By Tim Hayes
School is a jungle. Whether growing up in the city or suburbs or rural routes, friendships can be tenuous, threats can spring up like crabgrass, life carries no promises of calm, peace, or justice. Those ideals can get crushed to powder underfoot like a dead brown leaf on a chilly October sidewalk.
That’s why it paid to live near Wheeler.
Wheeler – so named because of his propensity for, and mastery of, popping spectacular long-lasting “wheelies” on his bike – could outshine anybody on the block when it came to athletic ability. A little on the wild side, Wheeler represented the closest any of the fellow parochial school males on the street would get to living with a spirit of anarchy and contempt of authority. The halo effect of Wheeler’s attitude felt simultaneously thrilling and worrisome, like getting away with something really juicy, yet knowing that the terrible swift sword of parental sentencing was ever on the backswing, ready to come down with a vengeance on your ungrateful, smart-alecky neck.
As was wont to happen when more than two boys were forced to gather in one place – like sixth-grade, for instance – one of the class bullies started in on a pacifist across the asphalt playground one lunchtime, complaining loudly about some manufactured slight. This alleged – and totally groundless – “insult” had to be met with two-fisted justice after school, the bully shouted. The truth, however, amounted to nothing more than the sociopathic need for this pre-teen Cro-Magnon to pound on an easy victim before a rapt audience. Jungle, remember?
The scheduled recipient of this unwarranted beat-down, as students filed back into school for the afternoon countdown to Armageddon, got pulled aside by Wheeler, a neighbor and friend, who said not to worry about any fight. “If the jerk wants to beat you up,” Wheeler said, “he’ll have to get through me first.” The fight never came off as advertised. The fight never came off at all. Wheeler saved the day.
Too bad Wheeler’s life inside his own home never reached the heights of his exploits of fearlessness, loyalty, and just plain badassery in public. Born second, he fought endlessly to come even remotely close to the reputation of his older brother, who shone like the fire of seven suns in his parents’ eyes, but without success. Never good enough, never smart enough, never quite enough no matter what the criteria, Wheeler spent most of his time away from the house the older he got. And that’s how it began.
In the 1970s, finding ways to get into trouble in the inner city was no trouble at all. At one of those crucial forks in the road while growing up – where you can choose to be a productive, contributing member of society, or not – Wheeler made a bad choice.
As the neighborhood guys started getting into high school activities and expanding their network of friends beyond the home block, Wheeler did even more poorly in class, finding acceptance and camaraderie – or so it felt, at least – hanging out at the corner store, getting into alcohol and drugs, even petty crime, fencing stolen goods to pay for his habit.
Personal counseling, substance abuse treatment, hospitalized detox stays, spiritual support from the parish priest, even serving as an usher at the wedding of the guy he saved from getting beat up in grade school – all got pursued. None proved effective.
Finally, one early morning, an ambulance from the county coroner’s office carried the lifeless body of Wheeler away from his childhood home for the last time, the victim of an accidental overdose, completely alone, in his attic bedroom. He had been up there, dead, for hours before being discovered.
Wheelers exist everywhere. They have great skills. They start out with big hearts. They want to be loved and respected and embraced and accepted, and they deserve it. The Wheelers of the world may feel like they have no other choice but to seek those things from things, like drugs, if they can’t get them from people. That’s the tragedy.
We are placed on this stupid spinning rock in the middle of blackest outer space for one purpose – to help each other. Wheeler knew that. His after-school defense of a friend facing an unfair fight proved it. It remains a shocking verdict, as he never felt that spirit reciprocated in his life, that it ultimately took his life. And way, way too soon.
Let’s do a better job of seeing the Wheelers where we live and work and worship. Let them know we see them. Let them know they’re not alone, and that they are valued. It could be the most heroic thing we’ll ever do.
Copyright 2016 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting