The Damndest Role Model

Loser Magnet!

I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of over the years, and right now I’m going to share some of those with you. Bare in mind, this was a time in my life when I was a combative and disturbed 17 teen-year-old, a rebellious kid who hadn’t found himself yet. Like most kids, I thought I was invincible, and reared up to run around with the toughest, coolest crowds. I wore heavy metal t-shirts in a time when the true renegade high school student was proud to front Iron Maiden and Metallica logos across their chests and on the backs of their dark blue jean jackets. I had long hair and an attitude. If you glanced down at my feet, you would have seen unlaced tennis shoes with the tongues pulled way out front like all the other kids who weren’t afraid to sport ripped jeans and frowns on their faces.

Adding to all the juvenile antics, I was a loser and a loser magnet it seemed! I managed to attract the worst people to hang out with…the metal heads, the high school dropouts, the class-skippers, the druggies, and all the anti-nerds who spent a lot of time in after school detention. Yes, I spent my share of time in the principle’s office, as you might have guessed!

Among these loser associates were two friends I wished I hadn’t gotten in close with, two brothers we’ll call Tom and J.J. Tom was a gang member wannabe who dropped out of school and managed to become wanted by the local police for thefts, drug offenses, assault, and for brandishing unlicensed firearms in public. The guy was rotten all-round and had a history of mental instability. Tom’s younger brother J.J. was not much different. He proved to be a passive-aggressive arsonist who developed an obsession for blowing up mailboxes. These two law-breakers were “radical” in my eyes, and I wanted to hang out with them. Much to my hurt, I did. That was when I met their dad, a guy just older than my own father, a fellow we called Old Man Whitecotton.

Old Man Whitecotton

Whitecotton was a large, bearded man with a beer belly and a taste for exotic foreign foods. He drove a high mileage, light gray, 5-speed Toyota Landmark van, and always had a bottle of Jim Beam tucked away between the seats. Here was a man who could hold his liquor and drink us youngins’ under the table! He had the most wickedly cackling laugh you ever heard and an excellent sense of humor to go with it. He could crack up the most straight-faced individual, even as he re-told the same cheesy jokes around everyone. He was the overly animated, witty type you’d call “crazy in a good way” if you met him at a party. Every time you saw him, he was wearing the same limited selection of clothes—big, baggy, casual Dockers and faded, long-sleeved flannel shirts.

He loved staying up late, downing tall bottles of beer, watching HBO and Comedy Central. I can still hear him in my head laughing hysterically at the antics of Tom Servo on Mystery Science Theatre 3000. He was an out-of-work pool cleaner with a wealthy father who paid off his house and left him a white 56’ International truck, which sat neglected in the driveway of what could have been a beautiful $145,000 house. He, like his children, was a loser by all traditional standards and was hated bitterly by everyone in the neighborhood. Whitecotten was despised so much that a number of neighbors verbally confronted him out in his own yard due to the deplorable condition of his home. The police were even called out to quell some of these hot disputes. I almost can’t blame the neighbors for this as the way the house was kept, everyone else’s property values had to be on the downward slope! He was also detested for the unruly behavior of his out-of-control children. Everybody hated this man’s guts, and I mean everyone…except me.

A very dirty house!

Now this is where things really get interesting. The place was so filthy that health inspectors were called out to the house a number of times, threatening to take action if a prompt clean up was not begun. I was actually present when one came by and angrily demanded that they clean the place, or else! Even from the street, empty chlorine bottles and trash could be seen scattered all over the yard!

Most of us have probably had the opportunity to see a less-than-kempt house in a ritzy neighborhood before, but this was an experience like few have ever seen! My first encounter at the Whitecotton house was the shock of my life. I hadn’t come within 25 feet of the front door when my nose picked up that smell! Then the door opened and my nostrils were overwhelmed with the nastiest odor I ever smelt in a house occupied by humans! It was like a hamper placed next to a dumpster placed inside a boarded up, abandoned building! I wanted to faint right then and there! I could not believe it! Who lets their house get this dirty? Why hadn’t he cleaned it? After that initial visit, I asked Tom why his dad never cleaned. The response was, “He’s depressed and will get mad if we bring it up, so you have to keep quiet about it!” And I did.

