It was March 22, 2016, the Tuesday of Holy Week. Normally on Tuesdays Brandon Dowling had a class as an adjunct professor in the Department of Theater at the University, but this year spring break came late and corresponded to Holy Week, so he had no obligations. However, he was accustomed to come into town from the Farm on Tuesdays, just to check up on his boys, and so was there when Ken van Meter called, asking for some time. Shortly after lunch Ken showed up at the residence on Chestnut Street, accompanied by his boss, Catherine Grice, Director of the Office of Public Welfare for the City of Clifton. Wondering what was up, Brandon invited them into the parlor and offered refreshments, which they declined.
“Brandon, we’ve been reviewing our records on Brandon’s Boys, and have come up with something we cannot explain, so we have come to you looking for a possible answer,” Catherine said.
“What’s that?” Brandon asked.
“According to our records, since you were approved as a foster group home in 2009, there have been sixteen boys assigned to live here, is that right?” Catherine asked.
“Uh, let me think,” Brandon hesitated. He ran through the boys in his head. “Yes, that’s right. Sixteen all together. Ten here now,” he agreed. “What seems to be the problem?”
“Not a problem, more like a mystery,” Ken said with something like a smirk. “So far, you have not failed with any of them. That’s not playing by the statistics. We’re accustomed to a certain percentage of failures, and you don’t fit the mold, so we came to find out what you’re doing right.”
Brandon laughed. “That’s a relief. I thought for a moment we had fallen afoul of some piddling bureaucratic rule or another.”
“Now, now,” Ken admonished his friend. “Be kind to our piddling bureaucratic rules. Most of them are imposed on us from above, either by the state or the federal government. It’s not our fault.”
Brandon got a sour look, which, however, passed quickly. But Catherine noticed. “What was that look about, Brandon?” she asked.
“Sorry, it’s nothing,” Brandon tried to avoid the question.
“No, please. Something caused you to have some serious doubts there. I’d like to know what it was,” she persisted.
Brandon considered. He looked from Catherine to Ken and back again. He knew these people. They were good people trying to do a decent job, often under very difficult circumstances. He decided he could trust them not to take things personally.
“Okay. We began by commenting on the fact that Brandon’s Boys did not fit the statistical model for boys in the system. Then we mentioned bureaucratic rules. But it was Ken’s comment that it’s not your fault that there are so many impersonal rules which gave me a bad moment. Recently, a colleague in the History Department asked me to review a film he uses in his class on World War II. It’s a well known documentary, about 30 minutes, I think, called “Night and Fog.” It was made by a French team of director Alain Resnais and writer Jean Cayrol in 1956. The French title is “Nuit et Brouillard,” and the German version is “Nacht und Nebel.” It’s a collection of clips from the Nazi prison camps, made by the Nazis and captured by the allies in 1945, and also some scenes shot at the Nürnberg war trials. Some teachers shy away from showing it because it is gut-wrenching in the depiction of the conditions there – the dehumanization of those involved, both the victims and the perpetrators. But it has been regularly shown in French schools since 1991, and in a Sight and Sound poll of 2014 was voted one of the best four documentaries ever produced.
“That’s a long introduction. What I’m getting to is a scene from the Nürnberg trials which show one bureaucrat after another saying, in effect, ‘I was just following orders. It’s not my fault.’ Then the narrator, Michel Bouquet, asks, ‘Who, then, is at fault?’ There are things more important than bureaucratic rules. And someone has to take responsibility,” Brandon concluded.
This was followed by several minutes of silence.
Then Ken said, “Knowing you, I’ll bet you have a copy of that film. I’d like to borrow it.”
“Sure,” Brandon agreed.
“I, too, would like to see it. In fact, it might make a good topic for our next in-house workshop,” Catherine said. Then she paused, “But you said it’s in French.”
Brandon chuckled. “Even our humanities majors cannot be assumed to be able to follow a film like that in French. The version Dr. Simpson uses is narrated in French, but with English sub-titles. I don’t know whether there is a version dubbed in English. And I really did not mean to compare the social workers in your Department to the SS.”
“Understood. But the precept remains the same. Not all orders are to be followed, and humans take precedence over rules,” Catherine said, then she, too, chuckled. “And if my superiors at City Hall heard me say that I might be in trouble.”
