The Life and Times of Chuck Basement
by Steve Baum
Copyright Pending/Edited Version
Evening of Nov. 10, 2009
I remember precisely because the call came at eleven ‘til eleven on the day before the eleventh. And it was November. No one called on the home line anymore – it had been “magicjacked” to save sixty bucks a month. We only used the number because it still looked good to have a home number and not just mobiles. More rooted, I guess.
Anne looked at me and I looked back. Who called at eleven ‘til eleven on a weeknight? I see her face reading, “What’s wrong? Is it one of the kids?” Even with great kids there are always mothers’ nightmares.
The jacked phone never answered correctly on the first ring so you had to push the answer button and just ask, “Hello?” or, “This is the Baum’s,” or some-such until the system caught up with itself. Still, sixty bucks saved is sixty bucks in a recession.
Finally the click and then, “Is this Mr. Baum?”
“Yes, can I help you?”
“Mr. Baum this is Deborah at UAB Hospital. Can you confirm your birth date for me?”
This was it. Had to be. Maintain.
“June 4, XXXX.”
“Thank you, Mr. Baum. Dr. Bynon has asked me to call and say we believe we have a suitable liver and kidney for you.”
Maintain. Look at Anne and try to calm her with your expression even as every nerve ending in your system has jolted into action mode. But you’ve got to maintain. She’ll need that.
The caller began going through her checklist as I grabbed a pen and paper and we were off to the races.
A few questions back and forth and then confirmation of contact numbers: Can we be there by morning? Can we start out now? Take your time but we think surgery will start tomorrow at 1:00 P.M. Now there is a chance there could be a complication…these things happen. But we think this is the one.
Anne had a full grasp now of what was up and she showed that wonderful exterior calm but we both knew the news was racing through her and she was sorting priorities as fast as she could. In the meantime…
Maintain. I’d have to be calm enough for both of us. Heck, the darn suitcase had been packed and by the door since January. Arrangements made at work? Check. Wills and trusts updated? Check. Bills paid three weeks in advance? Check. Family, friends and neighbors on alert? Check, check and check.
“Honeybunch? It’s time for another one of life’s great adventures.”
Pretty brave considering what I was about to go through. Well, we weren’t alone. I knew I could count on Chuck.
(Please see Chapter 1 Below)
The Life and Times of Chuck Basement
In Which We Meet Chuck
My earliest memory that’s stayed with me all this time is the drive from Minnesota to California, U-haul behind the Ford wagon and my Uncle Denis along to help. Dad and Mom had both landed teaching jobs in Orange County and we were part of thousands, millions really, heading west. It was 1957, I was almost two, and I had wet the bed I shared with my uncle on the way.
I distinctly remember pulling into the driveway at 1165 Locust, and Woody, the owner, and his wife were working outside and turned and waved as we pulled in. Nice square little wood California contemporary tract home with a rock roof. Two car garage. Real sidewalks. Newly planted palm trees. Chocolate brown. Big windows.
Anaheim at that time was the Wonder Years more than Leave It to Beaver. Great schools and new shopping centers with all feeling very modern. Disneyland was two years old. The Dodgers were coming! And Orange County still had, well, oranges.
Stevie Baum was a happy kid. In fact that might be an understatement. Friendly and husky and talkative as all get out and people treated me well. Butch haircuts were the thing and dungarees were de rigeur, and usually people didn’t even notice my lazy eye.
Mom and Dad had already figured out they had a handful by my constant questions, quick mind, and my tendency to wander off and visit the neighbors. And who wouldn’t go visiting? We had all kinds of neighbors in all ages and stages and there was swimming and chocolate chip cookies just for the asking.
As I got a little older the territory got a little bigger and wider and so of course a boy earns a little more opportunity to explore but also with a little trepidation as things come at you that you’ve never seen before. The world got fast and loud just past the end of the block.
Little Stevie was a lover first and foremost and along with that comes trust and sensitivity but he was in the swim of things now as fall brought drop offs at the babysitters and then nursery school. Boy did I love nursery school. Always loved everything about the classroom and always will. Classrooms were my platform. I loved my teachers, learned to play well with others, had to share and raise my hand. Sharing was easy as it was my nature. Raising my hand before I spoke, not so much. Early reader. Quick at numbers.
Babysitters, what we call daycare now, were a different deal. I didn’t feel one-of-a-kind anymore. Poor women had one or two of their own and one or two of us and some of them shouldn’t have had any.
“Mom, is there Hell inside of me?”
“No! Of course not! Why would you ever think that?”
“Because June said if I didn’t finish my tomato soup she was going to beat the Hell out of me. I told her I didn’t like it and it would make me throw up.”
“And then what happened?”
“I threw up at the table.”
June then became more fully acquainted with my mom. I wish I could have seen it.
There was a lot of good playtime after nursery school and as I hit three and four there was a little more room to roam and a lot more people to get to know beyond three houses away. There were older kids, and girls, and Mexicans and Okies had just moved in, just like me. It was a neighborhood of first time buyers and new retirees and it was safe to play in the street.
Life had pretty much been a long string of days of sunshine and friendly folks and warm fuzzy feedback until the first times you had those early and scary meet-ups with the ‘others.’ You know, some of these others didn’t think like you. They didn’t want to play the same games and sometimes they didn’t even play fair! Sharing was not always automatic and some of them said bad words. What’s worse, some of them didn’t always settle disputes with compromise and negotiation. You know what I mean?
Some of these others would run over you with their bike just for laughs and take your ball and throw it on the roof. Some of them teased you about that lazy eye and figured out if they pushed you; you were too slow to catch them to push them back. Some of them figured out you didn’t like to push back. Uh-oh.
Some of them pounced on the fact that words can hurt a wordy kid worse especially if there isn’t a mean bone in his body. Some of them were your friend on Monday but had a new best friend on Friday, and you weren’t allowed in their fort any more. “Scram ham!” All just regular kid stuff except just…more.
Back on your block you’re still the little darling of the adults’ world.
Hey, Stevie! How are ya? Whatcha got there? Come here and tell me that monster story again! That’s great! C’mere, Joyce, let Stevie tell you about that weird story he made up. Steverino! Wha’ da ya know? Show me that drawing again. Hey, David, check this out! Great detail and, um, anatomically correct!
Hey Stevie! Why you sitting all alone over there ? No one else home? I just saw the Salt kids over there. Why don’t you go over and play army or something?
Stevie! Home so early? Hey, it’s a beautiful day! Go play catch with Paul and them…it looks like they need one more! Oh. Well get on a bike and ride around the neighborhood why don’t you? Don’t you like it down at the end of Catalpa?
“I’m NOT Stevie!”
“Oh? Okay…who are you?”
“My name is Chuck. Chuck Basement.”
WOW! Now that sounded…tough! Yeah, that’s it: a tough guy name. I knew what tough was. I saw tough guys on TV. Some of those other kids, they were…tough. People don’t mess with you if you’re tough.
To a four year old could there be a tougher name than Chuck? Tough and Chuck almost rhymed. Chuck Connors. Chuckwagon. Chuck Yeager. Chuck- chuck-bo-buck. Numchuck. Chuck.
And that other part. The Basement? Hey there ain’t no basements in California. Basements are…cool. Cold. Smell musty. Bugs and ghosts and dirt in the corners. Basements aren’t like anything around here. And besides, back in Minnesota where did you go if you really wanted to hide? Where did you go if there was a storm and you wanted to feel safe? Well there you go! The basement.
It was perfect. And anytime I really, really needed to, I could be…Chuck Basement.
(The Life and Times of Chuck Basement now continues below…)
When We Learn What’s Up
The diagnoses trickled in over the years. Our first inkling of kidney problems in the family was the discovery of the then little known condition Polycystic Kidney Disease identified in my father, Harry, when he was rushed to the hospital with an internal bleeding episode in 1973. We learned a bit more in what was then known about PKD: long term loss of kidney function and failure while being treated by dialysis and then, hopefully, a transplant. Medical science would study the condition closely over the years and the PKD Foundation was formed.
My own diagnosis was in fall 1987 after passing blood in my urine and an ultrasound showed cysts the sizes of nickels, dimes, and quarters on both kidneys. Over the years there were some lifestyle modifications as the loss of function was tracked. Cysts became notable on the liver. Periodic CT Scans showed continuous growth in the cysts.
Then, in 2002, my body began to change shape and certain feelings and functions weren’t right. Nearly constant pressure on the colon and diaphragm was accompanied by rapidly rising blood pressure requiring stronger and stronger meds. High gag reflex, some loss of appetite and, for the first time constipation. No stamina. Easily winded. My heretofore somewhat athletic body thickened in the middle even though I was eating right. Basketball, softball, and even golf were out.
Discomforting complications continued and the belly grew and still we chalked it up to kidneys only. The problem was the belly was starting to look like the second trimester of pregnancy and became more and more a limiting factor in lifestyle. Several body functions were now dysfunctional with eating, breathing, bowel, and the gag reflex issues becoming more pronounced: I could barely brush my teeth without gagging. Physical activities were beginning to become more and more limited. It had been a while since I could sleep on my stomach. Physical exertion became exhaustion quickly and then even yard work or fast walking became out of the question.
Eventually when I turned sideways I looked like a small letter ‘b’ with feet! Anne was very, very concerned.
Finally I concluded in the spring of 2007 the diagnosis was not complete and changed nephrologists. In August, Dr. Robert Taylor was selected and I went in for a long first appointment. Dr. Taylor is a great listener and after the exam, CT scan, and additional ultrasounds, the verdict was in: not only was the liver now almost fully covered by cysts, but it was big. Big, hard, bumpy, and growing. In fact it was ‘Massively Enlarged’ in medical terms and expanding further. I was putting on weight but there was muscle atrophy in my arms, shoulders, and legs. Where I wore my pants had nothing to do with my waistline.
I started to look like a skinny guy carrying a watermelon. We estimated the size of the liver as twenty pounds plus, only a bit over one pound being the average.
Fortunately, Dr. Taylor had a prior patient with very much the same symptoms and conditions. The liver, and kidney, had to be dealt with now. The best option? A very involved and deeply invasive transplant of both the liver and one kidney.
The irony? The medical measurements of liver function, the “numbers” were all in the normal range but its massive growth was impacting all the organs around it.
I struggled with the decision for a few weeks because an available liver should go to someone with a failing liver shouldn’t it?
The First Life Changing Episode
As trained teachers and as good, solid Midwestern middle-class people my parents, Harry and Donna (Weis) Baum valued education highly and stressed it in our home well before kindergarten. Although he himself had never been encouraged by his parents to further his education, Dad went to college after the Korean War on the GI Bill and certified to be, initially, a shop teacher. While working full time, he earned a Masters in Industrial Psychology and joined the aerospace industry in first training and then general human resources. His will to provide and to grow personally helped make us one of the many upwardly mobile young families prevalent in Orange County. Mom taught English for a couple of years and then took on odd projects in writing, tutoring, and subbing while having and raising us kids.
They were both creative as well as industrious, and those were the values they instilled in us. They always had time for us and encouraged us to do as well as we could both in school and when an interest became clear. They were good folks and great parents.
I was a voracious learner even at three or four. Mom had me reading, drawing and doing simple arithmetic by kindergarten. I was quick to learn and genuinely enjoyed satisfying my curiosities. Kindergarten and first grade were wonderful days with strong teachers in very active classrooms. The Cold War was on, Kennedy was elected, and the space race had begun. These dominated the news in those years. It was a proud time to be a Catholic as Kennedy tried to create Camelot and Pope John XXIII began to make the Roman church more modern.
