It's been 28 years since Regina Ammerata, our class advisor and my junior year Algebra I teacher, handed me my diploma to confirm I was officially a high school graduate. OK, she really didn't give me my diploma. That was handed to me up in the cafetorium once I turned back in my cap and gown.
Still, it was a momentous occasion to say the least. But I can admit something today that I couldn't do 28 years ago. By the time I got to my junior year, I actually liked school. The first two years -- which I'm told are usually the two hardest years of high school -- were as painful as a trip to the dentist office for a routine root canal. Being picked on as a freshman by loser sophomore burnouts who don't really have much to offer in life and probably won't when time will tell unless they figure that being a bully isn't the way to go was not the bestest of times for me. I hated school.
But what got me through those first two years of high school were three friends that I will forever be grateful to have -- even if sadly one of them is no longer among us and hasn't been for nearly 20 years.
When I was a freshman, it was hit or miss as to who you were going to have around you at lunchtime, simply because you had no clue. It wasn't as if I had anyone freely to pass along the information to. I kept to myself for the most part. Unless it was people from the neighborhood I grew up in, I had no idea who some of these people were.
However, there was one person that I knew because he was in my eighth-grade class at Toms River Intermediate School East. His name was Chris Amoruso. Amo, as I called him, was friendly enough to feel safe around and outlandishly wild enough to squirm around, too. God knows what he might say or do to cause some kind of embarassment at any time or any place. That was Amo, and I accepted him for who he was. I always thought he was the second coming of John Belushi with the things he said and his actions. If our high school class had a superlative category of "Most Likely to Turn Out Like Senator John Blutarsky," it'd have been Amo.
Amo, to me, was the friendly face in a sea of faces that I had no familiarity with in seventh-period lunch.
Yet, there he was along with a friend he grew up on the island with across the Barnegat Bay. His name was Scott Abbott. Scott was one of the smartest people around. And it was amazing how the three of us hit it off as if we were all from the same neighborhood. I still remember a cold February 1981 day in which Amo invited me to come to Scott's place to play cards. We spent the whole afternoon just doing so, my mom dropping me off in the morning on a day off from school and her picking me up late in the afternoon. I felt safe among the two of them, but so isolated since they were on that side of the bay and I was on the other side of the Mathis-Tunney Bridge.
By luck come sophomore year, the three of us were put together again in the same lunch period. Someone must have been watching. But early in that sophomore year, Chris had brought a friend along who was shy and well, I wasn't sure if he was going to break up what Chris, Scott and I had as friends. He was pretty conservative, but Amo introduced us to the new guy. His name was Tom.
Tom seemed kinda shy at first, probably the feeling-out part considering he knew Chris and I think he kind of sorta knew Scott. He didn't know me. I was that guy that Chris could make fun of and knew I was not threatening in any way and I came in peace. By the time Tom -- it took me about a month or so to find out his last name was Yanna-something, I couldn't even tell you what I thought it might've been in November 1981 -- got comfortable around the three of us, we all saw a transformation that I didn't quite see coming.
If anyone did, they were just flat-out lying.
Tom, we come to find out, was a big fan of this British music act that I had heard of called Adam & The Ants. I knew "Dog Eat Dog" and "Antmusic" and "Stand And Deliver" when I was a freshman. I went to Listening Booth and Camelot Records in the Ocean County Mall a lot. He was living out being Adam Ant or one of the Ants or some facsimile of them. He got all punked out, which worried me a little. You don't go from conservative looking to a punked-out Adam & The Ants Meets The Clash Meets Madness look that easily.
But that, I still to this day believe, was the power of Chris' aura. It worked well for Tom. It wouldn't have worked well for Scott and it sure as hell wasn't going to look good for meeeeee. That's what Amo's personality was all about. The three of us just stood back and let Tom be this non-threatening individual and we actually enjoyed it.
I also had Chris in Rick Dispoto's geometry class that sophomore year. And the year before that, I had him in Warren Reid's physical education class. And in the latter class, there were three burnouts, two who were in that class taking it again. And one was a neighborhood kid who acted as if he was the bully of it. His role was to agitate me. It was easy considering his two burnout-bully friends were sitting around both Amo and I. Even though my name comes after Amo's in alphabetical order, I always got to sit in front of him in those two classes. One time, the said "bully" came in and whipped his burnout jacket right into my chest. I stopped for the moment as I looked at Chris and he looked back as in to say, "What the f**k, man?!"
