By George Goner (The Haunted Cabaret)
Until it closed, Meacham Regional Elementary School had its traditions. The Christmas Pageant began as a fundraiser the same year the building opened, and continued a string of annual performances uninterrupted until the state inspector closed the school in 1998.
The year that Timothy Vento died, the event raised $1,700.00. Mrs. Bridge, the teacher in charge of that year's Pageant, staged a `religions-should-be-nice-to-each-other' theme. Everything went well the first half of the program. Five minutes into the second half, eight-year-old Oliver Kurtz knocked over a Jewish Menorah. The Menorah fell and landed in the manger, crushing the skull of the Baby Jesus.
Another tradition lasted just as long, but without the public attention. This one involved a small group of 7th and 8th graders who wandered over to the playground each morning before the start of school to hustle the little kids for lunch money. Anthony Valentine took charge of these prospecting ventures, and his second-cousin Angelo sat across the street under a tree every day during recess to count the loot. When Anthony asked me for money, I punched him in the face. I split his lip and bloodied his nose. He started crying and ran to the playground monitor. The playground monitor said it serves you right. Now go wash your faces and get back to class, both of you. Yes, a teacher actually said that. If you don't believe me, all I can say is, the '70s were different times, as a songwriter named Lou Reed once said.
After the bloody nose, Anthony left 6th graders like me alone, and only hustled money from 1st and 2nd graders. Before he got run over, Timothy Vento, timid and small for his age, was a favorite target. In fact, a rumor made the rounds that Tim panicked and ran into the parking lot not because the fire drill spooked him, but because he saw Anthony smiling a cold-eyed grin at him from around the corner of the building. No one knows for sure. It's in the past.
Anthony Valentine died of a brain seizure. He collapsed during a game of kick hockey, close to where Tim got hit by the fire engine a year earlier. Another rumor evolved over the years that said if you stood at the exact same spot Tim got squished and Anthony dropped dead, and a voice whispered, "Hey kid, you got a quarter?" you would be dead by 3 o'clock with a bloody twenty-five cent piece in your pocket.
The state building inspector closed the school for health and safety violations in 1998. It sits boarded and fenced, graffiti scrawled on sheets of plywood and faded red brick. The violations included lead hazards and mold and leaky plumbing and rodent infestation.
I have no neat ending or clever punch line. I stopped on the way to work and looked through the schoolyard fence, and remembered what I told you, here and in my last blog. Then I drove away. Next week they demolish the old buildings for space to build a new Wal-Mart shopping plaza. I don't plan to shop there. Discount stores attract their share of panhandlers; and, silly as the old stories are, I'm not sure how I'd react if a voice spoke up behind me, in that particular parking lot, asking for a quarter.