Times were fun in the classroom where me and my friend, Penny, were the top of the class and treated accordingly. Life on the playground was simple and not yet hyper-competitive and the girls played sports with the guys even then.
I started playing T-ball and then under-handed pitch and loved baseball even though for some reason I couldn’t hit a lick and it was already clear I was to be a very slow runner. Flat feet, bad ankles and such. Dad had been a very good baseball pitcher even into the service and college and was always ready to go “out for a catch.” I got my throwing arm and fearless fielding from him which was good because I also got his cursed feet.
For second grade the decision was made to send me to St. Phillip’s Catholic School for the first confession and first communion year.
Even though the classes were larger the teaching was more rigorous and my friend Scott and I rose to the top of the class. I’m sure I was a curiosity as I had a habit of finishing tests first and then helping the other kids with theirs. Unfortunately this was not what stern Mrs. Fredette had in mind and I spent time standing in the corner for the egregious offense of helping my peers get the right answers. Funny, I had thought that was the objective.
This was when I started singing and made the honor choir that you had to try out for and which had limited positions. I was also selected to be in our small plays and skits and enjoyed speaking in front of the class despite a slight stammer and a lisp. These deficiencies were, of course, brought to my attention on the playground.
Just before this time we had corrective surgery done on my right eye to try to keep it from “wandering” as a lazy eye. I’ll always remember waking up in the hospital with my eyes bandaged and calling out for “Mom” but of course she and Dad were right there. Free unlimited banana popsicles got me through my stay in the hospital.
As an upwardly mobile family, it became time to move to a bigger, better house in a new neighborhood and we moved to Northumberland Street in Orange, located smack dab in the middle between Heim Elementary School three blocks in one direction and Peralta Junior High three blocks in the other. We lived on a “dead end” street where we could play ball, and over the back fence was a large, dying orange grove where we could play for hours.
The British Invasion had begun in rock and all seemed well in America except for those announcements of more and more “advisors” going to a place just becoming known at the time as Vietnam. The South was stirring and soon Dr. King would give his “I Have A Dream” speech on the national mall.
By this time Marcia was four, and Ann was two, and brother John was on the way but we didn’t know it. I made a new batch of friends over the summer in this neighborhood which was Baby Boomer heaven, and played baseball in two leagues in the summer even though I still could not hit or run very well. I just loved the competition and team spirit. I loved the competition in class as well.
School started and because I was new to the school and district, I was “tracked” into a less rigorous track initially. By the end of the second week, though, our teacher Mr. Humphrey had noticed I was always done first with perfect work. One day he came to the back of the class wondering why I wasn’t paying attention and he double-clutched when he saw I had jumped far ahead in the reading workbook and in fact it was almost finished by the end of that second week.
They moved me to the higher track class and I settled in still learning quickly and encouraged by a more advanced group of peers. I will never understand why they refuse to track students today. It’s the most logical thing in the world but I believe dropping that may be part of the “levelling the playing field” going on in the schools these days.
The playground was more competitive as well and it was here in third grade that my physical challenges of slow running, wandering eye, and initially shying away from contact sports was repeatedly and sometimes mercilessly brought to my attention in some of the cruelest ways.
Enter Chuck. He was back again and not about to tolerate such indignities. You might tease me in the running games but don’t be on the other side in dodge ball because I would not only hit you but could knock your butt down.
In tetherball I was fearless and in kickball could really kick but my slowness turned a lot of doubles into singles. I loved sports and learned through Chuck’s determination and, yes, even anger to capitalize on my strengths to hold my own. Thanks, man!
By this time my parents had begun to notice I was favoring my eyes and squinting and a check-up showed I needed glasses. As irritating as they were, I could now see both the blackboard and the baseball better. Shooting baskets also turned into a strength. I wasn’t hitting the ball far but at least I was making some contact and became less of a liability at the plate.
My natural competitiveness grew and extended back into the classroom. I worked to both get the best score and to be the first one finished. Yeah, I know, one of those kids. I was moving ahead of even this class now and unknown to me there were private conversations on how to keep me challenged. You see I was still not the type of kid to finish a test and sit quietly at my desk with my pencil down.
I was chosen to be Master of Ceremonies at school events due to some improvement in my lisp from months of speech therapy. I spoke confidently, however, and did not have problems with putting words together or with stage fright. It seemed that when I spoke people stopped and listened and this pleased me a great deal.
The decision was made to have me skip from third to fifth grade based on classroom performance and scores on tests such as the Stanford-Binet and SRI.
This, of course, made me and my teacher parents very proud but this may have been my first lesson in being careful what you wish for.
There would be many times in the next four years I would wish to God that I hadn’t been jumped ahead to much older peers. Many times.
Back to today: The Journey to Birmingham
B+. Be positive. This is both my blood type and my chosen life’s attitude and I would need both as they would define the coming two years. Oh, and that small letter ‘b’ in profile could no longer be called small. I was now retaining fluids and puffed up to 250 pounds. I couldn’t sleep in normal patterns or positions and began taking a drug to try to establish a biological rhythm and sleep the night. My normally sunny disposition turned into mood swings with high highs and low lows. We started another drug to flatten the emotional hills and valleys and the result was now I was relying on pills to get me through both the day and the night.
This of course affected my jobs as I was responsible for leading people in small specialized restaurant chains spread over several states and this required great stamina and focus. The natural leader with the energy and positive communications skills had neither in sufficient supply. Work suffered and work relationships began to become strained. I began drinking cheaper wines in larger quantities in an effort to quell both physical pain and stress. All these combined to begin to make it more and more difficult to be a leader in the demanding and physical leadership role required in the restaurant industry. It was, simply stated, very difficult to B+.
Finally I resigned my highest paying position ever over simply not being able to do the work but I was not sick enough to qualify for disability. This was where our lifetime commitment to savings and constructive investment would help to get us through the coming ordeal. I began work as a commissioned third-party executive recruiter because my body could only handle a desk job.
After an initial consultation with Dr. Brendan McGuire of the Kirklin Clinic at University of Alabama Birmingham Hospital we scheduled a total transplant evaluation. UAB is a ‘Center of Excellence’ in liver transplant and was the most highly recommended medical center in the area for our needs. The liver was the more complex transplant and would be the lead in the process and surgery.
The evaluation process consisted of thirteen distinct physical and mental tests and interviews: x-ray, ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, EKG, ECHO, PFT, ABG’s, a short meeting with a social worker, and all morning with….a psychiatrist. Hmmm. The process and schedule ran incredibly smoothly although Chuck needed to show up for a couple of tougher ones.
Having never met with a psychiatrist I was a little apprehensive but felt good going in. I mean, who was more mentally healthy than me, right? Anne would be with me during the interview and then I would go on alone to intelligence tests and comprehension evaluation. This baby was in the bag.
Except some of the interview questions came pretty close to home.
And I had neglected to take into consideration what the long term effects of alcohol, sleeping pills, and high blood pressure might do to the old processor.
“Who wrote Faust?”
Wait. I know this. I know this. One of the Germans. Um, um, um… Nietzsche? I immediately knew it was wrong when I said it.
“Connect all 50 dots numerically in order in the next sixty seconds. Go.”
Darn! Where’s 27? It’s a trick! There must not be a 27! (Hint: Do not spend 20 seconds looking for number 27).
“I’m going to feed you a series of puzzle pieces. You match them to these patterns and you will be timed.”
At last! My specialty! Except that I hit the wall with two puzzles left to go.
They don’t tell you the score but I knew I wasn’t going to hit the IQ numbers I grew up with.
That’s it. Wrap it up. Call it a day. Head back to Franklin and wait for the determination.
After six weeks the letter arrived.
It read as follows:
“The Liver Disease Committee at UAB discussed your case on 7/1. The committee made the following decision regarding your case:
You have not met the abstinence criteria for transplantation at our program. You must remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol for six months and attend a formal substance abuse rehabilitation program…including random screenings…documentation…then re-evaluation.”
Adjusting To New Circumstances
After all the tests and evaluations in school, I was skipped ahead to fifth grade. Congratulations: I was now the slowest and shortest guy in class. The difference in a newly nine-year-old and other fifth graders ten and turning eleven was as great a distance as you can imagine. At Heim I learned what bullies were and I learned that kids with younger brothers and sisters in my previous years’ classes were deeply resentful of my being there suddenly in their own. Especially since I was still capable of being done first with the highest score.
Fortunately mornings a few of us were bussed to the new centralized Extended Learning Program or ELP. In many ways this was great as I was in class with other high-achieving and, yes, some nerdy kids. To get to the ELP the bus that we took was…wait for it…the short bus. Oh well. I was happy at least half the day as we were taught both creatively and at our own pace.
Sixth grade we were moved to permanent day-long classes at Taft Elementary with two classrooms of ELP kids and five of the regular classes.
I had adjusted about as well as could be expected although I know I could sometimes say things that my classmates found a little immature. I was surprised then that I was elected to the Student Council at Taft and, as a complete shock, elected the President for the first quarter. Heck, I was stunned I was even nominated!
LBJ was President, the war in Vietnam was escalating fast and now coffins were coming home. Rock was being dominated by the west coast, except for Motown. Baby Boomer culture was starting to emerge: there were fewer hang-ups.
Besides being less mature physically I was ten years old and a lot of the other sixth graders were turning twelve through the school year. This showed up the most in my dealings with the opposite sex.
I was already getting a little girl crazy but I was regarded by most of them as the younger kid or the little brother-type friend. This was California after all and there was already some “going steady” and some “making out.” In fact we played spin the bottle when the parents left the room at our parties.
Another big highlight of that sixth grade year was the Spring Sports Festival competition including all seven sixth grade classes. Surprisingly after the sprints, three-legged races, basket shooting and all our ELP Class 1 was tied with the “jocks” class going into the final event: the softball throw.
Everyone had to participate in an event and since a couple of my baseball teammates were in my class they convinced the others to let the youngest kid throw the ball which was based on accuracy at 45 feet thrown into a strike zone space in a pitching net. This was certainly a better fit for me than the races.
The other team’s pitcher was another friend from my baseball league, Rich, and he was good: very good. Rich threw first and got four out of five into the net.
So there I stood with about 120 screaming sixth graders and seven nervous teachers looking on.
As I picked up the first ball I summoned back my old alter ego, Chuck. Chuck could still concentrate and really bear down in sports and he would summon up his strength by muttering under his breath a “benevolent curse” (Definition: no conflicts of interest with critical Commandments) and then just let it go.
The first two pitches were right down the middle but the third bounced in after nicking the frame. Chuck took a deep breath and let up a little on the fourth pitch and it went in cleanly.
We were tied with one pitch left! The screaming got even louder as the teachers tried in vein to settle all the kids down to allow me to concentrate.
So there I was, in my mind Chuck Basement, with the fifth and potentially winning pitch in hand, the entire Sports Festival championship was on the line. The “smart kids” actually had a chance to beat all predictions and win!
“Atta babe, Stevie boy, right down the middle.”
“You can do it! Take your time!” and, of course,
“Not a chance. What’s the tiebreaker when he misses?”
Even Chuck was a little bit nervous but began to summon up his strength and concentration.
(Repeats benevolent curse under his breath. He was now in the zone.)
