What then, is the substance of summer, but the
experiences and memories that bend our characters and shape our souls? For me, summers meant weeks at Lake Erie, not the Italian Riviera to be sure, but also not without a charm of its own. There was fishing with Grandpa, always productive, but just as much filled with fear, as the mighty lake occasionally threatened to pull us under, tiny John boat and all. There were days on the beach, a treasure in its own rite, when you are twelve years old and spending every day with beloved cousins seen all too rarely.
But trips to the lake were really all about outings to Cedar Point, many years before it was the roller coaster capital of the world. Then, there was only the Blue Streak, an old wooden wonder whose cars rattled at every turn, and bounced down the steep inclines, with the rear cars seeming to float in defiance of gravity itself.
Put-In-Bay was the crowning moment, especially since my entire family had been memorialized on a post card that could be found in every gift shop on the island, then, anyway, and we considered ourselves to be, one and all, island royalty. But as I look at that old post card today, it appears nothing short of an antique, the members of my family barely recognizable against the weathering of age that has consumed us all.
Coming home was a letdown. There were lawns to cut and daily chores, but mostly, it was the sudden realization that life was not an endless stream of pinball machines and candied apples that was the greatest source of my melancholy.
Home... There is, perhaps, no word with greater implications in my entire vocabulary. Just as it was for many youngsters of twelve years old, home was for me a place of safety and security. It was the place where I had some sense of growing into the self that I was supposed to be, all the while not being tremendously at risk doing so. Home was good for that.
My life was, in large part, orchestrated by my parents. I did much of what it is that I wished to do, but gaining permission to live my every dream always had a much better chance if it didn’t cost any money, did not require transforming my mother into a taxi service, and had a relatively low risk of causing my premature demise. My parents were good like that and I always knew that they cared about me because of it.
You have probably never even heard of it, but the Scioto River Valley was for me The Great Frontier. My buddy, Pete, and I were Lewis and Clark on many days. On others, we were Sitting Bull and George Custer. On the basketball court we were Lou Alcindor, pronounced – AL-SIN –DOR, or Earl the Pearl, which was spoken lowly, as the incredibly technical dribbling that preceded the shot, took much too much concentration for us to play the role of Earl the Pearl and the announcer. We were superstars but even the incredibly talented have limitations.
In the fall, football ruled in Central Ohio. Rex Kearns was everyone’s hero quarterback long before Archie Griffin won two Heisman trophies. Woody Hayes came to our school once when we were in seventh grade, and he brought Jim Stillwagon with him. Stillwagon was the All-American center who was from the same home town as my mother, and you could bet that every kid in my elementary school knew all about that little tid-bit of information.
The Scioto River Valley was Indian country. We knew this because we had boxes full of arrowheads and tomahawk heads, as well as all sorts of other artifacts that we knew were used for something, although we could never be quite sure what it was they were used for. We would sit at the fire on those special nights, when we were allowed to pitch our tents and camp, and hold long debates about what life as an Indian, right there where we were ourselves camping, surely must have been like. Of course we were experts in every field of understanding, so we were obviously able to solve every issue, as we created fables of our own, and passed them along to our classmates and neighbors who were, for some reason unknown to us, not quite as enlightened as we were.
The tomb of Leatherlips, a great Indian chief, was just across the river from our private domain. We were certain that we were the only living humans who knew where it was, as it was overgrown with brush and brambles, and required hard work with a machete to even cut our way in. Today, the tomb of Leatherlips is buffed and shined, has a nice little lawn dressed with shrubs and flowers, and is confined within a neat little white picket fence. The Memorial Tournament in Dublin, our home town, was deluged in monsoon rains for the first fifteen years of its existence until somebody realized that the course had been partially built upon Indian burial grounds, and that the cold, wind, and rain was undoubtedly the curse of Leatherlips, and until somebody did something to appease the restless spirit of the great chief, the rains would continue.
We had long known that Leatherlips still roamed the banks of the Scioto. We had never really seen him, probably we hadn’t, or maybe we had not seen him, but we had always known that he was there. When the wind was just right, you could hear him speak on the night; mysterious when all was well, menacing when he wanted to be, and capable of causing us to make a desperate and hurried retreats in the dead of night, sleeping bags thrown over our shoulders, and lanterns held high to guide us. On those nights, sleep came after setting up camp in one or the other of our basements, where we would quickly recount the wisdom of our withdrawal, for what good, after all, were our mortal skills when faced with the prowess of the spiritual incarnation of a powerful Indian chief?
