By Bruce Mastracchio
You should NEVER judge a book by its cover. It is an old saying but even today people tend to judge others by their looks, or clothes or speech; or the car they drive or where they shop.
The other night at a function honoring outstanding graduates of the local high school, someone mentioned how “Our Town” was like a melting pot and everyone in the rainbow of colors, races and nationalities got along well with little, or no, friction.
That was mostly true. But still, as in any situation where a variety of different things, ideas and/or people come together, there was some underlying tension and suspicion.
Some people did not like the Italians. Some, the Irish. Some the Jewish residents. Some the Swamp Yankees. Blue bloods felt one way. Red bloods another.
But mostly the divide came on where someone lived. Those who lived “On the Hill” did not want their kids to venture “Below the Hill,” or pal with kids from that area, even though they all played on, or against, each other, in a myriad of sports, both in town and at the high school. The OTHers thought the BTHers might beat up on their kids. They were not allowed Below the Hill.
Then there was the third segment of the town, the farmers of Huguenot Village, who had very little contact with the other two groups except on market day and at sports events, parades or musters.
They pretty much kept to themselves due to their farm work and distance, the hard work days, and the early hours.
So even though there was a lot of bonhomie, there was also a hidden undercurrent of judgment and standoffishness.
The story today is about one boy from the BTH, who was one of the prejudged, but, who, in a crucial moment, acted as nobly as the most noble king, as gallant as a Medal of Honor winner, as great as anyone ever thought they could. He performed like most people dream they would perform, but most never do.
He had already been marked low and unsatisfactory on the report card of life, but his exit came with an A+ rating in a selfless act that few of us could only dream about, never mind replicate.
Ricky Nesbitt was a Townie from the BTH. Born and brought up in a small town, in the smallest state, in the greatest country in the world. He was one of six brothers and four sisters. They lived a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Almost all of them started working as soon as they were able, taking the menial jobs that our society provides people on the lower end of the ladder.
The girls worked as waitresses, car hops, babysitters and hotel maids. The boys were quahauggers, paperboys, mechanics and carpenters. Their father was a quahaugger, their mother stayed home and held it all together. Most of their paychecks went in support of their home.
Ricky was only a so-so student. He was pegged early as a low achiever and God knows how that tag can cling to you through your school career. He didn’t really like school and he did as little as he could to get by.
In neighborhood games he showed an above-average athleticism, but was blocked from shining at the school level by his lack of good grades, or, when he was eligible, a bridling against the authority of the school coaches.
His buddies, some of whom were on the school teams, said he could have excelled at football, wrestling, baseball or track. Ricky may have also known that, inside himself, but he never got/or gave himself the chance to excel. In retrospect, that might have saved him, changed his life, as it did for a myriad of boys from the BTH, who used athletics as a stepping stone to other things, be it confidence, the service, or college.
Rick did manage to graduate. Just barely. He went to “work the water,” just like his father before him. He was a good “haugger” and had a daily routine not unlike the other quahauggers. Early up and out on the water, usually a 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. start, be it summer, fall, winter or spring. Work four to five hours pulling the bullrake, bag ’em up and either sell them at the “buy boat” or ride his skiff back to the docks and sell his haul at either Local Clam or The Murray Brothers Shellfish.
After tying up his boat and tending to his motor, he would head to one of the three drinking places frequented by other members of the shellfishing fraternity. The closest, right across from Local Clam was Bloody Betty’s. Over the hill was Old Hickory’s and about a half mile away on another cove, was Spike’s Cafe and Lounge.
For some reason Ricky usually spurned the closer two and headed for Spike’s for a couple of cool ones, a game of pool or cards, some friendly gossip and bantering before heading home to his wife, Sheila, and their three kids, Ricky Jr., Sheena and Robby.
Ricky married Sheila right after high school and in five years they had the three kids and a small but neat little Cape just a couple of blocks from the water on Castle Dome Street. They were a happy couple, not rich, but content in love and loving their kids.
It was in that fifth year that the “maturity bug” started to kick in. Ricky thought he might want to go to Knightland Community College and study either fire science or criminal justice. He was undecided between being a fireman or a cop.
