1977-1980 (20-23 years-old)
It seemed that once I started working with kids, I was driven. I not only worked the many shifts required of me at the Attention Center, I also privately contracted with the Department of Social Services as a Family Support Worker. My job involved getting truant kids to school, taking those on probation to court, to drug treatment and allowing them to spend time with me. 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.
During each work day, I had many highly volatile time-bombs placed in my path. Each one, an accident waiting to happen.
I connected with caseworkers, probation officers, teachers, counselors, administrators, parents, and Judge Nuernberger, who gave every kid who came before him a Second Chance.
One morning 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, Mike was 6 feet tall and all muscle. As it turned out, Dennis Banks and I confronted Mike, who turned the blade on himself and stood us off for two hours until giving it up.
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, Harold and Paula Conwell, who had agreed to accept Rocky in their home.
Judge Nuernberger ordered Rocky transported back to Lincoln. However, just before court, Harold and Paula backed out. 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. 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.
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.
One day, 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, Chris, 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, he had once sentenced me to six months probation for the runaway incident. As an adult, the Judge’s recommendation letter allowed me to work at the Attention Center. 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 Chris, 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 Chris 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 Chris’s sentence.
I had never seen that done before.
Later, I asked Chris’s PO, Marti Barnhouse, what prompted the Judge to take this route. Marti told me the minute he had sentenced Chris, 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 Chris out of Kearney. Three nights after the court hearing, Chris 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. Chris ended up going to Kearney.
Second chances meant nothing to this kid.
I first met Phil when he was 7-years-old. 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 con-fined, 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 started 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 the center 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.
Second chances meant nothing to this kid.
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, “Fuck 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.
To provide wake-up calls for some of the most belligerent kids in the system, oftentimes, I went to their homes with squirt gun in hand to wake them up.
“Oh my God!” some might say. “He actually shot kids with a squirt gun to get them to go to school?”
And I would say, “Yes, I did. Got any better ideas on how to wake the living dead?”
Squirting them with water caused a lot less stress than shaking the crap out of them, in which case most kids came out of bed like rabid wild cats. It was a full-time job making sure my kids were transported to school, to court, to drug treatment, and to anger management. If they were ready for me in the mornings, I would reward them with Micky D’s. If not, they usually woke up drenched from my Super Soaker, muttering curses at me.
My caseworkers were cool enough to realize we needed to take a different approach with most of these kids, so they agreed with my plan to pay them $1 per day to go to school. I carried a pager and I frequently received calls from assistant principals who informed me if a kid had skipped. My job was then to track them down and take them back. When I ended up getting lucky, and found a kid to transport back to school, they always asked, “How did you find me?”
And I would grin and say, “Your mom had a tracking band sewn into your underwear, so I just followed the blip on my screen.”
One day I received a call from my friend, Roy Nifousi, juvenile probation officer, about Shane, who had not been to school for 3 months. Roy informed me that if I didn’t get him to school as ordered by the court, he was going to file neglect charges against DSS. My caseworker in charge of Shane told me then to do anything humanly possible to get him to school. I was forewarned by Roy that Shane with the big green Mohawk and the big green stud in his nose, had wailed on his own mom in the past when wakened from a sound sleep, so I devised a way in which to safely wake him up.
So out came the squirt gun for the first time.
I scored a direct hit directly up his left nostril. Shane sprang out of bed, cussing and shouting, “Jesus Christ!”
I simply stood there, smirking as I said, “No, it’s just I, Tom Frye!”
Shane came at me then, fists flailing. I crossed my two fingers as one would ward off a vampire and I said, “Back off!”
Shane snorted, and that green stud in his nose came flying at me with incredible force. It struck the wall above my head with a thacking! sound, and I am sure that stud would have impaled me had it struck me. Needless to say, I got Shane to go to school, and Roy backed off with his threat, and my caseworker was relieved.
My next client wasn’t so willing. I had been forewarned by the caseworker in charge that Tim had been accused of killing the neighbor’s cat. So I had no great expectations when I entered his bed-room. But I had no idea he would pull a knife on me. I reacted, having been trained by martial arts instructors at the Attention Center, and that one move where a defender uses both hands to disarm a knife-wielding attacker, actually worked!
