In the past years, I have written about my friend Jerry. Jerry was handicapped as a child with polio and other problems, but he overcame those limitations and has had a happy life — but not a perfect life, by no means. If this child could deal with his life and grow into a fine man, then how can we as healthy adults have anything to complain about?
At times in our lives we do struggle with our minds and our bodies. With that said, if we are honest with ourselves, then we know the reality of life and the fact that there are many others who have to deal with greater problems in life than we could ever imagine. Life is a gift from God and it does not matter that we have to live with its trials and tribulations. For it is still life that has been given to us.
That is part of my story of Jerry’s life. Jerry’s life would never be easy for him or his family. But again, most of us just take it as it comes to us and we go forward, if we can, with no sense of pity for ourselves. That was the way that Jerry’s family took on the problems he was given at birth. There would be no pity party within this family for Jerry. His parents would do the best that they could and overcome the heartbreak and sorrow that would come in their child’s life. These words that I write come from the eyes and memory of a child who did not understand everything that his friend had to deal with. I only knew that Jerry was different, but not different in a bad way. I, even at that young age, did see kindness and caring within this child with his broken body. It was something that I did not necessarily see in all adults then or now.
You have to open up your mind’s eye and try to see all that I tell you — better yet, after you read this, close your eyes and watch the movie in your mind. In the valley that I am from in Tennessee, there was a family by the name of Van Cleave. The mother and father were named Mary and Oliver. There were seven sons and one daughter. They all lived in a two-bedroom home, so they were very poor, as were most of the people in our valley. One thing that I do remember about their home was that it might have been small but it was always nice and clean — as were all the children of their family. Just good kind people. That was the way it was for all the people who lived in the valley. They might have been poor but they were proud and good people.
As I have written, they had one son who was very special — his name was Jerry. He was a child who was almost dropped through the cracks. During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Tennessee was struggling, as were most Southern states. It was a very hard life at that time for the people of Tennessee. With all it’s wisdom, the state told Jerry’s parents that he was retarded and could not be taught anything. The state did not take the time to find out what the true problems were. His parents were told that he should be placed in a state home for invalids.
That was not the truth, as, at that time, he had not been diagnosed with polio and his other physical problems. He had just been seen by a social worker with no medical knowledge. I don’t want to keep on pointing my finger at the state of Tennessee and make people think it was the state’s fault for what they were trying to do to Jerry. It’s just the plain fact that the funds for this type of medical care were far and few between.
There were no special schools in our area at that time that could help Jerry. If the truth be known, there were very few in the entire state during that time period.
Sad thing is that Jerry did not need any help, for he was not retarded. He just could not talk to where you could understand him, his words were slurred. It did not help in his outward appearance that his right side was twisted and crippled. There was no one to fight for Jerry and the help that he needed. His parents knew only what they were told; they were just simple country folks. But to just look at the child, what else would you think during that time period? The main thing is that it did not matter to Jerry’s parents or to our community, for Jerry was loved.
All Jerry had was time, the other kids had school. Day in, day out for years. As I got older ,maybe at 6 years, I started to notice Jerry more. Jerry was always waiting for the school bus and his brothers. As I got to know the family better, I found out that Jerry could talk. Not like you and I, but in grunts and moans.
After time you could, believe it or not, understand him. As time went by, Jerry got older and he would drag his crippled little body around our valley. Everyone knew Jerry and they all looked out for him.
He would go from house to house and ditch to ditch looking for drink bottles. The going rate was 1 cent per bottle.
Jerry saved all his money. When the rest of the kids had nothing, he had his money. Jerry saved and saved his money until, one day, he got it across to his father that he wanted a lawn mower. He bought a old used gas push mower when the adults in the valley only had the old-time push mower’s with the revolving blades.
Jerry knew what he was doing but the adults did not. They would come to Jerry and try to borrow his mower. Jerry would have nothing to do with that. He would not even allow his father to borrow it. Here was where the catch came in: he charged. Jerry hooked all that could afford his service. He charged $2 per yard. That was great for Jerry at a time when most of the people in the valley made $8 a day.
Jerry saved even harder; he did without everything. When the other kids had money for drinks and candy, he did without. Jerry knew what he wanted and he got it: a brand new red bike. He could not peddle it but he could rest his crippled leg on the peddle and push — and push he did. He pushed his little crippled body all over our valley.
The great state of Tennessee said that he would never learn anything. They tried to get the parents, when he was very young, to put him in an asylum for the retarded. He would have been lost forever.
One day, after many years of being gone, I went back to my valley. I swear on my eyes the first person I saw was Jerry. He was sitting at the only stop sign in the valley — on a new red bike. I pulled up to him and asked him if he knew who I was. He grunted out, “Robert Lee.” The last time Jerry had seen me was when I was 9 years old. I was 39 when he saw me on that day. But Tennessee said that he would never be able to remember anything. All I can say is Southern people, and most people, take care of their special babies.
Kathleen Sebelius, the former secretary of the Deparment of Health and Human Services, could learn a lesson on how to treat children, simply by talking to a Southerner.
Robert Lee is a concerned citizen and U.S. Marine veteran who owns and operates Rockingham Guns and Ammo. His column appears here each Saturday.