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A Life Filled with Tragedy

by John Whitfield Saturday, Feb. 02, 2002 at 12:35 PM
JWhitfi894 309-462-3136 103 N. Jefferson, Abingdon, Illinois 61410

For Trisha: A partial autobiography of a veteran teacher to be part of a book in the making. "You may be right, I may be crazy, but I just might be the lunatic you're looking for" Mick Jaggar


A Life Filled With Tragedy

Going to elementary school in the nineteen fifties in Blue Island, just south of Chicago was interrupted by the first of many tragedies that have engulfed my life. This autobiography will briefly take you through these "caminos de mi vida" in order for you to get to know me, and to help me reflect upon my life to hopefully help me interact in
a more positive way with students who are hard to reach, or that are unruly.

The Divorce

We actually resided in Alsip, which is adjacent to Blue Island. Though I have several memories having lived there until I was ten, for some reason I feel that memories have also been erased. Though it happened only sporadically, I will never forget my mother having put soap in my mouth, and having cried incessantly about this. I really cannot recollect why she did this. Whether it was for me having used profanity, or for having talked backed or disobeyed her, God only knows. My mother has said in the past that she was abused by her older brother. He used to hit her, and my grandparents favored him over her.
While walking into the house one day after school I first noticed my younger brother, horrified, crying hysterically, and then blood, on the phone book and elsewhere. Then my mother appeared with a bandage on one side of her face.
I remember times as a child having been woken up at night by the chatter of my parents voices arguing in the kitchen. According to my mother, he was a woman chaser.
Though I am sure she didn't coin the term, I don't recall anyone else having used the phrase. She has said that she found him once in a restaurant with another woman.
I cannot say that I honestly knew my father. In fact I honestly don't recall him ever having spoken to me, though surely when I was a baby he must have. But of course, you want to know what happened to my mother. The story used to go, that in the midst of one of their famous kitchen disputes, he picked up the lid from a tin can, which needless to say, must have been very sharp, and chucked it across the room. Supposedly it had
careened just enough, that it struck my mother just right, in the face, to require over a dozen stitches leaving an unsightly scar from her nose down past her lower lip.
A few years ago while painting my grandmother's farmhouse, before she passed on, I about fell off the ladder when she told me that my mother had had a baby before she had had my older brother, and had given it up to adoption. This was before she married. She also said that my father had cut my mother with a knife. Though my mom doesn't deny the former, needless to say, the latter is very difficult to talk about.

Standing outside the courthouse door, with my grandparents, not allowed to go into divorce court, was a sullen affair, as was going over the bridge when we left Alsip to move down on the farm in St. Augustine, Illinois, looking back at our little house, thinking that we would never see our friends again.
My father stopped by the farm to leave us three baseball gloves. He was a crazy White Sox fan. I remember him with the radio on top of the refrigerator along with a beer, and when Minnie Minoso the great Cuban batter came up, he would yell at the top of his lungs, "Come on ... Minnie,"and the whole house seemed to shutter. This did rub off on me, and I remember sitting next to the radio even after we moved to the farm listening to White Sox games.
My younger brother was the only one who saw my father before he passed away in Tucson, Arizona. He was a wounded veteran, shot in the leg in war, and the climate was supposed to have been good for his health. He had married for a third time.
Incidentally, he had married before he married my mother and had a couple of children from his first spouse, whom I have never met. Whenever this subject has arisen, my mother has spoken with rejection about this. One thing I would like to find out, and I finally have a lead, is, in what country was it that my father was shot in, at the end of World War II?

