Norman Makes a Huge Impression
The school year didn’t start until after Labor Day, but it was difficult to enjoy the final few weeks of our summer vacation.
They always got underway in mid-August – those annoying back-to-school advertisements, rejoicing in our soon-to-be-lost freedom as they flogged pencils, exercise books, and glue. The ads were grim confirmation that our dreams of an endless summer would be dashed yet again.
If there was one consolation to the looming school year, it was that we would, once again, get to see Norman O’Shaughnessy. Norman was a tall, sturdy, good-looking boy with medium-length brown hair and a ready smile. An uncle of Norman’s had a cottage in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and he would invite his nephew for the entire summer.
Norman had transferred from St. Matthew’s to Green Vale School at the start of grade four. It wasn’t much of a move geographically – Green Vale was just down the street from St. Matthew’s. However, as Norman was a Catholic student now attending a Protestant School, his parents were assessed a monthly $25 fee. Green Vale was almost 80% Jewish, and we (Jewish students) didn’t pay any fees. We never could understand why Norman had to pay.
On his second day at Green Vale, Norman made a huge first impression. After school, we invited him to play baseball with us across the street in Madison Park.
When Issie Mishkin tried to leg out an infield hit, somebody yelled, “you’re out.” From my vantage point on the pitcher’s mound, it appeared to have been a dead heat at first base.
“Why am I out?” asked Issie.
“Because you’re ugly,” replied Mitch Prehogan, from his second base position.
Issie was cross-eyed and had a dopey look, which made him somewhat of a target.
“Stay on first base,” Norman called out to Issie from the right field.
Norman began to walk toward the infield, making a beeline for second base. He grabbed Mitch by the collar and brought him to first base. As he pointed to Issie, Norman addressed Mitch:
“Apologize to him.”
A frightened Mitch Prehogan did as he was told. Norman released Mitch and put an arm around Issie’s shoulder.
“That’s never gonna happen again,” Norman declared.
Issie was so overwhelmed that somebody had gone to bat for him in this way that he broke down and began to sob.
In addition to his intolerance of bullying and teasing, Norman proved to be a straight-A student, a tremendous athlete, and an even better guy. Whether it was the students, teachers, crossing guard, or Mr. Taylor (Green Vale’s live-in janitor), Norman was friendly and respectful to all. The great majority of students carefully selected their card recipients on Valentine’s Day, but everyone received a card from Norman.
During our baseball, ice hockey, and touch football games, Norman was a force. He was a natural left-hander but could throw and bat almost as well from the right side – and had the excellent speed to boot.
Although his academics were obviously strong, I always thought that Norman really distinguished himself outside the class. He had a general knowledge, wisdom, and level of maturity that the rest of us simply didn’t have.
While he spent quite a bit of time with us, Norman wasn’t a member of our group (his choice). Our gang, which we called The Faction, was a fairly diverse collection of seven boys. There were Larry Pecker and Mitch Prehogan who liked to talk – and Howie Bissell, who hardly spoke at all. Don Brenhouse was an outstanding student, while Elliot Pinkus struggled mightily with his grades. Steve Solomon, our secretary, was responsible for keeping records and resolving member disputes.
Although we always allowed other boys to hang out with us, Faction meetings were members-only affairs. These meetings were called for various noble reasons: we were going to feed the starving children in Basutoland, start a school newspaper, and clean up Madison Park.
Despite the lofty goals – or maybe because of them – a Faction meeting would typically degenerate into a series of wild behaviours that would leave the host’s home in an altogether sorry state. In order to spread around the misfortune, we attempted to vary the location of these events, but members with finished basements or absentee parents were always on our radar.
Don was the Faction member who was probably closest to Norman. Both he and Norman lived on Madison’s final block in a group of homes that resembled summer cottages. Sometimes Don would regale us with stories of fights in which Norman had been involved. He would always release information grudgingly, acting as if it was a big chore and making sure that we were clamoring for more before he divulged all the details.
There was the time that Norman came to the aid of a woman who was being aggressed over a parking spot, the time he defended a feminine boy who was being taunted with slurs such as “fairy” and “homo,” the time he stepped up for a boy who was being teased because he stuttered, etc.
