A wonderful gift of flight and simplicity
Dear readers, I originally wrote of this character nearly 10 years ago. Even at that time, I felt the column did not do the subject justice. In the ensuing years, I’ve been able to speak to friends who also knew the hero of this story.
Hopefully, the added perspective and the gained experience of 10 years of writing will make this version a better read.
Today, Dave would be called “developmentally disabled.” Back in 1960, his condition was defined with much less compassion. Some termed him “retarded.” The older kids called him “Crazy Dave.” The expression I liked best was one used by my mother. She said Dave Swift, being unburdened by worry and blessed with innocence, was “one of God’s chosen few.”
Those of us who knew best called him “Dave the Jet.”
Dave believed he could fly. Whether heading to the candy store, church, or on route from home to the playground, he would travel at top speed, arms out like wings and usually making engine noises with his mouth. He was seldom seen in any other posture; Dave the Jet was a non-stop flight.
So committed he was to airborne travel, his mother had great difficulty getting him to taxi, arms down, to the altar at church to receive Holy Communion. Finally he acquiesced; but if you looked closely, you’d see his hands flayed out at the wrists in order to maintain spiritual loft.
I’m not sure how Dave’s parents convinced the school board to allow him to start first grade 11 years late, or why they chose that year to do so. There was limited special education choices back then. Maybe they just thought he was finally able to comprehend at a grade-one level.
Or it could be because most of the neighborhood kids, who knew him all our lives, were starting that year. My guess is they hoped we’d be sympathetic to his special needs. All I know for sure, was my first day of school I sat next to a near 6-foot-tall man-child, whose mother shaved him that morning.
While the rest of us were struggling with reading, writing and arithmetic, Dave sat in the front row coloring. He’d occasionally ask for permission to fly to the bathroom and would glide, without a sound, back to his crayons. When we would learn important words like, stop, police, caution, poison, the teacher would interrupt Dave’s artistic endeavors and make sure he recognized, and knew the meaning of the words.
I have only vague recollection of Dave in the classroom, so I’m guessing he was not disruptive. I don’t remember him being unduly teased or taunted. Either we hadn’t learned at that young age to be cruel, or were respectful of his size. Whatever the case, Dave’s academic career ended only a few months after it began. His undoing was an in-flight accident on the playground.
While on a holding pattern at recess, his right wing tip accidentally clipped the nose of a little girl named Marie Decooto. Though Dave apologized as well as he was able, Marie, alarmed by the sight of her own blood, ran home. Neighborhood gossip and misinformation led to angry phone calls and letters. The school committee was unable to justify why a near 200-pound man was attending class with 6-year-olds.
One benefit of a simple mind is a short memory. After his expulsion, Dave went on much as before, flying for transportation and pleasure. While I sat in class daydreaming of summer and recess, I’d occasionally see him gliding across the empty playground. If our eyes met, he would dip a wing in recognition, and fly off. I hated school and the confinement it entailed.
As I labored to learn the earthbound skills that seemed to come so easy to my classmates, my thoughts would turn to Dave. I’d imagine him free, and soaring in his simplicity. As I watched his human fuselage flying off toward an imagined horizon and adventure I’d think to myself with envy, there goes one of God’s chosen few.
Biff America can be seen on RSN television, heard on KOA and KYSL radio, and read in this and other fine newspapers.
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