Yes, adolescence on the banks of the Scioto was just about perfect. Today our lands have been stolen by developers. They have built homes that few can afford, and the manicured lawns boast of hired landscapers and too much money, but to this day, I can stand and remember what it was like to be a kid in those woods.
We trapped raccoons and fox, but often we captured opossum and muskrats. We tanned the hides and made our Indian costumes of fur and leather. Let that old bastard terrorize us again, but when he did, he would recognize us as the great and brave warriors of our own time. The pelts that we did not keep were sold to buy the articles of our childhood; a canoe, more trapping equipment, rifles, pellet guns, spears for capturing frogs and spawning fish; quite honestly, the list was endless.
We had homing pigeons to transport our top secret messages to the front lines, sleds to carry our gear into the wilderness when the snows came. We had Labradors to retrieve the ducks, geese, and pheasants that we took during hunting season. There were bicycles; early incarnations of what would later become the mountain bike, so we could patrol the trails along the river. Many replacement parts from the bicycles came from a dump at a nearby quarry, well within our tribal lands, and very near to the banks of the river. This dump, as it turned out, was one of our favorite places. We had forts all along the banks of the Scioto, and each was similar to an outdoor living room, furnished with discarded couches and chairs, three legged tables propped up with concrete blocks or large rocks, and dilapidated roofs of warn plywood, often suspended overhead with ropes or cables. We had blessed our forts during Indian ceremonies of our own design, and we were certain, as certain as we could be, that Leatherlips or his braves could never get us as long as we remained within the confines of one or another of our forts.
Often, a sound in the night, one surely representing an impending threat, caused us to run at top capacity, simply trying to make it to the safety of the fort before we were captured and boiled in oil. Over the years, we used the limestone shale abundant in the area, to build walls that at least partially enclosed our sanctum sanctorum along the banks of the Scioto. Life as a reincarnated Indian brave, albeit one with tremendous boxing, basketball, and football prowess, had been a splendid way to live out one’s childhood.
Pete and I occasionally allowed others to join us. There was always the problem of chores, and the inexcusable blunder on the part of our parents to fail to synchronize that time when our services were required, and of course, there was the inhumane phenomenon of grounding, a cruel and unusual practice conceived and perfected during my childhood, and one that kept Pete and I apart on occasion. Of course, grounding spawned jealousy, and while we both knew it to be a necessary evil of childhood, no good adventure could be enjoyed without a trusted companion, so we were forced to allow in the occasional ringer.
Of course, these occasional inductees required appropriate indoctrination. Blackberries were crushed and mashed to create a base liquid that turned their lily-white skins the deep purple shade of an Indian Brave. They were forced to camp along the river, alone and without fire, to insure that they were in possession of a suitably noble and valorous spirit, and most of all, they needed to accept that their role was subordinate, lest it be temporary. Indeed, we were a bit full of ourselves.
The years meandered and friends came and went, but through it all, Pete and I were the closest of friends. We were, of course, blood brothers, having sealed that bond with ritualistic fervor early in life. Those allowed to join in this much-coveted association were rare indeed.
We were, however, fortunate to be surrounded with the best of friends. They were, for the most part, good kids from good families, and when we were left to ourselves, we engaged only in the best and most wholesome of activities. We were not vandals. We did not act disrespectfully toward any of the adults in the neighborhood, despite the idiosyncrasies of many, that gave us fruit for our many fireside discussions in that glorious decade of the Nineteen Sixties. Always, we aimed to be kids that our parents could be proud of, even though on rare occasion, we may have missed the mark by just a bit.
Werner Klammer, pronounced Verner Claaaamerrr, by his very German, very scary father, for some unexplainable reason, arrived during our thirteenth year. We had come to associate the number thirteen with bad luck, and had we considered it then, we would have associated Werner, pronounced, Verner, Klammer with bad luck too, especially considering the fact that he had shown up during the thirteenth year of our lives. But Davey Arcane, one of our trusted tribe members, had dragged Werner along with him one day, and explained that he had only recently moved in with his father, a German scientist who was never home, and his blonde German mother who could have passed for one of the many centerfold models from the pages of the Playboy magazines that were kept hidden at each of our forts along the river.
The fact that Werner was recently arrived was known to us all. We had, in fact, watched the entire process of their disembarkation from the train of life, and into our neighborhood, through binoculars from the vantage point of one of our nearby forts. We had noticed Werner, in some small degree, that day, but mostly we were transfixed on his mother who was, in no small measure, a goddess.
