By Bruce A. Smith
The Men of Honor of Unity House is a novel based upon my experiences as a therapist at a residential foster care facility for young men coping with sexual assault charges. In 2001, during the Anthrax scare that followed 9-11, my agency’s director and I mapped out a plan for how we would deal with our men, aged 12-18, if we had to go into lockdown in the event of a local terrorist attack. The following pages are based upon those discussions.
The plot so far: A 2-kiloton suitcase nuke has exploded in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the staff of Unity House form the Men of Honor Society for two purposes: One, to keep the seven teen-aged boys of Unity House busy and not fighting each other, and two, to act as a rescue group to the local neighborhood. Due to the destruction and radiation, the police and army can not get into this section of Worcester. The people living on Marion Avenue and Plantation Street have only the Men of Honor for assistance.
To read more of the Men of Honor:
Chapter 8 – Codes of Honor
Day Two – 12:45pm
In front of one of the southern windows, a bespeckled young man stood in the dust holding a boy in each hand. All three were wrapped in green garbage bags. At first, I didn’t recognize Deon and Naleef. Nor did I understand why our guys didn’t just walk in the house on their own.
We all motioned to the main door in front of the house and the stranger led our guys in that direction. We all met at the door.
The gentleman spoke rhetorically. “I’ve brought your charges home. I trust I have the right place?”
“Yes, you do,” I answered. “Who are you? Would you like to come in?”
“No, thank you. My name is Roger Alsde. I’m a seventh-grade teacher at Grafton Street Middle School, and I’ve been asked to return Deon and Naleef. But now that I’ve done that, I must be going. I don’t want to risk any more radiation.”
Hearing that word everyone pulled back from the door. Radiation is so hard to remember, it’s so invisible, but once someone mentions it, there is nothing else to think of.
“Right,” I said. “Thanks for bringing them home. Good luck to you. We hear on the Internet that the radiation is still high, but you’re okay for a few minutes right now, but not much more for a while.”
“Yes,” said Roger Alsde, “that’s what I understand, also. I live on South Street so I was able to bring your young men home. Goodbye.” With that he turned and left.
“Thanks,” I called out. But I don’t know if you have a home to go to. South Street is close to the top of the hill.
I couldn’t figure out why the return of Naleef and Deon seemed so strange. At the time I thought that they didn’t come inside spontaneously because Alsde’s steely grip made them numb. I learned a year later from Naleef that he was afraid we wouldn’t want him back. He said that he felt unclean from all the dust and that we would just kick him out for being too contaminated.
One never knows what is going on in these guys’ minds, sometimes.
TT and Terry helped Deon and Naleef out of their plastic radiation suits and then led them to the showers.
When they returned, the guys gravitated into the Commons room to jive with Deon, who returned to his old hyper-self as soon as Terry released her grip on his now scrubbed hand. He immediately regaled his house brothers with stories of how he terrorized an entire school for twenty-four hours.
“Running through the halls as the Z-Man at 2:00am,” I heard Deon claim, and then, interpreting the rest of his message, we learned that after the teachers captured Deon, they locked him up in the principal’s office. Deon then entertained himself for the remainder of the night by rifling open the principal’s desk, finding the keys to all the cabinets and dumping over three-thousand files into a big pile in the middle of the principal’s office.
“I’m glad that teacher brought them back, and just didn’t duct tape Deon to a tree somewhere.”
“Yeah,” said Terry. “Alsde must have been elected to bring them here, and as a reward he gets to go home, if the honor doesn’t kill him.”
“Yeah, funny choice, eh?”
“Grafton Street must’ve been hell last night. Now, we’ve got them.”
“Yeah, got any ideas?” I said.
“Yeah, keep Deon busy and pray a lot. Maybe Ramtha could show up and baby sit our darlings for a few hours. I sure wouldn’t mind a little help from an ascended master or two.”
I smiled. It was the first time I had ever been teased about Ramtha instead of ridiculed. It felt good.
