A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS
Written by Rick Archer
2015, Richard Archer
- MY MOTHER
STRUGGLES TO COPE
Following the divorce, my mother was
ill-prepared to take care of herself, much less me.
Mom had serious trouble
supporting the two of us. Like many wives of the post-World War II era, she had dropped
out of college to support my father while he got his degree in
electrical engineering. My father was something of a genius,
so his career came first.
The decision to support
my father was a good idea at the time, but backfired badly
Although Mom possessed some serious smarts of her own, now she
had no college degree. Consequently my mother was forced to accept secretarial jobs for which she was
Mom didn't play politics very well. My mother was rather headstrong
especially for that era. She insisted on doing things her way, an attitude
that rubbed some of her less-talented male bosses the wrong way.
Whenever the friction mounted, Mom would be shown the door.
My mother was quite the gypsy. She wandered endlessly.
Following the divorce, during the nine year span from 4th grade till
college, my mother drifted from job to job, home to home, man
to man. Nine years, nine
different jobs and eleven different homes. I lost count of the
men. As one can imagine, this helps explain the importance of St. John's as the
only constant in my life.
Let me say that my
mother was never mean to me. Not at all. Mom was a
good person with a kind spirit. I admire her for being
extremely open-minded for her era. She embraced Blacks,
Hispanics, Jews and Gays in an era when that simply wasn't
accepted. I give her high marks for raising me
without the many prejudices of the day.
Sad to say, Mary
was not cut out to
be a mother. Nurturing was simply not her strength. Her
major fault was that she tended to worry about her own needs first.
I was forced at an
early age to fend for myself.
Following the divorce in
1959, I began to raise myself.
During the week, my mother would be home in the
evening three or four nights out of five. On the weekends,
Mom frequently left the house at night to pursue
activities and new boyfriends. Every now and then she would
say no time for supper tonight. No matter.
I would heat up my hot dog, do my homework,
play with my dog Terry, then watch TV or read a book.
was extremely self-reliant for my age. I learned to get my
homework done without ever being told. Depending on where we lived
at the time, I got myself to and from school by bike or by
bus. Since my mother wasn't big on cooking, I learned to
myself when I was hungry. Oddly enough, I have never
had the slightest interest in learning how to cook. So I became the master of
the simple meal - Wheaties
for breakfast, peanut
butter after school, hot dogs and hard-boiled eggs for
dinner. Since my best meal of the day came at the St. John's
cafeteria, I learned early on not to be too fussy about my food.
The simplest meal was good enough for me.
My favorite TV show
was The Fugitive. Constantly running from
the law, the Fugitive had to be the loneliest man on
Boy, could I relate to him!
I wasn't the only
person who was lonely. I remember how
lonely Mom was after the divorce.
after the divorce, Mom
married some bum named Tom Cook. What was she thinking?
This guy was a total loser!
I disliked this man with a passion. I remember Tom was the
guy who tried to teach me to smoke. After gagging and nearly
throwing up, I said no thanks the next time he offered.
Mom had a smart
mouth, so Tom took to beating her periodically. Mom learned
to lock the bathroom door to avoid his drunken beatings. Or she
would crawl into bed with me for protection. Now that I
think about it, more likely she crawled into bed with me so the
dog would protect her. Tom never came near Terry. He
may have been a drunken lout, but he knew better than to take on the
extremely loyal dog.
I remember Tom well
because he was the first in a long line of men who made me feel
protective towards my mother. I would see her cry and feel
miserable because these men treated her so poorly. It upset me
no end that I had no way to stick up for her.
Tom, he lasted
Tom left thanks to a series of hot
checks he had written. The police did us a real favor by knocking on the door
one night. Tom was out getting drunk, but when Mom told him
about the visit, he turned ghost white.
Tom left the next day. Good riddance.
We were always poor.
This was due largely to my mother's inability to play politics.
Mom didn't have any trouble getting jobs, but she sure had trouble
Mom had one very bad
habit. She had a big mouth. Mom had grown up as Daddy's
girl. Her father had always taught her to speak her mind.
Unfortunately, the early Sixties were not very kind to women who
dared to open their mouth on the job. My mother did not take
orders well. She would often suggest a better way to do
something. Needless to say, that rankled her bosses.
Another trick was to agree with her boss, then do it her way anyway.
Hmm. Nor did my mother handle criticism very well. She
would often respond with some sarcastic comment. Or she might
disagree with the criticism and argue with her boss.
Not surprisingly, my
mother got fired a lot. Sad to say, I am afraid I inherited my
mother's big mouth. When I was 23, I was
thrown out of graduate school for some of the same behavior.
This led to my second life crisis. Let's just say
neither of us had a clue how to play politics. At the time, I
think I learned my lesson, but I doubt my mother ever quite figured
out how to keep her mouth shut.
I don't think any of my
jobs lasted much more than a year at a time. Either she got
bored and quit or she wore out her welcome.
Since my mother received no
alimony and her unimpressive pay grade did not lend itself to
money was a constant problem.
We were ridiculously dependent on my father's
$100 a month child support. The hardest times came during
Mom's occasional stretches of unemployment.
I would come home at least
a couple times a year to discover the electricity had been turned
off. Or sometimes it was the water. The next time it was
the gas. In a day or two, Mom would receive my father's child
and service would be restored, but now she didn't have
enough money to pay the rent. Sooner or later the landlord
would tire of her excuses and tell her to hit the road.
My mother's inability to
pay her bills meant that we were moving all the time... eleven times
in nine years.
Growing up, I
never had a single neighborhood friend. Why even bother
never stayed in a neighborhood long enough for it to matter.
TRAMPS, AND THIEVES
The worst part
of my childhood had to be the men. With only one exception, I
detested every single one of
The first was
definitively the worst. Tom Cook was an actual criminal.
