A Simple Act of Kindness
“The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.”
Rule #1- Four downs to get the ball across the goal line (telephone pole); no first downs.
Rule #2- Pass rusher must count three “Mississippies” before rushing the quarterback. (No cheating.)
Rule #3- No catching the ball on a bounce off the side or roof of a garage.
Rule #4- If football goes into Mr. Radtke’s yard, leave ball, run home, and the kid responsible for sending the ball into the forbidden zone shall endure the lifelong scorn of all the other players.
Joey easily grasped Rules 1, 2, and 3. That’s just the way they did it on the cracked and pitted surfaces of the back alley back in Wisconsin. It was Rule #4 that puzzled him.
“But if it’s our ball, Ben, we should be able to get it. We wouldn’t be harming anything. If my ball would go over his fence, I’m getting it.”
“Good luck with that. He’s the meanest guy in the city, Joey. No one dares to go into his yard. Everyone is afraid of old man Radtke.”
“What’s so scary about him?”
“For starters, he’s like 8’ tall, big scars on his face, half his teeth are missing, and he’s got green eyes.”
“You know, I’ve been here for two months, and I’ve never seen him. He must stay in his house a lot.”
“For sure. I’ve never seen him either, well close up I mean.”
“Then how do you know what he looks like?”
“Everyone says it. And he shoots birds, squirrels, and cats from his back window. Johnny Larson says he shot at him once.”
“And we’re pretty sure his wife is buried in his backyard.”
“Mom, do you know who Mr. Radtke is?”
“No, who’s that?”
“He lives three houses down from us.”
“I haven’t met him. Maybe your Dad has. Why do you ask?”
“The guys say he’s really mean. They say his wife is buried in his backyard.”
“I doubt that. I wouldn’t worry about him, Joey.”
Throughout the course of human history, we often encounter certain notable, if not unique figures, who are defined by a reputation that often exceeds the reality of the person- the town drunk, the class clown, the neighborhood meanie. Mr. Radtke not only met the baseline qualifications for the “meanie” tag, he far exceeded them. Mean: mēn; having or showing a desire to cause someone pain or suffering for the sheer enjoyment of it; cruel, malicious, nasty, Mr. Radtke.
We will surmise that Mr. Radtke did not do his wife in and unceremoniously bury her in his backyard, notwithstanding the enhanced blossoming of the lilac bushes alongside his garage. In all other respects, however, the rumors excitedly spread by the neighborhood children were, unfortunately, true. The guy was a real son-of-a-bitch.
Like many of today’s mega-sports venues, the alley was a multi-purpose facility- the touch football playing field from telephone pole to telephone pole, half the court for basketball at the hoop on Billy Boyd’s garage, and the outfield for whiffle ball at Charlie Taylor’s backyard. At night, the alley, all parking areas, and the narrow passageways between garages became the hunting grounds for the “Ghost”, with all hiding places restricted to the geography between those two telephone poles that pretty well defined the recreational living space for Joey and his gang of cohorts.
Two yards north of one of the goal line telephone poles, Mr. Radtke’s yard loomed like an angry dark cloud. It was the forbidden zone, the haunted cave, the ominous mountain where the evil spirits lurked. None dared to enter, and all children passed by quickly, fearing the wrath, even the vexing gaze, of the monster within. Joey would one day compare the scene to wary golfers keeping an eye on a menacing alligator parked alongside a fairway at a South Carolina golf course. You keep playing, but stay alert, and forfeit any ball that enters its space.
For Joey, the lore of old man Radtke was akin to the hideous person seated alone in the corner of a restaurant. Just as diners’ glances are often drawn in the direction of the undesirable, Joey would occasionally slow his pace as he passed the old man’s house and contemplate what horrors might lie hidden behind the peeling paint and closed curtains. He would pay particular attention to the slight rise in the landscape beneath the spreading red maple. The thought would occur to him that at least the old man gave his wife a nice final resting place.
Neighborhood “Strikeout”- two on a team with a pitcher and an outfielder stationed in the alley; the strike zone marked in chalk on the wall at the back of Charlie’s house; past the pitcher, a single; over the fence and into the alley, a double; on top Cooper’s or Martin’s garage, a triple; over a garage, a homer.
No one had ever seen a ball hit so far. Arguments of epic proportions would persist for years as to whether or not Johnny Larson’s historic blast was wind-aided. That was the good news for Johnny; the bad news was the monumental shot was foul, to the right of the telephone pole…by a lot. The boys stood in shock as the ball sailed over the alley. It wasn’t just the distance; it was the trajectory- the errant high fly ball was destined to land in Mr. Radtke’s yard.