Chuck don’t fail me now!
We took a half of a windup and chucked that softball right down the middle. Bedlam and pandemonium ensued.
It was the final, crowning achievement to a very unusual elementary school career.
I was now “in” or so I thought. On to Junior High!
Intro To Chapter 4
So. I had quit my lifetime career in the restaurant industry, was completely miserable physically, already working hard managing my emotions on a day-to-day basis to try to remain positive, and now this curve ball. None of my doctors, nor I, had believed I was in a dependency situation. But even if I weren’t that didn’t make any difference now.
Enter Chuck: “Alright, dammit, let’s do it to it. At least we have a fixed goal line. We’ve been through tougher than this.” Anne was even more supportive than I could have imagined. Lotta love there.
And so began what I thought would be the ‘Lost Six Months’ of my life although it could possibly turn out much better than that I thought. There was maybe a way to turn this into a positive. We’ll see.
I was going to be way out of my comfort zone for a while. Good, well intentioned people were going to try to guide me to places I had never intended to go within myself. They, and I, would be placing me under a microscope and, just like junior high school, it was unavoidable.
All of this scrutiny and exposure began to remind me of that most difficult stretch of any kid’s life: Junior High School.
Remember: Everyone’s Miserable
Seventh and eighth grade, especially in the junior high system where the ninth graders are still in the same school, is without question the most miserable time of almost any adolescent’s life. I’m sure you remember.
The fortunate few are either the jock elite and their cheerleader friends or a select group that are mature enough to realize that everyone else is miserable, too, so you might just as well go with the flow. I was not, however, in either group.
Summer of Love, Sgt. Pepper, and the first Super Bowls even though they were not initially called that. Vietnam dominated the evening news.
I was now 11, in the same gym class as twelve, thirteen, and even fourteen year-olds. With puberty still a year or so in the future I was the softest and probably weakest kid in gym. I don’t even have to say how horrible showering together in the group shower room was. You know you’re at the bottom of the food chain when some idiot football player pees on your feet intentionally.
In choir I was a soprano as a seventh grader and it would be another year before my voice would start to change.
Youthful couples now partnered into going steady and all the parties were girl/boy with all the things that even innocent thirteen and fourteen-year-olds dream up to do when the parents leave. Again: California.
I was not unpopular but any shred of celebrity left over from elementary school melted away fast. This is where the first serious cliques form with all the exclusivity they are meant to create. This is where three elementary schools compress into one junior high and it is too easy to get lost in the milieu. Everyone gathers into their new tribes and girls begin turning into young women.
And I became, socially, the last thing I would have ever wanted: I became a non-person.
I just wasn’t prepared for those types of challenges at Peralta Jr. H.S. in seventh and eighth grades. And what happens when a young gifted kid starts noticing his formerly familiar world is now passing him by? By turns, and sometimes even in the same day, they either retreat into a shell or act out in less than mature ways and I would do both.
Well, there I was with only the less than desirable label “that young kid who skipped a grade.” I was completely miserable and not yet mature enough to realize that most everyone else was too.
I plugged away in the classroom but my attitude wasn’t right and I no longer got the highest grade and I certainly wasn’t done first. Oh, I was still bright but my work got sloppy and I began resenting the more successful kids. I still trudged out to gym class and to after-school basketball and soccer but I was just physically overmatched. Summer baseball, though, continued to be fun as it was grouped by age and not grade.
I was not yet strong enough to pull myself out of the adolescent funk and even when I summoned up Chuck I didn’t win at anything. Not a darn thing.
The final indignity occurred when the school named its annual “Top Forty” list of the highest achieving students in academics, sports, and extra-curricular activities and I was conspicuously not on the list. Nor did I deserve to be.
My life was saved when Dad took a higher paying position with an aerospace company in Denver. I didn’t know much about Denver but it was very attractive just because of the fact that it was not here. My parents didn’t know it but I was more than ready to relocate and it couldn’t happen soon enough.
And so in the middle of 1968, certainly the most turbulent year in America’s history in the second half of the twentieth century, and the day after my thirteenth birthday, we moved to the Columbine area of Littleton, CO. It was the beginning of maybe the greatest time to be young in our history.
Colorado was emerging as a business and sports Mecca and Denver was no longer the “city of sleepy pioneers.” Youth culture was exploding on the college campuses and the trickle-down to high schools had begun and it was energizing and life-changing.
Unfortunately I still had one more year of junior high school. The good news was I made a great batch of new friends over the summer playing baseball, basketball, and at the neighborhood pool and was not yet relegated to any social group. I made some money working at the snack bar at the pool and got to know most of the neighborhood kids on the level playing fields of summer.
It was a summer of Friday night pool parties with live rock bands and the discovery that most of the neighborhood kids had also just moved in the past two years.
I played baseball that summer on a very good team in my age group with a bunch of guys who would go on to the semifinals in state at Bear Creek High School as seniors. Unfortunately since it was an age level team my teammates were heading into eighth grade as I was heading into ninth. This made me a bit of a curiosity but I was able to play down the whole “skipped-a-grade” thing.
We had moved into a nice new house and it took the summer to get it draped, landscaped and made into a home. In the middle of July, while trying to jump over an area not yet landscaped, I stepped down hard on a good-sized rusty nail and it went in to the bone. Fortunately Mom was just pulling into the driveway and saw me in agony and going into shock.
You’ve heard of “mother lifts car off of baby?” Well this was mother firmly grasps and yanks nail out of son’s heel and rushes him to the doctor. The wound was cleansed and dressed and tetanus shot given, but it unfortunately still became infected over the next week.
This was horrible as it both pulled me out of baseball and the playoffs and kept me out of the pool. I lay around and ate all day and tried to find something on one of the five TV channels. It was excruciating at times.
But then things healed as they always did and I was back to the fun activities of summer. When I finally rejoined the baseball team it was just in time for the county championship. I wasn’t quite healed enough to do a lot of running yet and there was no designated hitter so I waited patiently on the bench and coached first base when we were up at bat to try and make a contribution.
It was a pitchers duel and we were down 3-1. The opposing pitcher was strong and would go on to all-state in high school and pitch in college.
In the bottom of the sixth in our seven inning game Coach Weber called out “Stevie! Grab a bat and loosen up.” And lo and behold they walked our first batter and I trotted out as best I could to the batter’s box. I was still not a great hitter but I had been timing the pitches for six innings. He had a little hitch that screwed up your timing unless you had watched it eighty times as I had.
As I stepped into the batter’s box I summoned up my other side: Chuck.
Under my breath it was “ You…of a …. Lay one in here.” And as a surprise to everyone, including myself, I slapped a line-drive single up the middle. Wow! It was a little bit more like watching it than doing it but I hobbled safe to first and we also had a man on second with no outs
This would no doubt be a better story if we had won the game, but the next batter grounded us into a double play and the last batter flied out to left. My half-inning at second base was uneventful and their pitcher mowed us down in the seventh and final inning. Still my teammates were happy for me and second place in a tough league wasn’t all bad.
In true adolescent fashion I forgot about our end of season banquet. And unbeknownst to me Coach Weber had prepared a little speech about Steve Baum, their “most inspirational player.” Oh well, that was pretty much how junior high school had gone up until then.
The ninth grade school year wasn’t so bad as I got involved in activities and the short-term goal of reaching high school alive was now so close as to taste it. I sang in the choir and tried out for the school play. As I was new I got only a small role but the acting bug had bit. I entered the Rotary Club speech contest and was the youngest in the competition of course. I was only honorable mention but I was competing against 16 and 17-year-olds so I saw I had some real potential. In speech class I was selected to record “Tom Sawyer” for the special education school. I was back on the honor roll again.
And I made the decision to assert myself socially into multiple groups so as not to get pigeon-holed or labeled.
I was just starting to grow and I became a very good shot on the neighborhood driveway basketball courts.
I relearned the value of keeping upbeat and positive again and again I realized I could do anything I put my mind to do. I learned that we often limit ourselves and our peers merely respond to our own sense of self esteem. And I learned that we all have an inner reservoir of strength that is there when we call upon it.
What I didn’t know quite yet was where that extra strength actually came from. It would be a few years but I would figure it out eventually.
Intro to Chapter 5
At Last! Its Time To…Wait?
After a very positive experience in the outpatient program at Cumberland Heights, and while working on a few projects at home and just preparing myself for the ordeal ahead, we received the ‘go’ and I was listed on the UNOS liver and kidney lists.
The deal was sealed in December 2008 through another visit to UAB. This time we were able to meet our surgeon, Dr. Steve Bynon, and received even more detail and direction. Dr. Bynon, like Dr. McGuire and Dr. Taylor, gave us confidence we were in very competent hands. This was not their first rodeo.
Part of their job is managing the patient’s expectations. We went through all the numbers and statistics and were told it could be two months or twelve months or longer based on their history and my B+ blood type. This wasn’t terribly disappointing news as again we could see the goal line. I had started a desk job at the Department of Treasury that I could handle physically and knew this would keep me busy and our income would be moderate but sufficient.
Periodic medical appointments were kept and in July we were told by
Dr. Bynon in a very casual, matter-of-fact way that we were now number two on the liver list and that they would work to ensure the liver and kidney transplants would be simultaneous.
The support from family and friends got even stronger as they welcomed the good news but they could also tell I was wearing down physically. While we had gotten all excess fluids out of my system the condition had caused the muscles in my arms, shoulders, and legs to atrophy even more and both eating normally and breathing with any exertion were difficult with the liver so-o massive and crowding out all the surrounding organs and squeezing the solar plexus.
The spirit was willing but the body was weakening.
Here comes another wait. It was time to add a number of activities to help keep the mind occupied.
1969, 1970, 1971… What a great time to be young! The moon, literally, was the limit.
The secret to really enjoying high school is to get involved in a few activities you really enjoy. You learn and contribute, and develop some talents and can learn how some of these talents will be assets when you reach adulthood. Of course try to convince any “teen-year-old” they aren’t an adult and you will receive a less then desirable response in most cases. Still, activities were and are key.
I had sampled some acting, some public speaking, and some singing and after a first couple of lethargic first months as a sophomore I began getting involved. Well, truth be known, Mom had decided to kick me out of my after-school bedroom hide-out and it was either get involved or face long afternoons of chores and/or babysitting my beloved bratted siblings. Activities won in a landslide.
Being new, and being young, I started out of the bottom of each activity but began to learn the value of sticking with something until you got really good at it.
In choir I was only able to be in Intermediate Choir as a soph due to scheduling conflicts but it made me burn hotter to get to the very, very good Concert Choir.
In Forensics I gravitated toward humor and scored well in the speech meets but had not yet won any awards. I figured out the material wasn’t strong enough or challenging enough and so I obtained and edited the court room scene from the book ‘Catch-22.’ It required rapid dialogue among five key and two supporting characters each with their own voice and personality. I was certain I hit pay dirt and at least made it to the state tournament. I would get better.
Bear Creek had an outstanding choral director in Mike Weiker and was known for staging spring musicals of a very high level of quality as well as the well-directed and successful choirs. I became aware of an elite show choir of 24 students called ‘Sounds of BC’ and after hearing them I was hooked and had a new goal.
