Boyhood, the Bogeyman, and a Friend

Young Adam Matthew Myers Jr. had reached the bottom of the steps outside the old rowhouse where his family lived when a man dressed in black jumped out from behind the building.

"Yaaaaah! Ruuuuunnnnn! I'm the boooogeyman, and I'm gonna get ya!" the man yelled.

Adam ran screaming down the sidewalk. He didn't stop until he could hear the man laughing in the distance. He and his neighbor had been playing this game for years. Still, there was a certain rush to running from the bogeyman. It was a little like cheating death.

And Adam was afraid of death.
Several of his uncles had died of complications caused by diabetes. His uncle Bill, a big, tough police captain in the New Jersey borough where they lived, had succumbed to Hodgkins lymphoma--a cancer for which there was no treatment. The last time Adam had seen him, his uncle seemed to have shrunk into a pile of living bones and yellow skin.

Adam was not at all sure that he should accede to his mother's fervent wish that he become a doctor. Doctor shows were popular on television, and someone always seemed to be dying on them. If that was what it was like to be a doctor, well, Adam thought there must be easier ways to make a living.

And day-to-day life was even more frightening than television. Every summer the government issued warnings about going to movie theaters and other crowded places. Poliomyelitis--polio, that viral wrecking ball of young bodies--was running amok in the population.

It was as feared as the plague. Which is why Adam would never forget that summer day in 1955 when he was standing in the kitchen with his mother. The radio show they had been listening to was interrupted by a news flash: A team led by Dr. Jonas Salk had developed a vaccine made from a weakened strain of the virus that would protect the population from polio.

Adam and his mother hugged and danced about the kitchen. It was a miracle. And if there was anything in his young life that steered Adam toward his ultimate career, it was this realization of the power of modern medicine. Maybe being a doctor wouldn't be so bad if it meant destroying such terrors.

Eva Myers had been drilling the idea of medical school into her son ever since he could remember. Born to German immigrants, she'd had a father who didn't believe in wasting effort on affection and insisted that his children leave school after the sixth grade. Eva labored twelve hours a day in a silk mill, swearing that someday her own children would be educated.

A short, strikingly beautiful woman, she left her parents' home as soon as she could and married Adam Matthew Myers, a quiet, soft-spoken man who played center field for a semipro baseball team. The game had been his life and love, but he hung up his cleats to marry Eva and took a job as a singing waiter in his brother-in-law's restaurant. The couple had three daughters. Then Adam Jr. was born in 1941.

Eva cleaned rooms in the boardinghouse where they lived near Jersey City. They were so poor that his father would often skip dinner so that his kids had enough to eat. One evening Adam Sr., whose supper had consisted of the water in which the potatoes were boiled, passed out at the dinner table.

He eventually found work as a welder and took every opportunity to work overtime. Already thin, he would lose as much as ten pounds sweating in the shop between morning and evening when he returned home, exhausted. But as tired as he was, he never refused his son's request to grab his glove, a bat and a ball and go "hit 'em out" at the neighborhood park.

One afternoon, the two Adams were in the basement when the boy noticed his father's old cleats on a shelf.

"Why don't you put them on, and we'll go hit 'em out,'" young Adam said.
His father looked at the shoes. He hadn't worn them since before his wedding. He smiled his tired smile and reached for them. But years of neglect in damp basements had rotted the stitching and wasted the leather. The shoes crumbled.

He stood there for a moment with the remains of his youth in his hands. Then, looking at Adam's worried face, he placed the shoes back on the shelf, patted his son on the shoulder and said, "Come on, let's go hit 'em out."

Eva loved her husband. But she also took great pains to educate herself beyond her meager schooling, reading Plato and Socrates and Shakespeare. She wanted the status that education represented and, unable to achieve that for herself, she had high hopes for her son.

When Adam wrote a paper in the eighth grade about the practice of medicine in the Navy, Eva was ecstastic.

Adam accepted her hugs. He certainly hadn't ruled out medical school, but he had doubts. He couldn't bring himself to tell his mother, but engineering sounded awfully good--and safe--and he'd even toyed with the idea of becoming a priest.

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