Wearing our red berets, we all broke up into little groups to take care of house business. Tiny T organized a dust vacuuming crew to protect the house, first wrapping plastic around the bag to minimize the dust entering the atmosphere. Bill and Kevin A. went to the kitchen for clean-up. Terry went to my computer, which was still our only link to the outside world, and started sending emails to the executive board, her husband, Captain Ambretti of the Worcester City PD, and anybody else she could think of, letting them know our situation and asking when help might be coming our way.
I went to Terry’s computer and using it as a word processor, I started composing the Honor Code for the Men of Honor. Specifically, what were the behaviors the guys would pledge to follow to qualify for receiving their yellow scarf. Fortunately, TT and I had already discussed things this far. We had to get this thing off the ground while the guys were still motivated.
The Men of Honor of Unity House
This is the Code of Honor for Unity House, Worcester, Massachusetts. All men of Unity House who have read this code and agree to live by it are considered Men of Honor. They are thereby entitled to wear their red beret and yellow scarf. Any breach of the Code will require the individual to refrain from wearing his beret and scarf until he acknowledges his transgression and newly commits to this Code. The Men of Honor will meet weekly to discuss changes and additions to this Code, and to discuss with their Brothers of Honor their experiences in living the Code. All Men of Honor in good standing will be invited to a Men of Honor banquet, held monthly at a location of our mutual choosing.
The Code of Honor of Unity House
The Men of Honor Pledge to:
- Honor themselves and always hold themselves in respect.
- Honor their Brothers of Unity House.
- Respect Unity House and treat it as their home.
- Honor all people, and never speak to another so that it hurts his feelings or makes him feel small.
- Respect all women.
- Refrain from physical and verbal violence to another.
- Be trustworthy. Men of Honor do not steal or cheat.
- Be honest. Men of Honor do not lie. They always tell the whole truth.
- Seek the highest good in all situations.
- Honor Mother Earth. Men of Honor do not throw trash on the ground, leave untidiness in their rooms, the house, or in the vehicles of Unity House.
- Build a relationship to Divine Spirit, such as is their custom and personal inclination. Men of Honor respect all faiths.
- Refrain from drugs and do not abuse alcohol.
- Keep a sense of humor.
- Strive to assist others in the world and make a difference in the community.
- Be fair at all times and seek the greatest good for all, even if that means sacrificing on the part of the individual.
I wondered if they can handle all this, I thought when I proof-read the code. Then I recalled TJ Doyle’s mantra: If you don’t set the goals where you really want them, you have no chance of ever achieving them.
I also composed flyers that the guys could hand out in a door-to-door canvas, which seemed like the first thing we would do. Five-minutes today, ten or fifteen tomorrow and after that, well, we’d make it up as we went along.
We are members of the Men of Honor of Unity House, 2699 Marion Ave. Worcester, Massachusetts, which is the big stone house at the end of Marion Ave. It’s a residence for the foster care of young men. We wear our red berets and yellow scarves to symbolize our participation in this Honor Society.
We are going door-to-door throughout the Union Hill area to see if anyone needs help. Worcester was hit by a nuclear bomb two days ago as part of a terrorist attack on our country.
The dust you see on the ground is radioactive. Officials say you should not be outdoors in the dust for more than five minutes today. You can slowly build up your time outdoors, so that in two weeks you can spend an hour or two outdoors with no adverse health effects.
We will not be able to resume normal outdoor activity for 28 days. However, if and when you go outside and get dust on yourself, you can safely wash it off in a shower with normal soap and water.
We have food, water, and shelter at Unity House if you need any assistance. Let us know by placing a towel or flag of some kind on your front door. We will be by to check every day.
You can call us at 832-6248, or email us at Dave@unityallianceofworcester.org.
If you have any questions, please contact our staff: Terry Muscolli, Program Director of Unity House; Dave Stein, Life Skills Counselor; or Tecumseh Sherman, Residential Specialist.
I showed the two documents to Terry.
“Looks good, Dave. Looks real good, especially the Men of Honor code. I like it.”
“But the flyer,” she continued. “We’re letting ourselves in for a mess of trouble if we get really needy people, or wackos. How are we going to care for really sick people? We’ve got our hands full with our own guys.”
“I know, but helping others is how we can best help our guys. It’ll keep them busy and give them a great sense of pride.”
“If it works.”
