My Turn: A lasting memory about love

Published: 10/25/2020 1:22:29 PM

I wait at a red light behind a pick-up truck displaying a strange decal. Before I describe the image, though, I want to tell you about two tiny children I met in 1983.

My summer job at age 19: teaching arts and crafts at a YMCA day camp for kids ages 6 to 12. I meet with my boss during the second week. “Ben and Jesse are impossibly disruptive!” I complain. “Anyway, I don’t understand why they’re at our camp? They’re not even 6! They’re only 5 and 3!”

“I know it’s hard,” my boss replies. “I’m sorry. I’ll confide in you why I accepted them.” She explains that the brothers are in foster care following the arrest of an adult who abused them. The youngest required reconstructive surgery at the age of 2. Hearing this, I feel like I might lose my breakfast. Seeing my face, my boss pauses. “I feel the same way,” she says. “Trust me, I’m sparing you the worst details. Listen: due to legal snags, the boys have nowhere else to go this summer, so I accepted them despite their ages. Please do your best.”

The following week, Toby bursts into the art room between classes. “Come quick!” he pants. “Ben and Jesse are going to jump from the top of the barn stairs!” We dash outside.

Five-year-old Ben stands atop the exterior stairs, blocking my view of Jesse. Several kids witness the scene from ground level. Jenny whispers, “Ben says he and Jesse should be dead.”

“Jenny,” I say urgently. “Fast as you can, get Carl. He’ll know what to do.” Jenny returns with our gentle giant, the camp’s bus driver. In his sixties, Carl shows up each day wearing denim overalls and is our all-around handyman. Everyone adores Carl because he’s unfailingly kind.

Carl calls gently, “Guys, why don’t you come on down?”

Jesse begins to whimper. Ben grabs his brother’s hand. “Jesse and me should get dead,” Ben says in a monotone. “I’m much badder than him, but I can’t leave him without me.”

When kids near me start to sniffle, I gather as many in my arms as I can. I’m barely breathing. Carl commences a tender litany. “Guys,” he says, “I’d miss you so much. I need your help paddling the canoe! And toasting marshmallows! I want you here with us.”

The brothers’ favorite thing is canoeing with Carl. How they’re able to trust anyone, I’ll never know, but Carl brings that kind of magic.

Carl’s voice is hypnotic as he creeps toward the stairs: “I’d like to come sit with you. I’ve been thinking the canoe could use a fresh coat of paint. Hey, you remember the butterfly that landed on Jesse’s shoulder?” Carl moves slowly up the stairs, murmuring all the way. Neither boy moves a muscle.

Carl reaches them, and the boys collapse into his embrace, sobbing. He carries them down and sits on the grass, rocking the little guys as they gasp and wail. Tears run down Carl’s cheeks, too. He’s soaked with sweat.

That was a tough summer, yet filled with blessings. A big man with a bigger heart vowed to love and protect two small survivors. As a result, we heard improbable laughter and saw fleeting smiles from kids who’d lived through unimaginable nightmares.

The truck decal I see, 37 years later? It’s the word “LOVE” spelled out by four images: a handgun representing the L, a hand grenade the O, a folding knife the V, and a semi-automatic weapon the E. My revulsion is replaced by sorrow for anyone in such pain that they reach for images of destruction.

An adult drives the truck, but inside the man must be a badly hurt little boy — something for me to remember while witnessing our world’s mayhem.

Carl demonstrated the only way that gets us anywhere.

Eveline MacDougall is a resident of Greenfield.

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