The Liberian Condition

The day Omar Buell appeared in the schoolyard wearing only a pair of worn brown combat boots and holding a deer rifle is a day nobody who was there will ever forget. It was a windy, cloudy afternoon in late February or early March, just before the bell rang signaling the end of lunch hour. Dirty snow was piled up around the edges of the schoolyard and kids were running around playing tag or, like my friends and I, playing touch football. I was eleven years old and had known Omar Buell since we had both been in first grade. He always wore a wash-faded, longsleeved, checkered flannel shirt buttoned up to his neck, baggy green or gray trousers and raggedy, black and white hightop gymshoes. He didn’t talk much to other kids and never hung around the playground after school. Buell was not an outstanding student, either; he always got passing grades but consistently placed near or at the bottom of the class. There was nothing to really distinguish him except, perhaps, for his hair, which he wore longer than most and was the color of August wheat. Once I heard Heidi Dilg, a girl in our fourth grade class, say she wished she had hair that color.

Omar Buell, naked except for combat boots and holding a Winchester .30-30, shocked everyone. All of the kids stopped playing and stared at him. Omar stood still without shivering even though the temperature was a smidge above freezing. Mrs. Polansky, who taught health and home economics and was a schoolyard monitor, ran into the building right after Raymond Drain, a sixth grader who was infamous for once having taken a shit on the floor in the back of a classroom in front of everybody, pointed him out to her. None of the kids approached Buell but nobody ran away. He just stood there looking at us but not at anyone in particular.

“You’re gonna freeze your pecker off!” Jimmy Groat shouted.

A few of the kids laughed but Omar Buell did not budge, not even his face muscles moved. I put on my gloves, which I’d stuffed into my coat pockets before we’d begun playing football. Several teachers, including Mrs. Polansky, and the school janitor, Bronko Schulz, came out of the school building and stood off to one side, sizing up the situation. Bronko Schulz was a big, easygoing guy who liked to tell the boys what he considered to be dirty jokes. He once asked me why a penis was the lightest thing in the world. I told him I




didn’t know and Bronko said, “Just a thought can lift it.” The bell rang but we all stayed where we were.

“What’s wrong, Omar?” said Mr. Brady, an eighth grade English teacher.

Everybody thought Brady was a pretty nice guy. He didn’t shout at kids or tell them to take off their hats or pull up their pants and never told anyone to shut up. If he wanted a kid to stop talking, Mr. Brady would just pat him or her on the shoulder and go on with what he was saying.

When Omar did not respond to Mr. Brady, or even look over at him, Mr. Brady said, “Son, what do you need?”

Miss Riordan, the school nurse, whose father was the head priest at St. Tim’s, handed a red blanket to Mr. Brady.

“You must be cold, Omar,” he said.

The late bell rang. I could see that Bronko Schulz was holding something behind his back that looked like a tire iron.

Mr. Brady walked up to Omar and draped the blanket around his shoulders. Brady did not attempt to take the rifle away from Omar but he put one arm around him and together they walked into the school, followed closely by Bronko Schulz and the other teachers. Nobody said anything to the kids, so we just went back to playing tag and touch football.

I can still see Omar Buell and Mr. Brady walking in the schoolyard with Omar wrapped in a red blanket carrying the deer rifle. I never saw Omar Buell again but a couple of weeks after the incident Jimmy Groat said that his mother told him Omar had an incurable condition so he had to be locked up in an institution with other incurable nut cases.

The other day I read an article in the newspaper about a Liberian rebel leader who made his men march into battle completely naked carrying only their guns in order to frighten the enemy. He claimed to have been responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 people, and said that before a fight he made a human sacrifice to the devil, usually killing a child and plucking out the heart, which was divided into pieces for his men to eat.

“Did your mother say what they call Omar’s condition?” I asked Jimmy.

“She don’t know,” he said. “Maybe she just made up the part about him being put away in an institution to make me behave better.”