Don’s alleged presence at such a significant number of Norman’s fights, prompted some of us to refer to him as Norman’s “manager.” It also prompted some of us to refer to Don as a “bullshitter.”
Whether they were fact or fiction, there was no denying that there was a common theme to these altercations. Norman was never defending himself against an insult or assault – he was always coming to the aid of someone else and, in at least one case, something else.
It happened on a fall afternoon, as Norman, Don, Howie, and I were tossing around a football in Madison Park. Suddenly, a rat ran past us.
Three boys, one armed with a baseball bat, were in hot pursuit. Norman ran after them, and we ran after Norman.
At the edge of the park, the rat took refuge under a parked car. A man who was throwing around a baseball said that it was his car and offered to move the vehicle.
“Either you’ll run over him, or we’ll get him,” said the boy with the bat.
As the man went to enter his vehicle, however, he found his path blocked by Norman.
“You’re not moving this car,” answered Norman.
The man was about 35 years of age, mustachioed, medium build, and six or seven inches taller than Norman.
“Get out of my way.”
Norman just shook his head.
“Okay,” said the man, dropping his baseball glove, “I’m through kidding around. If you don’t get out of my way —–”
The man didn’t get to finish his sentence. Norman slammed a lightning-fast left hand into his stomach, doubling him over. He then delivered a right to the man’s face, sending him tumbling into the grass.
Now, Norman took a couple of steps toward the boys who had been trying to kill the rat.
“I recommend that you leave here and that you don’t come back to the park until at least tomorrow.”
They all took Norman’s advice. The four of us then sat down on the small hill that led to the baseball diamond as we waited for the rat to make a safe getaway.
“No animal should have to die like that,” said Norman. “We always like to say that we are superior to animals, but self-praise is a very poor recommendation. In fact, animals can do a good many things that we cannot do. When they do these things, though, we diminish their achievements by attributing them to instinct.
“Animals don’t need our evaluation or seal of approval. They have independent value.”
Norman had followed the lead of his aunt and become a vegetarian.
“It takes some planning and preparation,” Norman admitted. “At first, my mother wasn’t too crazy about the extra work. Now she has no problem with it, and my father eats many of the dishes that she makes for me.”
Norman’s lunches included some very unusual-looking foods. Had anyone else brought these concoctions to the lunch hall, there’s no doubt that he or she would have been teased mercilessly. Since it was Norman, though, we assumed that there just might be something to this vegetarian business.
It took about 35 minutes for the rat to decide that it was safe enough to emerge from his shelter. He crossed Madison, scurried along the side of Green Vale, and disappeared from view. And with that, we all parted company.
Norman lived almost four long blocks from Green Vale. As he walked to school each day, a frightened boy might say that someone was going to hit him.
“Come over here near me,” Norman would say. “Nobody is going to hit you.”
Sometimes, Norman would catch a bully in the act.
“Hey, leave him alone,” Norman would call out.
A warning from Norman was usually sufficient.
By the time he arrived at Green Vale, Norman was always flanked by anywhere from about ten to eighteen students, mostly boys, although the percentage of girls in his entourage seemed to increase over time. Some people merely wanted to be in Norman’s company, while many were being protected by him. Several students would continue to St. Matthews, but the majority would pull into Green Vale with Norman.
While most students played basketball, hopscotch, or champ, Norman would “work” the schoolyard. He would spend time with Issie Mishkin, then move on to Yeta Rosenhek. Yeta had a big hooked nose, always wore the same dirty white socks, and seemed to be wrapped up in her own dream world.
Norman would also drop in on Gary Sanderson. Poor Gary was so skinny that he didn’t have the strength to propel the champ ball into another square. Instead, when the ball was delivered to him, Gary would position his arms so that the ball would roll up his arms, off his face, and (hopefully) into an opposing square.
Gary, Yeta, and Issie didn’t have any friends, so Norman was their friend, visiting with them and taking an interest in their day-to-day lives. His mere presence must have been reassuring to students who had been teased or ostracized in the past.
