I really was not a BAD child. Just misunderstood. I often lament that a team of child psychologists weren’t able to study me through one-way glass during my childhood…..Oh, the volumes that could have been written that perhaps would have helped other kids just like me in future generations.
To understand, one must go back a few years before my time, to my dad’s younger days. For the circumstances which predestined my maladies were not simply natural….oh, no, indeed. They were spiritual. Bear with me, and all will be explained.
You see, my dad was Roman Catholic. Back in the 50’s, he did a good bit of good works for the church he belonged to. They sent him door to door to collect money for what he was told would be a building fund for an orphanage, or some such worthy cause. He told how doors were slammed in his face. He was NOT well received.
After all that persecution he discovered, to his consternation, that the funds he had collected were NOT used to build an orphanage or whatever he had been told. Instead, a big gymnasium was built on the Catholic school property. Dad was not happy. He said that if he had known that was what they were going to use the money for, he never would have gone soliciting door to door.
Flash forward a few years…. My dad is now a widower with three kids. My mom a widow with five kids. They want to get married. There was no welfare in those days (the late Fifties)….My mom was completely on her own. She often said in later years that she was so desperate, she was looking over the pall-bearers at her first husband’s funeral for husband number two.
The only thing standing in their way was the local Catholic priest. He tells my dad that he cannot marry my mom, as not enough time has passed since the death of their spouses.
My dad reminded the priest that his vow was until death did them part. The priest and he debated for some time, until the discussion deteriorated to an emotional level. Finally, my dad, no doubt frustrated and upset, told the priest “If you weren’t wearing that collar, I’d punch you in the nose.” This, of course, ended the conversation.
(Lest anyone be offended, or claim I am making this up, this version of events was told to me directly by my father. If dad exaggerated the episode, that was his business. I stand by this account as he gave it to me.)
Needless to say, my parents did get married, and in the Catholic Church. On their wedding day, they had eight children between them, from age thirteen down to age two. This new family lived on Troy Avenue in Gibbstown, and the Kopko/Michaelchuck clan was officially birthed.
I think my dad may have thought himself accursed for threatening that priest in the 50’s, a black cloud of doom hanging over him, his fate sealed. Or else he may have simply lost interest. But he never went to church the entire time we grew up. He kept a small New Testament on top of his bureau, along with rosary beads, and a small card with a picture of Jesus on it. Whatever private faith or devotions he maintained, they remained private.
As a child, my main influences were horror comics, monster movies, and Batman. (The goofy 60’s TV version.) So it’s no surprise my juvenile morality wasn’t the best.
I pretty much lived by my impulses. If I wanted something, I took it. If I didn’t have the money to buy it, well…….
The stealing started out small. First, a Turkish Taffy pilfered from the candy shelf behind the counter at Miller’s store when old Joe or John, the proprietors were in the back. I was probably the last kid on earth they ever would have suspected of stealing……
When my sweet tooth for free candy became insatiable, I took to stealing change out of my mother’s purse. Eventually, I graduated to stealing dollar bills. I bought sodas, candy, wax lips, whatever my greedy little heart desired.
Then I began collecting comic books. (I eventually amassed a collection of over two thousand comics in just a few years.) There was no way my allowance and my lunch money combined would support this new addiction. I would have to steal even larger amounts from my mom’s purse, and, though I didn’t feel good about it, would have to begin taking change off of dad’s bureau, as well.
My appetite for comics just grew stronger and stronger. Each month, it seemed newer titles were always coming out. The Beast, Werewolf by Night, Tomb of Dracula, Deathlok the Demolisher…..It was like being on a treadmill where I could hardly keep up. And I HAD to have my candy, too…..
So I sunk to the next lowest level and began to steal money from my siblings. Yes, I would steal their allowance, or some portion of it, pretty regularly. Finally, they began to notice, and when their cries reached my mom’s ears, she let me have it. One Saturday night, she really laid into me, yelling at me and telling me she KNEW I was the thief. But, luckily, I had no loot on me. She couldn’t prove a thing.
Badly shaken from the trauma of being accused in so bold a fashion by my mom, I knew I had to lie low for awhile. I would no longer steal from my brothers and sisters. Just from my parents.
