“Sorry, Mr. Ott,” Timmy apologized, seconded by Ollie. Although Mr. Ott never carried it with him, he was the possessor of the “Walking Stick,” given to the oldest civilian living at Guantanamo Base Naval Station in Cuba. It was a position of respect to everyone at GTMO except Ben, who suggested that Mr. Ott go back to Tryzna Village, the base’s Jamaican housing area.
“You don’t talk that way!” Ollie moved to push Ben.
Mr. Ott blocked Ollie with an arm. “That’s not my way, boy.” Mr. Ott gazed at Ben, and it wasn’t long before the bully withered. Ben told Sammy and Jody, “We’re out of here.”
“See you, losers,” Ollie chuckled.
As Timmy thanked Mr. Ott again, the old man stared at Ollie and asked, “You’d liked to of pounded those boys some for picking on your friend, I bet.”
“Yes, sir,” Ollie confessed.
“Three against one?
“No big deal, sir.”
Mr. Ott laughed. “You’ve got heart, boy. More heart than brains at times, I bet.”
“I think my pop would agree, sir.” Ollie didn’t sound very happy about that, either.
The old man slapped both boys’ shoulders. “How ‘bout I tag along with you boys to school? Tell your teacher what happened? Maybe then you won’t get into trouble for being tardy.”
The boys thought that would be fine, and Timmy said, “Sorry to take you out of your way, though, sir.”
“It was my idea. Remember? But you two can pay me back by doing me a tiny favor.”
“What sort of favor?” Ollie wanted to know first.
“Just take some advice from me.”
“What sort of advice?”
Mr. Ott laughed again. “Listen to me, boys. Some people say life’s a circle. Maybe you’ve heard that expression before? Anyway, I say life follows a circle, like a river flows between its banks. That circle goes round and round, which is why what goes around, comes around. Maybe you’ve heard that expression before, too? Anyway, a time’s coming soon when you boys will have to make decisions. Oh so important decisions. And there’ll be times when the best decision you can make will be ones that your heart, and maybe even your head, will tell you is the worst thing you could do. But there’ll be a part of you, a good part of you, that’s gonna plead and beg that you don’t to listen to your heart or even your head.”
Timmy asked, “How do you know we’ll have to make important decisions, Mr. Ott?”
“It’s only natural! You both turn twelve today, don’t you?”
“How,” Ollie wondered, “did you know today’s our birthday?”
“We live in a small corner of a small island! And I did work in the base administration office. I know most everybody’s birthday at GTMO.”
The boys were willing to believe that. “So you want us to listen to this good part of us and ignore our hearts and heads?”
“Boys, I’m just asking you to listen to it when it pleads and begs. Don’t ignore it, ‘cause you’ll be tempted to. Being able to ignore your heart and head at times is a big part of becoming a grown up, and becoming a grown up is waiting just around the corner on the day you turn twelve.”
They came to the elementary school. Instead of entering the building, Mr. Ott stopped to read a plaque mounted on it. The boys knew what it said:
In memory of thousands of Cuban and Haitian children who laughed and played on these playgrounds during `Migration: Safe Haven,’ and the volunteers who cared enough to give them back their childhood for a while.
“Seems so long ago,” Mr. Ott told the boys, “but it was only a few years. I think your mom came to GTMO soon after it was over, Timmy. We had something like fifty thousand husbands and mothers and children camping here, down near where the war prisoners are kept now. Those folks just wanted to find new homes and freedom in America, but it took a lot of work and time for the folks in Washington to find them all homes. Most of them fifty thousand were here two years.” The old man pointed at the plaque. “Some of the Navy and Marine people living at GTMO back then said we should ignore them camp folk. Those people were listening to their hearts and heads. Other people living here, though, they listened to that good part of them. They rounded up the camp children and brought them to this playground and into their homes, just so those camp children could just feel like children again.”
Mr. Ott looked at Timmy and Ollie, winking at both, and went inside the school.
The boys looked at each other, shrugged, and followed Mr. Ott to class.