If you grew up in or near Buffalo and you’re of a certain age, you remember your parents, exasperated or just cruel, threatening to drop you of at Father Baker’s. The orphanage and home for “troubled boys” across the street from Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna.
I actually remember being driven to (but fortunately past, with only a threat from my father) the alternative, Wyndham Lawn orphanage in Lockport. Funny that I work for a social services coalition that includes both of them, now Baker Victory Services and New Directions Youth and Family Services. This week we are hosting a training class at Baker Victory Services.
Did you know Father Nelson Baker fought in the Civil War, and his regiment helped quell the New York City Draft Riots? The war set him to soul searching and he entered seminary a few years later, and wasn’t ordained until he was 35. He lived to 95.
In the hallways now hang photographs of “Father Baker’s Boys”. Some sepia toned, some fading black & white, mostly groups of pre-adolescent boys, orphans and “troubled boys”, invariably in white shirts and dark pants, usually with dark ties, some in baggy knickers, some in stiff celluloid collars of a certain period, a very few girls, some toddlers and babies. One of bespectacled Father Baker sitting reed-thin and serene among two dozen infants, almost all, both boys and girls, in frilly dresses as was the custom at the end of the 19th century (it wasn’t just Hemingway…). Most of the photos are of groups, only one I saw was of a single child, a baby infectiously grinning into a mirror.
But the boys rarely smile.
Even when collected jostled together to fit into a group shot on the grounds on a summer day, even when showing off their singular Christmas presents – a metal toy aeroplane, an early toy stand-up telephone, a baseball glove, a doll. They show them off proudly, but they don’t smile like we now do. And the rare smile is often a nascent in-your-face smirk – you can imagine a cigarette dangling from those mouths later in the day huddling with their fellows hiding around a corner of the brick complex. More often they look at you hard, their brows furrowed, their mouths set. Their generation did not feel the pressure that we do to smile at the camera, the expectation to tell the world or pretend to tell the world we want to party. Their lives, their homes even here, were filled with the odors of wool and wood. Someone had given up on each of these boys. But someone, eventually, hadn’t.
Of course I wonder how many of those boys didn’t survive long, killed by bullets or influenza in the muddy trenches of France, or blasted running up Omaha Beach, maybe even heroes, finally, but unable to plead with their dying breath, as so many fallen soldiers did then, “My mother…”
And I wonder how many of those boys grew into this smirks, those fierce-browed barely suppressed snarls – if any murdered, and how many beat their wives, how many stole, how many spent the nights of their lives downing beers at the bar or growling at the world from their easy chairs.
And how many smiled shyly at a girl one day, awkwardly, and handed her a flower. Who eventually had women, wives, daughters, smile quietly to themselves when they strode into the room. How many became doctors, teachers, businessmen who ran the Rotary Club. How many became happy dads, pipe clutched in teeth, showing a son how to oil a baseball glove, telling a daughter how very pretty she looked in her brand new dress.