What happened yesterday? What caused the blow-up?”
“I don’t know,” she moaned, her eyes still on the floor.
I leaned forward. “Let’s go over everything that happened from the time Hector got home from school,” I urged. “Maybe we can figure it out.”
She choked on her distress. I handed her a tissue. She wiped her eyes. “Hector came home from school. I watched him do his homework. Then he got into his pajamas…”
“He got into his pajamas?” I interrupted. “Wait. What time was this?”
Mrs. D. sniffled. “It was about four o’clock.”
“Four o’clock? Why was he getting into his pajamas at four o’clock in the afternoon?”
“Because…,” she groaned, and the whole story came tumbling out.
Hector’s father believed that a child, above all, needed a stable environment. He needed to be able to rely on his parents, on his home, on the rules of life. Everything had to be constant and predictable. That’s how you built good habits, not like those bums hanging out at the playground at all hours. The good had to be constantly reinforced; the bad punished just as constantly.
To this end, a boy had to know what the rules were and what the punishments for violating those rules were. Therefore, Hector’s solid, dependable father had worked out a schedule of solid, dependable, predictable punishments for every reasonably foreseeable infraction a thirteen year-old boy might commit. For every infraction, depending upon its seriousness, Hector would receive from one to three demerits. If and when he accumulated ten demerits, he would be required to go to bed fifteen minutes earlier than his normal bedtime. The plan was rational and predictable; its consequences predictably inescapable and insane.
In the course of time, Hector had amassed such a backlog of demerits that he was going to bed every afternoon at 4:00 PM. By midnight, the poor kid was pulling his hair out, willing to risk life and limb merely to get out of the house. All he wanted to do was play outside. His father sympathized, but a boy needed stability and the schedule was the schedule.
I bit my lip to keep from laughing, or crying, then told Mrs. D. that Mac would be back in the office the following afternoon. I asked if she could return with her husband and Hector at that time. She demurred at first, but agreed when I told her it was important and I thought we were on the verge of a breakthrough.
The next morning, I told Mac. He laughed so hard, I thought every pane of glass in the courthouse would crack. Then he recollected himself. “This,” he said, “is going to require strategy.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“There’s no question about what’s got to be done,” he answered, “the only question is how to go about it. I need time to think it through. I don’t want to be interrupted by anybody but the judge. You run interference for me otherwise.”
The rest of the morning and into the afternoon, I answered all the phone calls and intercepted all the visitors. I went so far as to run down the hall and get Joe a sandwich and a cup of coffee for lunch. He stayed at his desk, talking to himself, rehearsing what he was going to say to Hector and his father.
I looked up at the clock. “It’s almost 2:00,” I said. “They’ll be here any minute if Hector’s going to be home by bedtime. You ready?”
Mac rose from his seat and stretched. “All ready. When they get here, you keep Hector and his mother outside. Let me talk to his father alone first.”
“If that’s the way you want it.”
“It’s not the way I want it. It’s the way it’s got to be.”
A few minutes later, the family walked through our door. I took Mrs. D. and Hector out into the Great Hall to see the statue of Rufus Choate. I couldn’t think of anything else. We stared at the statue for five or ten minutes, then the office door opened and Joe beckoned us inside. Mr. D. sat stiff and erect on one of the chairs in front of Mac’s desk. Mac directed Hector to the empty chair beside his father’s. Hector assumed a rather melodramatic slouch, overplaying his part, if you ask me. Mrs. D. and I retreated to the chairs on the opposite side of the room.
“Hector,” Joe began, “I’ve been talking to your father. He’s decided to offer you a deal, man to man.”
Hector straightened out his slouch and sat up. “What kind of a deal?”
“A pretty good deal,” Mac announced. “Your father’s willing to wipe the slate clean of all your demerits. When you come home from school, you do your homework, then you can go outside and play until dinner. All you have to do in return is promise you’ll sleep in your bed through the night. No more going out the window. No more going to the playground after dark. No more hanging out with those older kids.”
Hector turned to his father. “You’re willing to do that, Dad?”
His father gave an earnest nod of his head. “I’m willing to be reasonable, Hector. Are you?”
“Oh, yeah,” Hector agreed, and this time the phrase meant, “Happy days are here again.”
Mr. D. shook Mac’s hand, then walked out of the office with his hand around the shoulders of his smiling son. Mrs. D. somehow managed to say, “Thank you,” about twenty times before she followed them out the door.
I turned to Mac as she pulled the door shut. “What was the big deal? It was the obvious thing to do.”
“Obvious,” Mac agreed, “but not easy.”
“What was hard about it?”
“You’ve never been a father,” Mac told me, as if I didn’t know. “Mr. D. is fighting the good fight. He’s trying to raise his boy right and he doesn’t have a lot of resources to do it with. He and his wife are living on the razor’s edge. About all he’s got is his dignity. He thought he couldn’t afford to backtrack. He couldn’t risk being wrong, not even if he was.”
“So how did you convince him to go along with giving Hector a clean slate?”
“I told him his boy had painted himself into a corner and he needed his father to help him out. I asked Mr. D. if his father had ever helped him out of a tight spot.”
“Whew,” I said. “You rolled the dice on that one.”
“Not really. He was bound to see himself in Hector’s place, painted into that corner. And he could only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If he answered ‘yes,’ he’d have to live up to his father. If he answered ‘no,’ he’d have to make up for his father. Either way, I had him.”
“You sized Mr. D. up pretty good.”
“All I had to do was find the right approach. I knew the man loved his son. That’s where being a father came in handy.”
“What do you think?” I asked. “Will the clean slate work?”
“Time will tell. If they come back, it didn’t work. If it works, they won’t come back.”
I needled him. “They won’t even come back to say ‘thanks’? Or to bring us some flowers?”
Mac laughed. “When things work, they never come back.”
And they never did.
© Joe Eliseon 2019. All rights reserved.
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