I still can't believe she married this guy.
One afternoon I realized my
prized silver dollar collection was missing. Tom had
stolen twenty silver dollars to buy booze. How utterly
pathetic. However, I was only 10 and there wasn't much I could
do about it. I went and told the man to return my money.
He just laughed. I could see all his missing teeth and was so
disgusted I just went to my room and seethed. I hated feeling so helpless.
After Tom Cook left, Mom
got involved in the theater as a stage hand. She
volunteered to help with the Alley Theater production of Guys and Dolls.
I was too young to be left at home, so she packed me into
I would do my homework
backstage, watch the rehearsals for a while, then get sleepy and
fall asleep in a chair. However, the noise kept waking me up,
so I complained. She said go sleep in the car. That
didn't work because I was scared. Mom's next solution
was to bring the dog with us. Poor Terry would be
left behind in the car while we went inside. However, this
solution worked. As long as I had Terry with me, I could fall
asleep in the car.
One night I noticed a
car following right behind us as we drove home. Mom said don't
worry about it.
It turned out to be some
guy from the play. They went into the bedroom. I heard
the guy leave a couple hours later.
I was too young to
understand the dynamics, but Mom couldn't go to their place because
of me. So she brought them home instead.
A week or so later, this
happened again. Mom
had begun working her way through the cast members.
To this day, I
still hate Guys and Dolls with a purple passion.
When Mom decided
to volunteer for the next play, I put my foot down and told
her to just leave me at home. I would rather spend my
evenings home alone with Terry and my books than
watch Mom spend the night shuffling props around and
flirting with the actors. At
least I could go to sleep in my own bed.
Mom didn't mind a
bit. Now she could come home when she felt like it.
I didn't mind either. I was relieved that I did not have to
listen to Mom moaning in the bedroom.
- THE ATHENS
BAR AND GRILL
Unfortunately, this new
arrangement did not last very long. Mom eventually worked
her way through the men at the Alley Theater, so now it was time to
When I was 11, Mom began to hang out at
the Athens Bar and
Grill down at the Houston ship channel. This
was a favorite hangout for Greek sailors to let loose during their
brief stay in port. I never saw the place, but from what I gather, the Athens Bar was a
lively nightspot. It featured good food, good wine, and
plenty of Greek dancing.
My mother said she loved Greek
dancing, but I think her real
fondness was for Greek sailors. Although my mother was rather
plain, she didn't seem to have any trouble picking up
men. The Athens Bar became her happy hunting ground. She liked the
fact that they would be shipping out. Here today, gone
tomorrow. Mom would bring them back to our house
at night and then ferry them back to their ship in the morning.
typically reserved her adventures for the weekend. However, when she was
out of work, she usually added a weeknight visit as well.
One morning I got up,
put on my St. John's uniform, ate breakfast, then headed to the
bathroom to brush my teeth. I was shocked to find some strange
man in there using the facilities. I was embarrassed
because I had walked right in on him sitting on the pot.
He stared at me
wide-eyed and cursed me in Greek. I apologized profusely,
but the guy didn't speak a word of English. Mom heard me and
walked in as well. Right there in bathroom she proceeded to
introduce me to Kristos, so we awkwardly shook hands.
After each new tryst Mom
would play music from Zorba the
Greek on the phonograph for the next week. I think
it helped get her in the mood for her next conquest.
Mom eventually got tired
Europeans so she switched to Americans. After
her Greek Sailor period, Mom dated a black guy named Fred. Fred
lasted about two months.
Then it was Jewish guys
for a while. I must have listened to Exodus
more times than any non-Jewish kid in history. The music
must have rubbed off... I like Jewish people.
One poor Jewish guy was
Murray the dentist. He was recovering from electroshock
therapy in the mental hospital. I actually liked Murray.
He was a kind man, but his mind was completely gone. He was so
helpless that I felt sorry for him.
Mom liked Murray, so she
let him live with us for a while. I liked Murray too, but not
enough to have him live with us. Like Fred, he lasted about
After Murray, Mom
continued her latest
strategy of dating white men with problems.
Too bad Looking for
(in all the wrong places) hadn't been recorded yet, or I
would have bought it for her. After playing that
song for a
week maybe she would have gotten the message. Or maybe not...
with my luck, she would have moved on to cowboys.
Most of these
men came and went within a month, but some of them like Fred and
Murray needed a home so
they stuck around longer. The worst was Neal, the drunken taxi driver.
We will get to him shortly.
Personally I wish my
mother had stuck to
I absolutely loathed my
mother's ill-considered attempts to force her men into my life. I
were eight or
nine live-in boyfriends, however there
might have been more.
To cope, I spent a lot of time in my room
with Terry doing my homework.
these men didn't last very long. A couple months of
sheer misery on my part and usually they were gone.
I assumed my mother's
taste in men couldn't
get worse, but it did.
Mom switched to
Mexicans. She found these guys at a place called The
Last Concert. She took this place very seriously.
Not only did she learn to dance to Mexican ranchero music, she
learned to speak Spanish.
Mom would date Mexicans
exclusively for the rest of her life. Miguel. Ramon. Lupe. Nemescio.
Pasqual. She married three of them. The worst was Pasqual, the
alcoholic who beat her and helped Mom squander away the entire $30,000
she had inherited from her father's estate. I was in college
at this point. The one time in her life my mother had any
money and she blew every last cent of it.
Just when I was developing a serious dislike for
Mexicans, there was
one very good man, Miguel. A gentle, caring man, Miguel made me realize that not all Mexicans
are bad. Miguel was a decent guy, the only one among the
nine live-ins that I would grow to care about. Miguel lived with us for two years until Mom discovered he had a wife and children
back in Mexico. With her pride hurt, Mom threw him out.