Like a lot of great people, Norman had his detractors – or at least one. Jack Goldberg was about the same height as Norman. He was more wiry than Norman but was obviously tough and fearless. Jack was also an excellent student, a promising athlete, and a pretty good guy in his own right, except where matters relating to Norman were concerned.
Be it academically or athletically; Jack conducted himself as if he was engaged in some sort of holy competition with Norman. He was forever trying to outdo Norman… and almost always coming up short. If that wasn’t bad enough, Jack would never give Norman his due, frequently alleging that there had been some sort of extenuating circumstance which had enabled his rival to prevail. And regarding Norman’s alleged toughness, Jack would only say ominously, “that remains to be seen.”
Body-checking was not allowed during our ice hockey games, but Jack would sometimes bump or jostle Norman. Instead of merely tagging Norman when we played touch football, Jack would often “slap” his tags on him. Jack’s actions were consistent with someone who was trying to provoke a fight. Norman never took the bait – at least not as far as we knew – but it was an uneasy co-existence.
In fact, the situation had become so uneasy that a meeting of The Faction was called. We descended on Howie Bissell’s house.
There was general agreement that Jack was the cause of the problems. Everyone acknowledged that Jack’s unending competition with Norman was childish and immature. Mitch then made the point that the rivalry had driven Norman to new heights.
“Norman knows that Jack is gunning for him,” said Mitch, “and he doesn’t want to be outdone by someone like Jack. So he is pushing himself to get ahead and stay ahead of Jack. The competition has made Norman an even better athlete and student.”
“I noticed that also,” said Elliot Pinkus.
The conversation then swung over to Jack’s attempts to provoke a fight with Norman. Don said that Norman had shown considerable restraint in not engaging Jack, but Larry wasn’t sure.
“Is it restraint, or is it fear? Norman may be afraid of Jack.”
I thought that Larry’s comment was reasonable. After all, even Superman had his kryptonite. Apparently, though, the suggestion that our Norman might actually be afraid of someone amounted to high treason and warranted serious punishment. Faction members grabbed the small pillows from Howie’s sofa and began beating Larry about the head and back. Then several wrestling matches got underway, increasing in vigor as they progressed.
Before order was restored, we had knocked over a lamp, broken a vase, and distributed pillow feathers all over the sofa and carpet. Mitch Prehogan surveyed the scene.
“Your mother gets a maid in, doesn’t she, Howie?”
Eventually, the Jack-Norman situation partially resolved itself. Norman’s return from Old Orchard signaled the end of summer and the arrival of the 1965-66 school year. It was grade seven – our final tour of duty at Green Vale. Jack and two Faction members (Don and Howie) wound up in Miss Worthington’s class, while Norman and the remaining Faction members were tabbed for Mr. Doherty’s class.
The consensus was that Norman (and the five of us) had drawn the short straw. Miss Worthington was an aging, pleasant woman, while Mr. Doherty was rumored to have been a general in the Army during the Second War. Of course, the War had been over for quite some time, but this news had evidently not yet filtered down to Doherty.
He was forever telling students to stand at attention or at ease or to perform other military exercises. These commands were issued almost exclusively to male students. Not surprisingly, once this trend became apparent, some of the girls had considerable fun with the situation.
At lunch, I saw Susan Hoekstra and Marcie Cohen conferring with one another before they came over to me. Marcie fired the first salvo:
“Private Lippman, your hair is too long, your pants are too short, and your posture is a complete disgrace.”
“And yesterday,” interjected Susan, “while we were inspecting the troops, you didn’t salute us properly, and your belt buckle hadn’t been polished. So shape up or ship out!”
The girls then walked off, giggling.
At recess the following day, we were all standing around when Mitch arrived on the scene.
“Does anyone have a compass?”
“What do you want with a compass?”
“Well,” Mitch replied, “I’m going really good with the attentions and at eases. In fact, I may be West Point material. But I’m struggling with the third A – the about-face. Maybe if I knew which way was north and which way was south, I’d master the about-face, and then I’d really be clicking—”
“Knock it off, Mitch,” Larry cut in. “Does everything have to be a joke with you? This is serious business. Doherty is nuts, and everyone is on edge because of him.”
“Yeah, he’s right out of the Twilight Zone,” added Elliot.
