My wife and I like to talk. We've been married for over thirty years and have a tradition. Every Sunday morning, no matter what is going on, we have breakfast together and catch up. Sometimes if we're busy and have a lot of things to do, we'll only talk for fifteen minutes or so. Sometimes we talk for hours.
Not that long ago, we had one of those marathon discussions. They're always fun. It amazes both of us we still find each other interesting. I guess that's what happens when you marry the right person. Often, I talk too much, sometimes she does, but it always evens out in the end.
It was one of those times when she started out with the most to say, but I was monopolizing the conversation by the end. We were cleaning up the kitchen and putting everything away when she looked at me.
"You know, if we talk long enough, we always end up discussing Charlie.”
"Yes, we do.”
That was it. A simple statement. All my wife was doing was pointing it out to me; she knew I didn't see it. It got me thinking. A lot.
As far as I was concerned, I was done with Charlie Schoeler and had been for a very long time. I'm in my mid-fifties now, and what happened with him has been over since I was fifteen. He was a teacher in my elementary school and had started molesting me when I was twelve. I ended it after three years.
Long before we married, I’d come to terms with what happened. I'd made peace with it and moved on. I knew there were still a few parts of it that affected me, but nothing I couldn't handle. My wife agreed with that. She should know; she hasn't had the easiest life either.
Together with her mother and older sister, she had emigrated to the United States at eighteen. She was born and raised in Eastern Europe when it was still under communist control.
Her father died when she was ten months old. Her mother never remarried and raised her and her sister alone.
My wife is Jewish. Both her parents had survived Auschwitz.
Most of her mother’s and father’s families were exterminated except for a few aunts and uncles who came back from the camps.
We met in our early thirties. She’d never dated anyone who wasn't Jewish. My background was Irish Catholic. We came from entirely different cultures. On the surface, it might look as if we had nothing in common, but we did. Both of us were cautious, realistic adults who liked the lives we'd made for ourselves and didn't make rash decisions.
So much for that. We got married three months after we met.
I've been lucky to have good friends whom I've kept through most of my life. They all know what happened to me with Charlie, but I never went into the details with them. It wasn't that I didn't trust them or want to talk about it. But I'd watched how uncomfortable the subject could make some of them. All that changed when I got married. When your mother has lived through Auschwitz and Ravensbrück and survived a death march, a little pedophilia isn't something to get too freaked out about. It counts, but it matters within the context of what real horrors people can visit upon each other. She was someone I could talk to about what had happened. She never got upset or judged. My wife would give me her opinion and leave it at that. She met Charlie a couple of times because she wanted to. My wife didn't like him or want to be around him, but from what I’d told her, she understood why I continued to allow him into my life. I discussed him a lot with her the first couple of years we were married, but it was always in the context of explaining things I had already figured out. It had taken me years after I’d gotten away from him to understand what happened. I was satisfied with the conclusions I'd come to and never saw any reasons to revisit that part of my life. It was a closed chapter as far as I was concerned, so I was surprised by what she’d pointed out. I didn't realize I was still talking that much about him all these years later.
When she made that comment about Charlie, I had to think about why I did it. It didn't happen every time we talked; it didn't happen most times we talked. But she was right; it happened often enough. I asked her what she thought it meant.
"I don't know. All I know is you do it. You're always consistent about how you see things, but you don't seem to be able to stop bringing it up. Maybe everything isn't as over as you think it is.”
I've gotten old enough and smart enough to listen when my wife tells me something she thinks is important.
"So, what do you think I should do?"
She gave me a look that made us laugh. We both knew what it was. She believes in therapy, but it’s not my thing. I have nothing against it but didn't see it working for me. I've always had to figure things out for myself. It was the way I put my life back together after what happened with Charlie. There was so much I'd had to understand when I was very young, with no help. I didn't have anyone to talk to then and had learned to puzzle things out for myself.
She thought about it. "Why don't you write things down?"
"Like everything. Start at the beginning and put it down on paper. Maybe by looking at it, you'll be able to understand it better. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't, but it's something you’ve never tried.”
She sat there looking at me.
"What?" I asked her.
"Some things must have changed.”
"What do you mean?"
"I know you think you've figured everything out, but that was you thirty years ago. Now it’s thirty years later. You might have a different view of things today.
I smiled at that. "You'd think, duh.”
I don’t know why, but I agreed to do it.
I thought a good place to begin was with something that happened around fifteen years ago.
I didn't realize once I started writing, I wouldn't be able to stop.
Charlie Schoeler phoned and said he wanted to see me. That was unusual. It was my job to stay in touch, not his; he rarely called.
I was busy and would have put off going to visit him if it hadn't been for the comment he'd made about the other shoe being ready to drop. That got my attention. I knew him well enough to know something had happened, that he was leaving out significant parts of the story he was telling me.
I've known him since I was twelve years old. 1967 to be exact. A much more innocent time than today, which allowed him to hide what he was from the world. Unfortunately for Charlie, as the decades have gone by, people have become more aware of things than they used to be.
Mass media, the internet, and talk show hosts with a lot of airtime to fill have put everybody's antenna up about practically everything.
I’d never met anyone who worked harder than Charlie did on the face he showed to other people. He had a lot to hide and lived his life accordingly. If there were even a hint somebody didn't see him as normal, he would go into overdrive to ingratiate himself with them. Charlie wasn’t going to be pegged as anything but a real man and a solid citizen. It worked on almost everyone.
Whatever it took. A joke, a favor, or a helping hand, he was ready.