What a dumb move.
We both missed Miguel. So did the dog.
Greeks, Jews, Blacks,
As one can see, Mom was
a veritable United Nations in her choice of lovers. I told you
she was open-minded.
I cannot begin to convey the
limitless depths of my disgust towards my
mother on this issue. Most of all I didn't want them living
with us. I complained no end, but Mom told me it was none of my business.
Throughout my childhood,
the loneliness, the constant moves to new homes, the insecurity and the occasional
loss of electricity were nothing compared to the men I was forced to
live with. That is what I objected to the most.
I told her I could live
with the one night stands, but please stop letting these jerks live
with us. After all, when it was just Mom
and me and the dog, life was fairly peaceful.
Mom would reply she was lonely. Sure
enough, Mom would go to a bar, pick
up some guy
like a stray dog, and bring him home. The next thing I
knew, he was living with us. Unbelievable. Without any say-so
in the matter, I was forced to watch with disgust as the revolving
door of losers came and went.
If my mother had just kept her romantic forays
out of sight, I think my childhood would have been a lot
easier to cope with.
mother was very prone to depression. There were times when Mom would be in the
bedroom crying uncontrollably and I would be terrified with
insecurity. I had no idea how to console her.
I had virtually
no one to turn to. I knew my mother
was a mess, but she was all I had. There were no nearby relatives, no
close friends and no neighbors to call for help when Mom had one of her crying
jags. All I had was the dog.
Consequently I spent much of my childhood
in the days following the divorce in constant fear she would
go off the deep end and then I would be forced to go live with my
father. Since I had begun to figure out my father didn't have a nurturing bone in his body, I prayed my mother would find a way to keep it together.
have detailed how my mother fell to pieces following the
1959 divorce. Two years later in 1961, Mom hit
bottom. Although she did not confide in me, I have to
assume the issues were either loneliness or lack of money.
Lately Mom had been crying all the time. One day it
was raining hard and my mother had been crying.
Suddenly she got up and inexplicably left the apartment
without reason. I stared in shock as she walked out of
her room, crossed the living room and walked out into the
rain. She didn't say a word to me.
was scared out of my wits. Something was wrong here,
badly wrong. Mom had no umbrella and no rain coat.
The rain outside was no drizzle either. It was
I knew my mother would be
drenched in seconds and I was right. How did I know?
Because I followed her.
And why did I follow her? Because I was terrified of
was eleven years old. I was trying very hard to be a big
boy, but it was really tough sometimes. My support
system was about as thin as it could be. I had a
wonderful aunt and uncle who lived near Washington, DC, but
DC was a long way away. Allen and Polly Clark and
their three children was a Houston family who had been kind enough to take me on a trip to
Colorado last summer, but they lived on the other side of
town. I had a father who had turned his back on me to
attend to his new family. I had no friends at school
and no friends nearby
was new to this neighborhood.
That left Mom, Terry, and St. John's to keep me
glued together. Right now Mom wasn't inspiring any
sense of security. If I lost her, I had no idea what
would become of me. I was deeply afraid someone would
make me live with my father. I hated his new wife, so
the thought of being placed with him make me sick with fear. As
bad as things were in my home, I still preferred to be with my
mother. She wasn't much of a mother, but at least I
knew she cared about me. I had no similar illusions
about my father.
As I secretly followed Mom in the rain, I could tell something was
terribly wrong. She was crying uncontrollably about something.
I did not know what it was, but it had to be bad.
Right in the middle of that miserable rain storm, I watched
in horror as she collapsed on the wet
grass near Braes Bayou. She just sat down
in the soaking wet grass and sobbed her head off.
Hiding behind a tree, I
didn't know what to do. Should I go to her and try to
comfort her? Or should I just monitor the situation?
I opted to stay hidden and keep watching. But the
moment she made a move to jump in the swollen bayou nearby, I was prepared
would say a good ten minutes passed. Now my mother
sat up. Then she slowly rose to her feet. Mom was so muddy she
resembled a Swamp Monster. Fortunately she seemed a
little stronger. I was gratified to see her begin to
back to our apartment. Slowly her face became more
recognizable as the rain washed
most of the mud off. However her clothes were ruined. Once Mom entered the apartment
project, I figured she was committed to coming home. I
took a different route and raced back to our apartment ahead
I was in the shower when I heard the front door shut. Mom
never knew I had been spying on her. I preferred to
allow her to keep her dignity. I knew she would not
have wanted me to see how forlorn she was.
never found out what the issue was. However, years
later she did tell me she had once considered suicide and
that the thought of me being forced to live with my father
was the only thing that changed her mind. I have to
believe she was referring to this incident. It
bothered me that I had guessed right. There was
a real strong chance she had considered jumping into that
After the crying spell, a
couple months passed. Mom did not seem to snap out of it.
She was just going through the motions. Three days before Christmas, Mom made a startling
announcement. Get packed; we are driving to Dick and
Lynn's house in Northern Virginia.
My eyes bulged. I seriously did not want to do this.
It was freezing cold outside and we had the worst car imaginable
for winter driving. It was a giant convertible nearly
the size of a tank. The canvas roof was hardly going
to be able to keep us warm. Even worse,
the floor board in the back was so rusted out that I could
see the street pavement through some of the cracks.
The cold air blowing up from below was sure to make us miserable. Didn't Mom
want to rethink us?
No. We are going. Get packed.
Does Uncle Dick know we are coming?
No. It's a surprise.
Reluctantly I gathered every blanket in the house and
stuffed them into the car. We left at 1 am.
Mom said driving at night was the best way to make good time. Mom had
a choice between going through southern Louisiana or
northern Louisiana. She chose the northern route.
We did indeed make good time, but that changed dramatically
at 9 am. That is when the snow began to fall.
