I grew up on a typical suburban street that was laid out much the same as rows of corn—one after the other, straight as an arrow, with each house filled to the rafters with kids. We were all baby boomers—the children of prolific parents who broke the seams of the city, and moved out to the suburbs for green grass and a fenced in yard. Kids were everywhere, so there was never a shortage of someone wanting to hang around. At any given moment, kids would appear out of nowhere, eagerly mumbling the refrain of our generation—hey, wanna play?
Things were stable in our neighborhood. Everybody seemed to move in at the same time, and nobody ever moved out. One exception was Ronnie Fitz, who moved in with his family one street over, and a few doors down from one of my friends. A one street over friend was a rare thing to have anyway, so a new kid who lived down the street from the one street over kid shouldn’t have made much of a ripple, but he did. Man, did he ever.
Ronnie fell into our group in the usual way. We needed an extra kid for a game of softball, and this seemed as good a time as any to knock on Ronnie’s door. It didn’t take long for his stories to start.
“I’m not supposed to play baseball,” he told us, “this bein’ on account of the steel plate in my head,” he said from the front step of the family house. He was putting the finishing touches on an apple, taking careful bites that seemed to punctuate the big reveal about his steel plate. No greater opening line had ever been uttered in the history of our neighborhood as the steel plate bombshell that was dropped that afternoon.
“Yeah, I got it when I hitched onto a train and fell off. Hit my head on the tracks, and they had to put a steel plate in my head,” he said with absolute seriousness.
Our group was a genial one not prone to disbelief, even with something as far-fetched as emergency backwoods noggin surgery. After all, this was the summer we had captured a pollywog that had arms and legs, bridging that evolutionary gap between pollywog and frog. It was the unicorn of pollywogs, so the news of steel plate Ronnie wasn’t as shocking as it could have been. We were worldly now.
“Maybe you can just come along and hang out,” somebody said. Ronnie asked his mother, who eyed us up carefully for a second or two while scanning us with her mom radar for nefarious intent. She eventually and cheerfully said, “yes,” probably happy that Ronnie was making friends, so off we went. As the group walked to the ball field we were silently trying to make sense out of Ronnie, and the news that he had shared. Was it true or not? Nobody had ever fabricated such an elaborate lie before, so maybe it was. True to his word, Ronnie sat on the sidelines while we played, sometimes shagging a foul ball, and then rolling it underhanded to the closest kid on the field.
As the summer wore on, Ronnie would occasionally mingle into the group, and his stories became even more elaborate, involving everything short of an alien abduction, but the saga of the steel plate was still king. There were no scars that anybody could see, so how’d they do it, if they did it at all? I went so far as to stuff my pockets with a few of my mother’s refrigerator magnets, armed and ready for the next Ronnie encounter. The plan was to casually walk up behind Ronnie, and toss a handful of magnetic fruit pieces at his head to see if they stuck. I never did it though. As inquisitive as I was, something inside of me thought this through to the magnetic pieces bouncing off his head and falling to the ground. I then imagined the hurt look on Ronnie’s face, and I suddenly felt bad for something I didn’t even do. I never thought to question Ronnie’s stories again.
Whatever his reasoning, Ronnie stuck with his story, recanting it often with the same flourish of details about the train mishap, so there didn’t seem to be much of a point in decorating his head with magnetic bananas. Overall he was a good kid, but he never stopped with the stories. It was as if he wanted to be liked, but he never trusted us enough to stop trying so hard.
The Fitz family didn’t stay long. They were gone within a few years when Mr. Fitz was transferred to another city. We found out that this was a pattern for them, as Mr. Fitz did something called contract work, which none of us understood. One day, Ronnie was gone without any good-byes, simply moving on to a new town, and presumably doing the best he could to fit in before moving again.
The boy, the myth, the legend: Ronnie Fitz.
None of us ever knew if his stories were true or not, but Ronnie seemed to think they were, and for a few summers anyway, he livened up our staid little group of pollywog catchers. As I think about this all these years down the road, I wish things had been a little different. Deep down inside of me, in that curious part of my soul that I usually keep buried and private, I wish I had tried to stick a magnet to Ronnie’s head. I’m not proud of that, but hey—how cool would that have been if it had actually stuck?