Children out of control change our view

April 18, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Vernon Holmes Sr. is the great afterthought in the shooting death of his son. A community cringes at the story of the furious Nathaniel Hurt standing on his fire escape, and reaching for the gun, and Vernon Holmes Jr. lying dead in an alley moments later.

The father, Vernon Sr., is a footnote to a drama in which there are no heroes. Poor Nathaniel Hurt, retired after 40 years as an honest working man, touches our hearts, yes, but why did he reach for an instrument of killing? Poor young Holmes, 13 years old and peanut-sized, was only a child, but why did he heave the rocks at Hurt's car?

The elder Holmes doesn't know. The rest of us think we know, because we've seen so much of it, and the answer chills us: This community's children are out of control. And now we've learned not only to fear them but to wish them harm. You can hear this all over town from the people who have lived most of their lives now, and who exist the way Nathaniel Hurt did, giving ground to those who have no apparent conscience.

Vernon Holmes Sr. went to court every day. He sat by himself mostly, small and silent and listening to the depressing story of these kids, his son and the others, who tormented Hurt to the breaking point.

"Vernon?" the father said the other day. "A good young boy. He liked to play. Maybe he did these things, but boys will be boys, you know?"

No, we do not know, not anymore. In a meeting room in safe suburbia during the Hurt trial, one of the area's oldest women's groups held a luncheon and discussed the case afterward. A clang of voices, a chorus of fear, declared: These kids have it coming to them, they have to be taught, even if it comes to the use of a gun.

OK, they were told, but let's propose a scenario: What if, heaven forbid, the kid dead in the alley was yours? Would you still feel that such a lesson has to be taught?

Now the voices weren't so sure. Such a proposition hadn't occurred to them, and why should it? And so came another cry: It would never have been my kid. My kid was taught values at home.

Exactly.

But Vernon Holmes Jr., and a city of kids just like him, haven't grown up in such homes. Young Vernon was living in a foster home, one of eight kids there, each kid staying for a time and then moving on to some new stranger's house. When his foster mother saw Vernon lying in the alley, she shrugged her shoulders: Such things happen.

Vernon Holmes Sr. sat in court when the foster mother recalled that night, and he kept his feelings to himself. He and his wife, living apart, had decided it was best to put their son in foster

care. They saw him when they could.

"I taught him respect and manners," the father said one afternoon. "While he was in my company, anyway. He was a child. There's no perfect child, not even a millionaire's child. I raised him up in a very respectable manner."

The intent here isn't to point a finger at Vernon Holmes Sr. He works as a custodian at the airport. He did the best he thought he could do. A community hears of his son's killing, and learns of the foster home, and assumes the parents don't care. But the father went to court every day, and said he felt he owed it to Vernon.

"Do you have other children?" he was asked.

"Yes," he said.

"How many?"

Now Vernon Holmes Sr. paused. He began counting on his fingers, a little slowly, until he reached three. Three children, he // said, and struggled again, this time to think of their ages: 8, 5 and 7.

"None of them gets into trouble," he said. "As far as I know, Vernon never had trouble." Until last October, when he and his friends seemed to symbolize so many of this city's troubles, tormenting an old man who finally reached for a gun.

On Sunday night, Easter Sunday, maybe 8,000 people strolled Harborplace in their holiday outfits. It was a lovely night. But then, around dusk, some teen-agers raced through the crowd, causing screams and a sense of danger.

"It was nothing," a police spokesman said yesterday. "Some kids running through, having fun or creating a scene. A very close, crowded area. But nobody was hurt, no property damage, and no arrests. To call it a disturbance is too strong a word. But, you know, people see kids running in a pack . . ."

And our instinct is to cringe.

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