Jack Neary February, 2008
One day, the bullying stopped.
And it took a catastrophe of epic proportions to remind me why.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my home office, about to check my email and log on to the electronic news. The phone rang. A friend called to tell me to turn on my television, that a small plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center buildings in Manhattan. News, to be sure, though it didn't seem to be the kind of news one would drop everything to check out. But my friend was not the overreacting type, so I went into the living room and clicked on the Panasonic. I'm sure I went right to CNN, which was the network of immediacy back then. Nowadays, virtually every television network is immediate, shoving each other's airwaves out of the way to get the hot picture or sound byte. But the network of choice during national crises in '01 was CNN, so that's where I went.
And that's where it was. The fiery tower jutting up into the impeccably blue late summer morning sky. My friend's report didn't seem accurate. Or sufficient. A small plane did this? Not likely. Both of the principal structures at the WTC were imposing buildings. And the hole that appeared to have been blown into the side of one of those iconic edifices was a hole that probably was not made by a small plane. I watched with tense fascination as the ugly, world-shattering story unfolded, point-by-point, update-by-update, talking head-by talking head. The buildings only represented the real horror we all felt, the horror we couldn't know, the horror confronted by the people inside those buildings. There'd be no more work in the home office that day, certainly. It was one of those times when the often brain-numbingly unpredictable life of the freelance writer/theater director allowed me to shift gears midstream and just stare at the world event spinning out of control on the television.
What was not spinning out of control on the television, however, was the persistent crawl at the bottom of the CNN screen, rigidly and unsparingly updating me second to second on the various details of the morning's disaster.
About three hours after I began watching, as I sat leaning forward in my living room chair drinking in all the information, a stunning piece of news on the CNN crawl brought me unexpectedly back to high school. To Keith Academy, an all-boys Xaverian Brothers institution in Lowell, Massachusetts.
At Keith, I was one of those kids, as a freshman at least, who was imposed upon. Maybe "stepped on" is a more accurate characterization of my daily routine. I was overweight, shy and dynamically challenged. The agenda for each school day employed by the most cloddish among my classmates was written boldly on my face, flashing in my eyes, perhaps even emblazoned on my forehead:
"This kid is a pushover. Bullies, start your engines!"
There was nothing terribly original about the bullies of Keith Academy. Their method was standard operating procedure. Exactly what you'd expect from hulking, insecure fifteen-year olds more full of themselves than they were of compassion. They were walking clichés, heisting lunch money from my locker, shoving me out of the cafeteria line, creating uncomplimentary nicknames to holler at me down the hallway. Future literary managers scribbled "Kick me" on PostIts and slapped them on my unsuspecting suit-jacketed back. My bullies were not clever, but they were vigilant. And I wouldn't fight back. I wouldn't report them to Brother Patrician, the burly, no-nonsense principal. Maybe I thought he'd just tell me to take it like a man, I don't know. But I would not react visibly at all. I was such an easy mark for them, I think they used me for practice. A warm up act before taking on the kids who might retaliate. For the first few months of my freshman year at Keith Academy, the bully onslaught was unrelenting.
And all I could think of when I saw what I saw on the crawl on CNN about three hours into 9/11 were those bullies and why they stopped bullying me.
The day progressed, the televised drama intensified. The ultimate reality show, years ahead of its time. The first building collapsed. Then the second. The mountain range of smoke and cinder and flying rubble stretched from the Battery to the Bronx. I had been there, in that embattled city, only a day and a half earlier, sitting in the right field stands at Yankee Stadium, watching the Red Sox lose, as they usually did back in those pre-2004 Septembers. I had parked my Sentra in Manhattan, right there as I saw it on the TV screen, where the mammoth tuft of smoke now enveloped the streets. A day and a half ago, I was there, and now the city was....what? Exploding? Imploding? Under attack? Nobody knew for sure. Speculation about terrorism stopped being speculation when the second airliner plowed into the second tower. Inconceivable. But actually happening, right there, on CNN.
He was just a kid. Back at Keith. Taller than some, but not a towering figure. In fact, he walked with a kind of loping slouch, his mop of blond hair seemed to shove his head and neck down into his torso, emphasizing his powerful shoulders. Not small. Not large. But not put upon, that's for sure. The bullies took one look at him and said, "Nah, let's go after the short fat kid who sits in front of him."
That would be me.
His last name fell immediately after mine in the alphabet, so in homeroom he sat directly behind me in Brother Theodore's Religion class. "Teddy" was great, a sports lunatic who allowed us to watch the Red Sox in the '67 World Series during class time, back when they actually played weekday games in the Fall Classic. Brother Theodore set us up alphabetically, thus contributing to my eventual escape from the bullies, and, in a very odd way, to this article.