He was a pretty nice guy and a good friend as long as you weren't a teenage boy he had his eye on because Charlie was a pedophile. Not a homosexual, a pedophile. There’s a big difference. It's only recently people have come to understand that child molesters are not gay men, that homosexuality has nothing to do with pedophilia. People like Charlie are a breed unto themselves. Back when I first met him in the late 60s, most people wouldn't admit to even knowing homosexuals existed, let alone pedophiles. They certainly didn't have any as friends or colleagues. It was all hidden away. Men who were attracted to little boys were almost unheard of. They weren't on anybody's radar.
At that time in America, sex was off the table, not discussed, and barely acknowledged. It was something you might talk about with a priest or rabbi in hushed tones with a lot of embarrassment. The hippies may've been starting to make waves with the whole Free Love movement, but it hadn't reached critical mass and gone mainstream yet. That was going to take another couple of years.
Teachers like Charlie were not monsters hiding in plain sight, waiting to seduce your child. They were respected members of the community. Sometimes their opinion mattered more than yours on the right way to raise children.
But as the years went by. People learned there were men like him out there and his chances of getting caught increased.
One thing about child molesters is how compulsive they are. Given enough time, the odds are they'll eventually trip themselves up. The law of averages.
From the hints he'd given me on the phone, it seemed that might finally have happened to him. If it were true, he'd had a very long run for his money.
I wanted to hear the rest of the story. That's why I found myself driving out that weekend from Manhattan to the town of Port Esther on Long Island. It had been many years since he picked me out of all the boys at the elementary school where he taught.
I stayed in touch with him for my own reasons.
I took the long route through Port Esther so I could go my favorite way. I've always liked coming over Bitter Heights Road's crest and seeing Grays Bay come into view. There’s no hint the harbor is there until you come over the last rise.
Only a small slice of water is visible at first; trees hide the rest. Half a mile down the hill on the left is a dirt road with a faded sign which reads "Boats for Rent.” Turn there and drive another 100 feet. Even though I know what to expect, it always surprises me. The view goes from nothing to spectacular as the trees fall away and you get to the shoreline. You're looking out across the water to Long Island Sound and Connecticut, which is about five miles away. Grays Bay is on the right, about a mile wide at that point. The town of Pilots Cove sits across it on the far side.
There's an old wooden pier that juts into the water 100 feet with a floating dock attached to the end. Rowboats are tied up to it that can be rented by the hour or the day. Some with motors, others with only oars. A shack sits at the head of the pier. It sells bait and fishing tackle, cold beer, and soda.
A couple of hundred feet past the shack, the dirt road narrows, there are two 6 x 6 posts buried in the ground with a chain across them that stops cars from going any further.
This was the entrance to The Retreat. It’s where Charlie lived.
I parked my car and took the dirt path up to his cottage.
I walked right in. I knew that drove Charlie up a wall. People with secrets like a little warning. There wasn't anything he could do about it. We'd known each other far too long for me to knock.
It was about ten in the morning, and he was in the kitchen making breakfast. A couple of pieces of toast and a large Bloody Mary. He asked me if I wanted anything. I didn't drink much anymore but thanked him and said, “maybe later.”
Charlie looked terrible. He was a small man, five foot seven, and about 150 pounds. His hair was disappearing on top, and thick glasses were perched on his nose. He was over sixty but had always been vain and kept himself in shape. After not seeing him for six or eight months, I was surprised at how much he'd let himself go. I got a soda out of the refrigerator and sat down.
He didn't talk. I didn't talk. It wasn't uncomfortable. It never was between us now. He finished that drink and made himself another one.
I commented on the fact he was making his Bloody Mary’s with vodka. Charlie had high standards; he never drank anything but Beef-eater Gin in his cocktails.
He held up his glass and looked at it sadly. "Austerity measures.”
"I told you when I called; I was probably retiring.”
"And I'm not doing it by choice. I'm being forced out. There's a question about whether I'm going to get my pension or not.”
Charlie was a sixth-grade teacher and a good one. He'd taught my older sister and one of my younger brothers.
He glanced out the window and stared at nothing for a second, then looked back at me. "Last week, I got called into Bill Hadley's office.”
Bill Hadley was the principal of Charlie's school.
"He's still alive?" I asked.
He'd been the principal there when I went to elementary school.
"I'm still alive. Bill’s only a couple of years older than me.” He gave me a look that meant I was supposed to shut up and let him tell the story.
"Anyway, He didn't beat around the bush. It seems a former student came to see him. He told him I… uh, well, uh.”
Charlie gave me a dirty look. I didn't care. I'd also given up beating around the bush years ago. I was the only person in the world who talked to him like this. We both knew I was the only person in the world he could tell something like this to. It was the price he paid to have someone he could confide in.
"No, I didn't molest him. I may have grabbed his dick a couple of times. It wasn't anything more than that. It was a long time ago.”
And there it was. Even after all these years, it still surprised me. Somewhere inside himself, Charlie thought it was okay to do something like that. I could tell by looking at him he was savoring the memory. To Charlie, grabbing a child's genitals a couple of times didn't count.
It was a little slap and tickle, a bit of fooling around. No way that counted as molesting someone. I didn't mention it made enough of an impression on whoever it was that he was bringing it up all these years later. If I had, I knew I'd get the look, the look which meant I wasn't understanding. The reason I was expected to understand was that I was 'The One.' Of all his boys, I was the one he'd loved. The one who understood him. He was right, and he was wrong. I did understand him, but not in the way he thought I did. It had taken me a very long time to see him clearly, and once I did, I couldn't hate him anymore.
"That can't be all there is to it Charlie. Bill Hadley wouldn't force you out over something someone claimed happened years ago.”