Violence Strikes Again

My mother never has remarried, and after having moved into town, four miles down the road to nearby Abingdon, where I would be the next ten years of my life, it was an uphill struggle for us, since my father made only interim child support payments. My mother worked menial jobs at clothing stores, restaurants, auto parts places, for Cable T.V., legal aide, and still works taking care of the elderly that are worse off than herself.
I was happy that she worked for Legal Aid, as we all learned more about the rights of people in this society including the rights of the aged, the unemployed, and the homeless.
Having been an over-zealous jock in school, that is, whatever sport season it was, I was out there playing it on some team, it also led to my downfall. The violence of American football is the opiate of the masses in our society. Even researcher Alfie Kohn quotes Eisenhower as having said, that "American sports are nothing more than preparation for war."
Being a quarterback can be especially dangerous, because if the linemen don't block (in case you are unfamiliar with the terminology) and the opposing linemen come at you, rushing to block the football before you pass it, you can get tackled from the blind side while looking to pass the football the other way. In other words it is like a truck running into your back, when a lineman, who might well weigh over two hundred pounds, even in High School, comes running full speed with helmet, shoulder pads and all, and rams them into your back either before, or after you have passed the ball.
Well, though I was hit that way a few times, luckily my linemen were very capable, and this wasn't how I was so seriously injured. My Senior year I was moved from quarterback to fullback (one of the ball carriers , who also blocks), and the back up (second string) quarterback from the previous year became starting quarterback. My guess was, because his father had much influence in the community, was able to coerce
our coach into letting his son be the quarterback. Needless to say it was a blow to my ego, but I was happy to still play, in spite of the change of positions.
Now that I was fullback on offense, (if you haven't fallen asleep, out of boredom, from reading this) on defense, they made me a defensive end, and this is where the second strategy of my life severely struck me down. Across from the defensive end, plays the offensive end, and in a game near the end of the season, an offensive end from a rival team gave me a fore arm in the nose causing it to bleed profusely. The coach Rex Renner said to me, when I ran to the side-line, "Oh, you're okay, get back in there Whitfield." So I ran back in. In fact, believe it or not, this is the way we were conditioned in practice. That is, if someone drew blood, he would rub his hands together, and yell, "All... right...."
I recall grabbing my jersey throughout the rest of the game, drying the blood off, that had been dripping from my nose, and the blood soaked jersey that I had pulled from over my head after the game. Of course the more important thing to the coach was winning, and we didn't even win. (See Alfie Kohn's, "The Case Against Competition", Why we lose in our race to win.)
I didn't go to the physician until the following day, if you can imagine that. Having had my nose pushed up into my head by a violent right fore arm, and it wasn't until the following day that I was dianosed as having lost a lot of blood. No kidding? Tell me something that I didn't know.
To make matters worse, though I practiced little the following week in preparation for the following game, and though I didn't start the final game, they did put me into the game to punt the football (kick it) since I was the punter, and it was a close game, so of course, that was more important than Whitfield's well being. Well after I kicked, to make a long story short, I ended up in the hospital, didn't finish the rest of the school year, (this was late October) but managed to graduate the following year, 1968.
My compensation for having my life devastated was a DVR (Division of Vocational Rehabilitation) scholarship that paid most of the funds for me to go to Bradley University.

