awesome story LRHG. Thanks for sharing. It's amazing how our lives and personalitites are shaped due to the events that occur throughout.
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Okay, another close encounter. This is not a funny one, but this is for real. Actually, it should be a barely close encounter, but hey, close is close.
WARNING: May induce tears. Please keep tissue handy.
While growing up in the land of Memphis, I had a neighbor I’ll call Johnny. Johnny was a particularly irritating little boy who was always picking fights and getting into trouble. He could beat up on kids twice his size and he loved whipping out his short arm to wave at passing girls. Of course, Johnny was only five at the time.
Besides gathering for afternoon viewings of The Big Valley, immediately after school and just before homework, one of the things a group of us kids would do was watch the Jerry Lewis telethon. This marked the end of summer and was our last hurrah before trudging off to school and bending to the will of penguin education.
We would often gather at different homes to view the telethon. It was our opportunity to see just about every celebrity under the sun. However, during these years, I don’t recall seeing Lee. It seems as though most of the entertainers were singers, comedians or someone who was some sort of stage performer other than actors. If there were actors present, they were usually narrating or presenting something. Lee may have done this but I honestly don’t recall.
I do, however, recall that little Johnny and his sister, who was my age, never joined our roving party. We would meet at a friend’s house and watch for a couple of hours. Then we would all go home and refresh ourselves, usually for me, in the form of chores I was mandated to complete before watching any more television. After a brief hiatus, we would meet again at the next designated house and so on.
Now Johnny’s sister often wanted to join and I recall her begging her mother on more than one occasion to play host to the roving band of adolescent viewers. Johnny’s parents would scoff at the very idea. They never gave to charity because they had enough troubles of their own. Besides, Mrs. Carter would say, nobody’s helping us, why should I spend my hard earned money on someone else?
My parents, who contributed to their own designated charities, rarely gave to this one either. However, it was tradition that the parents at each hosting home would call in a donation, much to the delight of the children gathered there. I was never more proud when my dad would call in, albeit grudgingly, his $20. In addition, nothing was more fortunate than to be playing the host when the national broadcast was interrupted by the local affiliate to announce that Elvis had just donated $500,000. This seemed to be his standard donation. Hmm, perhaps I should be writing Elvis close encounters?
And so it went, that for several years we honored our pre school return tradition. I often felt sorry for Rose and Johnny but then they were fast becoming products of their rather insensitive parents. I didn’t feel sorry for long.
After the telethon, we would return to our afternoon ritual of Big Valley. Now this, we sometimes viewed at Johnny’s home. Johnny’s favorite character was the loud hip-swinging brother to Heath. What’s his name? Nick I think. Us girls figured this was typical. The mean little fist swinging Johnny would naturally be inclined toward the most obnoxious character on the show. We, of course, were all Heath fans. If Johnny were a little older, he probably would have spent his time drooling over Audra. As it were, he would simply wave his best friend at her every time his mother left the room. As a result, we didn’t watch the show at his home very often.
One day us kids noticed that the tough little Johnny was suddenly not so tough. He was as mean as ever, but he seemed to be losing his fight. Johnny began walking on his toes and his gait became unsteady. When he took a swing at other boys, he would fall. He had been so mean for so long that the other boys, though most of them bigger, circled in on Johnny like a pack of wolves. They began taking pot shots at him every chance they got. Often they would laugh and chant the old advertisement, weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.
Unfortunately, Johnny would always fall but thankfully, this game didn’t last for long. Johnny’s dad feared that his tough little protégé was becoming a sissy, so he demanded that his wife take him to the doctor. You may have guessed that these weren’t the most attentive parents. What they learned was, Johnny had developed muscular dystrophy
This was one time it didn’t take a nun’s lecture on kindness towards others for all of us neighborhood kids to have serious pangs of guilt. Over night, Johnny went from being the neighborhood punching bag and misfit to being the neighborhood mascot. Even my dad gave willingly to the MDA every year. However, now, it was no longer a show for the neighborhood kids and it was a good deal more than $20 and always made in Johnny’s name. We stopped gathering for our annual viewing social and most of us stopped watching all together. Somehow, it just wasn’t fun anymore.
Johnny was not expected to live into his teens, but in his fifteenth and final year, he got to be the poster child for the Memphis chapter of the MDA. Johnny was at the local television station for a good part of the day. Every time they would cut from the national program to the local affiliate, there he was. He was confined to a wheel chair and needed a ventilator to breath, but he was there, smiling and happy. He met Elvis and a number of other local celebrities.
By this time, Johnny’s parents were divorced and he had moved away with his mother and sister. Other than the occasional piece of news, we had lost track of him. It was just by chance that my best friend and me happened to be watching, since this was no longer a tradition. We had just come in from riding our bicycles when my mother excitedly announced that she saw Johnny on TV.
We waited anxiously for the show to return to the local station. And when it did return, there he was. He was with another celebrity, though this one not so local. Standing over Johnny with a microphone was a rather tallish thin man. He had a deep loud voice, but it was very gentle. He smiled pleasantly down at Johnny and told him all about his own towheaded son; a child he was fortunate to have adopted since he and his wife were unable to have their own. He talked about how proud Johnny’s parents must be of such a fine young man. He patted Johnny’s shoulder and asked him if he had anything to say. Johnny smiled broadly and thanked Mr. Nick Barkley for coming to see him.
“How fortunate for Johnny,” my mother said, “that Peter Breck doesn’t have the same view of giving to others that Johnny’s mother has.”
Less than a year later, we received the news after Mass one day, in the parish announcements that Johnny had passed away in his sleep at St. Joseph hospital. The announcement went on to give thanks to the MDA for all the support it gave to Johnny and his family over the years.