“It’s because you’re willing to bend on occasion that Brandon’s Boys can work within the system,” Brandon said.
“Yes, we did come here to review the successes of Brandon’s Boys,” Catherine noted. “How about reviewing those sixteen boys you helped. Maybe we can find a common element which will explain your extraordinary, and non-statistical, success.”
“Okay,” Brandon agreed. He thought for a moment. “I can do this best in chronological order, based on when the boy joined us. Will that do?”
“Yeah,” Ken said. “I have my trusty laptop, and will take notes.”
“Well, the first one was Daniel. It was in the fall of 2008 when he approached me over on Oak Street, asking for a handout. Said he was hungry. Well, I’m sometimes a skeptic, so I offered him dinner instead of money. I didn’t want to be contributing to someone’s drug habit. He accepted. That got us started. Turned out he had a pal called Colby, who we met later that night ....”
“Wait a minute,” Ken called a halt. “Daniel and Colby? That’s not what our records show.”
Brandon laughed. “That’s because you’re bureaucrats. Their official names are Thomas Aquinas Eidem, Jr. and Chester Everett Wallingford, but we call everyone by the name they prefer, and in these two cases, it’s Daniel and Colby. If you want to know why, you’ll have to ask them.”
Ken blushed. “Okay. Proceed.”
“Well, with just the two of them, they were here at the house, of course, and we didn’t have the place next door. But they cautiously agreed to answer questions in return for food and a place to sleep. I’m trusting you here, as I know it’s against some rule or another, but they chose to sleep together, and it was soon apparent that they were more than just fellow victims of the system. That’s something else we let the boys decide, like what they want to be called. We have no hang-up about sexual orientation. After a while, when it became apparent that they’d be here for some time, I began thinking in terms of something more than just food and a bed. First I had them checked out at the Todd Medical Clinic. The Todds have been supportive from the beginning, and Dr. Joshua Castleman, at the Clinic, is on our Board now. That set one precedent. One of the first things we do when a new boy arrives is a thorough medical check-up. Some of them have never had a really thorough one, and we do not want to be spreading disease. Then I downloaded some tests used for home schooling, and administered them to the boys. Almost every one of our boys initially scored below his appropriate level. Not surprising, after spending time on the streets, and the conditions which led to that in the first place.
“Something else. We invite the boys to join us at church. Note, I said ‘invite.’ We have been very careful to let the boys decide that themselves, too. Some of our boys who have been in the foster care system tell us that their foster families forced them to attend their church. I don’t know why it is, but in every case we’ve encountered, that church was some fundamentalist sect. I’m going to indulge in my prejudices here, but in my opinion there are some foster families who are in the system because they want the money paid by the government, not because they’re primarily concerned about the boys, or, I guess, girls too. Those people tend to come from the lower social classes, who generally are less well educated, and the fundamentalists churches also tend to attract people from that kind of background. Okay, so sue me for being a snob. That’s my observation.”
“Brandon, I won’t argue with you about this,” Catherine said. “I’ve had to deal with it more than once. But we’re desperately strapped for foster homes. And some of those less well off families make wonderful foster parents.”
“No argument,” Brandon agreed. “And I have no solution to your problems. It’s another case of one size not fitting all. So, let’s get back to my point. We offer the boys the opportunity to attend church with us. Note, it’s with us. It’s being part of the group. Some of the boys have a Catholic background, some other denominations, and some no religious background at all. I suspect it’s peer pressure as much as anything else, but so far the boys have all gone along, and those who were not originally Catholic have joined the Church. But, I emphasize, there is no pressure from me or anyone else in a position of authority at Brandon’s Boys. It’s their choice, just like what name they chose to be called.
“So, Daniel and Colby were living here. Christmas approached, and so we were out at one of the malls, when Bobby came running by, chased by a mall guard. Seems he helped himself to a hamburger that he had not paid for. Oh, let me back up. How do you want to handle this? Should I take things as they happened, or take each boy separately from beginning to now?”
Ken chimed in, “Please, one boy at a time. It’ll make my notes so much easier for me to interpret later.”
