Ralph Neal was the Scoutmaster. He was still a young man. He liked us.
I have no doubt he knew perfectly well we were each of us masturbating unhappily in secret caves and shores.
The soul of patience, he waited while we smirked behind each other's backs, mocking and parodying the Scout Law, trying to imitate the oratorical rotundities of Winston Churchill in a Southern Ohio accent:
"Ay scout is trusswortha, loll, hailpful, frenly, curtchuss, kand, abaydent, chairful, thrifta, dapraved, clane, and letcherass."
Ralph Neal knew all about the pain of the aching stones in our twelve-year-old groins, the lava swollen halfway between our peckers and our nuts that were still green and sour as half-ripe apples two full months before the football season began.
Socrates loved his friend the traitor Alcibiades for his beauty and for what he might become.
I think Ralph Neal loved us for our scrawniness, our acne, our fear; but mostly for his knowledge of what would probably become of us. He was not a fool. He knew he would never himself get out of that slime hole of a river valley, and maybe he didn't want to. The Vedantas illustrate the most sublime of ethical ideals by describing a saint who, having endured through a thousand lives every half-assed mistake and unendurable suffering possible from birth to death, refused at the last minute to enter Nirvana because he realized that his scruffy dog, suppurating at the nostrils and half mad with rabies, could not accompany him into perfect peace.
Some of us wanted to get out, and some of us wanted to and didn't.
The last I heard, Dickey Beck, a three-time loser at housebreaking, was doing life at the State Pen in Columbus.
The last I heard, Dale Headley was driving one of those milk trucks where the driver has to stand up all day and rattle his spine over the jagged street-bricks.
The last I heard from my brother-in-law, Hub Snodgrass was still dragging himself home every evening down by the river to shine, shower, shave, and spend a good hour still trying to scrape the Laughlin steel dust out of his pale skin. He never tanned much, he just burned or stayed out of the river.
The last I heard, Mike Kottelos was making book in Wheeling.
I have never gone back there down home to see Ralph Neal. My portrait hangs on one of the walls of the Martins Ferry Public Library. Ralph Neal would think I've become something. And no doubt I have, though I don't know just what. Scribbling my name in books. Christ have mercy on me alive; and after I'm dead, as Pietro Aretino of Florence requested of the priest after he had received extreme unction on his deathbed, "Now that I've been oiled, keep me from the rats."
When I think of Ralph Neal's name, I feel some kind of ice breaking open in me. I feel a garfish escaping into a hill spring where the crawdads burrow down to the pure bottom in hot weather to get the cool. I feel a rush of long fondness for that good man Ralph Neal, that good man who knew us dreadful and utterly vulnerable little bastards better than we knew ourselves, who took care of us better than we took care of ourselves, and who loved us, I reckon, because he knew damned well what would become of most of us, and it sure did, and he knew it, and he loved us anyway. The very name of America often makes me sick, and yet Ralph Neal was an American. The country is enough to drive you crazy.
James Wright, Above the River: The Complete Poems, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990.