But the looks we gave to one another were code ... as in "I got your back" and "Yeah, I know. Thanks." Chris had a way to pick his moments and nail the "bad guys" when they least expected it. He didn't nail the main agitator, but during a wrestling drill in Mr. Reid's class (Mr. Reid was the wrestling coach), we had one of those quick drills where you were matched up against someone who was opposite you on the wrestling mat. When Chris came out to the mat, one of the burnouts was his opponent.
No chance for the poor guy -- Amo took him down and wrapped him up like a pretzel. And when the other burnout conspirator/co-hort was in Amo's way the second time around doing those quick wrestling drills, he had him down quickly and wrapped up like a pretzel, too.
Needless to say within time, none of those guys were bothering me anymore.
That was Amo.
Amo and I had a blast in geometry ... not really by learning anything, but by watching Dispoto flirt with two of the girls in the class, so much so that he put their desks up practically near his desk, one of those girls being my neighbor. That was always worth talking about at lunch. Being a partial southpaw, I told Amo I heard a statistic once that left-handed people have an 80 percent chance of being less sick than right-handed people, in which Amo responded in the only way he could respond -- he breathed on me and coughed afterward.
Yeah, that was Amo.
Amazingly again in our junior years, the four of us were put together in the same lunch period. Of course, I always worried at the start of each of those years that if I saw one of those guys, they'd be sick and tired of seeing me. But that wasn't the case.
By junior year, Scott was still Scott -- witty, sarcastic and finding the right things to say at the right moment. Amo was still Amo ... and heck, I didn't ever want him to change. And Tom was becoming the individualist that most people may have bristled at. But he had the three of us -- and we were pretty darned acceptable to anything Tom wore to school, from the thin punked-out jackets to the red Converses on his feet. If Tom wanted to come to school dressed in a gorilla suit, we would've had a great laugh about it and still carried on the same conversation, though I will admit it might have been hard to hear him through the suit.
Unfortunately, by senior year, we were broken up as a quartet and put in different lunch periods. And it was hard for me to find someone who could fill in those six shoes. Admittedly, I struggled my senior year with lunch, mostly because anyone I knew who was a fellow senior was blowing the popsicle joint known as our cafetorium and going to Driftwood Deli for lunch. No one was asking me if I was interested in joining along and it bothered me a little.
After all this time, I still felt like an outsider ... except to the other three guys who got broken up away from me those last nine months of my high school life. I ate a lot of lunches alone and in silence my senior year among underclassmen that I barely knew. If not for John Morgan, a junior who was playing music at lunchtime upstairs, senior year lunch just may have been the crappiest time of my life. Good thing we both had a love for music, though I still believe to this day I must have been agitating the hell out of him.
Still, school was a lot better place to be my last two years. I missed only one day of school my junior year and four total my senior year. Junior year was the best year -- because of my three amigos who allowed someone who wasn't from across the bay to be part of their group.
On Sunday, January 22, 1984, I came to find out that the night before, Chris had gone to a school dance and was seriously injured in a car accident. I went to see him a couple of days later on a miserably rainy and cold January 24 at Community Memorial Hospital, and he looked the role of someone who was hit in an automobile accident on Fischer Boulevard. He was hurting, but he was in good spirits. He was able to joke about things during my 90-minute visit with him. Other than the aches he was suffering and the scratches on his face that made him look like a road map, he was fine. And I felt better for visiting him. He was soon out of the hospital and back at school the next week.
And so it was that Friday, June 15, 1984, I said goodbye to my three friends as I got my diploma and moved on to my next life. Tom moved on to go to the Army and I didn't see him again. Scott moved on to college and I never saw him again.
A year later in the summer of 1985, I'm at the Seaside Heights boardwalk with my friend Joe and we both see Amo. He was working at one of the game stands that summer, maybe moving around to different ones. I never really knew, though. He happened to have the "frog game" this particular night where you take the rubber mallet that is given to you and hit a metal pad and if the frog lands on another pad, you get a prize. My uncoordinated buddy decided to try it and wouldn't you know it -- he got the darned frog on the pad!! Since Amo knew Joe as well as he knew me, he announced, "This lucky bastard just won a prize," and handed him some stuffed animal.
Joe and I left Amo that night figuring we'd see him again sometime that summer. However, we never got back there and all of us had gone about our lives in different directions.
