When does childhood end? For these boys, it happened one day too tragically quick.
We walked across on the I-94 overpass to get to the woodlands on the other side of the highway that’s been our hang out through the summer. There among the maples, oaks, and hawthorns, within the tall prairie grasses and goldenrods, we explored the thick jungle of the Amazon, fought the Japanese in Borneo, and time traveled to face the terrible T-rex. When we brought them, we rode our bikes through the well-worn trails and made new ones on foot where the undergrowth was not as thick. It was our place and for that last summer before we started Wessex Senior High School in 1979 it was our world.
Most of the time it would be me, Will Sharp and Justin Wicks out in the woods. Sometimes Will’s sister, “Junebug”, June, would tag along. Justin didn’t like it but the rest of us thought she was cool, for a girl, that is. We didn’t even really think of her as a girl most of the time. She was short and skinny and looked more like a boy with her short blond bob and bibbed coveralls. Acted like one most of the time. She would be right in there whenever we crawled among the thick tall prairie grasses or up in the tree branches of the forest whenever we climbed. She was also a soldier to our generals, our porter through the bushvelds of Africa, or played any other part nobody wanted. One time, Will suggested she should be the damsel in distress so that we, as the Knights of the Round Table, could rescue her. She almost gave him a bloodied nose.
Justin was the leader of our little group mostly because he was the tallest and he had a way of coming up with great ideas. He’s the one that came up with getting some old plywood boards and cinder blocks and make a ramp for our bikes. Another time he brought over some empty jars and we went to the pond at Elwell Park and caught tadpoles. There was the ‘Battle of Snow Mountain’ when we tried knocking each other off the piles made by the snow plows. He was the idea man whenever we couldn’t think of much of anything to do. Sometimes he acted as though he was annoyed by Junebug. But, then again, he always took her side whenever we all got into an argument. Yeah, we teased him but isn’t that what older brothers are supposed to do? Besides, our fights never lasted too long, and soon we were off doing something else Justin would come up with.
Now, Will, he was our Joker. If there was a joke or a funny story, no matter how stale it was, the way he would tell it always made us laugh. He was good at playing tricks on people too! One time, in the sixth grade just before 3rd-hour Civics class, he put a tack on Fatty Patty McKenney’s chair. We’ve never seen anyone jump so fast out of their seat the way Fatty Patty did when she sat down. Then there was the time Will brought the dissected rat from biology class into Mister Hutchinson’s math class. Mister Hutchinson always had the habit of reaching into his desk drawer for a clean sheet of paper at the beginning of class. On that day, though, something else awaited him when he opened it. The riot of laughter that occurred more than made up for the week’s detention Will got for hiding the dead rat in there.
As for me, well, I was the brains, the facts guy, on account I read a lot of books. Whenever we needed to decide whether something was possible, like if we could evade a T-rex by hiding in the bushes (we could, they were tall and had bad eyesight), or land a rocket ship on the surface of Jupiter (not likely, clouds too thick, too icy, and gravity made it difficult to move), or kill a knight in shining armor with a pistol (ever shot a tin can with a BB gun?) I usually would have an answer. Is a bee a bee or wasp or fly? I knew the difference. Which way was north? Which direction is the sun moving during the day or look for the North Star at night (I knew where to look!)? If I didn’t know or wasn’t sure, I usually tried to make it sound good. Sometimes Will or Justin would catch me at something that sounded dubious but most of the time they never questioned my authority. Martin St. Martin, the bookworm, the nerd. Other kids thought I was a little weird because of how I would bury my face in some book. I didn’t care, well, most of the time. I have liked reading since I first learned how to and I wasn’t going to give it up because someone thought it was strange. Besides, in a way, we were all nerds in our own way, outcast, in the sense that none of us in our group were really good at sports, never got to hang out with the cool kids, or even could win a fist fight if our lives depended on it. Heck, Junebug could probably take any of us in a fight and win! Including her brother!
