It was two weeks before Christmas in 1965. I was 15 years old. As the eldest of five boys, I had developed a sense of when things weren't going well financially for my parents. No, they didn't argue about money in front of us, especially since my stepfather was a man of few words to begin with. So, when they asked us to gather to tell us something in a rare family meeting, I knew in my heart it wasn't going to be good.
My "pop" grimly forged ahead with what he had to say without directly looking into our eyes. He said, "Here's the deal. We just don't have enough money to make this a very good Christmas for you children. But I figure we got enough to get each of you one present. However, it can't be any more than about $10 each. You tell your momma what you want, and we'll try to get it."
No moans or groans emanated from any of us. We knew it hurt our parents to divulge their financial straits. We had known better times, but this Christmas wasn't going to be one of them. Afterward, I told my mother I'd be willing to get something less if she needed to put it on somebody else's gift. She appreciated my willingness to sacrifice, but, she said, "I've got a pretty good idea of what you want, and I think it just might be a surprise!"
What did I get? It was the album Beatles '65. I was in heaven! You might ask why in the world a black teenager in the middle of Missouri would be so ecstatic to embrace the music of a British rock band. Because, like millions of teens, I was fascinated by the Beatles and the sense of youthful revolution they represented. I played the grooves out of that vinyl disc for years.
That remembrance came flooding back to me, sparked by the disturbing reports of violence allegedly inflicted by two Memphis 15-year-olds in separate incidents. In one, the young man, vigorously defended by Memphis attorney Matthew John, was given a "second chance" by a Shelby County Juvenile Court judge after pleading guilty to attempted second-degree murder and a handful of assault charges for recklessly shooting into a crowd of people. His intended target was the son of a woman who'd had a years-long feud with his mother. Instead, he shot two innocent bystanders on an Orange Mound street.
In a show of compassion, Judge Dan Michael ruled the child would not be charged as an adult for the shooting. He was assigned to county child services where he will stay in foster care until he's 19. Hopefully, the sentence will help him stay away from his biological mother, who, despite his claims, denies she released him like some heat-seeking missile to do her bidding.
Even sadder is the story of another 15-year-old, who was arrested and charged with the senseless murder of a father of two while he was doing a contracting job. The details describe a robbery "gone bad," as if such a deed could ever be anything else.
You're probably thinking I should tie up loose ends now, and I will do the best I can to do so:
A Christmas story. Two police-blotter incidents of teen crime. As a reporter who's covered trials for years, I've heard all the excuses about how a defendant's environment sculpted his way of looking at the world: He or she was abused as a child. They developed a warped sense of right and wrong. They are incapable of human feeling, because their tragic lives were devoid of parental caring.
Like many of us, I am tired of these excuses for committing violent acts. Let us, as a society, put the blame where it lies — with parents who are either unwilling, uncaring, or too afraid to honestly lay down a set of morals and ethics for their children. "Babies having babies" has created a lost generation of children whose moral and ethical compasses were never set. I am weary of hearing how it's the responsibility of somebody else — a grandmother, a teacher, a foster parent, or a judge to somehow turn on the light bulb of recognition so that miscreants can realize their wrongs.
Parents need to be as honest and straightforward with their children as my father was with us that December in 1965. That's why I remember and cherish that lone gift I received that yuletide season to this day.
Les Smith is a reporter for Fox-13 News.