One morning, I rushed into juvenile court 10 minutes late for the hearing of one my kids. I slipped quietly into the courtroom, and was surprised when Judge Nuernberger looked up in the middle of the proceedings and said, “I am pleased to see Tom Frye in court this morning. Would you please join us at the table?”
Curious as to why the Judge had summoned me to the table, I looked to 14-year-old, Anthony, a troubled Havelock boy who had obviously been crying his eyes out. Just before I arrived, the Judge had sentenced him to the Youth Development Center in Kearney. However, the Judge had an alternative in mind. He looked at me and smiled as I sat down at the council table.
You see, Judge Nuernberger and I had a history.
As a kid, I had once been in his court myself for running away from home, and he sentenced me to the detention home and six months probation.
As an adult, the Judge’s recommendation letter allowed me to work at the Attention Center as a Juvenile Care Specialist, even though I was 19 and needed to be 20 at the time.
And once after my presentation at a foster care banquet, the Judge asked me for a tape of my music as he was attending a judge’s convention and Johnny Cash was the keynote speaker. I still have the photo of Judge Nuernberger handing Johnny my tape. It hangs on my wall to this day.
There, that day in court, the Judge said, “Mr. Frye, if I allow a 30 day suspended sentence for Anthony here, would you continue to work with him?”
I failed to look in the direction of my supervisor from the Department of Social Services, who earlier had informed me that our time helping Anthony was up. Six months with Anthony as his family support worker and under no circumstances was I to continue. At least not on the dime of DSS.
Ignoring her furious glare, I smiled at Judge Nuernberger and said, “Yes.”
Judge Nuerberger returned my smile and suspended Anthony’s sentence.
I had never seen that done before. Later, I asked Anthony’s PO, Marti Barnhouse, what prompted the Judge to take this route. Marti told me the minute he had sentenced Anthony, the kid broke down and started crying, “Please give me one more chance. Let me work with Tom Frye. He makes me feel so good about myself. Please give me one more chance!”
After receiving a verbal ass-kicking from my DSS supervisor, I set out to keep Anthony out of Kearney. Three nights after the court hearing, Anthony broke into his neighbor’s garage to steal tools. He was caught and ended up back in court. Judge Nuernberger sadly shook his head and lifted the suspension. Anthony ended up going to Kearney.
Second chances meant nothing to this kid.
A year later, while working at the Attention Center, 13-year-old, Rocky informed me that Mike was plotting to lure me to his cell and use a razor blade in an escape attempt. He would have done a considerable amount of damage, too. At 17, he was 6 feet tall and all muscle. As it turned out, Dennis Banks and I confronted Mike, who turned it on himself and stood us off for two hours until giving up the blade.
Two days later, Rocky and his brother attacked our director in another escape attempt. Both boys were sent to Kearney. Remembering that Rocky had told me of the razor blade, I felt obligated to do the kid a favor. So I wrote Judge Nuernberger a letter, asking him to suspend his sentence, and allow him to come back to Lincoln to live with foster parents, Joyce and Ron, who had agreed to accept Rocky in their home.
Judge Nuernberger did another thing I had never seen done before. He ordered Rocky transported back to Lincoln. However, just before court, Joyce and Ron backed out. They didn’t think they could handle Rocky, and so there we sat in juvenile court. Rocky with no placement. The Judge with no home to send him to. And me feeling like a fool for even attempting to help the kid.
Judge Nuernberger looked up at me seated in the back of the courtroom, and asked me to join him at the table. Once again, I did so, and he asked me if I would be willing to become a foster parent to Rocky. I was only 20 at the time, so age was an issue as I needed to be 21, but Judge Nuernberger told me he would issue a letter to the foster care review board to ask them to make an exception in my case. They did so, and Rocky came to live with me for the next 2 years.
And while we had many ups and downs, he turned out to be a decent kid. He had no law violations, went to school regularly, and didn’t use drugs or alcohol. However, 2 months after leaving my home, Rocky assaulted his neighbor lady during a home invasion and ended up being sent to Kearney.
Second chances meant nothing to that kid.
A year after Rocky left my home, Chad came to live with me. After running away from 47 different placements, Chad came to me at the end-of-the-line. One more run, and the Judge would send him to Kearney. Chad often joked about this arrangement as I lived on Kearney Avenue in Havelock, and he often said, “Kearney, the one place I have been trying to avoid all my life, and here I end up living on Kearney Avenue! Go figure!”