Werner, on the other hand, was easily forgettable. Most striking to the casual observer, was his apparent and overwhelming sadness. We were unable to understand why he was so sad, especially since he resided in the shadow of an Aryan goddess, but we simply concluded that the kid must have his reasons. Poor Werner was nearly a dwarf. This would hamper him in the neighborhood basketball games. And his black-rimmed glasses housed the thickest lenses that I had ever seen. This would obviously present a cross-categorical impediment of historical proportions, but it was his complexion that proved to be the most remarkable feature on his unremarkable frame. Poor Werner had the absolutely worst case of acne that any of us had ever seen.
Having all battled adolescent acne to some degree, we were not without a modicum of empathy for the poor soul with the beautiful mother. He had lesions on his face and neck that appeared to be multi-generational. There were old and crusted red-purple sores, situated on scarred flesh from previous outbreaks. There were also budding lesions, not yet cured, but red and inflamed, and appearing to be quite painful. We all knew that Werner had most certainly been abused by other children secondary to the horrid condition of his skin, and perhaps this had led to our perception of his overwhelming sadness. We all felt quite sorry for Werner, but it was also unlikely that any of us would befriend him. The cost to our reputations would simply be too high.
But here we were, confronted without warning by our good little buddy, Davey Arcane. “Hey, guys, this is my new friend Werner,” he said, somewhat sheepishly.
“Hey, Werner,” I said, not wanting him to feel unwanted, which he wasn’t, kind of, but neither was he particularly welcome.
“It’s Verner,” he said, “at least that’s what my mom and dad calls me,” he answered, exuding an unexpected confidence that took us by surprise.
“Then Verner it is”, said Pete. “You wanna’ hang out with us?” he questioned, looking more at the ground than at Verner, and hoping that he didn’t, indeed, want to hang out.
“No,” he answered. “I have much to do at home. You know?” he answered, but we didn’t know, and we wanted to know very badly. Maybe if he took us home with him we could get a better look at his beauty queen mom, and that would be swell, for sure.
“Whatddya mean, like chores? Heck, we’ve all got chores,” said Davey Arcane, attempting to show solidarity with his new friend.
“No, I never have chores,” answered Werner. “We have a maid and a gardener to take care of the house because Dad is never home. I have my experiments. My dad’s a scientist you know. He makes bombs for the government,” he said, as we all wondered what government that might be. But arriving, simultaneously, at the realization that Adolph Hitler was dead, and that there weren’t anymore Nazis, we all exhaled together.
“So what kind of experiments do you do?” asked Pete, as we all once again formed mental images of bombs and missiles, that if we were not careful, might very well blow up one or all of us, one night after Verner had a bad day.
“I do experiments with animals,” said Werner, looking particularly weird, as any fifteen year old son of an evil scientist might, but we were not particularly disposed to ask more questions.
“Okay,” I said, “You’ve got your experiments, and we’ve got a baseball game, so, hey, we’ll catch you later.”
And so it went that we had no more exposure to the new kid, Verner, for the rest of the summer. Now that’s not to say that we didn’t peer through their windows with binoculars, late at night, hoping against hope that we might be treated to just a peek of the beautiful Mrs. Klammer, but we were never so fortunate. And even though Davey Arcane made repeated invitations to Verner, feeling sorry for him, it seemed the boy was simply not interested in making friends.
The kids at school were brutal. Poor Verner was called Craterface and Sauerkraut, when they were in generous moods, but mostly they referred to him as Loser-Boy and Monster-Mash when they were showing off to their friends. The net effect for Werner was that he withdrew farther and farther away from everyone, and literally spoke to no one, even poor little Davey Arcane, the kid who felt personally responsible for the abuse that Verner was subjected to.
Early the next May, as the grass began to turn green, and the leaves burst forth on the Oaks and Sycamores, Davey convinced us that we needed to do more. Verner was morose and Davey was worried, having a premonition that something bad was about to happen. He didn’t know what it would be but he was certain that something horrible was on the horizon.
Reluctantly, we agreed to do whatever we might do. But if Werner rejected us, we would get on with our lives. Summer was coming and there was only so much we might do, before we would be wasting our time on what was looking more and more like a lost cause. But Davey was insistent. It simply wasn’t normal for a boy to have no friends. If we couldn’t get through to Werner, then nobody else would try.
We went to Fort Number One, the first outpost as one left civilization and entered the road to the frontier. Outpost One, from its observation deck high above the fort, afforded a clear view of the Klammer’s back yard. We sent Pete aloft with the binoculars, for any mission would be more successful after proper reconnaissance.
Shortly thereafter, Pete gasped. “Oh my God, you guys won’t believe this!” he said. That asshole is hanging cats!”
Four kids scurried up the side of the Sycamore, grabbing each others legs and pant legs as we scaled the tree, trying to get to Pete as quickly as possible. Once there, we passed the binos, as each of us made guttural sounds of disgust as we visualized the scene that Werner had created right there in his very own back yard.