I was as surprised as Tim when I did my kung fu move, and the knife went flying out of his grasp.
I then made him go to school.
Next morning, Tim pulled a BB gun on me, and so once again, I used my hands, applying pres-sure on his wrist that sent the gun flying out of his grasp. I ended up restraining him, with a wrist behind his back, the heel of my palm beneath his neck, and Tim with nowhere else to go but to school.
The third morning I went to wake Tim up, his Grandma came to the door and said, “Timmy is not here this morning. He went to school, because he didn’t ever want to see you again!”
I laughed all the way to school, and five minutes later when I saw him in the hallway I waved at him. Tim took one disgusted look at me and hightailed it in the other direction. But he did stay in school and managed to get there every morning without my assistance. So mission accomplished.
One morning I went to Tyson’s house and knocked on the door. I heard a lock being put in place behind the door. Then the smirking face of a messy-haired kid appeared in the door’s window. Tyson gave me an evil grin and flipped me off, sending, “Ha! Ha! Ha!” echoing through the door.
The next morning, I went back there and after knocking on the front door, I heard the back door slam shut. By the time I reached the backyard, Tyson was running toward the alley, grinning back at me, flipping me off, and sending, “Ha! Ha! Ha!” echoing down the alley behind him.
So I made up a contract for Tyson’s mom to give me a house key in order to get a jump-start on my most unruly case. I simply went early enough to catch him in bed, quietly opened the front door, took aim with my squirt gun from the hallway, and sent a spray of cold water into his face. Tyson sat up in bed, and I saluted him with my middle finger, and said, “Ha! Ha! Ha!”
The strangest morning of all was when I picked up five kids from a group home to transport them to Whitehall school in my Mazda mini-van. We had just pulled up to a red light, when I glanced in my rearview mirror and saw this lady writing down what was obviously my licence number, for Joe was mooning her from his place in the backseat! I pulled away from the light, and hit a two-lane on Vine, and as some burly guy in a Mustang shot past us in the other lane, Jason flicked a penny out the window. It traveled through the guy’s open window, beneath him and his girl friend’s nose, and right out of the other side of the car! He followed us all the way to school. And when I parked to let the kids out, his girlfriend struggled to hold him back from coming over to my van. It was quite a struggle too, and all the while Jason was fidgeting in his seat, saying, “Go, Tom! Just go! Get us out of here!”
Jason about had a heart attack, but eventually the enraged boyfriend finally drove away without further incident. Jason sighed and looked at me, saying, “You were just gonna let him beat me up, weren’t you?”
I grinned and said, “No, but maybe you can now see there is always a consequence to your actions, dip-wad.”
As a reward to my kids who actually stayed in school for a 90 day period, and earned $90 on the $1 per day plan, I took them out to buy skateboards. I not only had a four-foot half pipe in my back-yard, but I took them out to the skate park two nights per week, and once made a trip to Mahoney Park on I-80.
On this particular trip, after the kids skated, I bought them all a pop and we went over to the observation tower, and with pop in hand, proceeded to climb. I was talking with some friendly guy I had met down below when I heard a garbled curse word from beneath the 9-story tower. I then saw some older man getting splattered with pop raining down from high above him. Coke on his pure white shirt splotched it brown in several places before I could call the hounds off.
When I passed him to climb up after the boys, he grabbed me none-too-gently by the arm, and snarled, “Where are these children from? Boy’s Town?”
I removed my arm from his grasp and growled back, “No, sir! They are children from hell!”
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 ended up searching for an answer to that question for the next 35 years.
Perhaps, I will never know.
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.
I eventually started calling these misfit kids, Children of the Corn.
Out of frustration, I began writing stories for them.
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 Steve then pulled the trigger.
The hammer fell on an empty chamber, and so Steve 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, Steve 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. Steve simply laughed and walked away, leaving his two younger brothers quite shaken.
As a private contractor with the State, I knew I was obligated to report this incident.
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 life 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, Shawn and Jack carried their own autographed copies into class and shared them with Beef.
A year 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! Congratulations! You’ve written one helluva book, Tom!”
During the writing of this book, I was informed that Beef died of heart failure this past July. I thought it strange that one so full of life passed on, and I was not even aware of his death until 5 months later. His was a great heart and I shall miss him.