There was this kid, in our grammar school, let’s call him “Bobby”, who at best you might describe as being quite raucous. Trust me, that’s putting it mildly—Bobby wasn’t fun to be around. He was a full year behind me at P.S. 233, in Brooklyn, New York. I was thirteen, and he was twelve. (Translation of the schoolyard mentality: I was considered one of the big guys.)
By then, I was already a seasoned director. (Translation: I was the guy who took charge and told all the rest of the kids what they could or couldn’t do in school, or outside in the playground.) Funny how some things never change. The interesting part about all this was the fact I wasn’t looking for command in the beginning. It always seemed there for me to take charge, and after a while, it became accepted by my buddies.
In the schoolyard, we always had at least two games going all the time. It usually was baseball, basketball, stickball, touch football, or a variety of oddball games we invented on the fly; two more were: kick the can—and the outright favorite all the parents loved watching from their porches—punchball. Almost every kid from the streets of New York, especially the burrow of Brooklyn, played one form or another of punchball.
It’s an easy game to understand. In actuality, the game is just like baseball, but without bats or gloves; a rubber ball and your own fist are all it takes. Even the most famous baseball players of all time played punchball. If you’d like to know how popular punchball was, and still is, try this on for size: the one and only Willie Mays played the game.
Please don’t get the idea I was as good as Willie or Sandy—I just thought I was. In any event, all of our games began the same way. There were always a couple of guys who were exceptional at a particular sport; those were the guys who were designated to choose up players for their teams. The captains for each team were always one of “the big guys”. I guess some would refer to us as “bullies”! (We weren’t bullies at all. Modestly speaking, we were good athletes, and all of our buddies accepted the way it was.
Until one day, along comes Bobby (young Mr. Raucous). Referring to me, Bobby said, loudly enough for me to hear, “how come he always gets to be the captain”? Without hesitation, I informed Bobby he was never going to play with us again. I was satisfied I would never hear from Bobby again—I was wrong.
The very next day, I was summoned to our school principal’s office. There he sat, in all his glory, Dr. Sigmund Fogler. It was a strange meeting. “I need your help on this one”, the principal said. He was serious but at the same time, cordial. He continued, “Bobby’s mother was in to see me. She’s having a tough time with Bobby since his father passed away.” I was instantly taken aback. It came as a double dose. It was my first real, up close and personal, exposure to the death of a friend’s parent, and I found myself speechless. Dr. Fogler instantly picked up on how uncomfortable I had become.
We had all been wondering where Bobby had been for the previous three weeks. The principal continued to explain how Bobby’s mom and dad had not been together for about a year. Bobby got to see his dad only on weekends. And Bobby had lost his only real friend. That evening, when I was alone with my dad preparing to listen to a Dodger game, I explained what had been explained to me during my visit to the principal’s office. “Give me a minute before you turn the radio on,” my dad requested. “Your principal thinks a great deal about you, Harv. He’s asking you to help out with Bobby.”
My dad was speaking to me, man-to-man, as usual. And as usual, I knew there was a special message coming my way. “What can I do, Dad?” “Two things”, he replied. I listened intently: “Tell him, man-to-man, in a friendly way, you’d like to talk to him privately without the rest of the kids listening in. Tell him, honestly, your feelings. Offer him your honest gesture about you being saddened by his loss. Offer him your hand, the way you and I shake.”
Then, my dad was quiet for a short pause. “Then ask Bobby to come along with us to see the Dodgers play this coming Saturday. And if Bobby says he’d like to come with us, let him know it’s okay to share it with the rest of the gang. And one more thing, Harv, make sure you listen to what Bobby has to say. Make-believe I’m the one you’re listening to. Seeing that new guy, Jackie Robinson, playing for the Dodgers may help him smile, yah think?!! It helped us, Harv, didn’t it?!!”
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