Once upon a time, in the north easternmost town in all of Rhode Island, a young boy told a very small lie that almost cost him his life…twice.
It might have been the weekend, it might have been the middle of the week, but the summer sun continued to burn through the puffy clouds in the sky, so the day of the week didn’t much matter. There were still ten glorious, freedom-filled days before the start of the new school year and on this particular morning two groups of boys–bored and restless–went looking for trouble.
Jim scampered down the winding steps from the second floor and landed in the kitchen, where his father was making a large sandwich at the counter. He was dressed in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and the brand new sneakers he had not yet had a chance to break in. He was already sweating, his brown hair sticking to his forehead–it was very possible he hadn’t thought to brush it or wash it all week.
He was a busy boy, a ball of some kind permanently in his hand. He could play sports with the best of them and often proved himself a worthy opponent against the older boys–including his two older brothers– in the family’s lively neighborhood. That day, his hands were empty as he made his way towards the door and he paused only when his father asked him where he was off to.
“Me and Bruce are gonna take a walk up to One Mendon to see Nana,” he said. His father nodded in approval and turned back to the platter of cold cut meats.
Jim met his friend of nearly eight years a few hundred feet from his house and together, the two 13-year-olds began their short, one mile walk. He caught a glimpse of the nursing home where his grandmother now resided. If we visit her on the way back, it won’t really be lying, he thought. He smiled to himself, pleased with his plan as he and Bruce came across a couple of older boys.
“They’re still there,” one boy informed the pair.
“Yeah, and one of their BBs just missed my eye,” said another, pointing to his unscathed face.
Without another word, the group crossed the main road and made their way across the local Almac’s parking lot, headed for the long-abandoned train trestles.
In those days, Cumberland was still home to many bustling factories that produced textiles and other goods. While shipments made their way to the customers by freight truck, in the 1800s, trains moved over the Blackstone River, whose water powered the factories before stable electricity was introduced.
By the time Jim and his band of revenge-seekers came along, the trestles were aged, and rotted in many areas. The boys’ necks craned to the top of the vacant trestles but saw no signs of any other visitors.
“Maybe they went home,” Bruce observed, wrinkles appearing on his tanned face as his eyes squinted against the bright sun. “They” were a group of boys–not unlike the cluster of young men assembled on this side of the train tracks–from the nearby town of Lincoln.
Prone to mischief, (much like any unsupervised clique) the boys from Lincoln had taken to shooting their BB guns across the river. Several pellets had been found on the grounds of the adjacent grocery store, prompting annoyance from the parents who simply could not wait for school to begin again. The boys from Cumberland and Lincoln alike had spent several days taunting one another, enjoying the thrill of a squirmish, even if it seemed nonsensical to both sides. Summer boredom often bred a longing for action and suspense.
And so it was decided that one of the Cumberland boys should survey the patch of land opposite the train tracks–which could only be properly done by climbing the rickety trestle they reasoned. Bruce declined quickly as it was widely known he was terrified of heights. For one reason or another, Jim volunteered and as he made his way up the structure his friends bet against him.
“Don’t chicken out on us now, Frapp,” they said. Jim scoffed and rolled his eyes as his hands reached for the next hold. Athletic as he was, it didn’t take Jim long before he hoisted himself up onto the train tracks and found his footing. The air was quiet and the wind provided by the 25-foot bridge cooled his sun-burnt face.
“See anything?” someone shouted from down below.
“No!” Jim yelled back, his hands cupped around his mouth to amplify the sound. He had half a mind to go back down and fill his pockets with rocks so that he could toss them over the other side of the unmarked territory. See how those jerks like it that devilish little voice inside him suggested. Surely his strong arm and a sharp enough pebble could give their BB guns a run for their money. Jim could see almost nothing, his hazel eyes blinded by the midday sun, but when he heard unfamiliar voices hooting and laughing he knew he was in trouble.
