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February 17th, 2015

Visit With a Little Boy

A while back, my globe trotting niece Niki Starks made the drive out to our place in Taylor. We spent most of the afternoon categorizing some of the old family pictures I had haphazardly thrown into a box. There were a lot of pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. Pictures of my great grandmother, a woman I barely remember from my childhood.

I remember, at that moment, thinking just how old she looked, and she was old…94 years old. I remember attending her funeral as a young boy. My family has the custom of open casket funerals. Me? I think that practice is grotesque, but that’s just me. I’d rather my last mental image of a person be one of laughing and joy. I remember looking down on my great grandmother’s corpse and thinking she looked better laying there dead than she did the last time I saw her alive.

Front yardAnd that’s the thing…

The things we remember and the way we remember them. The four hours that Niki and I spent at our dining room table was probably the most important four hours I’ll spend for the rest of my life.

Often, I think of myself as a 61 year old orphan. Silly really…thinking of yourself like that when you are in your 60s. What solidifies that in my mind is that fact that I am the only one left alive in my direct family.

Both my parents died from various cancers and heart/liver disease. That didn’t take a psychic to see coming, given they both smoked and drank like they were in training for an Olympic event. My kid brother died in a nasty head-on truck wreck at 3:44 in the morning less than a mile from his home. I’m fairly sure that’s the time he died, because that’s the time the cracked and bent face of his watch bore when it was given to me. My sister dropped from sight shortly after receiving her share of our brother’s estate. Addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, there’s little doubt why she cannot be found. Odds favored her dying in an alley somewhere or in a cheap motel room that one of her “friends” paid for. I am still scouring the Internet for her death certificate. My older half brother Bill, Niki’s dad…he died in the hospital from heart failure. He was my boyhood hero.

So I’m pretty much it. I am my family historian. I am the person who people come to when they have questions about their uncle Mark or their grandmother Lois. I’m the guy who can explain a certain picture…telling them the history of the photo and talking to them about the person within the frame.

As Niki and I sorted through the pile of photographs and began categorizing them into proper family trees and lineage, I ran across one which stopped me cold. I don’t think I took a breath for about 30 seconds. I gazed at that old picture…one of those really old pictures which came back from the drug store with the date in the bottom corner and then again on the back.

It was 1961. I was standing outside in my front yard, wearing the new Zorro costume my mom had bought for me. No, it wasn’t Halloween or even for Halloween. She bought it because I bugged her until she did. It was a hot summer day in Villa Grove, Illinois. The picture was taken just a bit too far away to see any real detail of the costume, but it was easy enough to see that it was me.

And that stopped me cold. Still and cold. That picture of that little boy is the reason I am telling you this story.

Most of you might know that I have recently undergone a life changing surgery. The throat cancer which my doctors had declared in remission almost three years ago was trying to weasel its way back onto my larynx. Chances were that the condition would remain “pre-cancerous” for twenty years. There was also the chance that it would bloom back into the black, rotting, and insidious disease that would ultimately kill me. I had come too far…too far to take any chance of it coming back. The fight had been too hard and too costly just to let it have its way with me now.

I elected for a laryngectomy. The full removal of the larynx and possibly part of the esophagus and lymph nodes. As the anaesthesiologist began his work, I realized that my world would indeed be different when I woke up, chiefly because I would no longer be able to speak.

And son of a gun if I wasn’t right.

When I was released from the hospital, I hit the ground running…and fell unceremoniously on my ass. Okay, take two. Let’s try this again. Maybe easing back into my routine was the prudent thing to do, or so suggested the goodest of my bestest friends, Uncle Ed McNerd. It gives me no real pleasure to report that he was right. I hate when that happens. Fortunately, his gloating was subdued, out of fairness I am guessing. Who picks on a sick guy anyway?

The first thing that had to be dealt with was the official Reglue phone, a cell phone because I can go a day or two without setting foot in the shop. We have set it up now to reject calls immediately with a message that I can best be reached by email or text. That’s worked mostly fine…so far anyway. There’s a bit of irony there somewhere…the guy who’s going to help you with whatever you need can’t talk to return your call. Yeah, we’re working that out as we go.

I spend at least four hours every other day at the shop. Pete Salas is there on and off as well, getting stuff done. It’s not like there are cobwebs and large root systems taking hold around the desks and furniture.

It was within one of those four hour blocks of time that an extremely good friend of Reglue came in to see how things were going and began questioning my return to work so soon after a major surgery. He knew I had already done two installs since I had come back and I’m sure his heart was in the right place. He left with a promise to return and visit some more the next day.

True to his word, he did…and he brought another friend.

It didn’t take me long to realize that this wasn’t merely a visit…it was an intervention. With pad in hand, the other friend was taking notes. Oh yeah, I didn’t tell you that the friend works at a newspaper from a town in the vicinity. What it boiled down to was a simple question: What was being done that couldn’t be done in another two weeks? While I was formulating an answer to his question, the next remark hit the floor with a thud hard enough to jiggle the local junior college seismograph.

