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Apr 20
Chapter One: The Awkward Encounter

It was September, 1972, and the fall semester had just started.  Tonight was the first day of class.  I should clarify that as evening instead of day because this was night school.  I was a student majoring in English and Philosophy at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Only two weeks ago, I had moved into an old Victorian apartment building across the street from the University Field House at 54th St. and Woodland Avenue. Everything in Philadelphia is referenced as the intersection of two streets or thoroughfares.  Saint Joe’s was always referred to as being at 54th Street and City Line Avenue.  My apartment was a ramshackled old building in the middle of a black neighborhood.  I was the only white resident in the old three- story apartment building, and my apartment was on the second floor facing front. Every one of my new neighbors treated me great. There was a Baptist Church just to the left of my building and every morning at 8 they held services.  I never needed an alarm to get up in the morning because the singing and ***** music coming through the windows and walls were a reliable wake-up call.

I was working days in an Arco (Atlantic Refining) gas station about 15 miles away in North Hills Pennsylvania.  This station also rented U-Haul trucks, and my job was to pump gas and take care of the truck and trailer rentals as the owner of the station, Bob, was busy with mechanic work.  This worked well for me because between gas fill ups and truck rentals I got to sit in the office and finish my schoolwork.

Since moving back to Philadelphia from State College Pa., where I had been a student, all I brought with me was my most prized possession — a 1971 750 Honda.  I had customized it with café-racer accessories from Paul Dunstall because in those days you couldn’t buy a bike that looked like it belonged on a racetrack like you can today.  You had to build it.

I worked at the station five days a week (Mon – Fri) from 9:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.  Then I hopped on my bike and headed back to my apartment to quick shower and change and then walk across the street to campus and hopefully make my first class by 6:00 p.m. On days when I got stuck in traffic or couldn’t leave at exactly 5, I would go straight to class wearing my Arco jumper with the smell of high-octane gasoline going with me.

Tonight, I was sitting alone on the first floor of Villiger Hall which was where my third level Shakespeare course was supposed to be held.  It was almost 6, and I was still the only one in the room — but not for long.  All of a sudden, I heard a high-pitched voice giving orders: “Yes, Dad, this IS the room.  Just push me in and drop me off.”

And that’s exactly what happened. A kindly older gentleman in his late fifties or early sixties pushed his son into the room. I say pushed because his son was in a wheelchair, and he parked him right next to me.  This made me very uncomfortable, and I actually thought about getting up and moving to the other side of the room, but my mother had raised me better than that. The boy in the wheelchair was in a full body brace with a special neck harness to keep his head upright.
If I had been uncomfortable before, I was beyond that now.  We both sat there in silence as the big industrial clock on the front wall ticked 6:02.  It was then that a proctor rushed into the room and wrote on the blackboard in chalk: “THIS CLASS HAS BEEN MOVED TO THE BARBELIN BUILDING, ROOM 207.

Chapter Two: Time To Move

As soon as the proctor had finished writing on the board, I saw this as my chance to escape.  I grabbed my bookbag and started to bolt for the door.  I only got halfway to freedom when I heard the loudest and most commanding voice come out of the *******’s body … “All Right Moose, Let’s Move!

I couldn’t help but hear myself saying (to myself) … “The ******* Really Can Talk.”  I was surprised, blown away, and his voice had frozen me in place.

“All right Moose, let’s get this show on the road.  Do you know where the Barbelin Building is up on the hill?”  I told him I did, and he said … “Put your book bag on the back of the wheelchair so you can push me up the hill before we miss too much class.” Again, his voice had a commanding effect on my actions and in robot fashion I put my bag on the back of his chair, grabbed the two push handles, spun his chair to the right and headed out the door. I was careful not to touch him directly because I didn’t know if what he had was catchy.

As I headed to the stairway to go down the 6 steps leading to outside, I heard that voice again … “No, not that way, toward the elevator” as he pointed off to the left with an arm that was not much bigger than my fingers. “The elevator key is between my legs.  Reach in and get it and then put it in the key slot and we can take the elevator down.”

