The tidal Ipswich River was a play place for my father Sumner and his two brothers, Frank and Roger. One game the brothers played, as the tide turned, was to run down to end of the pier, jump, and grab for a moored dory’s swinging stern.
Pump elbows, piston knees, swim if you miss.
Frank and Sumner have jumped and grabbed; they inch over to the gunwales to free up the stern for Roger.
He sinks, bobs up, sinks. They reach for him, but Roger’s arms and legs pinwheel as he dangles under a tree of hair.
Suddenly a grown-up is in the water, grabbing Roger’s arm. He heaves him onto the dock. Roger throws up water and starts to cry.
You a’right? the man drawls, squinting down at him. Roger nods and slicks back his hair. Frank and Sumner dog paddle to the dock and pull themselves up. The man walks away.
Red Hinckley! whispers Sumner.
The n’er-do-well? Roger hiccups.
Yeah! marvels Frank.
The brothers decide that since Roger hasn’t drowned they won’t tell their parents what happened.
Some years later, Louisa, their mother, looks up from the paper and says, Red Hinckley died. She tsk-tsks and peers over at Frank–the father, not the son.
He looks up from his reading and sighs. Too bad he never amounted to anything, always disappointed his poor mother. Just a N’er-do-well.
The brothers are at the kitchen table doing homework. They look at each other. Sumner clears his throat after getting a nod from Roger and Frank.
Well, Dad, not exactly he begins; and, as Louisa and Frank’s mouths fall open, he recounts Red’s act of valor.
The effect of the story on their parents stuns the boys.
And you NEVER told us?
Well, Roger was okay, and…
But you never TOLD?
Dad, it ended all right. Roger wasn’t even scared.
But what about Red Hinckley?
This question stops the boys’ protests mid-stride.
Er, what about Red?
Yes, you never thought about him, did you? His good deed might have been the stick that altered the course of his life’s river. But you hid it. Instead of being the town’s N’er-do-well he could have been its hero. We would have greeted him with handshakes every time we saw him. Instead? We and the rest of town crossed to the other side of the street to avoid him. Just think what he might have become, but didn’t. All because of you three and your sin of omission.
My father told that story dozens of times when he thought we were not telling him something he needed to know: When he wanted the whole story of a late night date. When a teacher called to complain. When the car came back with a dent. Or, he told it BEFORE the date, or school, or an outing that was to happen. As a warning. Beware the sin; and, then, beware the sin of omission.
PATTY (Sumner’s Daughter) 3/19/13