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 14 – A breath of fresh air, and smokes
Day Three – mid-morning
I went back to bed, and slept deeply until the smell of bacon awoke me.
By then, Karen had launched her workout in the Commons room right on schedule to unanimous acclaim from all the young men of Unity House who eventually joined her. Even Naleef was pumping it for twenty minutes, I heard later. Blissfully for me, the guys were pooped when Sgt. Jackson finished, so when I joined the festivities their edginess was sapped, or wrapped in endorphins.
After breakfast, we decided not to wait for Brother Mike. We let Adam sleep in, but TT and Karen suited up with Trey and Willy to unload the food truck into the Nuke Mobile. Bill and Trey were the outside guys and they transferred the food cases from inside the truck to the waiting hands of TT, Karen and Willy. In fifteen-minutes they had the Nuke Mobile loaded, and TT took off for Brother Mike and St. Vincent’s.
Kevin P and I took the next shift, and we huffed and puffed cases of canned goods the thirty-feet or so from the SYSCO truck to our pantry’s back door. Bill and Kevin A took them from there and stacked them to the ceiling in the pantry hallway.
“Get the fruit, Dave,” Bill called out through the dining room window. “It’s on the dance floor of the truck.”
“Dance floor?” I asked Kevin. “You know what a dance floor is?”
“It’s the section over the tongue,” KP answered.
Okay, I thought and crawled over mystery cases to the front, where I found twelve cases of fresh fruit, mostly oranges and apples. We can serve brunch for a hundred, but I hope there’s some real food for dinner here, too, like pork chops and chicken quarters.
In our fifteen-minute spurt, which really turned out to be closer to twenty-five, we unloaded about half the truck. The rest had to wait until the next day when our safety time bumped to thirty-minutes. The truck, with its refrigeration insulation, provided lots of protection to the food, but our intuition had told us we should stockpile it in the house, if nothing more than to give us a clear idea of what we had to eat. It also gave us some protection from marauders who might come through the neighborhood looking for food, or even prevent our guys from sneaking out into the dust to get extra goodies.
Let them raid the panty – it’s safer, I figured.
In the pantry, we had the strangest assortment of industrial food supply: fifty pounds of bacon, twenty-dozen eggs, four cases of apple sauce, twelve cases of tomato puree, and lots of oranges.
They can’t cook that much spaghetti at St. V’s, I thought, looking at the pile of tomato puree.
With the transfer of food, however, we had tracked a mess of dust into the house. Naleef and Deon were assigned floor mopping duty, but without any adult supervision they made a soapy mess. Terry, overridden by her desire for a dust-free house, ran in for one-minute’s worth of radiation to clean up the swamp.
“We’ve got a lot of radiation all over the place, don’t we Terry,” I said, poking my head through the pantry door.
Terry appeared frustrated trying to figure out where to put the now-radiated mop, bucket, and dirty water.
“Yeah, Dave, I guess we put this out with the vacuum. But we’ve got all our plastic suits out there, and everything we touch that’s been outside is now radiated, so how do we put on our protection suits to be protected next time, eh? We’ll get radiation on our hands just them putting on. We’ll need fresh plastic gloves every time we put on the suits.
“Then, we’ve got to dump the gloves that we used to put on our suits. I’ve got radiation on my hands now from mopping, and I don’t even know where to wipe my hands. Give me a paper towels, will ya, and a plastic bag, so I can throw the paper into a “radiation-only” garbage bag.
“It’s getting crazy,” she continued. I don’t know what to do. When you think about it, the radiation just follows us like a shadow. It’s everywhere – in our clothes, our shoes, on all our stuff, the fresh fruit, the cardboard cases. Everything. But what can we do? We can only do so much.”
“I know Terry,” I replied, handling her a roll of paper towels and a box of plastic bags. “When ya think about it, it’s mind-blowing. I say we just do the best we can do for now, take care of the basics and not be stupid, and hope for the best.”
“Yeah, I agree. I’m out of here. I’ll take my shower and call it good.”
Which brought up another problem: our air was getting stale with all the windows and doors closed.
After showers and lunch, we went on a survey to see how the guys’ rooms were holding up without fresh air. The verdict came quickly: the rooms stunk. I almost needed a respirator to complete the search.
“We gotta do something,” I said to Terry. “We need fresh air to breathe, and fresh air will dilute the concentration of radiation we’re bringing into the house, too.”
“I agree, but what can we do?” she said. “We can’t have the guys opening the windows.”
“How about building window screens?” Bill suggested.
“Screens?” said Karen, “that won’t keep out the dust.”
“No,” said Bill. “Screen frames, like filters, that’ll we can put layers of burlap over, or wool blankets that will keep out the dust, but let in a little fresh air.”