It's Wednesday, March 24, 1993. I was coming back from a high school boys and girls All-Star basketball doubleheader at Ocean Township High School that night. I turned on WOBM-FM to find out what's going on in the news world. The lead story was of a robbery and shooting that evening at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Lakewood. Well, robberies and shootings are going to get my attention immediately.
But then they named the manager of the store who died at the scene when after opening up the safe for the robber was shot in the back of the head -- it was Christopher Amoruso, 26. The age gave it away, especially knowing his birthday was July 14.
It was as if my world had just come to a skidding halt. By the time I reached the office, I couldn't go in immediately. For the next 10 minutes, I sat in my car and balled my eyes out. You reach as far as you can, wondering "Why? Why did this happen and happen to him?" The murder, come to find out, was an inside job since it came from someone who worked at that KFC and knew the store's makeup. And the murderer was not only found guilty in his trial, but sentenced to life in prison for his cold-blooded act of cowardly disgrace, especially against someone who detested violence so much.
It still, though, wasn't going to bring Amo back. I came to find out from the story in the Observer the next day after the murder that Chris was engaged to be married and he was working his way up through culinary school. His whole future was pretty much laid out in front of him. And one senseless act of violence ended that.
The viewing and funeral was four days later on that Sunday at the funeral home on the Manchester-Toms River border. Another grey, cloudy, yucky, awful day, just like the one that January Tuesday nine years earlier when my friend George and I went to Community to visit Amo. I'd been to services before for my grandfather and my friend Ted's father. That was two funerals in 12 days. They were pretty bad.
But they were older. They weren't a peer of mine. This was someone you joked with for four or five years of your life. This was someone who had your back when you didn't want to fight because you didn't want to. My mom went with me to the funeral home. I saw Chris' mom and his brother, Louie, a state trooper who had the unenviable task of carrying the casket along with other co-worker and friends, including a policeman named John Vierbuchen, who Amo and I graduated with at East. This wasn't where I wanted to see John again after about six or seven years.
And with the open casket, it just hit me. It took me a long time to move away from his casket as I looked down on it. I started thinking about the good times in eighth grade and again in high school. Then I started feeling horrible that I could not keep up with Chris for the next seven and a half years after I saw him last.
The things we always want to say to the people we care about -- the people we love -- we never truly get to say. It took me every ounce of my soul to keep from breaking down right there. I told him I loved him and finally was able to walk away.
The service was hard. I think it took me a few days to get beyond it. Then again, you never truly get beyond a service for a friend.
There are days I think about Amo. Three in particular -- our 10th reunion in 1994, our 20th reunion in 2004 and most recently, our 25th reunion on Friday, August 21, 2009. There is no doubt in my mind that Amo would have stolen the show at each of those reunions one way or another.
I am glad to have Tom Yannacone -- yeah, that Yanna-something individualistic guy I really didn't know his last name when I first met him -- in my life again as a friend that I enjoy talking with from time to time. Voted by his peers as top male individualist of our class (Scott, Amo and I would like to think we had something to do with just letting Tom be himself), Tom's got three kids of his own now, one heading off to military duty shortly just like he did, and is a Seaside Heights cop nearing the end of a long career there. Heck, he even gets to protect the "Jersey Shore" cast and once in a while gets to be in pictures as an escorting cop to one of the cast member's court appearances. That lucky bastard!
As for Scott, I never saw him again, but I am sure that he is doing quite well with whatever it is he is doing. Tom, from time to time, tells me where Scott is, but I always manage to forget after he tells me! I'm sorry for being a bad friend, Scott.
And when I get into Toms River, it's my friends and fellow TRHSE '84 classmates Bobby G. and Double-V that take the place of Amo and Scott when we hang out at some restaurant with Tom and myself.
I wish Amo were still here among us. I won't lie. The pictures I see of him and Tom together dressed up as the Blues Brothers or at graduation are still painful. But to me, lunches or dinners with Bob, Vinny and Tom are therapeutic.I know Tom is there and in some ways, it's still some of the same conversations, just nearly 30 years later ... I can still get him going with some Adam & The Ants' song.
I know Amo is there in spirit when the four of us start BS'ing about anything and everything. I'm pretty sure he'd be happy for how Tom and I turned out, as well as Scott. Same for Bobby G. and Double-V.
Somewhere up above, Amo is smiling.
And I'm pretty sure he's still watching my back, too.