He heard the pop of those dreaded guns and heard several of the small, round BBs whistle past him as he turned every which way, searching for the best escape route, He spied an embankment to his left and raced towards it, his eyes trained on his exit. All he would have to do is jump down a few feet–easy, he thought–his short legs pumping furiously. In his haste, Jim did not notice the three railroad ties missing and his foot stepped through the gap in the bridge. He screamed in horror as his entire leg fell through the hole, sending him down, down, down into the polluted water far below…
Ronald, father of eight, had just switched on the new color TV set when the phone rang. His wife was at work and five of the children still living at home were occupied, playing games of tag and basketball in the street while his youngest son was off spending time with his beloved grandmother. He finally had the living room to himself and now that foolish phone wouldn’t stop ringing. He answered the old rotary in the kitchen gruffly, frustrated that his relaxation had to be put on hold. He hoped the phone call was important enough to warrant the interruption of his solitude, but he was not expecting the police to be on the other end of the line.
“That’s impossible, my son is visiting his grandmother…”
The three boys watched as their friend tumbled down from the great height of the trestle, landing in just a foot water. One of the older boys, Ronny, who had teased Jim mercilessly as he climbed, yelled for someone to call for help while he stepped carefully but quickly down the muddy embankment to their injured friend. Ronny called out for Jim but he did not respond. Jim seemed to be floating just under the surface of the inky water, but in the stillness he was difficult to locate.
Ronny waded through the shallow, foul-smelling water, his arms outstretched in desperate search for the other boy. When he caught a glimpse of a tuft of hair, Ronny seized the unconscious teenager by the waist and dragged him to dry land, filthy, bleeding and missing his left shoe. He felt relief sweep through his whole body as he heard the wail of a siren and just then his friend began to cough up the dye-and-who-knows-what-else-laden water.
Mr. Frappier arrived at the police station just moments after he hung up the phone. While he was thankful he was not walking into the hospital emergency room or worse the morgue, he was doubtful his son would make it to his fourteenth birthday. Jim was seated in a chair, his bloody and bruised knee exposed through a hole in his worn-out jeans and a bandage just underneath his chin. The cut appeared actively bleeding and his son was visibly shaken.
Ronald wondered if it was because of his near-death experience or because of his own entrance at the small police station. The officer at the desk dismissed the Frappier men after reminding him that the younger Frappier was lucky to be alive, having hit his knee on the bottom of the shallow span of water and somehow cutting the area just below his chin. He could have been paralyzed, bled to death or simply drowned. The two walked out of the building, Jim trailing far behind his father.
“Get over here,” his father warned, his words spoken through gritted teeth. My dad’s gonna kill me! Jim thought. He obeyed, preparing himself for his father’s incomparable tirade but was greeted with nothing but silence for the longest one mile car ride of his young life.
Jim sat in his room on a pair of pillows, bouncing a basketball against his bedroom wall. Barbara stood in the doorway of the room shared by all her other brothers, shaking her head at Jim’s stupidity,
“Looks like you won’t be needing this for a while,” she said, scooping up Jim’s baseball glove and throwing it back down onto the dresser.
“I’ll be lucky if I’ll be able to sit down at my desk at school,” he winced, shifting gingerly to find a comfortable position.
“Serves you right,” she stated bluntly, offering her scratched-up brother very little sympathy. “You scared Mom half to death. You know how Dad is about that.”
“God, what if Ronny hadn’t been there?” Jim asked.
“You would’ve been a goner for sure,” Barbara replied. “No one else was going in there after you.” The siblings had been told that Bruce had earned quite the punishment for allowing his best friend to risk his life so recklessly.
“You’d better rest up, I hear Dad’s got a long list of chores for you to do tomorrow,” she chuckled. Jim groaned dramatically, leaning his basketball and head on his knee before regretting it.
As Barbara turned to leave the room, Jim whispered “Hey Bucky, want to sneak me up some Whoppers later?” he asked, flashing a toothy smile.