“Great idea, Bill,” I said. “We’ve got some tools downstairs. I do some maintenance with the guys as part of their consequences. If you punch out a wall, you gotta fix it. We’re becoming pretty good sheetrockers around here, especially Kevin P, although I don’t think he’s ever patched a hole the size of Deon’s head yet.”
Terry laughed. She loved my behavioral program of teaching the guys how to drywall the holes they punched during their fits of “expression.” She had made mention to the Executive Board that her “therapist was a better handyman than the A-Dub maintenance crew who only show up after they’ve been called three times.” That crack put me in deep doo-doo with my brother carpenters.
“Bill, one thing I learned is we gotta work one-on-one with these guys when it comes to tools. Otherwise, it can get hairy when everyone wants to pitch in at once.”
We organized teams, and the window ventilation project got under way. Terry took Naleef and got us measurements. TT, Karen and Kevin P hunted up building material stored behind the boiler and hot water heaters, and in basement rafters under the old section of the house.
With Kevin A, I made window boxes out of 2×4’s, open on opposite ends. We skinned them with eighth-inch plywood scrounged from old busted-up closets stored in the basement.
While we made the boxes, Trey and Willy assisted Bill in stapling old bedding, rags, and blankets into dust-blocking baffles. Bill and his crew were much faster than KA and I, so they became the room installation crew as well.
By late afternoon, every guy had a window vent box. Slowly, the warm October air began to penetrate the rooms. Gradually, they began to smell, well, a little fresher, but it was going to take a lot of fresh air to remove the strange, heavy odor of sexualized, hormone emitting, hero-becoming young men.
The window frames also meant our guys wouldn’t be sneaking out to have a smoke, which brought up another problem. We were out of smokes. Or I should say, Terry and the guys were.
Realizing their dilemma, the guys brought it up at dinner.
“No problem,” said Karen, “my husband smokes and has a carton back home. Marlboro’s.” The guys’ eyes lit up.
“A carton? That’s a pack for everyone,” screamed Willy. “We’s in fat city.”
“Yeah, but how you gonna get them, fool?” asked Trey. “You can’t go back out ‘til tomorrow.”
“Well then, tomorrow it is. First thing,” I said. The smokers breathed a sigh of relief.
“Ahem,” coughed Adam.
Yes, we had forgotten about the Alpha Wolf of A-Dub. Will Adam nix smokes in the house? I decided to answer the challenge in my usual bold, but some have said reckless, manner. I stood up and asked Adam directly.
“Adam, I have a question for you.” The room went silent.
“I have a question about smoking. As you know, residents are forbidden to smoke. But recent developments have modified that rule, and over the past year or two the residents have been known to smoke while on walks in the neighborhood.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I don’t know,” I continued, “if my perspective on the benefits of smoking has reached your ears in the Executive Board, but I think smoking does help people calm down. I’m not saying that there aren’t health risks to smoking, but there are benefits that shouldn’t be overlooked. Since the guys have not been able to go out and smoke and our stress levels remain high, I have proposed that the residents be allowed to smoke occasionally in the house for the duration. This rule change hasn’t been activated because everyone is out of smokes, including Terry. Since Karen has volunteered to make a run back to her house and get a carton of her husband’s cigarettes, which many people view as a heroic and much-appreciated gesture. I support it, and suggest that all Men of Honor in good standing be allowed to smoke five cigarettes a day, during regular smoke times, like after each meal, and once in the afternoon, and once in the evening. What do you think?”
“Who will keep the cigarettes and matches? It must be staff.” Adam said.
“I will,” volunteered Karen.
“Agreed. Do these Men of Honor that you speak of, agree to limit themselves to only five cigarettes per day?” continued Adam.
“I don’t know.” I replied. “What say you, Men of Honor of Unity House? Do any of you think five cigarettes is not enough? Remember, these smokes may have to last a while.”
No one dissented.
“I think the Men of Honor can live with the five a day, Adam.”
“Well, if they can’t, the deal’s off. Otherwise, it’s okay with me for the duration of our being cooped up in this house together. But the smoking room has to be closed off so the smoke doesn’t go all over the house. I don’t want to breathe your smoke.”
“I volunteer my room,” I said.
“Okay,” said Adam, “but the smoking lounge must be supervised by staff at all times.”
“Can we have music, too?” asked Trey.
“Yeah!” shouted Willy and Ryan.
“Well, that seems to settle things, Adam,” I replied, “but you have just brought up another issue. You need to be inducted into the Men of Honor.”
“And what exactly is the Men of Honor?”
