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George Pollock

State Kid
Issue 8
Thundering Pen

“What is going on?” roared Mayor Harper. “This is a kid -- a KID!”


Chief Bronson met with his commanders to “review our entire strategy for apprehending
the juvenile offender, Billy Stone.”
Director McFardle of Social Services called a meeting “to deal with the juvenile runaway
Billy Stone once and for all.”
The citizenry of Fairview discussed the juvenile fugitive in coffee shops, churches,
offices, and homes where mothers fretted anew for their children.
In the Stojak home, there was such a noisy commotion the night Billy's letter appeared in
the Sentinel that neighbors called 911. The police came and had to physically restrain Mr.
Stojak, who had been struck to the depths of his self-importance by Billy's public
assertion that he was a liar.
Several responses appeared in the Sentinel. Most letters demanded capture of the fugitive
on grounds of public safety. But some were critical of the police and Youth Services. One
letter demanded an investigation of them both. There was one remarkable letter in Billy's
defense, which we will hear about shortly. Father Colahan of St. Sebastian's mentioned
the case in his Sunday homily, cautioning parishioners that “serious issues had been
raised.”
And all of this was before a second letter from Billy, much longer than the first, appeared
in the Sentinel. As before, it was addressed to Miss Casey, copy to the Sentinel, and
mailed from Los Angeles.
“Los Angeles?” Mr. Caulfield said to himself upon reading the second letter. “Now how
in God's name did that young fellow manage that?”
It was a question that all of Fairview was asking. Indeed, how did he do it?

***
Recall that Billy came away from Sadie's funeral luncheon with a trove of names and
addresses of new friends who had taken the tearful mourner into their hearts. Well, all it
took was a phone call to one of them in Los Angeles, pushing the right buttons, and --
voila! -- it was done. For one who lived by wit, it had been a routine task at the office.
Of course, the departed Sadies's relatives and friends quickly figured out that their young
friend was the fugitive Billy Stone. Did they feel duped? Yes. Were their feelings hurt?
Yes. Did they turn him in? No. Not one of them could forget the tears streaking down
Billy's face as he told his story, fictitious though they now knew it was; nor could they
shake off his heartfelt mourning of Sadie's passing, though they now knew it had been a
self-interested performance.
For every one of them, there had been no doubt that these were real tears flowing from
the depth of a young, innocent heart. And after reading Billy's letters proclaiming his
innocence, after telephone calls among Sadie's relatives throughout the country, every
single one of them decided to stand by Earl, whom they now called “Billy” without
missing a beat. Like the funeral luncheon volunteer who had prepared a plate of food for
Billy and who had noted glaring inconsistencies in Earl's story, Sadie's friends and family
chose feelings over facts.
Yes, theirs was the one letter in the Sentinel defending Billy. Their letter declared that
Billy Stone was an “innocent victim of unsubstantiated accusations” and praised him as a
“sensitive and caring boy.” The letter, appended by seventeen names, made the other
letters seem callous and carping. Astonished, Billy made a mental note to himself: Never
underestimate the human hunger to feel and the human capacity for good.
In Billy's second letter, which was in flowing sentences and contained vivid passages
describing Los Angeles, Billy laid out a detailed, powerful statement of innocence. “Not
only am I innocent of this charge,” he wrote, “I am innocent of all the other lies that have
been trumped up against me by selfish and venal foster 'parents'. I may be only 15, but I
am old enough to know that I have rights. These rights have been repeatedly violated by
foster parents and abetted by incompetents at the Department of Youth Services.”
Miss Casey, like everybody else at Social Services, winced at the word “incompetents.”
The letter bristled with demands: that Billy be able to make his case before a prominent
Los Angeles Judge, who was a vocal critic of the juvenile justice system; that police call
off their "silly witch hunt" since this was “clearly a social issue rather than a legal or
criminal issue,”; that press and police reports stop “representing wild and unsubstantiated
charges as fact”; and that a commission be immediately created to “investigate abuse of
foster children by the Department of Youth Services and to remove Richard McFardle as
Director.” As a kicker, Billy volunteered to serve on the commission “as one with
firsthand knowledge of the systematic abuse of foster children.”
***

