A true story about mildly educated people.
|On July 4th 1957, Bill Polis and his pregnant wife Jean loaded up the Ford with two-year-old Stevie, various party and picnic items and left for Shady Beach in Norwalk, Connecticut for a day of celebration. While they were away from their home in the projects with the deceptively charming name of Colonial Village, friends and neighbors Ann and Jim Scanlon went inside and draped a Japanese flag from the upstairs windowsill. Assuming the Polis family would be returning soon, it seemed this would be one of their best practical jokes ever. A good laugh would be had by all.
Traffic passing by on Scribner Avenue began the protest with blaring horns. In no time, an angry crowd had gathered. World War II was still a recent event for these people, many of whom were veterans. Jim, being one himself, should have thought this through. “I served with Audie Murphy!” He would tell anyone and everyone. Resentment of the Japanese was no joke. To hang the “Rising Sun” from the window of one’s home on Independence Day was tantamount to treason, perhaps not legally but certainly in a moral sense, at least to these mildly educated people. The Polis’ were going to be in a lot of trouble.
When the Scanlon’s saw what they had done, they hid quietly in their home. The Polis’ next-door neighbors were the elderly Weingarteners. They had seen the Scanlons committing the act. They were very fond of Bill and his family and did their best to calm the increasingly volatile crowd by telling them that the Polis’ were victims, that someone else had done this as a prank. Not being willing to sign the Scanlon’s death warrant by revealing their identities to the horde and perhaps because they were the known “Germans” (they were German Jews) in the predominately-Irish neighborhood, they came off as less than convincing. After all, who better to assist Japanese sympathizers than Axis ex-partners? This was how a great many people felt at this time.
Soon the police arrived and were swarmed by the crowd who felt it necessary to instruct them. They must remove the flag! Arrest the perpetrators! If not, several individuals would “handle matters!” It turned out one of the officers knew Bill, and was inclined to believe the Weingarteners.
The first thing they did was to go inside and remove the flag. The second was to warn the loudest mouths that they were courting incarceration for issuing death threats. That shut them up. Thirdly, they said they would be patrolling the street all night and if anyone gathered here again, they would be in for it. Well, it was a holiday after all and one in which the evening mattered most. The crowd dispersed and went about their business. The Scanlons even went to a fireworks show. They didn’t enjoy it. They knew Bill well enough to suppose that because of how badly their joke had turned out, that this day or the next one might be their last on this earth.
Practical jokes were a popular pastime for this little group of friends and family, and Bill wasn’t above pulling them. He’d never done anything of this caliber but he could get a goat when he chose. It nearly got him killed once.
Long before the flag incident, Tom O’Neill came by one Saturday with a brand new quart of whiskey. Jean’s sister Simone and her husband Meddie were visiting. Tom had to run an errand and while he was gone, Bill poured the whiskey off into another container. When Tom returned he would think that all his booze had been consumed and a good laugh would be had by all.
Tom returned, found the empty bottle, failed to see the humor, picked the bottle up, and swung it with great force at Bill’s head. Bill happened to be standing at the refrigerator and as the “weapon” descended; he threw the refrigerator door open and the bottle smashed against it, glass shards flying.
Tom should have been a better sport. His wife Jane once telephoned Jean at 9:00 PM to tell her that a man had been spotted peeping into windows nearby and that the police believed he’d escaped from the Newtown asylum. As they spoke, Jean saw a face go by the window. She let out a scream that brought Bill from the bedroom, expecting the very worst. He found Tom outside laughing his head off. One look at Bill’s face and the laughter stopped. Tom left quickly.
The flag incident wasn’t the only time Bill had been the victim of a practical joke. Once, when Jean’s father was dying, five hundred miles north in Vermont, it fell to Bill to drive from there, down to La Guardia Airport, pick up his sister-in-law Linda, drive back up to Vermont and then return to Norwalk for work in the morning. After endless hours of driving, it was very late and he was dead tired. When he tried to open his front door, it was jammed. He went in through the back door, to find every piece of furniture turned upside down. Except for several items of great weight and bulk piled up to block the front door, nothing was out of place. It was all simply inverted. On the second floor, the double bed, the crib, all the tables and dressers were turned over, courtesy of Meddie and Tom.
Anyway, getting back to the flag incident, when Bill, Jean, and Stevie returned home that night, all was quiet in Colonial Village. As they were unloading the car, the Weingarteners came outside to speak with them. With each bit of information, Jean watched Bill grow larger and more dangerous. Old Mr. Weingartener and his wife competed to inform.
“There was a Japanese flag hanging from your window.”
“Traffic was slowing and horns were honking.”
“A crowd gathered.”
“They were talking about going inside to—
“—to get the flag and do other things.”
“The police came and went in and took the flag down.”
“People were yelling about treason and traitors.”
“The cops told them all to leave and not come back or—
“—or they’d be arrested, but some were whispering about—
“—About doing something about it!”
“We know who did it but we didn’t tell anyone.”
“I know who did it.” Bill said in a voice that was lethally quiet.
Jean was horrified. In the 1950s, just having the police involved was frightening and scandalous. But this? They were going to be charged with treason and then shot. She also thought Jim Scanlon was a dead man. It was clear to her that Ann must have been the mastermind but Bill would never harm her, save for her widowing. Bill was no killer but Jean couldn’t dismiss his potential. His practical jokes were also never as mean spirited as the others tended to be and he was fed up. Bill thanked his neighbors and aimed himself at the Scanlon’s front door. He knew Jim would be in there, hiding in the dark. He also knew he wouldn’t kill him but he would make him pay.
Jean made a great effort to stop him and did manage to slow him down enough that he agreed to think about it for a while. Bill had been imagining the same things she had. Treason! That was big and the repercussions were unimaginable.
The ringing phone brought them both inside. It was Officer Carpenter, Bill’s friend on the force. He assured them that the matter was being dropped. It was clearly a practical joke gone bad. Bill thanked his friend. They spoke for a few more minutes on the subject of Jim Scanlon and hung up.
The next morning, Bill, Jean, and little Stevie knocked on the Scanlon’s front door. Ann let them in and Jim broke down in a crying apology, possibly more upset about losing his friend than being punished.
“I accept your apology, Jim.” Bill said. “But I think you have bigger problems right now.”
“What do you mean?” Ann asked.
“You both should come over and see this.”
The five of them walked back to the scene of the crime, up to the second floor window. The glass, sill and sash, and other key parts of the room were coated in white powder.
“The cops came back late last night and dusted for fingerprints.” Bill told them. “Carpenter said he knows it was you and he’ll prove it.”
Jim started bawling and even the more stoic Ann was crumbling. They left in a cloud of terror and regret.
Jean called after them. “He said it would go easier for you if you turn yourselves in!”
Bill and Jean were pleased to have a friend on the force and to have found a new purpose for all-purpose-flour.
Jim did surrender and Officer Carpenter let him sweat in a cell until Bill came by the station later for a good laugh.