Now, lest you think my conscience was dead at so tender an age, rest assured I felt TERRIBLE about my crimes. I had an amazing capacity to feel tremendously guilty over what I was doing, yet continue doing it. I was miserable.
My descent into delinquency was surely hastened along with the arrival of my new best friend, who for the purposes of this story I will call Tommy Misfit….Tommy Misfit wasn’t a bad kid either, just too smart for his age, and for his own good. He had a wise mouth and attitude, and smoked in sixth grade, always a sign of disaster….
Together we formed The Mischief Making Club. Our clubhouse was my basement, where I painted a large skull and cross-bones on the wall. We would go out at night and throw raw eggs in the street, or knock over trash cans. The concept was it would be mischief night EVERY night….On Friday nights we would violate curfew by hanging out under the Paulsboro water tower until the ten o’ clock siren sounded, then run like crazy for home. No doubt Dillinger and Capone started out this way.
We recruited my little brother Kirk into the club. He was about nine then.We goaded him into sneaking up onto the neighbors’ porch (the Raivley’s) and banging on their front door, then hiding. The second time he went up to bang on the door, Mrs. Raivley was waiting for him. “Do you like banging on doors?” she scolded him. Poor Kirk resigned from the club on the spot. What with the mud pies caper of just a few years earlier, and now this fiasco, it’s no wonder I had no influence on him at all from that point on.
Unfortunately, Tommy Misfit and I had tremendous influence on each other, reaching new highs (or lows) of juvenile delinquency.
When the family across the street went away for the day, we snuck over (in broad daylight!) and scribbled all over their aluminum siding with crayons. Then we vandalized the big color TV they had out front, tearing the back off of it, ripping out wires, and scribbling with crayons all over the screen. We also bent the antennae on the “rabbit ears”. (Anyone too young to remember “rabbit ears”, ask your parents….)
This new level of viciousness kind of shocked even me.
I remember how embarrassed I was when the kid whose house we damaged told me to my face he knew me and Tommy Misfit did it, after I made up this big elaborate lie about how I had witnessed some hoodlums doing the damage. (My brother Kirk had told him, no doubt atoning for his earlier misdeeds.)
I was lying, stealing, vandalizing, and cheating at school……And I was no angel at home, either. (Looking back, it’s more understandable now how my older brother George could hurl that wrench at me… or how my oldest brother Kenny could lift me off the floor with one hand by the throat, enraged at some bad behavior or other.) Disaster certainly loomed. What awful form would retribution take, once I had reached the end of my rope?
I was about to find out.
I was on Donald Vallandingham’s front porch one day, hanging out with him.
He was two years younger, so I was showing off by yelling mocking insults to this older kid as he rode by on his bike. I knew we could run into Donald’s house if the big jerk came after us, so I was pretty bold. He seethed, but kept going. I called out more insults, and I’m sure his mother was mentioned somewhere. Donald and I had a great laugh over it all, and I promptly forgot all about it.
Big Jerk didn’t.
About a week later, Donald and I were walking down the street just before dark, each with a raw egg in our pocket. (I still remember the thrill of stealing that egg out of the refrigerator right under Mom’s nose, as she busied herself in the kitchen.) Some town employee would be cleaning egg yolk off the streets of Paulsboro tomorrow morning…the feeling of power welled up within me…
Until I saw the terrifying figure of Big Jerk on his bicycle.
Cold fear gripped me like a claw. He rode right by us, then recognition flashed on his countenance. First recognition, then satisfied delight. He spun his bicycle around and laid it down on the curb.
Donald’s house was about a quarter of a block away, but might as well have been on the moon. I just stood still in complete submission, not wanting to upset the kid further by showing even the slightest resistance. My mind raced, trying to remember exactly what it was I had said about his mother.
In one swift move, he grabbed me by the shoulders and threw me hard to the ground. I remember him reminding me what I had done the week before, and me stupidly denying it. As if he would believe it was a case of mistaken identity. This exchange all took place in the second it took him to throw me to the ground.
I bounced back up immediately, trying to maintain some sense of dignity, as though what had just happened never happened. He warned me to never mess with him again, then retrieved his bicycle and pedaled off.