"I'm not finished.”
I kept quiet and let him continue.
"It seems this guy has a son who starts school next September. He told Bill if I weren't gone by the time his boy begins, he would go to the school board. Bill told me if it got that far I might be suspended, and my pension and salary could be frozen until the matter was resolved.” He shook his head. "That could take years.”
I started laughing; I couldn't help it.
"I'm sorry, Charlie. I'm not laughing at you. I'm laughing at the fact you can't see it.”
"He's giving you an out Charlie. You’ve forced this guy's hand by staying at your job as long as you have. He’s kept his mouth shut for God knows how many years. He's ashamed and embarrassed.”
I stared at him for a second.
“Trust me. he doesn't want to get up in front of a school board full of strangers and tell them what happened to him.”
"How do you know?"
And there it was again. Twice in one conversation. The blindness to the damage Charlie caused other people. For so long, I'd grappled with trying to understand how he couldn't see it. I'd finally realized I never would get it entirely, but I’d come to accept it. To me, it was sitting there between us as if it were a physical thing, but it didn't seem to register with him at all. I had never told anybody about him when I was a child for the same reasons his accuser hadn't said anything before this: shame and guilt.
"Charlie put your papers in for retirement. You don't have a choice. He'll do what he says. He sees you as a threat to his son, but he's giving you an option you're not seeing clearly.”
"What is it?"
"He doesn't want to tell anybody he doesn't have to about what happened to him. Trust me, I know.”
"You're sure he won't cause any trouble if I retire now?"
I realized now why he’d called me. Charlie trusted my judgment when it came to things like this. He knew I would understand his accusers' reasoning. He looked relieved.
Whenever I dealt with him, I always had to stop and remember Charlie didn't live in the real world. He functioned in it to a large degree, but once you knew what he was, it became apparent he existed in his own land of secrets. He had no concept other people didn't.
I was around forty now and had a wife, a business, friends, and family. All the things that make most normal people happy. All the things Charlie didn't understand.
I got over my shame and guilt a long time ago. Nothing is stopping me from telling what happened.
Charlie Schoeler was doing his duty for his country; he'd turned eighteen years old and been drafted. It was 1949, and he was stationed in Rome with what was left of the army still in Italy. He'd been lucky the war had ended a couple of years before, and he'd never seen combat.
His father had died when he was about eleven. He was an only child, and his mother raised him with an iron fist. Everyone who knew him growing up said what a good boy he was.
When the other men in his unit went off to visit the whorehouses Charlie wouldn't go with them.
The men thought it was because he was religious.
That's what he’d told them.
It was because he wasn't attracted to women.
When his stint in the Army was over, and Charlie returned to the United States, he took advantage of the G.I. bill. He was the first one in his family to graduate from college and was inordinately proud of that. He lived at home with his mother while he went to school and would continue to do so until the day she died.
Over the years, he did date women, but it was for appearances’ sake only.
He played the part of the carefree bachelor who didn't want to be tied down. If it got too serious with one girl or looked like the relationship was heading in a sexual direction, he would find an excuse to break it off.
He got a job teaching grammar school after college, and so slowly that nobody noticed, started mentoring young boys. It was all very casual at first. He was still in his early twenties then. Some of his friends had brothers the same age as the kids he would bring around. They would occasionally let them hang out with the older guys. One more kid didn't make a difference.
Charlie told everyone it was part of his responsibilities as a teacher. The boys were passed off as children who were having trouble at home with their parents. Sometimes it was true; sometimes, it wasn't.
He intimated a little time with a conscientious adult could do wonders for them.
It became an ongoing theme he found worked and would use the rest of his life. Nobody questioned it. Nobody was paying attention. His friends admired him for being so responsible.
They thought those children were lucky to have him watching out for them.
He wasn't having sex with any of them at that point.
That was also something that happened gradually.
As time passed, things escalated from a helpful arm around the shoulder. To some playful wrestling, to a little crotch-grabbing.
At some point, he finally crossed the line and started having sexual relations with them. The real Charlie Schoeler was slowly making his appearance in the world, but he'd done it so stealthily his friends and colleagues never noticed.
As the years went by, it would've seemed a little unusual to them if he didn't have one of his "kids" hanging around.
In 1967, when I was twelve years old and growing up in Brooklyn, you called all your neighbors Mr. or Mrs. If you didn't know an adult's last name, you called them Ma'am or Sir.
If you got out of line, one of the mothers in the neighborhood was liable to give you a whack across the butt, and your mother would thank her for it.
You went to church every Sunday, didn't fidget, and paid attention.
Fathers had the final say in everything. They were the last court of appeal.
If they said "no," it was too bad. You sucked it up and got on with your life.
My dad and I got along really well, but it was in the context of the times.
Fathers were authority figures, not buddies or pals to their children. They taught you sports and right from wrong. They tried to come to your Little League games if work let out early enough. If you lost, the two of you didn't sit around and discuss how it made you feel. It was understood, you were expected to try harder the next time. Men at that time weren't there for their sons emotionally. That was their mothers’ job. All the fathers I knew were both respected and feared a little bit by their sons.
I come from a big extended Irish Catholic family, with a mother and aunts and uncles who were always having babies. I have two younger brothers and a younger sister. My older sister and older cousins watched me when I was little. I did the same for my younger brothers and sister and cousins as they came along. Tradition. It was the way things had always been done in my family. You pitched in and helped without being told to; it was expected.
