Over the Mountains and Through the Fire
“When the next rain comes no one will be able to tell the ground has even been disturbed,” or at least that is what I told myself as I fitted the sod back together the best I could. I wasn’t just bragging either; I’d made a rather neat job of it even if I was the only person around to witness it. Nana would be pleased. She was a neat and tidy kind of woman and she would appreciate the effort I had put into the job. Of course Nana was now buried underneath that sod so maybe I was just having a case of wishful thinking.
She wasn’t even my Nana but that had never made a difference to either one of us. She loved me because I had been best friends with her grandson Jonathon and I loved the old lady because she was just about the only person besides my parents and my best friend that had treated me normal, like I was a real kid instead of someone that fate had played a joke on.
I missed Jonathon nearly as much as I missed my parents. I’d buried him too only a few days ago and not too many miles away. At another time I might have carried Nana’s body back to that place so that they could be buried together, but not now. Someone who believed in ghosts and things like that might have been tempted to say that not carrying out that last act would have them haunting me … but I don’t believe in ghosts. Let’s be brutally honest; they’re dead and the last thing they care about anymore is where their husks are, I’m not dead yet but going back the way I came could get me dead so it wasn’t a choice I was willing to act on. I know they are already where this life’s decisions have sent them so I have to have faith that if they are looking down they’d understand. I’m pretty sure they are both in Heaven but either way I can’t do anything about what was between them and God. I have enough trouble dealing with my own confusing relationship with the Creator.
I sat down to rest and think. I needed to do both before going any further. Resting was the easy part. Even as big and strong as I am I was at the end of my rope from carrying first Jonathon and then Nana hoping to get to a place where we could find their medicine still in supply. It was either rest or fall flat on my face before too much longer that’s why I’d had to stop in the first place, that and the fact that I wasn’t used to the altitude. I don’t care how big and strong you are, high altitudes will kick your backside if you aren’t used to it.
Thinking about what to do next took a lot of effort and it was so frustrating that I decided to think about how I had gotten to this point before I trying to figure out what I needed to do next. It also seemed safer since it was stuff I couldn’t change.
I crawled off to some bushes and set up camp even though it was practically the middle of the day. If I was going to be sitting around thinking about depressing things I at least wanted to do it out of the mid-day sun that seemed to suck what energy I had left out of me, along with the rest of my fluids. The things is I’m not very good at sitting still unless I have something to occupy my hands and my mind so while I took a look at the past my hands started dumping things out of the three packs that I’d been lugging around – three packs for three people – and started repacking everything into one backpack which had been mine to begin with. I was the biggest and strongest of the three of us so naturally I carried the biggest and heaviest of the packs.
When my mother had been pregnant with me she’d been put on prenatal vitamins like most pregnant women. No big deal. Or it shouldn’t have been anyway. Unfortunately there are people in this world that are just plain psycho and a large batch of these prenatal vitamins had been tampered with in some kind of “Green War” terrorism designed to lower the number of kids that were getting born. But instead of causing miscarriages like the tampering was supposed to, though it did cause a few of those too, it instead affected the development of the babies in the womb. I was one of those babies.
They found out about the tampering when my mom was five months along with me. All the doctors told the women that they could abort the babies and start again as the prenatal vitamins didn’t affect the mother. Mom and Dad told them they could stuff that where the sun don’t shine. The rest of the moms and dads with babies like that were about fifty-fifty on the decision, it seemed to depend on how far along the mother was and how bad the “deformities” were. Mom was soft hearted about most things but any time that came up she would get mad enough to wither anything living within her blast zone. I was the only baby she and dad had and she said that I was a blessing and those other kids would have been too if their parents hadn’t been such a bunch of cowardly murderers … or they could have given the kids to people who would raise them or something like that. Usually she was just growling and spitting and you couldn’t understand her by the time she got that far. People learned real quick to not linger on that topic if Mom was within ear shot.
After all of us “Green War” babies were born – I wasn’t the first or the last – testing showed that how challenged the kid was going to be in life depended a lot on any recessives they had running around in the family gene pool and at what point the mom had started taking the vitamins.
I was a bit of a surprise whoopsie so my mom didn’t start taking the vitamins until the beginning of her second trimester and she hadn’t been taking them all that long when a doctor somewhere realized what was happening after a bunch of women in his clinic started having weird kids way outside the normal ratio range.
None of us Green War babies had the same challenges. They even called us GWBs because that is about the only thing most of us had in common. If you were a GWB you were usually a muck up of all the recessives floating in your family genetics. That’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds though for some of us kids it could be. Jonathon and I did OK with the flavors we got though there are days even now that I’ve learned to live with it that I still feel the need to give God a real piece of my mind over how unfair it feels at times. Other times I’m thanking him for the blessing of my problem. No one ever said life made sense.