The spring musical my sophomore year, ‘Carousel,’ was a hit and these shows had so much participation and so much talent to draw upon in this large high school that it was double-cast: a Wednesday-Friday cast and a Thursday-Saturday cast. The auditorium regularly sold out Thursday Friday, and Saturday. I hoped for and got a speaking role as ‘Heavenly Friend’ (think Clarence the angel in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’)
We pushed some limits on production and staging and in the middle of Act 2 the main character, Billy Bigelow, and the Heavenly Friend were to jump from ‘heaven’ (a well concealed 8’ high painting scaffold) and float gently down to earth. My friend, T-Mac, was also in the scene as the Starkeeper seated atop a well-disguised eight foot ladder. But…things never seemed to go exactly as planned and on closing night failed completely.
The lead jumped out, only to hang swinging in mid-air as the ropes had not yet been untied, and I jumped out only to discover no one had ahold of my rope and I dropped like a stone butt-first to the stage. The lead was laughing his donkey-like laugh, I was temporarily stunned, and the audience roared at the sight. It was straight out of the Marx Bros. Close curtain and move on!
As the lead and I walked out on stage for the next scene I entered rubbing my backside and making big gestures over my right shoulder while looking up. The audience had not known what to expect and thought this kid adjusting to the near-calamity was amusing and they laughed and helped bring us back on script. It would become a legendary story at the school.
I would be remiss it I did not talk about gym class and athletics. At the beginning of that sophomore year I was barely 14, short, husky and, the story of my athletic life to that point, among the slowest in any sports or races. However I had never stopped trying to develop sports skills such as those needed in the big three (football, basketball, and baseball) and I also developed skill and competitiveness in soccer and volleyball.
At the beginning of the year I was among the last picked for teams and I could not climb the rope in the gym which was considered a measurement of your manhood.
But then, finally, genes and hormones started to take over and I began to grow, stretching taller, and got stronger. By basketball season I was a valued teammate and by softball a high pick and played shortstop and batted clean-up. The last week of sophomore gym class I made it up the rope. In the twelve months of 1970 I would grow from 5’4” to 6’2” and add another inch or so by the end of my junior year in the spring of ‘71. One of my nicknames was now ‘Stretch’ and I felt like a member of the Men’s Club. This would help define my self-image and my self-confidence for the rest of my life. The baseball coach asked me to go out for the team but I declined due to all the other activities I wanted to do.
Here was the choice: ride the bench on a very good baseball or basketball team, which I would have enjoyed being a part of, or try to be the alpha male of the performing arts wing at the school? I chose to perform.
That next summer I outbid my former boss to operate the neighborhood pool snack bar and had a wonderful summer of sun, sports, money, and yes, girls.
You see I had learned that girls loved a self confident guy who could be funny with a twinkle in his eye but also could be a stand-up guy. Being well over 6 feet and with the longer hair of the time did not hurt either.
In my last two years of high school I would be a member of Concert Choir and the excellent Sounds of BC and getting larger and larger roles until I had the lead in the fall play and a lead and was Student Director of the spring musical my senior year. I was in demand for roles in one acts and other projects. I was named to the National Honor Society as a junior.
In speech I would win first place in humor at the state speech meet and second at the larger National Forensics League sponsored regional meet. I read morning announcements over the PA and was nominated and elected to just about anything I agreed to take on. I declined more nominations than I accepted because I was so busy and I really wanted some free social time.
At the very end of my junior year I finally turned 16 and now had all the freedom that would imply: car use, dates that were no longer double dates, some privileges granted by my parents for my seemingly good behavior.
Note the use of the adverb ‘seemingly.’
UABHospital Nov 11 2:30 AM
About three hours after the call we arrived at the hospital in the early morning hours of the following day with instructions to check in at Emergency and have the resident on duty paged.
The drive down had been smooth and Anne and I traded off between pensive silences and bursts of reviewing instructions and planning. We had time to send emails out to lists and call immediate family. As you can imagine everyone was pumped.
First Emergency, then to a wait that passed quickly in surgical prep. The word was there would be a delay of a few hours to insure safe and proper organ harvesting from the donor and final inspections before the green light to begin. It began to look more like a 4 P.M. surgery and so they served me a light breakfast at 11 A.M.
A word to the donor whoever he or she may be: Thanksgiving! Grateful is not enough, deeply indebted still falls short.
Thanksgiving to the donor and family for even considering being a donor. Thanksgiving for such a selfless act. This generosity might only be exceeded by giving up one’s own life for a loved one. Thanksgiving with some sorrow as the donor would not have a Thanksgiving holiday this year and the donor’s family’s Thanksgiving would not be the same.
Transplant protocol is that the donor identity is not made known to the recipient. This is wise. Any communication of gratitude is submitted anonymously through the transplant center. The only thing I knew about my donor was that there was a motorcycle accident that had been, by the will and grace of God, at a place and time that was ideal for my needs. This is a humbling, humbling thought. It is so easy to not feel worthy.
When the time came the nurse, a young woman named Melinda home between deployments to Iraq as an airborne paramedic, began the prep. A needle here, a tube there, shaving the chest and abdomen.
Each doctor dropped by to cover additional critical information and to secure releases. We provided copies of the will, living will, medical power of attorney, and release to authorize use of my organs if by any chance that’s the way it turned out.
But, really, I had few concerns this would not be successful. Liver transplants at the top centers have a 92% success rate measured after one year. If the recipient gets as far as to be released after post-operative care to their home that improves to 98%+. This is an area in which medical science improves each year and Anne and I knew we had been referred to the right people and the right place.
Still you must update legal and financial documents while in the waiting period and that can be difficult enough for some people as it can be very emotional. The greatest preparations, though, are those with your loved ones and between your ears. While I was confident in my faith and prepared for the worst it was also comforting to think of the many, many friends, neighbors, and relatives who said they were praying and pulling for my success. The simple thought and memory of that alone is both humbling and uplifting. I was not going to let any one down.
The anesthesiologist comes by last to tell you of the two step process and to address any possible outcomes one more time.
The first drip is started and my self-induced calm became even calmer. As a nice surprise the hospital bent a rule and allowed not only Anne, Rachel, and Aaron in two’s to my bedside at this point but also my baby granddaughter, Lily, who was awake and alert (Mike was tied down to a show but would be in shortly). Seeing my family was my parting vision as they came to wheel me down to the operating room.
I had already begun focusing my mind and reaching out in silent prayer. Trust me it is very, very easy to pray at this point. Hopefully this prayer is not a get acquainted introduction to God but more a continuation of the conversations you have been having all along. I didn’t expect any answers and did not need any: I knew God was present. You just know.
Operating rooms are cold and the surgical team was already well into their preparations. I was aware of people in masks moving quickly but not in a hurry and of bright lights getting brighter.
Was Chuck Basement there? Yes but only as a fading memory as the anesthesia took hold. I was not afraid. I knew I was in much bigger hands now.
You may hear from different people many different things about “being under.” Some will tell you of dreams and visits from loved ones long passed away. Some will tell you they have no memory of anything and simply went from being masked and blacking out to waking up groggily in recovery.
As for me as I went under I remember focusing on a point directly overhead and silently repeating ‘Together we cannot fail. Together we cannot fail.’ Then it was dark. And then sometime later, I have no idea how much later, there was a light.
The light was as through a doorway although the doorway was only partially defined. The light was bright but also soft, warm, and welcoming as if to be the arms of your lover reaching out toward you. I knew intuitively this was not the gateway to what comes after but instead an embrace as I was to be nurtured and warmed and then returned with a renewed strength and power to the conclusion of my unconscious thoughts and the procedure. I knew any serious risk had passed and that all would be fine. It was as pleasant a sensation as I think we can handle here in this life.
The Other Side of High School
A word or two about risk-taking: I am convinced that in order to grow up to be a fully mature and responsible adult we have to take some risks while young and get all of that hormonal risk-taking and pushing-of-the-envelope out of our systems. I can articulate that now but honestly a thought this well formed never entered my mind at that time- I simply followed a lot of youthful impulses: some peer driven, some testosterone driven, and the best ones involved both.
By day I was still that honor roll student seemingly so busy with positive and constructive activities as to not even have time for trouble.
But I had made a large circle of friends and loved hanging out and just being a teenager with each of them and in varied social groups. I could perform with the performers, get the grades for Honor Society, play after school and summer sports with the jocks and, yes, even hang with the stoners as we sought the rock-and-roll lifestyle we imagined.
Rock concerts and parent-free parties were the greatest fun and both of these could lead to risky behavior such as activities with the opposite sex with any luck. We were the Baby Boomers and birth control pills were legal now. Almost all of us were ‘experimenters’ and you could get away with that if you were discreet and kept activity out of adult sight. My group of most serious evening and weekend buddies included Rick ‘The Stick,’ John P., Fergy, “Bull”, and assorted other ‘buds’ including some normally straight kids like Brian P., Thom, and T-Mac. We were basically good, somewhat privileged kids and the time was 1971 and 1972. We didn’t think we were entitled to any special rules or freedoms: we just knew they were there for the taking.
Now you might think that responsibility for these episodes of risky behavior should be laid at the feet of the more aggressive Chuck. But the fact of the matter was that Chuck was not around for a couple years because I had plenty of careless and trouble making opportunities on my own. And no fear.
Here are a few of these episodes from New Year’s of my junior year in high school through the summer following high school graduation. Many of these are offered by my “partners in crime.” (A “*” denotes mature stories removed during editing and which are available only at the blog: stevebaum.wordpress.com as the “Forbidden Episodes” of Chuck Basement. These episodes are password protected)
The Fountain of Youth
By John P.
“So, our story starts on a clear winter evening between Christmas 1970 and New Years. No new snow on the ground but still very chilly. Our two heroes are dressed in the fashion of the day. Giant hiking boots, blue jeans, flannel shirts(Oh, to be fashionable )
They show up a female friend’s house, make the scene, see all the right people, squeeze all the right girls and find all the wrong beverages. Did I mention these two buddies have an age difference? The one, long, lanky and underage…like 15? (Oops, I hope no one’s parent is reading this!) Let’s call him……Stretch. The other fellow, big and burly and a couple of years older and more experienced in the ways of the world. Let’s call him…Mongo. Yes, yes these names are meant to protect the guilty.
Now, back to the party, so things are going well until Stretch starts to grab drinks that have been…lets say… abandoned. Some with UFO’s, unidentified floating objects. Mongo notices his friend’s lack of choosiness and steers him towards the front door. Stretch, not ready to leave, spins away from Mongo and back into the mix of people. Mongo heads to the front door and patiently waits outside as he knows what is coming.
After a short wait here comes Stretch with a serious look on his face. No, no, wait that’s not a serious look but one of being lost in oblivion. Wait that’s not the look of oblivion either, but the look of a man on a mission!
So Mongo turns him to the railing and all of Stretch’s 6’ 3” bends over the rail and releases the demons from within. He stands up….He bends over….He stands up… He bends over. At that moment a voice rings out of the crowd “Hey, Stretch, you look just like a Roman fountain”. Everyone had a good laugh…even Stretch…..a few days later.
I might add that when returning Stretch to his parent’s house he was propped up against the front door and as we slid back into the darkness he slid down the door and finally crawled into the house. Ah, what would we do without friends!”
It does not matter that a girl believes she has broken-up with her boyfriend…sometimes it’s only what he thinks that counts. Two different girls, several months apart. Never saw either punch coming but took ‘em well staying on my feet. In both cases I just said goodbye to the girl and walked away. Discretion really is the best part of valor.