There were six cats, all quite dead, suspended in the air above the limestone wall that separated the Klammer’s back yard with the common property along the river’s edge. They were perfectly uniform; all the same height above the wall, all separated the same distance from the next, and it was not difficult to understand that Werner Klammer was a very sick boy.
Just as passengers flee a sinking ship, we dropped from the tree together, falling into different spaces in the circumference surrounding the Sycamore, several of us vomiting as soon as we had hit the ground. We may not have been the kindest to animals back in those days before it became the right thing to do, but neither were we cruel, and what we had observed was most-definitely cruel.
What does a thirteen year old kid do with an image that he has seen, especially when that image is one of such savagery? Sure, we had hunted, perhaps we had even been occasionally indiscriminate with our BB guns, but never had any one of us, even in our darkest moments, ever considered an act of such obvious depravity.
We ran deep within the woods, running it had seemed, as much to distance ourselves from the vile act, as to avoid detection, and then, the Lord knows what might have happened. If dear Werner Klammer could do this to six cats, which had to belong to somebody, then could he do the same thing to one of us? Our safe little neighborhood, and even the ghost of the Indian chief Leatherlips, was suddenly much less threatening than the pimple-faced monster whom they had all felt sympathy for.
“What do we do?” I asked, panting, but wanting answers, and wanting them quickly.
“We have got to tell our parents,” answered Pete, and we immediately knew that he was right. But it would be difficult for them, as well. How would they confront Werner’s parents? What would they say?
And then there was the issue of Werner’s father – the scientist who made the bombs. Perhaps the good Doctor Klammer would make a very nice bomb for each of us. This was a very delicate situation and we knew that we had all better be very careful about what we would do next.
“We can’t tell our parents,” I said. “It’s too dangerous. We don’t know anything about these people, and if Doctor Klammer really does make bombs, then we might all be in danger.”
“You’re right,” said Davey Arcane. “We’ve got to call the police!” which prompted a sudden and simultaneous belly laugh from the assembled boys.
“Yeah, right!” I said, “Like scary old Slim is capable of doing anything about anything.” Poor old Slim was the solitary cop in Dublin, back in the days before you could buy a loaf of bread in the now thriving city. The name was a misnomer. Slim weighed over three hundred pounds, and on his five foot nine inch frame, the triple century of the fat Olympics rendered him nearly stationary. On most days, the sunny ones anyway, he sat in a lawn chair beneath the only traffic light in our small village, and waved at the traffic as it passed him by. Sure, Slim was ineffective, but there wasn’t any crime in Dublin to speak of, so the fat guy in the police uniform, waving to all the nice people as they drove through, was really kind of a nice touch.
“We’ve got to call somebody,” said Pete, and it seemed that we were all agreed upon that. “Maybe we should call the President,” he said, reaching for straws.
“You mean like The Lyndon Baines Johnson?” I asked incredulously.
“Somebody,” said Pete resolutely.
“Maybe the governor,” I offered. “You know, Governor Rhodes,” I said, looking for a winner.
“We’ll call Slim,” said Davey Arcane. “”It’s not the best solution, but it’s the best solution that we’ve got.”
“We’ve got to do it quickly,” I said, “before he destroys the evidence.”
“You think he would do that?” Pete asked.
“Of course he would,” I said. “Anybody who would catch and hang six cats won’t think twice about trying to hide the evidence. Who’s going to call?” I asked.
“I’ll do it,” said Davey Arcane. It was well before cell phones, and telephone usage was carefully monitored by our parents.
“Making the call could be tricky,” I said. “You run home and do it, and we’ll stay here and stand guard.”
“Okay,” he said over his shoulder, as he quickly ran home. “”You guys stay right where you are.”
And we sat. And sat. Until the day had nearly given way to dusk, sitting until we saw the worn Plymouth Fury, with the portable police strobe light, that was attached to the top of the car by a magnet, pulled slowly into the Klammer’s driveway.
Old fat Slim rolled from the driver’s seat, walked to the front door, knocked, and disappeared within the stately home.
We were nervous as cats, if you can pardon the pun, but in this particular case, the cats may have been safer had they been just a bit more nervous. But it was a sad and unusual day, with a frightening result, and we as young boys had done the only thing that we knew to do. That is not to say that we felt good about ourselves, because we didn’t, but when we saw the odd boy with the horrible acne being led in handcuffs from the front door of his home, we felt even worse.