“True. If it works. If it doesn’t, we’ll just have to adjust. I’m prepared to withdraw our offer of assistance if we can’t handle it. I’ve got no problem with that.”
Terry just grunted. She could see so many scenarios that weren’t pretty. But my inner knowingness was so clear to me. I knew we had to do this.
“Terry, we’ll take it slow; one step at a time. Five minutes today, ten tomorrow. The dust will be our friend, and give us leverage if the guys go nuts with this. We can work our way into this. If we have to be here for twenty-eight days….” I didn’t finish.
“Oh, don’t even mention that. I can’t even think about that,” Terry interjected.
“Yeah, I know, it’s a big chunk of time to wrap your mind around. But we have no idea what kind of help we’re gonna get. Even if a guy in a big, white toxic suit showed up today, what would it change? Our guys have no place to go. The best we can do is keep them as busy and sane as possible. We’re gonna need staff in here soon to help us – and who is gonna risk death by radiation for eleven-dollars an hour? Who? Really? Do you think the executive board is gonna show up with fresh baked apple pies, saying ‘Hi guys, how ya doin’?’”
Terry broke out laughing.
I chuckled myself, picturing the executive director and her assistant actually showing up to work with these guys.
“I’d love to see their behavioral plans in action,” I said. “Ya know the ones they’re always touting us to develop. I’d love to see theirs for Deon, let’s say for being the Z-Man of Grafton Street last night at 2am.”
Terry roared. “Me, too,” Terry said through her laughter, “although Adam Peronski was a pretty decent social worker in his day, and he’s on the Board.”
“He’s eighty-something, Terry,” I said.
“Yeah, but he’s got the touch. Even at eighty-three he still has a little gas left in his tank.” Terry paused, “Okay, Dave,” she said while handing the papers back to me. “The Men of Honor are in action. But we take it slow, one step at a time. Got it?”
Chapter 9 – Induction
Day Two – 2pm
I made copies and brought them out to TT, who was in the Commons area playing video games with the guys.
TT read them and said, “Okay guys, get your berets. We’re gonna have our first meetings of the Men of Honor, and get our plan together for helping the neighborhood.”
Willy lingered at the controls of his video game but slowly surrendered, and the guys all went to their rooms. Deon and Naleef stayed. They hadn’t gotten their berets yet, so TT handed them the box and asked them to make their choices.
Deon tried all different angles, checking himself in the mirror next to the staff office to see which angle would be the coolest. Naleef just plopped his beret squarely on his head.
How different these two guys are, I mused, observing their hat selection.
Deon and Naleef were six months apart in age, the two youngest guys in the house, and really separated from the older guys in teenage savvy. Naleef was just thirteen, and a very immature thirteen at that. Deon was twelve and sometimes acted nineteen, but often behaved like a very large two-year old. Compared to them, the next oldest guy at 14, Kevin A, seemed like an adult.
Deon was our million-dollar baby. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts had already spent a million bucks of tax money on him as he had been in and out of institutional care since conception. His mother was a junkie who really wanted her baby. Her social worker, who had been working with her and her whole dysfunctional family for the seven years prior to Deon’s birth, supported her decision to become a mom. I guess he had no choice, really, because when a woman wants to become a mom what can a social worker do? But he should have seen the writing on the wall because Deon’s mother, her two sisters and Deon’s grandmother racked up eight Child Protective Service referrals before the state pulled the plug and yanked Deon out of their care when he was six. So, Deon entered the world of foster care, and ultimately Unity House, behind a very large eight-ball of druggin’, drinkin’ and chaotic living.
Strangely, Deon did not drink or do drugs. His passion was making life hell for the Department of Social and Health Services. His specialty were big-ticket items like burning down houses, which he did when he was nine to one of his thirty-eight foster families.
Besides the house burning, Deon had thirty-six instances of being in police custody. These incidents ranging from just being at the Mall at 3am, or throwing a chair through his social worker’s window. At McCready Hall, the Worcester County prison for kids, Deon had been incarcerated there eight different times according to my records. And he was only twelve.
He had been in Unity House three times in the past year. The first two times he had run away after a week or so, surviving on the street through a combination of street hustling, dumpster diving and little-boy charm that would get him informally adopted by whomever he set his eyes on.
