Uncle Charlie refused to lend my parents the $300, so they never bought the rowboat with the outboard motor. The point is not about the foolishness of a struggling couple in the South Bronx wanting to buy a boat. Rather, it’s that my folks never had any money. We had a roof and ate every day, but there was never much of anything in the bank. They both dropped out of school and started working. When they met in their early 20s, they got married. It’s what many people did back then.
We had no rowboat, but we had a car. A used Buick.
During that country drive to see a distant relative in Ronkonkoma, we passed a model home: two bedrooms, unfinished attic; on a plot of land for $6,000. The salesman was given a down payment: $20.
We had a few months to save before the house was built. I guarded the money, which I hid in a strongbox under my bed. Every few weeks we’d open the box and count up our savings. It reached a few hundred dollars before the big moving day.
My parents were excited but nervous about the leap. My mother worked in a supermarket, and my father hopped from job to job — milkman, propane truck driver, bakery deliveries — maybe because of his drinking.
Ronkonkoma didn’t have a high school, so I took the bus to Sayville — an affluent town, unlike the one I lived in. The Sayville kids lived in big houses with white, wooden fences. Some had pianos in their living rooms.
It was the evening after Thanksgiving when I had my accident. Instead of finishing my final year of high school, I spent a few months in Huntington Hospital, then, after the surgeries, two years in the state rehabilitation hospital in Haverstraw. The hospitals did some research on my parents’ income and realized that they couldn’t pay beyond a few token gestures. The doctors and the hospitals wrote it up as a loss. At least that’s the way I remember it.
After gradually absorbing the depth of my disability, I realized that I’d never be able to do any physical work and I wasn’t well prepared for any mental work, having a charitably earned “C” average at best in high school.
I knew that I was in trouble. Then somehow I got connected with an agency called DVR — the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. It was a New York State program designed for people like me. A representative came to my house. Mr. Lipparparo. He explained that since my family had no financial resources, I could take a test, and if I did well enough, the state would take care of my college expenses. He arranged the appointment. I had a meeting with a psychologist. He talked to me, then he asked some questions and had me manipulate some jigsawlike pieces. Finally, he gave me a test. One question was what would I do if I was lost in the woods. I answered that I would look for the green mossy side of a tree’s bark to locate north, and I would use that as a directional guide. I made it up, but I did well enough on the test. New York State would pay for my college education.
I attended Suffolk County Community College, then transferred to Adelphi University where I received a Bachelor of Arts degree. After academic drifting, I entered the educational program. It could provide a destination; a job, teaching.
I received my master’s degree. Met Gina. Had a house built. Taught a few graduate classes at Adelphi. Got a job in a school district teaching fifth-graders for 34 years. Did two years of subbing after retiring from the district. Got a position teaching classes to teachers for several years. Nothing extraordinary.
The point of all this is that for the past 50 years I’ve been living a full life, married, participating in society, and paying taxes. I’m sure I’ve paid the state many times over for the favor they gave me when I was a 17-year-old quadriplegic.
I hope at least some of that tax money that I’ve been paying goes to some kid, caught in, what appears to be, a hopeless situation.
The fact that someone, who knows who, suggested that New York State start a program to help people get back on their feet, made a big difference in my life. Without that program I’m certain that my parents would have had to take care of me until they could no longer do so. At that point, I suppose, I would have been admitted to some institution.
The moral is, sometimes, if the government helps a person who is in a very difficult spot, it may be the best investment that they could ever make.
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