Snow doesn't fall in Louisiana very often, but as we would
discover, we had run smack dab into the worst winter storm
in the past twenty years. As the snowfall increased, I
begged my mother to stop and ride out the storm at some
roadside diner. She disagreed.
Mom was determined to
continue, even when the car began to skid badly on the snow
and sleet covering the highway.
That giant car kept weaving back and forth. This went
on for an hour and I was terrified. My eyes ached from
straining to see through the thick snowfall to spot oncoming
traffic. I complained bitterly, but Mom would not
listen to reason. Finally I couldn't take it anymore.
I was afraid for my life, so I got in the back seat and
wrapped myself in every blanket we had for safety in case
there was a collision. Despite all those blankets I
was still cold; Mom said the heater had stopped working. I
clung hard to Terry and shivered terribly with cold and
fear. Even the poor dog was cold; Terry clung to me
Huge snow drifts accumulated on the side of the road.
The car got harder and harder to control. Even though
Mom was barely driving over 20 miles per hour, one time we
skidded far into the next lane. Mom was barely
able to get us back on our side before a truck whizzed past us.
The driver beeped as loud as he could to signal his anger at
the near head-on collision.
Now I begged
Mom again to pull over and wait out the storm until the
roads could be cleared. Nothing doing.
Mom would not explain, but I had to believe her life was in
crisis. Out of options, Mom must have
felt she had no choice but to continue forward. Mom
was determined to follow her dangerous path even if it meant
risking our lives. She was completely out of control.
The snowfall continued unmercifully. The road conditions
were the worst imaginable. Our tires could not seem to
grip the road for long. As the car constantly weaved back
and forth on the snowy highway, I experienced more fear than
any 11-year old kid should ever have to face. I felt
so helpless stuck there with this insane mother and this
weaving car. I was certain we would be killed at any
And then it
happened. The car skidded badly across the
oncoming truck, I was certain death was imminent.
I screamed bloody murder and squeezed my dog to my
There was no
time to allow Mom to regain control. She never
even tried. Instead she just kept driving in a
straight line across the road and plowed into a giant ditch.
snow accumulation softened the blow of the crash.
Now the car was face down in a snow drift.
Mom tried to back out, but nothing doing.
down in another one of those miserable crying jags.
I was crying myself. I was so scared.
I didn't know how we were ever going to get out of this
mess. I just sat there in quiet desperation.
Thank God I had my dog for comfort.
Mom never quite
snapped out of it. She just kept sobbing. However, after ten minutes
of crying, she stopped long enough to tell me I
needed to do something.
Surely she wasn't serious... but she was.
"Mom, I am
old. I am just a kid. What do you expect me to do?"
expect you to get out of the car and go get us a tow
I supposed to do that?"
go stand on the side of the road and hitch a ride into
that town we just passed. Get to a station and
ask a tow truck to bring you back. Terry and I will
wait here till you return."
can't all three of us go?"
no one will pick up two people and a dog.
However, they might take pity on a kid."
at my mother as if she was out of her mind.
And then I realized she was out of her mind.
Mom had been out of her mind
ever since we had left Houston.
not believe she was sending me out on my own like
this, but maybe she was right. I couldn't
think of a better solution, so on the spot I decided to
grow up fast and do this. I got out of the
car and went to the road. Mom was right.
Someone saw our car in the ditch and stopped to
offer to help. The person seemed safe enough,
so I asked for a ride to town.
miles later I was in the nearest town and bringing back a tow truck.
truck was able to get our tank out of the snow
drifts. The truck took us back into town
whereupon the station manager checked out the car.
Amazingly, there was no damage. However the
manager insisted Mom get some snow chains for the
what we had been through, Mom wasn't going to argue.
Her defiance was gone now. It had turned to fear. She
was completely broken and just hanging on by a
looked at the man and told him the truth. She
did not have enough money with her to pay either the
towing fee or for the chains. What little
money she had left was for gas and meals. But if he would
trust us, she would write him a check. She
said if he
could wait a week before cashing it, once we got to
Virginia, her brother would give her enough money to
cover the check. The man thought long and
hard, then he eventually smiled and said okay.
Thank goodness it was Christmas time.
man agreed to take my mother's word, I will never
know. Actually, now that I think about it, I
know one possible reason. He told me he had been
impressed by my courage. He said he had a son
my age and he couldn't imagine a boy my age doing
what I did. He asked if I had been scared.
him he had no idea. I was still shaking.
This experience had scarred me in unimaginable ways.
Nevertheless, I thanked him for his kindness.
I said we were
in great debt to him for his incredible kindness and trust.
night we ate a warm meal of spaghetti at a diner
next to an inexpensive motel in Vicksburg,
Mississippi. I think that meal tasted better
than any meal I have ever had in my life. I
was so grateful to still be alive.
Fortunately, the road conditions were better in the
morning. The highways had been cleared and the
snowfall was more flurries than anything else. We no longer had to drive in abject
terror. Soon enough Mom stopped at a gas
station and had them take the chains off.
We stopped at another motel in Georgia that night.
From there, Mom drove straight through to Virginia.
We pulled into Dick and Lynn's neighborhood at 4 am on Christmas Day,
but to Mom's dismay, her car couldn't make it up the
steep hill thanks to the icy street. She tried
and tried, but the car kept sliding back down.
Disgusted, she told me to get out of the car.
Now we walked up the snowy hill.
When we got to their house, Mom didn't want to wake the
family. I found an
unlocked door to the basement, so we walked in
and plopped down on a sofa in the basement den.
Beauty, their Lassie-lookalike dog, came down the
stairs and greeted us with her tail wagging.
Terry fell instantly in love. As for me, I
rolled my eyes. Not even a bark! Beauty
had to be the worst watchdog in history.
