While reading the posts from friends the other day, I saw one by my friend, Peg Teague Guelakis about how cruel some boys were back in our day. It was about how some of them would torture animals, and how the mothers took a 'Boys will be Boys' attitude. As the day went on and I thought about this, I remembered how she also told me that she was teased incessantly back then by certain boys. This brought to mind my Summer of Hell, in 1959. It actually lasted from mid-Spring until the fall; but, to me, it seemed to stretch out for an entire lifetime.
We were a rough and tumble bunch of street kids, my friends and I. Most of us came from families that struggled every day. We never felt deprived, because this is just the way things were. We made our bicycles from parts that we pulled from the city dump. Back in those days, every thing was taken there and put into the landfill, or burned. Things like bicycles, old baby carriages, toys, etc, found their way to the huge piles where they were unceremoniously left to rust or rot. These were golden pickings for kids like us. We would pick up a frame from one discarded bike, a seat from another. Wheels and tires from others. Sometimes, we had a 26 inch wheel on the back, and a 22 or 24 inch tire in the front. It looked 'Cool'.
We would make the rounds of the factories where the workers would throw out their soda and beer bottles. They were like gold to us, because we would take them to the grocery store and cash them in to buy soda, candy, fruit... whatever struck our fancy at that particular moment. We had fun, and roamed all over New Rochelle on our re-built bicycles. We were, for the most part, good kids. A little dirty, a bit foul-mouthed, but we stayed out of trouble most of the time. We would discuss stupid things.. like, "Would you cut off your left hand for a million dollars?" and that sort of thing. We would argue, tease, and taunt each other... nothing vicious, just kidding.
One thing that seemed to fascinate my 'friends' was my American Indian heritage. Once in a while, they would call me a 'Red Skin', but usually just in jest. On this particular day, we had been arguing over whether or not we would grab a red hot piece of steel for a million dollars. This came up because my cousins owned an Iron Works, and we could always see them welding or cutting the steel with a torch. Anyway, they all said that they would. I said that I would not, because I did not want to be disfigured. Really, what I meant was that I was too chicken to burn my hand off. We were going back and forth on that, when, suddenly, things turned ugly. I don't remember who started it, or why, but someone called me a Redskin coward. This upset me and I told them to knock it off. Too late... the blood was in the water. They started taunting me, calling me a dirty redskin and telling me that I was not a 'Real American', because I belonged on the reservation, like all the other dirty redskins. They started doing war whoops, and pretended to dance around like they thought Indians were. They poked me, and pushed me and kept it up until I started to cry and ran inside. I was all of 12 going on 13. This just seemed to encourage them, and they whooped it up and rode their bikes in a circle in front of my house until my father came home from work. Then they scattered. This was not the end of it, though. After dinner, they were back and war whooping as loud as they could. I didn't dare go out and show my face, because this would have just made it worse... or at least, that's what I thought.
As the days passed, the taunting increased and I was isolated by these guys. You have to remember... they were all my friends!! Or, so I thought.... it's so strange how things cane turn so quickly. Parents, in those days, usually did not intervene. You were on your own to fight your own battles. These guys were just looking to either make me cry, or pick a fight with one of them. I was having none of it, because I knew that I would lose either way. I became stoic. As I walked past them, one of them might start reciting Longfellow's 'The Song Of Hiawatha'.. or they would start singing 'Pow Wow, The Indian Boy'. They did everything that they could to make me cry or attack one of them, but I refused.
The Summer dragged on, and I was alone. Finally, I started hanging out with children that were 2 or 3 years younger than me, just to have someone to play with. It was hard, and it was eating me up inside. Many hot Summer days, I would go to the local ball fields and play ball by myself. I was a very lonely young boy, and I could not wait for the Summer to be over.
There were glimmers of hope. Bruce Kocka, caught me when he was alone one day and said "Look, Zaff, I want you to know that I am not a part of that shit. I think that you're OK, but I have to live around here, so I hang out with them.. and that's it. No hard feelings?" I thanked Bruce, and told him that there were none on my part. As far as him hanging out with them, he did.. but he never once participated in the taunting.
In late July, I got a two week respite from the torment, when my family made their trip to Oklahoma to see my grandparents and all my aunts and uncles on my mother's side of the family. I had a great time, fishing with my Uncles Mark, Parker, Keith, and Ken. It's the only time that I relaxed that whole Summer. Soon, though, the vacation came to an end, and I was right back in the crucible again.
As July ended, and August got off to a hot and humid start, I started to realize that these taunts were not bothering me that much anymore. Oh, I still hated them, and would have preferred to be out riding around with these guys again, but I no long got that knot in the pit of my stomach. I no longer got an anxiety attack when I saw them and knew that I would have to walk past them. They were still giving the war whoops, but they had started to be done with less enthusiasm.
By the end of August, they had stopped. They would just go silent when I walked by. Nothing said... no taunts, no hellos... nothing. I secretly felt much better. As September started, and the School year started, I started making new friends. One day, Kevin, one of the larger of my ex-friends came up to me out of nowhere, stuck his hand out and said "Hey, Zaff. Can we be friends again? I don't know what happened.. it was stupid" I shook his hand, and with that, it was over. Like I said : These were my friends! Something went wrong, I don't know what. I have thought about it over the years, and never could figure it out. We remained friends, even though we drifted into different circles as we got older.
Looking back on this experience from the distance of decades, I can see how this experience, although very traumatic for me, helped build my character and enabled me to get through the taunts and torment of Marine Bootcamp almost effortlessly. No matter how many names the DI's called me.. no matter how many times they hit me, they could not wipe the smile off of my face. I had already been through hell; this was nothing in comparison.
I needed to put this down just to let my family know a little about my childhood. I don't talk about it much. This was the worst of it. I also want to show that we all have challenges to meet as we grow up. No one gets an easy ride. It's how you come out of them in the end that really matters. I wish that things like this didn't happen to children as they grow up. I wish that mine was an isolated case. I know that this is, sadly, not true. I wish them all the strength to persevere, as I did.
Peace and Love to All.
John Zaffino, Kent Lakes, NY
May 15, 2014
September 27, 2016
I wrote this post two years ago. The events of that Spring and Summer were very influential in what I became over the years. I have had many times where events in my life were difficulties that I had to overcome. This was just the first of many, but it may have been the hardest.
What I didn't say in the original post was that I had one friend that never turned against me. Despite the group cutting me loose and deciding to torment me like they did, this particular friend never did. Oh, he still hung out with the other guys, but he never participated in the harassment that the rest of my former friends rained down on me. He was always still pleasant to me. He never turned his back on me. I don't know if he ever had to answer for what was clearly against these guys, but he never was hard on me.
Today, I got a message from a family member that he had died today. I have not seen him in years, but I heard from his family how he was fairing. It has not been good for him for the past few years. He almost died a few years ago, but, somehow, he pulled through. He lost his sight years ago and had to rely on others. When I heard this, it broke my heart. Why is it that the most terrible things happen to good people ?
I won't mention his name, because his family want's his death to remain private. They are great people, one and all, from a good family. I just wanted everyone to know that a very good man has left this plane of existence, and the world is a sadder place because of his loss. I love you, my dear friend, and I shall never forget you!
John Zaffino, Kent Lakes, New York