I boarded the plane to return home from Costa Rica and was grateful to not see the child with which I’d endured the flight down. The little princess must have been around three and would soon be referred to in her parent teacher conferences as “Expressive”. Her parents were very accommodating to her aspiration of becoming an actress and the airplane was deemed a worthy stage for this future thespian. I had a front row seat to the multi-act performance featuring all types of high drama. There was a song about the dropping of a crayon, several haikus, there was the mournful soliloquy of wanting things she’d just had and then thrown away but now found life unbearable without. Thankfully I have a pair of very good ear buds and an mp3 player loaded with a couple good books and the AC/DC album Back In Black for serious tuneouts, but as I looked around the fully loaded A320 Airbus of JetBlue, the little princess was MIA and so settled into my seat.
There was a piece of paper wedged onto the mini video screen. It was a kind of a Dear John letter noting that our relationship was over and there would be no service on this flight but there’s $15 dollars in it for you if you follow the 12 step program on our website to redeem the voucher. JetBlue is kind of that cool bro of the airlines. “Whoa dude, your TV is like whacked, want some of my nachos?”
I was still so glad Honey Boo Boo was not on the flight, the TV breaking up with me was nothing and I looked forward to listening to a book on tape by Michael J. Fox telling his story of learning he’d been one of the few people to have the misfortune of having early onset Parkinson disease. The book is Lucky Man, read by the author, and I highly recommend it.
As I parked myself on the middle seat and contemplated the wonderful solitude of finishing my book an arm suddenly jerked my way from the seat next to me. Connected to the arm was a scruffy young man who looked much like many of the other young surfer, adventuring backpackers we’d seen in on our trip.
This is great I thought because I’d been very curious about what it’s like backpacking through Costa Rica.
I leaned over, put my hand out, “Hi, I’m Randy” and it was then I noticed the young man’s hands were contorted, as if they were in a yoga hand class performing some very advanced position. The chiropractic octopus or something.
We shook, he smiled and said “I’M JA-ACK”.
“Well, Jack, if you need any assistance just ask.”
“THANK YOU, THAT IS VER-Y KIND OF YOU”
At that point the conversation sort of died out. Most of the people were now in their seats and the flight crew was preparing us for take off.
“Please turn off all electronics at this time”. “El turno offo electronica por favor”
I grabbed my phone and gave it to Riley, my son, to perform the secret ritual on the magic i-device. Although I have been a computer programmer for over 15 years, my DNA is still from the 1950’s and it doesn’t like mobile devices.
Next to me, Jack was re-enacting one of Harry Houdini’s famous handcuff escapes. At least that is how it appeared. Using both hands locked together, Jack fished in his front pocket and with some effort finally withdrew a cell phone. Hands still locked, he then worked the tiny buttons and surface commands until he’d set his device on airplane mode. Within another minute of wrestling the phone was back in his pocket.
The elephant in the room was now sitting between us so I asked. “Jack, what do you have going on?”
“I HAVE CE-RE-BRAL PAL-SY.”
Having been raised in the midwest where we honor politeness almost as much as Canadians do, the normal response to any stranger’s personal revelation is to respond. “Oh, isn’t that nice. You know I was just telling my wife how much I enjoy people with cerebral palsy.”
Fortunately I’ve been married long enough to have learned to handle this type of discourse by just shutting up and fiddling with my watch, which I did for the next 30 minutes of the flight as I stared at the voucher parked on my mini screen on the seatback in front of me. The ear buds were in and I listened to Michael J. Fox discuss how he handled acting on Spin City as his Parkinson’s became progressively worse until he finally revealed the affliction to his cast, the public and his fans. He was surprised by the acceptance but was worried the laughs would be sympathetic laughs and he wanted nothing of that. It turned out, he still had the goods and the laughs were genuine. Laughter is a pretty good tonic.
Just then the steward came down the aisle.
“Would you like something to drink? We have water (get the water Jack I pleaded in my mind)… we have juice (get the juice! my mind shouted)… we also have Coke products.
“I WILL HAVE A COKE PULL-EASE.”
Oh god I thought, this is not going to be pretty.
I intercepted the Coke hand-off and offered in my cheeriest voice to open it for Jack.
