The Sullivan Brothers in Jail: A Lesson Learned
To this day, my mother tells the story from time to time at family dinners to my chagrin. However she likes to believe it was the Travelli brothers that corrupted us, making us vandals, and I may have helped her in that belief. Jamie Travelli was in second grade with my brother Billy while Johnny at ten was a year younger than me. Colin, my youngest brother, was an accomplice at only four years old. Their parents spoiled them rotten with video games and toys, so Billly especially liked to play at their house. And we appreciated that their cabinets were full of food and the best junk food and bags of candy. My mother’s trepidation for our visits at the Travelli's was not unfounded. Their father drank early in the afternoon and smoked in the house. At times, he'd yell at the boys or Mrs. Travelli or on the phone in his office at home and we wondered what he did for a living - to be home so often and so early - especially since he drove a new black Cadillac while Mrs. Travelli looked beautiful in her silver Mercedes convertible. She was much younger than him and a relatively younger mom who let her boys run wild (but I don't think she had a choice). She was kind yet always seemed sad.
One day for a change, we invited the Travelli boys over to play. We may or may not have asked my parents for permission, but regardless, Mrs. Travelli dropped Johnny and Jamie off at our house and flew down our drive without even a conversation with our parents. Just a wave over her shoulder, with the top down in the Mercedes, and a “See you later!”
Johnny had dark brown wavy hair while young Jamie had blond ringlets of hair and a particularly devilish smile that contrasted with his cherubic face. Without video games to play with inside, we headed out to the backyard to the fort that we had started with previously stolen wood from the abandoned house beyond the lot of land for sale.
The old house’s lawn was as high as my hips and the hedges shielded the windows growing as tall as the first floor. Its paint peeled and flaked and green weeds grew from the gutters like window boxes. We assumed no one cared and no one would miss some wood and tools left behind. Finders keepers - and it was ours for the taking.
After roaming the house with Johnny and Jamie, the five of us filled our arms with supplies. Even four year old Colin was loaded up with stolen goods. Outside the house, Johnny said we should steal the old pickup truck to haul our loot to the fort. While stealing wood was one thing, stealing a car made my stomach turn. Despite the fantasy of the house being abandoned, I knew right from wrong, and even guessed that the house was being slowly renovated. It had to belong to someone, but I managed to rationalize the wood as being so plentiful, no one would miss it, and we would return the tools when done. The car on the other hand...
“Let’s leave the car alone. Besides, it has a flat tire,” I said.
“So what?” said Johnny.
“So what?” chirped Jamie.
“We are just going to drive it to the fort.”
All eyes were on me as the oldest. Billy wanted to do whatever Jamie did. And Johnny was eager to checkout the old truck.
“Let’s take a look. I bet it’s locked,” I said.
We lugged our stuff to the truck. I tried the passenger door first.
“Locked,” I said with feigned disappointment.
Johnny ran around to the other side. It too was locked.
“Let’s go.” I was eager to get back to our fort like bank robbers that were wasting time in the vault.
Then eight year old Jamie hopped into the flat bed. With a primal war cry, he raised the two-by-four like a batter and smashed the sliding rear window of the truck’s cab. Billy looked to me. Our jaws dropped.
“Uh-oh!” said Colin. A line had been crossed, one acknowledge by even a four year old.
Within a minute, Jamie released the rear window’s lock and weaseled his narrow shoulders and lean frame through the now open window. He popped the locks to the doors which Johnny and I opened. We searched for a spare key in the obvious places - the visor, the glove box, and under the floor mat. Johnny and I discussed hotwiring the car like they did on TV shows like the A-Team. We tried to pull out the radio, thinking we could sell it, like crooks at a pawn shop, but we lived nowhere near a city nor a pawn shop. After our failed attempts, we decided it was best to wipe it down for fingerprints or burn the evidence. I argued against burning it, for fear of starting a fire that would attract attention. So I hastily wiped it down with visions of cop shows dancing in my head.
“Let’s smash it,” screamed Jamie. The line had already been crossed. He sensed my hesitation. Part of me wanted to demo the car. Jamie jumped onto the roof of the truck’s cab with two-by-four in hand. Like a samurai, he raised it over his head and smashed the front windshield. He laughed and laughed. Jason picked up another two-by-four and swung for the fences, taking out the front headlights. Jamie’s laughing made Billy laugh and Colin started clapping. Johnny ran around to the back where I was standing.
“Stop!” I yelled. I ripped the wood beam from his grasp.