At twelve, I could change dirty diapers and feed a baby a bottle. I could do the laundry and had regular chores. When I was a kid, everybody worked. In my mother’s house if you missed a meal, too bad. You learned how to make yourself something to eat. If she hadn't done things that way, the woman would've spent every waking hour doing nothing but feeding us. Those were the days when husbands came home from work to find their dinner ready and their wives at the front door with a cold beer or cocktail in their hands waiting for them.
Husbands went out and earned a living. Wives stayed home and raised the children. Grown men did not do housework or cook. If something broke, they were expected to know how to fix it.
Clearly delineated lines of responsibility ruled people’s lives.
When I started the sixth grade, I was as disappointed as the other thirty children I was sitting with. A new teacher named Mrs. Laviani had walked in and informed us we would be hers for the school year. We'd all expected to get Mr. Schoeler. Everybody knew he was the best teacher.
When I went home that day and told my mother, she said she was sure Mrs. Laviani would be an excellent teacher.
"How come you didn't get Mr. Schoeler?"
"They told us there were too many kids registered, and they had to split the classes up.”
"Well, that's too bad. I know you were looking forward to having him. When you see him in school, make sure to tell him I said hello.”
I mumbled something and went out to play stickball.
When you're that age, you don't get a say in how things work. I was stuck with the teacher I had. I knew I wasn't going to say hello to Mr. Schoeler for my mother. He had no idea who I was.
My mother liked him. I'd heard her and my father talking about how happy they were he was going to be my teacher. Maybe he would be able to do for me what he'd done for my older sister, Kate.
My sister was a good student, but Charlie Schoeler had made her a much better one. He'd seen something in her and worked hard to bring it out. She'd gone from A's and B's to being a straight-A student under him, and it continued after she'd gone to junior high school.
I think my mom was hoping he would have the same effect on me. I was more of a gentleman's C type of guy.
My sister was two years older than I was and rarely bothered to speak to me from her lofty perch of fourteen years, but even she agreed it was too bad I'd missed out on having him.
School was school. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it. It was what you did when you were twelve. I wasn't stupid, but I was lazy and had five years of report cards to prove it.
The section where the teachers would fill in their comments were uniformly the same. "Your son, William Hayes, could do better work if he wanted to. He would rather rush through his assignment to read whatever book he's interested in at the moment.”
I loved to read and have a good memory. It was one of the few subjects I was good at. I even read all my older sister's assignment books for the upcoming grades to get them out of the way. That way, I could leaf through them later when the time came and pass all the tests. It was more fun to be outside playing baseball or stickball or whatever games we kids had invented.
I was a pretty decent athlete and always one of the first ones picked when sides were chosen.
I guess I was a good-looking-enough kid. You have to work at it to be unattractive when you're twelve.
There wasn't anything special about me, certainly nothing I could see. I didn't stand out academically. I was good at sports, but so were a lot of other kids.
When I look back on it, there certainly didn't seem to be any reason Charlie Schoeler would pick me out of the hundreds of boys running around that school, but he did. I realized later it was because I didn't stand out.
It was September. The beginning of the school year. The days were still hot. Mr. Schoeler stopped me as I was going back to class after lunch.
"Hi, Will, how are you?"
I was surprised; I didn't think he knew me. He didn't give me a chance to answer.
"You're Kate Haye's younger brother, right?"
"It's too bad; I was supposed to be your teacher this year. I would've enjoyed having you in my class.” He shrugged and smiled at me like it made a difference to him.
"Will you do me a favor?"
"Sure, Mr. Schoeler.”
"Ask your mom if it would be okay if I took you to the beach after school with me this Thursday. Would you like that?"
"Yeah.” I was surprised and excited.
"Okay, that's great. Now listen carefully. Make sure you tell your mom it's going to be you and two other kids. We're going to Coney Island, and I'll have you back by seven o'clock. Dinnertime.” He smiled. "Just bring a bathing suit and a towel. That's all you need. Meet me at the teachers' parking lot at 3:30. Okay?"
"Okay, Mr. Schoeler.”
I couldn't wait to get home and ask my mom. I told her exactly what he'd told me to say.
"Coney Island? And he'll have you back in time for dinner?"
"Yes, not, yeah.” But she smiled.
"Sure, why not? As long as you're home in time for dinner.”
It was as simple as that because those were simpler times. Teachers were trusted.
I went to Coney Island that Thursday with Mr. Schoeler and had a great time. We had to change in the men's locker room, but that was okay. Little boys are used to changing in front of each other from gym class and sports.
Mr. Schoeler waited outside until we were finished, then went in and changed himself. We spent the time riding waves and listening to WABC AM on the small transistor radio he’d brought with him.
I remember the three of us kids looking at each other because we were all thinking the same thing. It was neat he listened to rock music. Our parents hated it. I got home that night just in time for dinner. I was the last one he dropped off. We ate a little later than most people because my father worked a lot. He had a wife and five kids to support.
They asked me if I'd had a good time, and I told them yes. I also told them I'd been invited back next Thursday. Mr. Schoeler wanted to make sure it was okay with them.
I watched my mother and father smile at each other across the table. My mother said, "okay, as long as you get your homework done.”
The next time there was only one other kid and me. The routine was the same, and I had just as good a time.
By the third week, it was only me going. He came into the locker room to change with me that time. I hadn't seen many grown men naked except for my father. My dad would shower with my brothers and me when we were little, but that stopped as I started to hit puberty. Like every other twelve-year-old, I was self-conscious about my body and wanted my privacy. Hair was starting to sprout in places never seen before.
Other things were starting to sprout too, but it wasn't like you could ask anyone about that. My mother had given me the Facts of Life talk not that long ago. I think my father had been too embarrassed to do it. In 1967, Irish Catholic families lived in the sexual Stone Age. It was assumed you'd find your way. Evidence suggests that's correct. There are millions of us.