“NO THANKS, I CAN DO IT”
I handed over the sealed Coke can and watched as it appeared to start a fight with Jack’s hands, and the hands were losing the battle. The Coke was followed by a short plastic glass full of ice which I deposited on the tray back.
“NO ICE, PULL-LEASE”
I shuttled the cup and ice back and then returned an empty cup back to the tray. Meanwhile, Jack and the Coke were going into the third round.
“DO YOU HAVE AN-EEE STRAWS?”
“We have the tiny stir straws, no wait, let me check.”
The steward came back with a straw off a juice box, which is like a stir straw that can bend over. The mini bendy straw was declined and the empty cup was delivered back to the steward.
By now I felt that Jack and I had moved our relationship far enough along to let him know I would not be thrilled if the Coke was to spray all over me.
“DON’T WOR-REEE, IF THERE IS A PROB-LEM, I WILL POINT IT AT THE WIN-DOWWW” and then he laughed.
What is it they say about train wrecks and not being able to look away. Oh yes, you can’t look away, especially if you happen to be on the train. So, I watched intently as Jack, with both yoga hands grasping the can, somehow maneuvered a finger under the tab and delicately urged it up a millimeter allowing the wonderful hiss of gas to escape.
Bravo, I thought, but now… how the hell is he going to drink it?
Both hands clutched the can and locked it down to the tray so it couldn’t escape. Jack brought his head down to the can and like the shuttle connecting to the space station all systems were go.
It was a marvel, truly. I’ve practiced difficult moves in sports and on musical instruments and have an appreciation for an acquired skill. This act of opening and drinking a Coke was certainly as difficult for Jack as any skill I’d trained for.
“Jack” I said, “you amaze me, how did you get here, I mean what is your story?”
“I LOVE TO TRAV-EL. I HAVE BEEN TO 53 COUNTRIES.”
53 countries, really? Where are you from?
“I’M FROM LON-DON AND I STARTED TO TRAVEL WHEN I WAS 18.’
You travel alone?
“MOST OF THE TIME I TRAVEL ALONE”
How do you do it? How are you capable of traveling?
“SOMETIMES I USE A TRAVEL AGENT”
No, I mean,,, oh nevermind.
“IT’S FUNNY, WHEN YOU ARE 18 IN LONDON YOU ARE CONSIDERED AN ADULT BUT IN THE USA THEY ARE READY TO CALL CHILD SERVICES ON YOU.”
By now I was starting to understand and enjoy Jack’s wonderful style of speaking. The British can have a lyrical modulation to their speaking with words flowing up and down the scale. For Jack, it seemed that almost everything he did required effort and so each syllable was sounded out. You could almost place his speech on a music sheet. Imagine a British Forrest Gump and you are close to the Jack experience, only Jack is also very sharp.
I now had a hundred questions I wanted to ask this incredible young globe trotter. This cerebral palsy ninja, capable of amazing feats.
Where was the most beautiful place you’ve been to?
“THAT’S A HARD QUESTION. I HAVE SEEN SO MANY BEAUTIFUL PLACES. I GUESS BELIZE WAS ONE OF THEM.”
I’ve only seen photos, I said. Did you stay in any of those huts they have built on poles over the water.
‘YES, THEY ARE OK, BUT THEY ALSO HAVE MOSQUITOES.”
Oh, I know mosquitoes, and they’re no fun.
“ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY CAN CARRY MALARIA. I ALREADY HAVE CEREBRAL PALSY, I DON’T WANT TO GET MALARIA TOO” and he laughed and so did I, and not a sympathy laugh.
It turns out that Jack is 23, a child of the 90’s. He explained his cerebral palsy. At birth, there was a problem and part of his brain died, they revived him but that part of the brain is dead. So now, his mind doesn’t communicate well with his muscles. Each case of cerebral palsy is unique. In Jack’s case his legs are better than most others. I told him about Michael J. Fox and his Parkinson’s disease. Jack said he felt sorry for him because Parkinson’s is progressive and degenerative. Cerebral palsy is stable, Jack said. “I WILL ALWAYS BE LIKE THIS” and he meant it in a good way.
Have you ever been mugged?