Norman spoke next: “Guys, I know that Mr. Doherty is eccentric, but remember when Hymie missed almost three weeks at the beginning of the year? When he returned, Hymie stayed after school every day, and Mr. Doherty caught him up.
“Imagine if Hymie’s parents had to pay for a private tutor in every subject. They couldn’t have afforded it, and neither could most of our parents.
“Mr. Doherty stays at school every day until 4:30 or 4:45. When he quits, Mr. Taylor is the only person left in the building. Mr. Doherty isn’t paid for this extra time, so this is a teacher who is dedicated to his profession and dedicated to our success.”
There was stunned silence, then Steve Solomon spoke.
After Norman set the record straight, there was a lot less grumbling about Doherty’s idiosyncrasies.
In February, we received a visit from Mr. Spencer, the guidance counselor. Spencer noted that we would be going from the kings of grade school this year to high school babies next year. It was going to be a challenging transition, he suggested.
As it turned out, I wouldn’t have to wait until high school to have problems. While walking home later that day, a boy with an odd-shaped head emerged from St. Matthew’s schoolyard, cut across the sidewalk in front of me, and took a position against a parked car. He was followed by a gang of boys who blocked my path. They proceeded to beat me up.
I turned in a lamentable performance, doing little more than ducking down and covering up as best I could. I came away with a blackened right eye, a cut over my left eye, and a fat lip. The cut wouldn’t stop bleeding, so my mother took me to the hospital, and I received four stitches.
Now, my big concern was the following day at school. My injuries couldn’t be hidden, so I was going to have to answer a lot of unwelcome questions as to what had happened.
I worked out a plan whereby I would hang out near the baseball diamond in Madison Park until I heard the 9:00 A.M. bell, then I would cross the street at a moderate pace and slip into line at the last possible moment. There was a strictly enforced, no-talking-in-line rule, so nobody would be able to question me. Of course, there was going to be a recess, and there was going to be lunch. I hadn’t yet figured out how I was going to deal with those interludes.
I executed the immediate plan very well, taking a position at the back of the line just as we were preparing to enter the school. For some reason, though, Norman – who was two students in front of me – turned around and looked right at me.
“What happened?” he whispered. He then mouthed the word “recess.”
Other students checked me out in class. Mr. Doherty was among the curious.
“Mr. Lippman, would you approach my desk, please?”
“What happened?” he whispered.
I whispered the story briefly, then took my seat. At recess, I had to relate the story once again, this time to Norman and a crush of other students. A little later, when Norman was sure that there was nobody around, he sought me out.
“Did you hear any names of the boys in the gang?”
“I heard someone refer to the leader as McManus.”
“I know him,” said Norman. “He’s bad news. Any other names?”
“I think that there was a Gino or a Dino.”
“I know a Gino. How many boys were there in all?”
“Six, I think, not counting McManus,” I answered. “There could have been five.”
“Before they attacked you, did they say anything?”
“What kind of insults?” Norman wanted to know.
Norman thrust his chin forward indignantly, the way he always did when he was upset about something. Then he quickly composed himself.
“How are you getting home today?”
“I’m going to take Oxford Avenue for one block,” I replied, “Then I’ll cut back to Madison after I’ve cleared St Matthew’s.”
“Oh no, you’re not,” said Norman. “You’re not going one step out of your way. I’ll see you after school.”
Norman always ate at school, but there was no sign of him in the lunch hall on this day. He was also not present when the afternoon roll call was taken just after 1:00 P.M. Finally, at almost 1:45, Norman emerged from the cloakroom at the back of the class. His hands had been taped, and he was sporting a pair of pointed shoes that I had never seen before.
“At attention, Mr. O’Shaughnessy,” said Mr. Doherty. “Is there a reason why you are so late?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I had to attend to a couple of things.”
“What kind of things?”
“I can’t say, sir,” answered Norman.
Mr. Doherty looked over at me, then back to Norman.
“Be safe, Mr. O’Shaughnessy. At ease. Take your seat.”
Norman sat in the middle of the class, as he always did – a big strapping lad, with his hands taped and his jaw set. I could see other students sneaking glances at him, but nobody said anything.