“Power to the P*n*s”
A group of six young men in a Plymouth Valiant, with “Bull” among them, go out in search of the meaning of life and instead just sing beery songs, including the above to the tune of John Lennon’s “Power to the People” as they cruise the town.
Outside of underage drinking we were only guilty of overenthusiastic optimism in the pursuit of women and of being a group of juniors trying to fill up the senior court at school with water and…um…body fluids.
Red Rocks: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
This acoustically perfect natural wonder west of Denver has hosted everyone from Henry Mancini and Peter, Paul, and Mary to Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. It’s been the site of Easter sunrise services since the 1940’s. That’s the good. It was in Bear Creek’s backyard and we thought we owned it.
Jethro Tull’s return sold-out concert in June ’71 was the site of a major gate-crashing riot which included a torched police car. Sitting in the middle of the audience, minding my own business, I was tear-gassed three times along with Fergy, The Stick, and others. That was memorable but bad. Rock concerts were banned from Red Rocks for two years after that.
The Stick still has a bootleg cassette of us innocents cursing the police. Bury it, Stick. Please.
And ugly? While cutting class during open campus during our senior year another friend and I were almost busted at Red Rocks for truancy (we successfully explained our open campus) and pot (we had just started and were able to extinguish without odor.)
Later, Anne and I would enjoy dozens of great concerts at Red Rocks and it would be our favorite venue until the refurbished Ryman Auditorium in Nashville became a co-favorite.
So We Left
“Miss K. was on a rampage about one thing or another and was deep into teacher-upset-with-students mode, lecturing the speech and drama class. We listened to this for a minute or two, looked at each other and decided we didn’t have to take it any more. We got up, left the classroom and didn’t return.
Fast forward to Concert Choir class. Dress rehearsal and we were all decked out in our iridescent robes that slightly changed hue as they caught the light from a different angle. A student messenger walked in handed Mr. Weiker one of those pink office notes. He looked up and announced that the two of us had to report to the Vice Principal’s office. Off we went, robe sleeves flowing, but not without first stopping by one of the counselors who we thought might be sympathetic and act as an intermediary. He walked us down the hall to the V.P.’s office, introduced us as “the two fallen angels” and left us at the doorway.
We sat down and there flashed that incomparable Steve Baum smile, followed by some witty remark, which elicited a growl from the V.P. and resulted in our silence. He wasn’t having any excuses or alternative points of view (or clever witticisms, for that matter). We wound up cleaning the art rooms for a week.”
Since his first teenaged driver was so hard on his cars Dad bought a baby blue Fiat 124 Special for my use and eventual ownership. It was beautiful but tiny. One redeeming quality was the fully reclining front bucket seats.
John P., The Stick, and I used it as primary transportation anytime The Stick’s Spielmobile was in the shop or out of gas.
Three guys, each well over six feet tall, in a tiny vehicle really only designed for two even though it had four doors. I drove, John P. held down the co-pilot seat (literally), and all 6’7” of The Stick had to climb in the back sideways facing the side window with his knees touching his chin. Climbing in and out he looked like a Mercury-era astronaut. The car was small enough that we picked up the rear end more than once to turn and improve upon our parking place or position.
The reclining front seats were handy during one-couple dates. Overall we abused that car terribly but it lasted nearly until I was married.
In A Safari*
In praise of automobiles, drive-in movies, and girls who were good sports.
Nader’s Nightmare et al.
T-Mac’s second car was a 1960 Corvair with heavy use issues and rust problems but it ran. We took that car everywhere and it was a major improvement over his first, a VW bug where the floorboards had rusted through. You could have started and stopped that VW like Fred Flintstone. Blasting through snow drifts was an adventure.
T-Mac’s dad had used masking tape to beautifully spell out “Nader’s Nightmare” on each side of the Corvair. T-Mac wore that label with true pride. In fact, his friends (John P and your’s truly) liked it so much that one Coors-fueled adventure was spray painting over the tape one clear moonlit night and coming back to peel the now outlined tape off early the next morning. T-Mac said he only wished we would have done a better job.
T-Mac was also the passenger the night Baby Fiat couldn’t avoid a cat crossing Morrison Road and we pulled over after a sickening thump-thump-thump only to find the cat’s head wedged inside the wheel well.
And it was with T-Mac that I committed, on multiple occasions, the only true crimes of my young adulthood: breaking into the school gym with the sole purpose of playing basketball. That group of “delinquents” became successful teachers, businessmen, and a college professor.
( “The Sunshine Boys” first performed together 40 years ago in high school )
My friend Brian P., truly the straightest of the straight among my crowd, surprised us one night while we were cruising aimlessly through South Denver.
Fellow good citizen Thom was at the wheel in the family Rambler wagon. It was so uncool as to be ironic.
With no notice Brian P. rolls down the window as we pass a packed neighborhood park and yells out: “Hey, Chicano! Hey Chic-Chic-Chic- Chicano!” We were shocked! Thom hastily headed us away toward safer suburban neighborhoods with the radio blaring to drown out Brian P.
When we got to Columbine one of us had the bright idea to shine a high-powered flashlight at passing cars. This was funny until the fifth or sixth car turned out to be a JeffCo deputy sheriff. He slams, spins, and follows us but luckily we were only a couple of blocks from my home.
Thom whips into the driveway across the street from my own and the deputy pulls in behind us with tree flashing.
I was dispatched to get out and talk to the deputy. This would become the story of my life.
“What do you boys think you’re doing?”
“Well, we’re getting home late and we were trying to flag my Dad down so he wouldn’t go looking for us.” (Silent prayer follows)
“Do you know you could cause an accident?”
“Well no sir but we thought it was the right idea. And look! There’s my Dad now!”
Dad had emerged in his bathrobe on the driveway in the nick of time.
“Sir, do you take responsibility for these boys?”
Pause. Must have lasted hours in our minds.
“I’ll take care of it, Officer.”
And he did.
T-Mac and I read the announcements over the school P.A. the late fall of our senior year. We used to tell a joke at the beginning usually in the form of a question and an answer.
One day T-Mac couldn’t make it and I read alone. It was about two weeks before Christmas 1971.
“This joke is dedicated to Mr. Guzowski, Mr. Raschwalski, and Jane Poleski.
Why couldn’t they have the first Christmas in Poland?
Because they couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.”
I was not invited back.
Because We’re Special
By the middle of my senior year my friends and I were regarded as good students (mostly true) and model citizens (a tribute to discretion.) We were using the faculty restrooms and even allowed to borrow faculty cars if we were staying for a night rehearsal and needed to get something to eat.
The height of these privileges came the time we interrupted the Music Theory class to borrow the keys to “the Bruin’s” folks’ camper. No problem. Except they didn’t notice the two girls headed out to the camper with John P. and I.
The Road Trip*
Lucky. Very very lucky.
Again, these are just factual stories and nothing I am necessarily proud of today as a father and now grandfather.
But it was good to get it out of my system in preparation for what my life was going to be in the future.
The year wound down, we graduated, and summer ’72 began. I was restless all summer: something of a withdrawal from 18 months of almost constant activity.
Rick “The Stick” and the Elusive #13
By The Stick
“What happens when you mix two young, handsome, single guys (still in their teens), a six-pack of beer, a drive-in movie, and a really lame pick-up line? One muddy car and an unrequited search for number thirteen.
It was a dark and stormy night… Wait a minute, that’s the opening to my next mystery novel. It was a pleasant summer evening when the aforementioned young, handsome single guys had nothing better to do, so they decided to grab the Stick’s family station wagon (remember station wagons?) and go to the drive-in. I can’t even remember the movie.
Regardless, we also grabbed a six-pack of Joe Coors’ finest brew and headed north to Lakewood and life-long notoriety. As I said, it was a pleasant evening and we arrived at the drive-in a bit early, found a good spot, and proceeded to stretch out on the hood to check out the scene.
A couple fine young ladies pulled up one spot over in a VW bug. Of course, to the aforementioned young, single guys, anything female would have seemed fine at that time. Anyhow, Stretch and I were discussing the possibilities when two other suitors for the fair maidens’ hands came upon the scene. Being only one parking slot away and sitting outside, we could easily hear the ensuing conversation. All we could do was look at each other in dismay as one lame line after another issued forth from the two interlopers. When we heard the line, “You know, V-dubs have a lot of class!” we could only roll our eyes at each other and then groan in utter amazement as the now not-so-fair-maidens granted them entrance into their domain.
With that, darkness fell, the movie began, and we retreated to our four-wheel cave to revel in the fact that we did not approach these two girls who obviously had very low standards and how lucky we were to find this out before we made our move. The beer continued to flow and the movie rolled on until it was time to leave.
With nothing better to do and still nursing bruised egos, Stretch and I headed south to the land of Columbine Knolls. At this time, the land to the west of my house on Marshall was under development. As we neared the Knolls, we determined that we had an urgent need to relieve ourselves of some excess water. We came upon a home construction site with a San-O-Let and decided that this was as good a place as any other to do the deed.
After completing our deposits into said San-O-Let, one of the two young men wondered aloud what a toppled San-O-Let might sound like. As this was several years before Al Gore invented the internet and we couldn’t just Google the query, we decided to put the little house to the test and tipped it over with ease.
Gaaaawoooosshhhhhh! What a cool sound. Goodness what fun that was. Let’s do that again. Being an area with a lot of construction, it didn’t take long to find another Port-A-Potti. Number two hits the turf.
Gaaaawoooosshhhhhh is heard once more. Then, like junkies in need of a fix, the search was on for numbers three, four, five, and six. Was it enough? No! We wanted, needed more.
Seven, eight, and nine all hit the ground with that satisfying sound we so desperately needed to hear. But like any junkie, sources to satisfy our addiction were becoming scarce. We searched high and low throughout the Columbine area. Finally number ten was in our sight and soon it, too, was vanquished. Agonizing minutes passed by, but they seemed like hours. Again our quarry was spotted and number eleven also fell.
Number twelve. Where was number twelve? The arc of our search began to widen. The opportunities were becoming few. At last we found our even dozen. Once more our hunger was sated. Would twelve be enough?
The answer was clear. NO! On to number thirteen!
The search was becoming desperate. The object of our quest seemed out of reach. Then, as if in a revelation, we saw it — number thirteen. Just the appearance of a silhouette in the distance; in the middle of an open field we were sure was another construction area. We searched for a route for the noble vehicle. There were no roads; we had to go cross country.
Did I forget to mention that while it was a pleasant summer night, that we had received a bit of rain that day? Did I mention that the field we were about to traverse was muddy as hell? Did I mention that there was no number thirteen? Did I mention the bog we stopped the station wagon in to assess our situation? Did I mention the fear that began to rise in our bellies as we considered how we were going to explain how we got the car stuck in the mud at least 200 yards from the nearest road? Did I mention any of that?
What were we to do? Hope was fading fast. Our live were flashing before our young eyes. Can your parents really impose an eternal grounding? Then a beneficent God stepped in to help. Just a few yards away was a pile of new construction lumber. Salvation! We arranged a series of boards to the rear of the wagon something akin to railroad track ties. Stretch positioned himself in the rear of the wagon to guide me out of the muck. “To the left” Stretch would instruct. So I turned left. “No, no, the other left” he would say, forgetting that we were facing in different directions.
Finally, we escaped the bog that nearly swallowed us. We were on our way back. We once more believed that the sun would rise in the morning with our lives intact. One minor problem though. The way were going out was not the way we came in. We found ourselves headed directly to occupied homes with no sign of a path to the street. We had no real choice; we found an unfinished yard and crept our way quietly between two houses and back to pavement. Yes, there is a God!