“I WAS HALF HEARTEDLY MUGGED IN ALBANIA”
‘YES, THIS MAN CAME UP AND SAID I WANT YOUR MONEY. I SAID I’M NOT GIVING YOU MY MON-EYYY, AND HE SAID OK AND LEFT.”
Again we laughed.
Where are you going from here?
“I’M GOING TO ORLANDO AND CATCH A FLIGHT TO NEWARK AND THEN SPEND A FEW DAYS IN NEW YORK CITY BEFORE I GO TO ATLANTA. I’M GOING TO A BASEBALL GAME IN NEW YORK AND A BASEBALL GAME IN ATLANTA.”
You’re a baseball fan?
‘NO, I LOVE STADIUMS!”
You’re having me on right…
‘NO, I REALLY LOVE STADIUMS. I DON’T KNOW WHY BUT I DO. I LIKE SEEING ALL THE PEOPLE.”
The steward came back around and handed out a document to fill in for customs.
At this point, Jack finally asked for my assistance in helping him fill out the form. I put on my glasses while he dug out his passport so I could copy down his name and address etc. Sure enough his passport was full of stamps from all over.
I marked in his name, dob, address, purpose of visit.
Are you bringing in any fruit or vegetables? No
Have you handled any livestock while in Costa Rica. “DO DEAD ONES COUNT?” No
Are you carrying any snails? “NOT THAT I’M AWARE OF” No
Are you carrying more than $10,000 dollars? No
What country or countries are you departing from on this visit?
I wrote down Costa Rica and looked over to Jack who was mulling the question over.
“BELIZE”, OK I write that down
“ECQUADOR” I add that in smaller print.
“HONDURAS” I’m squinting as I try to fit that in the available space that’s left.
‘NICARAGUA” I look up from the paper, sorry Jack, I say as I put the pen away… you didn’t visit NIC-AHHH-RAG-U-AAA on this trip. Not enough room.
The last thing needed for the document is a signature. I hold out the document and the pen. Jack corrals the paper and pen onto his tray. With both hands on the pen and with great concentration of will, he scribbles something onto the paper.
Again I am in awe as I read the fairly legible signature of Jack Thompson.
That must be tough I say.
“IT DEPENDS ON WHAT YOUR DEFINITION OF TOUGH IS”
Buffalo Tip: Check your definition of tough.
The plane landed and we unclipped the seatbelts, pulled bags down. I asked Jack if he had a bag to pull down. No, he was fine, just nervous about getting through US customs, the strictest in the world he said.
I told him he was a good man and I admired his adventurous spirit. I didn’t tell him that meeting him changed my view on many things and what a powerful influence he is simply by being himself. How so many of us make up self imposed limitations based upon social stigma, physical inability or an irrational fear of kooties. Meanwhile Jack is out crossing boundaries and maximizing his short time on this planet as a mobile and mindful creature.
I am not religious or spiritual but I know stories are important to us and many still discuss this fellow Jesus and a second coming. I’d like to think that if Jesus came back, he would be like Jack. People might be initially thrown off by the jerky movements and at times difficult communication but then they would be astounded by a person who shows them what is possible and how to be joyful in unforgiving circumstances.
Not here for the game, here for the stadium.
I didn’t get a photo of Jack. I tried to in customs when I saw him stagger to the front of a line with a huge black duffel bag over his shoulder. Probably the only benefit of having cerebral palsy is line jumping. Custom agents do not like photos or video being shot in their area, so the best I can offer is the drawing.
Jack does not blog, says he is too lazy. How does he afford to travel? I didn’t ask. He is in the US until mid September. I posted on Facebook a bit about him and hoped someone might find a crew with a camera to follow him on his travels. It would be the most intriguing and enjoyable reality show I could imagine. Red Bull should sponsor this guy. He is as much of a daredevil as any X-Game shredder.
My wife posted on FB how I ended up sitting next to a scruffy young man who made jerky movements and was difficult to understand. She mentioned how I chatted him up when others might have put up a barrier and how nice I was to do this. It was a wonderful heartfelt post by my wife but she was not on true target. I was the lucky person in this story. Of all the people on the fully loaded A320 JetBlue flight, I was the one lucky enough to have had a chance to sit next to Jack.
Buffalo Tip: If you meet someone who makes you laugh and changes your view of the world. Consider yourself lucky. It doesn’t happen that many times in life.