Johnny’s Joy

There was a man in my home town named Johnny. He lived in Belgreen outside the town of Russellville where I grew up. I think he lived with his sister. Johnny was “special.” Everyone in northwest Alabama knew him because at some point, they had given him a ride. See, Johnny didn’t drive. He still liked to visit the big cities of Muscle Shoals, Florence, Sheffield and Tuscumbia. There were things to eat, places to shop and wonders beyond those Belgreen had to offer. You always knew for days when you had given Johnny a ride.


I am sure you know people who feel showers are overrated.


Johnny frequently went on odysseys which stretched over several counties. At the end of these odysseys when he was headed home his request was simple, “tate me to Belgreen.” It always amazed me how he could move around such a huge area simply on the largess of those willing to give a hitchhiker a ride. Most of those rides were given by people who knew they were about to receive an aromatic gift which would keep giving for several days.


Would you have given him a ride?


Johnny was always so excited to see you. My friends and I had given him many rides but, one stands out. He had been to a shop in downtown Florence on that day. He had forgotten to close the back door of the car because he was so excited. Apparently he had located a trinket or dust collector which made the perfect gift for his sister. It may have been a ceramic frog or a rabbit or something…I can’t remember. Although he did not speak very plainly, we were able to piece together that Johnny’s sister loved that kind dust collector and had many of them throughout the house. He was beside himself with pride.


I wish you could have met Johnny.


Sure, Johnny would give us a beer from time to time. We also had a laugh or two at his expense. There is something funny about a child in a middle-aged man’s body. Mostly, however, we genuinely liked Johnny and how could you not like Johnny? I think he liked us. God chose to freeze him at place where we found ourselves. We were not quite adults and not quite children anymore. His permanent adolescence made him one of us with all its wonder. Yeah, it is safe to say that Johnny, for many of us, was our first lesson in packaging.


Does God hide his best surprises from you sometimes?


Johnny, unshaven, unclean, and repulsive in many ways was one of my first opportunities to see and feel unbridled joy. The legend, I later learned, was that Johnny was headed to an Ivy League school on scholarship before the train accident. The unrecoverable brain damage left him in a childhood state of, well, joy. Every day was an adventure. He was doomed, blessed maybe, to forever live in the moment. I imagine he never had a regret when his head hit the pillow in Belgreen. I am sure a part of Johnny’s brain visited the past from time to time but, I never witnessed regret. Sure, people played tricks on him from time to time but, he never held a grudge. He loved his drivers and they loved him.


Johnny passed away several years ago but, we still talk about him often. We always have a laugh or two. The laughs always remind me of that twilight between childhood and adulthood. There is wonder and joy in those times. There is also pain. Johnny taught us that the pain is fleeting and grudges only rob us of real joy. There were a hundred reasons to avoid Johnny. We could have marginalized Johnny but, it would have been our loss. The gift of permanent childhood joy would have remained unopened and our lives would have been a little darker.

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