Spring, New York City 1955
Helen didn’t relish the role of oldest sister, even though all three of them were adults now. Peggy, the baby of the trio, still looked to her for guidance and watched every move she made, trying to model herself after Helen’s actions. Carolyn, the middle daughter, was . . . well . . . Carolyn was Carolyn. How does one rein in a Carolyn?
As Helen walked along Lexington Avenue, the noise of the taxis' horns, the exhaust from the city buses, and the constant construction sounds from yet another building going up on the avenue jarred her nerves. When she spotted the Foundling Hospital's orphanage’s iron railings, she thought how much like a prison they looked, despite the fact that they housed the only warm comforting home the orphans inside had ever known. She exhaled a deep breath and her shoulders relaxed as she anticipated the eager faces of her four to six-year-old group waiting inside to greet her.
Situated in the relatively peaceful and wealthy Upper East Side of Manhattan, these children would never see the poverty and abuse she witnessed growing up at the foot of the rough West Side docks of Chelsea.
When she entered the children’s playroom, they greeted her with a chorus of “Good morning, Miss Helen.”
“Good morning, children. It’s a beautiful spring day outside so I think we should go to the playground. What do you think?”
The children jumped up and down, screaming their approval of her plan.
“But we’ll have to settle down if we want to go. We can’t walk through the streets like screaming banshees, can we/”
“No, Miss Helen,” they said, calming themselves and forming a line.
“That’s better. We’ll stop by Sister Josephine’s office to let her know where we’ll be. We won’t want her to think someone stole all of us away, would we?”
The children giggled at the idea of someone entering their fortress and running away with twelve children and their carer. Helen led her small group of children into the playground. She nodded to the mothers and nannies who sat on nearby benches, then sank onto an empty one to watch her group play.
The children loved coming to the Central Park’s playground nearest the orphanage. And Helen savored her few minutes of peace and tranquility in this oasis of calm nestled in the midst of soaring skyscrapers and the congested noisy streets of New York City.
On their way to the playground, Helen watched the children laughing and talking to one another. She imagined taking this walk one day holding her husband’s hand, and watching their children scamper ahead of them. Visions of a happy family life filled her head. If she could just find a decent man to marry. It seemed the only men she met were total jerks, or mommy’s boys, or cocky wannabe gangsters.
At one time, after secretarial school, all Helen wanted was a job in a big company, maybe as a private secretary. She couldn’t imagine spending her working day caring for orphans. But now, after doing just that for the past six years, she couldn’t imagine a job that would bring her more joy.
Suddenly, a child’s scream ripped her musings to shreds.
A dagger of fear sliced through her. On her feet in a second, she scanned the area and did a quick head count.
She reached eleven.
One was missing.
She ran to the nearest child.
“Where’s Jimmy?” she asked, her voice quivering, her heart racing.
The little girl shrugged and shouted, “Jimmy? Jimmy? Where are you?”
The children stopped playing and looked around. Soon they echoed her call, and the peaceful surroundings turned chaotic.
Birds squawked and flew out from the trees.
Squirrels chittered and ran for cover.
Mothers and nannies grabbed their children and headed for safety. TV news coverage of the Robert Greenlease kidnapping, only two years before, burned into their minds.
A little boy tugged on Helen’s skirt. “Miss Helen, I think I saw him go over there.” He pointed to a clump of bushes that lined the 67th Street bike and foot path.
“Oh, dear God, no,” she muttered, making a quick sign of the cross on her chest. “Grab hands everyone and follow me.”
On shaky legs, she stumbled out of the playground. The children, used to obeying her orders, lined up and hurried after her. She stopped at the road that cut through the park. A small crowd had already gathered there. Women, who just moments ago watched their children enjoy this unseasonably warm sunny day in May, now huddled around a tiny figure lying on the ground. When Helen approached, they parted. Some cast disapproving looks her way. Others tsk tsked and whispered about the irresponsible attitude some young people had about their jobs. Particularly when it came to the care of children. Very few looked at her in sympathy.
Helen shoved past them and dropped to her knees alongside the little boy, and pushed the man crouched there away. Her circle skirt fanned out around her. The rough concrete dug into her knees the minute she hit the pavement. Jimmy lay in the roadway. He clutched his left arm and moaned. Tears streamed down his chubby cheeks. Someone’s bicycle lay on the ground near him, the wheels still spinning. Helen’s head swam, terrified that Jimmy was seriously hurt. Her breakfast clawed its way up from her stomach and she swallowed hard to keep it down.
