Biographical Non-Fiction posted February 25, 2014


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Milo's Grin

by Captain Jack

Story of the Month Contest Winner 
Sitting in my easy chair, I cursed the world. I'd just twisted my knee slipping down a ladder, eliminating me from a planned fishing trip. While bemoaning my misfortune, I absently picked up my hometown newspaper (to keep abreast of life there, I still subscribed to its weekly journal). Skimming through the obituaries, I recoiled as I spotted the photo of a grinning middle-aged man, and recognized him as my childhood friend, Bob "Milo" Milovich. Though I hadn't seen that face for thirty years, there was no mistaking the squinty grin that stretched his strong jaw, scrunched his tanned face into a robust square, and tightened his eyes into slits of determination. With Milo's grin unearthing my long-simmering pangs of self-reproach, I lay the paper down.

Before a calamity in his youth, Milo had been, without a doubt, the best athlete and most highly esteemed boy in town. His athleticism had spawned talk of a future in pro sports, and his charisma ensured success in any path he may pursue. Though I wasn't present the dreadful day that fate transformed Milo from a hero to a footnote, my friends had recited the story so often that the scene remains as palpable in my mind as if I'd been there with them.

Milo and a half-dozen of our buddies were enjoying an outing at a popular swimming hole on Sheehy Creek. At that site, the depth of the creek, combined with the ideal height of the adjacent cliff, presented prime opportunities for cliff-jumping. Though the rest of us would tentatively drop feet first into the water below, Milo routinely ventured a more daring technique. Running toward the cliff's edge, he would execute a bold hop at the brim and, as we more timid souls could only gawk, Milo would spring upward and outward into a daring swan dive.

On the tragic day, while Milo launched into his patented dive, instead of springing skyward from the brim, he slipped and dropped down the face of the cliff, smacking his back onto a protruding rock. He toppled into the creek like a rag doll. His hysterical friends fished him out and, instead of running to call an ambulance, dragged him up to their nearest car and sped to town.

After preliminary care at our meager clinic, Milo was transported to a hospital in Great Falls, eighty miles away. With an initial prognosis of paralysis from the waist down, the doctors surmised that, had Milo's friends left him lying on the shore until an ambulance arrived, he would have likely have recovered. Thus, compounding Milo's tragedy, not only did he face a devastating future, but he did so at the hands of his best friends.

News of the incident sparked frenzy in our little town. Distressed citizens ventured trips to Great Falls and flocked around Milo's hospital bed. But despite the grim prognosis, none of us doubted this indestructible boy would soon reclaim his former vitality. Undeterred, when their hero was finally released, the town declared a "Milo Milovich Day" where funds were raised for his expected recovery. To our distress, however, despite numerous trips to a rehabilitation facility in Seattle, the doctors declared Milo's injury permanent, sentencing him to life in a wheelchair.

Striving to prove our undying devotion, I and his other friends assured Milo we'd never desert him. We fought over who would push him around town, filled with smug importance at being seen assisting our beloved victim. For his part, Milo, grinning as broadly as ever, refused to accept a diminished status. To maintain what strength and coordination he still possessed, he exercised and lifted weights and eagerly participated in civic activities. At high school sporting events, so central to a small town's image, Milo sat in his wheelchair up front and cheered our team louder than anyone. He even continued to attend our practices and, as if he were still the team's central component, motivated us onward.

For better or worse, Milo's altered capacities began reshuffling the pliable social structure at our tiny school and, in a warped sense, I profited from his misfortune. The huge void he left in athletics allowed me to rise a notch on the sports hierarchy, even allotting me a coveted first string position on the basketball team. Moreover, with Milo apparently out of the running as a future mate, the girls who formerly vied for his attentions became more accessible to the rest of us. As a beneficiary of the new order, the more I relished my elevated stature, the less I concerned myself with Milo and his plight.

Disturbingly, Milo never let me savor my promotion. Had he said, "That should be me out there," or, "You stole my girlfriend," I could have justified my callousness. Instead, by supporting me no less than he did the others--even the boys who crippled him--Milo deprived me of any opportunity to gloat. If only he would have stepped to the sidelines to seethe and wallow in self-pity, I could have taken full credit for my higher standing. And through it all, Milo never stopped grinning.

But, in slacking off in my loyalties toward Milo. I wasn't alone. Throughout the town, the novelty of his calamity gradually wore off, and now that other boys were scoring the touchdowns and turning the girls' heads, Milo was, bit by bit, nudged toward the social periphery. No longer an inspirational status symbol with whom we clamored to associate, Milo increasingly became a hindrance to our own pleasures. As our priorities evolved, assisting Milo on outings became a chore, and we soon began making excuses, always claiming it was someone else's turn to push him around town. Eventually, we demoted our former superstar to "that guy in the wheelchair." Still, to my discomfort, while his strong arms churned that chair all over town, Milo never stopped grinning.

When the rest of us graduated and abandoned our town for the big cities, we left "that guy in the wheelchair" behind, his only remaining friends the old men of the town. In the days before electric wheelchairs, accessible facilities, social organizations for the handicapped, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, society had little use for a wheelchair-bound paraplegic. Accordingly, despite Milo's remaining capabilities, employers, universities and trade schools barred him from their hallowed halls.

Though there were few career opportunities in our tiny farm town--let alone for the disabled--Milo shunned public assistance and secured an unassuming job as a clerk in the grain elevators. While the rest of the town paid him little notice, Milo plugged away at his arduous job, always with a hint of that defiant grin on his face. Meanwhile, I and my classmates set out to seek our fortunes, abandoning the dreary fixtures of our home town--fixtures like Milo.

Though I tore my eyes from the newspaper, that squinty grin still tortured me, refusing to let me bemoan my twisted knee. Like he had so many years before, Milo, grinning from his obituary, still denied me the satisfaction of my arrogance.

Milo, I never had the guts to tell you, but you're a better man than I ever was.


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My autobiographical stuff is often embellished. This one is not. Except I changed my friend's name out of respect for his family.
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