Gentle Hands by Thomas Drago
The four men walking behind me toward Palo Verde Elementary School carried assault rifles. I only knew this because I’d watched CNN every night since the Newtown shootings last December.
I could see their reflections in the glass doors as I approached the front entrance. Not wanting to trigger an alarm, I dropped my gaze, slowly unbuttoned my shirt collar, and loosened my tie. Like any good teacher, I was prepared to defend my students with my life.
I scrambled to text my wife to tell her I love her and to ask her to kiss our little nine-month-old Sabrina, undoubtedly awake in her crib and shaking her Winnie the Pooh rattle.
As soon as I reached into my front pocket, a rough hand fell on my shoulder. I gave into inhibition and turned to face the second biggest threat of my life, fists clenched.
* * *
I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn in the 1970’s, the second youngest of six boys. You can’t imagine the job my poor mother had wrangling the pack of us with my dad always out on the road. He hauled coal from Eastern Pennsylvania in his father’s beaten up Mack truck and always came home on the weekends blackened and smelling of diesel fuel. Like most Italian men, he was short-tempered, but he was also very sweet and gentle and raised a tomato garden on our front porch. I was amazed at the great care he put into tending those budding plants on Sundays after church.
Clearly his favorite, Papa let me sit on the steps and listen to him pacify each little fruit while my brothers were either wrestling in the two bedrooms we all shared upstairs or racing down the street to Rimpici’s Bakery to grab a couple of loaves of hard bread for that night’s spaghetti and meatballs. I could play rough when I wanted but didn’t always feel the need.
If I waited patiently, Papa’s attention would eventually turn to me. He’d ask about the Mets if it were summer and casually remind me that he never forgave the Dodgers for leaving Brooklyn.
“Broke my heart when them Bums left, Sammy,” he’d always say in his soft, scratchy voice. I’d smile and adjust the brim of my ball cap.
If I were extra lucky, he’d call me up to the garden and let me lend a hand tying the plants off to the lattice. I loved being in his arms as he wrapped himself around me and guided my fingers, which always seemed so tiny in his large, plump misshapen ones.
“Gentle hands,” he’d whisper if I’d snap a branch. “Your hands will protect you when you need them to. For now, be gentle.”
Even now, I can feel his warm breath on my neck and his roughened cheek against mine when he’d kiss me and tell me to go wash up.
* * *
As I turned, I lifted my eyes. Each of the four men wore black berets. One was clearly the oldest and in charge, and he tightened his grip on my shoulder. His unshaven face sprouted grey stubble. His cracked lips opened, revealing crooked brown teeth as he spoke.
“You’re gonna keep walking,” he whispered, his face a few inches from mine. His breath smelled unclean. “And when we’re inside, you’re gonna get on your knees and put your hands behind your head.”
Two of the younger men chuckled over his right shoulder and shifted their weapons. The fourth looked past me, scanning the front windows for activity inside. Since school wouldn’t start for another 45 minutes, he’d only be able to spot Flora sitting at the reception desk taking calls for the children lucky enough to be out sick this morning.
The 60 or 70 students in Morning Care were in the cafeteria finishing their breakfast with either one of the assistant principals attending.
“Don’t think so,” I said calmly and licked my lips.
Each of the four men staggered a step back. Even the militant who had been looking through the front windows was a bit stunned. He raised his weapon. The hooking black cartridge pointed up at me like a twisted dinosaur tongue.
The older man regained his composure and moved even closer to my face. His lips barely parted as he spoke.
“I’m not gonna tell you twice.”
I leaned in, suddenly hoping to buy some time, because maybe, just maybe, Flora was watching from inside the school and was calling the police right now as my heart pounded in my chest.
Just buy some time, I told myself. The first responders were at Sandy Hook in minutes.
“You’re gonna have to do better than that,” I replied.
“What - ?”
But before he could continue, I puffed my chest. “You heard what I said. You wanna get past me? Pull the trigger. Go ahead.”
“Can you believe this fucking guy, Carl?” one of the younger men said from behind. He was standing near the flagpole at the center of the front courtyard. Ray, the morning custodian, had already raised the flag high above our heads.