What Werner Klammer had done was a living nightmare to all of us, but this boy had also been mentally tortured by the spoiled and cruel kids at the school, our school. And more, not one of us had come to his defense, and we should have. Children can be so cruel, and no one is more of a victim than other children. No, we did not feel very good at all about ourselves, as Werner Klammer was placed into the Plymouth Fury by Slim the cop.
We were questioned, all of us, because it seems that the good Doctor Klammer felt that his son had been set up by the neighborhood kids. It seems that he too had been the victim of bullies back in Dusseldorf when he had been a child. Nobody knew if this had contributed to his career choice of becoming a bomb maker, but when you thought about it, it kind of made sense.
With the authorities being satisfied that the odd boy had not been set up, Werner Klammer ultimately was sent to a hospital for the mentally ill, which considering the many alternatives, made all of us very happy. We hoped that he would get the help that he needed, that his acne would heal up, and with any luck, he might end up having something close to a normal life.
It was of course, by now, early June. School was out and I was off to Lake Erie for two weeks. All the same things happened, nearly just as they had happened every year before, and with any luck, would happen for every year until I was an adult. I had a great deal of fun, enjoyed the company of my Grandpa and my cousins, but every night, when I laid down my head, my thoughts turned to Werner Klammer just before I fell off to sleep. Where was he and how was he doing? Were the other patients being unkind to him, or was Werner Klammer getting better?
Two weeks later, well-tanned and ready to assume my rightful position within the tribe, my family returned home to Dublin. After cutting the grass and unpacking my clothes, the first order of business was to go to Pete’s house and learn the current status of one Werner Klammer.
After getting the okay from Mom, I literally ran the entire half mile to Pete’s house, and was nearly breathless as I knocked on the door which led from the garage to the house. Pete was out the door immediately, obviously happy that I was home, and yelling over his shoulder to his mom, he said, “I’ll be back in a couple of hours, Mom.”
In the distance I could hear her faint admonishment to be careful, and to stay away from that poor Klammer boy’s home. Weird, I thought.
When we had gotten to fifty yards from Pete’s house I asked him, “What’s up with Klammer?”
“He got home a couple of days ago,” answered Pete. “I haven’t seen him myself, but Davey said that he looks drugged. He said that Werner didn’t even talk to him when he asked him a question…point blank.”
“Weird,” I said.
“Yeah, weird,” said Pete.
Unconsciously, or maybe it was just such a strong inclination, but we found ourselves headed directly for the river. We didn’t talk about it, but neither did we deviate from our path. I knew that we were heading to Outpost 1, but I wanted to sneak up from below so that we would not be seen. Pete seemed to recognize what I was doing and followed along without question. With the recent history, police at the home, handcuffs, accusations by Doctor Klammer, it probably wasn’t a good idea if we were to be seen.
Ohio is flat, but the ridge along the river is relatively high and quite steep. We were soon approaching the dumping area, surrounded by the high walls of Limestone and shaded by a tall stand of Sycamore trees. I was sweating now and slightly winded, and, I must say, was completely unprepared for the sight that I saw.
High above me, with the stone cliff as a backdrop, was the suspended and very lifeless body of Werner Klammer. Obviously, he had hung himself from one of the giant Sycamores. I fell to the ground and wretched, and soon, glancing to my left, saw Pete, a look of utter shock on his face, and the color of his skin was pale as a ghost.
We turned and ran, aware that the silly fantasies of Indians and ghosts were just that, fantasies. This was real and a boy had died as a result of the cruelty that had been heaped upon him, for probably, his entire life.
I felt the tears as they burned my cheeks, pores open in the heat, and I felt the bile as it once again rose from my stomach. I fell to my knees, crying and vomiting, and besieged so completely by sadness that was unlike any that I had ever known.
We ran to my house, it was closer, and opening the door, I howled for my mother. “Help me, Mom, please help me!” And then I collapsed.
Children, and that is certainly what we were, are in no way equipped to deal with a nightmare such as this. To know, in some deeply uncomfortable way, that you, whether in a manner of commission or omission, participated in the irony of this tragedy, is almost unbearable to the adolescent soul. But life, being what it is, does not allow for many endings to be rewritten.
Bullies of any age must be stopped in their vile quest. Be it by example, or by outright intervention, the goodness in all of us must never tolerate the tragic end that this abuse will ultimately lead to.
Trust in yourself, should you ever witness injustice, at any age, and have the confidence to intervene, and state loudly by whatever means at your disposal, that the abuse of the weak is an indication of even greater weakness.
Stand strong, speak truthfully, and defend with all your might, those weak persons who might fall victim to bullies of lesser character, no matter the time or the situation. It is your charge and it is your duty!