Fighting My Way Back only to get Another Whack

I only lasted a year at Bradley, in Peoria, Illinois, having lost the DVR funds, the lack of motivation, skipping classes, and trying to keep up with the Joneses, socially, did me in, to make up a few excuses. Years later after having also dropped out of society, and traveling around the country, more like a bum, or hobo, than a tourist, while standing out on the highway, near the Salt Flats, out west, in below zero weather waiting for a ride, I swear to God that I almost froze to death.
I had come from California. After watching the police kick a wino half to death, (he was already passed out on the sidewalk) then throw him into the paddy wagon, (I wasn't surprised when they filmed Rodney King getting beaten, since this was down town L.A.) I decided to get on a migrant worker bus to pick lemons near Santa Barbara. The first word that I learned in Spanish in that scorching valley was "agua", because the worker yelled it out, hoping that one of the "jefes" would send the water boy by.
Though there are many such stories that I could share about such episodes, I'll spare you the detail, and yes, I did finally get a job, (I only lasted a couple of weeks picking lemons, as I was fired for picking the stems, etc.) worked my way through Junior College to get my grades up, and even got my DVR scholarship back. My younger brother and I even played a year of college basketball together, though I had long since said, no thanks, to football.
The tragedy at this point in my life, while bucking steel at this factory, I got hit by a car speeding to work at the same factory. I had just gotten off work, and was rushing across the street, when he blindsided me. He was late for work. You know, the fanaticism we have about time in this culture. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!
Well, maybe it was good that I got hit so much while being a quarterback, because while I laid there in the middle of the road screaming and holding my legs, I was also thinking simutaneously that I could move everything, and maybe could have even got up, but I reconsidered, and thought, why should I? It would be better to just lay there in pain and wait for the ambulance.
Like the foolish man that I am, about to graduate from Western Illinois University, and ready to go into the Peace Corps, since I had already been accepted, I settled with the guy's insurance company for a few thousand lousy dollars, instead of going to court to fight for the tens of thousands that my attorney had asked for. (oh, by the way, my family never took any action against the school system, concerning the football incident)
It was 1976, and I wanted to get on with my life. I didn't even attend graduation.
By then I was living with my Peace Corps family in Costa Rica. Though I had majored in Spanish, I wanted to become proficient in it, and call me an opportunist if you like, but the Peace Corps is a great place for a gringo to learn a foreign language.

Just one more Tragedy to tell

I fell in love in Costa Rica, but with another Central American not a 'Tica' (short for Costarricense in Spanish, or a female from Costa Rica, guys are Ticos) After marrying, I went to her country, where there had been a right wing dictatorship in power for half a century. I had heard stories of youth being forced to put out bonfires with their bare hands, (bonfires on the street corner were a symbol of resistance to the dictatorship) as well as stories of youths having been hung from their ankles and given electric shocks accused of having been anti-government. As a newsletter editor for Peace Corps volunteers, I wrote about such things in protest of my own government's complicity in torture, etc.
After returning to Costa Rica from my wife's country, having sent an article to the opposition's press, (when the government had briefly suspended censorship) in the capital city there, we were soon greeted with one way tickets to Washington D. C. having been accused (foolish me, not my dear spouse) of political involvement. Though I didn't consider that to be the case at all, I didn't appeal. My two year completion of service was near, and they gave me the completion of service memo for my credentials. They had also stated that my life most likely had been in danger over the matter.
Oh, the other personal tragedy was getting hit while sliding through an intersection by a truck (honestly, a truck) while on a Honda 90 motorcycle. (so small, that it was more like a toy than a moto) It was the first day of rainy season, and I had never even been on a motorcycle, before going to Costa Rica, much less had I ever ridden one around in the rain.
Well, there I was laying in the middle of the road again. What annoyed me about the incident was calling my Costa Rican boss of our Ag. program, and after telling him my condition while in the hospital, he asked me, " y la moto?" I could only think to tell him,
"The hell with the moto, come and get me damn it!"
The cat with nine lives (I am starting to get a bit superstitious about this saying) is going to lay this autobiograhy to rest for the time being, the greatest tragedy not being my own personal tragedies, but tragedies of the hundreds of thousands of persons who have not survived the conflicts in Central America, (and the mourning widows and orphans) and the criminal silence of the majority of people from my country (that is, that know of our involvement, but say little, or do next to nothing to try and stop it) about what has happened, and is still happening there. Remember Guatemala? Yes, it is still a turkey shoot for the military when it comes to killing the Mayan people there.(funding?)
In conclusion, of the aforementioned tragedies, the last one, needless to say, has been the most grievous of the rude awakenings that have been bestowed upon my soul, but, on the other hand, it has been great to share many of these stories in the 25 years since I first taught, with my colleagues as well as with my students.
Of course they have (the aforementioned experiences and others) greatly influenced my teaching.

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