Mr. Schoeler didn't make a big deal about our changing together. He put his bathing suit on and asked if I was ready to go.
We were riding some pretty big waves. I was a good swimmer, but he was much better. He took me out a little deeper so we could catch the larger waves.
He put his arm around me to steady me, and that's when he touched me for the first time on the outside of my bathing suit. I thought it was an accident, but he did it again and smiled at me.
"Do you like that?"
I had no idea what to say, so I didn't say anything. I know everybody expects me to claim I was shocked, but it wasn't like that.
This was so far out of any experience that had ever happened to me, or one I could even imagine. I didn't have any reaction.
I wasn't stunned, and I wasn't repulsed. I think I was confused and nothing more. “It feels like a pretty big one. Let me see.” We were in water up to our necks. He pulled me closer and stuck his hand down my bathing suit, and started to fondle me. I was twelve. I got an erection.
It would've been surprising if I hadn't.
If you walk down the corridors of any school with twelve- or thirteen-year-old boys in it, you'll see a certain percentage holding their books in front of their laps as they go from class to class.
A twelve-year-old boy will get an erection for any or no reason at all.
He took his hand out of my bathing suit, smiled at me, and said, "I was right; you've got a big one.” We continued wave surfing like nothing had happened. He didn't touch me again. On the way home, it wasn't uncomfortable. Just before he dropped me off, he asked if I wanted to go again next Thursday. I said yes.
"One more thing, Willy, you probably shouldn't tell your mom it's just you and I going alone.”
"Oh, mothers are funny sometimes. She might think you're having too much fun if it's just you and me.”
"Okay, Mr. Schoeler.”
"Willy, when we're alone, it's okay if you call me Charlie. Would you like that?"
"Yeah, uh, Charlie.”
It sounded good. He was the only adult I'd ever called by their first name, and it made me feel grown-up and important. He'd also started calling me Willy. Nobody called me that. It was always William or Will. It made me feel special.
I guess those other two boys hadn't made the cut.
If I'd walked in that day and told my mother what happened, I don't know what she'd have done.
I don't think she’d have thought I was lying, but I bet she'd have thought I had my facts confused.
Adults didn't do things like that to children.
Well respected teachers particularly didn't do things like that. I don't know if she'd even have told my father. Housewives in the ‘60s had a clearly defined sphere of influence. They handled the kids, and kids said and did weird things.
But the fact is I didn't tell her. I ate dinner with the rest of my family, did my homework, and probably watched some TV.
I shared a room with my brother, who was two years younger than I was, and when we went to bed, I didn't tell him either. I didn't tell anybody because I felt like I had a real secret for the first time in my life.
Not a little boy's secret. Not a grownup's secret. But a secret that could take me somewhere outside of my regular life. When I thought about it that night, I was a little scared about what had happened at the beach. In a strange way, I was also a little thrilled.
That's what monsters are supposed to do, isn't it? Scare you and thrill you at the same time.
As the weather got colder, Thursdays at the beach turned into ice-skating on Fridays. I'd never ice-skated before but picked it up quickly. Charlie was an excellent skater and teacher. He didn't use hockey or figure skates; he used racing skates.
I was starting to become very comfortable around him. He was easy-going and funny and listened patiently while I opened up. He seemed to hang on my every word. It was so different from what I was used to coming from a large family. With him, I was always the center of attention.
I was fearless when it came to sports. I always had been. Actually, I was kind of an idiot. Nothing scared me.
"Lean into the turn, Willy. Swing your right arm to keep your balance, left leg crosses behind your right. Got it?
"Got it, Charlie.”
I would take off down the ice as if I'd been launched out of a cannon. I had that part down; it was the turns that were a problem. I would go into them at full speed, lean over the way he'd shown me, somehow tangle up my skates, and go smashing into the sideboards around the rink. I always got up laughing.
Charlie would skate over to make sure I was okay, shake his head, and say, "Maybe you've scrambled your brains a little by whacking into the boards so many times. I think that's the reason you're such a goofy kid. You better slow down. I can't bring you home to your mother in pieces.”
"No problem, I'm fine.” I would take off again for the next turn. Sometimes I would fudge it on purpose so he would laugh. We both knew it wasn't an accident. Children are like puppies; they aim to please. Eventually, I got it and started zipping around the rink.
I really was having a good time. Fridays had become the highlight of my week. It wasn't only the ice-skating which I liked. It was the sense of feeling special Charlie put there. Little things. I could have as many hot dogs and Cokes as I wanted. He saw me struggling to pull my laces tight and got me a skate key. Once I forgot my hat, so we went to the skate shop, and he bought me one. I know if I'd forgotten it with my father, he would've looked at me like I was an idiot. I wished I could go more and told him that.
"Well, Willy, I always skate on Mondays. Sometimes on Wednesday too.”
"I didn't know that.”
"I didn't mention it because I didn't think you'd be interested. Your mom probably wouldn't let you come anyway.”
"Well, I'm sure she keeps you busy. What do you usually do after school?"
"Nothing, just hang out.”
"Did you tell her how much you like skating?"
"Yes, not, yeah.” He smiled. "Well then, here's what you do. Tell her you love it. Tell her I told you I think you have potential. Can you remember that?"
"Make sure you call me, ‘Mr. Schoeler’ when you're talking to her. Don't call me ‘Charlie’ in front of her.”
I was a little indignant. "I know that.”
"I know, you're a smart guy.” He sat there. I could tell he was thinking. "How would you feel about a little white lie to your mom?"
