Do you know what it feels like to be innocent and have someone falsely accuse you of something they purport you to do? Try living with the last name like Brown, or some other common name like Smith and that just might happen one day.
I was an eighth grader at Roosevelt Junior High School on the south side of Oklahoma City the day it happened to me. Roosevelt was located in a rather rough area and had some shady kids that went to school there. Many of them should have probably been in a reform school or shipped to some remote island like Alcatraz. There were often several fist fights after school and some kids turned to using knives before the fight was all over. That’s about as far as it went though. No one ever carried a gun to school. Back in those days, schools in Oklahoma were not yet integrated and they were just starting to talk about bussing kids in from other school districts to start the integration process. As if we didn’t have enough to be concerned about at Roosevelt Junior High School already? Now we had to worry about being bussed to other schools.
Fortunately, I never got in any fights except at home with my younger brother. Both of us got plenty of practice at home. I also never hung around with any of the druggies in school and was more of what you would call a quiet kid and could have very well have fit into the nerd category. The druggies back then wore green army jackets with multiple patches and would go to the far side of the ball fields just inside school property which was about 200 yards from the school building. It was there they would sit on the grass in a circle and smoke cigarettes, toke on marijuana, or sniff glue in shared brown paper bags during lunch hour. The Vice Principal would stand near the school building and eyeball the druggies with his high-powered binoculars. When they would come back for classes he would nab a few of them and take them to his office. Many kids never returned to school after that.
I was the kid that carried all of his books in his arms to class for the whole day because he didn’t want to make a trip to the locker. For me, it was easier to just carry my books than to run back and forth to the locker all day and turn those dials back and forth on the lock. I also took a chance of getting tripped in the hallway or shoved into a locker. This was before the backpack for books was invented. I tried to stay away from the druggies, and any other trouble at school for that matter.
It was at the end of my day during sixth hour in Mr. Wheelbarger’s Mechanical Drafting class that I got called down to the principal’s office. Mr. Wheelbarger yells my name from his desk at the front on the class. “Tony, can you come up here please?” he says. He hands me a small pink piece of paper that’s folded over as a hall pass and says. “Here, take this note to the principal’s office Tony. They want to see you about something down there. Go ahead and take your books with you since it’s so late in the day.”
What? I have never been in trouble at school ever! Except for the time I got my hand whacked in fourth grade with a ruler for flinging fraction charts across the room right when the teacher walked in the room. Gathering up by books in my right arm, my heart starts running away fast like I wanted to. I am terrified about what may come down when I go to the dreaded “principal’s office”. I have never been inside the office and have only passed by when walking in and out of school. I touch my forehead with the tip of my index finger and it seems warm as sweat starts to bead up. Taking the long walk down the hallway to Mr. Brewer’s office I realize this is the first time I have walked these halls when they are not filled with students and can actually see the walls. The halls are so quiet. I can hear the echo of my own footsteps. There’s a big picture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt hanging on the wall just outside the principal’s office as I reach for the silver door knob and turn it slow. The door makes an awful creaking sound and closes behind me with a dull thud against the frame. It feels awfully warm in here.
“Hello, may I help you?” the receptionist with blonde hair and crystal blue eyes says when I enter the office. I hand her the note Mr. Wheelbarger gave me and say, “I’m here to see Mr. Brewer.” “Have a seat right here and Mr. Brewer will be right with you”. she says. Her breath smells minty when she speaks as she twirls around in her mouth what looks like a piece of peppermint candy. My palms are sweaty now but they feel cold. Mr. Brewer is not smiling when I see him. He trudges out of his office with another gentleman who I have never seen before and says. “Tony, this is Sergeant Becker from the Oklahoma City Police Department and he’s here to ask you a few questions today.” I thought Sergeants were in the army and this guy didn’t have any army clothes on that I was familiar with. Becker has short butch cut hair and black horn rimmed glasses just like Mr. Brewer. I’m numb. I can’t figure out in my mind why the police would want to ask me questions. It has been a long time since fourth grade and Mrs. Moyer already gave me my due punishment for that fraction flinging offense years ago!
