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Guardian angels are for real

Leon James in 1981 at Daytop Village in

Leon James in 1981 at Daytop Village in Mount Vernon, New York. William F.B. O'Reilly stands behind him, holding his shoulders. Photo Credit: Paul Zevon

Two things I'm sure of: there's always a catch, and with Leon James, one never came.

I know because Leon died on Saturday and a bill never arrived. Thirty-nine years of giving, and he didn’t ask for a thing. 

I met Leon under circumstances hard to describe. It was June 2, 1980, and I had just washed out of a third high school. No amount of parenting, counseling or discipline could check the downward spiral I was in. No matter how hard my family tried to help me, I always ended up high and in trouble. It had been that way for years. I don’t know why.

My parents, at wit's end, considered last-ditch options: I would be 17 in August and could join the Army with their authorization, or I could go to a "therapeutic community" for drug-addled delinquents called Daytop Village.

The Army said no. If he's doing drugs, the recruiter told my father, we don't want him. Daytop said yes — it was that or homelessness — so off I went, long hair, apathy and all.

I thought I'd be out in a month.

Leon, a Daytop graduate and counselor, was 34, though I didn't know it at the time. Everything about him, I would learn, was a mystery, a bit like with the character Cap. John Miller in "Saving Private Ryan." He always kept you guessing.

He had been in Vietnam. Heroin had been his drug. And he went home to the Bronx from Daytop's Mount Vernon facility at night. That was about all I and others knew. He liked it that way.

Leon didn't speak to me for the first week. He just sat and watched. Anywhere I went, it seemed, this curious man with an afro and wire-rimmed glasses sat peering at me over a copy of that morning's Racing Times, typically propped on an ever-so-slight paunch. He had a clipped goatee which he would sometimes rub while watching me, adding to the effect. It was excruciating.

On my third day at Daytop, a police officer came knocking for me. Leon answered the door. I could hear the conversation: "Billy O'Reilly?" Leon said. "Never heard of him." The door shut.

Interesting.

Finally, after a week of interminable looks, Leon summoned me with the pull of a finger. "C'm here," he said sternly. I approached, trying desperately not to squirm.

"You," he said slowly, looking me directly in the eye. "You're full of spit.” Though he didn't say "spit." "Now get out of my face."

I was stunned. Awestruck, really. Finally someone who knew me.

I was full of spit. I had always been full of spit, deep-down fundamentally. Every day was a con game, one continuous lie. And this man I just met, whom I would come to call “Poppa Bear,”  had my number.

It happened week after week. I would open my mouth, Leon would stop me and make me start again. Eventually — and I mean eventually — I learned the difference between truth and honesty in the most profound ways.

I was Leon’s singular concern for 33 months. Or so I thought. I was convinced I was his number one. But, in truth, I wasn’t. We all were. Every kid who walked through Daytop’s doors felt they mattered more to Leon than anyone else on the planet. It was powerful magic. In Leon’s 32 years at Daytop, there must have been thousands of us.

It’s a cardinal sin to talk about oneself when speaking of someone who has just passed. But it’s impossible not to with Leon because nothing was ever about him. He was happiest when giving. From time to time, he would tell his “Daytop kids” that we could buy him a lobster dinner one day if we insisted. But when we showed up years later to take him up on it, he turned us down. “Save your money,” he said.

Walking out of a reunion lunch in White Plains last year, I tried to slip a fast one by him. “What year were you in Vietnam?” I casually asked. For the first time, he let me get away with it. “Sixty-seven,” he said. “Artillery unit. Mucked-up spit.” And that was all. By the time I saw him at the Bronx VA Hospital last week, he was out of words. 

Leon Eugene James Jr. served in Vietnam in the 199th Infantry Brigade I learned after his passing. He saw heavy action, and a lot of death. He returned home with a habit, like too many GIs, and spent tough years on the streets of the Bronx. Somehow, he found his way to Daytop’s door and never looked back. He married, had three wonderful children, including a beloved step-daughter, and became the man I and so many others adored.

On the day Leon died, I lay in a hammock in my backyard disconsolate, questioning the sky. I guess you have nothing left to teach us, Leon, I whispered. And exactly on cue, a bell to dissuade squirrels on our peach tree rang out. 

May Leon strike me down if I’m lying.

From where do these angels come?

William F. B. O'Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.

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