This is the story of John, also known as “Daffy Duck.” I won’t use his nickname here because it’s too flippant to use on a serious topic. Cheapening or trivializing his story and the crimes he committed is a kick in the teeth to him and his victims.
From 1957-1959, John was a member of a Brooklyn gang called the Stompers. There were at least two Stompers gangs from Brooklyn that I’m aware of and the one John was in had its turf in Bedford-Stuyvesant. At different times in his stint with the gang, he held the position of war counselor, vice-president, and president. He accepted the gang code and was called a “blind follower,” notwithstanding the fact that he climbed the leadership ladder and occupied all three ruling positions at one time or another. John said he participated in “about six rumbles,” but in my opinion, it was many more than that. John felt “prestige and acceptance” as a member of the gang and spoke about his experiences in the Stompers with pleasure. He joined the gang because he didn’t have a proper father figure in his life. His father abandoned his wife and son John when he was a baby. His mother left him with her parents in South Carolina while she worked as a hairstylist in New York City. John lived with his grandparents on Highway 4 in Orangeburg, South Carolina, from 1945 until 1953, when he became too difficult for them to handle at the tender age of 9 years old.
John was sent to an institution for stealing a car in 1962, which is how I came across his case in my research. However, before we look at what happened there, let’s look at his run-ins with the law prior to this. Here’s what John was up to:
• First arrested on October 7, 1958, with another juvenile for punching an 11-year-old and taking 15 cents from him. He was put on probation for this.
• Arrested on February 21, 1959, with another person for assaulting Mrs. Florence Steiger and stealing her pocketbook.
• On March 7, 1959, while waiting for disposition on the pocketbook snatch, John was arrested again. This time it was for threatening a 12-year-old with a razor and taking $3.98 cash from him and a pair of swim fins.
• Despite this violation, he was continued on parole but was arrested again on April 9, 1959, for breaking and entering 213 Marion Street, forcing a rear window open on the fire escape.
The break-in is what did John in, and he was packed off to a juvenile reformatory in Warwick, a place called New York State Training School for Boys.
After serving eight months there, John was released on parole on December 18, 1959, and moved to South Carolina to live with his grandma. Most likely the move to South Carolina was to get away from the jungle that some New York City neighborhoods (like Bed-Stuy) had become to teenagers. However, if John’s grandma had a difficult time controlling her grandson at 9 years old, imagine dealing with him as a teenager… While living with granny, John was discharged from parole on October 16, 1961. A good thing, and a solid stepping stone to turn his life around. Right? However, that was one year and 10 months into the future, and before that could happen, the here and the now had to first wallop John in the face. Dreams of rehabilitation were dashed into smithereens because… John was arrested for auto theft in 1960.
This arrest was strange. The way it went down felt wrong. At the time, John attended school with his cousin and she kindly told him he was welcome to drive her car. He refused, but then later reconsidered. So he took her car for a ride but… didn’t tell her. Classic teenage behavior, not thinking through a decision properly, but with just barely enough justification on the ledge of common sense to adequately explain yourself if something bad happened. Well, something bad did happen. Finding her automobile gone, and not realizing John had taken her up on her offer, she reported it to the police. As all good cousins must do in situations like this, she tried to have the charges dropped when she found out that it was John who took her car. However, because he drove the car off school grounds, the police didn’t allow the charges to be dropped. This was flimsy reasoning. Yes, it was a foolish thing for John to take the car without letting his cousin know, especially if he didn’t have his license. However, anyone in a position of authority with an ounce of common sense could see it wasn’t a crime. Unfortunately, nobody of that description could be found anywhere, and John was sent to a reformatory called the John G. Richards School for Negro Boys, a place that John later said felt like prison. And just like that, John had the ignominious achievement of being sentenced to his second reformatory, but in a different state. He remained incarcerated there until he was released in May 1961, having served his time before he was off parole from his break-and-enter in New York City.
