My father taught me many lessons. He continues to do so, even at 86 years old, as he continues to courageously face the daily challenges of Parkinson’s Disease. As I reflect on those lessons – and trust me, you start doing a lot of reflecting in your 60’s – I realize that many of those lessons were about caring for others.
I grew up in a charming little town called Grass Valley. It was established during the great California Gold Rush of 1849. It became the home of some of the most productive gold mines in the Unites States. During my childhood, many of the residents were the ancestors of miners from Cornwall, England. These miners knew how to work in placer mines. The downtown was small and friendly. The movie theater only charged .25 cents to watch a double feature and they didn’t kick you out…so you might see the first movie 3 times and the second movie twice – which I did often, especially if it was an Elvis Presley flick.
Us boys of Grass Valley would do our chores on Saturday morning and then hop on our bikes and ride down the hill to the center of town (it was indeed a valley) where we would spend hours on the school yard playing whatever sport was in season. We’d also wander from one neighborhood market to another, which were always owned by a family of Chinese-Americans, as we searched for the next candy bar. (When we got a little older, we would also try to sneak a peak at a Playboy magazine. The men who ran the stores could be quite understanding of our curiosity. However, if their wives were running the cash register you were shit out of luck (as our fathers used to say)…get the candy bar and keep on moving.
As we walked on the old, elevated and cracked sidewalks that were usually bordered by a stone wall, there was not much room for maneuvering around someone coming from the other direction especially if you were pushing a bike. There was one person who we would never, ever be on the same sidewalk though…his name was Brody.
Brody was probably in his early forties. He always wore overalls with the two straps going over each of his shoulders. His walk was chaotic without clear direction. His mouth and jaw seemed contorted. When he talked,he talked very loud…and nonsensical. He scared the shit out of us (as our fathers used to say). He always seemed angry and did not appear to like little boys at all. He had good reason. Some of the boys in that town, I am certain, must currently be on San Quentin’s death row today. Some of them were twisted little shits (as our fathers used to say). They would throw rocks at Brody, tease him, make fun of him. My friends were of much better character. However, by no means were we friendly to Brody.
Some said Brody was injured in World War II, something called shell shocked. Others said he was born that way. However, the popular explanation is that he was a janitor at our school, called Bell Hill…which indeed did have a large bell in front of the school…and that he got his head caught in the bell when it went rang. Our boyhood intellectual consensus was that this was indeed the most likely explanation. It never occurred to us that the large bell did not actually ring. The thingy in the middle was welded to the bell itself.
Brody was always walking all over town and occasionally he would make his way down to the park where we played our organized youth baseball games. My father was our team’s coach. He was a fine judge of talent as we rarely lost a game. It was customary after each game for the coach to buy all his players a snow cone. (Today, these things are often called Hawaiian Shaved Ice, but it still is just ice and a pure sugar flavoring.) I preferred the cherry flavor, but some would order the Suicide…a mixture of all the available flavors. (I think the Suicide tasted like shit, as our fathers used to say. Also, as you can see, there wasn’t much sensitivity to mental health issues back then!)
For one particular game, Brody showed up and decided to sit in the stands as he quietly watched the entire game. Nobody talked to him, even the adults in the stands kept their distance. He just sat there by himself and watched us play baseball. I would look up at him from time to time expecting him to start muttering a strand of sounds unintelligible to all. He never did. He just sat there quietly and alone. Brody was always alone. I never saw him with someone else and we are talking several years of observations.
At the end of the game, it was snow cone time and 12 little boys took off to the snack shack to be first in line for their free snow cone at my father’s expense. My dad, however, didn’t head straight over, instead he walked over to the stands to where Brody sat. He said, “Come on, let’s get your snow cone.” I couldn’t believe it. My father spoke to Brody like he was …a human being.
Brody got up and walked next to my father as they headed to get a snow cone together. They walked as if they were old pals. He didn’t yell or wave his arms crazily in the air. The other kids parted like the Red Sea as we got up to the counter. Most had never been this close to Brody. My father and I, along with Brody, headed back to sit on the stands where we ate our snow cones with nobody saying a word. There was actually nothing to be said. I was 10 years old.
My father has taught me many lessons, but nothing more important than the snow cone lesson. Some years later, I found myself working in a residential program that housed several men like Brody. On my shift, I spent the night there and I was responsible for making sure they all had breakfast before heading out to their various “work” locations. The previous guy served the residents oatmeal every single morning. I decided that was bullshit (as our fathers used to say) so I started preparing those men a breakfast of eggs, ham, muffins,pancakes, fruit…whatever a hardworking man needed. Maybe I was too young at the time to treat Brody with the respect he deserved, but not too young for the Brody who follows.
Today, that lesson is still alive. Me, my father, and Brody…eating a snow cone on a warm summer evening. Thank you Dad. Yes, treat everyone with respect (as our fathers used to say).