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A Dark Act Proves Happiness Is Relative

By Carl Langley
web posted August 4, 2008

GUEST COLUMN – Don and Jimmy were acquaintances of my childhood, although we grew up in settings as different as day and night. Don was the only boy in a family that enjoyed the prestige money can bring. The family’s wealth was an accumulation of generations, and money, however wisely or unwisely used, buys a lot of respect.

Money aside, the family’s real treasure was in the fulsome beauty of Don’s sisters, girls of olive complexion, long dark hair and flashing teeth and eyes. Their pictures seemed to be on every page of the high school yearbooks, tributes to social glitter and academic achievement.

Don was of near equal status. He was handsome and outgoing, the star pitcher on the baseball team, a starting guard on the basketball team, captain and quarterback of the football team. He also took up a lot of space in the yearbook.

Jimmy was born with misshapen legs and a spinal deformity that condemned him to a life dependent on wheelchairs and a hand-operated homemade cart. The cart was made from salvaged bicycle parts and an old buggy seat with cracked leather upholstery.

Jimmy never got much schooling. There was a school attendance law, but nobody enforced it on a boy who had to be lifted in and out of a chair to get to school, get to class and get to bathroom. I never met any brothers or sisters he may have had.

Jimmy grew up on a farm several miles outside our town’s commercial landmarks, a livery stable and farm implement store. Those were Saturday gathering places for most farmers, who came into town to swap or buy mules, buy pigs, cows or chickens and talk about crops and politics while wives and daughters shopped for cloth and thread and things for the home.

I remember the Lake Swamp farm where I was born and raised as a notch up from the ordinary. The chickens that walked about on our porch were always purebreds - white leghorns, barred rocks and Rhode Island reds - not the barnyard mixed breeds that belonged to folks who lived closer to the swamp.

Our living standards led me to realize years later that there is much truth to the observation that the higher one climbs up the financial and social ladder, the closer to town his or her family was able to move.

Moving into town, or enjoying an upscale lifestyle as they call it in today’s slang, gets you to the high ground and away from mosquitoes, snakes and other creepies which tend to gather and proliferate on the low ground.

We made it into town in 1946, a couple of years after my father scrimped up enough money selling cucumbers, beans, squash, cotton, tobacco and home brew to make the down payment on a store. Moving to town changed our lives.

While this turn of events was in the making, I watched Jimmy grow up condemned to the old buggy seat that sat atop the bicycle wheels of his cart. The cart’s drive chain ran down from a pivot post between his legs. He pedaled with hands, arms and shoulders.

On good Saturdays Jimmy was always in town, cranking up and down the streets and selling pencils, boiled peanuts, bags of candy, cheap perfume, cigarettes and combs. His father had made a merchandiser of him.

Despite his sad lot in life, Jimmy always wore a smile, a curious thing to me. In later years, after I had gone off to college and came home for weekends, I would see Jimmy from time to time and wondered how someone so cursed could be so happy. It was a question I never asked of him or anyone in his family.

Don was off at college, too, after a grand career as the biggest man on the high school campus. He sailed through his university studies, entered medical school and became a doctor. His father had been a doctor and so had been one of his grandfathers, so I was told.

In the early 1960s Don returned home, tacked up his shingle and went to work. Within a few years he had a medical practice second to none. He became chief of staff at the hospital and had two daughtersA former classmate told me they were as pretty as their aunts.

A dozen years later things began to unravel for Don He was forced to give up his prestigious position at the hospital and moved his practice out in the country to a mobile home. His daughters were grown and someone told me his wife had left the home.

One evening I got a telephone call. My mother was on the line. She told me that Don was dead. He had gone into his study the night before, put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. There had been no warning signs.

My father and mother said they wouldn’t believe what had happened. They told me the town was abuzz with rumors. They said gossips were reporting that Don had developed a drinking habit, had gotten hooked on drugs, had lost his wife to a lesbian love affair, and so forth and so on. The talk was scandalous and vicious, and I suspected the truth was far removed from the gossip.

The following weekend I went home and drove by Don’s house. I had always admired it because I never could afford a place like that. Then I drove into town to the corner where Jimmy used to hang out while resting up from pedaling his cart about town. I didn’t see Jimmy anywhere.

A friend who ran a shoe repair business near the railroad tracks said Jimmy hadn’t been around in several years but he still lived out in the country and still greeted family members and friends with a big old grin. He had to give up his cart because of arthritis that settled into his shoulders and hands.

I have spent years wondering why a man who seemingly had little to live for could keep on going atop that old cart, smiling and greeting others while enduring the stares and whispers of those who found him to be a curiosity.

I have spent years wondering why another man, blessed by birth, envied by many and prepared for life with the best money could buy, would choose to end everything alone in a darkened room.

There are never any easy answers when it comes to making sense of what happens to lost souls under severe stress. Only they can speak to these things and too often they choose to remain silent.

Some are left searching in vain for answers, and wondering about the shadowy torment that drives some to do desperate things. A desperate act in a darkened room proves status, money and prestige are no guarantees of happiness.

Orginally published 8/1/93 by Carl Langley

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