Brandon laughed. “Okay. Back, then, to Daniel. Daniel was 15 when I first met him. He came from a Catholic background, but not a very accepting one. He’s gay, and that caused problems, which led to him being on the streets. Oh, I was telling you about the things we do for all the boys when they arrive, and one is administer a battery of tests. Well, when we determine where they are, and what their strong points and weaknesses are, then we begin remedial work. If they’re going to stay here, they’re going back to school. We only accept boys in the elementary and secondary school age brackets. Some are better than others, and some are better prepared than others, but none are dummies. If they were, they probably would not have survived on the streets. So, we tutored Daniel all winter and spring, and by the following fall he was ready to enter his sophomore year at Baltimore High. Right from the outset, he showed a great interest in the sciences, and also an interest in teaching science at the secondary level. He did quite well in school, and so after he graduated from high school in 2012, we arranged for him to be admitted to the University.
“You probably know that the Todds have established the Todd Educational Foundation. I funnel all my donations to educational causes through that. That includes tuition at St. Rose and Baltimore, and later scholarships at the University or Madison, depending on what they want to do in life. Makes it easier for my tax accountant. Anyway, Daniel obtained scholarships which paid his way through the University. He’ll graduate in May with honors, and he recently told me he has a job lined up Brentwood Academy. As you know, that’s one of the better schools in the public system.
“Before continuing with Daniel, let me bring you up to snuff on Colby. He joined us only a matter of hours after Daniel, so they’re practically equal in seniority. Colby was also 15 when we encountered him, and it soon became apparent that he and Daniel were sexual partners. As I said, we did not intrude on that. But we did have him checked medically, just like Daniel. We were fortunate that any problems were minor, and were quickly taken care of. Daniel and Colby shared a room, both here and later next door. We use the phrase, ‘keep private things private,’ and it seems to work in most cases. Colby is not as academic as Daniel. He’s much better at ‘how to’ things, and working with his hands. We have all the boys work a summer job if they’re old enough, as we find it gives them a sense of accomplishment, as well as some additional spending money. Daniel and Colby both worked for Harvey Brothers Construction. David Harvey is Mrs. Todd’s uncle, so we can always get a job for the boys there. Daniel saw it merely as a summer job, but Colby really liked it. He found a good deal of satisfaction there. He said he liked doing a job where you can see the results at the end of the day. He became particularly attracted to the work of Adam Miller. You might not know Adam, but let me tell you, he’s an absolute genius with wood. A true craftsman, he can make wood into all sorts of shapes and uses, from baseboard to really artistic cabinets. So Colby sort of attached himself to Adam. When the boys graduated from high school, we sent Colby to Madison Community College in the carpentry program, and he continued to work part-time for Harvey Brothers while there. When he got his certification and a two-year degree, he went full-time, and has been with them ever since.
“Now, as to some more personal items, when the two graduated from Baltimore, they had to move out of here. We’re just not equipped to keep the boys indefinitely. So, I rented an apartment for them at the Harvey. You know, that’s the low-rent apartment building built by David Harvey, with the rents subsidized by the City. They’re still there, although with Daniel graduating in May and starting at Brentwood in August, they will probably no longer meet the income limits set by the City. They seem to share quite well, and remain very much a team. They stop by here to eat at least once a week. Thank goodness for Aunt Barbara in the kitchen. I think she does as much good as any of us. Both boys joined the Knights of Columbus, so I see them at the council meetings on a fairly regular basis, and, of course, I see them out at St. Rose on Sundays most weekends. They’re always together. As far as I know, there are no serious problems there, so I guess those two are among the annoying statistic breakers Ken mentioned,” Brandon kidded.
“Hey, don’t make me the villain,” Ken protested.
“Somebody has to be, according to the statistics,” Brandon kidded further.
“Go on with your story,” Ken told him with a long-suffering sigh.
