I spent a lot of time this summer going back to my old haunts. My son had baseball games close to towns where I used to live and I couldn’t resist checking out the territory once again to see if things had changed.
One of the places I visited was Norwich, Connecticut, where I had my first job as a reporter for the local paper, The Norwich Bulletin. When I was there, in the mid-1980s, the town was a dump. Most of the buildings were boarded up. Flophouses lined Main Street. For a cub reporter, it was heaven.
The Mashantuket Pequots had just received approval to build an enormous bingo hall. That was big news. Bigger news was to come, long after I left. Bingo led to slot machines, craps tables and Wayne Newton at Foxwoods, that monstrous casino a hop from Norwich.
The Foxwoods workers have to live somewhere and my guess is that they all set up house in Norwich. I barely recognized the town during my drivethrough. Coffee shops, restaurants andupscale shops were all over the place. My old apartment building on Jail Hill, named for the prison that used to sit there, was gone.
I like Norwich better the way it was, down-and-out. I couldn’t wait to return to the ballfield.
I also took a drive to nearby Ledyard. My beat was town government, but my most memorable story was about a stubborn Swamp Yankee named Amos Banks. One day, Banks noticed fuel oil bubbling up in his front yard. He was furious. “Smell it,’’ he said, holding up his callused fingers, coated with slimy black stuff.
He blamed a faulty pipe installed by a hot shot oil company. The company insisted the culprit was a buried oil tank that had cracked. Many frontpage stories later, the company was vindicated. The tank was removed, and Banks had a bathtub-size hole in his yard for weeks. He never apologized to the oil company and made sure the executives picked up the removal bill.
My most memorable trip, though, was to Westerly. After a year at the Bulletin, I left for The Providence Journal, to work in the paper’s Westerly bureau. Westerly is a great town. Wilcox Park and the public library are treasures. Napatree Point is stunning.
I drove down High Street and stopped at Immaculate Conception, a Catholic church founded in the 1880s. I thought of Henry. Henry Joseph Wennmaker IV. His mother, Mary Dolores, would sprinkle holy water on his face when they went to church there. Henry couldn’t reach the font.
He was born with Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a genetic disorder that paralyzes the nerves that activate muscles. Confined to a wheelchair, he could move only his forearms, thin as reeds. He was four-feet-tall and weighed 38 pounds. His bed was an 850-pound iron lung.
I met him through a friend and thought he had a story to tell. My article ran on a Sunday.
Self-pity is destructive and Henry, at the very young age of 14, knew this. He had no time to ask, why me? There was so much to accomplish: trips to the park to feed the pigeons; chats with Ernie, the parking lot attendant; books to read. His mother would turn the pages.
Henry played the drums. Drumsticks were too heavy for him to hold. Mary Dolores came up with another idea: chopsticks. She wrapped the tips with tape so he could hold them. They were a team. She called him “Hen.’’
Henry had a crush on the rock star Stevie Nicks of “Landslide” fame. Posters of her hung on his wall. Once, he dialed random numbers in Beverly Hills to try to track her down. The phone bill was $200. “I just flipped the bill – all 14 pages,’’ Mary Dolores said back then. “He got the message.’’
My story helped spread the word about Henry’s lady love. A short time later, he got to meet Nicks through the Wish Come True foundation. Photos of the two are still on the Internet. Henry couldn’t move, but his eyes danced. They said to the songstress: I adore you.
I knew Henry was a special kid, but I got so wrapped up in my job I lost touch with him after I moved to another beat for the paper, in another town. Reporters swoop in to get the story and then make a hasty exit, a shameful downside of the profession.
Back in Providence, after the baseball tournament, I dug up my Henry story. The memories came flooding back. Sitting in his dining room as he taps his snare. A grilled cheese cut into tiny squares for lunch. His mother gently wiping his lips with a tissue.
“I want to go somewhere exciting,’’ Henry once said. “Different.’’
He died in the winter of 1991. He was home, watching TV, when he inhaled a sip of water into his lungs. His lungs were too weak to cough up the water. He died an hour later at the hospital. He was 18-years-old. All those years battling infections and a sip of water kills him.
A selfless optimist, he would say life is fair, but, from my perch, I would say it isn’t. The good guys always seem to go first. Now I see how gutsy he was. He taught us something about how to live. Every day, fresh from his iron lung, was a gift. Cynics bored him.
I once asked him what his favorite subjects were in school. Vocabulary and algebra, he said. He hated social studies. “I don’t know why you have to know what happened in the past,’’ he told me. “I figure that was then, this is now.’’
He’s buried at Saint Sebastian Cemetery in Westerly. Next time I’m down there, I’m going. I’m going to see Henry.