The boy in green

January 17, 2005 | 17 comments
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As many of you know, I served a mission in Romania (Feb. ’92 – Jan. ’94). Yes, I worked with orphans. But I can’t write about that. Not yet. This one comes first…

Shortly after I arrived, my companion, who was also the district leader, successfully arranged for our district to perform our community service at the children’s hospital in sector 1 in Bucharest. Twice a week we would hop on the metro (subway) to Piatsa Victoriei, walk through a construction site, nod to the gatekeeper and enter the n-shaped building where the children who were well enough to receive visitors, but not well enough to go home were housed. We would enter on the bottom right side of the building, walk up the corridor — which had a couple of patient rooms — turn left and walk down the corridor past the administrative offices and supply rooms, turn left down the left corridor and enter a small washroom. After washing and drying our hands with antibacterial soap, we would start our visits. There were 4-5 medium- and large-sized rooms on the left side of the corridor. These housed children ages 7-15 (or so) of both genders. Most of these children had a parent or grandparent with them and were the ones most likely to not be there the next time we visited. There were also 3-4 small rooms on the right side. These rooms usually held boys ages 7-12. Some of them had parents. Several of them were children who had had a reaction to an infant inoculation and as a result their knees had turned to the back of their legs, bowing them. They couldn’t walk. They would get around by dragging their bottoms along the floor with their arms or rising up on their feet and hands and crawling like a bug. I found out later from an American doctor that the inoculation could have been done orally, but because it was done with injections in Romania some children had the reaction. We spent a lot of time with these kids. They were a lot of fun.

In fact, our visits were always fun. I think we were shielded from the more difficult cases (these children must have been in a different building). We would show up with crayons, pencils, paper, photocopies from coloring books, puzzles, checkers, a couple of packs of cards and draw and talk and play for two hours or so. There were three companionships in our district. We’d do the large rooms together and then split up to make sure we could cover the smaller rooms.

The rooms that were in the right corridor often weren’t occupied, and generally, another companionship would go to those. But one day, all of us decided to visit one of the rooms over on the other side. I think it was because one of the missionaries had received a pack of LAPD promotional baseball cards in the mail (his father was on the force), and we wanted to help him give them out. That day the room in the right corridor was filled with orphan boys ages 8-12. These kids weren’t bad, but they were filled with energy — they were loud and active. It was never quite clear to me why they were there. I think they may have fully recovered from whatever ailed them but their respective orphanages had stalled their returns. As we entered the room, the boys crowded around us, talking, shaking hands. Most of them were wearing light cotton pajamas, but one boy was dressed only in one of those horrid, thin, light blue hospital gowns. It was stained with urine. I believe he was barefoot. He was 9 or 10 and had short, light brown hair. He jumped up and down when he saw us and let out squeals of delight. He would come up and tough our arm and then run away. We tried to ask him questions, but he didn’t seem to understand what we were saying, and he couldn’t speak Romanian. All he could do was squeal and grunt. He also was unable to focus on anything and was in constant motion. He smelled strongly of urine.

I admit that I thought of him as ‘urine boy’ in my head. But I liked him. We all liked him, and we tried to entertain him and relate to him as best we could. In fact, it was impossible to not like him — he exuded such joy. It’s hard to describe, but it was something that went beyond his hyperactive behavior.

I can’t remember for sure, but I believe I hung out in that room a couple more times when he was there. I can’t remember if his gown had been changed. I hope so, but the wild boys room did receive less attention than the others so perhaps not.

Then one day he was gone. This wasn’t unusual — only the kids with the backwards knees seemed to stay for more than two or three weeks.

A few weeks after the baseball card visit, I was assigned a new companion. We lived in an apartment that overlooked Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s main train station. It was one subway stop away from the hospital, which we continued to visit.