I dropped Stretch off back at his house and proceeded to mine. I pulled the car in the garage and, breathing a sigh of relief, began to enter my house. Then I looked at the car. What car? All I saw was a mass of mud on four wheels. Not only that, but inside the back of wagon (where my intrepid guide was stationed) was also caked in mud.
Nothing I could do that night but to go to bed and have a good story in the morning. I told a partial truth saying that we needed to heed natures call, pulled off the road, and got stuck in the mud. My parents seemed to buy it, I committed to cleaning the car, and that was that. But I still wonder; where was the elusive number thirteen? Would the thirteenth really be better than the first twelve? We’ll never know. Some things are best left unanswered, like does Bigfoot really exist? Is Elvis still alive and living in a cheap hotel in Memphis? And what technologies do we have today that were discovered on that alien spacecraft kept in Area 54? Like I said, we may never know.”
The Jets Are Gonna Getcha
There’s nothing like a friend with his own apartment especially when you are winding down the senior year and the nights are warm and a young man’s thoughts turn to…those things a young man’s thoughts turn to.
So Mongo and Stretch’s friend Special K gets his own apartment in the heart of Littleton. A big party is under way on a Friday night marred only by a boy/girl ratio issue. The issue? Not enough girls.
Our group of mildly “Schlitzed*” bundles of testosterone head out to walk the mile through a residential neighborhood to the recently burned out K-Mart on Broadway.
The hot music at the time was Alice Cooper (With whom I would, much later in ’95, enjoy a bowl of his Rattlesnake Chili with while kibbutzing in Miami Beach but that’s another story) and his brief remake of the Jets from “West Side Story” was in serious airplay.
As our boys returned from the shell of a K-Mart they started singing “You better watch out! The Jets are gonna getcha!” while stopping at several girls’ houses to try to entice them out. After a couple of willing participants joined us we headed back to the basement apartment. All was great except…
Two police cars with tree lights blazing screech to a halt in front of the house.
“Stretch, go find out what they want!” Why was it always me? I crawl upstairs (No, I still don’t know why) and around the side of the house as all of a sudden two flashlights beams give me enlightenment.
“What are you doing there?!”
“Well, sir, we’re having a party downstairs, we heard a commotion, and they sent me to investigate.” They didn’t believe a word and we headed downstairs.
“Do you know this young man?” I sweated bullets they would tell it straight.
“Yeah, that’s Stretch! We sent him up top to check things out.”
A miracle had occurred in the apartment in the short time I was outside: a den of iniquity complete with empty beer cans galore and some…um…smoking utencils were magically sanitized as all watched TV or were playing Scrabble. Scrabble for Chrissakes! How did they hide all the beer cans?
“Okay, he’s all yours then” and they left.
Did I mention Stretch’s Mom was the editor of the community newspaper and how much shit very nearly hit the fan? Her young Stretch the opening entry in the Police Blotter?
Yes, a young man needs some risk and needs to get it out of his system before he can grow up. In my opinion anyway.
*”Schlitzed”: At least adequate weed and several Schlitz Malt Liquors.
Please Don’t Release Me
Our final episode of youthful pre-collegiate indiscretion involves four seventeen-year-olds, a brand new cherry red Mustang, and a case of Coors. We were on our way to (wait for it) Red Rocks of course.
And even though we could legally drink 3.2% beer at age 18 we had managed to score the “hard stuff” with a fake I.D. at a liquor store. The Mustang’s owner, a golfer we called Gentle Ben, was just nudging the car over the Hogback and downhill and gaining speed: 60, 70, 80…when we were lit up by a Lakewood P.D. rookie and pulled over.
We watched in silent sorrow as he poured out each can of beer in front of us. At this point we expected a stern warning, a ticket, and a note in his log. Nothing more.
But this rookie actually had some integrity, if not a good sense of priority, and packed us into his cruiser and called a tow. We were brought into the station and seated next to an AWOL soldier high on PCP who, by the way, was not happy and becoming violent. Scared straight? Oh yeah.
And what was the outcome? The worst possible thing imaginable short of sharing a cell with our amped-up GI friend: we were released into the custody of our very P.O.’d fathers. It was a long drive home to Columbine. And I still had to face my Mother. Okay, I’m ready to go away to college now.
Time Magazine*1 recently had a side bar that read:
“It’s no secret that teens take crazy risks – driving too fast, say. In some cases, the paradoxical reason may be that their brains have matured too fast. Researchers at Emory University scanned the brains of risk-taking teens and found that some had white matter development that looked more like that of adults.
These kids may be intuitively aware of their greater capabilities and frustrated that they are still bound by the rules of childhood. As a result they may be more motivated than other teens to break those rules.
Tip for parents: Take away the car keys.”
Anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
In spite of all these (mostly) good times I was self-aware enough to know that something was missing in my life. What that was would become much more clear in about a year.
*1 Time Magazine, Dec. 7, 2009
“The Spit Hits the Pan”
UABHospital Nov 12 2:00 PM
I woke up, got out of bed, and dragged a comb across my head. Yeah, right. The waking is done as in layers being removed as you slowly come to and become aware of where you are. Pretty soon you are pretty sure you are present but it is as if you are looking at yourself in third person. You are there but you are not fully participating.
And where I was, was in another bright cold room where the fog was just beginning to clear and I could hear pleasant unhurried voices. The most pleasant voices of all were, of course, my wife Anne and daughter Rachel. Later Aaron replaced Rachel as only two visitors were allowed at a time. No babies in ICU.
Some statistics: one 20 inch long incision sealed with 64 staples; a 30 pound liver out, a three pound liver in; a 9 pound kidney out, a one pound kidney in. Fluids had also been drained and partially replaced. Net loss: forty-one pounds of organs and fluid filled cysts. Did anyone else in America lose forty pounds over the holidays?
Anne says I had my sense of humor but was obviously still in pain. Tubes everywhere, a couple of needles, some discharging to process and “balloons” to catch the draining abdominal fluids. Nothing to do but to be. I wish I could remember any other “deep thoughts” that I had in my altered sense of reality but it’s really all pretty fuzzy at that point.
A word on morphine drips: morphine g-o-o-d. But, with so much invasive work done it did not cover all the pain. It did, however, help you not care very much about the pain and, maybe even better, remember it very little later. I could see why it is so addictive.
After a time and I have no idea how much time, I was moved to intensive care in room S811 Spain Tower. Anne was with me the entire trip as I was delivered to what would be my home away from home for the next two weeks except for two very memorable nights.
The worst nurse I had was at least very good. All different personalities and bedside manners and I felt secure and in good hands with each of them.
The first couple of nights you are rousted awake every two hours for vital signs and with every other visit they take blood for analysis. Eventually it all became every four hours. The incision was dressed and redressed regularly and one nurse held a mirror so I could see it just under the edge of the ribcage.
And what a sight! In addition to the lengthy incision the view was remarkable for what it was missing: a whole bunch of belly. Gone. From
morbidly convex to moderately concave. Eat your hearts out pregnant women!
Again, any pain was not as bad as expected. The worst things were to cough or sneeze. So I didn’t.
As the first week progressed it became clear each of the organs was adjusting and my body was adjusting to them. The list of drugs is lengthy that support this transition now and some would need to be taken for the rest of my life. Two key vitals here included blood pressure and blood sugar as far as what they could tell me. The glucose stayed at the high end of normal but never exceeded the limits of normal. Diabetes is a possible side effect of transplants but it looked like we were not going to have to deal with that.
The blood pressure was another matter. Kidney disease causes hypertension in and of itself even if you have a healthy heart and arteries and I am fortunate to have both. I came in with a non-medicated 160/110 that we were never able to get entirely normal. We were hoping one effect of the transplant would be an immediate drop in blood pressure. What we had not counted on was a plummet in blood pressure and that this would be a rollercoaster.
We had visitors on even the first Saturday: the Wimberly’s brought generous care baskets from Anne’s school but most especially Mom and her husband Ted for four days. Fred Mendez visited from St Philip. Anne’s sister, Mary, came for a few days later primarily to help Anne get through all this. If there were times I felt helpless I knew there would be longer tougher feelings of helplessness for Anne. Anne has remarkable strength and faith (and being married to me also requires a huge dose of patience) but over the long days the issue was to be stamina for her, not resolve.
In addition to blood pressure, a key measurement of success is the ability to process fluids efficiently. There were days when it was 3 liters in, 3 liters out but still the blood pressure would not stabilize and remained low at 80/60 and even dipped as low as 76/55. Standing, even rising slowly, caused the blood to leave my head and I was not able to take more than a few steps without assistance even with a walker.
The doctors were concerned and one proposed solution was more fluids combined with a change in meds and I did progress up to Friday although I had developed a small but nagging dull pain in my midsection but not near the new liver or kidney.
The second Saturday following surgery brought my sister Marcia and baby brother John and it was just wonderful they could visit from Florida. Almost all the visitors at this point had come from two hours or much longer driving time away and this, too, is humbling.
Through the course of Saturday the BP remained low and I was weak. No matter how weak you are if you are long overdue for a bowel movement you disregard hospital protocol and I made my way into the attached bathroom alone while Anne was out. No luck, dammit, and I started slowly back to the bed. Anne was back in the room by then and I started to ask her to move the clothes on the bed but never completed the request.
The next thing I knew I heard Anne’s voice yelling, “Nurse! Nurse!” and I felt the coolness of the bathroom floor tile on my left cheek. As I come out of the faint I tried to do an inventory of any pain. I didn’t hit my head or disturb the incision. As I became more fully alert I could see five nurses there and they were bringing me to. It took all five to get my dead weight back in bed. After they were sure I was okay I was properly chastised and told to do the B.M. in bed if I had to do it and they would gladly clean up. My Florence Nightingales.
As Saturday went along John and I watched college football on TV while Marcia and Anne went downstairs to get a bite. I was becoming increasingly hot and uncomfortable and asked John for a cold washcloth.
A feeling of nausea started and John brought me ginger ale but still I felt hotter and hotter and was now in a heavy sweat.
“John, bring me over that plastic tub, would you?” and just after the pan was under my chin out came a gush of hot red blood mixed with remnants of lunch.
For the first time in this whole ordeal I became frightened as nothing like this had ever happened before and I was not prepared in any way. God help me, what is this?
As the second burst hit the pan John was in action and grabbed the nurse to pull her to the room. One look and she called the rest and suddenly five darn good nurses were doing their best to set up a pump to clear the flow of blood and stabilize me. One called for the Med Team as Marcia and Anne came down the hallway. The nurses had many questions and I gave the answers I could.
The Med Team is the SWAT team of internal patient emergencies in the hospital and things were really moving fast now. I had become somewhat detached and struggled to answer their questions through the gushes as they insisted I stay alert and awake. Three people grabbed the bed, another tube was put down my throat as a mechanical pump started, needles were inserted and I was rushed across the hospital complex to the urgent care unit.
Once there another team went into action as they had already been briefed by radio. Blood units were lined up one after another (I would need five pints) as two MD’s were paged from their Saturday nights off. They did not hesitate or blink an eye to be called in and they also worked to keep me engaged as I could not pass out…not at this time.
Then, remarkably, things began to calm. The doctors were satisfied with the work of the pump and they came over to talk about what might need to be done. I think I understood but my own new calmness had caused me to think of other things and to the people I love.
