Originally Published: April 9, 2017 6:01 a.m.
Travel back with me to January 1942.
I was 10 years old, in the 5th grade at an elementary school in Kansas City, Mo.
It was our first day back in class after the Christmas vacation. We spent the morning discussing the war and the what was happening in our families. Some of our dads and older brothers had enlisted or were being “called up.” I recall some of the girls in our class crying. My buddies and I tried hard not to. We were committed to being “Big Boys.”
But this column isn’t about the war; it’s about a lesson I learned. A big one!
On that first day of classes, a new student joined us. Jimmy was thin and small, just like me, so I took to him right off. I chose him to be on my team at recess and after school, that first day, I invited him to my home for milk and cookies.
Within a week we became close friends, even though there were several things about him I found sort of strange. Like when I asked him where he lived. “Over on Mercer,” he replied. Since I tended to be specific—“I live at 3809 Terrace”—I wondered about his vagueness, especially since he hadn’t invited me to go home with him.
In addition, he didn’t really answer my questions about his folks, other than to say his mom worked and his dad was away. “In the war?” I asked. “No, just away,” was all he would say.
There were a couple of other things I noticed. He wore the same clothes almost every day and rarely brought his lunch to school. I wondered about these things for several weeks, but having fun playing together was more important so I didn’t ask questions.
Then one day, as I finished eating my lunch, I saw Miss McFarland—our teacher—take her brown sack over to Jimmy, who didn’t bring one, and asked him to take it downstairs to the trash can. When he came back I noticed he had a “white mustache.” I guessed he had finished off the teacher’s milk.
She asked him to do the same thing the following day. And the next. It became routine. Sitting next to him I also saw the sack contained a sandwich, apple, cookies and milk.
One Saturday I suggested I would pick him up and we’d go together to the ball field where we were to play baseball against the orphanage kids. “You’re right on the way,” I said. He insisted he’d meet me at the game. It seemed funny to me, but it was no big deal, so I let it go.
However, his mom was at the game. Afterward, he introduced us and she invited me to come home with them for cookies. Jimmy sort of hung back from our conversation, then walked behind us. After a block, we turned into a large rooming house, climbed the steps to the top floor and entered their “home.” It was a small attic room with two small mattresses on the floor, a straight-back chair and a hot plate.
“It isn’t much,” his mother said cheerfully, “but it’s better than we had before, isn’t it Jimmy?”
She got two cookies and a small container of milk from a little icebox in the closet and we picnicked on the floor.
I recall her thanking me for inviting Jimmy to join our Cub Scout pack, explaining they couldn’t afford the uniform or the other things a Cub Scout would need. “Maybe later,” she said.
But later didn’t come, because several weeks after that Jimmy didn’t show up for school. After the second day, I asked Miss McFarland if he was sick? ”No, his father came home and they moved away.”
“Where did they move to?”
“I don’t know, but maybe your father does.” That information surprised me so as soon as he got home from work I asked about Jimmy. “Son, the story about Jimmy’s father was in the newspaper. I remembered it, but didn’t think it best to share it with you while they lived here.”
What he explained to me was that Jimmy’s daddy was put in prison for stealing a farmer’s pig in order to feed his family. They hadn’t eaten in several days and he was desperate. “He stole the pig from the farmer he worked for who wouldn’t pay him for the wages he owed him,” Dad told me.
I was shocked! “He was right to do wrong,” I declared.
I’ll never forget those words, or my feelings about Jimmy and his mom.
Many years later I read these words written by Camus: “We can only discover happiness after we have willingly confronted the absurdity and injustice of the world.”
I recall then thinking back to the story about Jimmy and his father and the lesson I learned about absurdity and injustice. I hadn’t understood until then that good people could suffer. That was a tough lesson for any 10 year-old to grasp.
Because it stays with you.