In this sea of uncertainty, Lorraine came to rely heavily on DJ. Even as a young boy, he had shown himself to be cool in a crisis. When he was eight years old, he appeared at their Oklahoma door carrying his bloodied five-year-old brother, David. DJ was holding a towel down on his brother's forehead and squeezing his hand tightly. Lorraine shrieked. "Oh my God! What happened?"
But DJ's first words to his mother were reassuring. "Don't be scared, Mom. He's gonna be okay."
A neighborhood punk had thrown a piece of pipe at DJ's brother, producing an enormous gash in his head. DJ had carried David several blocks home, like a firefighter calmly removing a child from a house in flames. "From that day on," Lorraine would later say, "DJ was like a father, constantly protecting his brother--and me."
When Lorraine finally tried to steel herself to leave her husband, DJ was the one she confided in. "Don't be scared, Mom," he told her. "You're tough. We can make it together." She drew strength from those words, even though they came from the mouth of a twelve-year-old boy.
After bouncing around for a few years, Lorraine and her sons landed back in the Boston area in 1984, on DJ's fifteenth birthday. They arrived in Newton, a small city bordering Boston, and settled into a gloomy, almost petrified house with plastic-encased sofas. It was owned by an invalid woman whom Lorraine would care for in exchange for housing. Newton was an affluent, education-obsessed city, so the transition was not easy for DJ, a high school freshman with a spotty transcript. Kids made fun of his cowboy boots and curious southern accent. They called him a redneck, a dagger of an insult if there ever was one in such a brainy town. When he visited classmates' homes, he found a degree of wealth that would have been inconceivable in the sticks of Tennessee and Oklahoma. It made him only more embarrassed about his borrowed space in an old lady's dusty house.
By his sophomore year, his family had moved to the neighboring city of Waltham, whose complexion turned quickly from gritty industry and tired triple-deckers to sleek high-tech offices and green suburbia. When he attended his first teen house party, he found himself being stared down by one of the toughest kids in school, a beefy pot dealer. DJ was tall but at that point very thin, so everyone expected him to get pummeled. Yet all those years moving around and constantly having to defend himself had turned him into an agile fighter. He ended up throwing the pot dealer through a window. After that, no one made fun of DJ's accent anymore.
Before long he was getting into so many fistfights that his guidance counselor called him into his office and asked, "Is everything all right at home?" He figured DJ's string of black eyes and busted lips were signs of abuse, not the emblems of his new identity as someone who was both cool and fearless.
The next year he transferred to the city's vocational high school, where he discovered a talent for welding. Before long, he picked up a part-time job with a local welder. After graduating from high school, his mother helped him buy a brand-new black Firebird Formula 350. He treasured that car, keeping it immaculate. He cruised the downtown strip with pride, as though his Firebird were announcing to the world the arrival of the kid who had always been ashamed of how little he had.
A life of the party who seemed just dangerous enough to be attractive, DJ had become a guy that girls wanted a piece of and other guys wanted to be around. He cemented his appeal by adding muscle to his build through weight lifting. After a lonely and turbulent childhood, he savored the newfound attention. He moved quickly and partied vigorously, making up for lost time.
Still, for all the fun he was having, DJ realized that on some level he was lost. He had struggled just to get through high school, so college didn't seem viable. He worked several blue-collar jobs but couldn't glimpse much of a future. When a relative offered him the chance to work with him doing commercial construction in Syracuse, New York, DJ said yes.
Excerpted from Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey. Copyright © 2014 by Neil Swidey. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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