At 3:15, Norman and I met up. The temperature was probably around the freezing mark, but Norman was only wearing a windbreaker.
“Aren’t you cold like that?” I asked.
“I am, but I don’t want anything heavy or cumbersome on me.”
We crossed over into the park so that we could have some privacy. Norman had a large ring on each ring finger. White, adhesive tape had been meticulously wound around each of his other fingers, mid-way between the knuckle and mid-finger. Tape had also been drawn between each thumb and index finger, then spatted around Norman’s hands.
“I wanted to go over a couple of things with you,” said Norman. “Just to be sure, is it correct that, when they confronted you, they were facing Green Vale, and you had your back to Green Vale?
“And when they blocked your path, were they standing one beside the other? Or were they in rows, with one behind the other?”
“They were standing beside each other.”
“Yeah, I went up to St. Matthew’s at about 1:20 today,” said Norman, “and I noticed that the sidewalk is very wide at that point.”
“Do you think they’ll be there today?” I asked.
“Oh, they’ll be there. It’s just a question of whether they confront you or I confront them. Remember, though, stitches need about ten days to take. The smallest thing could re-open your cut. You have to avoid all contact with them. Run if you have to.”
Norman knew that he would be walking into a badly outnumbered situation, so he mapped out a plan that called for the element of surprise. St. Matthew’s first gate, the boys’ gate, was about 150 yards from Green Vale. After roughly 40 yards, Norman and I separated; I continued alone toward the St. Matthew’s gate.
As I drew closer, I could see several schoolbags lined up along the schoolyard fence. Then, McManus appeared and cut across the sidewalk about 25 feet in front of me.
“Didn’t you get the message yesterday?” he called over to me. “We don’t want your kind around here.”
McManus leaned up against a parked car and lit a cigarette as his gang blocked my path. I don’t know why, but I counted them. There were five.
Meanwhile, as per the plan, Norman had gone fairly deep into Madison Park, bypassed the boys’ gate, and doubled back to a position behind a large tree near the park’s edge. This tree was across the street and just a little beyond the car on which McManus was leaning.
As the gang moved to block my path, Norman stole across the street and veered toward the backs of the unsuspecting boys. I backed up to buy Norman a little more time. Somebody, presumably McManus, yelled, “look out,” but it was too late. Norman sailed into the mass of humanity – he dove high, driving two boys down to the pavement, almost at my feet.
One boy hit face-first and stayed down. The other boy started to get up, but Norman was already up and kicked him in the face. Two gang members left the scene quickly and headed up toward the girls’ gate of St. Matthew’s.
The fifth and final boy blind-sided Norman with two punches. Norman retreated to the curb, shook his head a couple of times, and re-engaged his opponent. Initially, the exchange appeared to be even, but Norman’s hand speed and power soon took over. He drove the boy back up against the schoolyard fence and measured him with one final blow. The boy sagged down against the fence, taking a seat on the pavement, as a tooth slipped between his bloodied lips.
McManus was still at his post, and the two boys who had escaped were watching from about 30 yards away. One boy – the boy that Norman had kicked – picked up his schoolbag and trudged off into the park.
On his knees, cupping his bloodied and apparently broken nose, was the boy who had absorbed the brunt of Norman’s original attack.
“Gino, you can take your schoolbag and leave,” said Norman.
The boy who had lost a tooth was stirring.
“You too,” said Norman. “You can take your schoolbag.”
Norman’s cheek was bruised, but he appeared otherwise unscathed. Very soon, it would be just he and McManus. I wondered what McManus would do. The prospect of taking on Norman couldn’t have been tempting, but with two of his followers looking on, flight probably wasn’t an option.
As the last boy left, Norman closed in on McManus.
“Why are you defending him, Norman? You and I, we should be on the same side.”
“You don’t have a side,” Norman replied.
And now, the fight got underway, with Norman unleashing a furious barrage of punches at his opponent. McManus offered little resistance as he was knocked up and onto the hood of the vehicle.
When Norman pulled McManus back down, the gang leader was dazed and appeared to be cut in at least one, possibly two places. As he held McManus in place with his right hand, Norman cocked his left hand as if to deliver another blow, but seeing that his opponent had nothing left, settled instead for sitting him down against the vehicle’s front right tire.
