Secret name left us blind to another's pain

MICHAEL OLESKER

November 18, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Some people called him Ronnie Poley. The last name was short for polio. It wasn't a nickname so much as a secret name. Nicknames, you say to somebody's face. Secret names, you speak when nobody dangerous is listening.

I remember him from a distance of three decades. Around Gwynn Oak Junction in those days, Ronnie Poley was a figure of fear in spite of himself, an angel of death for anybody unfortunate enough to have a healthy body and to get it in his way.

Childhood polio had left him with a withered left arm, and as adolescence approached the arm made him self-conscious, and the self-consciousness turned in on itself and took on a blind, breathless, hyperkinetic fury.

When I heard he'd died the other day -- in his mid-40s, of a brain tumor -- I wondered about that fury, and how much of it he'd burned off through the years, and how much the trauma of childhood stays with us wherever we go.

And I thought about Ronnie Poley's arm, which he used as a weapon. It hung limp at his side, no wider than a rolled-up newspaper, but when he got into a fight he could snap it around until it became whip-like. To this day I'm not sure if I saw him knock kids out with the arm or I just remember the legends of him knocking people out with it.

One picture comes indelibly to mind, though: a spring afternoon at the old Howard Park Elementary School, No. 218, Liberty Heights just below Gwynn Oak, and screams splitting the air, TC and kids taunting him and then running away, and Ronnie Poley racing off in a dozen directions at once, a blind, skinny bull, a madman, a dark streak out of control as he sought out real and imagined tormentors.

Growing up is tough enough. Every kid's every shortcoming is a potential target, but usually the flaws are minor enough that we laugh them off or work them out inside the comfort of our heads.

Ronnie never had that luxury. He was designed to be different, and no matter the efforts he made to be just like everybody else, nature had made other choices for him. And in our own blind way, most of us never saw through his anger to the profound pain and sadness behind it.

There was a game we played at School 218 called throwball. It had the rules of baseball, except you threw the ball instead of hitting it with a bat, and you could only throw to the left field side, and all the fielders were bunched there.

And Ronnie Poley would be out there every day, only he couldn't play like everybody else. He had only his right hand for catching balls thrown his way, and his method was to try to stop the speeding ball with the palm of his hand at such an angle that the ball would pop straight up in the air and he'd catch it as it softly plopped back down.

But it was a terrifically difficult stunt to pull off, and he almost never did. And his frustration would rise, and he'd get furious with himself, and he'd bide his time until his team came up.

Then he was a different kid. He'd throw the ball to some open spot in the outfield, and he became this panther-like blur tearing around the bases, limp arm flying behind him, hair flung all over the place, a wild man finally as good as anybody around him.

Everybody I knew lost track of him after a few years. His mother had a bakery at Gwynn Oak Junction, and then she moved it down Liberty Heights next to Doc Zerwitz's Howard Park Pharmacy for a while.

You'd walk into the place on frosty winter evenings and carry a few cookies home for dessert. Ronnie's mother would stand behind the counter, looking exhausted. And you'd walk out of the store imagining that everyone in town had some place happy to go home to, but that she'd somehow have to work the counter all night long.

A few years ago, one of Ronnie's aunts told me he was living in Prince George's County, pumping gas for a living. Another aunt called the other day, from Highlandtown, and said he'd moved to Western Maryland, where he had a family, and that he'd been struck down by this brain tumor.

When I told them the news, everybody I know from those days said of course they remembered him and what a frightening kid he was. And then a kind of awe would come into their voices as they remembered the arm, that withered, lifeless, terrifying thing.

And everybody had one other reaction: We felt sorry for him back then, but we didn't know how to say so. Ronnie Poley's legend had takenon a life of its own. He'd become the village madman, and the village mindset was to fear him, and to talk of that fear, and to retreat from it instead of calming it.

And so we never found the human being inside the dark tornado. We all pushed Ronnie Poley into a slot, or maybe he created some of it and the rest of us went along with him.

But I wonder about the contents of his life the last three decades, before death took him. It isn't just death, it's the incompleteness of life. Was his life already cut out for him before he left elementary school?

Everybody who's young is full of great potential, but much of it goes untapped. The world should sue its young for breach of promise.

As for Ronnie Poley, life dealt him two setbacks while he was still very young: the first by nature, which crippled him at random, the way nature does; and the second by the kids around him, who taunted him without thinking, the way kids do.

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