“Yeah, Carl,” another said. “Just take him down already. We need to be in position before the first bus arrives. We’ve gone over this drill a hundred - ”
Carl broke his gaze, relaxed his hand, and turned his face as he started to yell, “Don’t you think I know - ”
But then, I moved. I gave Carl a slight shove and a spin and reached under his left arm to grab hold of the back of his head. I grabbed his right arm with my free hand and pulled back, keeping him close to me. He was somewhat taller, but I could see just over his right shoulder. The rest of him kept me hidden from the other three assailants. I pushed his head down and squeezed my fingernails into his arm. He squealed.
The three others immediately cocked their weapons as I backed up to a nearby pillar, shielding myself with Carl. He struggled under my grip but couldn’t get his balance or move his weapon.
“Should we shoot, Carl?”
“No, of course not, you idiot!” Carl screamed. “You might hit me!”
I pulled on a large tuft of Carl’s hair and yanked his head back so I could whisper in his ear. He howled.
“I’ll tell you how this gonna go down, Carl,” I said. “You listening?”
Carl slowly nodded his head. Spittle shot from his lips as he tried to slow his breathing. The other three men kept their rifles aimed but quieted enough to hear me speak.
“You think you’re tough?” I asked. “I’ll make a deal with you.”
“Come on, Carl,” one of the other men yelled. "We ain’t got time for this.”
I wasn’t even looking at them now. It was only Carl and me.
“Shut up,” Carl snapped. His breathing was still labored.
“You’re not tough,” I whispered. I was so close to Carl’s neck I could taste his salty sweat. “Don’t take no courage to pull a trigger. Tell your men to put their guns down. Then I’ll let you take me out fair and square. Hand to hand. The four of you get past me … the school is yours.”
Everyone was still for a moment.
Then, the three other militants glanced at one another. “You think you can beat the four of us?” one asked. “All four of us against you?”
Carl tried to get his arm loose, but I overpowered the older man and held him steady.
“I didn’t say that,” I answered, lifting my head and voice with confidence. “I might get my ass kicked. Might not. But, I’ll go down swinging.”
Please, Flora, my mind raced. Please see this.
“Whatta you gotta lose?” I whispered and then suddenly the sound of police sirens filled the front parking lot.
Carl abruptly pushed back against me, smashing my head against the pillar, and I bit his ear, tearing at the lobe until blood sprayed on my face and collar. Carl screamed and fell to his knees. I dropped with him and kicked his firearm free as he loosened his grip.
Startled, the other three militants whirled and ran for cover.
And then tears burned my eyes.
* * *
Papa died in 1979. He was only 52. I was 12. I didn’t know anything about colon cancer or even that my dad was sick. Like so many of those in his generation, he never quit working or sought treatment, from what I recall.
I only knew that my hero was gone.
My brothers each took the loss in his own way. Neither was as devastated as I. At the funeral, the twins, Rocco and Al, had a shoving match next to my dad’s coffin because they couldn’t agree on who would walk in front when carrying Papa down to the lawn at Green-Wood Cemetery. Mama slapped them both upside their heads and moved me to the front. The twins were put in the middle, each on separate sides.
Our family drifted apart in the 1980’s. And it might’ve split even if Papa had lived longer. My older brothers just didn’t want to stay in Brooklyn. The city was beaten and ruined, quite frankly. Joseph, the baby, stayed with my mom until she passed in 1997, but even he moved to the Pacific Northwest about ten years ago. He finally married. They’re expecting their first child later this spring. If it’s a boy, I hope they name him after Papa.
I was lost without my dad. My mother would tell me to pretend he was just out on the road again. But I knew he wasn’t. I knew the truth.
I’ve never felt as alone as I did in those years immediately following Papa’s death. I didn’t know whether or not I could survive without him. The isolation hardened me at first, and I didn’t realize how much he’d taught me in those quiet moments we spent tending to his tomato garden.
Not until I finally held my own child in my hands and remembered what he said about being gentle.
After attending college in the Southwest, I started teaching and then married later in life. I found myself living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, less than twenty miles away from Chavez Ravine, where the Dodgers have called home for over 50 years now.
Papa would be proud.