That day we got off at the Gara de Nord subway stop. As was our custom, we had boarded near the front of the train — two to three cars back from the first car — so that we could avoid all the people going to the train station. We headed for the north exit — which was 50 yards or so from our apartment building. We must have stopped for a minute to discuss something or perhaps we had been firmly ensconced in the back of the car because as we walked to the exit there were only a couple of people between us and the escalator.

As we veered right in the direction of the exit, we heard a squeal of delight from farther up the platform. We turned to look. It was urine boy from the hospital.

He had exchanged his stained gown for a green crewneck cotton-poly sweater and green denim pants that looked a lot like the pair of green toughskin jeans I wore as a boy. The clothes (and the boy) looked new and clean.

He scampered toward us his arms waving in excitement. There was no one between us and him. He was about 20 feet away.

Instinctively, I shoved my hand into my pocket to fish out whatever coins I was carrying. I wasn’t in the habit of giving out money to street kids, but if it was obvious that they weren’t part of a begging gang run by an adult, I’d give them a little something. Often we’d try to give the kids who were part of a gang something to eat, a pretzel, apple, candy bar. But they’d almost always refuse them. If their handler, their pimp (I’m sorry but I don’t know another word to use) saw them take food, they’d be punished.

The first week or so I was in the country, my companion tossed a coin to an eight-or-nine-year-old. He had two younger kids with him — they must have been no older than five or six. The boy went into the nearest shop and bought a piece of gum — one the size of the Bazooka Joe gums that come with the comic. He carefully unwrapped it, bit off a piece for each of the two younger ones, tucking it carefully between their lips, and then popped the rest in his mouth.

I had quite a bit of change and as I brought my hand out of m pocket I glanced down for a second or two. I don’t know why. It’s not like I wasn’t going to give him all of the coins. I don’t remember exactly what my companion was doing, but I believe he looked down at my hand too.

When we both looked up, the boy in green was gone.

I stepped forward in disbelief then swung a 180 to see if he was somehow behind us. He wasn’t. No train had come. He hadn’t gone to the exit because we were closer to it than he was.

The platform was empty from where we stood all way to the wall. Some of the street kids would brave the metro tunnels, but there’s no way he could have run down the tracks and into the darkness in the few seconds I had taken to look at the change in my hand.

Not only that but he clearly been headed toward us. I saw the look in his eyes. There was no way he wasn’t going to come and greet us. The boy in green had simply disappeared.

I’ve tried to come up with a rational explanation. I still don’t have one.

He was just … gone. The boy in green was fled.

I glanced down, and he was gone. I looked away for only a second.

I can’t believe I looked down.

Postcript

Two of the things I love most — literature and doctrine — completely fail in helping me process many of my mission experiences. That both troubles me and pleases me. Who am I, middle class, comfortable, middlebrow, to feel such pain or even guilt? What right do I have to use these things in any way whatsoever? To co-opt and corrupt with my lazy, dilettante narcissistic focus on narratives that haunt me. To haunt is to make a ghost of that which is all too real.

A better man would translate experiences into action. Do something that might actually help the conditions he observed. I am no such man.

And I haven’t even used whatever gifts I might have. For years my pen has lay silent. Late at night as I lie in bed or in the early morning as I walk to work, I plunge in my arms and wash myself in memories. Try and tease them awake, keep them alive. I fool myself into thinking that that is enough. That once they have crystallized, once I have compacted them into something precious enough, that once I am ready, they will be ready, and I will be able to use them. All the while names are forgotten. Faces blurred. Sights, sounds, smells lost. Even on my mission I practiced deliberate amnesia, freezing up every time I tried to write in my journal. Somehow I’ve always thought that the important things would remain in reach. That I would see through a glass starkly. Now I prism two years of experience and the results are faint, the colors faded.

This. This is a start. It’s not even close to a beginning.

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17 Responses to The boy in green

  1. Steve Evans on January 17, 2005 at 3:50 pm

    Thanks, William.

  2. D. Fletcher on January 17, 2005 at 3:56 pm

    I went to Romania twice with the Young Ambassadors, first in 1977, and then in 1980.

