He had tears in his eyes the day he snitched on his brother. Two days earlier, his older brother had pulled out a .22 pistol, placed one bullet in the cylinder, spun it, and then pointed it directly at eight-year-old Shawn. 13-year-old Steven then pulled the trigger.
The hammer fell on an empty chamber, and so Steven spun the cylinder again and aimed the pistol at ten-year-old brother, Jack. He thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger. And again, the hammer fell on an empty chamber. Relishing the terror he was inspiring in his two younger brothers, Steven pulled the trigger a third time. Fortunately, he flinched when it fired and the bullet passed above Jack’s head and embedded in the wall above him. Steven simply laughed and walked away, leaving his two younger brothers quite shaken.
I was just two years into my truancy program and as a private contractor with the State, I knew I was obligated to report this incident. My job then was to do wake-up calls on some of the most difficult, counter-cultural kids in the city. By the time I saw any of these kids, they had been to countless meetings at school and hearings at court, and had been made wards of the state.
In my line of work, I connected with caseworkers, probation officers, teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents, and the good Judge Nuernberger, who gave these kids chance after chance before he sentenced them to more restrictive placements. My job was to keep these kids in school, and during each work day, I had many highly volatile time-bombs placed in my path. Each one, an accident waiting to happen. Such was the case with the three brothers, Steven, Shawn, and Jack.
As it turned out, my report resulted in Shawn and Jack being removed from their home. They were sent to live with their dad down in small town Crete, Nebraska. The two brothers blamed me then for ruining their lives and for them being stuck in another bad environment. I even got blamed for the machete fight they had on their dad’s farm, and the finger that Shawn lost to Jack’s wild swing of the sharp blade. Yes, they blamed me for the sucky turn their lives took. But despite the blame game, both boys took with them to Crete my manuscript they had been test reading. The work was a tattered, spiral-bound booklet named, Scratchin’ on the Eight Ball.
Shawn and Jack introduced the manuscript to their mentor, Professor Beef Torrey, and a year later, when 8-Ball was published by an educational publisher, the boys carried their own autographed copies into class and shared them with Beef.
Two years later, while shopping at Nebraska bookstore, I noticed a long-haired David Crosby look-alike staring at me from down the aisle. While conscious of his close scrutiny, I continued to check out books. Suddenly, the guy excitedly declared, “Far out, man, you’re Tom Frye!”
Jarred by such usage of hippy jargon, I turned as the hairy fellow approached me. He was beaming and amused that he’d finally met the author of the book he had come to love due to my two former state wards who had ended up in his classroom in small town Crete. “My name is Beef!” he said. “Professor Beef Torrey of Crete! And I read the manuscript of 8-Ball long before it was published! Congratulations! You’ve written one helluva book, Tom!”
Beef then explained his connection to Shawn and Jack, and I stood there amazed to think how two little kids from Havelock had carried that manuscript with them to Crete and placed it in Beef’s hands. Over the years, Beef has passed my books on to countless students he crosses paths with. This past summer, 30 years after that fateful meeting with that “far out” dude, Beef and a colleague had a biography of Hunter S. Thompson published.
I was talking about that very book with a mother who had bought all 3 of my Havelock series books in early June, and this mother stood there open-mouthed as I mentioned Beef. She said, “That is who first introduced me to your books when I was in elementary school in Crete! Beef Torrey! And now I am reading them to my own kids!”
I recently received an email from her son, who told me he was sharing the books with a friend at Norris High school, and shortly thereafter, this same kid sent me a Friend request on Facebook.
So that is what this book-writing has been all about: Connections.
One boy who had grown up on the mean streets of Havelock ended up serving in the Gulf War. While stationed over there in the desert sands, one of his fellow soldiers asked him where he’d been born and raised. When the kid told him he came from Havelock, the amazed solider ran to his backpack and pulled out a copy of Scratchin’ on the Eight Ball. Later, after the Havelock boy made it safely home, he told me he’d never read 8-Ball while growing up, but said he read it over there during the Gulf War, and he bawled his eyes out because it reminded him of home.
I once read on the Internet where a used copy of 8-Ball was selling in Afghanistan for $38. The oddest thing is, it had been signed by me! I could only wonder, “How in the hell did my book get over there to that country? And signed by me, no less!”
Over the years, I have received letters from kids confined to institutions and kids going through treatment. The most profound letter came from a 15-year-old kid living in a group home. He wrote to tell me he’d had just finished reading 8-Ball, and he claimed the book made him cry. He went onto say, “I haven’t cried like that since me and my girlfriend lost our baby a year ago. If you haven’t reached a million kids with your books by now, you definitely will one day! Just imagine, a million kids touched by the words you write. I just wanted to thank you for writing a book that changed my life.”
Shortly thereafter, I met a kid down at Havelock Park. He said, “Man, with all those books you sold, how come you still live in the sticks of Havelock? I saw on the Internet that 2.8 million copies of 8-Ball have been sold over the years!”
I simply laughed and figured he must have made the mistake of reading the caption above Amazon.com when doing a search for my books, because if 2.8 million copies of my book had been sold, I think I would certainly know about it. No, in reality, I figured 12,000 copies of 8-Ball have been printed. Someone once estimated that for every one book printed at least 5 people have read it. So if that is true, perhaps as many as 60,000 people have read my one book. But that does not a rich author make. Of all those books, I have probably given away over half of them. That’s just the way I roll.
Most recently, I finished writing a screenplay based on 8-Ball. Only 15 copies had been floating around out there for less than 3 weeks before I received an email from a movie producer out of New York. I promptly sent him a copy of the book per his request and I am now waiting to see what the outcome of this contact will result in.
Two days after firing off a book/script packet to this producer, I got an email from a reporter at 10/11 News. He claimed he was doing a piece on the unsolved murder of Patricia Webb, which my book is loosely based on. He also claimed my book is listed on the Internet along with other facts about Patty Webb the young female police informant who was shot and killed outside of Lincoln.
I thought it quiet strange that this reporter chose now of all times to look into this unsolved murder after 35 years. At his request to speak with me to get my take on her murder, I said, “Have you heard the old saying, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie?’ Well, right now my dog is sleeping peacefully.” I then added, “Unless you have something to say that piques my interest, I guess I remain skeptical and shall remain silent about Patty’s murder.”
So once again, connections that lead to connections.
But lest I get too heady about my accomplishments with my books, I will end this piece with a story that keeps me in my place and helps me to remain grounded and humble.
Denny Ladue, owner of the Used Bike Shop in Bethany, recently portrayed Detective Shepherd in my play based on 8-Ball. Talk about connections. One day, while reading over his lines about a private investigator named Quinn, who put a hit on an informant named Kelly, Denny received a phone call from a lady named Quinn Kelly!
After sharing this particular story he then told me two stories regarding my 8-Ball book. In the first one, he said, “My daughter first read your book when she was just a little girl enrolled at Saint Catherine’s school in Riverside, California.”
This amazed me to think that my book had found it’s way into a fourth grader’s hands at a Catholic school all the way in Callie. But Denny then shared his last story with me in regards to my book.
“And I came across another copy of your book when I first moved back here from California,” Denny said, smirking. “Do you know where I found it? At East High in a dumpster!”