In the summer of 1964 I was 11 years old.
As far as 11-year-olds went I was an average kid. I did fine in school, I had lots of friends. I loved sports and G.I. Joe. I hated vegetables and my younger sister.
Statistically I fell into the category that seemed prevalent in my part of town, another child from a broken home being raised by a single mother on welfare.
We lived in a quiet area with no violence, the sort of place where you could leave your doors unlocked all of the time. Everybody was friends with everybody else.
There was one interloper though.
Nobody knew his real name, everyone called him Romeo, for his tendency to “roam” the streets of the neighborhood constantly with no apparent destination. For that matter he had no known point of origin either, but every day, regardless of the weather, he would walk by my house between 8:30 and 8:45 a.m.
He stood about 5’-3” and was slightly underweight. The permanent smile attached to his pumpkin shaped face gave him the look of a harmless gnome. As for his age, I had him pegged for somewhere between 60 and 125. His wardrobe was as constant as his schedule. Long brown woolen overcoat that was much older than I was, a tattered black knit watch cap, flannel shirt and tan work pants that hadn’t seen a washing machine since the Great Depression and worn brown work boots with soles as thin as paper.
As he walked he continually worked his hands as though trying to wash them, and he talked to himself in a never ending stream of nonsensical gibberish. His voice was only slightly more masculine than Mickey Mouse.
The thing that impressed me the most about Romeo though, was that despite the constant, and sometimes cruel taunts by the kids in the neighborhood he just kept smiling and kept walking.
My routine during summer vacation was very predictable as well – out of bed at the first sign of light, eat my Cap’n Crunch while watching Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, grab my baseball glove and rush to my best friend Al’s house three street over to begin the day’s adventures.
After the first week of vacation I noticed that Romeo and I had the same schedule, he would be walking by my house just as I was leaving for Al’s. At first I shied away from him, sometimes running all the way in order to avoid him. After all there were rumors rampant in the neighborhood that he was everything from an escaped mental patient to a crazed war veteran who was nearly blown to smithereens by a hand grenade, and everything imaginable in between.
One day, during the third week of vacation I was crossing the patch of green weeds we called a front lawn when I spotted Romeo and, by my calculations, we were practically on a collision course. Doing my best to avoid him I hooked my baseball glove over the handle of my Louisville Slugger, put the bat on my shoulder and began running. Unfortunately the glove slipped off the handle of the bat and landed right between my feet causing me to go ass-over-tea- kettle into the street directly in the path of a Ford station wagon.
It happened so fast, and I was so distracted, I don’t know what I was aware of first, the vision of a white wall tire rapidly approaching my head, or the grip of a bony hand on the back of my tee-shirt pulling me out of harms way. The one thing I was sure of was that despite the screeching tire and the thick white smoke pluming behind it, the car was not going to stop in time to avoid crushing my head the way a size 10 work boot would crush a bug.
When I recovered from the initial shock I turned to look at my savior.
He mumbled something incomprehensible, then smiled at me before setting me down and continuing on his way.
For the rest of the summer Romeo and I walked to Al’s house together every day. His smile was ever present and he spoke continuously, although I never did understand a word he said. At times I would say things to him and he would look at me and smile before a string of jumbled words flowed from his mouth. I never knew if he was responding to what I had said or if it was just a continuation of what he had been uttering before I interrupted him.
It didn’t matter, we were friends. There was no clear cut communication between us, but I saw it in his eyes. For the rest of the summer I endured the taunts from all the kids in the neighborhood for associating with a known loonie, because he was my friend.
Shortly before school started that September my Mom got a job two towns away and we had to move. It was our first real house she said, one that we could call our own. I didn’t know what that meant; I thought the house we were renting was our own.
I never saw Romeo again.
Over the years I often wondered what happened to him. A few years ago I decided to research my old friend.
It wasn’t easy, but what I found was that Romeo’s real name was Sol Weismann. After being liberated from a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 he was brought to the U.S. and spent the rest of his life in a series of institutions for the mentally ill, one of which was just a mile or two from where I lived that summer.
He died in 1976 at the age of 67 leaving no known family.
I have often tried to imagine the horrors that he witnessed and the pain that he suffered for most of his life, all at the hands of people to whom he had done no wrong. Yet his smile was as constant as the stars in the night sky. Those memories helped to forge my outlook on life. I resist the urge to judge people, or to criticize that which I don’t know. I never refuse the friendship of another for any reason. But perhaps the thing that I try to remember the most is that no matter how hopeless life may seem, how insurmountable my problems may be, they are insignificant compared to some.
Romeo saved my life in the summer of 1964 and he continues to save it to this day.