Downstairs

Words do not describe how atrocious this first encounter was. As I was entering, a thick layer of dust covered what would have been nice Saltillo tiled floors. Tall stacks of old newspapers and magazines were everywhere, as well as dusty boxes of old books. It was like they never quite finished moving in and suddenly let the place go to pot! At one point, I remember glancing down and seeing a 1984 TV Guide lying on a child’s broken highchair. Because of the massive piles of trash, you couldn’t even walk in the house were it not for three trails in the dust that led to the living room, kitchen, and one to a hallway where you could access a bathroom and the upstairs.

Dusty and torn curtains draped over all the windows and broken pieces of pottery sat on windowsills. Heaps and mounds of trash bags and literally 4 or 5 feet high of scattered paper plates, cups, napkins, wrappers, beer cans, whiskey bottles, decomposing chunks of partially eaten food, and refuse of all kinds prevented anyone from getting to many parts of the house. An indescribable amount of clutter was everywhere. Fighting for space under the living room table was unpacked camping gear from a trip the family took some 5 years earlier. In my unbelief at the whole situation, I reached down to take a look inside a camping backpack when Tom yelled, “Don’t touch that! Dad will shit bricks if he finds out someone fucked with his camping gear!” I thought to myself, “OOOOKKK!”

All chairs and crevasses of literally every room were filled with the craziest mixture of junk…including Christmas wrapping paper, power tools, razor blades, motor oil, nails and screws, string, old radios, pieces of plywood, children’s clothes, lunchboxes, boxes of “junk drawer stuff,” (like scotch tape, electrical tape, clothespins, magic markers, rubber bands, batteries, hooks for hanging plants, and used up little tubes of superglue) but most of it was just more trash, like old milk cartons, Styrofoam soda cups and plastic lids, broken toys, and even used Band-Aids! All the toilets, bathtubs, sinks, and shower walls had thick films of filth on them. The stench of urine was outrageous.

The walls were cracked and enormous patches of mold were everywhere. The fireplace hadn’t been cleaned in years. The ashes reached up to where the chimney began. Since there were no chairs handy, I had to sit on the edge of what would have been a beautiful jumbo-sized fireplace. My butt still hurts just thinking about sitting on that cold concrete ledge! You couldn’t even walk on the back patio without every other footstep falling through the rotten deck.

Amidst all the unsettling disarray, it touched some emotion in me to see traces of a normal life in years past. The paneling den walls were decorated with moose and dear heads from previous hunting expeditions. Behind the pricy weapons racks, classy furniture, and nice wall hangings that were not either broken or covered with dust, remnants of a formerly good life could be seen. Looking through all the dilapidation, you could tell that it used to be a place of good memories a long, long time ago.

So why did I go back to that house? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute, but first try and visualize with me the rest of the place and the sheer magnitude of what I took in. I want you to be as blown away by this as I was!

Months-old cartons of to-go Chinese food could be seen everywhere. On one particular visit I dared to open one up, and out popped a foot-long “Santa beard” of bacteria, as did a swarm of fruit flies that were feeding on it! The kitchen was blackened with mold and mildew, and stacks of dirty dishes, rusted forks, and stagnant sink water. Only one section of the counter was regularly washed enough to cook on. It was barely big enough to use, but on that spot clean towels were laid down, and on them were freshly cut peppers, garlic, and onions, next to very clean cutting and cooking utensils. This was the only clean place in the house except for the insides of the soap dispensers!

The funniest thing

Before we get too far off the topic of food, I wanted to mention what I consider to be the funniest irony of my life. It went down in this very house! In one of our many food conversations, I mistakenly mentioned that I had never tasted molasses. He immediately insisted on me trying some from his pantry—this meant with his silverware! I panicked but couldn’t say no. I couldn’t afford to offend him, so I bucked up and decided to take a bit and get it over with. As the spoon came to my mouth, a bit of molasses dripped off the spoon and onto that dust-covered floor, prompting the following word-for-word response from the old man, “Watch it now, you’re going to dirty my house!” He then rushed into the kitchen, got a paper towel, and began to scrub up the molasses from that tiny spot! He might have been a tad peeved, but the insane irony of the situation kept me laughing within myself, but I had to look away from the spot he just cleaned to keep from bursting out in hysterics—that spot shined brighter than any surface in the dump!

