Next month will be 20 years ago my phone rang. I hadn't been home long after a two-week trip to Charlotte to find my son and get him calmed down after having an argument with his mother. He'd just graduated from high school and they got into it over how he should conduct himself now that he was a high school graduate, even though he wasn't yet 18 years old and still living under her roof.
He gets his hardheadedness from his mother.
Driving down Highway 51 out of town I saw a tall, lanky, blonde headed kid who looked familiar waiting to cross the road. By the time I could get turned around and back to where he'd been he was gone so I spent some time during the trip back home to Chattanooga tracking down his phone number.
Ring-ring... "Hello." "Hi Mr. Burrage, it's Kevin. My brother said you left a message to call you," he said. "Yes, and I think I also asked him to have you call me collect" said I. "But Mr. Burrage, I have my own money now, a job. I've been clean and dry for over a year so I can spend my money to call you."
Nineteen years old... already a juicer and druggie, but also with a sense of personal pride in accomplishment.
We had a nice, long conversation catching up on what'd been happening with him during the three or four years since we'd last spoken. He and his brothers had run their dad off and were taking care of their mother. They were finishing school, working, he was working a couple of construction jobs, keeping busy, and planning to enroll in the local community college in the fall.
We passed into one another's lives when Kevin and my son were in Webelos. We lost the den leader soon after Christmas that year so the scoutmaster of the Boy Scout troop jumped in to keep from losing the den, and potential new scouts. Kevin was a behavior problem and spent most den/troop meetings in the back of the room with a hand on his shoulder as a reminder to be still and quiet, sometimes in a headlock with a hand over his mouth. We'd asked his mother for her approval, which was enthusiastically granted. Walking up to her vehicle in the darkness, the fact she was wearing dark glasses spoke volumes. It also explained why Kevin was such a behavior problem. He was the epitome of a kid needing attention, even negative attention. Speaking to a couple of den moms verified that she and her children were all victims of abuse. Daddeo would apparently get schnockered then whomp on anyone within reach... anyone who was smaller and weaker than him... and the abuse was both physical and emotional, as is often the case in such situations.
What a man.
Kevin started out trying to be the tough guy. He was tougher than the others, knew more, and could do more than anyone else... until the boys decided to build a scale model of the space shuttle for their Scout Jamboree that year. One of the boys volunteered his dad's shop to work in. They scrounged up scrap wood and particle board, and went to work. One of the men helped make scaled section drawings from a plastic model. Another kept an eye on the boys so nobody amputated a finger while they were operating the tools. They learned to break a project down into small, manageable parts, draw piece part forms before cutting any wood, assembling things in a logical order, and that wood putty can be a man's second best friend.
Shortly after assembly work began someone started crying. It was Kevin. As smart and tough as he thought he was, he just wasn't good with his hands or even, at the time, his brain. Every mistake was a major trauma until someone showed him how to correct his mistakes. He didn't do it for Kevin, just explained how and got him started. I'll never forget the tone in Kevin's voice when he asked his rescuer "Where did you learn how to do so many different things?" Or the look on his face when the response was, "When you're a poor boy who makes a lot of mistakes and can't afford to pay someone to correct them, you learn to figure out how to do a lot of stuff kiddo."
That project not only seemed to fire off his jets, it kicked in his afterburners. He quit, for the most part, making fun of the other boys for making mistakes. He jumped in to help whenever he could. He became a good Scout... who was there for each and every service project, as I've written about previously, whether he drew one of the proper length straws or not. He couldn't be kept away, especially if there were power tools being used. He loved working with his hands.
When his behavior deteriorated, we knew things were going on at home... so we'd put him to work mentoring the younger boys, showing them how to do "stuff," and his behavior would get better again. His work at school improved too.
I asked Kevin why he'd gotten involved with drugs and booze, to which he responded "I lost my focus. When our scoutmaster and that other guy had to move on the troop just wasn't the same. I dropped out and just lost focus after that."
I asked what caused him to yank a knot in his own tail, to straighten up and start behaving himself. "I sat here one day, drunk. Mom looked at me and started crying. I didn't have a job or much hope of finding one, or much hope for that matter, and thought back to when you all taught us everyone makes mistakes but most of them can be corrected and we can outlive the rest. I went out and went to work as a laborer the next day and haven't had a drink or gotten stoned since." We also used to preach that everyone should expect to start at the bottom of what ever ladder they choose to jump on, and climb up, rather than starting at the top.
Hope... dreams... isn't that what the Wise/Weisman team wrote into Elvis' song?
I've found a way to make him leave
Got a pocketful of rainbows
Got a star up in my sleeve
Isn't that what was meant when Bing Crosby sang about catching falling stars, Edgar Allen Poe wrote about that gaily bedight knight dude, and Sammy Johns and Waylon wrote about America?
Some have said down through history
If you last it's a mystery
But I guess they don't know what they're talking about
From the mountains down to the sea
You've become such a habit with me
America... it isn't just a place on a map that many can't locate, is it. It's an attitude, a belief system, a way of life, isn't it.
America... where, when our government becomes overbearing and tending to the needs of the governing instead of those of the governed, those who are governed have the ability, the right and responsibility, to remind who is whose boss. But we've been here before haven't we, in many of our own lifetimes. We were here after President Carter, when disco dancing was all the rage. We were here when President Johnson shoved his "Great Society" down our throats, and "Get Smart" was the most popular comedy on television. We've been here before. We'll be here again, but in the end that American spirit will prevail.
The last I heard Kevin had started a little remodeling business, married a nice girl, they bought a house in a nice neighborhood and had a couple little baby-sans, who probably aren't such babies these days, and Grandma was having the time of her life. Where else can people overcome the abuse they endured, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, sometimes several times, and go about following their dreams?
Is this the greatest nation to ever grace the face of Planet Terra, or what?
Royce Burrage, Jr.