"Tell her on Monday and Wednesdays a couple of us teachers get together and go skating. Any interested kids are welcome to come. Tell your mom we keep an eye on them. It's no problem; we're here anyway. Make it sound like you'd be hanging out with them. Could you do that?"
I sat there looking at him and didn't answer.
"It's up to you. I come anyway. I meant what I said though. I think you could be a great skater, maybe even good enough for the Olympics or something.”
I thought about it. I knew what he wanted me to do was dishonest, but I wanted to go more often. I didn't want to lie to my mother, so I decided to lie to myself instead. If Charlie thought I might be good enough for the Olympics, I should definitely go. That would make my mother proud.
I nodded my head. "I guess.”
"Good.” He sat there, thinking again. "If she agrees to let you come more often, we might have to start looking into getting you a pair of racing skates like mine.”
"Yup, I wouldn't want you to get too used to those shitty rental skates. You're already getting too good for them.”
"Yeah, they are kinda, um…um...” I took a chance. "Crappy.”
He smiled at me.
If I were allowed to go, I wondered if I would have to play "Nookie" every night we went skating, or just on Fridays. That's what Charlie called it when he put his hand down my pants.
He always made sure we were the last ones off the ice. We were usually the last people to leave the arena and had to walk to the far end of the parking lot. I asked him why he parked back here when there were spaces closer to the entrance. He laughed and said he hated people putting dents in his car door. We would sit in the car with the lights off while it warmed up. He would unzip my pants and play with me. I'd decided I didn't like it. It made me feel weird. But twelve-year-olds do lots of things they don't like to do. Sometimes it seemed like that's all life was, doing things you didn't want to. Go to school, go to church, do your homework, clean your room. When I was with Charlie on Fridays, at least I got to do most of the things I liked.
I sat there thinking how cool it would be to have a pair of racing skates like his.
He hadn't asked me to touch him. Yet.
I was in love. Not with Charlie. With my new life. It was so much more exciting than the old one.
Over the years, through trial and error, Charlie had developed a way of dealing with mothers. Everything happened slowly in small steps. By the time I spent two or three days a week with him, nobody could remember it being any other way. It all happened gradually and naturally. There were times we did things with other adults and children. He either made sure I told my mother about them or invited her to come. Back then, teachers could take an interest in their students’ lives outside of school, and nobody thought there was anything wrong with it.
Sometimes we did go ice skating with other people, and he would invite my mother to come to watch us. She was welcome to stop by and see a ballgame between the students and the teachers if she had time.
Occasionally Charlie asked my mother to drive me to something. He would pretend he was too busy to do it. He would be there, in the thick of things, when we drove up. It was always something that looked innocent because it was innocent. They would chat.
My mother never stood a chance. She was outmatched. She trusted him. He was so good at it; I know my mother was convinced she was the one imposing on him. It's difficult to raise suspicions in someone who isn't looking for danger.
She was always telling me to make sure I behaved when I was with Mr. Schoeler. I was being exposed to things my parents didn't have the time and sometimes the money to give me, and she knew it. Like any good mother, she wanted the best for me.
What parent doesn't want their child to learn new sports? What parent doesn't want a top-of-the-line teacher helping their child do better in school? They saw real results. My marks improved.
My attitude at home improved. I was more responsible around the house and did my chores without complaining. I'm sure some of it was attributed to my growing up a little. I'm also sure my parents gave Mr. Schoeler's influence part of the credit for the changes in me.
For my part, and I believed I had a role in it, I understood at some fundamental level this was a quid pro quo situation even if I didn't know what the phrase meant at the time. I certainly wasn't capable of making an informed decision the way an adult could, but that didn't mean I thought of myself as entirely innocent. I might've been a child, but even twelve-year-olds know how to make a deal and keep it. At least they think they do. And that's what Charlie preyed on.
At that point in time, I was one of the regular neighborhood kids. Boys hung out in one group, girls in another. Almost all the surface interaction between us guys involved sports, but there was a lot of jockeying for position within that framework. Best friends could change weekly or monthly. Cliques and groups merged and fell apart and came back together with new members. All of us were entering adolescence and trying to figure out where we fit in.
Watch any group of young boys’ bargain and trade for status. They'll barter future actions or present possessions to solidify their standing in the group. They're even smart enough to be patient in the hopes some maneuver they make now will bring them increased standing in the future.
Allegiances and friendships will shift and turn based on these negotiations' outcomes, and the boys learn to keep their word. If they don't, they run the chance of being labeled a "welcher," someone who doesn't hold up their end of a bargain. If you do that a couple of times, you end up with no friends. One thing Charlie understood was how the mind of a young boy worked.
The unspoken deal was that I got a new best friend. This was not like the best friend any other twelve-year-old had. This was like being able to hang out with the coolest kid who'd ever lived and do exciting things with him. Things I would usually never have a chance to experience.
Once I was allowed to spend a couple of days a week with him, Charlie started taking me to restaurants and museums. Sometimes instead of going ice skating, we went to R-rated movies, something my parents would never allow me to do. Before the weather got too cold, he took me horseback riding, which I loved. When he picked me up at home, I was never sure what we were going to do, but I was always sure it would be fun. All I had to do was keep my mouth shut about his touching me because that's as far as things had gone at that point. It was a deal I took.
Of course, I knew what he was doing to me was wrong, but children that age have no way to gauge how wrong something is.
