"We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.” ~George Bernard Shaw
Clarke finished his bottle of water, took aim and hit the trashcan in the corner of the room. “My childhood dream was to be a pitcher for the Yankees. I had an arm, but street kids don’t get to play little league ball.”
Travis said, “A kid can play little league and still not realize his or her dream. My brother Tom played little league and minor league ball, but never made the majors.
“I, on the other hand, fantasized about being a concert pianist. After four years of music lessons, Mom refused to support a whim. ‘Travis,’ she said, ‘you need to get your head out of the clouds. If you’re not willing to practice, I’m not willing to pay out my hard-earned cash.’”
Clarke laughed. “Childhood dreams. I’ve heard dozens of similar stories. The glitter of fame, power and money can be seductive, and young people are fascinated with anything that glitters. They either move on or become bitter when their treasure turns out to be fool’s gold.”
He paused before continuing, “I gave up my dream of baseball easily, it was my dream of having a dad that I couldn’t let go of. I felt cheated because I didn’t know mine. My mom claimed that his name was Stephen Metcalf, but I suspect that she randomly chose a name out of the phonebook. That’s one of the reasons that I didn’t want to go through my life as Dennis Metcalf.
“Mom tried, but addicts don’t have a lot to give to their kids. She was out of work more often than she was employed. By the time I was eight, I was the provider in our home. In order to survive, I became a skilled pickpocket. I was also a master at picking locks. My vocabulary reflected my life on the streets.
“We were eventually evicted from the rundown, rat infested building in Harlem where we lived. I was ten at the time. The only possessions I was allowed to keep were the things I could squeeze into my backpack.
“Some of Mom’s friends let us bunk with them for a few months and then we slept at the local shelter. There were some rough characters that I had run-ins with, so I chose street life in preference to a warm bed. Food was another matter. I stopped by the soup kitchen for a meal once or twice a week.
“For the next few years, I slept in buses, trains, cardboard boxes, doorways and condemned buildings. I quit school when my teachers began to ask questions about my home life. The local library and the museums became my classrooms. I liked books, and I wanted to learn.”
“Did you see your mom?”
“I gave her money, but she spent it on drugs instead of food and shelter. She was rarely sober. The winter I was fourteen, the manager at the shelter found her curled up in a cardboard box. As I recall, it was one of those frigid winter days when the temperature hovered in the low teens. She’d died from hypothermia. Even though her death wasn’t unexpected, I was devastated.”
Travis nodded. “Losing a family member is emotionally difficult, no matter what the circumstances are.”
“Without Mom, there was no reason to stay in New York. So, I dared to dream the impossible dream.
“Mom grew up in a middle-class family, but she cut ties with them when she became pregnant with me. Her great uncle, Silas Danielson, refused to give up on her. He sent a family newsletter every Christmas as long as we had a permanent address. She barely glanced at the letters before she threw them in the trash. I rescued them when she wasn’t looking. I even wrote to him a couple of times. Mom didn’t want her uncle to know anything about our messed-up life in New York.
“Those letters were my security blanket. When I was depressed, I read them. They were wonderful, newsy accounts of a life that was foreign to me, but a life I hungered for. The letters got me through some very dark days.”
Travis was deeply moved. “And you believed that if you found him that you could turn your life around.”
“I wasn’t sure that he would help me, but I knew that he was my last chance. I bought a bus ticket with money that I’d stashed away plus money that a pawn shop owner paid me for a stolen watch. I stole it from a drug dealer, so there wasn’t a lot of guilt involved with that theft.
“I had just enough money for a train ticket to Atlanta and food for the trip. From there, I hitchhiked to Mountain View, Uncle Silas’ hometown. I showed up at his front door with seventy-five cents in my pocket. He gave me a home and a job is his grocery store. My crude habits and slovenly appearance would have been a turn-off for most people, but Uncle Silas didn’t bat an eye.”
Travis asked, “When did you change your name?”
“Immediately after arriving in Mountain View. Uncle Silas thought it best, and I didn’t argue. Kitterman was my mom’s maiden name and I chose the name Clarke. Uncle Silas didn’t tell me who created my new identify, and I didn’t ask.
“In some ways, I was luckier than most street kids. It’s difficult to break bad, lifelong habits. And putting your life back on track without a mentor is even harder. Uncle Silas was that and more. Sadly, he died before I could prove that his efforts hadn’t been wasted. He suffered a fatal heart attack the day after I graduated from college.”
“How many years did you have with him?”
“Then he knew.”
Clarke’s experiences weren’t that different from several of the young teens that Travis had dealings with during his years as a police officer. When children lost their innocence early in life, they became damaged, rebellious teens.
Far too many ended up in detention centers. Hospital emergency rooms were seeing more and more drug overdoses and officers were dealing with more crime because of the availability of street drugs. Without outside help and a strong will Dennis Metcalf might have ended up another statistic. Others, less intelligent or less emotionally stable, didn’t make it.
Travis asked, “Tell me Clarke, how did a school dropout go on to become an educator?”
“Education was my escape. When I was a street kid, I began hanging out at libraries and museums because they were safe. Later when I lived with Uncle Silas, he encouraged me to study. He believed that education was the answer to the majority of the world’s ills. I wouldn’t go that far, but I do think that it’s a powerful tool.
