My Old Friend,
© Copyright 2021 by James L. Cowles
Mike was one tough dude, with only one flaw. He had a learning disability and consequently, was perceived by some to be a little “slow.” From the time he was very young in the late 1940’s, he was placed in “special” ed. classes. During those years there was not enough understanding of “dyslexia,” and the impact it might have on learning, and looking back over the years, it's certainly a distinct possibility Mike was afflicted with this problem. He certainly wasn't a dumb kid and any slowness attributed to him may well have been the pure ignorance of others. Sometimes what others think of you, can actually cause you to start believing what they say. Sadly, this may cause the "afflicted" to think less of themselves.
In my mind, the evidence shows Mike was concerned about the perception of himself by others and as a result, sought approval by sometimes attempting to show he had special abilities. In his mind, whatever shortfall he might have, deserved to be overly compensated by other qualities. Thus, this would sometimes lead him to do absurd things, which would further contribute to the unwanted perception of others.
I offer this story as evidence of the point I'm attempting to make. Once, three of us boys had decided to go camping, and we set out on a Friday afternoon toward a place we had found several weeks before. We carried a pup tent, along with cooking utensils and "grub" our mothers had help each of us pack. Our destination was not very far from where we lived, and it took us less than an hour to arrive. It was summer, and the State of Kentucky was building a major expressway that ran through our little community of Highland Park. Since it was many months from being completed, it was an ideal route to our new found camp ground, and it was especially easy to use after hours, when the workers had gone home.
Although the camping area was close to major parts of the City of Louisville, it appeared to be very rural once inside the wooded area that we had found by accident. There, in that shaded nook, there was a beautiful little stream and fishing hole naturally attractive to young boys and once we had left the expressway construction area, we stepped only a few feet before becoming enveloped by nature. Surrounding forest, birds, small animals and cooler temperatures, a welcome relief from our trek out on the newly constructed highway in the hot days of July.
This particular day, we entered the woods and immediately found the trail we had originally used to lead us to our new camping area, we had designated as our “campground.” I remember the cool air of the shade and how relaxing it felt. I had thought to bring a fishing line and hook with me that first day, and even caught the most beautiful sunfish, which I released for later fishing expeditions. We were doing what we imagined other City kids would love to be doing and now, on this day, had not gone very far along the pathway before we noticed hoof prints, making it pretty obvious someone had ridden a horse in the same direction we were walking. This was precisely when Mike’s need to over compensate kicked in and he immediately stooped to examine the prints. He felt them with both hands and after several seconds, looked up at Dan and me and in a very serious tone announced, “Hmmm, still warm.”
It’s safe to say, neither Dan nor I could hold our laughter and when Mike finally realized how ridiculous his statement sounded, he joined us, laughing at himself. Dan suggested that we might ought to put our ear to the ground to see if we could hear the horse trotting along, so as to gauge the distance it was from us. This of course led to more laughter from all three of us. This then was a demonstration of Mike's need to have that afore mentioned, special skill, so as to prove he was not disabled, not afflicted in any way, that he was just as smart as us, or anyone else. With his buddies, he could relax, even allowing us to laugh at him, but more importantly, allowing him to laugh at himself. He was at ease with us, something which, at the time, we did not even give a second thought.
Mike was a good friend for many years, and I remember him fondly, even though I lost track of him after graduating from high school. We just seemed to go our separate ways from that point on, but looking back, I especially remember our teen years, when we both first learned to drive. My father did not own a car, but fortunately for me and my mother, whom I used to drive to the grocery store, the youngest of my three sisters, Gloria, and my brother-in-law, Oval, gave me a 1940 Ford Sedan to drive after I got my license. Believe me when I say, it needed lots of work. After all, it had over one hundred thousand miles on it. Those old engines of the past didn't have the electronics of newer ones and they simply wore out much quicker. I was new at all things mechanical, but thankfully, Mike was there to help me through it all. In fact, I don’t know what I would have done without him.
As a testament to his strength, Mike was a wizard at changing tires. Now, when I say “changing tires,” I do not mean putting on a spare. No, no. I mean removing tires from their rims, and replacing them, all without any tools that one would normally need for such a thing. After deflating the tire, Mike would bounce up and down on the edge of it, near the rim, until it finally broke loose. Then he would grab the rim with one hand and the tire with the other, and “rip” the tire off leaving a bare rim. I haven't met anyone else in my entire lifetime that could do such a thing. Needless to say, you did not want to ever get on the wrong side of my pal, Mike.
Needless to say, I left the more physical difficult tasks to Mike and I busied myself with things like brake jobs, oil changes and the like. In those days, when money was scarce, I'd find my tires on used racks at local service stations. I could buy a decent tire for ten bucks and after Mike did his thing, I would use the same old tube from the old tire, for the new one. Yes, tires had inner tubes in those days and again, Mike was handy at getting the replacement tire on the rim, leaving me to put it on the car. We had a manual air pump and we both took turns inflating the tires, but Mike seemed to never run out of energy, pumping twice as much as me. We would pump awhile, then check the air with our gauge, then pump some more, but we always took the car to the corner service station, where we could check the air for free. It's a shame you can no longer get free air.
I remember one time when somehow, I got the bumper of that old Ford wrapped around a pole at the corner gas station. The pole actually ended up between the trunk and the inside of the bumper and I was stuck fast. There was no damage to the car, but the bumper had apparently sprung when I backed into the post, then popped back, leaving the car bumper stuck around it, and me unable to move the car. Mike picked up the back of that car, and moved it slightly to the left, solving my problem. His strength came through once again. I really should have said, “Mike came through.“ Mike's strength is no doubt further evidence of his need to have that bit of extra ability, something the average person would not possess.
I also remember that Mike had a car of his own and as I recall, I believe it was a ‘50 Ford, with a Fordamatic transmission, that took more transmission fluid than the car burned in gasoline. I’m being factious of course, but it leaked badly, and Mike got about one trip to a quart of additional fluid. I remember he had to park the car on the street because of that leak, and he would always check the fluid before driving it. I remember one particular evening, he had a date with a pretty neighbor girl, and when he picked her up, he was surprised to find it was going to be a double date. In fact, a girl I had been dating was there at her house, with another guy. Mike went on the date, but it was hardly over before he drove to my house to tell me the girl was cheating on me. A loyal friend indeed. I should have listened to him a little better, but then, I attribute all of my biggest mistakes to youth. Don’t we all? One thing for sure. Mike's friendship was never a mistake. A person could never have a more loyal friend than Mike.
The chances are good you have a friend like Mike, or you know someone like him. I began this story talking about his “one flaw.” But is that fair? In reality, everyone of us have flaws, don't we? I don't really know if Mike was retarded in some way, I only know our school system thought he was. I would encourage others to never judge someone by what others think and more importantly, I'd suggest you spend time with those who seem disadvantaged, or, are “different” in some way. I don’t remember why or how I lost touch with Mike, but I’m sorry I did. I’ve searched for him, but haven’t been able to find him. Everyone has something to contribute. Avoiding someone because of either your, or someone else’s perception, is a failure on your part, not theirs. Besides, if you want a solid friend, there are plenty of Mikes' out there. Go out there and find one and when you do, don't be foolish like me and lose him, or her.
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