They needed several releases signed but we were prepared for that. They would need to keep me awake as they inserted a camera and another instrument down my throat. The plan was to use multiple clips to seal the wound As the doctors left to get Anne’s approvals I interrupted one and said:
“Doctor, give my wife a message would you?”
“Anything, Mr. Baum.”
“Tell her Chuck Basement is here.”
(And Anne says she knew when she heard this that I would pull through)
And now “The Life and Times of Chuck Basement” continues…
In Which We Meet Anne
I first met Anne in March of 1971 during our production of ‘The Music Man.’ Anne was a sophomore and a born volunteer and was helping the production in a number of ways. On this particular evening she was working on the make-up crew.
I had been in enough shows that I was already more than capable of applying my own make-up but there was something about her that made me want to utilize her assistance.
Maybe, just maybe, it was because she was the cutest little thing that I had ever seen. In fact, she is still today. But back then at 15 years old she looked maybe 13 and carried herself with the innocence of that age but also the quiet confidence that comes from being the oldest child in a large family. She had a very nice touch and was also a great listener. These are very important traits to a young man! To this day she will always listen first and then respond after some careful thought.
She looked too young , and innocent for that matter, to be of a romantic interest back then but that was just as well since she thought I was pretty full of myself and not as hot as I thought I was. Pretty perceptive when you think about it.
Still we became nodding acquaintances and were involved in a lot of the same activities over the next two years. There was no romantic interest and yet: anytime she was in the same room I knew where she was. And I remember thinking in Concert Choir one day: you know, someday some guy is going to be very lucky to end up with Anne Barela. It’s just as well I didn’t ask her out as little did I know she wanted nothing to do with me at that time.
Off to my freshman year of college and a new set of activities. I think it’s interesting that I made the conscious decision to drop acting and any singing in choirs because in my mind it was time to move on to the next things. Why I’m still not sure but that’s the way I thought.
So instead I jumped into radio broadcasting at KUNC.FM (NPR affiliate) as an unpaid intern for eight weeks. I did well enough that they offered me a paid position doing news and pulling some board shifts. These eventually became a regular schedule as host of ‘The Sixth String’ (Folk, bluegrass, acoustical blues. Americana before such a label was used) weekday afternoons from 2–5 and I also pulled weekend miscellaneous shifts as well as news. Ah, college radio!
I was still only seventeen and got a break with the ’72 elections. My news director and I had two election-related news stories go on All Things Considered that fall and I received some recognition for my job covering the local elections and doing a piece on the Ft. St. Vrain nuclear power plant down the road.
The war in Vietnam was now winding down, Watergate was in full throat (the hearings cutting into some of my air time!) abortion was about to become legal and we were about to enter a recession.
Classes were not terribly difficult but I now had lousy study habits as I had never really developed any but loafed academically to a good GPA and nomination to the department’s Honors Program.
It was a nice social life but nothing spectacular as I stayed busy and never over committed otherwise. A lot of BC kids went to UNC and I made new friends as well. We all enjoyed the ‘new permissiveness’ of co-ed dorms with no curfew and lax smoking rules.
I dated two girls somewhat steadily, at different times, that freshman year and had a few other short-term relationships. Still no one really caught my eye…no, that’s not right, there was a lot to please the eye there just wasn’t a girl that seemed to have all the qualities I was unconsciously seeking, and I was now feeling a little rootless and as summer approached I committed to myself it would not be as mundane as the summer of ’72 had seemed. Mundane by my standards that is.
What to do then? Well, I thought I needed a…summer girlfriend! Yeah, that’s it!
So in typical Steve Baum fashion I made out a list of candidates. Seriously. And at the top of the list was…that cute little Anne Barela! Anne likes to tease me to this day that it was only because I made the list alphabetically but for the record that’s not true.
That year I had visited the old high school a few times including b-ball games, plays and concerts. In ‘The Fantasticks’ Anne played ‘the Mute’ and wore skin tight black leotard and hose. Hmmm…umm-hmmm. And in the spring we happened to be sitting near each other on a couple of occasions and had a couple of friendly casual conversations. What a genuinely nice and bright person I thought!
For her part Anne had a busy and enjoyable senior year. She was now a member of “Sounds” and also sang in Concert Choir and in the folk group at her church. She acted and was even voted “Best Supporting Actress” for The Fantasticks. She was perfect as the oldest daughter in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
She dated some nice boys including one mutual friend steadily for a while. It was a busy family life at homefor her as the oldest of seven kids. She was getting ready for college and I’m sure in her mind her life was not lacking for anything.
Little did she suspect that 60 miles away in Greeley some guy she knew just a little was thinking about her. And so here is how it actually went down: I bought a graduation card and mailed it to her just before Dad and I drove out to see the 1973 Indy 500. In the card I told her I would be by to pick her up the following Tuesday at 7:00 P.M. for dinner. No, I did not ask nor did I call. Seriously.
Just-to-make-sure-though, the day before the date I scouted out how to get to her house (thanks to directions from Mrs. Weiker) and knocked on the door just to say ‘Hi!’ Anne’s younger sister, Mary, 14 at the time answers.
“Hi, I’m Steve Baum…”
“Oh, I know who you are! We go to all the shows!”
“Why…uh…great! Thanks. I was just dropping by to see if Anne was going to be ready for tomorrow night.”
“Ready? Ready?! Oh, she’s so excited!”
Hmmm. Okay. Thank you, Mary! It looks like this summer girlfriend thing might work out pretty well after all. That is because, of course, I was only looking for a summer girlfriend…
Another thing, among many, that I didn’t know was that her girlfriends had warned her not to go out with me! And, girls, you know who you are. Consider this a Bronx cheer. But Anne has always been one to make up her own mind and was curious just to see how one date would go.
It was an eventful date with a couple of near calamities that will probably make its own short story some day. But overall it went very well. There was both a very natural comfort level and even some chemistry. No, no, truth be told there was more than chemistry: it was electromagnetic! I was immediately smitten. A next date would happen very shortly thereafter. And then another one. Suddenly we were telling our friends we were exclusive and I literally could not be around her enough. My friends knew immediately that I was gone hook, line, and sinker. After sorting through some initial confused feelings Anne reached the same place and we became engaged one beautiful fall evening just outside Wiebking Hall on the UNC campus.
To this day if anyone ever asks me what the single best decision was that I ever made I answer without hesitation it was sending that graduation card. And it helped to be very, very lucky.
UABHospital Nov 21 10:00 PM
I was half out of consciousness by plan when they started a camera tube down my throat. After several minutes, thank God, they found what they were looking for: a bleeding ulcer of some size was hemorrhaging and this they knew they could fix right away.
I again began to lose consciousness and to drift. The doctors kept talking as they worked rapidly through the procedure of installing three clips to close the wound by the guidance of the submerged camera. There were now two long tubes, one with instruments attached, down my throat and into my stomach. They needed me to be awake.
Drifting some more I saw the light again. But this time it was much different. What had been hazy was now clearly defined, what had been warm light was now as cold as fluorescent. There was the barest hint of a figure in the doorway so abstract as to not be able to be described in words.
There were no words spoken just an understanding that I could not go there, that I could not sleep A jolt of adrenal strength as cold as ice brought me back to the semi-consciousness the doctors needed as they were completing their heroic work.
After one fitful night in ICU I then had a more restful one. Monday afternoon I was back in S811. The healing began again and gradually I gained some strength, the blood pressure stabilized at normal, and I could walk with the use of the walker.
As I got my bearings again and pulled up the iPhone calendar, it suddenly dawned on me that this was Thanksgiving week and Anne told me of the family’s big plans.
We were going to have to remain in the hospital but ours is a family that takes pride in turning negatives into positives and to do with what you have.
Rachel, Aaron and Lily had been back up in Nashville and Mike would join them that Wednesday to drive south. Rachel made pumpkin pie, green bean casserole, and a sweet potato dish, and a turkey was prepared by Publix along with dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and gravy.
We got permission to use the community/day room on our floor as the patient population was low over the holiday.
Anne’s mom, Kathy, flew in from Denver Thanksgiving afternoon, bringing Irish Soda Bread, and checked into the UAB Townhouse building with the kids. The room had a kitchenette, with the emphasis on ‘ette’, and with a lot of creative thinking and good planning a hot Thanksgiving dinner was delivered and served in the normally sparse, impersonal community room at the major medical center. But there were special napkins and decorations that had been brought in, all of my family was there, and the food…ahh the food was especially sweet and nourishing. It was a great meal.
As I held Lily on my lap I could feel my emotions overcome me even as I knew I was getting very tired again. There was so much love in that room!
After prayer and the meal I, as head of the household, had but one more blessing to give:
“This is the best Thanksgiving ever!”
And I set aside a piece of pie for Chuck.
And Yet Another Life Changing Decision
How do you know when you’ve grown up? How can you tell? At nearly every step of our young lives we all will have times when we think we have arrived. How many times did we insist we were a ‘big boy’ or girl and knew, just knew, that we were at a new phase of maturity and that we have arrived or ‘grown up?’ This of course is very rarely the case but our ego so desperately wants it to be so.
True growing up may be the realization that we never really actually do and that every step along the way simply adds a marker to the journey. Besides, inside we believe that the little boy or girl never really goes away: that we always hear the inner voice reminding us that we’re not there yet. This seems especially true as we measure ourselves against the respected elders and peers in our lives. It’s natural to believe that we’ve merely encountered another benchmark and should just adjust our sights higher. At least I think that’s pretty healthy when it doesn’t involve any latent insecurity and merely helps us set new goals for ourselves.
In the case of Steve Baum and Chuck Basement the first real marker that we were on the right track occurred in late November of 1974.
During our engagement Anne and I enjoyed the usual courtship full of lots of good, just a little bad, and a good measure of growing up together. With only a couple of minor bumps in the road we just knew we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. We liked to tease each other that since we loved each other more each day that we never really knew what love was back when we were just 19. Any committed couple knows this feeling and it is, indeed, one of life’s enduring truths for the fortunate.
So a day came when Anne was ‘late’ and we knew that we needed confirmation one way or another. To keep things confidential, at least for the time being, we used an OB in Greeley. On results day we drove up from Denver and I waited in the car for Anne to get the word. When she came out and got in the car I knew the news was big one way or the other. It would be life-changing no matter what the outcome or what we decided to do.
“Steve, I’m pregnant. I’m so sorry! I can move out to California and have the baby there…maybe live with my grandparents…I can…”
It was a sign of Anne’s selflessness that her biggest concern at that time was how the baby might affect my life and plans and she was willing to make a major sacrifice seemingly to do what she thought might be the best for me.
I would have nothing of it. My next words were as honest and sincere as any I would speak in my life…
“Wait a minute. We’re in love, we’re going to get married, and we’re going to raise that baby.”
No assist from Chuck was necessary. I said it because I meant it and because Anne was the most precious person or thing I had ever encountered. Commitment was very easy at this point. We were both the oldest in our families. We had held babies, fed babies, and changed their diapers. There was no doubt in our minds we would not make this work.
We like to joke to this day that we were too young and too naïve to be scared. We didn’t consider anything that could go wrong. We had no idea there was a recession going on or how hard it would might be to make it with no college degree.
We just know we loved each other deeply and we were going to make it work.
And when anyone ever asks me what next best decision I would ever make was I refer to this time but tell them, truthfully, that there was really no decision at all.
