Saturday, May 29, 2010


[Prior to the events narrated in this segment, Beverly had entered the story. She was the same age as Johnny and I; she had endured rheumatoid arthritis but had not been deformed by it, only rendered forever under her mother's grip. She spent her days in a hospital bed in the family living room. )

It was a year before Johnny and Beverly and I found out that Jim Pinckney's full name was James Joseph Pinckney, Junior, and that his family called him "Jimmy Joe"-- always had, currently did, and ever would, worlds without end amen. At that point, the always-wispy line between teacher and students disappeared forever, gone with the windy snort of adolescent mockery.

We never called him Jimmy Joe to his face, of course, at least not until Johnny and Beverly officially graduated from their homebound classes and received diplomas. But he was "Mr. Pinckney" for only his first weeks as their teacher. After Beverly had stumbled shyly and repeatedly over his name, landing hopefully on "Mr. Pinky" and "Mr. Picky," and after I had referred to the totemic Eliot poem as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Pinkfrock," we were told,
"Call me Jim." The "or else" hung in the air like dangerous magnolias.

I don't know what the school systems of today call teachers who go to students' home for one-on-one instruction. Perhaps there is no such thing anymore. Perhaps the great cause of "mainstreaming" has resulted in sick children being wheeled into classrooms on gurnies, accompanied by oxygen tanks, personal aides and interpreters. But in the Fifties, school boards proudly offered "Homebound" instruction, presumably to any child who could qualify as homebound, whether by obvious physical limitations (like Johnny) or by parental fiat (like Beverly). In any case, into both their lives (and consequently mine) the Tucson Public School system sent James J. Pinckney. None of us was ever the same again, least of all, Jimmy Joe.

I wasn't there when the knock came on the door and Johnny's mother opened it to find the neatly dressed young man smiling at her with at least 42 teeth and a striped bow tie. But imagination supplies. Midwestern Lutheran niceness and Southern courtesy surely beamed at each other on that day. Verla had to be impressed with Jim, without being intimidated. The pluses: the suit, the well-tended haircut, the dancing school manners. On the negative hand, Jim had a slight build, something of a stammer, and chipmunk cheeks. He also had smiles the way some people have dandruff. His was an English mouth--small jaw, large teeth crowding each other out of line. Think Joyce Grenfell, Alastair Sim, Terry Thomas, Princess Anne. Perhaps the compulsive smiles came from those teeth yearning for freedom, or at least for more space.

Johnny, Beverly, and I were all innocents of the Fifties. Today's sophomores would readily pigeonhole, accurately or otherwise, this young man with his fastidious ways, his startling high giggles, and his pale freckled hands that could find no rest, neither in his pockets, behind his back, beneath his books, nor anywhere else. But we three had nothing much for comparison in those pre-sitcom days, and he became, for us, just Jim. Maybe he was an atypical window to the world for the two homebound kids, but the breeze he brought with him was delightful.

Of course, I didn't get to know Jim as a teacher. I had my own allotment of society's mavericks wielding the grade-books at my high school, and they didn't seem all that different from Jim. But for me, Jim was an adult who appeared more like us than like his thirty-something contemporaries. Actually, his silly streak was wider, and, I suspect, deeper than ours. Perhaps that was his greatest contribution to the homebound pair--he resurrected in them just enough of the silliness that is the healthy teen-ager's birthright. Best example? Their graduation night.

(To be continued.)

Friday, May 14, 2010


I don't recall any getting-to-know-you stage with Johnny. One morning we were strangers; then it was as if we had always spent the hot, lazy summer days together in his living room, the swamp cooler droning away, his mother tactfully out of sight somewhere in the small house. (Theirs had only two bedrooms. Years later I decided that the cramped space and privacy limitations might have had something to do with his older sister's crappy disposition.)

Surely--though I don't remember this--I must have felt some initial shock at his appearance. Rheumatoid arthritis had invaded and captured Johnny's body when he was ten or twelve. (We never talked about that.) When it was finished with him, he was in permanent lockdown, imprisoned by his frozen body. Legs in heavy braves, he could, with great effort, manage half-a-dozen dragging steps on his kid-sized crutches. Otherwise, he spent his days in a large recliner. Hands surrealistically skewed and deformed, he couldn't grasp things well or make a fist, couldn't raise his arms to shoulder level. His neck turned stiffly just a few degrees to left or right, Erich von Stroheim style. His face was huge, swollen by cortisone, smooth-skinned and rosy. He had no need to shave, at fourteen or ever.