There was also Eugene Ward. Not “Gene”, as he often corrected us, not “Ward”, or “Wart” as some of the popular kids would call him, but Eugene. It wasn’t that we didn’t like Eugene it was more like he was a little whiney and just too weird even for us for his own good. If we were playing army men he would point up at the sky and start shooting at pterodactyls. When we were cowboys fighting back marauding Indians, he would blast them with a laser gun. When we would argue with him that that was cheating not staying dead when he got shot, he would get angry and pout if he didn’t get his way. He had this curious way of showing anger. Eugene would stand with his fist clenched, eyes bulging, his face all beet red, and grunt. The first time he did it we all laughed. Will said he looked like he was holding a crap. That made us all laugh some more and Eugene would get even angrier. We learned that if we just ignored him he would stop and act as if nothing had happened. No, it wasn’t that we didn’t like him, because he was like us, an outcast, it was that he did would make it hard for us sometimes to like him. But that was Eugene and we knew we could change him.
Junebug would feel sorry for Eugene sometimes and would get mad at us for making fun of him. It stayed that way up until when Eugene pressed his luck once too often and Junebug just gave up on him too. It was the day he was telling us how to “properly build a fort” out of plywood and canvas we had found and we told him he was full of crap. He went through his “grunt thing” and instead of ignoring him we started to laugh and imitated him. Junebug stepped in like she always did in Eugene’s defense and then Will started making fun of her by making “kissy noises” and calling her his girlfriend. But that didn’t make Junebug as angry as when her brother joined in. That really made her mad. I guess it embarrassed Eugene as well because of what he did next. Instead of helping his only defender he turned on Junebug by calling her a “little wussie girl”. If there was something Junebug was not it was a “wussie girl”. None of us ever had the guts to call her something like that and knew Eugene had step over the line. Junebug got all squinty-eyed and quiet all the while she raising her fist. We stopped laughing, all of us that is, except for dumb Eugene who didn’t know any better. He just kept going on and on, prancing around, hand on hip, about how Junebug was a wussie girl. Just as we thought she was going to deck him one she let out a deep sigh, turned her back to us, and walked away calling us all “a bunch of weenie-eyed jerks”. Eugene was still laughing at her, that is until I bopped him one on the back of his head. He asked what that was for, but I didn’t think it was worth the effort explaining it to him. Junebug hung out with us less and less after that.
Another thing about Eugene was that he wasn’t “a little kid” although he acted like one. He was our age, bigger than any of us in both height and weight. He was just shy of Justin’s height and fat enough to maybe suck the wind out of you if he ever sat on you. I know that for a fact because one time when we were wrestling he nearly suffocated me when he held me down by straddling my chest. It took Junebug, Justin, and Will to get him off me when I started to complain about not being able to breathe. He also wore thick glasses and smelled like mothballs. Will and me, well, we figured he was the way he was because his home life kind of sucked.
You see, his dad was an alderman or something at the Wessex Episcopalian Church of the Divine Light and was strict about everything. Eugene couldn’t do anything at home other than pray for forgiveness of any sin he may have done, is doing, or maybe thinking of doing. If it was determined he had done something wrong, and usually he was judged to have done so, his punishment would be a stiff belt across his hiney followed by a recitation of a Bible verse while he was on his knees. Now we’ve all taken the belt from time to time, but we thought the bible thing was a bit too much. I guess that’s the real reason we put up with him so much. We just felt sorry for him. We also felt a little guilty for it was our idea to take him out to the woods. We knew that if his dad ever found out where Eugene really went we were sure his dad would kill him. We just couldn’t let that happen without feeling bad about it. Then there was his bike.
It was a Huffy All-Pro reflex blue 3-speed that was a present from an uncle and it was his most prized possession. It had a blue and white banana seat and wing back handlebars with chrome fenders and a 3-speed shifter on the mid-frame. When you sat on it and peddled, it felt great having the wind rushed past you. It was like riding one of those “hog motorbikes”, Eugene liked calling it his “hog”, down the road. This thing was beautiful and fast! We called it the Blue Streak on account of how it would go when we rode it down steep hill trails. Eugene had a hard time taking it uphill so we would talk him into letting us ride it up for him on the condition that he would let us ride it down. Of course, once down another one of us would volunteer to ride it back up and then down we’d go. All of us, including Junebug, would take turns except for Eugene. One time we let Eugene take it down and he almost wrecked into a tree! After that, he was happy just watching us ride it. It made Eugene’s constant whining almost tolerable. He took that bike everywhere.