                      THE KEY WAS BETWEEN HIS LEGS!

At this point, I was totally disoriented but had fallen under his spell.  I took a deep breath, reached between his legs, and found the key.  I then put it in the semi-circular keyhole and turned it to the right.  “Good, he said, it should come quickly, and we’ll be outta here.”

The problem is it didn’t come.  Seconds felt like minutes and minutes like hours as we waited for the elevator door to open. Finally, after an excruciatingly long time the elevator door opened and standing in front of us was the last thing I expected to see. It was another ******* in a wheelchair being pushed by a healthy student about my age.
As they tried to make their way out into the hall the ******* I was pushing said … “Don’t move!  Don’t let them out! And then he said … “I don’t know who you are or where you think you’re going, but this school’s only big enough for one ******* — and that’s me. For seven years I’ve been the resident ******* at St. Joe’s.  The next time I go to use this elevator and you have it *******, my big friend behind me is going to kick your measly friend’s ***.”

By now, I was in a kaleidoscope wrapped inside a time warp spinning at the speed of light. I had never been around anyone who seemingly had so little and acted so grand.

We made it up the hill that night in time to hear Professor Burke say … “Be prepared on Thursday (our next class) to talk about your favorite Shakespeare play and why.”

As I wheeled him toward his next class which also happened to be mine — we were both English majors —he reached out with a tiny hand and said: “My name’s Eddie, what’s yours.”

Chapter Three: So Different Yet So Alike

For the next fifteen months we were inseparable on Tuesday and Thursday’s nights.  We adjusted our Spring course selections to make sure we took the same classes.  Eddie was taking two courses each semester and I was taking four. It was a real struggle for him to take notes, but luckily, he had what many would call a photographic memory.

Many weekends he would visit me in my meager apartment, and we would listen to Van Morrison and the Hollies until the early hours of the morning. Eddie had two good friends named Steve and Ray who would drive him back and forth from my apartment.  My motorcycle wasn’t an option, although we fantasized about how we MIGHT be able to rig something up so he could ride on the back.  Eddie was a magnet and drew everyone into his circle.  He had defied the odds and not let the polio that he contracted at 4 dominate his life.  He slept in an iron lung because it was hard for him to breathe while lying down.

Eddie was bigger than life and bigger than ANY of the obstacles that tried to take him down.  Many times, I tried to imagine myself in his situation, but it was impossible. God had given Eddie a special power, and it allowed him to leverage the people and circumstances around him to make it through. I noticed early on that Eddie lived his life vicariously through the lives of others that he would have liked to have been.

Let’s say that my backround was at least colorful and unconventional.  I had been on my own since age 18 and had wandered the eastern half of America by motorcycle from Maine to Florida.  Eddie got to where he could tell my stories better than I could and when he did, I could tell he had actually lived them in his imagination.

Eddie and I had another connection.  We were both poets and loved to write.  He understood at a quantum level that to be a great writer you have to experience the words.  He had the remarkably wonderful ability to be able to do that through the actions of others. He also recreated the great stories of the famous authors we read.
Two weeks after meeting him I stopped thinking about him as a *******. Many times, it seemed like he had advantages and strengths that those who knew him could only envy.  The longer I knew him, the more I felt that way.

Chapter Four: The Invite

We had just returned to classes after a long Thanksgiving weekend when Eddie said: “My dad wants to talk to you.” My mind immediately wondered:  What’s wrong, have I done something I shouldn’t have.

At 10:05 p.m., when our last class ended and I wheeled Eddie down two flights of stairs, (this building had no elevator), his father also named Ed was waiting at the bottom of the stairs.  He had that big smile on his face that he always greeted me with as I handed the wheelchair over to him …

“Kurt, my wife and I are having a little party at our house the night before Christmas Eve, and we’d like you to come. All of Eddies friends will be there and you should be there too.  Please think about it, it would mean so much to my wife Margaret.”

