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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
“You heard that! I think I
heard something,” said Dean as he jerked away. Jeremy nodded as he heard it
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
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
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
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