But his latest stay was different. Deon had been with us for the past ten weeks. Maybe he was changing. We even got him into Grafton Street Middle School, which was a miracle. Normally guys like Deon, who bounce in and out of state facilities, do not go to regular school since their behavior is so disruptive. As a result, their educational performance is much lower than their grade level. Therefore, guys like Deon – about thirty other lads and lassies of Worcester County – were tutored in a special school, Sunrise Center, in downtown Worcester.
Deon hated Sunrise and I couldn’t blame him. It was a converted old gas station and had only one small window, no grass and no playground. The outdoor play area was a tiny asphalt lot where junked cars had once been parked and oil still reeked. Whether he received any kind of education is debatable, but undeniably it lacked one critical factor for Deon, Mother Nature.
Deon loved the outdoors. Maybe since he didn’t have a functioning mom, he found mothers wherever he could, and Mother Nature was his favorite. He hated formal therapy, especially indoors in my office, so our sessions were held in the aforementioned Gardens of Magdalene Abbey, another of the old McAllister homes that had reverted to a religious order: The Brothers of Marian.
Deon loved the garden, and you could see him relax in the company of trees, blue skies and a gentle breeze. His favorite place to sit was on top of a big rock at the center of the garden, perched like a Lion King on his Pride Rock.
I had been advocating that Deon go to a boot camp out in nature because the second place Deon thrived was prison. He liked, or at least appreciated, firm structure. Throughout August, Deon’s new social worker and I had tried to get him into a pastoral, no-bullshit, residence in the Big Sky Country of Montana. Unfortunately, Massachusetts didn’t have the eighty-grand per year needed for the placement. Some bean-counter in the Governor’s Office figured the $8,000 per month at Unity House was cheaper. Duh? Or maybe the bean-counter figured that me or a doctor somewhere in Psychiatric Wonderland had a magic pill that was going to fix Deon once and for all. and get him off the state’s books. Whomever you are, friend, dream on.
Anyway, Deon was around for the start of the school year ,and since he had been stable with Unity House since early August, Grafton Street figured they could take a chance on him. Apparently, last night Deon flew his true colors at Grafton Street, and his vandalism and utter disregard for others got him escorted back to us. “Thanks, Mr. Alsde, you saved me the trip.” Deon was my guy until Deon decided he wasn’t, so Unity was where Deon belonged.
As for Naleef, besides having a strange name, he looked strange. Short and slender, he never stood straight, making him downright tiny. His crooked-ness had me wondering if he had spinal bifida, but tests disproved that idea. Hence, I wondered if he was twisted psychosomatically – recoiling from life’s emotional attacks if you will. His skin color was different as well, and that kept him from easy social acceptance. His light, mocha complexion and almond eyes reflected his mix of Vietnamese, Okinawan, and US Navy heritage.
Naleef was extremely shy and awkward, and I sometimes saw him pace our hallways like he was lost. Some of those times he also walked unsteadily, running his elbow along the wall, either in an effort to brace himself or perhaps as some kind of emotional reassurance. I never saw him initiate any direct social interaction, either. Rather, he would stealthily slide into something already going on, like joining a couple of guys playing video games on our large TV screen and merge with the group action.
His anxious fragility came out most clearly at night. Naleef suffered from nocturnal enuresis: nighttime bed-wetting. When he first came to Unity his enuresis was a nightly event, but as he acclimated to his new surroundings over the summer and the incidents tapered off. However, when school started in September his enuresis returned in earnest at Unity, and also spilled over into his daytime at Grafton Street, where his lack of bladder control was a frequent occurrence.
Naleef was a wreck the first week of school, even in their half-day, “Easy Start,” program. It was understandable since it was the first time in four years he had been in a regular school.
Compounding Naleef’s problems was his insistence on having staff help him change the sheets. At eleven-bucks-an-hour the night crew wanted a thirteen-year old to be able to change his own bedsheets. The staff argued with Naleef nightly, escalating his anxiety. In turn the staff hounded me, demanding that I somehow “make him grow up faster.” I thought Naleef was growing up as fast as he knew how. Nevertheless, I’d push him a little, asking in sessions why he still needed staff help with the sheets. His answer was always the same: a shrug.