A place to sleep

The couch the old man slept on, partially hidden from view by the islands of trash between each piece of furniture, was dirty and yellow. It had broken, exposed springs and cushioning coming out several places. That ripped, checkered quilt from the 1970’s he used for a cover had not been washed in who knows how long! The one time I was gutsy enough to spend the night over there, I noticed him knock away pieces of trash from his face that kept falling on him as he slept. All us kids could hear him snoring loudly from upstairs. While the kids slept on ripped up beds, I just brought my own sleeping bag and pillow, and said, “No offense, guys” when they seemed perturbed by it! After one night, I would never stay there another night again.

Upstairs

Upstairs was the sight of many other disturbing scenes. Each step towards the second floor was as dirty as a playground sandbox. Mashed underneath some of these steps, I observed some baby clothes and pajamas, ruined and faded by time and the elements, matted to the steps! What could have been a startlingly beautiful house was in absolute shambles.

Directing my eyes to the floor of the upstairs loft, the small, splintered pieces of a broken toilet could be found. Most of these pieces were so small that they had been walked on for years and were actually trapped by the carpet! A small piece of the commode was all that was left intact. The only thing I could figure was that it was intentionally smashed to bits by a pipe wrench lying near it. Down the hall was another horribly filthy bathroom, and outside of that bathroom, lying out in the hallway, was a filthy old mattress that the younger brother used to stop a bleeding cut one afternoon!

Across the hall was the old man’s unused bedroom. Aside from two walk-in closets full of dusty, moth-eaten clothes I’d never seen him wear was a king-sized waterbed with chop marks in the wooden frame apparently made from a hand-ax that was still lying on the floor next to the bed! The lining had green, pond-colored, stagnant water in it. It stunk like bloody Hell! As with the walls downstairs, the walls in this room had holes in them and water spots all over them. When a wind blew, big untrimmed branches rocked and swayed up against the roof, causing loud creaking noises to be heard all throughout the house. The place sounded like something out of a horror movie when the winds picked up.

In the son’s bedrooms, entire walls had body-sized holes knocked in them. Hanging light fixtures and pieces of broken bulbs could still be found on the floor. One window had even been decorated with graffiti from permanent markers that Tom and his gang member, drug-dealing friends made. The place was a demilitarized zone, a sad testament to a family that had lost its way!

Why I stayed

Ok…back to the matter of why I stayed in the house for any length of time, and why I mustered up the courage to go back after that initial visit. The answer might not be that surprising: I went back because Old Man Whitecotton was a genius (at least to me at the time). Granted, it doesn’t take that much intellect to impress a 17-year-old kid who watches Star Trek and plays Dungeons and Dragons, but impress me he did! He might still have impressed me if I met him today. He was an amazingly bright light in my dark world of dim bulbs I called buddies, who cared to engage themselves in nothing higher than to party and commit petty acts of criminal mischief, like pulling down stop signs and breaking windows! Whitecotton was my first freethought influence (in a manner of speaking).

This was that time in my life when I was about to start developing an interest in philosophy, and later this would bud into a religious interest, which would result in my conversion to Christianity. I wanted answers. I was not at all knowledgeable about anything yet, but the seed for the love of knowledge was already being planted. I may only have read crappy books by Time Life on Atlantis, secrets of the Egyptian Pyramids, alien life on Mars, and ESP, but I at least wanted to learn. I loved to discuss the origins of the universe and what made things “tick.” Whitecotton was more than I could have hoped for. Strange as it is, pseudo-science was what wet my lips for religion, and religion wet my lips for real science many years later! Funny how error very often ignites a spark for truth!

But Old Man Whitecotton was spellbinding. I could ask him any question and he could answer it on the spot. I remember asking him questions, like “Why is the sky blue?”, “What is the ozone layer?”, “What is ion power?”, “What is the nature of space-time?”, “What is barometric pressure?”, “Why is it said that space is curved?”, and on and on the list went. He opened right up and broke it down so that even an A.D.D. kid like myself could easily understand it. He was the first one to introduce me to Zeno’s Paradox in philosophy, and some of the basic premises of physics. He once explained to me how thrust propulsion in rockets works and how exhaust gas build-up in turbos adds horsepower to cars. I was not surprised to learn that he graduated with honors from numerous trade schools and colleges with degrees in aviation and aeronautics, and I believe physics as well. I asked Tom several times why his dad didn’t use them to get a good job, and his reply was always the same, “I told you, he’s depressed. Don’t ask him about it. He’ll get mad!”

