There’s someone I would like you to “meet”. It’s our friend Al, who is one of those “everyday heroes” you hear about, quietly living his life, helping others without asking for anything in return, and generally making people smile. He is also very private, which is why I can’t share a photo of him, though you’ll notice a recurring theme in many of the photos which follow.
Speaking of photos, a majority of the pictures I’ve snapped over the years have been taken from his van. Al loves his van. It’s the easiest type of vehicle for him to get into and out of – no need to bend down. Getting out is especially simple: turn sideways, straighten legs out and ease to a standing position. His legs sometimes give way, though, and he lands in a heap beside the van. Swearing a little he gets up, dusts himself off, and keeps going. Our Al is made of pretty tough stuff.
Al has the dubious distinction of having been one of the last children in the UK to be stricken with polio. Did he let it stop him? Did he, heck! Despite serious disabilities he has always done hard, physical work. He trained as a blacksmith and went on to become a talented welder at more than one busy shipyard in Scotland. He has sat waist-deep in cold rivers to rig up fish-counting devices, crawled into tankers to make repairs in awkward spaces, and has had to leap onto outer ladders of ships that needed onboard work as they bobbed and lurched in choppy harbor waters. In his younger days he lived in an apartment up a few flights of stairs though it couldn’t have been easy with his shorter, paralyzed leg braced with a caliper, one boot modified with a built-up sole. Al is nearly unstoppable. He has a beautiful blackthorn walking stick, and while the day will come when he will need a wheelchair, he still challenges himself daily to walk to the shop for his newspaper. He is a big believer in the wisdom of “use it or lose it.”
Al faces every pain-filled day with unimaginable stoicism, his sunny spirit nearly always intact. He likes to say that he is “thrawn,” a word meaning stubborn and headstrong, and it is that tenacity which has gotten him through a very hard life. A Yorkshireman, he has lived all over Scotland, and he loves recounting tales of times gone by with “the boys”, those former co-workers with whom he enjoyed so many hijinks. Hard-working lads who saw beyond his disability to his brilliance, they accepted him as an equal, as much “one of the boys” as any of them, and he remains in contact with some of them to this day. He seems to know everyone! His friends include road-workers, truck drivers, laborers, the guy who goes around cleaning the litter off the streets, and – thank all the gods – us.
Mind you, he has his blind spots. There are a few people who he dislikes for reasons we’ve never been able to fathom, and if he has taken against a person there’s nothing they can do to change his opinion. He is absolutely flummoxed by people who are transgender – he just doesn’t understand it. He regularly insults me without really meaning to when he starts describing someone. “She’s a rather stout lady,” he’ll say while casting an eye over my girth and breadth, adding, “though maybe not as big as you.” Ouch! The thing about Al, though, is that he is guileless; in his mind, he’s just being factual in comparison. It does make me flinch a bit, though!
Over the last few years he has become an impatient driver, even downright scary sometimes. After one particularly harrowing trip my husband gasped, “Deb, for God’s sake you’ve got to get your British license, and soon,” as we staggered into our house, relieved at having survived another hair-raising series of high-speed overtaking maneuvers. It really was that bad; here is a “selfie” I took during that ride because sometimes you just need a photographic record of grim terror (and helpless rage).
Still, Al has been a life-saver to us in every season over the years, driving us thousands of miles to countless appointments and shopping trips. He is generous with his time and effort, not just with us, but with all and sundry, and because of his van he often gets called upon for help if someone is moving house or needs something bulky delivered. He never turns anyone down.
Recently he’s gone through a bit of a second childhood, buying all sorts of old toy models of construction vehicles and, inexplicably, becoming slightly obsessed with the Minions from “Despicable Me.” He now has a full collection of them, each at least ten inches high, along with Gru and Gru’s dog. I grin every time we go to his house and see them all lined up in pride of place on the mantlepiece, where most folks would put their best decorative pieces. Not so for Al! He does what pleases him and if that means he has Minions all over the house because they make him laugh, then that’s just how it is. I think he’s the bees’ knees. We see him at least once a week and call each other every couple of days, he joins us for Thanksgiving every year, and on the rare occasions when he is feeling a little down he knows he can come and see us anytime for a bit of cheering-up.
Al often says he isn’t smart, having missed so much of his schooling due to surgeries and hospital stays when he was a child. Granted, his vocabulary is somewhat improvised: froth is “throff” and things aren’t depicted, they are “deplicted”. Those and a host of other scrambled words often have me suppressing chuckles, but I would never say that he isn’t smart. If he doesn’t know something he either asks or looks it up, and he is very clever in terms of engineering and building things. He can figure out what’s broken and find a way to fix it even if it seems like there isn’t a solution. “He has good hands” as they say around here of talented craftsmen. A very good memory and internal navigation system as well as a lifetime love of maps mean that if he’s been to a place once, he will remember how to get there forevermore.
Now in his mid-60s, Al is a lifelong bachelor. He has fought to be independent all his life and thus he’s not that good with company of the staying-over kind, enduring it if he has to but always glad to have his house back to himself. He seems content, though, and while he has had brief love affairs in the past, these days I think he mostly admires the ladies from afar, flashing them that charming, boyish grin, somewhat shy and very endearing.
Al worked longer than anyone would have thought possible, only giving up his job when he physically could no longer cope. That was when he and Sem met, in fact, and their friendship has flourished for 20 years. When Al is your friend, he’s truly your friend, and I count myself lucky that he accepted me on sight when I appeared in Scotland, married to Sem. Al ducked his head, blushing, and gave me a hug, calling me Sem’s “good lady” and winning my heart from the first.
The beauty of our friendship is that all of us can’t do enough for each other, and as much as he has been there for us, we have tried our best to do right by him in every way possible, too. It’s a friendship of mutual appreciation, support and enjoyment, and one that we treasure.
Polio is making a cruel later-in-life reappearance, which it apparently sometimes does, and Al is slowing down, burdened with new weakness and intensified pain. Even so he prefers to think, “How can I do this?” rather than negatively deciding, “I can’t.”
You’ve just got to love a guy like that.