There was no need to run home as Mr. Radtke would never be able to ascertain the launch pad for the unwelcome intruder now resting comfortably in the grass in his backyard. The only concern was the ball itself.
“Holy crap, Johnny, that was awesome.”
“We’ve never had a ball go that far.”
“I’ll go get another ball.”
“No, it’s our ball. I’ll go get it.”
“What?! Are you out of your ever-lovin’ mind? Don’t be stupid, Joey. That guy lost his marbles. There’s no telling what he’d do.”
“I’m not afraid.”
“No, just stupid.”
Joey felt his courage slipping away as he walked down the alley toward Mr. Radtke’s yard. Bravado tends to fade a little as one approaches the enemy, especially if you are twelve years old. Joey’s eyes pinballed between the house and the ball which sat just twenty feet inside the danger zone. He’d be in and out in seconds. As Joey studied the latch on the gate, he imagined an eight-foot-tall angry man with green eyes charging out of the house, and he began to question the wisdom of the mission. He glanced back toward Charlie’s house and saw the boys looking on in eager anticipation. It’s hard to retract a boast, Joey.
Three deep breaths. Do or die, now or never, Joey lifted the latch on the gate and bolted into the yard. He sprinted to the ball, and when he came to a quick full stop, his feet slid out from under him. Joey went down, and before he could get back on his feet, he heard the screen door swing open.
“Get out of my yard you little delinquent. I’m calling the cops, and you better hope they get here before I get my hands on you!”
Joey’s heart skipped a beat, no two or three beats. No, it stopped. Frozen in fear.
“Get out of there, Joey!”
Joey scrambled to his feet and glanced at the large figure coming off the back porch. Jesus Christ! The guy was eight feet tall! He raced to the gate, fumbled with the latch, escaped into the alley, and ran. He took one quick look back to make sure old man Radtke wasn’t in pursuit. He wasn’t; he was tossing the boys’ whiffle ball into a garbage can.
“He kept the ball, Dad. That’s not right. And he scared the bejeesus out of me when I tried to get it.”
Joey’s Dad attempted to conceal a hint of a smile as he replied. He had a Mr. Radtke in his own neighborhood growing up. Maybe every neighborhood has one.
“Joey, some people are just that way. It’s their nature. The best thing to do is just stay clear of him…and his yard.”
“Well, it’s not going to be fun having such a jerk living so close to us.”
“Joey, don’t call Mr. Radtke a jerk. We don’t call people jerks.”
“Even if he is a jerk, Mom?”
Moms have the unique ability to deliver a one-word reprimand that is part scolding, part warning, and part lesson, all to be taken seriously.
“Don’t be judging people. And remember, Jesus said love thy neighbor.”
“I bet Jesus never met Mr. Radtke.”
Joey’s mind was on his harrowing escape one evening as he walked down the alley to Ben’s house. It was the magnetic pull of the irresistible urge to tempt fate and flirt with danger that caused Joey to pause at the Radtke gate. He stood there trying to remember what the monster looked like. Did he have green eyes? Was he missing teeth? As he stared at the house, a window curtain slowly opened, and the outline of a man appeared against a soft red glow. Mesmerized by the image, paralyzed by fear, Joey conjured up images of Satan himself standing at the gates of hell. The man stared at him, and Joey knew he was recognized as the trespasser. Strike two. Joey felt he was a marked man. He left in a hurry.
“That’s a vampire? You look more like Eddie from the Munsters, Joey.”
“Shut up, Ben.”
“You get ‘em, Johnny?”
“Yep. Four packages of ladyfingers, one for each of us. You got the matches, Charlie?”
“What are you guys talking about?”
“Firecrackers? What do you do with firecrackers?”
“For old man Radtke’s house. We’ll put ‘em on his front steps, light ‘em, and take off.”
“I don’t think we should do that, guys. We’ll get in trouble.”
“We’ve done it before. And no one would recognize us in our costumes anyway.”
Reluctant, but willing, Joey bought into the prank. Mr. Radtke had scared him half to death; turnabout is fair play. And of course, he wanted to be a team player, that peer pressure stuff his parents had warned him about. Parents- that was it. His concern was his parents might find out.
The plan went off without a hitch. Firecrackers placed, fuses lit, boys fleeing the scene, and an eruption of sound and sparks. The thunderous commotion was spectacular. As Joey paused a few houses down the street to admire their work, the front door flew open, and Mr. Radtke stepped out onto the porch. But he didn’t yell, and he didn’t give chase. The fact that he just stood and stared off into nowhere robbed the boys of some of their anticipated joy. For Joey, any satisfaction of having harassed the harasser drifted off into the cold night air.