  3. Russell Arben Fox on January 17, 2005 at 4:36 pm

    Thank you for this William; I am so glad I read this post. Life’s a mystery, and missions doubly so. Often a painful one, but one worth puzzling over, and even reconstructing, piece by careful piece. We’ll see it all someday, or at least so I hope.

  4. Wilfried on January 17, 2005 at 5:31 pm

    Wonderful to share this, William. We never really loose our memories even if we think we do. They are stored somewhere. And then one day, unexpectedly, a door opens.

  5. Jim F. on January 18, 2005 at 12:41 am

    Thank you, William. I returned from my mission more than 35 years ago, but some of my most important memories are similar to the ones you share here. I still do not know what to make of them; many–though certainly not all–continue to be painful, though now only in a ghostly sort of way. Perhaps because of that pain they continue also to be instructive.

  6. Rosalynde Welch on January 18, 2005 at 10:30 am

    Thank you, William. I kept a very detailed daily journal on my mission, very writerly, many hundreds of typed pages long. (My wonderful mission president allowed me to have and use a laptop computer–in fact, he not only tolerated it but encouraged me to use it for mission purposes by writing pieces for the mission newsletter, mission training materials, making ward programs and graphics, etc… That may have kept me sane on my mission, together with the articles and essays my mother sent me periodically. Thank you, President West!) Recently I wrote an essay on my mission experiences, and I reviewed my journal in preparation. It was painful to read the journal, both because my writing style was so overwrought (though perhaps not unsuited to the material itself) and because I found that I have forgotten so many people, moments, and experiences that were so meaningful to me at the time.

    When I served in an area called Coimbra, we used to go every week to a poor house–Casa dos Pobres–and sing hymns to the elderly, decrepit and destitute. It was always a highlight of the week. I like to think that it brightened the lives of the residents, but it may have been mostly a respite of fellowship and music in the difficult weekly routine for the missionaries.

  7. cooper on January 18, 2005 at 1:10 pm

    Thank you, William. I would have never guessed you were so young. Thank you again for posting this memory.

  8. William Morris on January 18, 2005 at 5:22 pm

    Thank you all for the comments.

    —–
    cooper:

    Perhaps I have an old soul. Actually, although it’s impact is diminishing now that my hair is starting to turn gray, for as long as I can remember part (about 1/4) of my right eyebrow has been white. I tell people it’s because I didn’t reincarnate all the way and so still have a good chunk of cranky-old-man in me from my previous life.

  9. Naomi Frandsen on January 19, 2005 at 11:25 am

    A day late, as usual. I haven’t achieved the breakneck momentum of t & s yet. But thank you for your post, William. I served in Romania too (’99-’01), but I would imagine that Romania of anul doua mii and Presedintele Jarvis was quite different than the Romania of the hole in the flag and Presedintele Morrey (or Wilde?). I have a question that reaches almost to the shallow depths of my commodified soul. Like everyone else that has commented, I have images and memories that I do not understand but still hoard from my mission. But I am an interpreter and a narrator, and I like praise, so I have tried on a couple of unsuccessful occasions to write about these experiences (to my rejected submission, “Sibiu,” to the David O. MCKay Essay COntest, one of the judges, a woman I’d worked with a few years previously, wrote, “I’m sorry, Naomi. I hope you’ll submit something next year.”). Why is it somehow disloyal to these experiences to try to write about them and share them with other people? Is there any way to get around the feeling of profiteering when we try to create art from these experiences and disseminate it formally? After those unsuccessful attempts, I retired my pen, and it too has lain silent for several years. Perhaps that is the way it will stay, and these memories will remain inside and make me more troubled and more grateful than I would have been without them. No need to answer my question unless you care to–thanks for your wonderful post. I’m sending all of my mission friends to it.

  10. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    Naomi:

    Wilde for most of it. And then the last 7 months with Morrey.