I wouldn’t need Chuck to give me the courage to make this most important decision. I just needed a life’s partner who would bring out of me the desire and commitment to do the right thing without doubt or rationale.
Anne, I love you so much! Our 36 years of marriage have been indescribable. I can’t imagine what life would have been like without you! I can’t wait for the next 36 years!
Back to the Present and Our Conclusion
I was released the following day to move two blocks away to “The Townhouses” a converted building owned by the University with kitchenettes, an extra room, Murphy bed, and the ability to sleep three or four. My mother-in-law Kathy stayed with the plan of being there two weeks to help Anne and I with the early stages of recovery. A part of the treatment included M-W-F clinic visits with blood drawn and visits with the surgical team. It was to be a peaceful time of rehab and recovery with carefully monitored diet and scheduled time on the walker to start the long road back to building strength and mobility.
But first we had some visitors: Paul Blount and his lovely wife Carolyn. Like all my old friends from high school he had managed to “marry up” to a very pretty girl with strong values who loves him very much. Paul and I met as sophomores at Bear Creek H.S. in choir and theater activities and would go on to spend many hours together in those activities in the remainder of our time at BC.
It turns out Paul will also need a kidney transplant and was in the preparation steps for dialysis and being placed on the transplant list. It was a great visit and we made plans to visit often as they lived just down the road in Montgomery.
It was in the Townhouses that I started to write and reflect about the experience to date and it really was a time of peace and recovery. Although I’m a devout Roman Catholic I made the decision to keep the writings in a spiritual but non-denominational vein as my experience had much more to do with my Creator than with any individual brand of theology. My experience did not do anything to discredit the dogma that I grew up with but rather strengthened my relationship with and vision of God. I believe any human going through my experiences would do the very same but simply view it through the prism of their beliefs.
And so it was a peaceful time. Kathy went home as I got stronger and she knew Anne was recovered from the initial demands of our shared episode and she had a large family to get back to. We had another visit from the Blount’s and also
our dear friends from Franklin Trip and Carol Guthrie. It was my first time to go “out” to anything but the clinic and we had a wonderful meal in a local restaurant. As I enjoyed my first steak in months I reflected again on just how lucky I was to be surrounded by friends we had known for 40 and 24 years, respectively, and Anne’s and my wonderful love affair of what was 36+ years at that time.
On our clinic visit of December 16 we were mildly stunned when out of the blue Dr Bynon said we were ready to go home the following day or after one minor procedure to remove some “excess hardware.” Yes, I’ve tried to spare you some of the grittier details…more details about the medical challenges of this period would just be overkill know what I mean?
And so we drove back to Franklin on December 18, two weeks early overall, and settled in to see what the holidays would bring. My Mom and sister Ann were waiting for us with a clean house and the willingness to help out with whatever was necessary. Ann had to leave after a few days but Mom being there for Anne and I for almost two weeks was another one of those blessings that a loving family brings.
Christmas came and it was another especially sweet holiday even though I couldn’t get around well and had to take the walker with us wherever we went as Anne was determined I wasn’t going to wander off and suddenly have an episode on my own. Our family photos from that Christmas show smiles that were especially bright and the materialism of Christmas seemed, well, immaterial.
As the New Year approached my physical activity around the house improved and we dusted off the treadmill that had been dormant in the bonus room and made good use of the variable speeds and, especially, the handles. Anne mentally prepared to return to the classroom and I spent my time reading, writing, and enjoying the music collection I had missed so much.
On January 4th we both returned to work with Anne having to retrain her students on “the rules” a bit (subs, even good ones, can only keep so much discipline as the kids can smell a short-termer a mile away) and my colleagues wondered how the heck I had lost so much weight over my furlough as they were almost all starting diets and had no idea of “what I did on my vacation.”
Well, I said, that’s a long story…
…and then reality came back and reminded us of how life can be so fragile.
January 10, 2010
It was a chilly but sunny Sunday morning with no snow on the ground as we got in the car for church. The reception at church had been warm and enthusiastic as the congregation at St Philip had kept up through Caringbridge and its own “Prayer Warrior” email network. There was a special seat where I could have my walker in front of me as I could now walk pretty well but couldn’t stand for longer than a minute or two without support as I still had no stomach muscles to speak and the core became tired quickly. The walker was set at the perfect level for leaning as the pew backs were too low.
As we had been getting ready for 11:00 AM Mass I grabbed a protein bar from the pantry so I wouldn’t get hungry and weaker and ate it as we drove in. I had had this brand and flavor at least fifty times and knew it would last a couple of hours.
In church, as we stood for the procession, I began to get a little itchy. No big deal…maybe my skin had that winter dryness…except I got itchier and itchier and it was focused upon everywhere on my body where there were…um…concentrations of hair. Wonderful. I hoped it would go away soon. Except it didn’t.
Discreet scratching wasn’t enough and it became damn unpleasant pretty quickly. Then my face became hot and I was finding it a little tough to breathe. Well this type of thing could go away with some deep breathing and a focus on something other than my now crawling skin but it was getting worse.
I had now realized something really WAS wrong and asked Anne to bring the car around to the side door as I needed to leave. Now. As Anne hustled out I had to sit and put my head between my knees to breathe. I had to get out of there and of course now everyone was seated and I scurried out to the foyer bent over and struggling. That’s as far as I got as I had to stop, hands on knees, and try to take long stabilizing breaths.
My close friend John had seen me double over and ran out to see what was wrong. Just then Anne pulled up and I struggled into the car and John said he’d follow. Anne’s finely tuned instincts caused her to say “Emergency room?” but I said no just home so I could lie down. This was darn unpleasant but nothing seemed really serious.
As we pulled into the garage Anne came over to open the passenger door and I couldn’t move all of a sudden. She and John managed to get me out the door but I dropped to my knees, somewhat paralyzed and their voices seemed distanced but I could sense the growing panic.
“Lie down honey. John’s calling an ambulance.”
“I AM trying to lie down…I can’t move.” They tipped me over onto their coats on the garage floor and the ambulance arrived shortly after. I couldn’t physically respond to the paramedics instructions so the two of them and John managed to get me onto the gurney at floor level and load me into ambulance.
I was now back in that place where the mind seems a little separate from the body and it can seem as though you are observing your own life from aside.
As the siren cranked up and we rushed out of the neighborhood hmm, I thought, I always imagined my first ambulance ride would be different. I wonder why they changed those sirens. I always kind of liked the ones in the old movies. Stuff like that.
Anne had climbed in the front of the ambulance and John followed in his car and I could feel it accelerate as we hit I-65. Aren’t we just going over to Williamson Medical Center? Nope. As the driver called in the symptoms we were directed up to Vanderbilt 20 miles away. Ah, I thought in my distorted state, Vandy finally gets their crack at me!
So where was this bravado coming from? Didn’t I know that this could be really serious? Something that had certainly never happened to me before? Something that had panicked two level-headed adults like Anne and John?
“Chuck chuck bo-buck…” the familiar voice said in my head. That stupid song from when I was four. The one that made the adults roll their eyes because of the double entendre that follows the “banana wanna” line. All of a sudden I realized that the big chicken in me had turned into a hawk as had happened so many times in the past. Hello and nice to be you this morning, Chuck! What took you so freaking long? This while my skin was crawling, my face was a furnace, and it was hard, very hard, to draw a breath.
“I’m thinking we better pump some Benedryl into this guy” said the paramedic. Anne confirmed I had no known allergies and the screaming ambulance pulled into Vanderbilt Medical Emergency moments later and the doors flung open as bunch of fast white coats rolled me out.
I remember being very cold for what seemed like hours and hearing the voices giving and taking instructions. This is one of the nation’s best teaching hospitals and there were interns hard at work as I got pulled, prodded, and stuck some more. I started to think “I wonder how many it’s been in the last two months?” and then my mind drifted back to Anaheim on a fair winter’s day and my Dad throwing me a baseball. This was warmth and comfort and I remember Anne saying “Check his wrist. His meds are all on the bracelet” as I settled into a comfortable sleep knowing I was safe and would wake up being all better because that’s the way it always worked.
I woke up in ICU with Anne and daughter Rachel there. All the angry red blotches and hundreds of bumps were gone and I didn’t itch anymore. Breathing was as easy as, well, breathing and even though I was once again stuck with needles, bothered by tubes, and surrounded by high tech equipment I knew I was okay. It seems there is a theory, unproven and being soundly challenged, that an organ recipient and especially a liver recipient could possibly pick up an allergy, say, or maybe even a minor personality trait from the donor. Well I’ve got news for the nay sayers: it’s more than possible…it sure seems like a fact to me!
And then I looked at my family and got a little teary-eyed and knew intuitively that I’d be okay and that life would get back to normal again soon.
Because I have them. Oh, yeah, and Chuck.
Sunday, March 6, 2011
(Earlier this week the United Network for Organ Sharing or UNOS, a government funded agency, announced it was considering dedicating 20% of available organs to specific age matches in an effort it believes will allocate more deceased donor organs to those with a longer expected life span. While on its surface this appears to be the right thing to do it has the potential for many unintended consequences. In an editorial the New York Times warned against this due to these unintended consequences. My friend from high school, T-Mac, sent me the link and asked for my opinion. This was my response that ended up going out to a lot of friends)
Hi Terry, and Janne, and all of you,
Since a number of people from our church were inadvertently copied on your query I thought I would include them in my full response. Anne and I could not have made it through the illness, the deterioration, and the transplant process without them. I know St Philip church was, as a whole, with us every step of the way with their support and, most importantly, their strong and heartfelt prayers. It’s a big church and I needed all the help I could get.
I agree with the NY Times editorial you sent and am both surprised and proud of them that they came out this way. If one supports 100% of Obamacare one must accept rationing and the Times was more than supportive of this legislation. In true secular fashion and with their passion for science almost exclusive they missed one very important point.
Yes, there became a series of circumstances that came to work in my favor not the least of which was one doctor’s referral of me to this outstanding medical team at U of Alabama Hospital. But did those circumstances come about solely because of fickle fate or was it a small piece of God’s plan?
Faith. Without pure, unadulterated faith it could have turned out quite different. With a chronic disease and a slow journey you get a lot of time for both reflection and prayer.
Very early on I stopped praying for my good health and the delivery of a miracle but instead came to pray that “God’s will be done.” Oh I wanted to live don’t get me wrong but I concluded that if you believe in a soul, in an afterlife, and have faith in a power greater than yourself then you cannot fear death. I prepared myself really believing the outcome would be what it was supposed to be and I made the necessary preparations for Anne and the kids.
Hope. While faith is from within hope is where all your loved ones, your friends, the complete strangers who hear about your situation carry you further than you could ever go alone. Hope is contagious and, when driven by so many, powerful. There were many times in the hospital, like when they almost lost me in the internal bleeding episode, that we knew we were being uplifted up by the hopes and prayers of so many.
Charity. I don’t know my donor’s name or family. Anne has written to them and not yet received a response and that is certainly their right. Frankly, I’m still working up to that because I have a hard time feeling worthy enough and there is so much I need to do to live up to my donor’s charity. Maybe that’s why I’m so driven: I do it to honor the incredible charity of my donor.
And the greatest of these is Love, of course, and I have received much more than my share.
To answer your question I can only pray that a system is maintained that is as equitable as possible because, candidly, “fair” is impossible.
And beyond that: God’s will be done.
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