July 28, 2008

Woolly Bully

I grew up in a small farm town. Our elementary school had 6 classrooms. One for each grade. Kindergartners were sent to the next town over. But our town was growing. The 19 children that started in my 1st grade class became 31 in my 6th grade class.

There was a boy, Joe, who was in all my classes through elementary school. In that small of an environment, everyone knew his story. He was from the token really poor family that every town has . They lived in a dilapidated farm house on the edge of town. Rusted cars and tractors scattered around the property, broken hinges on the front door, sagging porch, everything that indicated wrong side of the tracks, if we had tracks. There were only three buses for the entire school, so most years, the routes were configured to include Joe's house on the same route as mine. Joe had an older brother who was the epitome of tough guy cool, with a leather jacket, and he smoked. It didn't get much cooler than that.

He had an older sister, who was a misfit, crossed eyes, ill fitting clothes and permanently tangled hair. His younger sister was in the same class as my brothers, and she was like her sister, just as much of a misfit. One year, Joe's big brother must have outgrown his leather jacket, because though it was too big for Joe, he wore it every day to school. Joe usually came to school in what were probably his dad's old t-shirts. He had the same glasses from first to sixth grade, progressively more scratched, and more tape. When he took his glasses off, we could see he had crossed eyes like his sisters.

Joe was a nice guy, even if in our silly little cult of elementary cool, he didn't quite make the cut. Every Friday we had music class. Each week, one student was invited to bring in their favorite record to listen to at the end of class. We had such classics as "One Tin Soldier", "Delta Dawn", "Roxy Roller", you name it. Any hit of the early 70s.

Then it was Joe's week. Joe had a tattered, worn album. Every year for all six years, he brought in the same record. It was older than time. He brought in Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. I can still see him carrying it on the bus with pride on music day, knowing that we'd be listening to "Woolly Bully" and watching Joe dance like none of us were watching. One year, someone made fun of Joe's Same Old Stupid Music Again. Joe cracked. The nice guy Joe evaporated and tackled and started punching the crap out of the boy who made fun of his music. It was like that scene from A Christmas Story, when Ralphie lost it and beat the tar out of that bully. I guess some kids can only take it so much. Joe got sent to the principal's office that afternoon. His glasses got broken beyond repair in that fight. (Someone bought Joe new glasses the next week, though we never knew who or how).

Joe sat with me on the bus that day. He sat, half blind, sniffling and indignant, clutching his treasured album and broken glasses. I shyly said, "I liked your music". To this day, I hear that song and smile.

Some time back, I tried to find out what became of Woolly Bully Joe. I moved away, so I only know what happened up through Junior High firsthand. The rest is hearsay.

Towards the end of elementary school, he had taken to chasing, catching and then pulling the girls around on the playground by their hair. It was creepy and a weird glimpse into what perhaps he learned at home.

His older siblings dropped out of school. He rarely went and either failed classes or got in fights. I don't know if he ever finished high school.

A few years later, his younger sister was seen running down the street in her bra and underpants screaming for help from her brother and father. She ran away from home. Their home sits empty now, looking much the same as it did 30 years ago.

I tried to search the name in vain. Nothing. As if the family never existed. People like that fall through the cracks. Abuse, neglect and cruelty will break even the purest soul.

I remember their family as being nice kids. Always smiling with their tilted heads and crossed eyes and tangled hair. Makes you think, how truly lucky most of us are.

Why does the universe deal such a crappy hand to some folks and such a charmed hand to others? What would make a difference, who and how? What can we do as humanity to reach those lost souls? Those neglected and abused children? How can something that starts out so good and pure be maintained?

I wonder mostly, did Joe ever find a place to dance again?


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