The three things Joey hated the most in life- spinach, homework, and church. Joey’s mind was drifting around in the atmosphere surrounding the life of a twelve-year-old: his 7th Grade basketball team, his Packer team that he left behind, the cute as a biscuit Susie Jones in his class at St. John’s, and Mr. Radtke standing quietly amidst the ear-shattering fireworks display that surrounded him. Occasionally, to fight the boredom, Joey would listen to what Father Bob had to say.
“A reading from the Gospel according to Mark…Love thy neighbor as yourself…”
What?! Joey was just thinking of that son-of-a-… Watch it, Joey. You’re only twelve. You shouldn’t even be thinking bad words. And you’re in church! Jesus. Love thy neighbor. There’s no way He could have been talking about Mr. Radtke. No one could love that guy.
“Do a good deed, and expect nothing in return. And remember, the best works are done anonymously. Your reward will be in heaven.”
“Oh, my God, no wonder the guy is such an ornery recluse.”
“Yeah, Marcie told me his wife and his twelve-year-old son both died at the scene of the accident. That was over 25 years ago. He’s been mad at the world ever since.”
“Does he have any relatives in the area?”
“He does, or at least he did. I guess they tried, but eventually, they all gave up on him. Same with any friends he had. I guess he just wants to be left alone.”
“I feel bad for him. He’s just a bitter, old, lonely man.”
“Who are you guys talking about?”
“Mr. Radtke, Joey. That’s probably why he’s the way he is.”
The firecrackers seemed even less funny than they did Halloween night.
It snowed, then it snowed, and then it snowed some more. Sixteen inches measured at the airport.
“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you, Joey.”
“Dad, Charlie says his parents give him $5.00 a week for doing stuff around the yard, like shoveling snow.”
“Well, I should get something, at least for this one. There’s like five feet of snow out there. I bet Charlie’s Dad will give him ten for this snowfall. I get nothing.”
“Your reward will be in heaven.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Life's not fair, but I do have an idea.”
“Maybe you could go live with Charlie’s parents.”
Seventeen degrees, windy, tons of snow. Joey’s beloved Packers would be on TV as the late Game of the Week. If he stayed on it, kept moving, no breaks, he’d catch the kickoff.
Joey was exhausted when he finished. No compensation, but he felt good about it, a sense of pride in a job well done. And awaiting him would be hot chocolate, with those little marshmallows, and the Packers. It would be a pretty good day after all.
As Joey hoisted the shovel up onto his shoulder, he noticed clear sidewalks all the way down the block, except for one- Mr.Radtke’s. An unfamiliar feeling overcame our exhausted shoveler. What are you thinking, Joey? And why? Hot chocolate…with those little marshmallows…ten minutes to kickoff of the Packer game…and you’re standing there like a lost puppy?
If rain and snow cannot keep the postman away, the Holy Spirit ain’t hardly going to be deterred by a little snow. Joey’s feet seemed to move without instruction, down the street…to Mr. Radtke’s house. The shovel appeared to have developed a mind of its own as it chomped at the drifts of snow, again and again. A second wind hit his sails, and Joey became a madman creating a white tornado of flying, fluffy snow.
The public sidewalk in front of Mr. Radtke’s house was cleared, but Joey kept on going. He completely forgot about fearing the man inside, and he shoveled the walkway leading to the front door, and then the steps. He even used his gloved hand to brush the snow off the mailbox.
Joey put the shovel back on his shoulder and headed for home. He didn’t notice the closing of the curtain on an upstairs window.
“Mom, I think I just did a good deed.”
“Your Dad saw you. Yes, honey, you did do a good deed. We’re proud of you. Father Bob would be proud of you too.”
Joey sat down on the living room sofa next to his Dad.
“I was looking for you, Joey. You missed the first half, but that was really a nice thing you did.”
“And it was one of those anonymous jobs.”
“Yes, it was.”
“I don’t suppose you’d re-think the $5.00 thing.”
“Like I said, Joey, your reward will be in heaven. Or, maybe you could ask Mr. Radtke.”
“Joey! My mom says she saw you shoveling old man Radtke’s sidewalk! What the hell is wrong with you?!”
“Must have been some other kid.”
Father Bob was old school; he said Midnight Mass at Midnight. It was a different feeling for Joey. Instead of the usual boredom, tinged with a bit of true suffering, he felt good about being there. The sights, sounds, and spirit of Christmas filled both the church and Joey. A time for renewal, a chance for the world, a new beginning for all mankind. Joey felt it all as a happy tear hung at the corner of his eye.
When they arrived home, Joey was the first to the door and the first to notice it- a small package crudely wrapped in newspaper sitting on the front porch. Joey sat on the sofa as his curious parents looked on. In the flickering lights of the Christmas tree, Joey tore off the paper and held the small box in his hands. It was a new whiffle ball. That tiny little tear dropped.