Like I said earlier, we had walked out to the forest as we had done since school let out when something happened that would make this our last time there. This summer had been a bit different because we were all going to start high school in September and we were beginning to feel a little bit silly playing army men and stuff like that. Even Justin was having a hard time thinking of things for us to do. We knew we were teenagers now and past play little kid’s games. We spent our time now out there doing nothing. Most of the time we just hung out and talk about things like tv shows, music on the radio, and whether Christy Miller’s boobs were real, and if they could get any bigger. That last part was Will’s contribution to our conversations. It seemed to have all started when he found his dad’s Playboys hidden in his family’s garage. Eugene didn’t like it when Will would start talking about reaching under Christy’s bra or looking up Stephanie Brower’s shorts. Will once told us he saw Stephanie’s “bush” peeking out from under her underwear one time. Justin and I said he was crazy and asked him to describe it. He made like he was trying to remember it but all he could come up with was, “you know, it looked like bush”. We laughed, except for Eugene who didn’t seem to have gotten the joke. I didn’t care if Will talked about girls like this as long as it wasn’t about Rachel Drake. But then, whenever he did bring up Rachel it was only to give me a hard time! You see, the eighth grade was the year when Will found out about my crush on Rachel.
It was in the middle of Mister Hutchinson 5th hour when the class, ever bored of geometry lessons, started passing notes. These notes usually had gossip, or doodles, or something like that. On some occasions, they included a questionnaire of like, “Who do you think has the worst bad breath?”, “Who is the biggest faggot”, stupid things like that. The one I got that day was, “Who would you like to go out with?” For the life of me, and I don’t why, I wrote Rachel Drake’s name. I then thought about how stupid it was for me to have written that and crumpled the note right away. On my way out I threw it in the trash and thought nothing more about it. Unknown to me at the time, Will had fished out the note and soon it was spread around that I had a crush on Rachel. By the end of the semester, everyone in our school knew about it, including, to my mortification, and hers, Rachel Drake. In the last days of junior high, she went out of her way to let me know that my feelings for her were not mutual. All this talk made Eugene uncomfortable and when he would try to change the subject Will would call him a “homo” and shut him up.
It was on one of those hot days in August of ’79 when we got to the familiar break in the fence that led to our spot in the woods that something happened we thought we would never forget. We didn’t really feel like pulling our bikes through the prickly bushes so we left them behind. As always, though, Eugene had to ride his and when we got to the opening in the fence he was complaining about how nobody was helping him get his bike through. Will, Justin, and I refused to help and told him to leave it behind. Eugene got halfway in, managing to get himself and his bike stuck before he decided to take our advice hid the bike behind a tree that grew by the fence. After making sure it was well hidden he followed us.
We had gone down the trail close to where our “camp” was when Justin suddenly stopped and whispered to us to be quiet. I was by now was getting tired of Eugene’s complaining about his bike, and was about to say something when I heard what Justin was listening to.
“Shhhh. Voices,” I said in my lowest whisper.
“Eugene, you know-” Will never got to finish because he heard the voices too. Justin and I both recognized who was talking and the trouble we were in.
“It’s Dean and Jamie, ain’t it?” I whispered.
“Yeah,” answered Justin and he would know.
Dean and Jeremy Sherman were a couple of high school boys who made a habit of hanging out outside of Jefferson Taylor Junior High whenever they skipped classes which was pretty much all of the time. The brothers were well-known troublemakers to us kids and we learned early to keep away from them if at all possible. For fun, the Sherman boys would single out one of the kids going home, follow them for a couple of blocks, and when they were sure no adults were around they would jump out and beat the crap out of them. On the last day of school, they got Justin. Justin was only a few blocks from his house when they jumped him and gave him a bloodied nose. Will and I stood there and did nothing because we didn’t want to be next. Later, I thought Justin got off easy because only the week before the Shermans had broken a kid’s arm. No one ever said anything or did anything about them because they knew what would happen to them if the Shermans found out. Now here they were at our campsite in the woods and we were scared crapless.