“Uncle Silas’s favorite TV program was Quiz Bowl. I began watching it because I wanted to spend time with him. It made his day if he could come up with the correct answers before the contestants did. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge.”
“Your story gets more and more interesting. When your uncle died, what happened to his business?”
“His son, daughter and grandchildren inherited his business and his home, but he left me enough money to pay for graduate school. Obviously, he helped me financially, but his real gift was love. He loved me unconditionally.
“His family, not so much, but they did tolerate me. Without his guidance, I wouldn’t have learned what it meant to be a good citizen. I send up a prayer of thanks every day of my life because he was there for me.”
“Do your children know about your Uncle Silas?”
“They know that he was my hero. They also know that I was a street kid, but they don’t know the details.”
“Disadvantaged kids everywhere need to hear your story, Clarke. Hope is a powerful incentive.”
“That’s my primary reason for working with kids. Maddie believed that my story needed an audience. She asked for permission to include my story in a future book. I agreed, but with the stipulation that I could add or delete details.”
Travis frowned. “Unfortunately, there will be no more Maddie Sorenson novels.”
“The news releases have been evasive about Maddie’s condition. After two years without a book, I assumed there was some kind of permanent damage. How is she?”
“She suffers from migraines, but otherwise, she’s physically better than expected. She has problems with her short-term memory, and she hasn’t recovered emotionally.”
“And now she’s dealing with the disappearance of her nephew. What a blow. By the way, how is Lara?”
“Lara’s handling her dad’s disappearance like a trooper. The news media did a hatchet job on her dad’s reputation, so her mom decided that a change was called for. Lara is spending the summer in Lake Shafer with her grandparents.”
“She’s one of the school’s brightest stars. If there is anything that I can do for her, or Maddie, let me know.”
Travis said, “I’ll do that. Ironically, as much as we humans fear adversity, it’s the stumbling blocks and tragedies that build character. Who knows what kind of men we would have been if we’d had an easy life.”
“What’s your recipe for staying emotionally healthy, Travis?”
“Choose your friends with care. Officers hear and see too much of the uglier side of life. If my wife hadn’t been waiting for me at home, I’m not sure that I would survived emotionally intact.
“When she became ill, I retired. Supposedly, to be her caregiver. I did take care of her physically, but she took care of me emotionally. We joked, laughed, talked and prayed, and then we started the process all over again. It was during those few months with her that I learned what life was all about.”
“We learn as we go, Travis.”
Travis nodded. “I realize that now, but it’s hard to forgive yourself for past mistakes. As a young officer, I went by the book. The problem is that everything isn’t black or white. I did my job, but it took years for me to understand that I needed to be tolerant and compassionate.
“I handled two cases that totally changed the way I thought and the way I dealt with people. The first case involved a twelve-year-old girl named China Goldman. She died because I didn’t fight hard enough to get her into a safe house.
“I knew that her alcoholic dad was a violent drunk, but I couldn’t get China’s mom to press charges against her husband. One day— in mid-summer as I recall— a neighbor called 911. She heard screams coming from the Goldman home. It wasn’t the first time that the police had been called in. When my partner and I arrived, China’s mom was badly beaten and China was dead.
“The second case was a suicide. Danny Shultz was the hotshot son of a wealthy businessman. For years John Shultz, Danny’s dad, kept his gambling addiction secret. After John lost the bulk of his wealth, he abandoned his wife and children.
“The scandal blazed across the headlines, and the family went into hiding. Maryanne, Danny’s mom, began drinking, and Danny and his sister were left to their own defenses. Less than six months after their story became public, my partner and I received a public disturbance call from one of the Shultz’s neighbors. When we arrived on the scene, all hell broke loose. Maryanne was screaming, the daughter crying and Danny was threatening to shoot himself. Danny panicked and pulled the trigger when I attempted to calm him down. Was his death avoidable? That is a question that will continue to haunt me until the day I die.
“Pain, disillusionment and guilt are part of the human experience. The causes of the pain vary with the individual, but a person will either become a better person when adversity strikes, or he or she will end up letting their experiences destroy them.
“I finally talked and cried about those cases during my wife’s illness.”
Clarke closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “It took five years of visits to a therapist for me to forgive myself. No one gets a free ride. That’s what I try to teach my students and my children.”
“So, no more regrets?”
Clarke said, “Just one. I never thanked Officer Connors for giving me a second chance. He probably received a reprimand for turning his back on me.”
“Maybe he didn’t do it for you. Maybe he was careless.”
“Not Connors. He was a man with compassion. He knew that I was a whiz with locks. He left me in handcuffs when he went into a Seven Eleven to take a bathroom break. He knew that I wouldn’t be there when he returned to the car.”
“Is he still alive?”
“He is. He’s in a retirement home.”
“It’s never too late to say thank you.” Travis’ attention was drawn to his vibrating phone. “Sorry. I need to read this text.”
After scanning the text, Travis stood and extended his hand. “Duty calls. I’ve taken far too much of your time. Thank you for your co-operation and honesty. If your name surfaces, I’ll do what I can to steer the police’s attention in another direction.”
Clarke reached across the desk and shook Travis’ outstretched hand. “Call me. I’ve been thinking about putting together a counseling program for at risk kids. Let me know if you have an interest in being part of the program.”