The first punch I ever took left me more puzzled than hurt. “Why’d you do that?” I asked Freddie Worthington that summer in ’67. We were at a local park in North Bergen, around the corner from his folks’ house. Freddie stood there a moment. “I don’t know,” he said.
Now and then, I think of what he taught me about fear: Truth is, the straight jab to the forehead wasn’t as painful as I’d have expected.
But it was clear that day, more than 40 years ago, that the young delinquent who spent more time on the expelled list than in class (right) was bound for several stays at what was then called the “youth house,” followed by either death or a life of crime. And no one seemed to care.
I, meanwhile, was on my way to several after-school beatings — and a career that has suddenly become more fulfilling by the day.
It gives me no great pleasure to discover that Freddie’s been charged with stealing 1,000 feet of copper wire from a PSE&G facility last year.
Now 53, Freddie still lives in his folks’ home. The scene of the crime: a substation down the hill from where we both grew up.
The cool part of the story is that State Police identified the burglar using DNA lifted from a blood stain found on a bolt cutter he left behind.
Y’see, Freddie’s been locked up plenty of times for stealing scrap to feed his habit.
I thought I’d escaped the grimey, working class, semi-poor roots that produced more than a few Freddie Worthingtons once I’d gone to college. I’ve since returned to the area fast by the Hudson, and, as I enter Act Two of my professional life, once-familiar faces are appearing.
Fellow students at North Bergen High School are uniting around the Facebook hearth. One by one, they’re stepping back into my line of view. Who needs a reunion when you have a network of fully-evolved adults whose past bonds them into a powerful community?
By chance, I ran into my 7th grade science teacher — now the township superintendent of schools — at a fundraiser tonight. Events of long ago flooded back for both of us, some of which we each remembered. To see the Alan Alda of an instructor now matured into the wise but clever Philip Bosco of the school district of my youth left me humbled.
But that was just the warmup.
Moments later, I was locked in an embrace with one of my best friends from sophomore year.
An industrial accident robbed Billy Forbes’ sight 10 or so years ago. All reports were that he’s been doing extremely well. But I hadn’t been with him since our graduation in ‘75, and to feel him squeeze my shoulder nearly drove me to tears.
Billy didn’t give in to the trauma of his life. He’s a massage therapist now — and, from what I hear, a really good one. He rose above chance and circumstance and left me honored in his presence.
Bless you, William.