Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The evil crime of arson

An election night fire at a Black church in Springfield is ruled arson, leading to suspicions of a hate crime, with counter-accusations that someone in the congregation lit the fire and is "playing the race card."

A Springfield resident is arrested for hiring a fifteen year old boy to set fire to a house he he owned and rented out. Four tenants were home at the time.

Both of these recent incidents reminded me of the sad story of someone I used to know, Jerry Rife.

In 1970 I was living in a three bedroom tenement on the corner of Columbia and Broadway just off Central Square with a varying cast of six, sometimes seven other people, and Jerry was one of them. (This address's big claim to fame was that it was the former residence of radical bomber Stanley Bond, which we found out one day when the FBI burst into our apartment, ignored an ounce of pot on the kitchen table, and searched every room before departing.)

We were a somewhat typical hippie household-- musicians, poets, activists and acidheads-- living on part-time jobs and spare change. Jerry was the first person I'd met who'd grown up in foster care, sometimes in a home but more often in an institution. Jerry was in his early twenties and had a brother a couple of years younger who had also grown up in foster care. They had been separated for most of their childhood but Jerry had finally tracked down his brother, who had aged out of foster care at eighteen and was crashing with some friends in a Boston residential hotel. It was Jerry's big dream to save enough money for his brother and him to get a place together.

One day Jerry came home with tears streaming down his face. The hotel where his brother was staying had caught fire and his brother-- and Jerry's dream-- was dead. The fire was determined to be arson.

Jerry drifted away after that and we lost track of each other. Some years later I heard about an arson scandal in Boston, which had been plagued with fires in the early 70's. The scandal revolved around collusion between property owners and some members of the Boston Fire Department. I don't know that the fire in which jerry's brother died was part of that scandal or a separate incident.

I've often wondered what became of Jerry. If anyone knows him, I would be happy to hear. He'd be in his late fifties now and I believe he was a townie, born and raised in the metropolitan Boston area. After all these years so many memories have faded, but I will never forget the tears on Jerry's face the day his brother died.

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