He did know that either job would provide him with more stability, security and most of all, money, than the weather-dependent life of a quahaugger. He would finish the summer and start KCC in the fall. He talked with Sheila about it and she agreed wholeheartedly. This summer would be his last at plying the quahaugger trade. No more early, cold mornings. No more freezing wind and wind whipped waters. No more. No more.
Who knew that for everything it would be … no more?
That fateful day started like all of Ricky’s previous five years. Up early and out on the water. Rake. Rake. Rake away. Pull. Sort. Bag. Crank it up. In to Local Clam.
Then a short break for some cool ones. A couple of his buddies checked in at the same time and wanted to go to Bloody Betty’s, but Rick, a creature of habit wanted Spike’s. Just like the fork in the road, that decision would prove fateful.
He got to Spike’s about 10:30, ordered a “cool one ” and started to play some pool with a couple of guys he knew from the area. They played one, then two games, betting on their skill with cue stick.
As has been mentioned, Ricky was a good athlete and easily took the money of the other two.
They had just begun the third game when a guy, slightly familiar to them, came in with his girlfriend. The pool players managed a slight acknowledgment of the two and went on with their game. Besides them, there were two or three other early drinkers, and the guy and his girlfriend.
Soon some shouting was heard from the stools where the guy and his girlfriend were seated. She yelled at him. He yelled back.
Within seconds the argument escalated and all of a sudden the girl slapped her boyfriend across the face. Instead of backing off, the boyfriend started to punch the girl. Not once, but two, then three times.
Ricky looked up at the disturbance, put his stick down and walked firmly to where the two people were fighting. He got there just as the boyfriend was hauling back for another punch. Rick grabbed the hand, twisted and threw the unbalanced boyfriend to the floor. The guy got up, took a swing at Rick, which was blocked and countered with a right cross. The boyfriend ended up on the ground with blood coming from his nose and lips.
“Leave her alone,” Rick said. “Get out of here and cool down. You shouldn’t be hitting anyone, never mind a girl!”
The boyfriend shuffled out, chastened, head down and talking to himself. Some said they heard him say something about “getting even,” but no one was quite sure about the under the breath muttering.
Ricky made sure the girl was OK and calm and then went back to playing pool with his two buds.
They hadn’t been at it more than a half an hour when the front door to Spike’s banged open and a figure, shadow black against the sunlight streaming through the opening, bolted in yelling obscenities.
As vision adjusted it could be seen that it was the boyfriend and in his hands was a .22 rifle.
Ricky acted instinctively and jumped, once again, between the boyfriend and his lady. The boyfriend raised his gun while Ricky, hands raised, asked him to calm it.
The boyfriend advanced, but Ricky, hands still raised, did not move.
The boyfriend fired. Once. Twice. Three times. Four. The bullets ripped through
Rick’s flimsy defense and struck him in the face, chest and stomach. Another bullet struck the girl.
Finally, the others in the place jumped the shooter and subdued him. Someone called the police. Someone else called the rescue.
Both were too late to help Ricky.
The wake was a mob scene. Ricky’s friends were there. Pretty much all of the BTH.
Surprisingly, even some teachers from the high school came, and also some from the ATH.
All there to pay homage to Ricky. Ricky, now a hero, who gave his life to save a girl he hardly knew. Ricky, the kid who most thought had little good in him, now displayed as someone with more good than most of the world. Ricky the poor student. Ricky the non-athlete. God Save Rick! Long Live Rick!
They buried Rick in St. Pat’s. They gave his wife a flag and two medals. One from the town. One from the state. Ricky who almost no one knew existed now was known by everyone. He stood up. He was counted. He died saving another. Now he was gone.
Ricky left Sheila. He left Ricky Jr. and Sheena and Robby. There was no more Ricky for them. Just the memories of Ricky. The yearbook. The family photos.
It has been many years since that incident. The shooting at Spike’s Cafe. Today very few in “Our Town” even know who Ricky was. His family has almost all passed. Sheila moved away.
Maybe this story will bring him to life once again and help us all to learn and remember that little morale: You can’t judge a book by its cover.
Rest in peace, Ricky Nesbitt. You were more than the cover. More than the book.
You were the whole story and more than anyone ever dreamed. Your friends always knew it. Rest in peace. We will see you soon, when our game is done.
Author’s Note: This story is based on a true incident. It happened right here in Our Town. The names have been changed to protect those involved.The innocent and those not so.