December 15th, 2002

Don't Go There

 Don't Go There I

Ralph and I were born on exactly the same day—March 1, 1942. What are the odds? Couple years after his mother died, we officially became stepbrothers. His father Walter and my mother Betty decided to make it legal.

Before I left for the service I saw Ralph a few times. Once he told me all about his big brother, Wally Junior. Wally was a straight arrow and Ralph was exactly the opposite. Wally got good grades. Ralph got suspended, then expelled. Wally graduated high school and got a slot in the police academy, and they made him a uniformed patrolman. A fucking cop. Jesus. Unbelievable. Ralph’s father always told him, “Hey, moron! How come you can’t be more like Wally?”

One morning I take a look at the newspaper and there is Ralph’s picture on the front page. The headline says: “Boy Foils Robbery” The story is this: Ralph is downtown, walking along Federal Street, when he hears an alarm bell ringing. He turns, sees some guy running toward him, carrying a bag. A skinny, scared-looking little fuck, Ralph tells me later. Down the street people are yelling, “Stop that thief!”

So what the hell. Ralph tackles him. The guy goes down, hits his head hard on the pavement, and is knocked out cold. Half a minute later the cops catch up, slap on the cuffs, and dump the guy in the back seat of the cruiser. The bag was from McKelvey’s jewelry store. Something like $3,000 in cash plus a lot of gold rings and necklaces.

At a ceremony in City Hall, the Mayor himself gave Ralph a framed certificate for heroism, plus a $25 US savings bond. Ralph was interviewed by a bunch of reporters, and so he was on the radio and in the papers for a while. Couple weeks later the prosecuting attorney tells him he’s gotta testify at the trial. Ralph doesn’t want to. But the attorney says, “Hey, how would that look? Boy Hero suddenly gets cold feet.”

So Ralph testifies. They find the guy guilty of armed robbery, and give him the max. Something like 15 or 20 years in Ohio State. As they’re taking him away, he stares hard at Ralph. Ralph knows exactly what that look says. “I’ll get you someday, motherfucker,” the guy is telling him. “You can count on it.”

* * *

I joined the service two months after I graduated from high school. August 18, 1959. The biggest surprise of boot camp for me was all the bitching the guys in my outfit did every day. They hated the drill sergeants yelling at them. They hated the Texas climate—hot, dusty, lonely. They got homesick. They bawled when their girlfriends sent them Dear John letters. Me, I loved it. Clean clothes, plenty to eat, and you always knew exactly where you stood.

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