Perhaps disillusioned with South Carolina and the bungled situation with his cousin’s car, John moved back to New York City. However, the Arrow of Discretion was absent from John’s quiver, and on January 12, 1962, he stole a car parked in front of 555 Halsey Street. Eight other thrill-seekers jammed into the car with John, bringing the grand caravan to a total of nine. How they all fit into the car is a mystery. Three of them were girls, and there is no doubt in my mind that youthful bravado and a powerful need to impress them greased this mad caper. Anyhow, the car was stopped by suspicious Nassau County police on Peninsula Blvd in North Lawrence, Long Island. John told police that he took the car when he discovered the door wasn’t locked. He simply crossed the wires under the dashboard and drove away, picking up the other eight at various street corners, eventually driving all the way out to Long Island. Cases against the other eight were dismissed but John was convicted for stealing the car. He was only 17 years old and already onto his third reformatory. To put this in sharper perspective, John was more familiar with reformatories (3) than total held jobs (2).
During his incarceration, John spoke with a psychiatrist several times. In his first meeting, John declared, “I knew the car was stolen, but I didn’t steal it. I was riding in it and they put the blame on me.” Why take the blame for everyone else? “I don’t know,” John replied. “That was foolish.”
His family life was discussed and intense feelings of hatred for his father bubbled up into the conversation, front and center like bold type-face on the front page of a newspaper. These feelings came up in each of his appointments with the psychiatrist and John struggled with them even in his last meeting when he said, “I built up a hate in me because of my father. He left me when I was a child.” John’s hatred wasn’t exactly a shocker. It’s understandable when you give yourself permission to stand in his shoes. Would your emotions bring you down the same path? Probably. After all, his father never admitted that John was even his son. It’s true that everyone has or had a mother and father. But it’s also equally true that not everyone has or had a mother or father. Physical propinquity is not the same as emotional closeness. It was like John’s mere existence was in question with his father’s denial. Almost like John didn’t matter. Just another street corner kid, a loser with no future.
John wanted nothing at all to do with his father. He felt he never would have been in the reformatory if his father lived with his mother. “How can you be a good boy when you don’t have a father? A mother cannot bring up a boy. You have to be a man.” Indeed. And here, in one insightful statement from a Brooklyn street kid named John, we see the importance of a father in the home. Not just a father taking up space in the family home, but an engaged father.
John blamed himself too: “Of course, I blame myself for it and I did these things because I didn’t think in the right way.” There was nothing wrong with his mind – “but,” he said, “at that time I was not thinking what I was doing. I am no crazy.”
John had vehement feelings about parole and brazenly told the psychiatrist that he would break parole the very day he was released: “I don’t give a damn whether I will serve 18 months or 3 years.” He was willing to serve his max because he didn’t want any restrictions while out on parole. John knew he could serve his max time; “take it easily” was the way he put it. The institution had no wiggle room to work with John and kept him for the entire sentence. John served his entire sentence, or rather he was released one week before his max, leaving on January 11, 1965. It was unlikely his father-hatred improved by the time he was released. In 1964, he was still mired deep in those feelings: “How can you love people when your own father left you when you were a baby?” Excellent question.
It is here that we leave John simmering in a stew of hatred that would gladly bring him to his last breath as quickly as possible if he couldn’t overcome it. How he would conduct the stereotactic process of healing his brain is anyone’s guess. However, I want to leave on a good note, and before closing this short story, I think there is something positive to hold onto.
When John spoke to the chaplain while he was incarcerated, he naturally expressed bitterness towards his father. But if we look closely enough through the impenetrable thicket of hate, defiance and anger in John’s thinking, there was a glimmer of hope, a beam that, faint as it was, outshone the darkness. John would not make the same mistake his father did, saying he would “not abandon his son if I get married.” What an illustration for the choices we have in life when experiencing family trauma like John’s. We can, and sometimes do continue the trend that some terrible parents model. Or, we harden our resolve to go down a better path, a route that refuses to allow suffering that we can control from happening to those who come after us.
I hope John made good on his promise of not abandoning a future son and became the loving father he never had.
Copyright © 2023 David Van Pelt
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