“Jimmy, what happened? Are you hurt?”
“It’s my arm, Miss Helen,” he said between sobs. “I think it’s broken, like Sarah’s was. It hurts a lot.”
“Can you sit up, sweetheart?”
“I don’t know.”
Helen put her arm around his shoulders, coaxed him into a sitting position, and pulled a tissue from her pocket to wipe his tears. “Anything else hurt?”
Between sniffles, Jimmy said, “I don’t think so.”
“Let’s get you back to the Foundling and have a doctor examine you. Can you stand?”
“I think so.” Jimmy struggled to his feet and swayed like a toddler trying out his legs for the first time. When Helen stood, the trees wavered and spun around in circles before her eyes. Myriad consequences of what could result from this accident flashed through her mind. She couldn’t imagine trying to explain this to Sister Josephine, her boss.
“Oh no, this isn’t good. Come over here and sit on the bench for a minute until you feel steadier.”
And I do too.
The other children gathered around the two of them. They stared at Jimmy, mouths hung open. No one spoke.
“All right, everyone,” a man said, herding the onlookers away from the scene. “Show’s over. No need to stand here gawking.” He crouched down in front of Helen. “I’m real sorry, miss. I couldn’t stop fast enough.”
“What?” Helen looked at the man who was wringing his flat cap in his hands. His face was ashen and he ran his fingers through his brown hair. “What are you talking about? Who are you?”
“I’m the one who hit him, miss. With my bicycle. I was riding down the road, and he charged out through those bushes. I couldn’t stop in time. I guess he was chasing after that ball.” The man pointed to a little pink spaldeen that lay a foot away next to the curb.
“So, you’re saying it’s his fault?”
“No, miss. No. Not at all. I’m just trying to explain what happened. I know it’s my fault. I should have stopped as soon as I saw that ball, but it all happened so fast, I didn’t have time to react.”
Helen looked where the man had pointed. “Jimmy, is that your ball?”
Jimmy looked down and rubbed his arm more vigorously, which was a mottled red and slightly swollen. “My arm really hurts.”
“You didn’t answer me.”
“Um . . . yeah.”
“Haven’t I told you, all of you,” she said, looking at the wide-eyed faces surrounding her, “that you can’t bring toys to the park?”
The children nodded.
“You know the rules. No toys outside the playroom. And this is why.”
Helen sounded firm, but her hands trembled and her stomach rocked like a small boat in a storm. “I can’t even imagine where you got that ball. I’ve never seen it before.”
“I think those people who came to see him on Sunday gave it to him,” one boy said.
Helen pursed her lips and shook her head.
“Another rule broken. Jimmy, you know that we share all our gifts, don’t you?”
“And you hid it from me and never said a word.” Helen tossed her long auburn hair back over her shoulder and sighed. “Let’s see if you can stand now.”
“Miss,” the bike owner said, “if you can wheel my bike, I’ll carry the boy back to wherever you’re going.”
Helen hesitated for a moment and looked the man over before she said, “Children, each take a partner’s hand again and stay in line so we can get Jimmy home quickly.”
They grabbed hands and lined up in silence.
“All right,” Helen said, “I guess we can make this work. Thank you, Mr. … oh, I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Charlie. Charlie Sanders. And you are?”
“Helen Campbell. And these children are in my group at the Foundling.”
“Ah, the orphanage,” Charlie said.
“Of course. All set?”
“Children, stay close to me and Mr. Sanders. We don’t need another accident like Jimmy’s, do we?”
“No, Miss Helen,” they said in unison.
The entourage started the odyssey back to 68th Street and Lexington Avenue. And a strange looking group it was. Two adults leading, one carrying a four-year-old child, the other walking a man’s bike, with a dozen children following like little ducklings.
“Don’t look so worried,” Charlie said to Helen. “We’ll get them back safely. I’m no danger anymore, now that you’ve got my bike.”
“Oh, it’s not that. I know you didn’t mean to hurt anyone. It’s Sister Josephine I worry about. She’s a stickler for the rules, and I know she’ll blame me for this. I should have checked their pockets before we left. I don’t know why I didn’t. I always follow her rules and the one time I didn’t, this happens. I’ll be lucky if she lets me keep my job.”
She looked over at Jimmy who was curled up against Charlie’s chest, eyes half closed.