Donald pointed out that my egg had broken inside my pants pocket. I could feel the cold wet yolk running down my leg. My pants were stained with it. What story would I tell my mother? We called it a night. I had had enough mischief for one day.
My life of crime might have continued unabated, were it not for the mysterious workings of Divine Intervention. For the very “bad seed” that helped put me on the road to perdition was the same one who was instrumental in getting me on the right path again.
The place was St. John’s Roman Catholic Church on Beacon Avenue. The day was ASH WEDNESDAY. And my life was about to change in oh so many ways………
Tommy Misfit insisted we go to church on Ash Wednesday, and have ashes put on our foreheads. I guess his family was at least somewhat practicing Catholics. My dad was a lapsed Catholic. Very lapsed. He was an atheist. Only kidding. Actually, Dad was reverent in his own way. We NEVER ate meat in our house on Good Friday. He would go out of his way to bring home some kind of seafood. When I was older, we had tremendous fights over this, and one Good Friday ritual was our annual Battle over the Boiled Ham. I would still be hungry after the seafood, and insist I was having a boiled ham sandwich. As I got the stuff out of the fridge, Dad would begin yelling at me to put it back.
“You’re not eating that boiled ham, Kevin!”
“You hypocrite! Do you think not eating boiled ham one day of the year is going to make up for all you’ve done the rest of the year?!” I spat back at him.
“I don’t care! You’re going to show some respect!”
Around and around we would go. I think one year he grabbed my wrist as I was lowering the slice of boiled ham into my mouth, and we wrestled over whether I would feast on this lunchmeat or not. I would just do it to goad him. Look, Dad, BOILED HAM! I’m eating BOILED HAM on GOOD FRIDAY! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!
I can say I’m not proud of my behavior. But I didn’t see what difference not eating meat one day a year made. The same with getting ashes put on your head. If ever a misfit needed a good KICK in the head, it was my buddy Tommy Misfit. But he was raised to believe ashes made a difference in his life. I went along simply because he badgered me so much.
I was in seventh grade, and it was my first time inside cavernous old St. John’s (except for my brother Wayne’s and sister Donnis’ weddings, and they seemed like they went on for about five hours each). The place was packed. It was early evening.
All I remember is feeling awkward and out of place, like a kid going onstage to do a school play he never rehearsed. The ritual and what I’ll call choreography of the entire service made me nervous, as I did not know what I was supposed to do, or when. I just remember going up and the priest putting the ashes on my head, and seeing Tommy Misfit and Al Alvarado laughing at me because I looked so scared and awkward, and didn’t know what to do. I was relieved when it was all over, like a trip to the dentist.
Oddly enough, I did feel different afterward. I had a new sense of tremendous guilt for the bad stuff I had done. Especially all the stealing. And I now had the strangest sensation, like Jesus was watching my every move. This wasn’t entirely pleasant, as I didn’t feel I could steal anymore. Now Jesus would see me.
I went into my mom’s pocketbook one more time after that Ash Wednesday, a few days later. But I went from stealing a dollar or more to only being able to take a little change. Maybe thirty-five cents. After that, I never stole again. I think the vandalism and egg throwing stopped that winter, also. I was still a terror at home, but that delinquent streak was definitely gone.
As for Tommy Misfit, we remained friends for about another year, but pretty much just hung out and behaved normally.
I have no explanation for why my behavior changed for the better, except to say I really felt like Jesus was watching me. That feeling wore off eventually, but I still never stole another thing. Strange.
I never set foot in a Catholic Church again in my life (except for weddings). I’ve never had ashes put on my forehead again, either.
Years later, my family told me that there had never been a boy named Tommy Misfit. They claimed he never existed. That he was some kind of “imaginary playmate” I created in my own mind. A sort of “split personality” I could blame all my evil behavior on.
But I don’t believe them.
I think they’re lying.
Because they hate me.
And they’re all against me.
Aren’t they, Tommy?
(Exit to Twilight Zone theme)…….
Only joking about that last part.
I looked up my comic book collection on the Internet a few months ago.
It is now worth 180,000 dollars.
I sold it for 200 dollars back in 1980.
Copyright 2004 © Kevin Kopko
This page was last edited on 03/3/2007