Lynn never even knew we were there. Surprise
Surprise. Look what Santa brought. Merry
been Mom's plan to throw herself on her brother's
mercy. As Mom hoped and prayed, Uncle Dick was
incredibly generous to her. He bailed her out
of what had to be a serious financial jam. I
never learned the details, but I believe that Dick
and Lynn saved her life that Christmas. They
restored her will to carry on.
always love Dick and Lynn from the bottom of my
my mother, I never forgave her for what she put me
through. I just added it to the ever-growing
list of resentments.
- THE BOOKWORM
AND HIS DOG
such a wonderful dog. He was my closest companion for the nine long years
stretching from Mom's divorce till college.
We had an inseparable bond. We went everywhere together,
especially to the neighborhood park where I constantly practiced
basketball. No matter what I did, Terry always wanted to be by my side.
When I say 'everywhere', I mean it. The
summer after my 6th grade, I joined a book club at the public
library downtown. I was 11. Since I lived in the Montrose area,
downtown was only a twenty minute bike ride. I would ride my
bike down Bagby, a semi-busy city street. Seeing
how Terry pouted whenever I left him behind, I decided to put him at the end of a
long rope so he could run alongside me on my bike. That probably
wasn't the safest thing to do for the dog or for me, but I did it anyway.
I made sure to keep him on the side away from traffic. Then I would tie Terry up outside the Library until I was
ready to head home with my new set of books.
on the way home, a passing truck clipped my handlebar.
The accident wasn't my fault in any way. The truck driver
swerved out of his lane and hit me.
I went flying out of
control and hit the concrete pavement hard. The truck was pulling an empty U-Haul
it. The heavy wheels of the U-Haul went right over my right ankle, cutting
it to shreds. My ankle wasn't broken, but it wasn't working
I could see the bone exposed. Something was wrong with my hip
I was in tremendous
pain. As I writhed in agony on the street, Terry came over
and stood guard beside me. Now I crawled on my hands and knees
to the curb.
called an ambulance. Then I gave her my mother's number at
When the ambulance showed up, the men were very aggressive.
Without any explanation, they tried to grab me and put me on a cart.
"Hold on, guys!! Wait just a minute! What about
The moment I protested, Terry stepped in. It was
amazing to watch him in action.
Duke was Mom's dog and Terry's father.
I am 8 in this picture
They took one look at Terry who had begun to tense.
Now they practically fell over in their haste to step back.
I smiled grimly. That dog would protect me with his
I was badly hurt and in a lot of pain, but I
wasn't in any immediate danger. I
needed take care of my dog first and foremost.
Terry had instinctively moved between those men and me. My dog wouldn't let the emergency
personnel anywhere near me.
Now the men asked me to tie the dog
up. Despite my pitiful condition, I actually laughed.
Here I was
lying on a hot city street with my hip so numb I couldn't move and
my badly damaged ankle bleeding profusely, but these guys were asking for my help with
the dog. How absurd.
the men if we could take the dog with us.
You're gonna have to leave
the dog here."
My laughter disappeared.
guys crazy? There was no way I was going to tie up my dog and leave him behind.
These men were frowning and had their arms crossed.
They meant what they said.
When I realized how serious they were, I was suddenly
panic-stricken. I was worried they would use force to put me
in the ambulance. Then I realized as long as Terry was
next to me, that wasn't going to happen. So I focused
on protecting my dog.
These men clearly did not understand my fierce loyalty.
They would first have to knock me unconscious before I would leave my dog. This dog was the most
important person in the entire world to me. Losing
Terry would be
unbearable. I would rather lie here bleeding in the
street till my mother showed up than take any chance of losing my dog.
This dog was my best friend, my only friend, in the whole
world. I had my life wrapped around him.
can't we put Terry in the ambulance with us?"
"We can't put a dog in
our ambulance! We will lose our job!"
"Then I am not leaving.
You can go, I don't care. I will just lay here till my mother comes. And you better not touch me. You will have to fight my dog to get to me."
The two men
looked at each other. There was a silent agreement
that neither wanted anything to do my dog.
Terry was not a
dangerous dog. Not once did Terry ever bite someone or
even snap at someone. I don't even recall him
growling. But Terry had a way of staring right at
those men that paralyzed them with fear. I was so
proud of him!
Terry was protective of
me. Oh yes, for sure he was protective. Trust me, no one
would dare touch me if Terry thought I was in danger. Terry was the reincarnation of Old
Yeller. As I said, I firmly believed Terry would give up his life to protect me.
Well, that made
two of us. This loyalty went both ways. I was
willing to risk losing my leg to stand up for him.
scared that I might lose control of the situation. The
pain was terrible. What if I passed out? Then
they might be able to gang up from behind on my dog and
The thought of losing
Terry was too much to bear. So now
I cracked. No more tough kid... I began crying. Talk about
crocodile tears! I cried my eyes out at the thought of losing
my dog. I could recover from my
injuries, but this dog was the only friend I had in the whole
turned out to be my saving grace. Thanks to all the
drama, the place had turned
into a carnival. Cars had stopped to
see what was going on plus an entire
crowd of pedestrians had gathered to witness the spectacle. I
guess there were at least twenty people watching. What
a sight this was... a wounded kid laying helplessly on the
ground and a fiercely loyal dog trying to resist two big men
who were behaving like insensitive bullies.
Suddenly the people lining the perimeter came to my aid. Some man hollered, "C'mon, you
guys, let the damn
dog ride with the kid in the ambulance!! Can't you see the kid is
everyone cheered. All the onlookers concurred with
similar comments. I had an entire cheering section
rooting for me. Now one ambulance guy looked at the
other in frustration. They threatened again to leave me laying
there. That didn't work. Despite my pain, that was fine with me.
Here I was hurt, crippled and bleeding, but I was defiant.
