Old Man Clemmons was feared by every child in town. The stories of his screeching screams and bizarre behavior were scarier than ghost stories, because we all knew they were true.
I was one of the few children who had actually encountered Mr. Clemmons, who lived next door to my grandmother. One afternoon we were playing baseball in her back yard when the ball landed in Mr. Clemmons’ flower bed. I was elected to go and retrieve the ball. I should have been concerned when all of the other children took cover in the shrubbery beside my grandmother’s house. I had just stepped into the flower bed when I heard the high-pitched scream. “Get out of my yard!”
He was standing on the front porch, his face red with anger, his words dripping with venomous rage. He was a short man with a square face and wire-framed glasses. Forgetting about the baseball, I ran away as fast as I could. Mr. Clemmons must have seen the other children hiding in the shrubbery because the last thing I heard behind me was a wailing scream, “All of you kids! Leave me alone!”
Out of breath and grateful that we had all survived, the neighborhood children regrouped at my house. It was then that one of the Chunn boys revealed the deep, dark secret that none of us wanted to hear. “You’re lucky,” he told me. “That old guy is a madman. At least he screamed and ran you off, because he has been known to capture kids and hold them prisoner.”
We were all terrified at this revelation. Finally, someone had the courage to ask the question that we feared would be answered, “What does he do with them?”
“He has a laboratory in his cellar,” the Chunn boy told us. “We think he runs experiments on kids. One thing I do know is that whenever a kid has been captured, you never hear from him again.”
A few weeks later I was at my grandmother’s house when, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by a siren and the rotating red light that was flashing through the room. I looked out the window and saw an ambulance and a police car at Mr. Clemmons’ house. I raised the window and heard a terrifying scream. I found my grandmother on the front porch talking to some neighbors who had gathered in the yard. I heard someone say they were giving him morphine to calm him down. “You know he has a steel plate in his head,” somebody said.
I kept my distance from the Clemmons’ house. But one day when I was older, my grandmother asked me to do the unthinkable. “Mr. Clemmons needs somebody to mow his yard,” she said. He would not allow a power mower. I had to use a rusty old push mower, and it took me half a day to complete the job. When I was finished he walked out of the house and, not saying a word, took a wallet out of his pocket that was covered with rubber bands. With trembling hands he pulled out three, $1 bills. Not a thank you or job well done — just three, measly dollars for a half-day of hard labor.
I mowed his yard for a few years and then found a decent job when I started high school. As graduation neared, everyone was talking about Vietnam. Some of our classmates had been killed, others injured. One day a visitor came to school and talked to us about what it means to risk your life in the service of your country. He told us about a man who lived in our town, a decorated war veteran, he said. “This man was gassed and critically injured by shrapnel in the First World War. A steel plate was placed in his head, but not a day goes by that he does not suffer. He is often in intense pain. He can’t stand any noise, not even the sound of a power mower. He will suffer for the rest of his life because of his injuries. But you and I are free because of him. He is a genuine hero. We should all be grateful for his sacrifice.” I looked for the Chunn boy but couldn’t find him. Then I looked at myself and felt ashamed.
Thank you Mr. Clemmons for the great sacrifice you gave for our country. As we approach Memorial Day, let us not only remember those who died, but those whose lives were traumatically and irrevocably changed because of war. We will be forever grateful.