“Okay. Well, as I said earlier, we picked up Bobby in the mall parking lot shortly before Christmas in 2008. Seems he had been living with his mother and an uncle, and when his mother died, his uncle abandoned him. Bobby was eight years old when he came to us, and had no religious background. For your records, Ken, his official name is Robert Lee Ackerman. We started Bobby in the seventh grade at St. Rose at the same time Daniel and Colby started at Baltimore, in the fall of 2009. He’s not a brilliant academic, but he does okay. Bobby’s special gift is with horses. You know my partner is Chris Todd, and Chris is an absolute genius with horses. Now, he specializes in dressage, which I like to call equine ballet. Chris’s mom inherited a farm, which has been in her family since awarded an ancestor, also named Christopher Todd, in 1784 as compensation for his back pay in the Virginia forces during our War for Independence. She has created there a truly outstanding middle size horse farm, so you’ll hear about Todd Farm from time to time in these stories. Anyway, thanks to Chris, we take all the boys out to the Farm, and they learn to ride. There’s another film I should mention, and I don’t have a copy of this one, Ken. I saw it last summer at the World Championship Horse Show. The film is called “All Glory,” and I understand was first shown in Lexington in 2010. It’s a project of Elizabeth Shatner, the wife of the actor William Shatner, and talks about the use of horses to assist veterans who return from the battlegrounds with their nerves, and sometimes their whole bodies, shattered. Horses are good at helping them recover. Horses are good for my boys, too.
“For Bobby, discovering horses was a true awakening. He has been in love with horses ever since his first visit. In the summers, we send him out to the Farm to work rather than construction. Bobby entered the University last fall in the Equine Studies program. He wants to be an equine veterinarian. But he’s also in ROTC. I don’t know whether he will continue with that or not. One thing militating against continuing in ROTC is that Bobby now has a serious girlfriend. That’s Candy Greene. You may recall the story some time ago when her grandfather was killed by an intruder. Anyway, Bobby and Candy are quite serious, and I don’t think she’ll want to be a camp follower, as it were, or to sit here in Clifton when he’s off in some foreign country. Bobby was a little hesitant to pursue Candy, as the Greenes are among the oldest and most prestigious Catholic families in Clifton, but I think she convinced him. That young woman has some spirit. He felt he was a nobody, so Candy asked Sandy Todd to find him an important ancestor. Between Sandy’s knowledge of genealogy, and Zip’s computer skills, they found an ancestor who served in Virginia during the Revolutionary War, so Bobby could join the Sons of the American Revolution. While it did not lead to any lineage society, they also found he was descended from Swiss immigrants named Ackerman who arrived in this country in 1835 from Canton Lucerne. The parish church there goes back to the sixth century, and the building to the ninth. These two things gave Bobby something to be proud of in his own ancestry, and, as I say, they’re quite serious.
“Next comes Mike,” Brandon chuckled. “He’s another one whose name will be different in your records, Ken. He literally ran into us running away from Raman Mookerjee, who chased him from the Olympia Restaurant, where he was trying to help himself to lunch. Mike thought his name was Clinton Grass, but it turned out to be Quentin Grice, a relative of yours, Catherine. Mike was just about ten years old, and had been on the streets since he was five. He had never been to school. How’s that for being missed entirely by the system? That boy has some spirit! It was about the time Mike joined us that I bought the house next door. It was starting to get a little crowded here, so Brandon’s Boys has its own facility. Anyway, it took quite a while to identify Mike’s birth parents and get a social security number. It was spring of 2009 when we encountered him, and almost time for school to start up again in the fall when we got him identified. That was thanks again to Zip Todd’s computer skills. Turns out, Mike is an illegitimate son of the late and unlamented abortionist, Dr. Hawley Grice, and a woman named Molly O’Shea. Once we identified him, we made contact with the widow of Dr. Grice, who was most pleasant. She’s now Mrs. Newton, you know, married to Tom Newton in the English Department. Anyway, she set up a trust fund for Mike, but he didn’t want to live with them, as they were all older than he, and he had made friends with my boys. So, he’s another who is still living next door as one of my boys.
“Mike started in the fourth grade in 2009. He has a great voice, and sings in the choir at church, and with the Bach Society when there’s a call for his young voice. He’s another of Chris’s converts, as he loves horses, too, although not as much as Bobby. Lately, he’s shown an interest in photography as well. Because he began school so far behind, he’s never quite caught up to his age cohort, but he’s finishing his sophomore year at Baltimore with quite satisfactory grades. Like Bobby, Mike is straight, but as far as I know has no serious entanglements.”
