Self-respect lost and found

I spent my growing-up years in the wondrous town of Saranac Lake, attended high school at Petrova and even to this day dream of returning to the most beautiful land ever created by the hand of whatever higher power one believes in. I really did learn all that I ever would need to survive in this world in those mountains and on those lakes.

The lessons were not ever easy! I grew up in a family of eight children fathered by the hardest-working man I would ever know. Eighteen hours a day were common, which meant there were few precious hours to really know him. My mother was expected to put her very soul on hold to care for us, care for the home and be there at my father’s beck and call no matter what! Even her religion, Jewish, was given up in deference to my father’s will that we be brought up Methodist. A hard life for her was made even harder when a car accident left her with a permanent injury to her leg. That leg was only there due to Drs. Merkel and Decker, who, even as they argued about whether to take the leg or not, saved it! Both my parents were hard, stoic and reflected the qualities needed to survive in this world, let alone the harshness of Adirondack winters. I admired them, loved them and was inspired by their strength. I was also was angered by their inability to empathize with each other’s pain.

I spent my years in the Saranac Lake Central School system, where through most of my education I was viewed as an oversized ignoramus. I was not expected to make it out of high school, let alone college. Because of my size (my opinion), I was degraded and abused by several teachers so that by the time I reached secondary school, I truly believed all they said about me. In second grade my teacher would shake me violently for no apparent reason, make me stand in front of the class to show how dumb I was, and often would embarrass me by making me sit on her lap in front of the class. I certainly was scarred!

I reached a point by sixth grade when I literally viewed myself as a true freak of nature for whom there was little hope. I was twice as big as those my age and not nearly emotionally ready for those my size – a Frankenstein incarnate. This, of course, was my favorite book because it was as if the author had looked into my young soul to tell her story.

Then, at age 12, I was diagnosed with diabetes – to me, another factor in my “freak of nature” thinking. It affected everything from my ability to attend school and not fall asleep, to a healthy transition into manhood. I was sent to the best clinic in the world to learn how to deal with this, was told repeatedly that, if not careful, I would lose my legs, kidneys and life itself by age 30. Instead of listening, I, as most adolescents do, denied that anything would happen. I rebelled, drank heavily and was en route to becoming a complete failure!

But then, miracles do happen! I became very involved in sports, and I met several teachers who had a great influence on me. The first teacher whom I will mention was my social studies teacher in eighth grade. His name was Daniel Canovan. He showed me I had a brain and could begin to think for myself. He challenged me in a way no other had done, and although it took many years to come full circle, he did help immensely to mold my intellectual ability. He died on a Saturday in November – I believe the 11th – in a senseless crash as he was heading out to go hunting. I was in the ninth grade, getting ready to play Potsdam on the varsity squad when my friend Jeff Mace called me with the news. It was 9 a.m. when I got the call, and I, like the whole town, was devastated. His influence on me was and is one of the most dramatic of my life.

Football and baseball gave me the self-respect I lacked on all other fronts. I could not relate to girls, as I just could not see what any girl would see in me. But on the athletic fields I was given respect, was able to succeed and even could feel good about what I did. Football became the reason for staying in school, as well as the reason for staying alive. It was made harder by the diabetes, which was just another obstacle to deal with. Of course, the other athletes could not understand some of it, and I could never explain it; yet they did tolerate me, which I appreciated.

During my senior year in high school, I met another teacher who had a tremendous influence on my intellectual development. George Tolherst – GT to his students – helped me to understand the meanings of integrity in my work as well as helped me develop the ability to believe in myself. He believed in me, got me to be involved in oratory as well as to enjoy what authors had to say in books. He made me read the book “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in one night because I tried to get over on a book report – integrity! He helped me compete in oratory contests, where I had fair success, and his toughness as a former paratrooper helped me form a respect for him that I had for few people. It was his hardness that softened me, to allow my emotions to begin to flow.

Of course I had great respect for my coaches, but I do have a special place for John Raymond. A tough coach, a good coach, a good educator whom I often hated for what I perceived was a penchant for tearing me down. Yet he did help make me a hardier person more able to persevere and survive. If not for this man, I would never have gone to college, as during the last week of school he asked me what I wanted to do. I told him I wanted to attend college but to date had not been accepted. He made a call to Ithaca. I visited that weekend, and by Monday I knew where I was going. The rest is history.

I am now retired in Phoenix, Ariz. I hold a master’s degree in counseling and have spent 35 years counseling and working with abused children and adolescents. I have survived two kidney transplants, a five-way heart bypass, a cancer, the amputation of my right leg and a host of other “THINGS.” I am 61 years old, have been literally dead four times, but I still am above ground. I attend the gym four to five times per week, am again learning to walk, and do plan to climb a mountain in the Adirondacks before I leave this earth.

Recently I was able to ride a recumbent bike for two-and-a-half hours in an effort to raise money for diabetic research in the Tour de Cure. I am now extremely proud of myself and know the Frankenstein in me is a thing of the past.

I thank the wondrous Adirondacks, Saranac Lake, the extremely hardy people of that town, and of course my wife of 32 years, who has always been strong enough to be the well spouse of this pairing. There are many I have not mentioned, but that town, those mountains, those lakes and those people I truly believed were destroying me, in reality became my salvation!