A funeral plus fifty.

In the past few days I’ve been seeing a bunch of bluebirds in my neighborhood. I never remember seeing them at all when I lived in Pennsylvania. The bluebird is among the coolest and most visually striking of the regular cast of birds in my area; the color is just wonderful.

It is a highlight of spring, this seeing of bluebirds.

My occasional 50-years-ago-today sojourns through the Boston Globe continue.

In my most recent drag, rather than the usual cutesy ephemera, I pulled up a story so soaked in tragedy that it called out to be … retold? Revisited? Remembered?

(It feels like no one should endure the quantity of pain that most everyone in this story dealt with, only to have it be forgotten with the turn of the news cycle.)

There’s still time to ditch this and go watch old Soul Train clips on YouTube …

… OK, here goes:

On March 30, 1973, funeral services were held at St. Mary’s Star of the Sea Church in Beverly, Mass., (that’s roughly a 20-mile drive north of Boston) for an emotionally disturbed 13-year-old boy.

His biological parents weren’t there, as he had been legally separated from them 10 years before. State social workers didn’t know where they lived and hadn’t been able to reach them. One of the social workers raised the possibility that the parents might never find out what had happened to their son.

(It doesn’t get brighter from here.)

The boy had spent some years with foster parents in Burlington, Mass. (also north of Boston)  but had begun to suffer increasing emotional problems. Beginning in January 1973, the state placed him in a variety of residential treatment centers, all of which he ran away from.

Apparently, hospital treatment options were available for young children and adults, but few for teens. So the state placed him with another foster parent in Methuen (that’s on the New Hampshire border, up by Lowell and Lawrence) while they looked for other solutions.

Three days after the boy arrived in Methuen, he took his foster parent’s car for a late-night/early-morning careen through several towns. It ended at a police roadblock in Lexington, where he nearly ran down two officers. They each fired at his tires. One shot hit the boy in the head; he died that night.

(It sometimes strikes me as remarkable how scattershot the aim of trained, authorized gun users can be. On the other hand, I suppose I should let somebody run me down at 3:30 in the morning sometime and see how good my aim is afterward. Some would also argue that a police officer directly threatened by an erratically speeding car might be justified in skipping the niceties of aiming for tires. An investigation cleared both officers, without identifying which of them had fired the fatal shot. I don’t imagine it lightened the burden on them all that much.)

As a side note, the boy had driven through Burlington en route to Lexington, and the Burlington police chief later said his officers recognized the boy as a troubled local resident. But the Burlington and Lexington police departments did not share a direct radio link in 1973, so the information had to be phoned from one department to the other and then radioed out by Lexington. It doesn’t appear that the Lexington officers knew that the driver was an emotionally disturbed 13-year-old — as opposed to, say, a murderer escaped from prison — but the Burlington chief suggested they might have acted differently if they’d known.

(I’m not sure what else they could or would have done … but, maybe the outcome was preventable. I told you there was no sunlight in this story. And we’re only partway through it.)

The half-hour funeral Mass was described as “starkly simple with no eulogy or personal comments,” for the reason that no one there knew the boy or had anything specific to say about him. The Globe implicitly contradicted the funeral director on this, though: The story mentioned that the boy’s Burlington foster parents were present.

(I will assume that they were not expected to attend, or were late arrivals, and that the priest and the funeral director would have reached out for their help in personalizing the service if they had known the foster parents were there. I have seen a priest do this before leading a service for a person they’d never met; it sorta worked, and the effort was appreciated. Anyway, that’s another level of bleak — the idea of these poor people, who put years of sweat and blood into raising someone else’s troubled child, not only bidding him farewell but seeing him get the most generic and impersonal service possible.)

The paper added that “a group of ‘volunteer’ eighth-graders who didn’t even know him” also attended the funeral — and boy, doesn’t that set of quotation marks raise more questions than it answers? They weren’t volunteers; they were “volunteers,” and nothing in the article indicates actual concern on their part. The paper went on to say that, for most of the mourners, “the service was a perfunctory affair, something that had to be done.”

(The group of uninterested kids … well, I would have liked to interpret their presence as a ray of kindness and charity, but the quotation marks around “volunteers” kinda sour that perception. Who were these people, and on whose insistence were they there? Was this an alternative to detention for them? The story mentions that one of them was moved to tears, so I guess calling them all “uninterested” is a broad stroke … but maybe not a gross exaggeration.)

And, that’s about where it ends. The boy’s name popped up in the paper for a few more months, as various investigations took place and various journalists wrote about the overlapping holes in the foster care and mental treatment systems. Then he disappeared into Old News-land.

I’d like to think the mental health and foster care systems in Massachusetts have improved since 1973, and I’m fairly certain the Burlington and Lexington police departments can raise each other on the radio nowadays. Maybe those are positives that can be taken out of this whole story. The tides of life lately do not inspire optimism, and I can’t help imagining that some poor kid is a stolen set of car keys away from history repeating, with minor changes in detail. I hope not.

Anyway, the funeral is 50 years past; the words are spoken and the doors are closed. Fifty years later to the day, the Globe ran stories about Dungeons & Dragons, drag brunches, and Red Sox Opening Day.

The opportunity to mourn and remember the boy behind the wheel is still there, though. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken the time to write all this out.

Or maybe some other reason will occur to me sometime in the next couple of days, as I reflect further on a disturbed child and a cold, utilitarian goodbye.

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