Norman now turned his attention to the two boys who had initially fled the scene and had been watching from a safe distance.
“Is that you, Kaminski?” he yelled.
“You and your friend need to come over here and go inside the school to call for help. I think that McManus is going to need stitches.”
There was no answer. Norman turned to me.
“I think you can head for home, Dave. This could take a while.”
“Thanks for everything, Norman.”
“Don’t mention it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Once again, Norman called out to the two boys:
“Come on and look after McManus.”
“As long as you’re there,” replied Kaminski, “we’re not coming.”
“I’ll go across the street,” Norman offered.
“No, you have to leave completely.”
I passed by Kaminski and the other boy while the negotiations continued, then turned around to see what was happening.
“Okay, I’ll leave, but I’ll leave you with a warning,” yelled Norman as he pointed at the boys and took two steps toward them. “The bell rings at 3:15 and, when it does, you’re to clear out. If I hear that you’re hanging around after school, your number will be up.”
With that, Norman began to backpedal, still looking in the direction of the two boys. Finally, in the distance, it appeared that he had turned around and was walking toward Green Vale.
Norman and I didn’t discuss the incident the following day. After school, however, Howie Bissell trailed me as I started for home.
“So Norman took care of those guys who ganged up on you.”
“Yeah, did he tell you?”
“No, he wouldn’t say anything,” replied Howie. “He didn’t have to. They cut you and sent you to the hospital for no reason. It was obvious that Norman wasn’t going to let something like that slide. Plus, I saw the rings and tape on his hands after school.
“Norman is the defender of all creatures. From the time he leaves his house to the time he returns, he has to be ready. He never knows what day he will have to intervene or what the circumstances will be, but he knows that, at some point, he will have to put himself on the line.”
Perhaps because Howie rarely spoke, his words took on greater significance for me. If he was speaking now, I reasoned, it must be because he has thought things through very carefully.
“It could be a woman being raped or beaten,” Howie continued. “Or it could be a child being abused or someone repeatedly yanking on his dog’s neck with the leash or a student being harassed. Whatever it may be, Norman will step in.
“Norman doesn’t like what he does, and he doesn’t hate what he does. He does it because, if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to look at himself in the mirror. He does it because, if he didn’t, there is nobody else around who is willing and able to do it.
“Have you noticed that Norman has never expressed an interest in any of the girls? He doesn’t want anyone or anything distracting him from what he has to do.
“There are no vacations for Norman. There isn’t even a day off. The shift never changes. He’s always on call.
“He doesn’t get to choose his battles, either. It wouldn’t be fair if Norman saved one person, then turned his back on another. And Norman, above all, is concerned with fairness. So he has to accept each battle as it presents itself. Otherwise, the whole system falls apart.
“In the best-case scenario, Norman wins the battle, but what happens next? Most people don’t like to be beaten. Some might seek revenge. Or an angry family member might go after Norman with a knife or a gun. These things have to be on Norman’s mind.
“I’m sure that every guy would like to be like Norman, but being Norman isn’t easy. He’s 13 years old and has taken on vast responsibilities and dangers.”
I had always appreciated what Norman did for everyone. Still, Howie’s words had shined a light on the enormity of the commitment that Norman had made (knowingly or unknowingly) somewhere along the line.
As the school year advanced, Mr. Doherty’s military commands became less frequent and eventually slowed to a trickle. Perhaps Mr. Doherty was concerned about how we were going to remember him. He needn’t have worried – we had already come to respect him.
May first was moving day. Every year, new students would arrive in the district and transfer to Green Vale. Monday, May 2nd brought us two new pupils – one girl and one boy. Mr. Doherty called them to the front of the room; they stood there sheepishly as he introduced them to their new classmates.
Of course, at recess, Norman spent time with each of the new arrivals, doing his best to make them feel welcome. He still managed, however, to get around to Gary, Yeta, and Issie.
One week into June, guidance counselor Spencer dropped by for a final visit. We heard more about the types of abuse that we might encounter from the older high schoolers, but the class was ready.