I was about to suggest that we go back when Justin held a finger to his lips and pointed to the thick brush to our left. Maybe he thought if we tried to run we’d make too much noise and they’d catch us? Or maybe he thought since we were already here we might as well see what they’re up to? Either way, we followed Justin and hid among the tall grass and Sumacs. Crouching low where they couldn’t see us we could see the two boys a few feet away in the clearing that was shaded by a big gnarly oak tree.
Jeremy had his back up against the tree while Dean paced back and forth like an agitated caged cat puffing away at his cigarette. Jeremy looked bored and sleepy eye as he stared at his brother wear a groove into the dusty ground. Dean seemed tensed and wounded up like he was ready to hit someone.
“So, where is he?” Dean finally said stopping for a moment before continuing his pacing.
“Dunno,” answered Jeremy.
“You think Marcus believes he’s a narc?”
“I dunno, man. That’s what you told ‘em. Unless you was wrong. In that case, I wouldn’t like to be you if Marcus found out.”
I didn’t know who Marcus was but because of the way Jeremy was talking about him, they were both scared of him. The Sherman boys were actually scared of someone! Marcus didn’t sound like someone I wanted to know. Same with the “narc” they were talking about. I didn’t want to know any of it. I wanted nothing to do with any of this. I just wanted to go home at this point. But Justin wanted to stay. To this day I’ll never understand why?
“You know damn well what Bruce said.” Dean halted again and stared up with his eyes closed thinking hard to remember. “Bruce said a couple of weeks ago he saw Sam talking to the pigs over at Vernor’s Ice-Cream shop. He said that when he came out of Carl’s, you know, to buy cigarettes Sam saw him and Sam got all nervous. Then that weekend the pigs raided Harvey’s place and found that pound of weed. Bruce said he’s sure it had to be Sam.”
“Bruce said, Bruce said. How’d we know Bruce didn’t make this shit up?”
“Okay, we don’t. But someone had to let Marcus know.”
“Yeah, and that had to be you, dumb-ass. You had to be the one to go babbling to Marcus and now we’re here.”
Dean had started up his pacing and puffing when he came to a stop yet again in front of his brother.
“Look, man, if he ain’t showin, let’s split and we’ll tell Marcus he didn’t show.”
“You tell Marcus. I ain’t saying shit.”
“Yeah, but you’re the one who told Marcus we’d take care of it.”
Jeremy sprung off the tree and with both hands grabbed Dean’s shirt. “Only after you got Marcus all riled up! The motherfucker was spitting nails! What else was I going to say? So, we stay because I say we stay! Got it?”
Dean pushed back and looked like he was about to hit Jeremy when he stopped because something had drawn their attention.
“You heard that! I think I heard something,” said Dean as he jerked away. Jeremy nodded as he heard it too.
We all froze. We were too afraid to breathe. I even was too afraid to do anything about whatever was tickling me inside my pant leg. I thought we were all dead. I didn’t know how did they could know we were here, but they had to, right? We had all been so careful so what went wrong? I was even thinking that maybe the Sherman boy smelled mothball Eugene. But, to our relief, a lean black man popped out of the trail on the opposite side of the clearing.
“What’s happening, homies?” the black man said.
“What-up, Sam?” Jamie said in what I knew was a deceitful way. He walked up to Sam and did that street handshake we boys had seen black people do. It all looked kind of weird to me. Why was Jamie acting all friendly when just a few moments ago he and his brother were talking about having to “take care of Sam”. I had a bad feeling that it wasn’t going to be good for this Sam guy.
“Hey, Dean,” Sam said looking at Dean with a big grin.
“Hey, yourself, Sam,” said Dean looking away from him as he inched closer to the big oak tree.
