Disrespect for elders led to boy's death

December 28, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

I TURNED 13 on Dec. 29, 1964. I was still smarting from the hurt of my beloved Baltimore Colts losing the NFL championship game two days earlier to the Cleveland Browns in a 27-0 rout.

I don't remember what I did that day. I may have gone out and played some touch football on the playgrounds of the Murphy Homes high-rise on Argyle Avenue with my buddies: Marvin Burrell, my classmate at Harlem Park Junior High; his older brother Nat; and Lehr Sorden and Dennis Knox, two more of my classmates.

That's what we did in those days. We were boys. In spring and summer we played softball on the playground. Evenings we would delight in playing a game called red line in, which might best be described as the game of tag with a bit of an attitude. Players formed two teams. Those tagged were confined in an area called a box, which a member of the team giving chase guarded. Other members of the team giving chase tracked down members of the opposing team until they were all caught. Then the chasers became the chasees. There was one catch. If a chasee got to the box and yelled "Box free!" without being tagged, all the "prisoners" scattered. The chasers had to start all over again.

Such was the way 13-year-olds entertained themselves in 1964: we played, we romped. In school, we actually paid attention and learned. We did homework. If our spare time didn't allow softball or football or red line in, we might even crack open a book and read it.

What we didn't do was harass the elderly. Not only would we not have pelted a 61-year-old man's car with rocks or bottles -- breaking the windshield -- we wouldn't have even thought of such outrages. Suppose -- heaven forbid -- our parents found out? What would be the punishment? Would we ever see the outdoors to play red line in again?

What a difference 30 years makes. On Oct. 10, 1994, that's exactly what happened. On this Monday night during the school year, a group of boys who should have been in their homes hitting the books were, instead, doing their best to make life miserable for Nathaniel Hurt. Hurt fired a gun in frustration, killing 13-year-old Vernon Holmes. Hurt, now 65, was convicted in April 1995 of involuntary manslaughter and a handgun violation. He was sentenced to a mandatory five-year minimum for the handgun violation.

But he'll be a free man come Jan. 6. Gov. Parris Glendening commuted Hurt's sentence last week. Hurt will walk out the prison doors after serving 14 months of his sentence. It would seem a grossly unjust punishment for taking a human life, if you didn't know anything about the case or Nathaniel Hurt, who is not the only guilty party in the death of Vernon Holmes -- it is all those parents who have not taught their children to respect their elders.

In the weeks and months after the shooting of Holmes, many said, repeatedly, that Hurt had other options. True, he was constantly harassed by a gang of teens. True, he had reached the end of his rope. But he had other options than firing a gun.

What were the options suggested? Police suggested Hurt should have called them. The seriousness of the crime committed indicates the police were not joking, but they know better than anyone what would have happened had Hurt called. Assuming that any of the teens were arrested, it's most likely their parents would have shown up at the station. At that time, the boys would have been released to their parents' custody and back into the East Baltimore neighborhood where they and Hurt lived, setting up this not unlikely scenario.

"That old geezer called the cops on us," the boys might have said. "Now we're really gonna get him. When he comes out of that house, we're gonna light his old ass up."

There are juveniles on the streets now who would have no qualms about doing just that -- to a Nathaniel Hurt, to you, me or anybody else. Hurt testified that the group of youths Holmes hung out with had, in fact, threatened him for weeks. On the day of the shooting, Hurt said, he shook one 11-year-old boy, only to be confronted by another boy carrying a gun. One of the boys who testified against Hurt had stalked and threatened to kill a teacher.

We should thank our lucky stars that not all young people are like this, but there are far more than there should be. You can either praise Glendening for freeing Hurt or rail that the man is a murderer who should have done more than five years to begin with, but the larger question is what to do about juveniles who grow more truculent and disrespectful of their elders every day.

Any of us could easily have been in Hurt's position. Years back -- when my now grown children were still in school -- a gang of toughs came to our block, looking to do bodily harm to a couple of my son's buddies. After engaging in much posturing and bragging in the middle of the block, they just kind of hung around a bit. My daughter went across the street to a friend's house and returned. Standing on my porch, I watched her as she came back. One of the toughs looked at her as if he was about to put his hands on her.

"Punk," I said to myself. "I wish the hell you would." But he had seen me watching and exercised the better part of valor.

There's more to the slaying of young Vernon Holmes than whether Nathaniel Hurt was justified in firing the shots that killed the boy. We had all best come to realize that a society where the elders are not respected is headed toward its doom.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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