Brandon paused in his accounts. “I know it’s early, but all this talking is making me thirsty. Would you like to join me in a Bourbon?”
Both Catherine and Ken agreed, and so this provided a pleasant pause in the stories of Brandon’s boys. After settling back down, Brandon resumed his narrative.
“Next came Clarence Lee Brooke, who initially insisted on being called Bruiser,” Brandon laughed. “I guess just about everyone laughed at that, as Clarence was definitely not a bruiser. He was much too small of build, and much to reticent of personality, to be a bruiser. He came to us by way of Father Lamar Todd, who, as you know, is the son of Dr. & Mrs. Todd, and the brother of my partner Chris. Lamar was assigned to St. Martin de Porres Parish after being ordained. I think that was a bit of racism on the part of the chancery, assigning a part black priest to a mostly black parish, but it seems to be working out. Lamar is pastor now, since Father Wright’s retirement last year.”
“I know this is a side issue, Brandon, or maybe not an issue at all, but please tell me about the Todds being part black,” Catherine Grice asked.
“Sure,” Brandon replied. “Sandy Todd is entirely white as far as I know. Zip, who is officially Bradley Winter Todd, Ph.D., for your records, Ken, is one half black. So Lamar, and also my Chris, are what are known as quadroons, or one quarter African by ancestry. But you know how some people are. If there’s any African ancestry at all, the person is listed as black.”
“I know all about that,” Ken noted. “After all, Sandy Todd is my cousin. Or, rather, she’s my farther’s first cousin, and my first cousin once removed.”
Catherine sighed. “I guess I was told all this at some point, but keeping family connections straight is not one of my strong points.”
“With family like Hawley Grice, I can understand why,” Brandon teased.
“Another cousin thing,” Catherine mumbled.
“Shall I resume?” Brandon asked. Receiving nods of assent, he began. “I think we were discussing Clarence. One of the parishioners at St. Martin, Mrs. Brooke, asked Lamar to look after two of her grandchildren, one of whom was Clarence. Lamar’s on our Board, too, you know. So, he found Clarence in the hospital with a broken arm and some other problems after having been beaten up. They were a little reluctant to let him leave, as he had no safe place to go, so Lamar convinced Clarence to give us a try. He arrived in the summer of 2009. We started him in sixth grade at St. Rose that fall. Once he no longer had to fight during recess every day, he gave up the bruiser thing. He’s interested in horses, too, but we won’t tell Chris, but I think he likes soccer more. Clarence is another straight boy, who is seriously going with Bernadette Ngolo. Bernadette is the young woman who was sired on that slut Lena Hoff by the young visitor from Mali, Omar Ngolo. She’s been raised from birth at Todd House, across the street here. Clarence is a senior at Baltimore this year, and will be entering the University in the fall, but I’m not sure what major he’ll end up with. He tells Chris it will be Equine Studies, but I’m not so sure that’s what he really wants. We’ll have to wait and see. In any case, he’s still here until after his graduation in May.
“Right on the heels of Clarence is his cousin, Leon Luttrell. Leon is another grandson of Mrs. Brooke of St. Martin, and was also brought to us by Lamar Todd. He was in jail when Lamar first made contact, charged with armed robbery. He was definitely headed for a bad end. Leon, who was calling himself Rapper at the time, is the son of a man who was in prison, also for armed robbery, and of a woman who died of a drug overdose. Lamar was able to get his father to write to Leon telling him to listen to the priest and not follow his path. So Leon also decided to give us a trial. He came only a short time after Clarence, still in the summer of 2009. We started him as a freshman at Baltimore, and in the summers, set him to work for Harvey Brothers. Like Colby, Leon found something that appealed to him. So, when he finished Baltimore, we sent him to Madison Community College in the electricians program. That was in 2013. We also set him up in a room at the Warren, the boarding house down the street here. By that time, he was not only interested in working as an electrician, but was also interested in Anne Nicole Duvall, the daughter of Coach Duvall at Baltimore. They married last May, and are living in an apartment at the Kenilworth, and Leon is full-time with Harvey Brothers now. They have two kids. I’m afraid they got the sequence mixed up, and had the kids before the wedding,” Brandon joked.
- To Be Continued -