In 1981 we were broke. I mean poor. Government subsidized housing poor. My parents had decided in 1979 that we were going to pack up and move from the north side of Chicago to my dad’s home country of Guatemala. Unfortunately, shortly after we moved to Guatemala City the country fell deep into a civil war and rebellion. Feeling it was no longer safe for his American wife and mixed child, dad sent mom and me back to the States while he stayed behind to tie up loose ends. We lived with my cousins for a while before settling in to the Timberview Apartments.
The whole experience was pretty traumatic and I found myself in Mahomet, Illinois which could not be more different than my Chicago stomping ground of Edgewater or the third world flavor of Guatemala. The air was clean and there were open fields and forests for me to play in. The only real problem was that after living at the apartment complex for a while, I was low on the friend count.
Being a new kid on the block is never fun. You worry if you will fit in and whether or not the kids are going to like you. I made a couple of friends, but was always on the lookout for more when I came across somebody playing whiffle ball and calling the game as he pitched the ball to himself, “Reggie Jackson comes up to the plate. It is a 2-2 count with bases loaded… the pitch” SMACK!!!! I had never seen a whiffle ball get crushed like that. He actually hit it OVER the roof of a two-story apartment complex. Now I grew up a baseball fan and I knew a good player when I saw one, and this guy was GOOD. As he rounded “third” and trotted to “home” he eyed me and asked, “You wanna play?”
“Sure.” I replied
“OK, you pitch.” He said as he picked up his yellow piece of plastic lumber.
After looking for a while in some trees for the ball, we finally came across it. I took my place on what I believed to be an appropriate distance for the pitching mound and got into my stretch. My opponent cocked the bat back behind his head swinging it back and forth like Gary Sheffield. I had a pretty good arm, and felt confident in my fast ball. I started my windup and threw a heater that whistled that hollow, high-pitched whir that only a properly thrown whiffle ball can make… POW.
I had never experienced a “come-backer” before. There was no time for me to react. No sooner had the ball left my hand that I was laid out on the ground. It was a Charlie Brown moment except that my shoes and socks were still on. My opponent seemed undaunted as he ran as fast as he could for what appeared to be an inside the park homerun.
“You OK?” he said after his home run celebration.
“Yeah… I guess. Man, you hit that ball harder than anybody I have ever seen hit a ball.” I replied as I brushed myself off and inspected my shoulder for welts, bruising or loss of use.
“My name’s Kevin. What’s your name?”
“I love to play baseball, how about you?”
“Yeah, I love playing baseball.”
“I like comic books too, do you like comic books? Batman and Robin are my favorite. I watch the TV show all the time.”
“Yeah, I like comics too. Spiderman is my favorite.”
“Do you wanna play superheroes after we get done playing baseball?”
“Sounds good to me! How about I bat this time?”
And so began one of the most important friendships of my life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my friendship with Kevin would prepare me for one of the biggest challenges in my life.
My parents had taught me well. They drilled into my head that you respect EVERYBODY, and you treat them as your equal. That is what I did with Kevin. We played ball, we battled “evil-doers” as Kev was fond of saying as if he were narrating the 1960’s Batman TV show, and we explored deep dark jungles and built complex fortresses. We became good friends, close friends.
As I got to know more kids, I would always introduce them to Kevin. If we played sports, I was smart enough to know I wanted Kevin on my team. He was taller than most of us and had a great hook shot to go along with his hitting power. To the credit of the other kids, Kevin was always accepted which as I got older always impressed me. Kids can be cruel about others that are different, and Kevin (although I never thought much of it at the time) was different… he had Down Syndrome.
When you are a kid, three years seems like an eternity. But for those few years at the Timberview Apartments, Kevin and I probably played together almost every day. Unfortunately however, as I aged sadness and a reality set in for me as Kevin’s being “different” started to affect our friendship. It wasn’t that I no longer liked Kevin or enjoyed his company; it was just that I was growing up and my interests were changing but Kev was still… well… Kev. He wanted to play Batman and Robin, and do the things that were fun and adventurous for me at 11, but not so much for me at 14. Add to it the fact that I had to grow up pretty fast when my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and the rift between what Kevin and I found entertaining grew.
I often thought that life was cruel. Not because Kevin had Down Syndrome, because he was the happiest, sweetest guy I have ever known. What was cruel was that I couldn’t maintain that same level of wonder about the world, the naiveté that would allow me to still play Batman and Robin at the age of 14. Unfortunately for Kevin, there is a huge leap in development for kids between 11 and 14 years of age, and Kevin (who was in his mid-twenties) wasn’t making the leap with me.
We stayed friendly once his family moved away from the Timberview Apartments. My family moved not long after. Kevin’s saint of a mother Esther would bring Kevin over to our house to visit, and we would reminisce about the good old days. Kevin’s eyes would always sparkle when he asked me if I remembered this adventure or that game we played. I am certain that had I been up for it, Kev would have gladly gone outside and picked up right where we left off. The visits became less frequent and then I went away to college, and I believe Kevin and his mom moved out of the area.
Fast forward some 20+ years and we discover that my oldest daughter has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Although Autism is a different condition altogether from Down Syndrome, I feel like my friendship with Kevin prepared me for raising Bianca. I am not afraid of people that are different. I know that they have wonderful things to offer the world, and I am perfectly aware of many of the challenges that can arise when dealing with these beautiful people. I even feel like life is repeating itself because a couple of Bianca’s friends from dance class have Down Syndrome.
I still think of Kevin almost every day. My memories of the times that we shared are still vivid in my mind and I hope they never fade. They were good times, GREAT times. My family was as poor as we would ever be, and yet I was so happy.
Any weather was good weather for baseball with Kevin
Tough times are never so tough when you have a good friend to play ball with.