Bathed in the comfort of a bright summer’s day, Arthur Berndt sat on a neighbor's lawn happily playing with black, wooden toy trains. The picture of contentment, contentment that evaporated when a woman came out from the house and approached him.
“Arthur, your mom just called me. They’re home. I’m going to walk you over to your place.”
The little boy broke out in tears.
“Bee bited me.”
There was no bee. With only a four year old’s limited vocabulary, Arthur had already mastered the art of lying, a vital defensive tool for a child constantly trying to keep out of harm’s way. His family operated via an unwritten and unspoken code. His older sisters had known it for years and Arthur, a quick learner, was on to it also. Anything he said or did that made his parents look bad would cost him dearly. The last thing he wanted to do was return home, but no way in hell would he ever tell this neighbor, or anybody else, why.
Playing alone in a babysitter’s backyard had been enjoyable, serving as a respite from the struggle his life had already become. During the afternoon Arthur had experienced a prison escapee’s exhilaration. Now he was heading back to his house, an apprehended fugitive. Just like that, the whole pleasant afternoon experience vaporized as if it had never happened.
The lady and the young boy reached Twenty-one Lowell Place and walked up to the front stoop, where Arthur’s mother was waiting for them. “Did he behave himself?”
The babysitter tousled Arthur’s hair. “Oh yes. He was a good little boy.”
Arthur breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn't sure if he had been good; he was never sure. Even on those rare occasions when he seemingly achieved “good boy” status, it was always short-lived.
Most children want to feel loved. Arthur just wanted to feel safe.
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Arthur's family included four other members: his father and mother, August and Marguerite, and two older sisters, Elizabeth and Ruth.
August, born in 1899, grew up in Freiburg, a city located in southeast Germany, known as the primary entry point for tourists into the Black Forest. August's parents, Helmut and Berta, devout Catholics, had nine children, August being the next to youngest. August's father was not a major figure in his life. It was Berta, not Helmut, who ruled the family. She had no compunction about employing physical punishment when called for and her world called for it often. Although none of her children were exempt from their mother’s scrutiny, she singled out August for extra special attention. A switch or belt buckle were the disciplining tools of choice, accompanied with a vicious tongue.
Growing up, August was forced to attend church every day of the week—a ritual he would resent for the rest of his life.
When World War I broke out, August decided he would rather face enemy bullets than his mother's wrath. Just a teenager, he enlisted in the fledgling Luftwaffe and later told tales of aerial dogfights and dropping bombs on the Allies—by hand! He was even briefly in the company of the famous Red Baron (Manfred von Richtofen) while at an airfield Germany had established in Brussels, Belgium. In 1918, the war over, August returned to civilian life, rapidly completing the equivalent of a college education (with an emphasis on literature) while holding down various odd jobs. His degree counted for virtually nothing in the dismal postwar economy, so plans to be a teacher faded. His even more ambitious dreams of becoming an actor or a singer (he had a love of opera and a better-than-average tenor voice) also faded away. His mother pushed him to find a position as a government bureaucrat, dull but stable work that promised a pension. That part of the job market had dried up too. August spent the entire decade of the twenties doing manual labor. Though no longer a student, August continued to purposefully study English. The idea of heading for greener pastures in the U.S. and escaping his mother once and for all intrigued him more with each passing day.
Marguerite grew up in Schopfheim, a small village also in southern Germany. She arrived in this world under somewhat mysterious circumstances, clouded by the mores of the time. What is known is that she was raised from a very early age in the warm home of an aunt and uncle. An unremarkable student, after completing her basic education she trained to be an au pair. She had a way with children and little difficulty finding employment. In 1931, she was referred to a well-to-do widowed attorney who happened to live in Freiburg and needed a caretaker for his two children. Although an excellent opportunity that promised a substantial pay increase, Marguerite hesitated. She had never left her hometown and feared she would be overwhelmed living and working far from her family. With great trepidation, she accepted the position.
In 1931 August and Marguerite met for the first time, the only occasion they'd be in each other's company in Germany. The two happened to join the same opera appreciation group and met when the organization took in a performance of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). They enjoyed critiquing the singers and Marguerite was impressed by August's vast knowledge of opera. He suffered no shortage of opinions: Mozart would have been the greatest operatic composer of all time if he had lived a full life; German tenors were preferable to Italian, the latter too melodramatic for his taste; and, while Beethoven was his favorite composer bar none, he felt it was a good thing he left the opera genre alone after Fidelio.When the evening ended, onstage Tamino and Pamina were saved, and, in the audience, the two blossoming lovebirds promised to stay in touch. They kept their promise, although it entailed a grand total of two letters and zero phone calls.