That's why they have parents. That's what Charlie was slowly becoming, a surrogate father and best friend. I loved my dad, but he was never around. He worked all the time. He left the house by seven-thirty to catch a train into Manhattan and usually didn't come home much before seven at night. A lot of times, he worked on Saturdays. Every kid my age heard the same thing from their mother. "Don't bother your father now. He's tired. He works hard all day. Let him relax.” Charlie was starting to fill that spot in my life. He was like an emotional incubus to a twelve-year-old. If you hold a pretty bauble up in front of most children, they're going to grab it.
At that point, the whole world seemed geared toward my happiness and well-being. I didn't understand we were always doing the things Charlie liked to do. I thought this was all for my benefit, but of course, it wasn't. This was standard operating procedure for him. Somehow, I never picked up on the fact I was not special. I was just one more in a long line of boys to him. People with Charlie's peculiar affliction never see you as real. Ever. That's why they call them ‘predators.’ I don't think the lion gives much thought to the antelope as it’s chowing down.
He was a good athlete. He enjoyed sports, and he enjoyed teaching me. I know that part of his personality was real, and not one of the layers he adopted to hide what he was from the world.
I learned how to skate from him. When the fall turned to winter, he took me skiing. When the winter turned to spring, we started horseback riding regularly. In the summer, it was golf. I'd never had a chance to try any of these things. He was good at all of them.
Of course, when you're a child, and you make a deal, you don't get to read the fine print. It doesn't tell you as you get more invested, the sexual and emotional abuse will escalate. There was no way I could've known Charlie wasn't going to be happy just playing nookie. That's where a large part of the guilt I felt later came from. I thought I'd played my role in the lies and cover-up in the beginning. I felt like I’d gotten what was coming to me. I was raised Catholic. Deserved or not, guilt was a built-in component of our upbringing.
I'd been with Charlie three or four months when he took me to meet his friends. This is where he spent every Sunday night, having dinner with them. The guys were all people he’d grown up with in Queens and were childhood friends. He hadn't told me much about them, and I didn't know what to expect. To me, it was just one more adventure with Charlie.
Mark Bauer reached down and shook my hand. He had to lean all the way over since he was about six-foot-four. He wasn't just tall. he seemed to me about the same width as the doorway he was standing in.
He had blond hair and blue eyes, and a big ruddy face. I would eventually grow to be six-foot, but I wasn't more than five-foot-two or three then.
"Glad to meet you, Willy.” He looked over at Charlie and asked, "Is he always this ugly, or is it just because it's Sunday?" And then a booming HaHaHa. You couldn't help laughing with him. I could tell he was teasing.
"And this is his wife Janine,” said Charlie.
She was very pretty, with long blonde hair and green eyes. She wasn't much taller than I was and looked like a little doll standing next to her husband. They'd been married less than a year.
"Pleased to meet you,” I said and shook her hand. She smiled at me and said hello. Charlie took my shoulder and turned me toward another couple. "This is Kevin Morrison and his wife, Julia.”
Kevin wasn't that big; he was about the same size as Charlie. He had brown hair that was already receding and was wearing a bowtie and a sports jacket. Julia reminded me of my mom. Black hair, light eyes, white skin. Typical Black Irish. She had two small children clinging to her skirt, and that distracted air mothers of young kids always seem to have. I liked her immediately. I shook hands with everybody and was introduced to their kids, Stacy, who was five, and Jack, who was three.
The last person I was introduced to was Leo Lehmann. He was stocky and dark with black hair and brown eyes.
We were in Forest Hills, at Kevin and Julia's house. I didn't know it, but I was the latest in a long line of Charlie's ‘kids’ to meet them.
Julia took charge of me. I was seated at the dinner table. I was fed. I was watered. I was shy.
I kept my head down, and my mouth shut. If one of the adults asked me a question, I answered yes or no.
"Big talker that one," said Mark. "He'll go far in life.”
Charlie laughed. "Don't get him started. Once you do, he never shuts up.”
We finished dinner just in time to move into the living room to watch Walt Disney. The two kids and I sat on the floor. I liked Walt Disney. I liked little kids. Because I had younger brothers and a younger sister, I knew how to keep them quiet, so I took over.
The adults were all sitting around on couches and chairs, talking and drinking beer or wine. About halfway through the show, when they thought I wasn't listening, they started asking Charlie about me. I pretended not to notice.
He was telling everyone, "I had his older sister in school. A nice family. His mother is great, but I think she's a little overwhelmed at the moment. She has five children. The father. Now that's another story.”
I could see his reflection on the TV. Charlie mimed chugging out of a bottle. He nodded in my direction. "He's got a wild streak in him and started acting up in school and getting into a lot of trouble, but he's basically a good kid. It will be okay. I'm just going to keep an eye on him for a while till he settles down.”
Everybody nodded their heads. I knew he was lying about my father drinking and me being bad in school, but I couldn't figure out why.
I'd never been in any trouble, and if my father had ever been drunk, I'd never seen it. He didn't even keep beer in the house. When my uncles came over to watch a ballgame, my mother always had to go out and buy some.
When they were done talking about me, Leo said, "I decided to take that job in D.C. It's too good to pass up. Have you given any more thought to renting the cottage at The Retreat for the summer?"
Mark answered. "Yup, we're going to do it. It will be fun. Having you as a landlord is going to suck, but we'll find a way to work around that.”
They all smiled at each other. Janine asked him how his family ever ended up with a place like that and how come they called it “The Retreat.”
"I don't know where the name came from. It's always been called that. My father bought it when I was about ten; one of his uncles had a house there. It's an unusual place and has a fascinating history.”
"Tell me," said Janine.
