The 10-year-old said he was afraid, but I had him pegged for a bit of an actor, a showman. I prodded him onward.
“C’mon, it’s not scary. Just some trees. It’s pretty back there.”
“C’mon, I have a baby here. I’m carrying Luke. I wouldn’t take him anywhere dangerous.”
“Nope. Too scared. Bears.”
“All right. Let’s just to the edge of the yard. A few more feet.”
Of course, a bird and a squirrel would choose just then to make just enough ruckus in the brush for Eugene to convince himself that yes, a giant grizzly was rising out of the leaves to maul him to death right there, right then, before he even got to see what the heck living in the country was all about.
I caught up to him about 50 yards later, at the house, and he was sniffling, with tears welled in his eyes. And that wasn’t the only spot that was wet.
I couldn’t believe how frightened he had gotten, and so quickly. We were still in the backyard.
A tough New York City kid did not fare so well in the backyard of our little rental house that backed up to the thick woods. I apologized many times and my wife made sure she reprimanded me loud enough for him to hear while he cleaned up — and put on new dry pants — in the bathroom.
My wife and I spent several years in New York City when we were very young, before we decided to have kids. We loved much about the city and it was good to us. But the prospect of raising children there — without a lot of money for things like day care or a bigger apartment — seemed daunting.
Being a poor kid in the big city could be tough, from what we saw. Thoughts of those kids stayed with us when we moved away.
Eventually we landed in western Pennsylvania, where I got my start in the news business, in a quaint borough with lots of surrounding land and parks and farms and ranches.
It was then that we decided to pay it forward as the saying now goes, through a program called the Fresh Air Fund. For more than a century it has been organizing trips for underprivileged NYC kids to the “country,” defined as almost anywhere not as crowded as the Big Apple. They get taken in buses to host families and stay two weeks.
Welcome Eugene, the first Fresh Air Kid exposed to the Isemans, and vice versa.
Luckily, Eugene did not hold a grudge.
I think I won him over by taking him to the county fair. (I saved some of his thoughts from back then and discovered them the other day rummaging through old keepsakes.)
“What do those pigs eat? Mud? … Are the bugs eating the dirt off them? … Yes, those horses are big. They stink, too. I know another name for that, Jack —.”
He grinned while he formed the second part of the word with his mouth. But he didn’t say it.
He was also intrigued by cemeteries. He kept counting them, especially the day I got, well, a little lost picking him up for the first time.
“We went past a cemetery like that on the bus. That’s the eighth cemetery. How can people live so close to them. They’re scary.” (Later in the week.) “Look, that’s the ninth cemetery. Oh, now I know. There used to be people around here, right? That’s why there are so many cemeteries and no people.”
The Fresh Air Fund organizers advise host familes not to pry too much with the Fresh Air kids. Some come from tough, complicated situations.
Eugene offered up that he and 11 relatives live in an apartment with five rooms. He wasn’t complaining, just explaining. He spoke of his “maniac class” at P.S. 147, an elementary school. The teacher didn’t care what anyone did. One kid threw a desk chair right through a window, Eugene said. And what did he do? Well, he might have run atop a few desks but it sounded like he didn’t get caught.
He spoke of warnings he had been given by his family about being sure he was in the apartment on time, usually by 8 p.m.
“The only time it’s real bad is on Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday, when they’re burning on the corners. That’s when people get arrested. They get this powder in paper and they heat it up and then put it in their veins. And that’s called a drug. My father says it’s poison.”
Sometimes, I’m sure, visiting us must have seemed like he had been dropped on another planet.
Quiet, dark, lots and lots of cornfields. He giggled out of the blue one day as he drew this conclusion: “I know. People just ate and ate too much corn, so they had to be put in the cemeteries, right?”
“Is President Reagan the president here, too? … people in New York don’t like him. He’s closing down the schools for breakfast and lunch.”
One rule of the Fresh Air program is the kids must write a postcard to their parents upon arrival with their host families. The notes are primarily meant to reassure parents. In his note, Eugene ratted me out for not having the directions down pat. “The peoples got lost. The people’s number is 814 27-53757.”
He also included this line: “I was going to cry but stop it.”
He was referring back to when he got dropped off by the bus from New York. When I first met him, after he was pointed out to me by a Fresh Air Fund representative, Eugene looked very upset.
The representative rushed off to help someone else so I couldn’t ask her why. I put on my best friendly Dave face and — after telling him some cool stuff we would do in the country — I asked what was wrong. Between sobs, he said simply: “My sister.” Then he pointed to another family picking up a kid.
I corraled the representative who explained that, yes, siblings do get split up like that. It seemed heartless, but she said the agency cannot usually get hosts to agree to take more than one child. She turned to Eugene and spoke in a way that showed she had been through this, many times.
Your sister is going to have a great time, the rep told him. She’s in good hands. You’ll be so busy you won’t even notice how fast the time flies.
If you’re lucky — she spoke more to me than him with this part — your host family and her host family will come to the party we’re having next week. The kids get to spend time together again and the host families get to know each other, too.
I told him I saw no reason we would miss that.
The two weeks flew by. Eugene befriended a couple neighbor kids and, when we didn’t have an excursion planned, he played til dusk on a big wide street with little traffic and expansive front lawns.
His street smarts paid off, too, even in our small town.
I saw him coming in for the night one evening with his pants hanging low from his waist. And this was 1983, long before that was the fashion. As he got to his room, I noticed he dumped coins from the pockets.
I whispered to my wife to ask if she knew where he got the money. She said no.
We hurried in to his room before he began to change. (We had previously agreed that the room was his to control, and he never changed his clothes in front of us.)
“Where did you get all that money, Eugene?” I asked.
“Betting,” he said, looking up at us and smiling like a grizzly who had just scared the crap out of a city kid.
“Betting? Like playing cards? Poker? Dice?” I had visions of the nice old gramma down the street emptying her piggy bank with Eugene grinning widely, ready for another round of black jack.
“No,” he said. “Those kids just wouldn’t believe me.”
“Believe you? About what? Being from New York?”
“Nope. About this.” He pointed to his stomach.
My wife and I just stared. We must have looked as frozen and dumbfounded as the big-headed cows on display at the fair.
“About not having a belly button.”
He lifted his shirt. Only a scar.
Sick as a young kid, he had to have surgery, he said. But now, it’s a good way to get some money.
Oh boy, I thought. My wife and I would have to have an odd talk with the parents of the neighbor kids.
Not now, though. It was getting dark. I still had time to try to convince Eugene to retry that walk in the woods.