The first week of Chad’s stay, he broke into my gun cabinet, loaded my .22 rifle, and put it to his head, threatening to kill himself. Chad stood there for 45 minutes, with me trying to talk the gun away from him. He said, “You’re just like every other asshole the State sent me to live with, and when you get tired of me you’ll just get rid of me, just like all the other assholes did!”
I failed to mention that he had actually ran away from most of those other “assholes,” and that he had never given them the chance to get rid of him. But I didn’t. I simply talked him down, all the while he stood there with a cocked rifle held under his chin, his finger on the trigger.
At the end of that ordeal, Chad finally lowered the gun and allowed me to unload it. He ended up staying with me for 3 years after that, and while at times, he considered me the biggest asshole he’d ever met in all of his 47 different placements, he opted to stick it out with me until the Judge determined he needed to be reunited with his family.
Two months after he turned 17, Chad broke into a tavern in a small town. He got busted and ended up in small town court. The Judge there was lenient and was in the middle of sentencing him to three months of jail time, with work release at Chad’s dad’s during week days. An easy sentence, right? Well, right in the middle of the Judge’s sentencing, Chad shouted, “F you!”
He then ran out of the courtroom, and ended up with a felony charge that automatically carried one year in the State Pen. Chad ended up there. Twice so far in this lifetime.
Second chances meant nothing to that kid.
Another kid I worked with, Bryce, and his three friends skipped school one day. They stole a car and went for a wild joy ride. They ended up flipping the car off of the I-80 overpass out on 27th Street. Two of Bryce’s friends were crushed and killed. Bryce, however, lived and ended up in juvenile court half a dozen times after that, until he was sent to Kearney, because he just never realized how lucky he was.
Second chances meant nothing to that kid.
I first met Phil when he was 7. Two days before that meeting, Phil, temporarily blinded by his shaggy black hair forced down into his eyes by the baseball cap he was wearing, had a bad crash on his bike. He had broken his left arm and he wore a cast. To add insult to injury, Phil was searching all over Havelock for his lost dog, Barney. We found his dog out at the pound, and Phil and Barney were reunited. Phil became my shadow after that.
At 9, Phil smoked his first joint. At 11, he started dropping acid and taking speed. At 14, he found himself in trouble at juvenile court. At 16, he was confined to the Attention Center. While there, he and another boy I had been working with, Dearle Alexander, had a clash one night over who knew me better. Dearle, at 14, had recently murdered an old man over on Lake Street, and since being confined, he had read several of my manuscripts and became my friend. Dearle called Phil a liar for saying that I was his uncle, and the fight was on.
After their slug-fest, Dearle ended up in solitary confinement. And Phil ended up being restrained and placed in his room, where he climbed up onto his desk and starte hissing like a scalded cat. I got a call from fellow staff who asked me to come in before they were forced to send Phil to the Regional Center. I could hear Phil in the background, meowing at the top of his lungs.
The moment I walked into his room, Phil climbed down off his desk and sheepishly said, “Hello, Tom. What are you doing here?”
I said, “Trying to keep you from being sent to the Regional Center, Phil.”
“The nuthouse?” Phil said, incredulously. “Why? They only send loons to the looney bin! And I ain’t no loon!”
And this coming from a kid who had just freaked out the staff by turning into a rabid cat?
It turned out to be a long night, as I first settled Phil down, and then ended up talking to Dearle to settle him down. Before stepping out of Dearle’s cell, he bid me good-night, saying, “See you later, Uncle Tom.”
Which was how the fight started in the first place.
A week later, Phil was sentenced to Kearney, and I had to be the staff member at AC who sent him on his way in leg shackles and handcuffs. It was a sad day.
One year later, Phil ended up putting a shotgun to his chest, and doing a stand-off with his girl friend. She managed to pull it away from him several times, but Phil put the gun to his chest one more, and this time, it went off. I will never forget Phil or the impact his tragic death had on my life.
I often wonder what would have become of Phil if he had taken advantage of all the second chances he’d had, or how life might have turned out for him. I often wonder about all the others who were given second chances, and foolishly blew them off.
Like Kamikaze pilots, these kids have managed to send themselves careening out of control, until at last they crashed. Even though I was willing to reach out and help them, they were hell-bent and determined to throw it all away on their self-absorbed suicide missions.
Why? What drives them? What motivates them to destroy themselves and to be so foolishly ignorant or so stubbornly stupid?
Anyone who can answer that, please do so, because I have been searching for an answer to that question for over 35 years.
Perhaps, I will never know.