Billy had not planned to hurl such thunder. But the fury poured out; with one thunderclap
after another detonating off the paper like a rolling, crackling summer lightning storm.
And rereading his letter, he pronounced it an appropriate and needed self-defense. After
all, he reasoned, do you politely discuss a boot on your neck?
But the best part about the letter, in Billy's opinion, was that it was beautifully convincing
that he was actually in Los Angeles. He described the murderous intensity of whooshing
traffic on the Los Angeles Freeway and rush-hour gridlock with “demon-eyed drivers
foaming at the mouth while sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic.” He named a Los
Angeles judge he had read about, a Mexican-American jurist named Hope Buenos, to
“arbitrate” his case, and included a brief resume of her work.
Director McFardle, whom Billy had publicly accused of organized child abuse, was so
furious at a staff meeting that he turned from white to various shades of purple to blood
red. His neck veins bulged ominously. Staff members were afraid he was going to drop
dead before their eyes. Voice quavering, he demanded the capture of “this insolent
juvenile wherever he may be.”
***
Memos and phone calls flew back and forth between Youth Services, dozens of police
departments on two coasts, as well as between officials in several state capitals.
Newspaper wire services picked up the story and it appeared in newspapers across the
country. It made the evening news on national TV. Politicians began to notice. Because
Billy Stone happened on his watch, Mayor Harper's campaign stalled.
The Mayor's expected Democratic opponent in November, Chairman of the City Council,
William Ringle, gave a speech echoing Billy's call for a national commission to
investigate foster child abuse. As the first witnesses before the commission, the
Councilman suggested Fairview Mayor John Harper, Chief of Police John Bronson,
Massachusetts Director of Youth Services Richard McFardle, and Master Billy Stone,
foster child runaway.
He carefully pointed out that the runaway Billy Stone, thought to be in hiding in
California, “could be traced directly to Mayor Harper's failed policies.” Slamming the
lectern, Councilman Ringle asked: “What kind of conditions caused this intelligent 15-
year-old foster child to choose the unknown as a fugitive rather than endure abuse for
another day?”
The Congressman representing the area, Bruce Waters, a conservative Republican known
for get-tough views on crime and down-the-line support for police, stood on the floor of
Congress to espouse a much different view. Congressman Waters lambasted “the
permissiveness that results in young criminals like Billy Stone being able to terrorize
whole communities in a mockery of law and law enforcement.” He faulted Mayor Harper
for failing to make better use of recent increased funding for law enforcement (which he
had been instrumental in obtaining for the city), but went on to praise Police Chief John
Bronson for “performing miracles in the face of political obstructionism”
As all speeches given in Congress are, Congressman Waters' remarks were duly recorded
and printed in the Congressional Record as part of the official history of the United
States, joining for posterity himself, Mayor John Harper, Police Chief John Bronson, and
William (Billy) Stone. Within the august halls of the Library of Congress, the four would
henceforth dwell together in a great bound volume, for review by future generations of
researchers. All four would certainly have hoped for better permanent company.
Throughout officialdom, blame flew thickly through the summer air like smart shrapnel
seeking scapegoat flesh. Mayor Harper gave Police Chief Bronson the option of resigning
or being fired. When the Chief refused to resign, the mayor all but threw him out of his
office -- again. The Chief then reamed out Captain O'Toole, who gathered his officers and
dressed them down for twenty minutes straight.
Social Services Director McFardle maneuvered to pin the rap on Miss Casey. He had
Human Resources prepare a statement documenting that she had primary responsibility
for Billy Stone and asked Miss Casey to sign it. She read the statement and promptly
walked out of his office.
“I'll get back to you on this,” she said.
***
All of these events happened in a space of weeks, testament to the power of the written
word and modern communications; testament, too, to a tectonic shift in the balance of
power between one 15-year-old fugitive and adult power, and why the asymmetrical
