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Commentary: Here’s to Joe Bell, ‘the 92-Year-Old Kid’

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Erik Patterson (boy in No. 51 jersey) is coached by his stepdad Joe Bell about 26 years ago. Bell, a longtime Daily Pilot columnist, died in November.
(Courtesy Sherry Angel)

My stepdad, Joseph N. Bell, was buried Dec. 11 in his hometown, Decatur, Ind., alongside family members dating back to the Civil War. The cemetery was covered in a beautiful layer of white snow and the sun came out as our group of nine sat under a tent in 20-degree weather.

The graveside ceremony included a soldier playing “Taps” and a young funeral home director with an amazing voice singing “Amazing Grace.” Then, as Joe had requested, we formed a circle, held hands and sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Before we went to the cemetery, we spent an hour listening to and singing some of Joe’s favorite songs and sharing stories and reflections about a man who touched our lives in many different ways over many years.

This is what I read at the service:

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When I was 11, Joe would refer to me as “the 11-Year-Old Kid” in his household in his weekly column in the Los Angeles Times. I loved it. I felt famous. I wanted to be the 11-Year-Old Kid forever.

Then when I turned 12, there was some debate because I’d become a character in his column by then, and that character was named the 11-Year-Old Kid. It was part of my branding. So we talked about it and we decided that he would continue calling me the 11-Year-Old Kid, which a few of his readers noticed. He got several letters asking how long the 11-Year-Old Kid was going to be 11.

By the time I was 13 and still being called the 11-Year-Old Kid, it had gotten to be a bit of a scandal. People were upset. They thought Joe was being disrespectful. One woman wrote a letter to The Times, saying: “Your reference to the ’11-Year-Old Kid’ when writing about the child in your household I feel denotes a lack of respect for the younger generation. How can we expect children to feel (and show) respect for the older generation when we do not show the same for them? Psychological ‘abuse’ can be subtle, but it is always perceived by the child.”

I’m sure she meant well, but this reader could not have been more off the mark. As Joe explained in a column published in The Times on Dec. 28, 1989, “A lot of people — both editors and readers — continue to feel that I am somehow demeaning my stepson by referring to him as the 11-Year-Old Kid. What I can’t seem to get across is that this is not a generic statement about the dignity of youth. It is quite simply a rather accurate expression of the relationship between two people: my stepson and me. He thinks it’s funny. So do I. It also catches the flavor of the way we deal with one another.”

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Joe viewed my desire to remain the 11-Year-Old Kid as an unwillingness to grow up on my part and an attempt to shirk adult responsibilities. He was right.

He knew what he was talking about because he kind of refused to grow up too. He would much rather play a game of H-O-R-S-E at the neighbor’s basketball hoop than be in charge of the neighborhood carpool, or make some 11-Year-Old Kid’s lunch, or be in charge of a kid after school.

But he had to do all of those things because when he married my mom, he got stuck with me too. It was like entering this second phase of adulthood when all he really wanted to be was a 92-Year-Old Kid. I know he wasn’t 92 back then, but, with his white hair and World War II stories, he seemed really old to me, so I’m just going to stick to calling him the 92-Year-Old Kid. It can be part of his branding.

As a 92-Year-Old Kid who was also trying to be a 92-Year-Old Parent, he tried really hard to get me to like the things he liked. Things like Booth Tarkington’s “Penrod” (oh God, he was always trying to get me to read “Penrod,” a horrible book — I’ve never made it past the first chapter), the Marx Brothers (I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get into them) and basketball. He coached my basketball team at the Boys and Girls Club of the Harbor Area, and I scored two whole baskets during the season. Both of them for the other team. (Who knew you switch sides every quarter? Don’t you think that’s something a coach is supposed to tell his players? Though, admittedly, he probably told us and I was too busy not listening.)

But through the years, he started letting me be the weird random kid I was and stopped pushing me to like his kid things. And I ended up liking the one thing he didn’t try to get me to do. Which was writing.

Every day when I would come home from school, I would find Joe at his desk, writing. He was constantly doing it. And I guess it rubbed off.

So, thank you, Kid. And I’m sorry the sports stuff and “Penrod” didn’t take. But I’m grateful for the thing that did. Here’s to the 92-Year-Old Kid.

ERIK PATTERSON is a screenwriter and playwright who lives in Los Angeles. JOSEPH N. BELL, who spent the last 10 years of his career writing a weekly column for the Daily Pilot called “The Bell Curve,” died at 92 on Nov. 28 at his home in Newport Beach. A memorial service is being planned. For information, contact sa@sherryangel.com.

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