Where/When I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania in the 50’s, parents only needed to whisper a single word to keep unruly children in line: Kis-Lyn. Made from parts of the names of the two men who founded the institution, this was the deep and dank hole that bad boys were tossed into. It was a reform school; one surrounded by a wall of horror and fear. No one I knew ever acted out again when first threatened with swift removal from the home and being shoveled into this dark chasm from which there was no return.
One of my closest friends growing up went from there to prison to God only knows where.
Kingston was a small town (10,000) and about 99% white when we moved there in 1954. I was an easy target for the only Puerto Rican family on the block. They ran a moving company at the far end of North Dawes. The father was loud, brash, and overtly round in the middle. Eduardo, my nemesis, also found at least two of those traits to be amenable as he beat me up and down the block, as well as on First, Second, and Third Avenues.
I’m sure it was events like this that pushed me into the martial arts in my twenties. My own father wasn’t much of a positive role model, and the five or six second skirmishes with the other Jewish boys on the block were mostly bluster and bravado, with little actual physical contact. Eduardo was a year younger than me -- so he took special joy in pummeling me with hard packed ice balls in the winter.
I was 13 when Johnny P. stepped into my life. There was something innately physical about his appearance that screamed other side of the tracks, yet his demeanor was pleasant and amiable. You expected a scowl but were served up a smile, and this was immediately disarming. From the first moment, he truly wanted to be my friend, unlike many of the other boys I grew up with who seemed to have a yet-to-be-occupied soul with a vacant and vacuous stare that signified an emptiness that dogged them throughout high school.
Johnny was real. He joined my Boy Scout troop and we had endless adventures together on our over-nighters. He had genuine outdoor skills – his father was a hunter and the first time he brought some venison on a camping trip for me to try I thought I had truly died and gone to heaven. Cleaning and prepping deer meat for the table properly is not an easy task, but he had mastered it at an age that left the rest of us in the dust.
His parents managed to pay the $21.50 for one week at Boy Scout camp that summer, and we were inseparable. He shared his skills with anyone who wanted to learn something new, but my other Jewish friends ignored him. He was traif (Yiddish for not kosher), and therefore an untouchable. To say his home was rustic would be an understatement of biblical proportions. I ventured there with him once. As we walked through the kitchen I knew I was somewhere very foreign to me. The air had an unclean odor that draped the unvarnished wooden furniture like a dark and dense cloak. I was mildly repulsed by the small pile of what looked like spittle on the floor under the table.
My stomach churned but I said nothing. His mother was there but not there at the same time. Her eyes told a very sad story, one that I would never know. There was a dangerous side of Johnny, one that he did an excellent job of hiding in my presence. Word got around about a week later that he had threatened his mother with a knife and was summarily dispatched to the Outer Limits we called Kis-Lyn.
I never saw him again. There was a brief light at the end of the tunnel several months later. Our scoutmaster had received a letter from Johnny. He wanted to start a Scout Troup in the reformatory. He was searching for meaning and stability in his life -- and our scoutmaster went all out to help him. He sent Johnny several scout manuals to share with the other boys. Things seemed to be moving on an even keel, or so we hoped.
Growing up swallowed us all, and the dim light that was Johnny began to fade. Soon, he was forgotten by everyone except me. I returned to Kingston for our 20th high school reunion in 1987, and politely asked around if anyone had heard anything about him. His brother owned a bar on Market St. pretty close to Kingston Corners. It was only a 10 minute walk from our house, so I quietly made my way there. I had never met any other members of his family, so I explained my relationship to his brother. He was unimpressed. All he would share with me was that Johnny had graduated from Kis-Lyn to prison.
I should have at least bought a beer. I didn’t know how to work someone for information back then, and his tight-lipped brother had a no-nonsense air about him that quickly pushed me out the door. Disillusioned and dejected, I dragged myself back down Market St. I tried to not play the what-ifs. I thought about that venison, the best I had ever had, second only to the Cornish hen he cooked for me on that same camp out.
Sixty years later and I still hang onto those memories. It’s not hard to look back and see the events (no matter how small) that make an indelible mark on your psyche, that are turning points in your life that eventually help to form you into a new and better version of yourself. Let the bad stuff just serve as a warning of what happens when you momentarily lose control.
Try not to. At this point in life I can’t afford to lose any more friends, or myself for that matter.