Jonathon was small in a family full of big men and long tall women. He also had asthma and bad skin and had pale hair and pale eyes. In a family full of dark haired, dark eyed athletes and Varsity lettermen he stood out and not necessarily in a good way … more like the red headed step child everyone wondered about but no one had the courage to actually ask about out loud. What made it harder on him was that his three other siblings were exactly like the rest of his family … beautiful, popular, and except for a couple of them I’d met sometimes dumb as stumps. Jonathon was an intellectual and “sensitive” which got him a lot of abuse from his brothers (one older, one younger). His sister’s friends adored him but as a friend, not as the kind of guy they’d ever take home to their parents or show off at the school dance; like a modern day Lord Byron without all of the private perversions and problems.
In other words, Jonathon would have been cool if he’d been born into any other family than the one he was born into. Or at least that’s what I think. His family was just so weirded out by his differences from them that their attitude towards him affected other people’s attitudes toward him. Jonathon had it harder in that respect than I did; only his Nana gave him complete acceptance for who he was. She once told me that it was actually her side of the family that Jonathon took after and she had been convinced that he was just going to be a late bloomer like her own father and brothers had been. Unfortunately they had all died in young adulthood which made Jonathon out to be a bit of a tragic figure for her … another bit of romanticism that the two of us used to roll our eyes at when no one was looking.
Me … I had the opposite problem that Jonathon had. I was big in a family of average sized people and my family tended to run the opposite direction in trying to make sure that I was totally accepted for who I was. I was more than a little spoiled by what was left of my small family. Jonathon never acted jealous of this but sometimes I wonder if he was.
Our families weren’t the only differences between us. Last time I bothered to check I was 5’10” to his 5’2” but then again I’ve been that way since I was nine years old and being told how amazingly tall you are for your age gets really old really fast. When I was nine was the year they found the tumor that was causing all of my growth problems. In a way I saved my Dad’s sister’s life as after they figured out what was wrong with me they took a look at her health problems and discovered a miniscule benign tumor in her head too. She wasn’t especially tall though she was way taller than some of the women in my family but she was a … well … a “big woman” if you catch my drift. That was cool, having my problems be useful in saving someone else, but it didn’t change the fact that I was a bit of a freak. See not only was I tall but I was big and strong too … as in I belonged in a circus side show kind of deal.
Don’t get me wrong, my parents hated when I said things like that. “Rocky Charbonneau! If I ever hear you say such things again you’ll be grounded for life. Just because you are different …” blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada. My parents loved me and protected me the way parents are supposed to … even from myself when necessary. Now I’m the only one left that can protect me, and there are a lot worse things than words out there that will hurt me if I’m not careful.
I met Jonathon through one of those networking things they did that hooked up parents with challenged kids with other parents going through the same thing. A support group they called it. I was the only GWB that lived passed infancy in my corner of the state and the other GWBs in the rest of the state all had mental challenges of some sort in addition to any physical challenges. My parents wanted me to meet other GWBs that were “normal” if any of us could be called that. I actually liked the other GWBs nearest me but I was always afraid of breaking them or scaring them. I tend to scare people without meaning to and when I was little I didn’t understand that I was strong enough that I could really hurt people when I was careless and just being a kid.
My home is in the south, on a farm, which pretty much made my life even easier. I fit in there if nowhere else and the animals sure didn’t care if I was different and I was a big help to Dad who ran the family co-op. Dad figured I was the way I was for a reason and he was willing to wait for that reason to come to light. I wasn’t as patient but I learned chores were as good a way as any to tire my body out enough that I didn’t think about how different I was all the time. Lucky for me it turned out I was good at farm work whether it was something Dad gave me to do or chores Mom thought I should be doing to remind me who and what I was.
Jonathon lived on the West Coast way up in Washington State. For obvious reasons I fascinated Jonathon’s parents and since they were wealthy and kind of didn’t have too many responsibilities other than to look pretty and play sports they could travel a lot more than my parents did. Their family … all of them were kinda on the wealthy side though I didn’t know how wealthy until after I had grown up a bit … took the pharmaceutical company to court and won a bunch of money they put into a trust for all of the GWBs. The Trust would sponsor camps over the summer so that the GWBs and their parents could get together and pretend we were normal for a little while. It wasn’t as bad as I guess I’m making it sound, I’m just kind of cynical by nature and have a hard time seeing beyond how selfish and stupid people can really be in this life.
See, Jonathon’s family needed a reason for him to be so different, something and someone to blame that they could attack on a regular basis so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the real issues that kept him from being incorporated into their family better. He didn’t have it near as good as me even though his parents were rich and powerful. I told that to my parents and it made my mom cry which made me feel bad but my dad, he understood.
After mom had gone to dry her eyes and get some dinner going Dad pulled me aside and said, “Rocky, you are going to need that insight and tough hide of yours to get through life. It isn’t your fault that you are different but it is your responsibility to learn to live with it. On the other hand, you’ll find it isn’t always a blessing to see the truth of things … and people. And if you don’t watch it you’ll make yourself so hard that cynical is all you’ll be left knowing and that would be a shame because there are some real good things and people in this world God gave us.”
