During my seven summers I spent as a Guest Artist at YMCA’s Camp Kitaki, 15,000 kids participated in my anti-drug challenge course, Kastleland. And out of all those kids, I know of at least one who must have made a connection with me. He was plagued with Bi-polar disorder.
He called me one night at 3AM, threatening to blow his head off with a .12 gauge shotgun. He talked and bawled, and I listened as the 15-year-old kid kept repeating the phrase, “I don’t want to live anymore! I don’t want to live anymore!” All during his mantra, he kept sliding the pump on the shotgun he held, click-clicking it over and over.
I talked to him for over an hour, gently at first, then a bit more boldly. Finally, nearing the end of everything I thought it appropriate to say to him under the circumstances, I kind of lost it. I wouldn’t recommend this approach to others, but in this case it worked. I said, “James, do you know what I think? I think you just want attention. I don’t think you have a shotgun at all. I think that’s just the answering machine you keep clicking. Look, you can call me in the morning and we’ll talk, but right now, you just need to cut the crap. I don’t want you to die. I want you to live so we can continue this conversation tomorrow. Got it?”
It became silent on the other end of the line. I sat there, silently wondering if I was going to hear a thunderous roar in the next several seconds. Then I heard his mom walk into the room and gasp, “Oh, my God, what are you doing with that gun?”
My heart skipped a beat. James was dead serious about his threat and did have a shotgun. He told her why he’d called me. She took the phone from him and thanked me. She also assured me that she had taken the shotgun away from him.
The next morning, James called and apologized for his suicide threat, and then he asked me an odd question, “My mom wants to know if you’ll meet us downtown near the Mill. We would like to talk to you. And by the way, do you know how to unload a shotgun?”
So I met them downtown and unloaded the .12 gauge pump shotgun for them. We talked and before leaving them, I gave James one of my tapes with 10 of my songs on it. Throughout the next 10 years, I continued to get calls from James, and he assured me that since he’d started taking meds life was much better for him. Then one day he called and said my tape, which he had kept all these years, got ate up by his tape player. He asked me to meet him at Barnes and Noble to get one of my newer CD’s with the same songs on it.
I met him there at the doorway. We talked for forty-five minutes. As our conversation was winding down, James asked, “Do you still perform your stories? Man, I hope so, because those fiery swords you wielded during your presentations were awesome!”
I figured he deserved a good story about my “fiery swords.” It was about an incident that took place five years after the night of his suicide threat, when I was speaking to 50 kids confined to the Adolescent Ward at the State Regional Center. Sandy Delano, the principal out there, had obtained a grant for me to be their Guest Artist, and she wanted at least 10 of her students to sign up for my drama class. The last thing Sandy said was, “And bring those swords that have fire on them! That should grab their attention!”
Since most of my stories centered on knights and dragons, I enhanced those stories with my magic swords. I had taped lighters to their hilts and taped Flash string up and down their blades. Once I flicked the lighters with my thumbs, fire traveled up each blade, passed through a series of Flash-packets filled with sparkle additive inside, and ignited each one with an amazing flash. At camp, I had actually used pop bottle rockets taped to each blade, so that when the Flash string set fire to them, they shot off my blades into the dark woodlands beyond the campfire area. Kids loved them.
So at the Regional Center, I spoke in front of 50 kids, and “wowed” them with my first flashing sword. Behind me, stood a pool table. Earlier, some kid had stuffed his homework into the center pocket of the table, which set off the chain reaction that followed. As I ignited my second sword, I gave a quick flick of my wrist, to cause the sparkles to flourish in mid-air. Well, the flash packet flew off of my sword, sailed over my head, and landed dead-center in the pocket of this pool table. And set that kid’s homework on fire!
The kids in front of me went ape. One kid shouted, “Hey, there’s a fire behind you!” I glanced back and saw flames shooting out of that center pocket! One teacher ran over and blew on the flames, which simply fanned the fire. In the middle of the chaos that ensued, Sandy Delano, walked out of her office and stood gaping at the burning pool table. Finally, one teacher, Chris Lyford, a Walter Mathau look-alike, casually walked over and dumped his Mountain Dew into the burning pocket, extinguishing the flames.
The kids looked at Sandy wide-eyed, wondering how she was going to react. I looked at Sandy, thinking I was about to be fired, never more to wield my fiery swords again. I looked at Chris. Chris looked to Sandy. And Sandy placed her hand on her breast with a dramatic flourish and said, “Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!” (Incredible as this sounds, it is true.)
Later, instead of 10 kids signing up for my drama class, we had 25 kids sign up, because they wanted to see what I would burn down next.
Now, we come to the strange part of this entire story. As I stood there finishing my story I shared with James at Barnes and Noble, when I got to the part about the teacher and his can of Mountain Dew, Chris Lyford walked in the door of the bookstore!
Gasping in surprise, I told James, “This is the guy I was just talking about!”
James said, “Whoa, I hear the theme to the Twilight Zone playing in the back of my head!”
I told Chris, “I was telling him that story about the pool table fire, and how you put it out with your can of Dew.”
Chris said, “Talk about being in the right place at the right time.” He then indeed confirmed my story, assuring James I was not just making it up. And after brief small talk, he walked away, making a casual gesture as if pouring pop out the invisible can of Mountain Dew he held.
James left there with the CD he’d come for, but shaking his head at the coincidence that none of us could have planned or set up. Two days later, while escorting a kid to juvenile court, I entered the county city building and saw a sight that had me shaking my own head. There before me was the kid who had stuffed his wad of homework into the pocket of that pool table.
I was amazed.
It made me think, Hey, for all the times I doubt whether I am making a difference or not as I travel down this road of life, maybe my feet are on the right track after all.