“Stop!” I yelled. I ripped the wood beam from his grasp.
“My turn.” Everyone cheered as I teed off on the tail lights. And I admit it was gratifying while my heart was pounding.
“We gotta go,” I said. Fear gripped me as I came back to reality.
“No!” said Johnny. “We are just starting to have fun.”
Billy wanted a turn and I pushed him away, not letting him have the two-by-four. He begged for a wack since everyone else had a chance.
I looked up to see that Jamie was now on the hood of the car. He had opened a gallon of paint that we had taken from the house and proceeded to pour it over the roof of the cab and the broken windshield. All the while he and his brother laughed hysterically. Billy and I stopped wrestling over the two-by-four. Again, our jaws dropped.
Fast-forward seven months later, a week before Easter, a man pulled up the driveway in a pickup truck. It was Saturday, late morning. My dad was on the tractor mowing the lawn. My mom answered the door. I tiptoed towards the door to overhear the conversation. The man explained that he had bought the old house behind ours - the abandoned house. He had been away, selling his old house. He came back to find tools and supplies stolen and his car trashed.
“Oh, no!” said my mom.
“Have you happened to see or hear anything?” he asked.
“No. But I’ll ask my boys if they have.” I tipped toed back to the family room couch as fast as I could. I pretended to read a magazine as my mom entered.
“Liam, know anything about the old Campbell house?”
“The old house in the back.”
“Apparently, it was broken into and there was some vandalism.”
“Really?” I looked up with surprise.
“Yeah. Don’t you go back there.”
“Ok. We haven’t.”
My mom walked back to the door and I was tempted to tiptoe back to the door. After a few minutes, the door closed and a moment later. He rolled by in his car. I peeked over the back of the couch that sat in the bay window just ten yards from the driveway. For a moment, our eyes connected. A flash of recognition in his eyes and I knew I had become suspect number one.
Later that evening in the middle of dinner, there was another knock at the door. My dad answered the door as the three of us sat uneasily at the dinner table. My mom eyed us with growing suspicion as we averted our eyes from hers. Billy and Colin looked to me. And without saying a word, we all knew we were in trouble.
“Liam, is there something you want to tell us about the old Campbell house out back?”
I hesitated as tears swelled in my eyes.
“Liam, come here!” my dad yelled from across the house.
Floodgates as I burst into heaving sobs at the table. “Alright we did it! We did it! But we weren’t alone. The Travelli’s trashed the car.” I threw the Travelli boys under the bus as fast as possible, hoping to save us from the infamous wooden spoon spanking... or worse.
“Liam, come here and speak to this gentleman.” My dad’s strained attempt at an even tone scared me. I could tell as soon as the man left that I was in for it.
The man explained how he had taken a walk and discovered our two story fort made of his wood and housing his tools. I confessed to taking the wood with the lame excuse that we thought the house was abandoned since we never saw anyone living there. I explained how the Travelli boys were wild and things got out of control with the truck and I apologized. We stood in silence for an awkward minute. Again, I said I am sorry and didn’t know what else to say. I was actually relieved that the man seemed surprisingly sympathetic.
My dad sent me to my room and they talked for a while longer. This was going to cost my dad - certainly more than my paltry savings account. I feared what was to happen to us. I was afraid my dad might beat us as soon as the man left - he had never hit us in our lives. In stoic fashion, my dad ignored us the rest of that night. In a way the silent treatment inflicted its own punishment: the fear of the unknown future that was to come.
Without any arguing, we went to church early the following Sunday morning. My father made us to go to confession after the service, something out of character for him, since he rarely went to mass and when he did, he never even had communion. We confessed to the priest and he gave us our penance. I left the church thinking that we had gotten off easy with a bunch of prayers.
Instead of turning left at the bottom of the hill, we turned right towards town.
“Ted, where are we going?” asked my mom.
“I am taking our delinquent sons to jail.”
“Ted…” my mom pleaded.
“Better to learn their lesson now rather than later.”
Billy started crying. I was in disbelief. We were going to jail. Billly's crying was contagious, spreading to young Colin and me.
We sat in Chief Hughes’s office while my dad explained our crimes. My dad asked that we think about what we did in the holding cell. Chief Hughes explained that we were lucky that the man was not pressing charges; we had done enough damage to the truck that it could be considered a felony. So, at the age of eleven, seven, and four, the Sullivan Brothers like hardcore felons served time in Gates Mills jail - for about twenty minutes - but it seemed like a life sentence.