Less than two months later, and despite his mother’s threats, August emigrated to the US. When he arrived on Ellis Island, New York he spoke passing English, but had no job lined up. His three brothers Karl, John, and Joseph had also ignored their mother’s admonitions and crossed the Atlantic some years earlier, before the stock market crash, and found employment. By 1931, job opportunities in the U.S. had dwindled drastically. Although August was the most educated among his siblings, his college-level education counted for little in America. He also had to deal with a lingering resentment towards Germans in general, a leftover from the Great War, which only made the job search more difficult. August, like all the Berndts, had a strong work ethic and preferred any work to no work at all. He obtained a janitorial position at the Kings Park State Hospital for the mentally ill, sometimes working the overnight shift to make a few pennies more per hour. He moved in with John and his wife Ella, a makeshift solution for his lack of housing.
The pleading began. August bombarded Marguerite with letters expressing how he missed her and telling her that, less than truthfully, opportunities to work were far better in the U.S.
As fate would have it, Marguerite's employment in Freiburg turned out to be temporary. Times were tough and hiring a full-time nanny was a luxury few could afford. Marguerite returned to live with her aunt and uncle, supporting herself with part-time babysitting jobs. Things looked dismal except for the occasional letter from August. He definitely had a way with words and Marguerite had never been seriously courted before. Maybe that’s why she fell in love with a virtual stranger. Other than his being an opera buff, she knew very little about him.
Marguerite boarded an ocean liner and arrived in New York in November of 1931. There she reunited with the man she had only seen once before in her life. To keep things on the up and up, they were married in a civil union the next day. Mr. and Mrs. Berndt began the process of becoming citizens of the United States. In the eyes of his mother, August’s marrying a Protestant was blasphemy. Maybe the Catholic Church didn’t officially excommunicate him, but his mother did, angrily disowning him via a letter laced with venom.
Just days after their marriage, good fortune smiled on the newlyweds. August was hired by the Radio Corporation of America as a groundskeeper at its 6400 acre site in Rocky Point, New York. Since 1921, it had been the location of the transatlantic radio transmitter and, in building number ten, color television would be developed in the late 1940s. Just like a government clerk’s job his mother had wanted him to have, this position offered stability and a pension, but it was primarily outdoor work and much more to August’s liking. He had a green thumb and now he would get paid to use it. No, he wouldn't be singing a Wagnerian aria in the Metropolitan Opera anytime soon nor lecturing a college classroom about the greats of literature. Reality dictated August’s course of action, not fantasy.
The Berndts moved into a small apartment in nearby Port Jefferson, helped financially by the local Presbyterian Church. Marguerite had been raised a Protestant and was very comfortable joining such a charitable congregation. August had not set foot in a church since coming to America. Dragged by his wife to Sunday services, he reluctantly became a quasi-Presbyterian.
In 1932, Liz Helene Berndt was born. Ruth Ann Berndt was born in 1941. The Berndts had planned on having two children. Arthur Robert Berndt arrived in 1944.
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Port Jefferson, Arthur’s hometown, was a small village on the North Shore of Long Island that offered a scenic harbor ideal for boating and fishing, a highly rated public school system, four distinct seasons of the year and a rural flavor, while sitting just sixty miles from cosmopolitan New York City.
Suassa Park was a small subdivision located within the boundaries of Port Jefferson. It consisted of seventy-five homes situated on three hundred and fifty acres, connected by a network of wide yet lightly traveled roads, some unpaved. There was virtually no through traffic, except for the occasional lost driver. A less impressive fact: Suassa Park was almost entirely inhabited by what were known in the day as WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). No blacks or Hispanics need apply. A physician, Samuel Cohen, had to threaten legal action in order to build there. Dr. Cohen was Jewish.
Prejudices notwithstanding, most people thought Suassa Park was the ideal spot to raise children. It had every appearance of being a tightknit community. Everyone knew everyone, or at least they thought so. It was safe for youngsters to play outdoors without adult supervision. Dogs were often let outside to run unleashed. Mail and milk were delivered door-to-door. Many of the houses were separated by large vacant treed lots, and the entire perimeter of the community was surrounded by pristine woods. Younger kids spent the day playing in their backyards, riding bikes, or hanging out in a tree fort situated on one of the wooded lots. One resident graciously allowed the older kids to play ball on an unused field that was part of his small farm.
Although just sixty miles from downtown Manhattan, Suassa Park might as well have been in another world. It had a Norman Rockwell feel to it. For most, a little bit of paradise. For Arthur, a paradise lost.
