Badge Of Honor
Badge of Honor
During the late 1950's, in a small Catholic Parish on the South Side of Buffalo,N.Y., a cadre of children daily stood guard on the busy street corners around our grammar school. Our designated assignment was to hold back the overly rambunctious children, at major street crossings, until the adult crossing guard had reached the middle of the intersection.There, she extended her arms fully, stopping all vehicular traffic. Then and only then, we allowed the crowd of children, that we were holding back, to proceed safely across the busy thoroughfare.
We were then in the 6th grade at St.John the Evangelist Grammar School. These positions were awarded to us by the School Principal. They were positions of trust in our small society, one we accepted and carried out with all of the solemn dignity that only a 10 year old can muster. The Captain of the detachment was a friend and neighbor. I, as the Lieutenant of the detachment, was next in command. We carried out our responsibilities as if we were a squad of highly trained militia assigned to protect our schoolmates from falling into harm's way.
In a neighborhood like ours, where no one had much of anything to speak of in the way of material possessions, honors like these were not taken lightly. The esteem accompanying one of these positions would be the talk of the neighborhood children. To emphasize our lofty positions, we were awarded a crisp white waist belt and cross chest strap, upon which gleamed the reflected glory of a "crossing guard badge. It was for all of the world to see and take note that the wearer held a place of esteem in the local heirarchy.
The patrol went about its duties day in and day out, throughout the nice days and the long cold winters that were then a feature of our Northern climate. No one of us ever complained of the volunteer efforts and the time it cost us in early arrivals and shortened lunch hours. This was a position of trust for which we all aspired and were grateful to be selected.It went on uneventfully until the Spring of 1959. I take note of the time well, for it is from that date that I first mark my realization that adults, as authority figures, are sometimes both flawed and tarnished.That is a revelation I would have thought impossible a few short weeks before.
It was a fine soft day with a light drizzle falling, during the early morning crossings. All of our schoolmates arrived at our old tan, brick school complex without mishap. We proceeded through a morning of Math, English and religious studies in a fashion we had grown accustomed to for many days on end. At this age, the time spent locked away in classrooms could seem endless. As the noon hour approached, the crossing guard detachment filed out early, crisp white cross belts and shiny badges resplendent.
We took up our stations on the main corners nearby, in support of the adult crossing guard. We alertly awaited the eager rush of the lunch and home bound students. I don't really remember the name of the adult crossing guard. At our age, all adults appear as middle aged. She was enveloped in the standard blue police woman's uniform with badged cap. We stood behind her, ready to hold back the throngs of excited children. A task we performed for her every day.
This day however the crossing guard's attention was diverted. One of the neighborhood women had stopped to chat with her. The crossing guard must have known the woman well, for she engaged in a lively conversation with the visitor, temporarily losing the vigilance that she needed to be on the look out for child risky automobiles.
As luck would have it, one of the smaller children was both in a hurry and as small children are, oblivious to her surroundings. Before any one could stop her, the small child had run out into the middle of the intersection amidst a stream of oncoming traffic. A loud blaring of horns and the sickening sound of squealing brakes being hurriedly applied, stunned all of us on that corner. We looked apprehensively to the row of just stopped cars. To our great relief, we saw that the little one had reached the other side of the street, frightened but unscathed.It might have been just another anxious moment in the perilous life of children growing up in a crowded city, one that ended happily. But it didn't turn out that way.
Upon arriving at her home,the frightened child tearfully related the incident to her parents. The mildly outraged mother marched up to the school and demanded an explanation from the Principal. Now it might have ended here, with an apology from the crossing guard. Her attention was momentarily diverted and these things do happen of course, with so many children to watch.
As luck would have it, the guard lost her courage under the onslaught of an angry parent and a particularly aggressive principal from the order of nuns that ran the school. In retrospect, I guess most mere mortals would have folded under that kind of pressure. But we, the crossing guard patrol, expected the adult to give a truthful rendition of the events and let the chips fall where they may.Fair, after all,was fair.
The poor woman, perhaps frightened for her job, gave a tenuous account of youthful and inattentive crossing guard patrols that hadn't been able to properly protect the small children from the perils of traffic on a busy intersection. A conference was held and the ruling sisters decided that the patrol was too young for the responsibilities of the job and that it should be given to older students.
We on the patrol were crushed by the verdict. Hadn't we given countless hours of our free time to man these posts? Hadn't we done the job we were assigned in all manner of weather without recompense, save for the honor of the job? And now, to lose these respected positions because an adult had been too busy chatting with friends to pay attention to her work, we were to be stripped of our honors? This, decidedly, was not fair! No one of the patrol could believe that the adult guard hadn't admitted her inattention. And then to point the finger at us, her loyal patrol? The indignity of it was almost more than we could bear.It still rankles me, even these 40 odd years later.
One of the Nuns was scheduled to collect from us, our crisp white cross belts with shiny badges. It was a ceremony and a mark of shame for each of us that we would not forget for many years. As each of the patrol walked to the center of the class room, to hand in the belt and badge, there was a protracted silence in the classroom. Children of our age know high drama when they see it. Years later, I was to see several movies featuring military court martials. Convicted soldiers were stripped of their medals and had the buttons cut from their uniforms. I always knew how each of those men felt, the sick feeling in their stomach as the uniform they had worn so proudly was taken from them.
After a time, the near tragedy faded from the collective psyche of the school community.Time and events marched on like they always do. We grew older, graduated to high school and lived out the lives that were fated for us in this working class community on the South side of Buffalo New York.
But even after all of these years, the events of that day came readily to mind as I sat at a traffic light and watched a crossing guard safely usher a band of small children across a busy street. She smiled and waved at me and I returned the greeting. But, my eyes were drawn to the small figure on the curb behind her. He stood tall and proud for a ten year old. The crisp white cross belt stood out against his jacket and the badge was polished and reflected the noon day sun.
On his face was a look of solemn responsibility and a youthful pride in the authority of his position. I couldn't help but smile at seeing, reflected in his solemn face, the feelings that I once had known so well.
And where ever that poor frightened crossing guard of long ago is, I hope she has totally forgotten the incident.I have carried the memory and the shame of it around long enough for both of us.
Joseph Xavier Martin