Stonewalling all my efforts to get him to talk about the bed-wetting, or how he felt starting school, I sensed his past was at the heart of the issue. Until he was ready to talk about any of it, the best I could do was offer some social relief by playing chess during our sessions, going for walks together, or coloring paint-by-numbers in my office while we listened to country music. For some reason, he loved George Straight.
Underneath it all, though, was the impact of childhood sexual abuse. Naleef had been raped since he was a toddler, mostly by his mother’s endless stream of boyfriends. Naleef’s mother suffered as an adult from the after-effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, and not only was she unable to cope with many of the responsibilities of motherhood, she was also unable to control many of her own physical urges. She drank and drugged, and turned to intermittent prostitution to make money for them to live. However, she often turned tricks right in the presence of Naleef, and some of her clients had sex with Naleef as well.
The culmination point occurred when Naleef was eight years old. Mom and her boyfriend du jour took Naleef to the movies, and during the show mom and boyfriend got drunk from a flask. After the show they decided to have sex in the backseat of the car before going home. Turning to Naleef in the front seat, his mom said, “Oh, honey just turn up the radio and don’t look.” Then, she tossed her son the keys.
Hearing loud music emanating from a stationary car for over twenty minutes, the Shopping Mall Security decided to investigate and found mom and boyfriend in corpus delecti. Flashing lights, cops with guns, two half-clothed adults, and a drunken brawl between the boyfriend and security highlighted the ensuing drama.
Child Protective Services removed Naleef immediately and placed him in foster care that night. His mother was sent to jail on child abuse charges and a few warrants for bad checks caught up with her as well. Five years later, she was still incarcerated when Naleef came to Unity House.
However, prior to arriving at Unity, Naleef floundered in foster care, becoming very depressed and withdrawn. Within two weeks of the CPS intervention he was in Worcester State Hospital for Children, a psychiatric facility for kids.
Naleef didn’t fare so well there either, and twice cut his wrists. However, therapy and a stable environment got him functioning again, and after four years in the residential psych facility for kids, DSHS felt he was strong enough for a community placement.
Unity was the best they could find, and Naleef came to us in the spring, just after his thirteenth birthday. Not the most ideal placement perhaps, but Naleef generally did okay, especially now that school was in session. Despite his anxieties and bedwetting, Naleef was a smart kid and received a plenty of kudos from his teachers, which was fantastic.
Along those lines, I saw some real strength in Naleef – certainly his intellect. But he had a strong sense of nobility, courage even, and he clearly knew how to endure. He just had a lot of social catching up to do. So, Naleef was down at Grafton Street Middle School, and from his teachers’ reports: “hanging in there.”
As the rest of the guys joined Deon and Naleef, TT called the first meeting of the Men of Honor to order. He read the Code and Introduction word for word, and made it sound like it was his composition. I let it go. I didn’t need a copyright, but it would have been nice to have had a little acknowledgment that I was part of the founding. TT gave, but he didn’t share.
One by one, the guys read the Code, and TT placed a yellow scarf around each one’s neck when they finished. After the third guy, it was getting boring, so I suggested that the guys give their own meaning to the Code, such as “I accept the Code of Honor and this is what it means to me.” TT just scowled and I knew we needed a Plan B.
“How about the three guys left, Kevin A, Naleef, and Deon, read the Code together,” I suggested. Trey and Willy brightened. They sure didn’t want to listen to three more renditions, especially Naleef’s, which would probably be filled with a litany of, “I can’t do this,” or “I don’t know how to pronounce that word,” or “I don’t know what this means.” TT still scowled.
“Or, you and I can read with them, TT, with the three guys left, all together. Make it a joint project.” TT went for it, and that’s how we finished. The next question was what to do next.
Instead of unloading Bill’s truck, we decided to go into the neighborhood. We figured the food was better off where it was for now, since not only did we not have a lot of freezer space, Bill’s truck was insulated for refrigeration, which gave us at least a week’s worth of storage time before we had to cook the food or pitch it. What seemed more urgent was to launch the Men of Honor.