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Because he lived under the constant threat of attack inside his home, Arthur always wanted to get out of the house with a far greater urgency than other young kids. At an early age, he developed the habit of escaping his home whenever possible, both excited and relieved when taking off for whatever the outdoors had in store.
One early summer day he had left his house and was aimlessly walking along Hawthorne Street when he bumped into an older boy, Buddy O’Brien, for the first time. Arthur was now five years old, Buddy almost twelve. During that initial encounter the older boy immediately assumed the role of bossy big brother. Rather than being put off by Buddy’s aggressiveness, Arthur was overcome by a need to win his approval—at any cost. He felt the quickest way to do that was to play follow-the-leader. For his part, Buddy had plenty of ideas as to how they could entertain themselves. The two boys began to meet on a regular basis, despite their age disparity.
Something struck Arthur as odd. Whenever he went to Buddy’s house, there was nobody else at his home or, whoever was, stayed hidden inside.
Arthur never invited Buddy to his house. There was an indefinable dark “something” about his older friend that even this naïve young boy picked up on and sensed would meet with his parents’ disapproval. Bad company, but, to Arthur, better company than he had at home.
Just a few days after they first met, Arthur arrived at Buddy’s home and found him in the backyard sitting on the ground next to a motionless cat. The cat’s face was disfigured. Arthur asked his friend, “What happened?”
“I don’t know.”
Buddy flung the limp cat into the woods.
Soon the two boys began a crime spree that quickly escalated in its severity. First, broken spokes and flattened tires on bicycles, then punctured tires on automobiles, next, stolen mail they had no use for (sometimes taking the mailbox itself), and then on to throwing rocks at passing cars. The rock-throwing led to Arthur’s first confrontation with an angry nonfamily member.
Buddy and Arthur would arm themselves with as many rocks as they could carry in their hands and pockets and then lurk behind bushes, just off the street. When a car passed by, they'd hurl as many of the stones as possible and then take off deep into the woods. By the time the driver under assault stopped to see what had happened, the boys would be long gone.
So it went, until one particular day when, standing in the woods along Hawthorne Street, they spotted an approaching vehicle. Buddy, farther back in the woods than Arthur, ordered the younger boy to begin the attack. When the sedan was almost past him, Arthur let loose a rock with gusto that fell short of its target. Simultaneously, Buddy threw a large stone with more force. Direct hit on the rear window. It splintered. The sedan screeched to a halt. From the driver’s side a man jumped out on the run giving chase. Buddy, with a head start from deeper in the woods, was already out of sight. Arthur began running for his life.
A five-year-old trying to outrun an adult male—it should have been an obvious mismatch. But not to this five-year-old. Arthur scrambled through bushes, poison ivy, prickers and low-lying tree limbs. All the while, the crunching footsteps of his pursuer got louder and louder. Buddy? He was just a distant memory.
Snagged! A hand wrapped around Arthur’s chest, yanking him to a halt. “What the hell ya think you're doing, you little sonofabitch?”
Arthur was too frightened to answer. The man grabbed him by the hand, ready to drag him out of the woods. Arthur sunk to the ground and wrapped his arms around his head, ready for a beating.
With a mixture of anger and puzzlement, his captor demanded, “What's wrong with you, boy?” Again Arthur had no answer to offer.
“Get up, dammit!”
Arthur remained frozen in a fetal position. The man yanked him to his feet and the two made the trek back to the car, which was sitting on the road, idling in neutral. The stranger shoved Arthur into the front passenger seat. “Where do you live?”
“I don't know.”
“You don't know? Well, then we'll have to go to the police station to find out. Can’t have you out here lost in the woods, right?”
“No! I don’t wanna go to the police! Who are the police?”
“No police, eh? Maybe it’s time you found out who they are and what they do—before you become a bigger brat than you already are. Whadda ya think, wise guy? ”
The man forcefully grabbed the youngster by his arm and violently shook him. “Okay. Let’s start over. Do you live around here?”
“Kind of.” Arthur was stalling for time, hoping to dodge his own execution.
“Listen. I'm not going to put up with any bullshit. You tell me right now, who are your parents? If you don’t, I’ll beat it out of you. Your choice.”
Arthur had never been beaten by anyone but his father. He briefly wondered how a stranger’s punishment would feel compared to what he received at the hands of his father. Then, after taking another look at the man’s angry face, he decided he didn’t want to find out. Better to stick with the devil you already knew at home.
In a trembling voice, the young boy blurted out, “You mean my mom and father?”
“Yeah, your mom and dad. Where do they live?”
Arthur gave up all hope of escaping his fate. “It's the next turn right down the road. The next road, you go that way.” He pointed with his finger.
