When I was a small child, the mention of Billy the Kid caused my playmates and I to become excited, and we would pretend to shoot at one another. Often there would be a long drawn out shooting contest with one or more of us falling down to the ground pretending to be dead.
I recently viewed a PBS documentary on Billy the Kid. The story of Billy’s life caused me to think about young people who are serving time for homicide. A young man that I know falls in this category, and it seems very odd to me. I would see this young man occasionally, sometimes as he was coming from church services or going to the playground for basketball. He always seemed to have a smile, and he was very courteous to me. When I heard on the television newscast that he was a suspect in a homicide I could hardly believe it, and I hoped that facts would prove him innocent. That didn’t happen, and it saddened me. I thought about his family and I thought about the family of the person who was killed. I felt certain that both families were grieving. One family lost a son as a homicide victim, and one family lost a son to a life of incarceration. At our office we’ve had the experience of helping with burials for some of the families of homicide victims. The grief from the circumstances rests heavily on our investigators’ hearts.
When we played “Billy the Kid” as children we knew it was an unreal playful situation. After someone was “shot” they would get back up and continue on with life. Now it seems as though many young people are living a life similar to that of Billy the Kid. There is such easy access to guns that children appear to be playing “Billy the Kid” using real guns. Too often those who are shot don’t get back up and continue on. The young don’t understand the gravity of the situation they are in until they have no hope of changing it.
Let me share some information from Wikipedia about Billy the Kid. He lived during the 1800s. Billy’s mother reportedly washed clothes, baked pies and took in boarders to provide for her family. Billy’s stepfather worked as a bartender and carpenter, and then became involved in prospecting and gambling and spent little time with the family. At age 14, after his mother died, Billy was taken in by a neighboring family who operated a hotel. He worked there to pay for his keep. The manager described Billy as the only young man who ever worked for him who did not steal anything. One of Billy’s school teachers recalled that Billy was no more of a problem than any other boy, and he was always willing to help with chores around the schoolhouse. Billy has been described by friends and acquaintances as fun-loving and jolly, articulate in both his writing and his speech, and loyal. He was described as a neat dresser. Some say that Billy’s descent into lawlessness was due to his habit of reading novels that romanticized crime. Today we have that problem with movies, music and gang members romanticizing crime. Another explanation was that Billy’s slender physique placed him in unsafe situations with bigger and stronger boys. Today both children and adults struggle to find ways of safely dealing with bullies. Even though it seems as though Billy’s upbringing wasn’t tremendously worse than others of his time, he is recognized as both a notorious outlaw and a folk hero. It is generally believed that Billy killed his first person before he was 18 years old.
When we think about the shootings that have happened in Fort Wayne recently, some view the offenders as monsters who have no feelings. Some offenders, like Billy the Kid, were viewed as normal and pleasant people, but somehow they became involved in a life of crime. It is imperative that we explain to our young that “playing” with guns has lifetime ramifications which often can’t be modified. We must explain that there is nothing “romantic” about crime, and notorious people like Billy the Kid should not be glamorized to the point that their behavior seems acceptable.
Richard A. Stevenson, Sr.
Wayne Township Trustee