Choking back tears, I said,
"You men don't understand!! I would
rather take the chance of losing my leg than lose my dog! This
dog means everything to me!"
The crowd loved
my speech. Now they really cheered for me. Seeing how upset I was at leaving
Terry, the crowd stepped up the
pressure. They raised quite a racket. Finally the men relented.
They said Terry could ride with me in the ambulance to
the hospital. Now all the onlookers cheered and clapped
their approval. Even the two ambulance drivers grinned
a little. What
I told Terry it
was okay to let the men touch me. Then I allowed that nice
lady who had phoned my mother to hold Terry's rope. I said,
"Sit." Terry was so unbelievably intelligent; he did exactly
what I asked. Terry somehow understood that these men were now
my friends and he immediately
backed off. Once the men had me in the ambulance, I
said, "Terry, come here" and gestured to him. With that, Terry jumped
in the ambulance and the lady handed me the rope.
The people all
laughed. Such a spectacle! People began to nod
their appreciation. They could see why I
had stood up for my dog. That was one heck of a smart dog! They were proud of themselves for the part
they had played in resolving this odd standoff.
Now that I was in the ambulance,
the nice lady came up to me and handed me the library books
that she had
collected off the street. I was glad to get those books back; I had wondered what had happened to
Then she grabbed
my hand in an affectionate way and said, "Well, young man, it looks
like you'll need these
books this summer. You take care of yourself and that great dog of yours." I
smiled wanly and thanked her.
The ride to
Jefferson Davis Hospital didn't take long. It was only
a mile away from my accident. Before entering the
hospital, I asked the men to wheel the gurney to a shade tree next
to the entrance. They lowered my stretcher to a level where I
could tie Terry to the tree. Crying profusely due to my fear
of losing my dog and knowing how worried Terry was for me, I kissed
Terry on the nose and told him to wait for
my mother. It broke my heart to see him tugging at the rope
trying to follow me into the hospital. The poor dog was so
worried about me... he had his life wrapped around me too.
The separation broke both of our hearts.
Once inside the
hospital, I broke down badly again. Now that I was
separated from my dog, I wasn't brave any more. Not at
all. I had lost all courage. I was worried sick about my dog outside. My helplessness to protect my dog was too much for me to
bear. I absolutely could not stand the fear of leaving
him out there alone. That dog was my only friend in
A nurse heard me
crying. She thought I was in serious pain and came over to me.
She was surprised to find I was crying for my dog, not my
injury. Between sobs, I begged the
sympathetic nurse to please give him some water and tell him I was okay.
I was frightened to death someone would steal him or he would get
loose. Terry was the original escape artist; I was terrified
he would chew through that rope. I also made the nurse promise to tell my mother where to find
him in case I passed out from my considerable pain.
After she left, I just laid there in a constant state of worry for
my dog. I had no idea whether the nurse had done what I asked
Fortunately, the nurse did indeed leave to take a look. She came
back ten minutes later and said Terry had water now and was doing fine.
The nurse took a shine to me and kept me company. She
said she had never seen a more caring dog in her life, but
don't worry, things were going to be okay.
As the nurse was talking to me, Mom showed up. Mom reassured
me she had found Terry just where I left him and
put him in the car for safety. She added that she had found a
tree to put the car
under so the car wouldn't get too hot.
found me inside, she was incredibly relieved. Now my mother
started crying too. You know, my
mother wasn't a bad person. She may have been an emotional
cripple, but there is no doubt she did love me. I regret so
much that we constantly butted heads throughout my childhood.
Sad to say, things would get even worse during my rebellious teenage
had a happy ending. Together
Terry and I would spend June and July in bed while
I recovered. I read every book under the sun. Since I
could hop on one foot well enough to fetch peanut butter sandwiches,
I wasn't in any danger of starving. Nor was Terry... he got a
big corner of every sandwich. That was our deal.
I made sure to put extra peanut butter on Terry's slice just
to torment him. I would laugh as Terry went nuts
twisting his tongue to lick the sticky peanut butter off the roof of his mouth.
With Terry keeping me company, I read book after book. I easily won the library's
summer book club reading
contest. It took two months, but my ankle healed just fine. The companionship of
my dog made my suffering bearable. As long as I had Terry
beside me, I would be okay. Peanut butter, Terry, and books...
turned out to be a pretty good summer!
- HOW I BECAME
A CHESS EXPERT
Of all the men
who lived with us during my childhood, Neal the taxi cab
driver was the absolute
bottom of the barrel.
I shudder just typing the name. I have never met a more
When I was 13, my mother
invited Neal to live with us. Neal smoked. Neal drank. He never shaved
considered himself an intellectual, a real deep-thinker, and loved
telling me how smart he was.
Neal, 40, was a
heavily-bearded, dark-haired man of Jewish descent with the thickest
eyebrows I have ever seen. He was six feet tall, seriously
overweight, and slovenly. However, Neal was bright, I'll grant
him that much.
He bragged loudly about what a great chess player he was. Of
all the men... and there was a long list... Neal is the only one who
lived with us besides Tom Cook that I flat-out detested. The rest I just ignored.
But not Neal. Not only did he irritate me no end with his lofty opinion of himself,
Neal had a big mouth.
In addition, he was something of a bully. He liked to
taunt me and
had an unfailing ability to get my goat.
Despite my animosity, I
need to thank Neal for two major contributions to my life.
Neal was the guy who showed me the cheap trick of slapping ears that
helped me conquer Harold, my shower room nemesis. Thank you,
Neal, wherever you are, for teaching me how to fight dirty.
And what about the other
contribution? Neal inadvertently
helped me become the
champion of St. John's.
I say 'unofficial'
because we didn't have a chess club. That said, I still have reason
to assume I was the best.
