My father only cared about three things that I was aware of. I always felt like there had to be a fourth, somewhere in that greying, always sweaty head of his.
He cared about the financial section of the paper. It was my job, since I was about 5, to pick the paper off the porch, put it on the kitchen table, remove the financial section and bring it to him while he shaved. I would then retreat back to the kitchen and get myself a bowl of Fruit Loops. He would close the bathroom door and sit on the toilet grunting and grumbling about the stock market. I listened for words I could understand through those grumbles and grunts. I hoped I could learn about stocks and markets that way. When I asked him to his face about stocks and bonds and funds he always said it was too complex for me.
The grunts were similar to the grunts he made when moving me from my bed to my chair now.
What was today? Drag racing maybe? Or the zoo? I had lost track.
He cared about the Detroit Lions, certainly more than was healthy, but I couldn’t blame him because Sunday was his only day off and football was his favorite sport. Monte Clark was his dream drinking buddy and Billy Sims was the son he always wanted.
The son he had had a full ostomy bag. My father took care of it. Of course, he did.
And he cared about the lawn. He still cared very much about it, even after what happened to me.
They brought me home from the hospital on August 31st, 1981 and the first thing I noticed was that the lawn was mowed and the hedges were perfectly trimmed. Of course, they were.
I laughed. But he couldn’t have known it. My laugh was now a minor tremor that barely made it from my diaphragm to my lower lip. In my head, it was the same laugh I had when Cheryl Patrick’s boob fell out of her swimsuit, when Mikey Lopez endo’d on his Stingray, when John Belushi played the samurai. Physically it was just a quiver now, but it was the same feeling.
I was struck by lightning on March 18th, 1981.
If I could talk, I might even recommend getting hit by lightning, but I’m not sure that my experience is typical. I’d love to meet other lightning strike survivors. But I can’t tell my dad that. Because I can’t communicate with him.
Every Wednesday night I played chess at the Chaney branch library. I had since I was six. I was fifteen. My Elo rating was 2100. In football terms I would be a sure first-stringer on the varsity, maybe even make All-State. But it wasn’t football, it was chess. And my dad didn’t speak chess.
On my day (I always consider it my day. It was the day I was chosen for this journey ) it was cloudy but nice enough to ride my bike to Chess Time at Chaney. Honestly, the mile and a half bike ride each way was the most exercise I got outside of gym class, which I hated.
The library was almost all glass in front, facing Grand River Avenue, and I remember the sky morphing from grey to purple. I remember it because I was playing white and the change in the sky changed the hue of the plastic, public library chess pieces. The instructor was Mr. Zybrad, an officious but interesting man of some undisclosed Eastern European descent. He claimed to have learned the game in his homeland using pipe cleaners for the major pieces and discarded checkers for pawns. He forbade more elaborate sets than the rudimentary plastic ones the city of Detroit’s tax dollars provided.
In my match that day I played an early rook lift, which Mr. Z.prefer we avoid. The move led to an Anastasia’s mate on Ronnie Wills, a rail-thin African American kid from Cass Tech High School. He was an excellent player, but he was egotistical because a picture of him playing at Hart Plaza was in a Hudsons ad, full page in the Sunday paper around Christmas.
I knew early in the season that I was good enough to qualify for the Michigan Amateur. This win made it official. Mr. Z and the head librarian, Mrs. Nime congratulated me and presented me with the player’s packet to take home.
We posed for a Polaroid by the dusty trophy case that held a twenty-year-old geography bee plaque and an unimpressive poetry contest trophy featuring a woman with wings. One wing was cracked.
I know chess isn’t a spectator sport for most, but it would have been nice for my dad to be there. Some other parents showed up. They walked out of the library complimenting their kids on their ribbons, even the 6th place participant.
It would have been nice for my dad to answer the phone when I called from the payphone for a ride, but he didn’t.
I’m glad he didn’t, but he doesn’t know that.