It wasn't an instant friendship, the one that developed between me and the kid farmer who sat behind me. He was, in fact, a farmer, from Dracut, Massachusetts, a town just outside my hometown of Lowell. Later, after we'd become friends, he invited me and another classmate to visit him on his small farm just outside of Lowell. He neglected to tell us it was spreading season, when all the manure that...accumulated...in the barn over the long winter was excised from its bovine cache and tossed from the gratingly roaring John Deere every which way over field and meadow on the farm. It made for a memorable olfactory sensation. To my friend and his family, it was business as usual. To me and the other kid who came along with me for the visit, it was an eye-wateringly pungent assault on our nostrils. When I remember my day on my friend's farm, I remember the first time I walked into that barn. It was the only time I walked into that barn. I made certain of that. And I walked out really fast.
In any case, my farmer friend and I were both the reticent, shy type, so, despite our classroom proximity, ours was not an instant camaraderie.
It took the bullies to make that happen.
I sat there in front of my television staring in disbelief at the crawl, even though the information had moved on and the breathtaking moment I experienced seconds earlier was instant history. They had run a picture of him, and he looked just as he did in high school. Fuller face, maybe, but not much else was different. The hair looked the same. Just as blond, maybe not quite as floppy. It looked like a professional photo, one that his airline must have taken for his identification card. Smile broad, but not overly so. Eyes calm, calming, confident. He looked like a contented man.
The way I'd want my pilot to look if I were taking a commercial flight out of Boston to L.A.
At school, it wasn't any specific incident that triggered our friendship and the bullies' abandonment of Project Fat Kid. He just started sitting with me at lunchtime. I'd been the chunky kid who sat alone, the solitude inviting ridicule and abuse. He sat alone, too, usually, but in a different kind of non-threatened way. One day, he just sat down next to me and we ate our lunch together, chatted a bit, and started hanging out at lunch every day. Once that happened, because he was who he was, the bullying stopped. Maybe he was bigger than I remember him, and they were afraid. I don't know. It just stopped. We became school friends. And that was it.
When we graduated, we went to separate colleges, and did not stay in touch. After school, he remained in Dracut, just a few miles from my house, but...our relationship simply did not extend beyond Keith Academy. He went his way. I went mine. He ran the family farm. I went into theater. Life happened.
And then, the crawl.
I learned more about him after 9/11, of course. The world did. We discovered that he had inherited his family's farm and turned it into a very successful business in Dracut. We also found out that he had joined the Air Force after college and had become a pilot. He somehow managed to combine two careers--flying commercial jets and running a farm--into what everybody described as an exemplary family life. On September 11, 2001, he started his day the way he always did when he had a cross-continental flight--he'd get up at dawn, have breakfast, and hop in his car to drive to Logan. On the way, he'd honk his horn as he drove past his uncle's house. He was a family man.
I think about sitting there, in the Keith Academy gymnasium, an aging leather-and-sweat-smelling space that was used from everything from lunch to assemblies to basketball games to football pep rallies. I think about my friend, and I can't remember what we talked about at lunch. I have a brain like a sieve. I wish I could remember. I wish a lot of things. I wish I had kept in touch. I wish I had been part of his life, because it became clear that the people who knew him loved him. I wish it had occurred to me before 9/11 to let him know how important he'd been to me when I was fourteen, trying to survive in a difficult environment, dealing with idiot schoolboys and also, incidentally, with my father's death. But when you're a kid, you don't think about the effect another kid has on you. Only time provides that enlightenment. And, if you're lucky, you get the opportunity to say thanks.
His name was John Ogonowski, and Brother Theodore, CFX seated him behind me in Religion class, homeroom, at Keith Academy in 1964, because that's the way the alphabet dictated it should be. His name was John Ogonowski, and he was the pilot of American Airlines Flight Eleven out of Logan Airport in Boston, September 11, 2001.
I couldn't get anywhere near his funeral at St. Frances' Church because by that time he belonged to the world and the world press covered the funeral. When the world press covers a funeral in Dracut, Massachusetts, there is no parking. So I watched on television. Probably on CNN.
I wrote a letter to the local newspaper, and the local newspaper printed it. In it, I thanked John for being such a nice kid in high school. Years too late. But I imagine his family read it. His wife. His kids. So they'd know. I hope so, anyway.
And I'm thinking that maybe my friendship with him, way back then, was something of a thank you in and of itself. John seemed to be the kind of kid who didn't need to be thanked out loud, the kind of man who knew when he was doing a good thing, but never making a major deal out of it. I think he knew about my bullies, and I think it made him happy that they backed off. A virtual thank you.
In the end, he became a major deal. World-renowned. For doing his job at the center of what turned out to be a life-altering event for all of us.
But by then, John Ogonowski had long since made his mark on his friends and family in Dracut.
Just as he had made his mark on me, when he took my out of order high school existence and provided it with some semblance of normality.
Just by sitting down with me for lunch.