    I don’t know how different my experience was from yours. Although….

    When I arrived the bloom of the revolution was just beginning to wilt. Over the course of my mission, I saw it wither and die. There’s stuff to be written about that to — the short version is that I learned a lot about democracy and capitalism and social structure on my mission. I’ve been kicking around the idea of a play that features the experiences of a couple of missionaries on the day that Regele Mihai (the king that abdicated after WWII with the advent of communism in Romania) returned to the country for the first time in 50 years.

    ———
    And thanks for your comment. I too like praise and must interpret and narrate. Is there any way around the feeling? I don’t know.

    What I’m trying to do is really refocus and make it less personal — even though my experiences cry out for a personal narrative — and focus on fiction that takes place in Eastern Europe but isn’t really about my mission experiences. Of course, that brings another host of problems. ;-)

  11. Ryan Bell on January 19, 2005 at 1:34 pm

    So, William, I’d be interested to hear what conclusions, if any, you’ve drawn about the disappearance of the boy. Please divulge if you care to.

  12. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 1:42 pm

    Ryan:

    I honestly don’t have any — for the reasons outlined in the story. The way it all went, there’s just no way he could have disappeared from my line of sight. Obviously, he somehow disappeared in a way that wasn’t obvious. How he did so — I just don’t know.

    And it’s not like this has grown more supernatural or mythical or whatever over time. It’s been a puzzle for me from the beginning — I remember the distress I felt after the event even more than the details. Perhaps I’ll track down my companion sometime and see what he remembers.

  13. Mihaela Stan on January 19, 2005 at 1:50 pm

    I am Romanian and I shudder every time I hear the word “orphanages” mentioned in relation to my country. It is hard for me to admit that the kind of problems you describe where reality a decade ago, but I am grateful for the accounts that show how much the situation has improved.

    My mother is a foster parent and we have had the privilege to raise four orphans in our home. I am proud of my mother and I want to commend all the Romanian women and men who have changed the life of those children.

    Thank you for your article.

  14. William Morris on January 19, 2005 at 1:57 pm

    Mihaela:

    Thanks for your comment. And please express my gratitude to your mother for her work. She is a true hero, and I love her for her actions and generosity. May blessings flow to her and all others like her. I only hope that one day I’ll have the courage and means to do my part.

    I too shudder when I hear the word “orphanages” mentioned in relation to Romania. I especially hate that it’s become such a trope for journalists who go to eastern Europe. A recent Slate series comes to mind in this regard. You know, some well-meaning, liberal American journaslist goes to Romania and writes about Dracula, gypsies, orphanages and Ceaucescu. It’s so annoying.

  15. Daliana on January 29, 2005 at 1:00 pm

    William, first of all I want to thank you for sharing this story. It gave me a feeling I can’t really understand. It’s a feeling of confusion but I don’t know why it’s a feeling of hope and joy also. I can’t explain it but it’s a very good feeling. I am Romanian and I used to work in a school for handicapped children in Bucuresti. Those children were so special. Every time they saw me they ran to me talking and smiling. It was a great experience! Again, thank you for having the strength to share this story. I know that some day all our questions and missunderstandiings will receive their answer and then “great will be our joy” if we did what was right in the sight of our Lord.
    Daliana

  16. annegb on January 30, 2005 at 10:18 am

    I am deeply, deeply, touched by this post.

    Whenever I hear about Romania, I think orphans. We had a lady come to our Relief Society who’d adopted a little boy from Romania, she brought him. It was a long, sad, interesting story, also triumphal.

    My daughter is also writing to a boy who is now on a mission in Romania and he absolutely loves it. He loves the people, the country, everything about it.

  17. Tatiana on August 27, 2005 at 3:21 pm

    William, thanks for this story. It touched me greatly. I don’ t know what I felt, sorrow and confusion, joy and some crazy elation of hope. I hope you find a way to loose your pen and tell everything. You are a writer. Just tell the truth. It matters.