At the time all I cared about was that that player packet in the simple manila envelope didn’t get ruined. And it was pouring. The thunder and lightning didn’t bother me. I was just concerned about the wet.
Mrs. Nime gave me a small trash can liner to cover up the player packet and I called my dad again. There was no answer.
I stuck the plastic-covered player packet under my Chevy windbreaker and walked out to the bus stop, leaving my bike locked in front of the library. My dad would have something to say about me caring more about the player packet than the bike, which was 50/50 gone by morning. In our neighborhood bike theft was more popular than baseball.
Again, my dad did not answer the phone. I knew he was home. I knew it. He was a creature of habit. He heard the phone ring but didn’t pick up.
I’m not mad at him for that. But he doesn’t know that.
The bus stop nearest our house was a block from our street and our house was three blocks south of Grand River. When I got off the bus, I decided to take off my windbreaker and wrap it over the player packet that was already wrapped in the plastic garbage can liner.
I think about that one moment of hesitation sometimes, when I stopped and removed my windbreaker. But I don’t dwell on it. And I’m not mad at myself.
The streetlights flickered to life just as I turned down our street. I was a bit disappointed because it muted the contrast of the lightning in the night sky.
I walked down our street with one thought: That I should have memorized the number on the player packet that my dad would have to call to confirm my attendance at the Michigan Amateur. The mimeographed sheet could have gotten wet and smudged. This was me being extremely paranoid. It didn’t feel like it then. I guess that’s how paranoia works.
So I walked-more briskly than my normal pace- down our tree-lined street, one of the few in our neighborhood that had been planted with oaks and survived the Dutch Elm disease that left so many other streets barren, or almost barren.
I would show my dad the packet immediately and have him call first thing in the morning. And in May, I would be in Lansing for the Michigan Amateur even if I had to take a bus to that too.
He would say ‘I’m proud of you Sammy’ and kinda half mean it, though he was bitterly disappointed that my 195 fifteen-year-old pounds were mostly around my waist and not my shoulders and that I was more likely to get diabetes than a college scholarship for football, a game I never wanted to play and did not play after being too fat to make weight at the Police Athletic League signup.
I crossed the street toward our house about halfway up our block. I can’t explain why I chose that particular point to cross, other than maybe at the time it felt like more of a straight line.
But I chose it, and I’m not sorry I did.
What’s even harder to explain is what happened next.
Somewhere just past the puddle I had avoided by the storm drain my feet refused to touch the ground. Like I was being lifted. There was a hum that sounded like a thousand kazoos at once with a giant blast of air going through them, then the sound was replaced by a smell. Burning, metallic, and the smell had mass and wanted to choke me.
The doctors told my dad I can’t remember anything. They’re wrong. If I could move my arms I could sculpt that smell.
The kind of lightning that hit me was a ground current. The lightning struck very near me and the electricity was conducted along the ground, probably through the neighbor’s sprinkler system and into the heavy iron storm grate and dispersed through the cement around it.
I saw that on a TV news report about a boy who had been struck by lightning. Me.
The lightning knocked me out. I was unconscious for 108 hours. I didn’t know that until I heard it on the same TV news report.
The doctors say I’ll never talk again. They’ll be lucky if they’re right. Because much of what they have said is wrong. And they have never understood what I’m feeling.
In simple terms, I’m euphoric.
Before my day I had read about near-death experiences. Bright lights, voices beckoning, vague visions of a thing people of faith call “heaven”.
My ride just wasn’t like that. I remember the last breath I took before the smell tried to choke me. It was glorious.
I had shared a joint or two with some burnouts at school. They called it “getting high”. I got sleepy. The high was nothing like this.
Maybe choking isn’t the right word. That smell, that energy entered me against my will. The fright was almost immediately replaced with a feeling of ecstasy. Then I blacked out.
When I woke, machines were breathing for me. The ecstasy quickly swept away any fears I might have had. Within seconds, maybe less.
