How You Are Remembered

This week, to offer new voices and a different perspective, guest writers will contribute to Winter of Kindness. I have reached out to my friends and colleagues and asked what kindness meant to them. Some responded with opinions, others their musings, and all have a rare story to share…their own.

Today, my father, Wayne Barnes, who introduces himself in his tale, shares how kindness can stay with someone. He is a man who lives by the phrase, “recruit everyone, everyday.” His unfathomable awareness and calm allows him learn and befriend just about anyone he meets…but most of all, to make a memory in the process. Enjoy…

A year ago, when we were planning for Germantown High School’s 50th reunion, I realized our attendance numbers had been dwindling over the decades, because of girls changing last names upon marriage, and people moving out of the area and just losing touch.

Having been in the FBI for 29 years, where I used to find people who did not want to be found—and were actual fugitives—I told the search committee I would be glad to take on the list of hard-to-finds. After a few hundred calls to people with the same names as our fellow alumni, (even if not still in Philly), a number of classmates, who had been “lost” to us, were found, and came to our reunion. The advent of computer database searches did the trick, and it felt good.

In going through the lists of already-found people, I saw your name, but would not be speaking with you because you weren’t a “fugitive” alum. I figured I would see you at the April 25th reunion and have an opportunity to speak with you then. As events would have it, you were not able to attend, but what I wanted to say to you sort of festered away at me. There was an incident in my life where you played a pivotal role, although you might not have thought about it even a few days after it happened, but believe me, I did.

Leeds Junior High School had a soccer team. If you can recall back that far, we were in around the 8th grade, so it was probably 1961 and we were thirteen. Back then, I used to sit in the front of every class, both because my last name began with an early letter in the alphabet, but mostly because I was the shortest one in the class. I recall that dear friend Freddy Turoff and I, literally, saw eye-to-eye, and he went far in his gymnastics at Temple, where short stature was an advantage. But it was what happened on a fateful day, when I was “the smallest kid on the block,” that was imprinted on my brain for all time.

I had wanted to play soccer. I figured I was a very fast little runner, but Senior Diggs, our Spanish teacher, and the Leeds soccer coach, demanded all players have cleats. I was from “south of Upsal” Street in West Oak Lane, and our families had lower incomes than those farther north in Mount Airy. The point is, there was no way I could ever afford cleats, and my normal Converse sneakers wouldn’t cut it for Mr. Diggs. Standing on the edge of the soccer field at Mt. Pleasant and Lowber, with the team practicing most of a block south at Sedgewick, right across from Leeds, I was lamenting my plight when a gang of bigger boys came walking up the street. I knew who they were, right away, and saw only bad things about to happen.

The previous week, a friend in my Boy Scout troop, Johnny Lonholm, and I had been in the schoolyard at St. Raymond’s Elementary, several blocks away. He was a real prankster. The Catholic schools started classes a week before us, and he stood outside their classroom windows taunting those inside who were already condemned to attend class. I was with him, but wasn’t taunting. I even tried to stop him, because it was a stupid thing to do, but to no avail.

So now the “big kids” from St. Ray’s, walking up the street, saw me and rushed to surround me. There were maybe half-a-dozen and, as always, I was the smallest. They began to taunt me, as Johnny had taunted them through their classroom windows. But now it was getting nasty, really for no reason, but to push their weight around. They wanted to know where Johnny was but, of course, I had no idea. They began to rough me up, pushing me back and forth between them and knocked me down. So, yeah, while I had been an innocent bystander, the previous week, now I was in the thick of things taking the wrath of guys out to get somebody else, and I was the whipping-boy for their anger. (It would be years before I would learn the finer points of “freedom of association” in law school, but little good it did me in 1961.)

My clothes were already a mess, now being tossed around on the ground, and my greatest fear was actually that my mother would be upset with me. But they were about to get down and real dirty, and I had a genuine gut-wrenching fear they would all pile on and do the worst by me.

Then, like a herd of stallions kicking up a cloud of dust, I heard the stampede of many cleated feet coming across the field, with you in the lead. You were so much taller than me—you looked almost like a giant—and others were behind you. You stepped right into the mix and made your presence known. You proclaimed I was a friend of yours, and—What’s the problem?

From my position on the ground, I could only be an observer, but you had taken my fate from their hands and it was now in yours. There was never a hero, to me, quite like you, and at that moment. I recall your hands flexing into fists at your sides—something not lost on the Catholic boys—and I don’t even remember who else was behind you backing you up. It was truly a them-against-us moment, and the most intense I had experienced.

Then, as cowards do, when confronted with greater size and strength, especially when their forte is bullying-for-bullying sake, the St. Ray’s kids skulked away. I never saw them, again, assiduously avoiding their schoolyard for the rest of my days in the old neighborhood.

You leaned down to make sure I was okay and helped me up. Then you all went back to the other end of the soccer field to resume practice, and it was over. Well, it was over for you, but I never forgot it. Even when we started at Germantown High in the tenth grade, I was still only five-feet tall at age 15, weighed 100 lbs., and was the smallest boy in the school. But I would grow thirteen inches in three years, eventually reaching 6’1”. I would be on four athletic teams—swim, gym, soccer, and track—and become the Student Government president. I went to Penn State, Villanova Law, and then right into the FBI as a Special Agent where I became an expert at catching spies. Even there, I was always the straightest arrow in the Bureau’s quiver.

You never know what events from your youth will later steer you, or in what direction, but when you suffer an injustice, no matter how short the timeframe, especially when the results could be truly dire, it does affect you. It even sets you up to want to be the hero for someone else in a time of need, and I have been. So, Rich, if you have children or grandchildren, they should know that a long time ago, you did something heroic and came to my rescue. Now, only 54 years later, I wanted to remind you of what had happened, way back when, and thank you for what you did for me.