JOE SILVA WAS the kind of little brother you never wanted around or following you, but he did.
He was my childhood best friend Johnny Silva’s little brother, and in an especially important way he was mine as well.
Joe Silva, who died Monday in Nashville at the age of 65, was our conscience. He was everything good and pure and honest. When you’re a little kid, the last thing you want around you is a good-two-shoes, which thank God he was.
He also saved our lives.
In the fourth grade, Johnny and I had started smoking, secretly, of course, snatching my father’s Camels and lighting them up every afternoon on our way home from school.
Johnny and I lived a block apart and always walked home together along a creek that took us past a golf course, under a bridge on Garden Drive, and through a cemetery with overgrown weeds and vegetation where hobos sometimes camped out, eating wild blackberries growing in the brush and catching crawfish in the waterbed.
We lived in the sticks of South Waco in a dusty neighborhood called Oakwood Addition lined with gravel streets where we were all poor white trash, as a white friend who later became a banker still says of us — to which I’ve always said to him:
“You may be white trash, but I’m a golden palomino.”
So, too, were Johnny and Joe, and we were among a handful of Hispanic kids in what was otherwise a poor, white working class community in the heart of America’s Bible Belt in the 1950s.
One afternoon, walking home along the creek, Johnny and I lit up our Camels and thought more of how we were going to try blowing smoke rings than the care we took in discarding the matches we’d just used.
As we trudged along next to the creek bank, indulging ourselves with our cigarettes, a couple of hobos ran past us, which we thought was strange, though not as odd as seeing Joe running madly toward us with a terrified look on his little face, screaming at the top of his voice.
Joe was in the second grade, and we could barely make out what he was yelling until he was almost upon us.
“Fire! Fire! There’s a fire behind you!” he screamed, pointing toward something behind us.
We turned around and immediately froze in our own horror.
A sea of flames had engulfed the entire cemetery as dried weeds and brush fueled the blaze that was racing toward us and was now perhaps no more than 10 feet away, close enough that we could smell it and hear its crackling.
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Joe screamed with a child’s urgency.
He grabbed our hands, and we ran what must have been the length of a football field under a blistering Texas sun, seemingly hotter because of the fire that roared and burned a cloud of black smoke behind us.
Outside the cemetery field, a fire engine with its wailing siren alerting its arrival turned into the trail next to the creek as a second truck appeared as well.
It was the most frightened I had felt in my young life, and all I could think of was that Johnny and I had almost died and that we were now in a heap of trouble.
I swore off cigarettes. I said Hail Marys. I wanted to turn the clock back.
That night my parents got a phone call from Mrs. Silva, who was also the den mother of my Cub Scouts group, but she wasn’t calling about scouting. She came over to our house, and I immediately apologized to her.
“It was my fault,” I said. “Don’t blame Johnny.”
“Really?” she asked. “Because Johnny says he’s the one responsible.”
“Will I go to jail?” I asked her.
She looked at me, and her tears made me feel worse.
“Should you go to jail?” Her question just hung there and would haunt me for a long time.
Mrs. Silva pulled me close to her and gave me a hug I desperately needed.
The next day our two families were at the Waco Police Department where our parents turned us in and promised to pay for the damage.
We were lucky. Lucky, that is, except that neither Johnny nor I could sit for a couple of days without our butts not hurting from the belt spankings each of us got from our fathers.
But our parents didn’t have to pay for the damage. The manager of Restland Cemetery said that the blaze cleared out the unwanted forest that had swarmed over the graveyard for several years, making it an eyesore that families hadn’t wanted to visit.
“We did ‘em a favor,” Johnny later bragged to some of our friends. “It was like we were heroes.”
We weren’t, of course, except for Joe.
Joe was his brothers’ keeper.