Whitecotton taught me to play chess on a competitive skill level. As I recall, we played 40 or 50 games before I was able to tie him, and about 20 more before I could whip him! Well, truth be told, I only whipped him 2 or 3 times – and that with a bit of luck – but at least I could go to school and whip up on all my friends! He taught me a little about history. He could lecture forever on the history of ancient Hong Kong, the Philippine Islands, and so much else. He never ran out of informative things to say.

When I told him of my love for hot peppers, he was able to tell me the technical terms for each of the little glands inside the pepper! And believe it or not, as dirty as that house was, he could make a man hungry explaining how to cook Thai, French, and German quizines I had never even heard of. I don’t think I was over there a single time when I didn’t hear about some exotic dish. He was well cultured and highly intelligent. And so what if he was a vulgar piece of trash in the eyes of a prim-and-proper public? I was a rebellious kid. What the hell did I care? He was the first and only adult I truly admired and looked up to.

Whitecotton made me feel smart and worth something, a thing no authority figure had yet been able to do. He supposedly had a 183 I.Q. (probably didn’t but it was all the same to me!) I told him I had never been tested and had no idea what my I.Q. was, but I was convinced I had barely half of his. He reassured me, “Joe, I promise you, someday you’ll find out how smart you are.” To me, it didn’t matter whether he was a blowhard or not. I felt valuable and special, and when the years went by and I was able to see my potential unfold, I felt I had him to thank for my newly found self-confidence.

No father of the year!

Not all was pretty, however. Hanging out with Whitecotton’s kids almost did in us in! They got my brother and I in serious trouble in school and made the whole neighborhood hate us. Tom was delusional and shot out my neighbor’s window because he wanted to show how tough he was. Mom and dad hated that whole family because of those two reprobates, and I can’t say I blame them. Soon, these degenerates did what all shameless deviant fellows do—they turn on their friends! They threatened to kill my family and I. Even before all this trouble escalated, Tom’s gang of thieves stole thousands of dollars worth of property from local residents and graffiti-ed sidewalks and walls. They packed guns around and threatened to kill innocent people for no reason at all. Our entire neighborhood was in an uproar. The sons were finally arrested for stealing a Suburban and put away for their many crimes. My father was a witness against them and their hoodlum friends at their trials. I felt terrible for the heartache these fools brought on my parents. After these upheavals, things began to calm down. I was forced to part ways with the old man because of them. My parents forbade me to go near that house again, and while I hated to lose my conversational friend, this was still a smart move—no doubt about it.

The old man was far from perfect too! He had a terribly violent temper, though I was never in an unlucky enough position to see it unleashed. He drank heavily and took us kids out to his ranch to drink and smoke marijuana—this was the first time I got so drunk that I couldn’t walk! The old man loved his liquor and was in at least several drunken brawls, word has it. He was a bad parent, who couldn’t control his kids, had at least one D.U.I. conviction, and probably some other skeletons in his closet that I’m glad to not be aware of. Needless to say, there were no Man Of The Year trophies packed away in his garage!

Lessons from Whitecotton

The last time I saw Whitecotton was when I converted to Christianity and went back over to that house a number of years later to convert him in 1995. Surprisingly, I found the house cleaned up! As in old times, we had a nice chat. Then I left. I haven’t seen him since, though I heard through a friend that he married some French woman he met and started a new life. I am happy for him and hope he is doing well.

I guess the lesson I want to highlight here is this; no matter how depressed, dejected, or hated we may be, we are all still role models to the right person out there. Someone somewhere whom you least think would give a damn about you or remember your name in the long haul of time is thinking back on you, remembering your words, valuing your advice, and making a place for you in their heart. In a thousand years, you might not guess who that individual is, but you are special to that person. They will never forget you.

It only goes to show that with every pat on the back given, every piece of advice offered, every helping hand extended, you are changing someone’s life. Every time you take a young person aside and impart a little wisdom of life, you are acting as their mentor. You may not give it a second thought, but you are shaping a destiny. What better lesson in self-esteem could life possibly give us? If to no one else, we at least matter to that certain someone out there whom we had faith in when no one else would, to that special person whom we were able to reach and inspire to greater heights, the person whose foundation for success we had a part in laying.

I bet the old man scarcely remembers me, but I sure remember him. I always will. He influenced an impressionable young man who had not yet found his way. Who knows how much he shaped my future? But if an out-of-work, hated, temperamental pool-cleaner with poor personal hygiene and a criminal record can positively influence a budding mind, then so can we all!

(JH)

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