I tried to move my arms. I could not. Rather than panic, this energy that pulsed through me made me feel as though I no longer needed appendages. That I was free of mundane concerns.
Many people call your thoughts your “soul”. Whatever one might call it, my soul, my thoughts, my mind were free.
The first comparison my mind made was jumping a wake while tubing. You’re airborne and you know that the water will soon meet you and you have to hold on or you will tumble into the water and the ride will be over. But this feeling, this energy, never met water. I was airborne in my mind. And I still am.
I want to tell people. My dad, of course, and his sister, my Aunt Sarah, who tried to help my father with me until she couldn’t handle it anymore. Now she visits once in a while. And I want to tell her.
Everybody. I want to tell everybody.
I can blink my left eye. I can raise my left eyebrow. I can scrunch up my left nostril. And I can raise my left pinkie finger.
With these movements, I created an alphabet.
Raising my finger is A. Raising my finger two times is B. Blinking my left eye twice is C. Blinking my left eye followed by an eyebrow raise is D. and so on.
I understand I should have created this alphabet while I was in the hospital. Someone might have noticed.
A therapist comes to the house once a week. Her name is Jacqueline. “Call me Jackie,” she said when she first came over. Not just to my father and my Aunt, but to me. My heart soared. I am always euphoric compared to before my day, but there are different levels. That was one of the highest.
She moves and stretches my limbs and massages me to try to lower the risk of blood clots.
She and my father are the only human beings who don’t speak as if I’m not in the room.
I do my alphabet for her. She does not understand it, but she notices.
She massages my hands and that takes 13 letters out of my ability to do my alphabet.
“His finger might be voluntary movement,” she told my dad.
I blinked and tapped out “Yes.Right.”
Jackie told my dad “The facial twitches are for the most part involuntary.”
I tapped my finger twice with my eyebrow raised and my nostril lifted.
I raised my eyebrow three times and blinked.
I repeated it twice.
Jackie studied my face. She looked at my father, who was temporarily distracted by the television. Reagan was still hospitalized and my father was obsessing about it at footballesque levels.
“I’d like to take Sammy to the Neurological Disorder Clinic downtown. There’s a huge waiting list, but we can sign him up and…”
“Does insurance cover this?” my dad asked.
Jackie shook her head no. My euphoria sank to baseline levels. But it was still euphoria.
I was alive, and there was euphoria in that, but it was more.
It is around this time that the activities started.
Channel 7 News had taken up a collection for me.
My dad’s coworkers did the same.
We went to a Tiger game. I watched batting practice and got a ball autographed by all the players. Baseball seems to be the American sport that is most like chess; put a few players in position to score. Sacrifice one player to give another a better position. I appreciate it on that level.
I appreciate that the players took the time to greet me. My dad was thrilled. I was thrilled for him.
We went to the zoo, the first since my day, in what would be fourteen trips in a year.
We went to see the Rolling Stones at the Pontiac Silverdome. Our passes were at “will call”, a gift from WLLZ for what I had now become known as “Who? You know, the kid who was hit by lightning”. It was a cold wait. My face is pretty sensitive. It always was.
My father used to have a game, or what felt like a game to him.
Smack me backhand for not cleaning my room and smack me again if I cried. We don’t play that game anymore.
After the show, we waited by a table full of shirts and jackets being packed up to go to the next town so that we could get a shirt. One that the band had signed. One of the guys from the radio station had promised my dad. I wasn’t sure how they had been introduced. The guy came back 45 minutes later, smelling like weed. He gave my dad a shirt signed in silver paint pen and two WLLZ hats. We left.
My dad had the shirt framed.
Guys from his work would drop by to see it. They almost always said hi to me.
We went to Fairlane Mall to see Santa Claus. I had just turned 16. Why anyone thought I wanted to see some down on his luck 62-year-old actor in a fake beard is beyond me.
