Social Justice Poetry

They Were Kept in the House or They Disappeared | A Social Justice Poem by Donal Mahoney

After World War II, I grew up in a neighborhood where most people made it but some did not. I don’t recall social services being available then but they may have been. It’s possible adults may have chosen not to access them or perhaps did so very quietly, without telling neighbors and other family members.

Many of the same problems we have with us today were present then but they didn’t have names such as Attention Deficit Disorder or
Hyperkinesis. Families dealt with problems, for better or worse,
unless they became so severe “authorities” had to be called in.
The police would usually be the first authority to arrive and would
take certain individuals away. But in cases not involving the law,
fairly often the individual—adult or juvenile—simply disappeared
and was not seen again. No explanation was given.

Because of the times, it fell to families to care for adults and
children who for various reasons could not function in what was then a simple society.

Uncle Jack, for example, was an older adult cared for, in a way, by
his family. As far as I know, no one outside his family ever dealt
with him or his problems. He drank heavily and lived in the basement of his sister’s home for years while upstairs she and her husband reared their children and had what passed for a normal life.

I was friends with one of their sons and I would often see Uncle Jack stretched on the couch in the basement when we would go down there to play. He was as much a part of the basement as the couch. He was always friendly whether drunk or on his way to becoming drunk. He liked kids and was no threat to us.

Back then I recall no programs, private or public, that would have helped Uncle Jack. No doubt Alcoholics Anonymous was helping people, but I never heard of the agency in our neighborhood where drinking was a problem in many families. For some alcoholics, religion was thought to be the answer. I don’t think Uncle Jack tried it.

Another difficult case involved Joey Joey, as he was called, a boy in third grade and a classmate of mine. His mother invited three of us over for lunch one day, perhaps to see if good food might enlist us to play with Joey whose behavior was erratic and unpredictable.

Today they have medicines and services that help modify such
behaviors. Back then Joey was simply called “spastic,” although none of us knew what the word meant. It’s likely he suffered from a
variety of disorders identified and treated today.

I don’t doubt his mother, a very intelligent woman, must have taken
him to the doctor but Joey never changed. In time, he simply disappeared. Perhaps his family moved.

Petey was another case in point. An aggressive boy, Petey disappeared in fourth grade after hitting a girl in the third row for some infraction never disclosed. Until then Petey was the toughest kid in fourth grade, a classification he savored and his classmates knew well. But after he hit the girl, he was never seen again although rumor had it he was sent to military school. We all thought he would at least come home for summer vacation but he never did.

His failure to appear became even stranger as the years went by
because grammar school relationships, good or bad, were important and always renewed whether one might want them to be or not.

I currently interact regularly by email with a classmate from
kindergarten through high school, someone I have not seen in 50 years and it’s as though we’re still playing basketball together. He was expelled in senior year and retired long before I did but as a millionaire. Brilliant, he probably had Attention Deficit Disorder or some similar problem that made keeping quiet in class difficult.

Another problem child was Bobby. Unlike the others he did have
irregular facial features, indicative perhaps of some illness unknown to us then but well known today. No one thought much of that. He was just Bobby. He never said anything to classmates but did go to school, “mainstreamed” with the rest of us although that term wasn’t used then.

Before Bobby disappeared, my mother saw him one Sunday morning sitting on his front porch eating night crawlers from a dish. Perhaps the family had plans to go fishing.

My mother mentioned this to me later since she knew that I went to
school with Bobby. But she would not have talked to his parents nor
reported him to anyone. There was no one to report him to and telling his parents would have been considered an affront back then. It was no crime to eat night crawlers.

In my neighborhood, there was no social agency active at the time that I recall devoted to helping children like Bobby. I was no angel myself so if there were professionals in the neighborhood trying to help those in worse shape than me, I would certainly have known about it and steered clear of them.

When I finally escaped and went to college in 1956, things had not
changed. The area was bereft of social services except for a
newly-built YMCA where the staff members had a religious agenda in
conflict with the predominant religion in the neighborhood. We boys
would listen to the staff so we could play on the outdoor basketball courts, the best in the neighborhood.

I remember coming home from school on summer vacation after junior year and seeing an old friend up on the main street where everyone still gathered. Maybe two or three of us had gone on to college in a neighborhood where money was scarce. Most of my friends had joined the Army or had become police officers and firemen.

When I saw Jimmy, however, I remembered immediately what a terrific athlete he had been in high school. He could play any sport and might have won a scholarship if he had been good with books. Today he might be classified as hyperkinetic, which served him well in sports but not in the classroom. When I saw him that summer night, he was in early adulthood leap-frogging parking meters in front of Tony’s Pizzeria. He cleared them as easily as a kangaroo but the police, driving by, stopped and took him home. Only one person saw Jimmy after that, and it was some years later.

However, we would see his twin brother around the neighborhood, but he never said anything about Jimmy and no one would ever ask. Rumor had it that Jimmy was kept “upstairs” all day and taken out at night to a restaurant or bar in a different neighborhood for an airing. He wasn’t seen for years until another classmate, then in his thirties and out for a late night drink, saw Jimmy in a bar with his twin. Both were very reserved, simply nodded and said hello.

It was the trend then that adults, young and old, with problems not
severe enough to disappear would be kept in a relative’s house,
usually the house of the parents. Such an individual was not discussed in the neighborhood. But I recall no one ever seeking help from a specialist. In fact I recall no specialists with offices nearby except for the one who was there for years. He was an optometrist who relieved my myopia with spectacles in third grade. He was the first man I saw always wearing a white shirt and tie. He probably had a long drive home at night.

Today there is real help for people with problems severe and more
severe than those I saw growing up between the end of World War II and prior to television. But in my old neighborhood, that help did not seem to be available. And so the afflicted were kept in the house or they disappeared. That, of course, is not the case today. Now there seem to be more problems and more professionals to assist with them.

Visit Donal at http://booksonblog12.blogspot.com/.

☼ This site keeps going through the kind support of people like you.