Peter was a little odd to look at.
For one thing, he was in a wheelchair.
For another thing, he was all twisted up in it. And when he spoke, he did so slowly because his mouth and neck were all twisted too. And he spat a lot when he was talking, too.
To this day, I don’t know what he had. Whether it was cerebral palsy or whatever. That was probably what it was. But at any rate, he was initially very difficult to look at. People (read: me) felt uncomfortable because of his jerky movements and odd way of speaking.
I don’t know how he broke the barrier of social ostracization in our high school, but he did it. A few of us, me included, started talking with him more. Maybe it was because he knew exactly what he looked like, and didn’t care. Maybe because he was so willing to speak up during class. Ask and answer questions. I don’t know. A few of us became friends with him, but not because we were special or anything.
We found that, after you got past the spastic movements and the wheelchair, ultimately what you had was an older teenage boy, who was mischievous and funny. The guy was really no different from many of us. We found a basis for friendship.
Peter loved telling dirty jokes. As a bona-fide died-in-the-wool long-haired plaid-wearing tight-assed Christian, I found them offensive. Or tried to anyway. God knows I tried. God probably smirked when he saw me biting my lip and then finally laughing out loud. You could tell when Peter was going to tell one of them. There’d be a twinkle in his eyes and he grinned hard, as he took a deep breath. And we’d sit there with him, waiting expectantly. Me, with a slight furrow to my brow, and my other two friends, just grinning.
One day we sat in the hall way, Peter in his wheelchair and us on the window sill, just outside of the teacher’s lounge. Peter launched into one of his long-winded jokes. It took him a lot longer to tell a joke than any of us, because of his condition. I’m convinced that the length of the joke time extended the hilarity of it. To this day I can’t recall what the joke was. Only that, as soon as he told the punch line, the door to the teacher’s lounge suddenly burst open, and the vice principal walked out, glaring.
We were shocked. We didn’t know if he heard it or not. (Peter was pretty loud). But then, as we stared at each other, Peter just burst into gales of laughter.
The vice principal frowned at us all in confusion, and we started laughing too. We couldn’t help it. nor could we stop. The VP just shook his head and walked away, while we stayed there, laughing it up.
Peter, like us, loved the girls in our school too. Especially Maria. Maria was this cute little button-nosed beauty with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair who smiled an awful lot. She was gentle too, and not at all stuck up or snobby. We were all out of her league and we knew it (well, our growing but still limited self-esteem told us that at the time anyway). Oh, and she wore short skirts too. That helped.
One day, we were joking around with her, and then we decided to start chasing her. She let out a high-pitched squeal of laughter and started running down the hall. My buddy Willis pushed Peter’s wheelchair, while Peter assisted by pushing the mobility handle on the chair, giving it an extra horsepower or two. Larry and I ran alongside. Willis looked at me, and winked. Then he let go of the wheelchair. And as Maria continued to run, we saw Peter still pushing the wheelchair mobility handle, moving the thing by himself, with a maniacal look of glee on his face. We stood there and watched, just laughing. Peter was busted.
I think when teachers saw Peter in his wheelchair, they felt sorry for him. And I think he milked it for all his worth. As did we. We were often late for class.
“Sorry Miss Gannon – but we were helping Peter get to class”.
Miss Gannon would sigh and nod her head. I don’t think we fooled her. Mostly because we were too stupid not to realize that she saw us grinning to each other.
I don’t think Peter ever spoke of his condition with us. He may have explained what it was one time. I forget. I think it just wasn’t that big a deal to him. And it wasn’t for us either. Eventually we stopped noticing the looks of the other students. It just didn’t matter.
In my Christian zeal, I may have tried to convert Peter at one time or another. I’m pretty sure that attempt died an ignominious death. Back then I probably thought he was just too full of lust.
Which, really, was true. The guy had a lust for life. Big Time.
At the end of the day though – he was just a normal kid.