St. John's students were given a lengthy fifty-five minute lunch break.
This allowed me plenty of time to play chess matches with Walter, David and
Frank, three of my friends throughout
high school. Periodically other students would see us play and
challenge the winner. Seeing as how I took on all challengers
and never lost a game, let's just say I was better than average and
leave it at that.
Repulsive as the
man was, I definitely owed my chess skills to Neal.
I was first
introduced to chess when I was 10. My mother
gave me a chess set for Christmas and showed me the rules. She
would play with me from time to time, but when I started beating
her, Mom lost interest.
memory of chess goes back to age 11. Mom met some sailor at the
Athens Bar and Grill and brought him
home to spend the night. The next morning she
introduced him to me. He was from Yugoslavia and spoke no English.
But he did notice I had a chess board, so he
beckoned to it. While my mother cooked breakfast,
the sailor proceeded to advance his pawns one space at a time
until I was completely pinned back.
This sailor didn't even
bother taking my pieces. His moves forced to me to
constantly retreat until he
smothered me to death like an anaconda. I was
thoroughly beaten. Then he grinned at me with a
broad grin of satisfaction and
laughed. I didn't see the humor. I had just
been crushed to death.
The sting of
that overwhelming defeat lingered for a long time. One day I noticed a book on chess at my school book
fair. It was written for kids my age so I asked
Mom to buy it
for my birthday. I began to teach myself the finer points
of the game. And yes, I improved. Soon I was able to beat
other boys at school on a regular basis. But apparently I
did not improve enough.
Neal came along when I was 13. After he moved in,
he noticed my chess set and immediately challenged me.
As we played, I could see he took the game seriously.
Puffing away on his perpetual cigarettes, Neal studied
each move carefully. Neal described himself as an 'intellectual' and valued his chess skills
highly. Neal was definitely a lot better than the
boys at school. He would laugh derisively
after each victory. Neal told me not to take it so hard;
after all, he was a great player. He reminded me I never
had much of a chance. After all, he beat
stand losing to Neal. Choking on the cigarette
fumes, how I hated this guy! But I didn't let on
how angry I was; after all, I
had to live with him. Privately, though, I fumed
over my defeats.
I noticed that even though I lost, each game was pretty
close. I believed he wasn't really that much
I knew that I had some
ability; I just lacked polish. My problem was that I
couldn't figure out how to win the end game. If I could just
discover a way to
improve there, I might win.
dislike of Neal grew and grew. I begged Mom to
throw the bum out. Please! I told her I couldn't stand to be around
him. Mom admitted she wasn't too keen on Neal herself, but
since he was helping with the bills, he could stay.
That gave me pause for thought. This was the first time I had
ever considered that money might be the reason she allowed these men to
stay with us.
So Neal stayed and
now my worst nightmare came to pass.
8th grade school year
ended, I was disgusted that Neal was still hanging around. Summer
was here and so was Neal. I wanted the
freedom to enjoy my summer, but no such luck. Ugh!
Neal worked nights, that meant I would have to share the apartment
with him during the long summer days while Mom was at work. I
would have absolutely no privacy with this jerk living
that's exactly how it played out. Throughout
played Lord of the House all day long. I would wake up and
there he would be in the living room
puffing and drinking the morning away in front of the TV soap
operas. I couldn't
bear the sight of him. Or the smell either.
Just to get away from him, in the morning Terry
and I would head over to Cherryhurst Park so I could practice
shooting basketball. Basketball was my official
summer project. I was determined to go out
for the Freshman basketball team next year, so I practiced my jump
shots and layups until the summer Texas heat reminded me it was time
in June 1964, Terry and I returned from the park.
Neal was sitting at the table practicing his chess
moves. Neal saw me and ordered me to sit down and
play. The insistent tone of his voice made Terry
come closer to me and stare bullets at Neal.
I quietly grinned. Thank goodness, Terry hated Neal
too! Terry never left my side when Neal was
Seeing the look in
Terry's eyes, Neal did a double-take. Neal was afraid of the
dog. I was a teenager now and starting to develop a very
smart mouth. In response to his taunting, I had begun to fight
back. I developed a sarcastic,
biting style that surely got under his thin skin just like he got
under my skin. When I started asking him if it was time to
learn how the shower worked, Neal would just glare at me. But
what could he do? Neal knew better than to ever get physical
with me if I smarted off to him... which I did all the time with
Terry to back me up.
There was no love lost
between us. The hostility had been growing ever since I had
begun to talk back. Unable to smack me across the face like he
wanted to, instead Neal stuck to humiliating me on the
chess table. He could tell how aggravated I was
when he beat me.
So now Neal had just challenged me to
our first big
chess game of the summer. Okay, fine, let's play. I tried as
hard as I could, but Neal beat me soundly. Neal
always insisted on playing twice, once as White, once as
Black. So now he beat for a second time.
Roars of laughter emanated. Neal had just put the
smart-mouthed twerp in his place. Neal was Lord of the House.
Hear him bellow.
I seethed inside, but
kept my mouth shut. I grabbed Terry and the
basketball and left the apartment to play basketball for
the second time that day, Texas heat be damned.
Once I was
outside, I screamed my head off, "Darn it! I wish
I could find a way to beat that SOB!!"
When I returned, it was
more of the same. Neal was on a roll. For the
rest of the day, Neal laughed every time he saw me and
bragged about his victory. Then he told my mother
when she came home and laughed again. Neal
enjoyed this humiliation immensely because it proved
that he was smarter than me. Meanwhile I cursed my inability
to match his chess skill.
With this guy around, my summer was off to a lousy
start. Neal was ruining my life.
was incredibly stressful for me even without Neal to add
to my misery. I
was worried sick that I would not be returning to St.
