Saturday, December 24, 2011

My special Christmas phone call

  Several months ago I was watching college football at home when I heard a knock on my door. The other side of the door held a pleasant surprise. My friend, Dale, stood waiting for me. My immediate impression was that he was looking good. He had a healthy glow to him; he is an Irishman with a ruddy complexion but his glow looked different this time, he looked healthy. He had dropped weight, in order to preserve a terribly damaged knee. He always wears a smile and he stood in my doorway with his typical (goofball) grin. We have the kind of relationship that would appear antagonistic to observers. We bicker back and forth in all of our conversations- even when we are in complete agreement.

  "Dammit Dale, you just disappeared and didn't call me or tell anybody you were leaving... Get in the house. For some reason we worry about you, I wish you would have told somebody you were leaving. What happened? Everybody at camp is worried about you"

  "Never mind. You won't believe me."

  "I'll believe you this time, I never expected to see you sober. How did you do it?"

  "How did you know I've been sober?"

  "Well look at you. You're wearing nice new work boots. You're so clean I can see my reflection in your giant belly and you don't look bloated- you don't look like you're on deaths door."

  "Well I needed new work boots. I'm doing concrete work with my brother-in-law as much as I can. My knee lets me work at least every other day. I think I'll be able to work 5 days a week when I lose another 20 or 30 pounds."

  I'm an eternal optimist. I believe everybody has potential. Dale had made me question my eternal optimism at times; despite our friendship.

  His history seemed to have an unbreakable grip on him. While in Vietnam he faced court martial and incarceration for attacking a high ranking officer. After spending a week in the jungle killing people he failed to recognize any authority figure, so punching some officer that had never even killed anybody didn't seem like a big deal. After serving his time and returning to the jungle he had just enough time to severely damage his knee (his knee has been repaired as much as possible but he suffers from a lot of pain- he will always suffer to some extent). While on one leg and getting ready for his honorable discharge he had another violent outburst. I'm sure you've figured out what's next by now; more time behind bars and a dishonorable discharge.
  Dale saw coming home from the war as a fresh start. A new chapter. After a few months of unsuccessful job hunting he devised a flawless business plan. He would just find crack houses. Bust in the door with a few friends and let everybody know that if he didn't leave with all of the drugs, all of the money and anything else he wanted then everybody would die in a painful and gruesome manner. He's a very physically intimidating man. I imagine that if he had a gun in a persons face demanding everything of value most people would comply- I would.

  That worked well for a few years. People feared him. Nobody was going to testify against him. Nobody was going confront him- that would be insanity! The problem was that he was good at targeting drug houses. Too good. He was as good at locating them as the local police. I don't think he ever imagined the possibility that he was targeting the same people as the police. He was shocked the day he busted into a crack house and the police followed up with a raid at the same time he was conducting his raid. 

  Well, a seven year prison sentence seems like an eternity to me but Dale explained it to me simply; "If I got busted for everything I did wrong then I would have been gone a lot longer!" He vowed to himself that when his sentence was served that he would settle into a nice boring life. No armed robberies. No selling drugs. Just a job and weekends spent camping, fishing- really anything relaxing was good enough for him.

  After his release he reached his goals. He got a good job as an equipment operator at an industrial salvage yard. It payed a good wage. The benefits were good. He was able to stay off of his bad knee. Most importantly he could finally feel productive. He was finally able to take care of his family with honest work. Things were going so well that he even earned a promotion.

  When he learned that he was going to be earning more money he was ready to celebrate. He did what most of us would do to celebrate, he invited some co-workers to let him buy them a beer on a Friday afternoon at a neighborhood bar. The party was a hit. Dale is an outgoing guy with a great sense of humor. I assume everybody was having a great time while Dale kept everybody laughing. I'm sure it was a great night.

  A great night until it was time to leave. Dale was putting on his coat when he noticed a familiar face. It was the face of a drug dealer that he had robbed at gunpoint many years before. The man pulled out a knife and attacked. The two men fought. Dale was able to take the knife. "I just flipped out" was the explanation he gave me. By the end of the fight the other man had been stabbed in the heart, numerous times. Sadly he was dead by the time the police arrived.

  The next prison sentence was worse than the previous one. Dale might have been a violent man but he didn't want to kill anybody. His description of his depression is a horrible image. He became suicidal but lacked the conviction to follow through with his fateful decision.

  He found a pretty effective means of suicide after his release. Drink and then drink some more. Score some crack and you're halfway there. He spent several years slowly killing himself with vodka and crack. By the time I met him it was obvious that his life span was considerably shorter than it should have been.

  After I got to know him and we became close friends I remember one conversation that will stay with me until the day I die. We were standing on the shipping pallet front porch in front of his tent at the homeless camp. He put his hand on my shoulder and with tears streaming down his face he said; 

  "You know what? You seem smart- but you're not. You're standing in the middle of hell by choice and you're friends with me. I'm a convict, I'm homeless, I'm a drunk- I'll just end up getting you in trouble or ripping you off."

  "I'll take my chances, Dale. I don't know why anybody would but for some reason I like your goofy ass and I know that you like me. It doesn't matter if we like it or not, we're stuck- we're friends."

  After his surprise visit to my house we have talked on the phone but only for a quick hello.

  He called me a few days ago, mainly to wish me a Merry Christmas. He is still sober. He is seeing a doctor and a therapist. He is losing weight. His knee isn't perfect but losing weight has made it possible to increase his work schedule. He is living down the street from his son, he evaluates (and probably scares) every boy that wants to date his grand-daughter.

  My irrational optimism seem justified. I can't predict the future. I never would have predicted that he would be doing so well now. If I was a gambling man I would bet the farm that he will never be locked up again. He will be healthy and sober next Christmas. And every Christmas after that. I'm don't consider my attitude to be optimistic this time; I think I'm just being realistic.

*names have been changed out of respect for my friends privacy

No comments:

Post a Comment