Two physical pluses must have impressed me even on that first visit. Though Johnny's teeth were a bit discolored and rather crooked, when he smiled--no, when he laughed--it was always a surprise. I mean to say that laughter took him by surprise, and he was totally given over to it. His head went back, his mouth oepened wide, his eyes squeezed shut, and his chest heaved. He'd get his breath briefly, then be caught up again and rock back a second time. It was gorgeous to watch.

And although his body had stayed that of a twelve-year old boy, his voice, even in mid-teens, was deep, rich, and melodious. How was it that his voice matured while the rest of the physical apparatus did not? (We would never have talked about that.) Unlike his body, Johnny's voice was a faithful, clear mirror of his soul.

I woke up to another surprise after we had been friends nearly a year. (Only his good manners kept me from realizing it earlier.) Johnny was smarter than I was. And more sophisticated intellectually. I hadn't expected that, had never considered the possibility. The truth, when it did come, seeped into my head slowly, so that somehow my arrogance and pride didn't get involved. Or maybe his natural modesty trumped my competitiveness.

Take music. This very morning, along with the usual gang of arthritic senior citizens warming up in the pool at Walden Garden Fitness Center, I became aware of the background music being piped in. Fats Domino sending out "Blueberry Hill." Bill Haley going around the clock one more time. Dutifully doing the drill of "clap in front, clap in back," I let myself be fourteen again, and saw Johnny, eyes closed, toadish body rocking from side to side as he sang, "Ain't That A Shame?" or "Walking to New Orleans." He loved Fats. Loved Satchmo. He indulged my own love for Peter, Paul, and Mary, but gently suggested that Joan Baez was doing something bigger, something hipper, cooler. Without ever saying the words, of course.

Or take poetry. Now, for the record, I was the omnivorous reader, the gifted young writer of school essays, ever since Mrs. Richardson in the first days of 7th grade said that I could skip a grade and go into 8th if I wanted to. (Some savvy angel was guarding the crosswalk that day for sure; dropped the warning paddles and shook her head. I said no thank you to Mrs. Richardson without ever consulting my parents.) Johnny had last been inside a classroom in the fifth grade.
So how was it he knew all about T.S. Elior, Ezra Pound, and wonder of all wonders, then and now, Dylan Thomas. Not only knew about, but understood. He had record albums of all these poets reading their own poetry. Could recite lines from Auden's elegy on the death of Yeat's, for heaven's sake! ("O all the instruments agree/the day of his death was a dark cold day.")

And we won't even talk about chess.


I've wanted to write about Johnny for at least twenty years. So I'm going to start with bits and pieces on the blogsite, one at a time, and see if they take me anyplace. If they take YOU anyplace, do let me know. All of this is true, and most of it actually happened this way.

My mother dragged me, kicking and screaming, to my first visit with Johnny.

Not literally, of course. At fourteen, I would never have given her the satisfaction of such an engaged response. Instead, I sighed often and melodramatically, nearly hyper-ventilating.

I rolled my eyes, shook my head in disgust, and stood as far as possible from her at the corner bus stop, one hip cocked out impatiently.

Esther (sometimes "Mom," sometimes "Moth-ER," but mostly "Esther" as the most neutral, don't-think-I-care choice) had met Johnny in the course of her work as a practical nurse. She thought I'd enjoy meeting him. As if she would know who or what I'd enjoy, or anything else about me, I had fumed silently.

On the other hand, given my sour frame of mind, even a starving Hannibal Lector wouldn't have cared to meet me. Did Esther ever think about that? Ah, no. Self-deception was our family's dysfunction of choice: not what was, but what you could label it. A comforting label and a deaf ear dismissed most self-doubts. Esther never doubted that she knew what I'd like, or who I was. In any case, here I was on the hot summer day, being hijacked and bussed along dusty Indio Street, the bus farting its way east to a marginally more upscale section of Tucson. (More palo verde trees than our neighborhood, some houses with three bedrooms instead of two, possibly even two cars in the driveway. In 1950, not every car had one car yet.)

Beyond the bus-stop indignity, I don't remember anything more about that first encounter. Probably the fact that Esther turned out to be right for once wiped my initially ugly attitude from my memory. For she was right. I did enjoy meeting Johnny. Truth to tell, I can't think of anything my mother ever did that gave me as much joy, over the long haul, as bringing Johnny and me together.