John's for the 9th grade, i.e. my freshman year of high
explanation would help. The 1959 divorce agreement
had forced my father to pay full tuition for the three years... 4th,
5th, and 6th grade. My father refused to pay after
that. Mr. Chidsey, the Headmaster, had offered my mother a
half-scholarship to keep me at St. John's, but she was
penniless. However, Mom called Uncle Dick on the phone. Thank
goodness Uncle Dick and Aunt Lynn in Virginia were
willing offered to
pick up the remaining half for the 7th grade. Then
they did it again the 8th grade.
the start of the summer,
Uncle Dick told Mom he
could no longer afford to help her pay my St. John's tuition.
Since I knew my
mother could never afford to pay the other half, it
looked like I was through with St. John's. I
assumed I would be going to public school in the 9th grade.
The thought of leaving my beloved St. John's had me twisted in
had Neal around to make my life even more miserable.
latest defeat at chess to Neal, I cursed my futility.
I openly wished I
could find some way to improve at chess.
To my surprise, a very
odd coincidence took place the following afternoon.
After Neal left to go
drive his taxi,
I was alone in
the apartment. As I took a shortcut through my
mother's bedroom to my own bedroom, I noticed a box of
books lying on the floor over in the corner. Curious, I
put the box up on the bed and began to
leaf through them. There were several Ayn Rand
books... Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged.
Then I saw
a copy of Exodus by Leon Uris, plus several
Bertrand Russell books on philosophy. I snorted
with contempt. These were just the sort of books
an intellectual would read. I wondered if
Neal had actually read them or just kept them around to
impress whomever he was shacking up with.
And then my
eyes lit up. There hidden at the very bottom of
the box, I discovered
Neal owned a copy
of the 1960 World Chess Championship. I opened the book.
The introduction said the tightly contested match had
resulted in an upset victory won by Russia's Mikhail
Tal over fellow countryman Mikhail Botvinnik. The rest of
the book contained the moves from every game played
written in chess notation. Even better, there were
detailed explanations for the reasons behind the most
My eyes grew
wide. I had just found a chess book that explained the strategy
I smiled as I
grasped the potential here.
could replay each game and try to understand the
strategy analysis, maybe I could improve.
I looked to
the sky and nodded my
gratitude to whatever unknown deity had sent this small
miracle my way. This quirk
could be easily dismissed as another silly coincidence, yet the
timing of the book's appearance caught my attention. Some part of me wondered if this
book was the answer to my prayer.
I carefully put the other
books back in order and placed the box back where I had
found it. Then I carried my prize to my bedroom.
Would Neal find out?
I doubted it.
The book was probably on the bottom because
he never looked at it.
The odds of Neal missing this book were one in a
Having this book appear
out of nowhere felt like an omen. I had a hunch this book might
just prove to be my secret weapon. I had to do something to keep
Neal from driving me mad.
I already spent at least two hours
a day practicing basketball at the park. Now I
decided to tackle an afternoon chess project as well.
figured out how to read chess notation, I made it my
replay every single chess game in the book. On each page there
was a discussion of the reasons behind Tal's most
important moves. Every spare moment I would analyze
I had no idea if learning the secrets behind Tal's strategy would help my
own game, but I had to try something.
Terry and I would head over to the park so I could
practice shooting basketball. I would come home
see Neal passed out on the couch with two empty beer
bottles on the floor and some soap opera on the TV. There
he was, Lord and Master of the house, snoring his head off in another drunken stupor.
Disgusted, that was exactly the vision I kept in my
brain as I studied that book with the fervor of a Bible
scholar. I would shower,
eat lunch, and then head to my bedroom to practice my chess moves with
the door closed. Terry would jump up on the bed
and take a nap while I carefully replayed the games on
my chess board.
Once in a
while, Neal would challenge me to more chess, but I
always refused. I was going to finish playing
every game in that book first. So Neal would
guffaw, call me a chicken, make a few chicken squawks
for good measure, then go smoke
another cigarette. Humiliated, I would retreat to my
room, slam the door, and open the book. Every time
I heard Neal open the refrigerator door and grab another
my desire for revenge mounted.
It took a month, but I
finished all the games in the book. Now I carefully returned
the book to the box and waited. I thought I understood the
reasons behind the moves, but I had no idea if it would make any
difference in my own game.
Sure enough, one day
in July, Neal challenged me to another game of
chess. I tried to look casual. Sure, why not?
This time I was ready.
I gleefully cleaned his clock. As I expected, he demanded a
rematch. Since we had started late in the day, Mom came home in the middle of the second match.
She watched in surprise as I handily won the second game too.
This was the first time she had ever seen me have the upper
hand. It wasn't just that I beat Neal. I beat him so soundly that
Neal was bewildered. Neal's expression was priceless.
He stared at me like a wounded prize
fighter who has just been knocked down for the first time.
following day, Neal challenged me again.
Again I cleaned his clock. I smiled.
It was uncanny how much I had improved.
victory did the trick. Neal was now
convinced my improvement could not be
attributable to a simple explanation like a bad
day on his part.
the rest of the day Neal
walked around the apartment slamming doors and
muttering to himself. He drove himself silly trying to
figure out how I had managed to improve so much. What was
I doing alone in my bedroom all those hours? Had I made some
secret deal with the Devil?
intellectual! Neal never had a clue what my secret
stare at me like I was
Damien from The Omen. Seeing how much it bothered
him, I refused to explain the circumstances. I guess he
got spooked by my supernatural powers. Good. Served
Neal left for taxi duty that night, I heard Neal and Mom arguing
about something. Neal was still upset.
Within the week, Neal moved out. I had
slain the dragon with a chessboard. My mother even thanked me
once he was gone.
She said good riddance.
I had found motivation in the unlikeliest of places.
My love of chess was sealed for life.