But it was so stupid it was funny. I laughed my little tremor laugh until drool cascaded from my mouth like it was being pumped. One of Santa’s helpers was a gorgeous brunette who could have been a Hudson’s bra model.
In my mind, I had sex with her in a pile of underwear in a Hudson’s fitting room.
I spelled out “ thank you” to her.
My dad stuck the Polaroid of me and Santa and his helpers in the edge of the mirror on my dresser.
He took it down on January 2nd and put it in a drawer. I wanted to keep it up there as long as I lived. She was the first girl I had had sex with since my day. But I couldn’t tell my dad that.
Jackie was great, but I had different plans for her. She was going to learn my alphabet. She was going to be my hands and I would spell for her what moves to make on a chessboard for me.
One night in 1982 we drove in our specially equipped Ford Econoline van donated by Mel Farr, the Superstar Dealer, to a tractor pull at the Silverdome.
My dad looked into the rearview mirror.
“Sammy? My insurance company is messing with me. Since there has been no progress toward recovery of movement, Jackie isn’t gonna be covered anymore. Ya shoulda seen how pissed she was when I showed her the paperwork. That girl’s a little firecracker. But nothing either one of us can do…”
I wasn’t sure if he meant him and Jackie or him and me.
“I’m gonna take you to a rehab center down on Woodward for your massages. That’s partially covered. Jordans on the River is gonna do a 50/50 raffle once a month to cover the difference. They already have a huge glass jar behind the bar filling up with tickets. So that’s good news, right?
I blinked and twitched “Yes’, but his eyes were back on the road before I finished.
Our seats for the tractor pull were very close. I suppose they would be considered great if you really liked tractor pulls. To me, it was just loud. Really loud. I would have disliked it, but I realized I could surf on the vibrations. I let the muscles above my shoulders go slack and the rumble from the massive engines snaked up from the wheels of my chair. That rumble had a presence, like a wave. I closed my eyes and surfed that wave. It was buffering against all the nerve endings I could still feel. As the tractors shifted in the mud the wave changed directions and I let the nerves, the capillaries, the hairs on the back of my neck frolic with them, dance.
I was a sentient being in another dimension and I could chase something in my mind. My cells could run, without limbs, without solid mass to propel myself. I was running to a frequency. I knew I couldn’t catch it, but it wasn’t the ice cream truck that could turn a corner, cross a busy street and leave me behind disappointed. Another tractor revved and my cells shifted and began to run again. It was a contest I could not win, nor could I lose. It was glorious.
Later, in the Econoline, in a sea of crimson brake lights, my father looked into the mirror.
“Well, we won’t do that again. You fell asleep. No idea how you fell asleep with all that racket. My ears are gonna ring for a week.”
He was wrong, of course. I was far from asleep. I did not need my eyes for the dance with the soundwaves. Maybe he shook me, but I could not feel him. He forgets what paralysis is sometimes. It’s possible he forgets on purpose.
I committed the noise dance, the sound chase, to memory, the way Mr. Z. instructed we do with our chess matches. Without those large engines, I could not recreate the experience, but I could play it over in my mind like a victorious match.
The human mind can assign a value to something. To anything.
The knight on a chessboard moves at a right angle, two and one, every time. It is not a machine, just a piece of molded plastic in the shape of a horse’s head. Your mind can tell you that your hand could place it anywhere on the board, but you don’t. You accept the arbitrary value. You accept that it is different than the bishop, with the pointy head and small knob on top. You could pick that piece of plastic up and heave it across the room if you wished. But you lift it and move it diagonally only because someone centuries before you were born assigned it that value, that particular task.
My father, when I was younger, assigned himself the task of telling me what I would enjoy.
My bedroom was Honolulu blue, the exact shade worn by the Detroit Lions. I grew to like the color because it was familiar to me. I never grew to like the team, nor the sport it represented. Blue was simply the color of my bedroom. My bedroom was not always a haven, but it belonged to me. That was its value.
Since my day, my father has cared for my basic needs and I admire him for that. It had not been one of his habits. It was now.