I thanked Eddie’s father and told him I’d have to check the holiday schedule with my parents and then get back to him.  Being the oldest of 21 grandchildren, who were brought up in an enclave or compound of five adjoining houses, the holidays were always jammed packed with activities the week before Christmas.  Those activities though were not my main concern. I had nothing decent to wear.

My wardrobe consisted of 2 pairs of jeans and 4 t-shirts plus one pair of quilted long johns that I wore on the motorcycle when the temperature dropped below 40 degrees.  Add my brown leather WW2 surplus bomber jacket to the ensemble and that constituted my wardrobe … not very impressive for a 25-year-old man. In fact, staring into my closet that night, it brought home to me in a way it hadn’t before that my life was about to change.

I had recently decided to take a sales job with a local company that specialized in selling home furnishings to local department stores and general merchandise retailers.  This would be a major departure for me, but the salary would be four times what I was making at the gas station.  I hadn’t told anyone about this because inside I felt like I was selling out.  The company had advanced me $250.00 — a large amount in 1973 —to buy suits before I showed up for my first day of work on January 3rd.

I still didn’t have a car but that was another perk of the new job. They would be leasing me one after my period of orientation was over in early February.  But now, back to my quandary about Eddie’s party.

Chapter 5: E.J. Korvettes

Brightly lit with fluorescent lighting, the store seemed enormous as I walked from aisle to aisle.  I wasn’t shopping for suits. I was trying to find something suitable to go to a holiday party and meet people I had never met before.  As I got to the end of the aisle, I looked into the mirror that marked the end of the men’s department and took stock at what I was seeing.

My hair was shoulder length, and my beard was at least 4 inches long.  I had told my new employer that I would cut my hair and trim my beard before starting in January but hadn’t done it yet. In all honesty, I was still having second thoughts about making such a drastic lifestyle change, and I would wait until the last minute to radically change my appearance.

I stared into the racks of men’s sportswear until I found what I thought might work for me.  It was a beige, fisherman’s knit sweater in size large.  The sweater looked great, but the price did not.  It was marked $10.00, and unlike many of the garments surrounding it — it was not on sale.

I had $24.00 to my name that night, and $10.00 would mean I would be eating oatmeal and peanut butter until my next pay at the gas station.  I walked around for at least a half-hour until someone came over the loudspeaker saying that in 15 minutes the store would be closing.  I started to walk out but something dragged me back.  I put the sweater under my arm and headed for the register. I had made up my mind not to use any of the advance money from the new company until any doubts I had about taking the job were dispelled.
The next night at class I told Eddie and his dad that I’d be happy to join them on December 23rd.

Chapter 6:  December, 23rd

It was 6:45 on Sunday, December 23rd, when I arrived in front of Eddie’s brick row house in what is known in Philadelphia as the Great Northeast.  Every house on the block looked alike but the front door to Eddie’s was open with just the glass storm door closed.  I could see the house looked packed from the outside.

I didn’t stop but decided to go around the block.  I had one more problem to solve — what do I do with the motorcycle?  I knew Eddie’s dad knew I had a motorcycle, but I wasn’t sure about his mother.  Some people had bad impressions of motorcycles — and their riders — in the 1970’s, and I terribly wanted to make a good impression.

As I circled the block, I found an empty spot on the street about 5 houses away from Eddie’s house.  I parked the bike and hid my helmet inside the hedge that was separating the street from the sidewalk. I tried to flatten my hair, took off my bomber jacket and walked to the front door.  I never made it …

Before I could even get to the front door, a petite, silver haired woman dressed in red and blue rushed out on her front walk, put both of her arms around my waist, squeezed tightly, and said … “Oh Kurt, we are so glad you’re here!”

I’ve been greeted and hugged many times in my life, but nothing has ever come close to the hug I got that night from a stranger.  By the time she walked me through the front door we were strangers no more.

Eddie’s immediate and extended family were as warm and inviting as both he and his father had been.  I felt immediately welcome, and the night passed quickly as I met one family member after the next.
At 10:30 Eddie said, “Let’s go downstairs and listen to some music and we can talk.” I picked Eddie up off the sofa he was laying on and carried him down the 13 stairs into a finished basement.  You knew right away this was Eddie’s domain.  His stereo was against the stairs and pictures of the local Philadelphia sports teams were up on the walls.  