After arriving at the Berndts’ house, the stranger marched up to the front stoop, pulling Arthur with him. His mom had heard the car and was waiting at the door, a look of concern on her face.
“Is this your son?”
“Yes. What’s happened?”
“Plenty. Your son broke my car window. He did it on purpose, while I was driving, no less. Throwing rocks. This is going to cost someone money and it's not going to be me.”
“Oh, I'm so sorry. I truly apologize. Was he with anyone?”
“I didn't see anyone else.”
Marguerite directed her look towards Arthur. “Who were you with?”
“Arthur, did you throw a rock at this man’s car?” The young boy remained silent.
She turned back to the man, “Again, I apologize. I’m Marguerite Berndt.”
“Sorry to meet you this way. This is very embarrassing. He can be a handful, but I know that’s no excuse. I am so very sorry. I just don’t understand this. I mean, how could he reach your window with a rock?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is I caught him running away. That’s proof enough for me.”
Marguerite again asked her son, “Are you sure no one was with you?” The youngster shook his head.
“I’ll get this repaired and send you the bill. Actually, I live over on Whittier, so I’ll just drop it off. Okay with you?”
“You better keep an eye on him. He's awfully young to be doing this kind of stuff.”
“I can’t argue with you on that, if he did. I’m just not sure.”
“Well, why would he run then? Maybe he thinks it’s funny but someone could get hurt. What if my window was open and he hit me?”
“I completely agree. I’ll have his father talk to him about this.”
The young boy’s heart sank. “Talk to him about it” meant his father would find out what he’d done wrong and that would lead to much more than a lecture.
Arthur’s fears proved to be justified. Marguerite divulged the entire story to August when he got home from work. There would be no stay of execution; it went off without a hitch.
When Buddy and Arthur met up a few days later, the younger boy dared stand up to his older partner-in-crime. In a rare display of assertiveness, Arthur insisted his rock-throwing career was over. He was still smarting from the welts and bruises—courtesy of his father—his most recent antisocial effort had earned him.
Buddy was nothing if not creative. If Arthur was no longer up for rock throwing, his pal knew other ways they could entertain themselves. One day the two were wandering through the neighborhood. They had no particular destination, as far as Arthur could tell. The two kept walking until Buddy stopped in front of the Cohen home. The owners were gone, along with their children and two dogs. Buddy and Arthur traipsed through the woods that lay near one side of the house and walked out onto the Cohens’ backyard. Buddy, being the taller of the two, used a lawn chair to stand on and peeked inside the house through several different windows. Arthur... Buy now at https://walterstoffelauthor.com/buy-now
Most children want to feel loved. Arthur just wanted to feel safe.
The following September, on the second day of the new school year, Arthur would steal a dollar and ninety-five cents from his mother's pocketbook. The beginning of another crime wave.
If he took off running, he'd soon be in the old man's clutches. But, if he remained, the same would surely happen. Arthur feared for his life, a familiar uncomfortability.
In his world, fear of the unknown was often less terrifying than the known,
The young boy grew more and more fearful that, at any moment, the lid would be blown off his secret. He began searching for a defense before even being charged with a crime.
Most every child likes to escape into fantasy; Arthur needed to escape his reality. The movie house was just the place to do that.
On the way back home he didn't have to worry about successfully scooting by the old man's shack, knowing it was empty. Even arriving at his own house was less disheartening than usual. For this one day, home felt less threatening than the woods. There was something oddly comforting about facing the more familiar devil in his life.
Though Arthur had only a child’s vague concept of mortality, it was sufficient to convince him he should have run off minutes earlier. Now, because he hadn’t, his life was at the mercy of a sick monster. Feeling helpless to do anything; he sat and waited for his fate to be decided.
Was it better to get punishment over with or put it off as long as possible? That was a question the youngster had grappled with far too often in his life. He had yet to come up with a definitive answer.
As the meeting ended, the principal and teacher reaffirmed their concern that Ronnie was headed down the wrong path and Arthur was tagging along.
Since there was so much he was unjustly punished for, any time Arthur got away with doing something that merited punishment it was posted on his mental scoreboard as a home run that evened the score.
A huge wave swept over Arthur, pulling him away from the shore and out of sight. Completely submerged and at the water’s mercy, the young boy looked up through the filmy liquid that had engulfed him. He could see the quickly dimming light of the sun, barely visible from underneath the water’s surface, a surface he had been sucked below and was sinking further and further away from. He gasped for air but only salty liquid rushed into his body. Drowning was dreamlike, surreal—not pleasant, yet not totally unpleasant.
While holding on to a flickering hope for the best, Arthur braced himself for the worst. He preferred to be a pessimist. That way he could never be disappointed.
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