Growing up a sports nut who lived up the block from a lake, I spent my childhood outdoors.
As soon as the weather got warm enough, I was running as fast as I could, splashing my way into Lake Panamoka.
To live on a street where hardly any cars passed, on a property big enough to hold a sandbox and a swingset, I took a lot of my childhood freedom for granted. I was living the middle class dream — my father working at a local newspaper and my mom teaching in my school — a lot of kids would have given anything for.
And I had no idea.
It wasn’t until I was 9 years old, in the summer of 1988, when I learned firsthand that not every kid lived like I did. That was the first year Dale came to stay with us.
Dale was an 11-year-old African-American boy from the Bronx. He spent two weeks with us that July as part of a program that sent inner-city youths to the East End for a chance to experience a different way of life.
It was clear Dale was very different from my brother Peter and I from the start, and the color of his skin was only one reason why.
On the day he arrived, we were sitting in the front yard waiting for my old man to finish barbecuing when an older girl from up the block came walking by the house. My brother and I wouldn’t dare try to approach her, but Dale, well, he gave her the Bronx whistle.
“Hey, sexy mama,” he said, with a preteen swagger no suburban kid could replicate.
The pickup line didn’t work on the 15-year-old, but it was enough to impress the Parpan boys.
“Who was this kid?” we thought to ourselves. He couldn’t much hit a baseball or swim, but he didn’t seem to care. He was in a place where you could sleep in the backyard at night, catch fireflies with a mason jar and where everyone held a sparkler in their hand on the Fourth of July. He was in the only place I knew, but it was a new way of life for him.
Among the most talked about highlights from our first summer with Dale was when my parents took us three boys birdwatching at the Suffolk County Farm in Yaphank. Before heading out on a flatbed truck, the man running the program showed us slides of all the different birds we might see. I cringed as he asked Dale to identify one of the slides.
“That’s one of them damn midget pigeons,” he said to a room full of laughter.
Nothing seemed to faze the confident kid from the Bronx, and the following spring I counted the days until he returned.
On the day we finally picked Dale up, something happened that I was too young to fully understand back then. When we showed up, there was another little boy, a Hispanic kid named Max, who had nobody there to pick him up.
He was sick, the program’s organizer’s informed my parents. His gums hurt and he couldn’t chew hard foods. My brother and I begged my mom to invite him to stay with us, in addition to Dale. This way we could each have our own new brother that summer, we thought.
Feeling pressured by us and the organization to not have to send this kid back to the city, my mom agreed to take him in.
It was a difficult first day. He couldn’t eat the hamburger my dad gave him. He was obviously in a lot of pain.
The next morning, as my mother made the bed where he slept, she noticed blood on his pillow. She brought him to a dentist at the end of our block, who recommended lots of dental work.
Feeling overwhelmed at the height of the AIDS epidemic, my parents made the tough call to send him home.
We still had a blast with Dale that summer, but the experience frustrated my parents. The following summer, my family did not register for the program.
I asked my mom this week if she regretted that decision. “Yes,” she said. “I do regret it.”
It didn’t help when Dale’s mom sent us a letter saying how much he would miss coming to visit us, his second family. She asked my parents to reconsider, but I imagine there was a bit of trust lost between them and the group. Too much to get over.
I thought of Dale this week as I edited Jennifer Gustavson’s piece about a new program that aims to serve as a substitute to Girl Scouts for disadvantaged children. She wrote about how the program aims to show the girls a different way of life, to make them feel smart and pretty and instill confidence in them.
Dale would have liked that program. I’m sure he’d have given each and every one of those beautiful young girls the Bronx whistle.
Grant Parpan is the executive editor for Times/Review Newsgroup. He can be reached at [email protected]w.com or 631-354-8046.