By Dan Sullivan
Aside from being eighth graders at the same time, Arnie and I were hometown opposites. He was the rebellious James Dean of the Dodgeville public school system, while I became the misfit Mr. Magoo at St. Joe’s Elementary.
Arnie’s reputation included smoking, drinking, and fighting. These credentials, along with being the tallest kid in his age group, easily qualified him for bully status. As for me, I served as a nerdy nearsighted altar boy, locally referred to as the “kid with bad eyes.” This distinction made me a prime target for any bully. Next fall, mine and Arnie’s worlds would merge as freshmen.
As eighth grade ended and summer began, my boring existence centered on hanging out at grandpa’s gas station. Next door was a driveway basketball court, where I steadily practiced and hoped to make the freshmen team. This dream of mine was a big deal. Just a few years back, our varsity team beat the big town boys of Milwaukee for the state title. The epic David vs. Goliath victory became a legacy for every young boy to emulate in this rural community. Despite my unique acuity, due to juvenile macular degeneration, I was no exception.
With the first week of summer vacation concluding, I again found myself practicing on a hot and humid evening. While minding my own business, I noticed a tall, lanky figure approaching me. As this character closed ranks and then towered before me, I knew instantly of his identity. It was notorious Arnie! A momentary silence quickly ended as Arnie barked, “Hey, give me that ball!” Facing a critical choice, I could relinquish this leather sphere and never see it again or attempt to retain it while getting beaten to a pulp. I decided on longevity and tossed him the ball. What happened next stunned me. Arnie stared at me and said, “How about a little one on one?”
Considering my opponent, I wasn’t in any position to say no. As I agreed, Arnie hesitated and remarked, “Wait a minute!” With that, he reached into his right boot and removed a sizable sheathed knife. Alarmed at seeing the knife, I was equally concerned about his extremely pointed boots, which I’d heard that bullies often use on their victim’s shins and backsides. Already, I was resigned to the fact this match would be more of a whooping than a competition.
As this contest ensued, Arnie surprised me with ongoing interruptions. Instead of dominating due to my lack of performance, he started coaching me. Arnie showed me how to make better jump shots, block out for rebounds, and improve my dribbling. When the evening ended and Arnie walked away, I was dumbfounded that instead of a malicious massacre, I’d been surprisingly mentored. Although Arnie only returned a couple more times during the summer, this so called “bad boy” got known to me from a different perspective.
When basketball season arrived and team tryouts began, I’d become a much scrappier and more confident player. As the last competitor to make the team, my confounded classmates wondered how this kid who strained to see the blackboard, could even play sports. However, this activity utilized a sizable ball and thus allowed for my point of view.
I bring up this story because I recently learned that Arnie passed away at an Arizona VA hospital. Like me, Arnie wasn’t forecast to achieve much following high school. However, this guy proudly served his country through a military career. As for me, though my life had its share of success as well, I never shared with Arnie the impact he had on my life. But then again, telling him so might have jeopardized his bad boy image, which in many ways was what I admired most about him. Whether it is vision loss or another challenge, you get by with a little help from your friends. And sometimes, one of them can be someone you never expected. That’s just the way it is with mentors like Arnie.