Lloyd was a good-natured kid who went his own way as he grew up in Eastport in the 1930’s. Even when he was small, he spent hours in the nearby woods, exploring.
“What do you do up there, son?” his father asked him, when as a three-year-old he’d finally returned home one afternoon.
“I watch the lions and tigers.”
“Lloyd, there are no lions and tigers in these woods.”
“Yes there are—there goes one now,” the boy said, pointing.
“I don’t see him.”
“Oh, you just missed him,” Lloyd said with a shrug, snapping his fingers as he headed into his house for dinner.
School was a disappointment, confining him indoors for long, slow days. By third grade, however it became another kind of challenge. A few boys in his class began calling him names—using words he didn’t understand—words perhaps they didn’t understand either, like “Dirty Jew.”
Baffled, since he knew he wasn’t dirty, his mother insisted on baths and inspected his hands and ears, he asked one of the boys why they called him that.
“It’s what my parents said about you.”
By the time he reached 12, the boys had learned additional words like “Kike” and “Sheeney” Each day they waited after school to chase him home. He became fast and adept at avoiding them. He didn’t like getting beaten up. He’d also begun growing and managed to earn a place among the older boys who were caddies and hunting guides at an exclusive men’s club. He was proud of this accomplishment and the money he earned. Those boys didn’t like Jews either, but he was a good guide and the members liked him.
That year he learned it was time to prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. It was 1943, the Second World War was still raging and their small synagogue in Riverhead had lost its rabbi. Lloyd would have to take a train to Patchogue each day after school, and throughout his summer vacation to meet with a rabbi there who would prepare him for the religious service.
“But, I won‘t have any free time . . . and I might lose my job at the club . . . I won’t be able to fish . . . it will ruin my summer.”
“A Jewish boy must be prepared for his Bar Mitzvah, Lloyd. This is not up for discussion,” his father said in the mild tone that indicated the subject was closed.
Riding the train alone each day, turned out to be exciting. He managed to continue working at the club on weekends and could go fishing if he woke early enough. The challenge of writing a speech to deliver to the congregation intrigued him and he struggled to make sure he included everyone in his thanks for helping him grow up properly. To his delight, he was continuing to grow physically too.
Two days before the Bar Mitzvah, the Rabbi called.
“I’m sorry. I know promised Lloyd I would be there, but I just can’t come. Taking the train to Riverhead and staying at a hotel for the Sabbath . . . it’s just too hard.”
Lloyd was shaken, he’d counted on the old man for support. His father was furious.
“He could have given us more than two days warning,” he growled. Then putting on his business hat, he assured his son he’d do fine and went off to convince the Chaplain stationed at the West Hampton Air Base to officiate.
Neither of the boy’s grandfathers was impressed.
“I don’t care what he says; he’s too young to be a Rabbi.”
“When did a decent Rabbi wear such clothes—an army uniform—pah?”
On Saturday, when Lloyd finished reading his portion from the Torah, the chaplain presented him with the gift of a Bible from the congregation and made his “Today You Are a Man” speech. At that point, the two grandfathers, who had been standing nearby, moved the chaplain to the side and took over, conducting the entire remainder of the service.
Lloyd tried several times to remind his grandfathers he hadn’t yet delivered his speech, but they seemed not to hear him, too intent on showing one-another how well each could conduct a proper service.
The Bar Mitzvah and his 13th birthday were in August. Lloyd returned to school in September and the bullies were there, waiting for him.
“Welcome back, Jew boy.”
“Did you have a good summer, Yid?”
“Better than yours, you dumb Polak,” Lloyd retorted.
“Well see you after school you filthy Kike—you Christ killer,” Stosh, the ring leader, screamed at him.
Lloyd felt his stomach tighten at the hated words and bit back any further response. He spent much of the afternoon plotting a route home that might avoid a confrontation, but it didn’t work. Just as he cut back across the street, Stosh and his five buddies saw him and began to chase him. He was fast enough that he thought he could make it. They wouldn’t dare come into his yard. As he raced, a strange, almost magical picture popped into his head.
It was a picture of himself, in his blue suit standing in the synagogue next to the chaplain . . . and then he heard the words.
“Today you are a man.”
A man! I’m a man! I don’t need to run. Without being aware that he was doing it, he slowed, stopped and turned.
As the boys hurtled down the hill, yelling, he chose the biggest. Raising his arm, he aimed for Stosh’s chin, missed and smashed his fist into the boy’s nose.
Screaming, Stosh fell. Blood flew in all directions and so did the four other boys. Lloyd was shocked. He hadn’t intended to do so much damage and he hadn’t expected Stosh’s friends to turn tail and run. Part of him thought he ought to feel bad about what he’d done. He didn’t.
“The principal wants to see you in his office, Lloyd,” his teacher said next morning. He’d been crowing to himself because neither Stosh nor his buddies were at their usual spot by the school entrance waiting to taunt him.
As he entered the principal’s waiting room, Stosh was already there, sitting with a fat, blonde woman. His eyes were blackened, his nose, swollen and red. He was such a fine sight that Lloyd barely heard the woman as she began screaming at him.
“Look what you did, you Jew bastard.”
The principal ran out from his office.
“I don’t blame you for being upset, Ma’am. This brat has always been trouble; thinks he’s smarter than everyone. Shame on you, boy.
“But . . .” Lloyd said. “But he was . . .”
“Not another word. There is no excuse, for what you did, you filthy little Yid.”
Lloyd was startled. He’d sensed the principal didn’t like him but had never before understood why.
“Sir!” It came out in a whisper. “Please call my father.”
‘Tell me what happened, Lloyd.” His father said. Lloyd did.
“I’ve done nothing wrong, father. I just gave him back what he did to me for years.”
The meeting lasted over an hour. His father, an important businessman, tried to calm the situation. The principal was unmoved.
“Your son will be suspended for a week and when he returns he must apologize to Stosh.”
“Never!” Lloyd was on his feet. “Stosh never apologized for hitting me.”
His father rose. “That doesn’t seem quite fair.”
The principal also rose. “You people seem to feel rules aren’t made for you. You think your Jew-brat deserves special treatment. Well, Sir, he does not.”
Lloyd could see his father flinch.
“What are my son’s options?”
“If he won’t apologize we will expel him.”
Joy flooded through Lloyd.
His father sat back and thought. “Do you understand, son?”
“How do you feel about it?”
“Fine. I didn’t do anything to apologize for. Stosh beat me up for years. I hit him once.”
His father frowned. “Education is important, Lloyd Life is hard without it . . . and . . . your mother . . . might be . . . upset.”
“Yes, sir, but I can work at Mr. O’Reilly’s farm again. He didn’t finish high school. I can be a farmer like him.”
His father nodded, placed his hat on his head and strode out of the office with Lloyd.
As they walked in silence to the bottom of the hill, Lloyd realized for perhaps the first time that living in this small farming town had been hard for his father too.
At the corner they stood, arms lightly touching. Neither seemed ready to walk the last block home.