“It’s our new honor society that we formed yesterday, Adam,” TT replied. “It’s based on the ideals of Worcester Pride and the Men of Honor Society in Roxbury. I’ll show you our Code.” TT left the table to get it. Walking away he added, “I suggest we induct you tonight in a special ceremony.”
Adam had a pretty good idea of what we were attempting to do with the Men of Honor Society, and embraced our efforts once he saw the paper work.
After diner, we gathered in the Commons room and lit candles. It looked very regal. I got a chill up my spine when we turned off the lights. It felt sacred.
TT and Trey read the Code of Honor preface out loud, together in kind of a Greek chorus. Then, TT led Adam through the recitation of the fifteen specific codes. At the conclusion, Adam looked truly honored receiving his scarf and Terry looked just as pleased putting it over his head.
These two are just too cool. Wish I had a love like that…wonder why they never lived together…sure is a story there…
After that, we had another indoor campfire and party. Telling jokes and singing songs made it seem like Halloween and Christmas, combined with Kumbaya in between.
TT and Karen knew plenty of good ol’ gospel stuff, which most of the guys knew, too. I knew old folkie stuff like John Denver songs, and although the guys weren’t keen on my rendition of “We All Live in a Yellow Submarine.” They loved “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” though.
Adam and Terry looked very mellow sitting next to each other, like they were on a hippie holiday together. Adam’s rendition of the Jewish folk song, “Zum-Galli-Galli,” was infectious.
After hearing all the virtuosity, Deon, of course, wanted to take center stage.
“Hey, Dave, give me the guitar. I wanna play something.”
“You know how to play a guitar?” I asked.
“Yeah. I know how to play,” he insisted.
“Sure you do,” Trey taunted.
“Yeah, show us, you little runt,” Willy challenged.
Put on the spot, Deon had nowhere to go, so I offered him the guitar. He didn’t know a single chord but strummed furiously, then started wailing a rap song:
“I am a hero. Yeah, baby, I am a hero.
My mother’s gonna love me, oh, yes, she will.
When she finds out I’m a hero and saved the world.
Oh, yeah, she’s gonna love me, gonna love me, ‘cause I saved the world.”
“Not bad, Deon,” I said when he finished. “Totally off-key, but the song’s cool. I like it because I know you’re singing from the heart.”
Willy rolled his eyes hearing my verbal affection, but I looked hard at Willy before he said something that Deon would react to. Fortunately, Willy changed his attitude and shoved Trey instead.
“Hey, dude, play us a tune, eh?” Willy challenged.
“No way, dude,” Trey said, pushing back.
Karen stood up and said, “I’ll sing a song,” and began a soft lullaby that sounded like it had Gullah roots:
“Husha me baby – ya, ya, ya.
Husha me baby ya-ya, nu.
Husha me baby, na-na-na.
Husha me baby, na- ta-you.”
That quieted everybody down.
Singing, Deon had touched on his single most painful issue. When the Commonwealth pulled Deon from his mother’s home, they forbade her unsupervised visits for one year. But her disorganization, compounded by DSHS ineptitude, prevented her from ever successfully connecting with Deon. By the time the year was up, Deon’s mom had vanished. No one knew if she was dead, or if alive where she might be. Since their separation, Deon has never seen his mother and he bitterly blames the Commonwealth for “stealing my mother.”
In retaliation, Deon declared war on the world and his marching anthem was, “Nobody has a right to steal a mother.”
I empathized. “There has to be way,” I’d argue, “for DSHS to find out if Deon’s mother is alive or not. The kid has a right to some closure on this.”
But, other than one Missing Person Inquiry to the State Police, and an occasional brief computer search of DSHS records to see if she was receiving any DSHS services, the agency did nothing. I guess it was all too embarrassing for them to lose the mother of their million-dollar baby.
In fairness to the agency, though, their attitude of: “If the mother doesn’t want to see her child, then we can’t make her,” had some merit.
Bottom Line: Mom, where are you?
Nevertheless, whenever something happened to Deon, I’d push for another investigation, if nothing more than to prove to Deon we were on his side.
Terry was torn on the subject. Intuitively, she knew something had to be done, that Deon’s interests and those of Unity too, would be best served if Deon knew where his mother was. But she was uncomfortable with me taking on the brute force of DSHS, for she was beholden financially to keeping a cordial relationship with the agency.
“Our money depends on their referrals and timely payments,” she’d often remind me.
I made Terry’s job harder, but she knew I was right. House staff would tell Deon that I was sticking up for him with DSHS as a way to help him become compliant to my authority, but it never sunk in.
When the singing faded, we had another round of prayers led by TT and Karen. Then, it was snacks and lights out.
Our third day had come to an end.
If we can just hang in there we’ll be okay. Help should be here soon.