Mr. Brewer motions with his left hand and says, “Come on in my office and have a seat with us Tony”. I plop my load of books beside me on one of the side chairs and take a seat next to Becker. Mr. Brewer sits behind his big walnut desk and nods at Becker as he slaps his hand down on the desk. The only thing comfortable about being in this office are these nice comfortable chairs. I sink down into the cushy chair and Becker speaks up first. “So Tony, I just want to ask you a few questions about something if that’s okay with you.” My mouth feels dry like someone just stuck a wad of cotton balls inside. I try to moisten my lips before I speak but I can’t get any spit to form. “Sure, that’s okay with me”. I say.
“Did you know that Calvin Coolidge Elementary School was broken into a few weeks ago?” Sergeant Becker quizzes. Calvin Coolidge was the grade school that I went to so I most certainly knew the name and was familiar with the school. “No”, I answer. ” Yes, someone broke in and tore up a bunch of air conditioning units and painted the halls with blue paint.” he says. “Do you know anything about that Tony?” “No, I did not know about that.” “Can you tell me where you were two Saturday’s ago?” “I was at home and most likely playing baseball with my friends.” I answered. Are you sure about that Tony? “Becker quizzes again. My mind is confused and I’m dazed as to why he is asking me these questions.
“We have reason to believe Tony, that you were the one who broke into the school and did all that damage a few weeks ago.” Becker says in a rough condescending tone. “What are you talking about?” I say. “It’s not the first time you’ve done something like this Tony! Wasn’t it you who started that fire at a United Sates post office on 59th Street a few years ago? Isn’t your name Tony Smith? “What in the world are you talking about?” “Now come on Tony, you have already confessed to doing that a few years ago. Are you going to sit here and tell me you don’t recall that now? We’re just going over the same old ground. Are you also going to tell me you don’t know anything about the high school you vandalized last year?” My heart starts to race even faster now. I am in dumbfounded awe at what I am hearing. I am mesmerized by the lies and accusations.
My eyes start to water up in anger. I turn to Mr. Brewer and yell. “Who is this guy?” “This is Sergeant Becker with the Oklahoma City Police Department like I told you before Tony.” Mr. Brewer answers in a calm tone. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You must have the wrong Tony Smith.” I say. “What are you talking about? There is no other Tony Smith.” Becker says. “Yes, there is another Tony Smith that lives around the corner from me on 52nd Street that is about my age.” Mr. Brewer and the Sergeant stare at each other with one of those blank looks of disbelief.
“Do you have a phone book I can look at Principal? Becker asks. “Sure let me find one in my drawer.” he says. Mr. Brewer pulls out a residential phone book with white dog-eared pages and hands it to the officer. “So Tony where do you live and what is your dad’s first name?” Becker asks in a quizzical tone. “I live at 2428 SW 48th Street and my dad’s name is Eugene.”
Sergeant Becker flips open to the Smith section of the phone book and traces my dad’s name and finds, “Eugene Smith at 2428 SW 48th Street” just like I told him. “His name is here just like he says Principal.” He runs his finger further down the page and finds a Smith family located at 52nd street just like I said. “There is a Smith family located at 52nd Street just like he says Mr. Brewer.” Becker says in unbelief.
After finding the other Smith in the phone book that day and confirming that there was another Tony Smith who actually was involved in criminal activity, I was released from the Principal’s office and sent home for the day. Both Mr. Brewer and Sergeant Becker apologized over and over for the case of mistaken identity. The damage as far as I was concerned was already done though and sorry somehow did not seem good enough that day. Later that night I went home and told my dad what happened. Let’s just say he was not a very happy dad that day when he called Mr. Brewer at home that evening and told him how he felt about the situation more than once.
They did not have computers back then and it would have been easy to check out a photograph of someone before interrogating them to make sure you have the right suspect. Perhaps the officer could have carried an actual photograph with him of the guy he was supposed to be questioning that day. It sure would have made my life a lot easier.
Things are not always as they seem to be and sometimes it takes a little more digging to uncover the truth. Perhaps a few more questions and clarifications in the beginning are in order before we rush into judgement or harsh conclusions.