Everyone needs a Vince in their lives.
In 1969 my family moved to a quiet neighborhood in Grants Pass with the Mayberry-like name of Pepperwood Drive. It was a cul-de-sac neighborhood bordering St. Anne’s Catholic Church, Lincoln Elementary School and Beacon Hill. Did I mention it was Mayberry-like?
When we moved into our split level house there was only one other house built among the dozen or so empty lots. On moving day I remember sitting in the front cab of the truck clutching tight my Valley of the Rogue Dairy milk carton with the single green shard of a sunflower sprout poking through the brown soil. A year earlier Martin Luther King had been shot. Not long after Robert Kennedy was dead. The Vietnam War raged. But I knew none of this. I was five years old and I had a newly sprouting sunflower plant to protect.
When we pulled around to the back of the house I carefully climbed out of the cab of the moving truck, walked up to the backdoor of our house, and entered my new home. As I gently placed my milk carton planter on the southern facing kitchen window I glanced down into the backyard and saw my dad talking with another man. Standing next to him was a boy, just about my age. A friend! Although I can’t remember, I can almost guarantee I darted down the stairs and out the back door as fast as my red Keds could take me. Within two heartbeats I was face to face with the most genuine beautiful smile of a boy who would come to be my Pepperwood Drive best friend. He was my Vince.
We spent that first summer digging in the dirt, throwing clods of compacted mud against the pavement and watching them explode, blowing bubbles on the top step of his deck, running through sprinklers, looking at books. We spent the summer being five year olds. Everything I did, Vince was right beside me. Everything he did, I was right beside him. He was my best friend after all.
Vince didn’t go to school with me that fall and that really bothered me. But his absence during the school day didn’t stop me from coming home everyday with my Dr. Seuss books and sit on his front step and read to him and share with him my day at Lincoln Elementary School. We watched Sesame Street together. We laughed at the Muppets. He loved The Count. I loved Oscar the Grouch. He was my best friend after all.
As time passed Pepperwood Drive began to fill up with more and more houses and with those houses more and more kids. Soon Vince and my posse of two evolved into a gang of many. Erin. Erica. Ronny B., and of course my brothers, Tim and Dan. On any given summer day we would be out the door by 9 AM building forts in the open fields, shooting baskets in the neighborhood basketball hoop, racing homemade boats down the Tokay canal, and playing wiffle ball games in the middle of Pepperwood Drive. Vince was right beside us, that is, until we organized a bicycle circus and realized Vince didn’t know how to ride a bike. So, we, the neighborhood kids taught him. He was my best friend after all.
Vince was exceptional. He learned how to read. He learned how to ride a bike. He learned how play the drums. He learned how to annoy the hell out of me. Not all the time, but there was that period of time when he was fixated on the word cigarette and he would say it over and over to annoy me. I would tell him that wasn’t a word he should be saying. He would smile at me and say it again. I would tell him to stop. He would smile and say it again. We would go back and forth until I would run away crying with my palms covering my ears as he chased me from behind chanting, “Cigarette, cigarette, cigarette, cigarette, cigarette, cigarette….” He was my best friend after all.
A few years after I started college he went through a rough patch and was placed in a ward at the Oregon State Mental Hospital. It broke my heart that he was in a place so unfamiliar to him with the faces of strangers sharing his day. There was a reason he was there. I understood that. But it still broke my heart. He could have visitors so I drove up to Salem a few times during his brief stay and I spent the afternoon with him. We played ping pong. He and I were a winning doubles team in ping pong. To this day, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do is walk through the two sets of locked doors after my visits, away from my friend, as he stood watching me from the other side of the glass windows at the state hospital. He was my best friend after all.
If you haven’t already guessed through my words and pictures, Vince has Down syndrome.
Forty five summers have passed since Vince and my first summer. During that time I became a teacher. I married. I had a family. Through specialized vocational training Vince became a custodian and lives independently in an apartment. I saw him a few years ago when I went home to visit my mom and his smile went straight to my heart, just like it did the summer day we met, so many years ago.
Everyone needs a Vince in their lives.
My kids know this today, because I tell them so.