He has also assigned himself the task of entertaining me. I appreciate the sentiment. I cannot convey to him what I would like to do, or in many cases not do. I created my alphabet so that I could continue to think in words I cannot speak. There was no true goal beyond that. But much like me dreaming of playing Kasparov, I did allow myself to dream that I could spell out for him one sentence that he would understand the meaning of, if not the exact value: “I am happy.”
A few days after the tractor pull we went to the Science Center. I had been there with my school class just months before my day. The Science Center’s primary sponsor was a supermarket chain that had fallen on hard times. There were no new exhibits or activities.
My father pushed my chair around the exhibits that seemed to be the most visually appealing, hands-on displays about momentum, human sight, and a replica of the orbits of all the planets that revolved overhead.
It struck me that my father had never been here. My tremor laugh worked its way up me. I drooled slightly.
School had sent home letters asking for parent chaperone volunteers. A single father since I was five, he had never once said yes to any of the requests. And now he stood here, a visitor of his own volition.
I blinked and tapped “Learn”. And I laughed again as he pushed me toward the gift shop.
He bought me a see-through model of the human body. On the box a picture of the contents; all the muscles perfectly formed, the organs the color I assumed organs should be before cigarettes and booze. A model, not an action figure. It would have to be assembled, every last component twisted from fragile plastic grids and glued to the correct corresponding pieces. My father and I had never built a model together, and we never would. He might build one now while I watched.
From the Science Center, we went to Lafayette Coney Island, entering the Lafayette side, the side that had no stairs. My father pushed my chair across to the Michigan Avenue side, where we could sit at a big table and my chair wouldn’t block anyone.
I didn’t have the muscle power to chew or swallow a coney-or anything else, but my father spooned a little chili from his coney onto the tip of my tongue so I could taste it.
The same man who would swat me like a housefly for dribbling salad dressing on my only tie now gently fed me a small morsel of his favorite treat.
I know what it looked like from the outside. People smiled, a mix of sympathy and joy. My face probably showed that same mix when an opponent made a reckless move in chess. Sympathy and joy. The perfect father, feeding his nearly motionless son.
He had constructed a model of the model father. He had taken the fragile framework of our relationship and glued the pieces of what he knew of being a father together.
He had taken a leave of absence from a job he hated. It seemed to me he would have to go back soon. He couldn’t retire at his age. But the way he acted he was retired from the auto plant and his new job was father. A job he hadn’t seemed to want, at least not the father of the fat, nerdy, chess-playing son he had.
He was unstoppable as the father of the Lightning Kid, the nickname I heard people loud whisper at the Detroit Zoo, and the Henry Ford Museum and many other places.
It wasn’t a bad nickname. If I hated it there was not much I could have done about it anyway. Sometimes I tapped and sneered and eyebrow-wiggle-spelled it in my alphabet.
The Lightning Kid. It would have looked cool on a varsity jacket if they gave varsity letters for chess.
I am still a chess player.
Two boards sat in my room. On my dresser, a novelty maize and blue set my dad got me one Christmas, when he either still hoped I would take up football and somehow earn a scholarship to the University of Michigan, or when he had given up hope but wanted me to at least have some tenuous connection to the storied college and its football team.
Mr. Zybrad saw it when he came over to take me to a tournament in Grand Rapids. His gag was audible, the kind of sound mean girls made at fat kids like me, except with their finger pointed at their open mouth.
On the way home from Grand Rapids, Mr. Z stopped at a Kresge’s and got me the cheapest, no-frills set imaginable. A step down from the library sets.
“When you make Grand Master you can play a Lalique Crystal set on the trunk of a felled Sequoia if you wish. Until then, this.”
That cheap set was on my nightstand, next to my window. I could not see all the pieces. My view was blocked by a tray of medicines and salves and rubbing alcohol and other accessories for one whose body no longer moves.
