Apigian-Kessel: Growing Pains II: Gerald and Ronald

The recent tragedy at Ft. Hood in Texas brought something to mind from my years back at Wilson Elementary School in Pontiac, Mich. Why now, I wondered. Perhaps it is because of all the time we spend taking our grandkids to the Royal Oak train station to see the behemoths arrive and depart with a great deal of ceremony, and my instruction to them that one must be careful near trains.

When this type of carnage happens today, be it with the loss of many lives or even one, the powers to be, as at Ft. Hood, immediately offer psychological help to those affected by it. It must be a helpful tool, but we had no such support help when two of our sixth grade classmates became confined to wheelchairs—a result of their own bad decision making. They paid dearly for playing on the railroad tracks.

Our kindly teacher, Mrs. Kohn, unlike all the other teachers, had her desk at the back of the classroom while the students faced the front. Therefore she could keep an eye on our behavior and study habits. No fooling around under her watch. When she came to the front of the room on this particular day, standing in front of the chalk board, it wasn’t to instruct us on fractions or sentence structure. She made a startling announcement that would forever remain in my mind.

The powerful sound of an approaching train even with the guard rails down reminds me of that terrible day, when Mrs. Kohn made the dreadful announcement. Two of our classmates, Gerald and Ronald, were in the hospital, she said, with serious injuries sustained when they were run over by a train somewhere behind General Motors Truck and Coach, either near South Boulevard or at the Jessie and Central Streets area.

They were average students at best and not prone to being troublemakers in class. They didn’t live anywhere near me, but the fact is we shared the same sixth grade class.

It happened several days before the announcement was made to the students, and we were either too young or naive to get hysterical about it. We were told we would be visiting the boys at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital as a group to show our support, and we could bring small gifts to show we cared.

I remember that visit and that both boys were stoic. They were in their beds and the bed linens of course covered their bodies, but the lack of bulk beneath the sheets and blankets was obvious. It was difficult not to stare at the area of their lower extremities and making proper conversation was awkward. The teacher tried to guide us in that manner.

Gerald and Ronald had little to smile about because thereafter their lives changed forever. I don’t recall them returning to our school. I don’t know if they got any type of counseling. I did see Gerald years later maneuvering a wheelchair in downtown Pontiac. He had gotten heavier from inactivity. It was sad to see, of course. We did not exchange words.

The Ft. Hood incident and the offer of psychological help to anyone needing it brought to mind how those days, nothing of the sort was suggested to help the students of my sixth grade class to deal with the terrible accident that had befallen our friends.

Were we mentally stronger than people today? Was it not known that tragedy such as this could affect our young minds, put a permanent fear in us? Probably neither. I challenge anyone who says life was simpler then. Everything is relative. Life today is more complicated, or do you think we have gotten softer, more pampered? Regardless, getting help and talking through difficulties are healthy and good.

When my brother Abe came home from the service at the end of World War II, at what I consider the very young age of 22, he had been through the invasion of Normandy. He had fought in Belgium, France, and Germany. He had slept soaking wet in foxholes, had a body full of shrapnel, and all but one rib had been broken in an explosion. I have some of his letters to Mom and Dad written in beautiful Armenian script. He was their golden son. I was his baby sister.

To my knowledge, the U.S. Army never offered him counseling. Knowing Abe, all he wanted was just to return to his family. His first months home were filled with terror when planes flew over our house at night. Being home also meant hitting the local night clubs with his Armenian buddies, and why not?

Life for him was a constant battle of ulcer surgery, years of smoking, and three open-heart surgeries, succumbing just after the third operation at age 60. To know him was to love the handsome, good-hearted so-and-so with thick black hair and his father’s green eyes.

You know that song: “I’ll get by with a little help from my friends?” There’s a lot of truth in it. I wonder what became of Gerald and Ronald. There also is a song, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother,” and I miss him.


Betty Apigian-Kessel

Betty (Serpouhie) Apigian Kessel was born in Pontiac, Mich. Together with her husband, Robert Kessel, she was the proprietor of Woodward Market in Pontiac and has two sons, Bradley and Brant Kessel. She belonged to the St. Sarkis Ladies Guild for 12 years, serving as secretary for many of those years. During the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, the Detroit community selected her to be the English-language secretary and she happily dedicated her efforts to help the earthquake victims. She has a column in the Armenian Weekly entitled “Michigan High Beat.”

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