conflict, from David and Goliath to the Vietnam War, is studied so fearfully at the U.S.
War College.
Billy Stone went from being a fleck of dirt on the lowest rung of society, hustling for
food, to squeezing off verbal bullets at the feet of mayors, and police chiefs, and social
services executives -- and making them dance to keep their jobs.
He went from being chased down in the forest by police with dogs and loaded weapons to
having his face in newspapers across the country and on national TV -- and being sought
by photographers and reporters hoping for a photo op or juicy quote.
He went from being just another throwaway state kid on the run to having ragged
recaptured runaways at Youth Services invoking his name --with some bragging that they
knew him.
The kid was becoming a legend.
In the modern world, when the media spotlight settles upon you, celebrityhood is instant
and so is magnification. So it was with the fugitive Billy Stone. As soon as the media
machine had his name and picture, all that was left to be done was to create a person that
made for breathless skimming.
If you were to believe his press, there had never been a runaway foster child kid like him.
He was fearless. He laughed at police and their helicopters and armaments.
He roamed the country at will, making fools of authorities. The "system," the term that
foster children used for the social services bureaucracy that controlled every aspect of
their lives, was something that the fugitive Billy Stone taunted and played with.
He lectured the entire country. He told everybody that it was wrong for foster children to
be forced to live excluded from anything having to do with love, caring, and stability.
The name Billy Stone was also being heard among the “normal” kids. These were kids
with a mother or father, or even both, or at least a relative who loved them permanently
as family -- as opposed to a foster child with a paid social worker and a paper bag always
packed and ready for the next abomination.
Almost all of these kids believed as their parents did: that Billy Stone was a dangerous,
low-life criminal who had victimized an innocent young girl, Joy Stojak. But there was
also among them a grudging respect -- and even admiration -- for Billy as a sort of Robin
Hood-type outlaw.
Compared to Billy Stone's life, their lives were b-o-rrrr-ing. Unlike them, he had seized
control of his destiny. He was free. He didn't have parents on his back day in and day out.
He didn't have to worry about teachers and homework and grades; Billy Stone didn't even
go to school.
Did he have to beg his parents for money? No, he had his own money. He could peel off
bills from a thick wad and give them away like it was nothing.
Did the fugitive Billy Stone have to do chores around the house? No. He lived in cushy
motels where everything was done for him.
Did he have to get picked up at the mall at exactly nine o'clock? No. He could stay out all
night every night if he wanted to. He could take off for Florida. He could show up in
California, free as air, and spend his days on the beach and his nights hanging out with
movie stars.
***
Such was the legend, having grown with each retelling, that Billy Stone had gained by
putting pen to paper and impulsively tossing $20 to the wind. It was high-concept media
magic, irresistible both to parading mall peacocks and Billy's own sad-eyed, nomadic
brothers and sisters in the state's unwanted bins, and to all categories of kids in between.
Ah, fame -- so dreamed of, so fought for by uncounted millions; but also so empty and
alienating and destructive. After achieving fame, many discover that what they had
craved is really a curse. They begin to appreciate the simple delights of the nonfamous,
such as privacy.
When Billy first saw his letter and name in the newspapers, he was thrilled. But, when he
saw what was being written about him, when he saw the inaccuracies and the distortions,
he felt just like almost every other celebrity: vulnerable.
He was also feeling that other scourge of celebrityhood -- loneliness. He longed to talk to
someone not out to stomp on his neck. He wanted to look into friendly eyes and have
them look back into his own. He wanted to hear the sweet sound of a human voice saying
his name and asking him a friendly question. He wanted to hear his own voice.
A smile? A smile at him? A smile meant for Billy Stone and no one else? A smile that was
not a trap? The way he was feeling now, if anybody directed such a smile his way ... well,
he was afraid that it would blow his already flickering emotional circuits.