Leo looked around. All the guys were groaning; they'd heard the story before. Leo ignored them and started talking to Janine. I was half-listening. I don't recall much of what he said. I was thinking about what Charlie had told his friends about me. When we were alone, I was going to ask him why he’d said that. The only thing Leo told Janine that stuck in my mind was that there were forty little cottages built on a big hill, and it had its own private beach on Grays Bay.
I remember that day. Right after dinner, Charlie made me touch him for the first time.
He had a problem. He lived with his mother. I'd never met her and never would. What it meant was he had nowhere to take me. Later, he would find a solution to that, but it would have to be in his car right now. We pulled into a dead-end street that was next to Forest Park. I'm sure he must've checked the location out beforehand. It was completely deserted with no streetlights. By then, I could tell when it was time to play nookie, but he surprised me. He parked the car and turned the headlights off. We sat there. Finally, he started talking.
"My friends liked you tonight. I could tell.”
"Listen, Willy, I've been thinking about it, and it's time you learned to drink a little. I know you're going to start experimenting soon, and I want you to be prepared.”
It had never occurred to me to start experimenting with liquor, but this was something I was definitely up for. I hadn't had so much as a sip of alcohol in my life, but kids want to do anything adults do. Especially if it's forbidden. Charlie reached into the back seat and pulled out a small cooler with a six-pack of beer in it. He handed me one and took one for himself.
"We're going to start with beer. And that's all you're going to be allowed for a while. Liquor would be too strong for you. Now, you're going to feel pretty good after you drink one or two of these, relax and enjoy it. If you get a little dizzy, that's normal. I don't think you'll feel sick, but tell me right away if your stomach starts to get upset. Okay?"
I nodded yes and popped the top. I remember it didn't taste very good. I didn't care. I drank it down fast, and Charlie didn't stop me. When I was done, he handed me another one.
"Try to drink this one a little slower.”
It was about halfway through the second one that it started to hit me. I loved the feeling. No, I mean, I loved the feeling. Whatever it was, I'd found something completely unexpected. This was how I wanted to feel all the time.
When we'd pulled over, I was sure I was going to have to play nookie with him. It had been a couple of months now we'd been doing it, and I'd gotten more uncomfortable, not less. That wasn't the case now. I felt relaxed. I felt braver. I felt pretty good about everything. I liked Charlie except for being touched, and that didn't seem to matter very much right now.
I finished the second beer, and he handed me a third one. By the time I finished most of that, I'd passed tipsy and was on my way to drunk.
He slid over on the seat, so he was next to me. This time he didn't just unzip my pants and stick his hand in my underwear. He pushed them down so they were below my knees. He put his hand around me and started moving it up and down. Every other time he'd only fondled me. This was different.
Let's be clear here. I was twelve years old. I didn't know what masturbation was. I was well on the way to figuring it out for myself through trial and error but hadn't quite gotten there yet. I'd never had an orgasm. I didn't even know what one was.
I wasn't exactly sure what he was doing to me, but it felt good. I was drinking my beer and watching his hand. I remember being detached enough because of the alcohol I thought I would have to remember how to do this myself.
He was doing it harder and harder, and it was suddenly like nothing I'd ever felt. I had an orgasm and ejaculated all over the glove compartment.
I freaked out a little bit. I had no idea what'd just happened.
"Wow," said Charlie. "I was wondering whether you were a squirter or a dribbler. I guess that answers that question.”
I didn't know what he was talking about or what to do.
Charlie reached into the back seat and got a small towel. He wiped everything off.
"I know that must've felt pretty good, huh? You really shot your load there.”
I was sitting there frozen but could hear the approval in his voice. I pulled my pants back up and kept sipping on my beer.
"My turn now.”
Charlie undid his belt, unzipped his pants, and pushed them down. He took his penis in his hand and told me to watch. He began to masturbate.
"Do it to me just like I did to you.”
He took my hand and wrapped it around him, and began to move it up and down. After a while, he took his hand away and made me do it to him by myself.
He gave me instructions. A little faster, a little slower. He started moaning. I could feel the muscles in his leg tensing up. He grabbed the towel and put it over the top of his penis, and began shuddering. I could feel the semen and jerked my hand away. He didn't notice.
When he was done, he cleaned himself up, threw the towel in the backseat, and pulled his pants back up. He looked at me.
"You did great.” He started telling me all this stuff about how men had always helped each other out by doing this kind of thing. He told me now I was a real man and how proud he was of me.
Conflicting signals, to say the least. I liked his friends. I loved the beer. I'd just become my penis's biggest fan. His penis, not so much. I was even more confused than I'd been before. Apparently, the game of nookie had advanced levels.
Charlie'd thought of everything. He’d bought some mouthwash so I wouldn't smell like alcohol and some gum I could chew before he dropped me off at home. Before he let me out of the car, he said I should try to act completely normal and not talk to my mom or dad if I could help it. They might catch on I'd been drinking.
He said to tell them I was tired and go straight to bed. I completely forgot to ask him why he’d lied to his friends about my father drinking and my getting into trouble.
It wasn't until years later I understood it was a story he'd use time and again to justify my being with him. It didn't come up often, and by the second or third time I heard him tell it to someone, I was already so involved with him I was a willing participant.
I would relive that night in my head for years.
Over time the few people I've been close enough to talk about this with always asked me the same questions. Why didn't I stop it? Why didn't I walk away? Why didn't I tell my parents?
One of the biggest reasons was I was afraid if I told my parents and they believed me, they would be furious. It never occurred to me they would blame Charlie. He was an adult. He was a teacher. I was sure they would see it as all my fault. Charlie did nothing to dissuade me from that position. He very subtly reinforced the belief I would be in the worst trouble of my life if they ever found out what I was doing with him.