It was good to see him at home in his own element. That night we talked about the, once again, lousy year the Eagles had had (going 2-11-1) and the state of the war in Vietnam.  This was standard stuff for young men in their twenties.

At 11:20 I heard the basement door open at the top of the stairs and saw a girl with two legs covered in white stockings come down only 5 steps, sit down, and look over at us. I could tell immediately from the look on her face — she was not impressed.  She then got back up, headed into the kitchen, and closed the basement door.

“Oh, don’t mind her.  That’s just my sister Kathryn. She works the 3-11 shift at Nazareth Hospital. She just wanted to see who this guy is that she’s heard so much about.”

“I don’t think she was very impressed by the look on her face,” I said back.  “Oh, don’t let that bother you, you know how girls are — she’s just my sister.”

She may have been just his sister, but she was now inside my head, and I couldn’t get her out.

Chapter 7: Force Majeure

“My God, what is all that racket upstairs?  It’s a woman’s voice, do you think she needs help?”

“No, that’s just Kathryn screaming at her boyfriend over the phone.  They haven’t been getting along lately, and this has become a regular occurrence.”

There are watershed moments in life, and I knew this was one of them.  “I better go check,” I said. “You’re out of coke anyway.”  Without waiting for an answer, or tacit permission, I grabbed his empty glass and headed up the stairs two at a time. I opened the basement door and stepped into the kitchen just in time to hear … “Ok then, we’re OFF for New Year’s Eve.”

Kathryn’s mother looked at me and with a twinkle in her eye gave me the ‘Irish Wink.’  Having an Irish grandmother, who had always been the love of my life, I knew what that wink meant, and a voice deep inside that I had no control over started to speak … “So, you don’t have a date for New Year’s Eve? What a shame!” She immediately glared back at me with venom in her eyes. “Well, as it happens, I don’t have one either. Why don’t you go out with me unless you’re afraid of a guy like me.”

I could see her mother standing behind her shaking her head up and down as if to say … “Ask her again.” “I’m not afraid of anything — especially a guy like you.”  “Good I said, then I’ll take that as a yes.”  Kathryn stood there by the phone with a look that was a combination of anger and intrigue.

“I don’t know. Where would we go, and I’m not going on the back of any motorcycle.”  “We can go wherever you like, and I promise it’ll be in a car.  I hear Zaberers in Atlantic City has a great New Year’s Eve party.” Kathryn was still silent as her mother Marge answered for her: “That sounds like fun, I know you’ll both have a great time."

At every point in my life when I needed saving, it was always a special woman who saved me — they didn’t come any more special than Marge Hudak.
As she walked me to the front door that night, she hugged me again as she said … “Next time, just park your motorcycle in front of the house and bring your helmet inside …

                                    How Did She Know

Chapter 8: The Aftermath

That New Year’s Eve would be the best night in my entire life.  We danced and talked, laughed and gazed, and I think in both of our hearts and minds — we knew.

I went on to take that new job because now I could see a clearer pathway to the future, and it included more than just me,
Sixty days later, on March 5th, I asked Kathryn to marry me, and she said, YES.  Six months after that we were married on September 22nd, and this year, 2024, we will celebrate 50 years together with our 2 children and 4 grandchildren.

We lost Eddie, and both of his parents, several years ago, but their memory lives on inside of us growing stronger with every passing day.

There’s no telling where my life would have gone had I ‘escaped’ out of that classroom that night and gotten away from the *******. Meeting Eddie confirmed what I think I already knew deep inside — that it is our own insecurities and fear that handicap us the most.
That night, Eddie offered to me more than just his friendship, his wit, his intellect, and his great strength of character. Meeting him turned into the greatest of all of life’s gifts …

                                        His Sister Kathryn
Kurt Philip Behm
Written by
Kurt Philip Behm
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