By Alan Caldwell
I was a fourth grader at Austell Elementary School in Austell, Georgia in the Blessed Year of America’s Bicentennial when I first met I Richard. I had reason to think I was a pretty smart kid, routinely placing second in the annual Key of Learning reading contest behind Stacy Thorton, who always left me with remnant Silver and a modest smattering of leftover applause. I thought I knew it all, but despite my status as a smart kid, in 1976, I didn’t know dick.
Richard Hasty crashed into Mrs. Elrod’s classroom that August on a muggy Open House night wearing a snot-stained green t-shirt and established himself as an immediate problem. He picked up each and every item on Mrs. Elrod’s desk and shelves, examined each one closely, and sat each one back down in a different location or simply dropped it on the floor, eventually throwing, and shattering, a rare Panama City Beach water globe. Richard’s morbidly obese mom ignored most of his property displacement and destruction but would occasionally remove her cigarette, cough, and belch a perfunctory “Stop it, boy.”
Richard didn’t stop it. He simply shook his unkempt curly red locks and moved on to the next item. Mrs. Elrod aged a little that night. She would get a lot older before spring.
There was some part of me that was glad Richard came to Austell Elementary. Suddenly I was not the only white trash boy in the class, and Richard’s version was an inoperable stage-four case relative to my petty rebellions. Richard could neither read nor cipher. He cursed, stole, lied, broke stuff, kicked people, and threw everything he touched. Something was always flying in Mrs. Elrod’s class: pencils, erasers, hair bows, and even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I actually think Mrs. Elrod slimmed a bit that session, simply by marching Richard to Mr. Sprayberry’s office three or four times each day.
Richard was immune to every known didactical behavior intervention of the era. Even a few hardy whacks from Sprayberry’s much-feared “board of education” found no corrective purchase. Richard was incorrigible, an adjective I encountered in a racy true crime book. I thought I might never find an opportunity to use it . . . then I met Richard.
As a general policy, I gave Richard a wide berth, though he did manage to kick me on occasion as I walked past his isolation desk on my way to the pencil sharpener. It’s not as if Richard sat atop the well-established male pecking order. He was outside of it and kicked everyone with pure democratic abandon. Even the bigger boys who might have bested Richard in fair fisticuffs understood the innate advantage of insanity. So, I generally avoided Richard, but I always watched him, for both personal safety and endless entertainment.
One day at recess, I observed Richard gathering hard green cones from a pine tree at the edge of the playground. It was odd that Richard was even at recess, a privilege he rarely enjoyed. I was not shocked by this act of gathering. If artillery is your calling, then amassing ammunition is just part of the process. What he did next though was shocking, even for Richard.
Richard removed the perpetually snot-stained green shirt and transformed it into a functional munitions poke. And then – as God is my witness – the little hellion ran behind the lunchroom into the teacher’s lot and began chunking the cones at Mr. Sprayberry’s pristine baby blue Buick Electra 225. I followed, and watched from a distance. Honed by what I assumed to be incessant practice, Richard’s aim was deadly, and within five minutes, the shiny clear coat was well-abraded. However, no one else but me saw.
A janitor soon discovered the scene, and all the classes went in lockdown mode. The great inquisition began. For the next several days, all the students faced repeated interrogation. Sprayberry questioned me twice, the veins pulsing in his bald crimsoned skull; twice I held fast. Everyone assumed Richard’s guilt, but wanton Buick vandalism must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Old man Sprayberry demanded evidence. Proof of such a transgression would warrant a complete expulsion.
After ten days, Richard cracked – more from boredom than contrition, I expect – and spilled the pinecones himself. Sprayberry won. Mrs. Elrod won. I guess we all kinda won. The pencil sharpener path and the peanut butter sandwiches were all safer. Once again, learning at Austell Elementary school was mundane and benign.
We heard the school board sent Richard to a special school where they thought they knew how to handle throwers and kickers. We heard Richard proved them wrong. We heard that Richard played chicken with a new F-150 and lost. We heard he survived but walked with a limp and couldn’t kick very well anymore. We heard Mrs. Elrod retired early, took up smoking and drinking, and moved to Panama City Beach. That’s just what we heard.