There was a moment of awkwardness when nobody said anything. If Sam had any idea that something was wrong he hid it well behind that smile of his. Dean was at the tree by now looking at the folded over dead grass. Jeremy continued to stand there with a goofy grin looking first at Dean and then at Sam without saying a word. Dean dropped the cigarette that he had let burnt down to the filter and ground it into the dirt. I saw nervousness in his eyes as he waited for something from Jeremy.
Finally, Sam broke the silence. “What can I do for you gents? You aiming to score something from Ol’ Sammy? Or maybe sell? I can make you a good deal like I did for you the last time. Maybe we can do a trade? If you can get me more of those rims you got the last time we can talk.”
“How about this instead!” said Jeremy just before he cold-cocked Sam knocking him down to the ground.
I guess it was what Dean was waiting for because in what seemed like in a flash he came up with the aluminum bat he must have hidden in the grass and started to give the downed black man several blows to the head and chest. Jeremy had started to kick Sam with his steel-toed biker boots to his midsection. Dean switched over to hitting Sam on the legs with his bat. The downed man tried uselessly to protect himself. Using his bloodied hands he tried uselessly to block the blows to his head. Sam rolled first one way and then the other using his legs to kick at the boys. This must have angered Jeremy for he put a quick end to it with one fierce kick to Sam’s groin. At first, Sam protests were coming as loud screams, pleading to the boys to stop, but slowly the yells turned into pathetic whimpers, and then soft moans. I felt every blow from the kicks, every thud as the bat came down. My stomach turned as I felt my lunch coming up. I looked over to Will and saw he had closed his eyes, holding his head close to the ground fighting hard not to bury his face into the dirt. Justin stared, gripping hard at tufts of grass with each hand, he gritted his teeth with every strike. And Eugene, poor Eugene, he just whimpered softly.
We heard the thump and crack like the hit a softball at a kid’s game, except this wasn’t a game. Sam stopped struggling. Jeremy, out of breath from all the exertion, stopped kicking and reached out to hold Dean in mid-swing. They were both out of breath as they looked down at the broken body of the black man. From the brush, I followed the slow gurgle of each breath going as it went in and out, each one shallower than the one before until I couldn’t hear them anymore.
Then we got up and ran out of there.
We ran as fast as our legs could carry us. We ran without looking down at the path in front of us. Will tripped over a tree root, recovered, and continued. Justin ducked and weaved trying unsuccessfully to avoid the branches hitting his face. For a moment I thought I heard someone yelling at us, maybe Dean, maybe Jeremy, I didn’t know. I didn’t want to look back and find out. All I was worried about was whether the Sherman brothers saw who was running away and if they were going to catch us. If they did see us, who did they actually see? Did they see me? Justin, or Will? Was Eugene keeping up or did they catch him already? The fence looked so far away and the other side of the highway a million miles further. But we made it to the fence, even Eugene, and Justin quickly pulled the opening to the side and held it as the rest of us got through. Then we continue running. I didn’t know if Justin made it through until we got to the other side of the highway, across the McDonald’s parking lot, and behind the gas station next to it. When we got there I bent over and heaved everything that was in my stomach.
When I was done I looked around me and saw that we had all made it. Justin faced the wall of the gas station leaning on his forearm for support. Will sat on the curb, his head between his knees, trying to catch his breath. Eugene laid on the blacktop pavement, arms stretched out like a fat Jesus, wheezing with every breath. We were hot, sweaty, out of breath, and dry-mouthed from the run in the hot sun. Mostly we were scared over what we had all seen. Will looked up in the direction of the overpass and so did I. Nothing. Nobody in pursuit. At least, for now, we had time to take a breather and decide what to do. Should we tell the police? How about our parents? Without speaking each of us rolled the scenarios in our heads over and over. Would they believe us? Would they make us go back there where, where the body, where Sam, laid? And what about the Sherman boys? If they weren’t after us right now where did they go? Are they waiting to ambush us on our way homes? Maybe they’ve gone over to see Marcus and they’ve told him about us? Maybe Marcus was right now telling Jeremy how he’d have to “take care” of us! Nobody said anything. Everyone was trying to figure it out when we were all startled by Eugene.