And that’s why they let Jonathon and I get teamed up so much even though they weren’t particularly what you would call fond of his family. Despite all of it Jonathon could see the good stuff. While his parents thought I’d toughen Jonathon up, my parents thought that Jonathon would be a good way to soften me up.
People used to call us Mutt and Jeff. If you looked at us we had absolutely nothing in common. Him small, me big. Him pale, me dark. Him weak, me strong. What people didn’t see is that we both counted books better friends than people but neither one of us let that get out much. It freaked people out too much to find out we had good brains underneath our challenges. For some reason it made them feel bad and for all my cynicism I didn’t like to make people feel bad. Jonathon said that when they could pretend our brains didn’t work so well they could pretend we really didn’t understand what was wrong with us. “For them to accept that we are at least as smart as they are would make them feel guilty. Sort of like survivor’s guilt only about being ‘normal’ while we are different.”
I told him that had to be the dumbest thing I’d ever heard. It wasn’t their fault we were like we were … unless they supported the Green War that still was going on. The only thing they had to be responsible for was how they treated us now which was kind of annoying and embarrassing.
I remember him telling me, “Well, being dumb doesn’t change it from being the truth. Most people are like sheep. They know what they know and that’s all they want to know. Being responsible means they have to think. And thinking about stuff makes them uncomfortable so they avoid doing it. They’d rather believe in an easy lie than deal with hard truths.”
I will say one thing for Jonathon’s family … no, make that two … even if they didn’t understand him they did care enough to make sure he had everything he needed to get through life – the best doctors, the best education, the best therapeutic equipment, the best of everything. It might have been guilt driving his parents to do it, but they never hesitated to see he had it. They also introduced me to football.
In football I finally found something that I could do that made me feel good about my strength. On the football field everyone was there to play and get knocked around. If you banged into someone, accident or not, they weren’t going to accuse you of being too big, slow, or stupid to be allowed. And the game isn’t just about moving a ball up and down a field either. People look at a lot of football players and think they are dumb but the good ones aren’t … and the really good ones really aren’t. It is a little bit like chess. You are making plays one at a time but with each of those plays you are trying to position yourself for another play so you have to keep several moves ahead of what is actually going on on the field. There is strategy to football that a lot of people don’t give it credit for having. It isn’t just your feet and hands that have to be nimble; your brain has to be nimble too.
Big problem. Big, big problem. It took a long time to get people to take me seriously about wanting to play and it wasn’t until eighth grade that I finally got a chance to play with the big boys. They kept sticking me on these flag football teams where I spent as much time trying not to hurt the players as I did in trying not to outplay them so badly that the game wasn’t fun for any of us.
It wasn’t that I was a GWB although they tried to blame that in part. A doctor’s note … several of them in fact … took that excuse away. It wasn’t my size because by the time eighth grade rolled around some of the boys at least were as big as I was. Some people might have said it was my last name. Even the coaches had trouble spelling Charbonneau … some of them had trouble saying it too. My family was descended from a misplaced Cajun that had fallen in love with a farmer’s only daughter. He had rescued her from kidnappers that had transported her far beyond her family’s reach … or at least that is what family lore says. That was back before the Civil War so who knows for sure. But be that as it may we lived in a town of Smiths, Jones, and Jacksons that were suspicious of us even though my family had owned our farm before most of their ancestors had even migrated to the area during the colonial period. We were backwoods people from when the trees were still so thick you could barely walk between them and we were still pretty much backwoods people; the world had changed but us not so much.
Nope, it was my first name that caused most of the problems. The coach got so desperate he even called in his wife and sister to deal with it. We shared the same deep southern drawl but they played it for all it was worth where as I had always tried to reign mine in because it didn’t go with my body. “But Rocky … Shuga … it just isn’t done.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well … Honey … look at you.”
Trying not to mess up this last chance I said, “I am looking. I’ve looked at me in the mirror my whole life. I know what I am.”
“Don’t you think … well … football … it’s so rough … and dirty. What is that going to do to your reputation?”
“What reputation would that be? Daddy and Momma would skin me alive if they thought I was out to get a reputation.” I could be an imp when I wanted to. It wasn’t just my body that was outsized, my mouth tended to run that direction too.
“Hmmmm,” was the only response I got.
In the end I talked them around into supporting me having one … but only one … chance to prove myself. And boy did I prove myself. I thought the highschool coach that had been watching that practice was going to wet himself in glee … until I took my helmet off and he nearly swallowed his teeth.
The middle school football coach was more laconic having known who I was the whole time. He turned to Coach Jones and said, “Dan, good to see you. I see you’ve met Rocky before. Rocky, the gentleman beside him is Mr. Jackson from the school board. Mr. Jackson allow me to introduce you to my new defensive tackle, Rochelle Charbonneau, but everyone just calls her Rocky.”