In the morning, my father would get me out of bed and place me in my chair, facing the window that overlooks the porch.
I realized that depending on where he placed me, sometimes I could see the other part of the chess set I usually couldn’t see.
I began to play in my head, memorizing the algebraic notations of the moves, and for a challenge, pretending the rook, knight, and pawn in the corner I could not see were captured from me.
My dad came in and began to rub my shoulders. I could not really feel this, but I could smell his coffee breath and see his hand in reflection from the window.
The first time he did it about a week after I came home, the first 2 minutes were more affectionate than he had been to me in my life leading up to that point.
Now it was something he did all the time.
I blinked and tapped out “thank you”. Today, the tray on my chair was resting against the windowsill. The taps of my pinkie made the tray quiver against it. It made a slight squeaking noise.
My dad said “I’m gonna mow the lawn before it rains. We were invited to Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse this weekend, and we’re gonna stay up in the Thumb. If I don’t mow now it will four feet tall by the time we get back.”
I began to ask “Why a lighthouse?” I couldn’t climb, obviously, or swim.
The tray scratched the windowsill. It squeaked again, and this time, a small discoloration was left on the paint from the gray plastic tray.
“Son, are you doing that on purpose ?”
I blinked and tapped “Yes.”
My father bent awkwardly, around the nightstand, so that he was face to face with me.
“Holy Crapola!!” he shouted, “Do it again!
I tapped as fast as I could. Maybe enough to type seven words per minute.
Then my father said the funniest thing I ever heard him say.
“Holy Lord above, you’re gonna walk again!”
The laugh tremor rolled all over me. I drooled. But my father was shaking with excitement.
“Sammy, I’m gonna go mow this lawn right quick, ‘fore them clouds open up. Then I’m gonna call that Jackie. Said she knows someone that can help with this. It’ll cost a fortune, probably, but we’ll manage.”
My dad smiled like the Lions had made the playoffs. In the reflection, it looked like he was strutting.
I heard the back door open and close, the shed open and close and the lawnmower startup. He did the same pattern, every time. I could see it like I could see a chessboard.
He would start against the privacy fence to the north and do an M shape so that he could roll the mower right back in the shed. He also fancied that it looked like a block M, for Michigan, to all the planes flying overhead.
My mind wandered back to my chess set, briefly distracted by the mailman delivering the mail. Still, sometimes, there were cards from strangers who had stumbled across my story. Most of them contained checks. My Aunt Sarah told my dad she wrote thank you letters to all of them, even the ones without checks.
The lawnmower shutoff. But I didn’t hear the shed door.
The next morning I woke when I heard the newspaper hit the porch. It landed with the print upside down to me.
I had gone through every possibility in my mind before I had fallen asleep. The only conclusion I could reach is that my father was dead.
Even if he had abandoned me, which I knew was a ludicrous idea, he would have shut the shed before walking away.
I looked at the situation from every angle, like Mr. Zybrad had taught me. Had I had the ability to walk-had I never been injured-he would have been at work.
Getting struck by lightning will heighten one’s sense of fate. It was my father’s fate.
Was I frightened for myself? No. Eventually, the neighbor would notice that the newspapers were piling up and that the van hadn’t moved. Someone; my aunt, the church, the government, would see that my basic needs were met. I could assign a value to things as all humans do. If I had to, I could play chess in my head using falling leaves as pieces-see that gold one, she’ll be the queen, the simple green ones, the pawns…
I was uncomfortable for reasons I’d rather not discuss, but I wasn’t scared. Surviving a lightning strike will remove nearly all the scared from you.
To be honest, I was happy.
I was sad I would never see my father again.
But I had made him laugh with my pinkie finger, and when he laughed at that simple athletic success of my mind and my finger, I knew that the fourth thing he cared about was me.
Wonderful story also available in audio version : -) https://soundcloud.com/voxpropat/grandmaster-by-jimmy-doomread-by-patrick-kirchner
I love this Jimmy. Really.