This put the rest of us on alert. Will, Justin and I looked around across the lots and highway hoping not to see the Sherman boys coming for us. None of us saw a thing and were confused by Eugene. With a questioning look, I asked, “What is it, Eugene?”
“My dad is going to kill me!”
We were all puzzled at first until we realized Eugene ran. He ran! He didn’t ride his bike. The bike he left back at the fence behind the tree.
“I gotta go back!”
We all shook our heads and said “No way”, “Nah, not happening”. No one thought it was a good idea going back and none of us were willing to do it. I thought it was crazy. To me, it would have been better for Eugene to take a licking from his Old Man than end up dead and I was pretty sure Will and Justin would agree.
“Who’ll come with me?” Eugene pleaded. “Justin?”
Justin looked down at Eugene and shook his head.
“Fuck no! You’re nuts!”
Eugene then sat up, looking up at me with the saddest look on his face he could make and pleaded, “How about you, Marty? Will you help me get my bike back? Please?”.
The way he looked at me, said my name, I almost gave in. But my thoughts went back to my mom and two sisters at home and how they would be worried if I, if I, didn’t come back. Or worst, if the Shermans did find out who was hiding in the brush and told Marcus. Would he hurt not only me but my family as well because of a dumb old bike?
“Sorry, Eugene, I …can’t do it. I…just can’t do it. I gotta go home and …I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” I felt like such a heel but I was afraid to go back.
Sitting there on the pavement Eugene looked down at the blacktop, then at each of us before, with a determined look, got his big body up from the ground and started walking in the direction of the highway, the overpass, the woods, the fence, and his bike. Will tried to stop him by grabbing his shoulder but Eugene shrugged him off. We all stood there in silence as we watched the back of his slow lumbering body shuffling off at first and then as he broke into a slow jog.
It was the last we ever saw of Eugene alive.
In the morning I saw the newscast. It was believed that Eugene Ward, in an attempt to cross the highway on his bicycle, was struck by a semi-truck going westbound on Interstate 94. During the investigation, the body of Samual Clemens Jackson was discovered later that evening in the forested area, our woods, along the side of the busy highway. Jackson, so it was later found out, had ties to both Jeremiah and Delano (“Dean?”) Sherman, both wanted for questioning on the robberies occurring in Wessex. Neither of the Sherman boys was ever found by Wessex, or State police and were presumed to have skipped out of the state. Justin, Will, and me never told anyone what we saw that day. Justin didn’t even tell his sister, Junebug, although I was pretty certain he really wanted to.
There was a funeral the Saturday before Labor Day and it almost looked like half the town had shown up. I had trouble sleeping for weeks. I’d had nightmares where I would see the Sherman boys beating up that black guy except it wasn’t Sam but Eugene lying on the ground. Justin had troubles too. He would get quiet sometimes and went through spells where he won’t say much of anything at all. He wouldn’t even share any of those good ideas he used to have before. Eventually, he slowly drifted away from me and Will and stop hanging around with us all together. Will, now, he was just the opposite. He wouldn’t stop talking about it. When Justin wasn’t around, which was becoming quite often by then, he would go on and on about what we saw that day and about Eugene. Heck, he even suggested to me, privately of course, that the Shermans pushed Eugene in front of that semi! Eventually, he stopped saying anything about it. I guess he got the hint that I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Then we drifted apart as well. He found he was good talking to girls, his stale jokes made them laugh I guess, and even hooked up with Christy Miller for a while.
High school started and we all were more involved in the transition. After a while, my nightmares went away and I even had problems remembering what Eugene looked like. I know it sounds terrible but it was true, I was forgetting it all and it was becoming unreal to me. It was like a terrible, awful dream that got further and further away as time went on. By our senior year, Eugene had become someone I knew but had a hard time remembering, that is, until today and many years later, when I wrote all of this down.
-A. M. Holmes