“Don’t let him fall asleep. He may have a concussion. That was something my orientation course at the hospital emphasized. And he’s got a pretty big lump on his forehead.”
“Okay, okay, take it easy. I’ll keep him awake and talking.”
Charlie looked at Jimmy and said, “So, your arm’s broken, is it? Well, I’ve had one or two broken bones in my life. It’s not so bad. Everyone makes a big fuss about you and gives you lollipops and reads to you. And you have a wonderful story to tell all your friends.”
“What bones did you break?” Jimmy asked, now wide awake and intrigued by the stranger.
“Let’s see now. My nose – twice. Two or three of my ribs. You know, they’re the bones over here,” he said, tickling the boy’s side.
Jimmy giggled and grabbed Charlie’s hand with his “broken” arm. Charlie looked over the boy’s head and winked at Helen.
So, that’s why there’s a kink in his nose. Probably one of those toughs from the docks. Just my luck. Meet a good-looking guy and he’s a hoodlum, or well on his way.
As Charlie told Jimmy about how and where he had broken all these bones, Helen stopped listening. She could feel her shoulders relax and her whole body calm. Before long they were standing in front of the Foundling and Jimmy seemed to have forgotten his injury.
“I’d better get him inside and have a doctor check him over. Thanks, Mr. Sanders.”
“I’ll carry him in so you can take care of the rest of them. Just find a place to stow my bike, would you?”
“Oh, sure.” Helen propped it against the nearest lamppost. “Done.”
She bundled the children through the front door and asked the receptionist to page the doctor on duty.
“I’ll take Jimmy.” She reached out to release Charlie from Jimmy’s grasp around his neck.
“You sure you can manage him? He’s not a lightweight. I can carry him wherever you’re going.”
“I’m afraid that’s against the rules. Only employees can go past the reception area. Or prospective parents.”
“Do you always follow the rules?” Charlie asked, a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Sometimes it’s fun to break them, or at least bend them a little.”
“Yeah, well, I broke one today and look where that got me.”
“At least it let you meet one of the most handsome, debonair men in New York City. And I got to meet one of the prettiest ladies. That’s two excellent results.”
Helen could feel her cheeks turning a rosy red.
He is kind of handsome, even with a slightly crooked nose.
“Look,” Charlie said, “this may not be the best timing, but could I see you again? Without all the kids?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” What if he really is a hoodlum? He did just run over one of my kids. Although he seems genuinely sorry. She always said she wouldn’t let herself get involved with a strange man unless someone she knew introduced him. Now here she was on the verge of breaking another rule.
“Tell you what,” Charlie said. “Why don’t I meet you right here when you get off work today? We can grab a cup of coffee or a hot dog and then you can decide whether or not you want to see me again.”
“I guess that would be all right.”
“Wouldn’t be breaking any of your rules, would it?” he asked, tilting his head, pushing his cap back, and giving her a captivating smile.
“Well . . . not really. Maybe bending them a little.”
They stood grinning at each other until one child said, “Miss Helen, I have to go to the lavatory.”
“Oh, of course, Bobby. Thanks again, Charlie. I get off at four o’clock.”
“I’ll be waiting right outside.” He lowered himself and stood Jimmy on the floor. “Think you can walk on your own now, pal?”
“Course I can. I’m four years old.”
“That old, huh?”
Charlie looked up over Jimmy’s head and winked again.
“See you at four, Helen.”
He was out the door before she could answer him, or second guess her decision, something she always did. Maybe looking at both sides of a situation wasn’t always the best way to live your life. She knew her idol, Harriet Quimby, wouldn’t have thought twice about whether people would approve of her decision. Harriet did whatever she pleased, society’s rules be damned. And a date with Charlie pleased Helen.
“Miss Helen, I really have to go,” Bobby said, hopping from one foot to the other.
“Sorry, honey. All right, everyone, get in line and let’s go upstairs. Jimmy, you stay next to me.”
The children headed for the staircase. Helen shook her head and wondered what had gotten into her to agree to meet him at four o’clock.
Maybe Charlie’s right, she thought, smiling. Maybe I can bend the rules a little.
But her smile disappeared when she rounded the corner and saw Sister Josephine. The children were telling her all about Jimmy’s injury and Mr. Sanders. Her frown deepened as she listened to them.
“Helen,” Sister Josephine said, “I need to speak to you in my office. Right now.” The long skirt of her nun’s habit swished in a wide circle as she turned and strode down the hall.