The original topicality in the title of this node uses the term, “Toll” as a count, similar to the striking of a bell regularly and repeatedly, or the extent of loss resulting from actions. It pertains to the deaths of 9 students in the year 1994 who attended Oak Park and River Forest High School. OPRF is a large high school located just off the western side of Chicago, Illinois. The most renown alumni of the school is a man named Ernest Hemingway who wrote a book called, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. He described Oak Park as, “A place of wide lawns and narrow minds.” Hemingway was part of the OPRFHS 1961 death toll. I’m also an alumnus and knew some of the nine people listed. For me, the term “Toll” in the title maintains an entirely different meaning. Over the past three months, I have paid the toll of grief concerning this topic. Grief for those that were lost and for all I paid for it along the way. This bell tolls for me and thee.
I stumbled upon the writeup three months ago on this internet web site. I was shocked to discover some significant inaccuracies. Specifically, one of the individuals, Armand Browning was listed as “Armand Lewis”. Better yet, two of the people listed were still alive at the time the writeup was posted. I had been contributing articles and fiction to this online medium for five years and am ingrained in the community and the standards it maintains, the author of the original article was the person who introduced me to the site. I immediately demanded that the writeup be removed.
Every person in the class of 1994 from OPRFHS will eventually be on the list. Nobody will update it like World Series winners. All those other people will die and not be counted. Making death an anomaly for these specific people felt obscure to me, yet my personal involvement compelled grief to wake and to ponder the unhealed wounds of time. I decided to write this.
I started by trying to search the archives of the Oak Park local papers, the Oak Leaves and The Wednesday Journal. Their online listings only went back to 1998, so I contacted the periodical advisor at the main library, a man named Bill J. Bill was cold to me from the start but went about business as usual and found me twenty five articles about the people listed. He didn’t find any information on three, Rod Husseini, Fred Brown and Andy Ghertner. I’d never heard of Rod, but Fred went to my grade school and I’d shared some beers with Andy in parks and knew about his death. Stylee’s article mentioned that Fred Brown was in the car with Armand and had been shot as well, but of the five articles I read, the other two individuals (unidentified) in the car were not injured or killed.
My grief erupted when I saw that Corrinne had said Armand’s last name was “Lewis”. Armand lived across the street from me and we were close in our early years. He taught me what a DH was and how to bat leftie. He was my best good friend in those odd pre adolescent years and we only grew apart when our race differences were noticed by every body else. I was in my sophomore year of college when my dad called me and told me that he was dead. Shot on the West Side by some Hispanic gang bangers in a flashing signs mistake. Armand didn’t “duck”. Dead. I went into the shower and cried to hide my tears. I didn’t attend his funeral and in the few years after when I came home for break from University, when I would see his father or mother or sister walk by across the street, I never so much as told them the Armand was my still friend and that he meant to me friendship and that I always respected him. Never once. They moved a few years later.
Whenever I return to my youth on the 800 block of South Highland Ave, I am interrupted by visions of my absurd childhood. The soul of my sunburned skinny body, bare feet slapping the hot asphalt of summer, playing frisbee and whiffle ball, waning days with lemonade stands. The corse confusion of my formative years of image and society loom too in all the old elms that used to bridge their boughs above our street. I always remember Armand on that street with me. Now, here I am in Minnesota twelve years after his death and I read his name wrong on this electronic gravestone. All my resolve trickled out. My inside snailsoul jerked like a foot escaping a shoe stuck in mud.
I was also shocked to see that Danielle Villari was listed as a casualty of Leukemia. She had it beat. Last I had heard, she had graduated from college and the internet showed me that she had bought a purebred champion Dalmatian in 2003. She hadn’t died ten years before. Despite my grief, a ricochet of happiness happened through me. I spent some time at a retreat with her in High School when she was digging through the pains of week long Chemotherapy sessions, here she was back then telling me to not worry about heartbreak.
I didn’t know Mari Manion or Liz Gallagher, but I met a Fenwick grad at St. Thomas named Jim Manion. Mari was Jim’s little sister. She and Liz were High School Juniors when they died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the spring of 1994. They had been partying in the Parks and had driven back to the Gallagher home and parked the car in the garage. They left the car running and shut the garage door. They were found dead the next morning. Two weeks before they went on a class trip to Rome and all interviewed were “shocked” about the suicide and described the girls as, “always smiling, and happy”. I guess they were.
The Summer of 1994 I worked for the Parks and Recreation department in Oak Park. There are seven recreation centers and numerous parks. Typical craft classes and sports activities are offered, tennis courts, playgrounds, ball fields. At night, teens congregate in the doldrums and drink and socialize until the high beams of a squad car scatters the group. I worked at Longfellow center on the south side. I was dating a younger coworker and she came into the office one day crying. I just hugged her and smelled her hair. She finally got around to telling me that Tim Lutz had died over at Fox, which is the nearest rec center about eight blocks away. He was hit in the head with an elbow that snapped his neck in a way that it severed one of his main arteries playing basketball and he died almost immediately after. My supervisor called and told me, “Not to talk to the press.” Tim was a neighborhood kid. A bit of a smart ass, but genuinely friendly, he had dark hair and he was stocky. He came from one of those big families that you always refer to by their last names, you know, like the “Schejbals" or the "Garrities", big Catholic families with utter chaos going on in each of their intertwined lives. My girlfriend was wrought with her first slap of mortality. All I could do was hold her through her cotton staff shirt palming the small of her back as she cried on my shoulder and wet my cheek. It started raining. Two weeks later she brought me a list of all the places his donated organs went. Somewhere, someone is seeing through Tim’s eyes and his heart is beating in someone and here in these words also.
Amy Merkes I never knew. You won’t even remember her name. She is a statistic and this electronic gravestone is her only link to the future. She was just hanging out in front of a house with the wrong people when a car drove by and barraged them with gunshots. Amy Died at the scene along with 18 year old Jorge Rodriguez who was the target. The microfiche photocopied image of her is beautiful. Not the image, rather Amy. She is smiling and her eyes look full of life. My yearbook tells me that she was a human relations award winner. So much for human relations.
The news everyday tells me similar stories; teen suicide, freak accident, murder by mistake. People die all the time. You and I will die too. How old are you?
God made it convenient for us. We aren’t dead yet, but we have the gall to ignore it. We can die any single way and be part of a toll, or list or statistic. Beside the fact we reside anonymously amongst peers that never saw our face, but only bonded with our tears. Death overwhelms with the tide.