Mitch Prehogan put up his hand.
“At this time, sir, I’d like to register for the homeschooling program.”
There was considerable laughter, but Mr. Spencer seemed to take the request seriously. I think he was about to explain to Mitch that there was no such option when Marcie Cohen raised her hand.
“Sir, wouldn’t Mitch’s mother have to agree to have him around the house?”
Susan Hoekstra’s hand was already up: “And sir, don’t you think it’s doubtful that Mitch’s mother would want to have someone like Mitch around 24/7?”
“Mitch, you have to admit that she has you there,” Larry Pecker called out from the other side of the class.
“Yes, but look at it this way, Larry. While my father is homeschooling me, the grade elevens are going to tie a steak to your face and drag you through a hungry town.”
Without much conviction, Mr. Spencer tried to resume his doom and gloom lecture, but he had lost control of the class. Anyway, Norman will take care of those guys, I thought.
In recent days, however, Norman seemed to be off his game. He was no longer working the schoolyard, and his trademark sunny appearance had given way to a somewhat dour look. When Faction members would invite Norman to play baseball, he would decline. On one occasion, he was even abrupt with us.
An emergency Faction meeting was called for the following day. Don felt that it was Mitch’s turn to host, but Mitch claimed that this couldn’t be so. We looked to Secretary Solomon, who, after consulting his records, confirmed that Mitch was our man.
“So we’re coming to your house, Mitch,” said Larry. “Let’s see if you can make a joke out of that.”
The meeting had a difficult time gaining any traction. Nobody was able to offer up an explanation for Norman’s recent behaviour. There was a lot of head-shaking and shoulder-shrugging.
“Did anyone insult Norman or pull something on him?” asked Larry.
“I doubt it,” said Don.”
Now I cut in: “Norman hasn’t been visiting with Yeta, Gary, or Issie lately. I’m sure that they didn’t insult him.”
My point seemed to be well-taken. This triggered another round of head-shaking and shoulder-shrugging.
Elliot Pinkus offered a theory: “Maybe Norman has found new friends outside Green Vale.”
This didn’t seem very likely. In fact, it didn’t even seem like a remote possibility. Furthermore, we were not prepared to consider it. Out came the pillows.
Elliot seemed resigned to his impending thrashing. Soon, though, attention veered away from Elliot, and the requisite wrestling matches got underway. An embattled Steve Solomon managed to extricate himself from the donnybrook and make a brief entry in his ledger – “major brawl at 3:52 P.M.” – then re-entered the fray.
During the melee, we may have set a new standard for unruliness, as we knocked over a large bookcase containing (among other things) a set of World Book Encyclopedia.
“You know,” said Mitch, “in case any of you haven’t reached your quota yet, we do have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica in the den.”
Of course, the meeting didn’t resolve anything, and the downward trend continued. On June 17, the final Friday of the school year, Mr. Doherty was in the middle of a history lecture when he stopped up at Norman’s desk. Norman had his head in his hands.
“What’s wrong, Norman?” he asked.
“I have a headache.”
“I’d like you to see the nurse. Hymie, would you take Norman downstairs, please.”
Norman’s school day was over. We heard that his mother had come to pick him up.
June 23rd was the last day of school. It was a Thursday. A short day. We were just coming in to pick up our report cards and wish everyone a good summer.
As we waited for the 9:00 bell, I saw Norman holding on to the schoolyard fence. Old foe Jack Goldberg had a hold of him. It looked bizarre, but as I changed my angle, I could see that Norman was vomiting. I hurried over.
“Do you know if the nurse is here today? Jack asked me.
“I’m not sure.”
Other students and the two teachers on duty – Mrs. Ohayon and Miss Worthington – began to arrive on the scene.
“Norman, do you feel like you have to go some more?” asked Jack.
“I don’t know.”
“Okay, so let’s wait here,” said Jack.
We waited for several minutes then, when the bell rang, Jack and I took Norman straight inside to the office and sat down on either side of him. The nurse wasn’t there so Miss Jenner, the secretary, phoned Norman’s mother.
“Do you feel like some water, Norman?” I asked.
“Water is no good,” said Jack. “I have some root beer in my cubicle. I’ll be right back.”
