The Christmas break from school was just beginning. My church youth group celebrated with a progressive dinner. We travelled around to different homes, one for appetizers, another for a salad, another for the main dish, then the last home for dessert. If we were adults, there might have been a stop for drinks, but being a 10th grader, I knew little of such a world.
We were at the manse, where the preacher and his family lived, for dinner. In the kitchen, the television aired the local news. Although we could hear it, we pay no attention, as Mrs. Jennings, the pastor’s wife prepared the main dish. Suddenly she came into the room. She was quite upset and shaking as she asked if any of us knew a Mark Brown, a student at Hoggard High School, where most of us attended. Everyone turned to me as she told us he’d been killed that afternoon. While Mark and I no longer shared classes and had gone in different directions at Hoggard, everyone knew we had hung out a lot at Williston, the year before.
Mark reminded me of John Lennon with his long stringy brown hair. He wore tinted wire glasses and often an army fatigue jacket upon which he’d drawn pictures in ink. He looked like a hippie. Mark was a year older than me, having lost a year in elementary school. A car had hit him one day, leaving him with weeks in the hospital and even more time in recovery. By the time he returned to school, he was so far behind that he had to repeat the grade.
Although Mark was old enough to drive, I don’t remember Mark doing so. Instead, he rode his ten-speed everywhere. Once he received a warning ticket on his bike. If I recall, he was riding on Arlie Road. With no other cars in sight, Mark wove in and out of the dotted center lane. A police officer, sitting in a parked car in a driveway, observed this. He pulled Mark, in his bike, over and issued the ticket. Mark didn’t make a big deal out of it, but it was funny to hear him tell the story.
Mark was quiet and mostly a loner. We’d become good friends the year before at Williston’s Ninth Grade Center. Every day before school, Mark could be found at the top of the north stairwell. He would squat between the two bars of the railing, his feet on the bottom bar and his thighs pressed up against the top. He’d then lean forward and hug his knees, perched over the stairs like a gargoyle. Sometimes he’d read; mostly he’d stare. He was often alone. The north stairwell, along with the adjacent boy’s bathroom and breezeway was the domain of those of us who had attended Roland Grice the year before. Although Mark had recently moved to Wilmington from up north (New Jersey, I think) and never really ran around with the pack, his presence in the stairwell provided me the opportunity to get to know him.
Mark’s philosophy was to bother no one. If someone taunted him, he’d ignore them and walk away. He was the gentlest guy I knew, and I respected him for it. At a time when everyone was running around in gangs and the school and city were in turmoil, Mark refused to join in. Instead, he began his own little counter-cultural gang, inviting folks to join his Sugar Bear Ecology Club. Those accepting his offer received membership cards harvested from cereal boxes. We had to pledge to the “Clean Code.”
–Clean up our world
–Liter hurts everyone
–Each member must do his share
–Animals are our friends
–Nature belongs to all of us
(©1971 by General Foods Corp)
As far as I know, there were only three members of the club: Mark, a guy named Joe, and me.
Later in our ninth-grade year, after watching a man climb and hang in slings on the flagpole while painting it, Mark had an idea. His lunch was 4th period, the same time I was in Ms. Gooden’s class. He told me to keep an eye on the flag that day when he was at lunch. I did. Looking out the window wasn’t anything unusual for me, although probably less so in Ms. Gooden’s class as I, along with most of the other boys in the class, had a crush on her. Our class was on the second floor, over the offices with the flagpole right out in front.
Sure enough, Mark climbed the pole that day. On the top, he was eye level with me. He held onto the top like a monkey and swung around the pole, the flag flapping around him. Students flocked to the windows and to the front of the school to witness the spectacle. Mr. Howie and Mr. Barrett, the principal and one of the assistants, ran to the scene. They demanded him to come down immediately. I thought for sure he’d be suspended, but they let him off with a stern warning. At a time of turmoil, climbing a flagpole seemed to be a relatively minor offense.
My dad took me to Mark’s funeral. It was a day or two before Christmas 1972 and held at the Catholic Church on Wrightsville Beach. It was stormy and the tide high. When we crossed the causeway, the waves lapped at the few boats still in the water that late in December. This was my first time in a Catholic Church. Much of what happened seemed strange, except for the crying. Everyone cried. Even my father, who’d only met Mark once or maybe twice, seemed visibly moved.
Mark’s death didn’t seem fair. Mark had been riding on the back of his brother’s motorcycle. Someone ran a red light at the intersection of Oleander Drive and Independence Boulevard, hitting the bike. His brother was able to hold onto the bike and ride it down. Mark was thrown off the back and across two lanes of traffic. He’d beat death once before, but not this time.