Norman and I sat silently. I never thought that I would feel pity for Norman. Now, here he was, head bowed, defeated by illness for the second time in less than a week.
Jack returned with a ten-ounce bottle of root beer, a paper cup, and a can opener. Norman drank most of the root beer.
Mrs. O’Shaughnessy arrived and looked at Norman with obvious concern.
“We’re going straight to the clinic,” she announced.
Larry brought Norman’s report card to Mrs. O’Shaughnessy. In turn, she told Jack and me that Don was under the weather today and that Norman was supposed to bring Don his report card. Jack and I assured her that we would look after that.
I phoned Norman in the early evening, but there was no answer. Then I phoned Don to see how he was doing:
“I sprained my ankle,” said Don.
“Did Elliot bring you your report card?”
Don indicated that he hadn’t been able to reach Norman, either. On Friday, I tried Norman’s line three times. When I didn’t have any luck by Friday evening, I phoned Don.
“Everything is okay,” Don assured me. “It looks like it was something that Norman ate. He’ll be heading to Maine tomorrow.”
As usual, none of us saw Norman during the summer. When high school began on September the 6th, it was tough to get a handle on things. There were about 1,800 students at Weston High, the hallways and cafeteria were jammed, and the building had three different entrances/exits.
Yeta, Susan, and I were in the same homeroom (geography) class; Larry and I were in the same English literature class, and I was in the same math class as Howie and Elliot. None of us had seen Norman yet; Susan was adamant that he wasn’t at Weston High.
“How can you be so sure?” I asked.
“Well, a good-looking guy, with a great tan and sun-bleached blond hair …. I’d notice him if he were here.”
Larry, Elliot, and Howie had classes in common with the other Faction members, so we were able to organize a meeting for Monday, September 12th. We met at the cafeteria entrance at lunch, proceeded inside, and immediately looked to Don for some news.
Don said that he also hadn’t seen or been in touch with Norman. Some of us weren’t prepared to let him off the hook.
“So Don,” said Larry, “you live four doors from Norman, but you haven’t seen or spoken to him, you haven’t seen or spoken to his parents, and you haven’t seen or heard anything.”
“You got to admit, Don, that is a little hard to believe,” said Elliot.
“Let’s calm down and take a step back, guys,” Steve Solomon suggested. “We really don’t know much, other than it appears that Norman isn’t at Weston High.”
“Did you try phoning him, Don?” asked Mitch.
“Of course. I couldn’t get the line.”
At 3:30, all Faction members (minus Don) crowded into and around a public phone booth. Mitch made the call.
“The number is not in service,” he said.
“Dave, how about if you phone,” said Steve, “just on the off-chance that Mitch dialed the wrong number.”
I rummaged around and found two nickels.
“Now dial slowly and carefully, Dave,” insisted Larry. “Make sure you get every number right.”
I did … and got the same result as Mitch.
“I’ll go to his house this evening,” said Elliot, who lived about a block-and-a-half from Norman and Don.
In math class the following day, Elliott shook his head at Howie and me as he arrived: “There’s no answer at Norman’s house, and the house is pitch dark.”
“Were there newspapers or mail piled up?” asked Howie.
The six of us met up at recess.
“Does anybody have any other ideas?” asked Steve.
We were tapped out.
The following Tuesday, I saw Don on the number 19 bus after school.
“How’s school going for you?” he asked.
“It’s tough, but I’m managing.”
“I feel the same way.”
“Any news about Norman?” I asked.
We got off the 19 on the far side of Madison Park and cut through the park toward Green Vale. As we neared the curb, preparing to go our separate ways, I turned to Don:
“Do you remember when Norman defended the rat right here?” I asked.
I was about to step into the street but noticed that Don had stopped. He was also shaking. Initially, I thought that Don was laughing, but he was crying.
“It’s Norman,” answered Don, as he broke down completely.
I waited for Don to compose himself somewhat.
“What about Norman?”
“He never made it to Old Orchard,” said Don. “His parents took him to a special retreat so that he can be more comfortable.”
“Why does he have to be more comfortable?”
“Don’t you understand, Dave? Norman is dying!”