“Don’t you think this might be a good time to hand over the reins or to dismantle the program? You don’t have anything to prove to anyone.” Again, he is an extremely good friend and I believe he had my best interests at the heart of this.

I didn’t know what to say. Was this maybe being presented by proxy for another director? The only thing making any noise for the next 30 seconds were the ceiling fans. Then the second part of his words disturbed the air.

“You’ve done enough Ken. Maybe it’s time to let someone else have a go at this. What’s the point of struggling through your recovery while manning Reglue. It’s not like you have any obligation to anyone to do this further. No one would blame you for taking your retirement and enjoying it.”

And then I smiled. And then I understood. I understood why a picture from decades ago had jolted me so.

I didn’t understand the friends standing in front of me. I didn’t understand any ulterior motives that might be in play. I didn’t understand anything that pertained to that moment in time.

time warp

I understood a skinny little boy standing out in front of his house, proudly wearing the Zorro costume his mom had bought him. I understood the hopes and dreams that little boy might have had. The dreams I know that he kept locked within him. I understood that the boy wasn’t staring into a camera. He was staring across time, looking at me and trying to tell me to be the man that he wanted to grow up to be.

Many of you have emailed and texted me and asked me to take it slow and even take some more time off. Some of you have walked into my shop and suggested that it might be time to pull the shingle hanging from the door.

No.

I’m not anything except a guy doing what he wants to do. I’m no martyr…the word hero has been used in the past few months. Stop that please. I’m nothing but a man trying to fulfill the hopes and dreams of a little boy standing in his front yard in Villa Grove, Illinois in 1961.

I’m just going about it much quieter than the little boy expected.

Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

7 comments to Visit With a Little Boy

  • Your friends’ concern is legitimate and you are fortunate to have such caring people in your life. But I’m with you. Reglue very likely is the best therapy during your recovery assuming you don’t overdo it, of course. Your efforts with Reglue have been a benefit to a larger community. You’ve brought joy to many lives and have experienced joy in your own as a result. What better therapy is there than that? I personally think the little boy in the Zorro costume knows what it’s all about.

  • Abdel

    Don’t listen to anybody, Ken. Just do what YOU want to do, not what other people want you to do, of course with due respect to all of them.

  • Uncle Ed

    @GNUguy and @Abdel

    I was on early and read the column about three hours before you guys left your comments. I didn’t reply then, because I couldn’t avoid being serious. But don’t worry about his listening to anybody. He and I can’t hear worth squat, so we have built-in excuses. The women in our lives think that’s awfully convenient.

    Telling him to be responsible about how much and what kind of activity, as I did…think of telling that to a four year-old. My mistake was that I didn’t chase down nurse Pam from a couple weeks ago to give him a whack and get his attention. She’d have known where to hit and how hard.

    The tush fall wasn’t entirely his doing. He picked up a bug that had him aching all over and huddled on the couch for a day or two, and stopping his excess motion was good. He was doubly fortunate the bug didn’t include coughing and sneezing. Sitting still gave him a little time to organize and think about how much to take on.

    Don’t know what I have ever done to make him think I wouldn’t pick on a sick guy.

  • Duncan

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately…

    Last month I turned 48, nearing 50. I’m single, no kids or “significant others”[1] for my legacy. I won’t be around forever and reality is I’m not going to buy my legacy.

    But what is/will-be my legacy?

    Some years ago a woman and child came in, and asked a coworker to call the police. The reason, her “other” was about a minute behind, and I confronted him as he tried to drag her out. What they say about the world going into slo-mo in emergencies is true, and to this day I can see his one hand striking her on the back while the other tried to drag her out, as her one arm was around the kid she was shielding with her body, while the other was grabbed onto something so he couldn’t drag her out… as I came around the corner.

    I remember telling him it was time to leave, now, in a voice I’ve only heard from myself twice in my life. Whether it was that or a something big and menacing (to him) behind me that only he could see I’ll never know, but he looked up, turned white, and without a word, released her, turned and marched out.

    Only then did I think about the knife or gun he may have had, and by the time the police got there a few minutes later, both the coworker and I had a bit of the shakes.

    Unfortunately, chances are she was back with him in a few days, but that day I realized I could think of a lot worse ways to die. If I’d have been killed then and there it would have been worth it; I’d have considered everything society had invested in me to be paid back in that one single act and there would have been no doubt in my mind that I would have left the world a better place for my being here.

    Back to the “now”. I’m a freedomware user and others helper, and a gentooer, active on a few lists and freedomware forums such as this. 20, 30 years from now, assuming gentoo is still around, I can imagine myself in a nursing home, still using it, with one can only imagine what hardware at that point. I have, after all, been using it a decade already. And I imagine I’ll still be helping others as I can, returning the favors of others helping me as well as letting the world including me use the software they, and I to some tiny extent both by helping others and with my testing and bug filing, have contributed to.

    Because I can’t imagine anything else. OK, so maybe it’ll be arch and not gentoo at that point, or maybe I’ll give up my custimizing and be using a more traditional binary distro by then. But I can’t imagine not doing linux or at least freedomware of /some/ sort, and I can’t imagine not being on whatever lists/forums/whatever helping others with it, and getting helped, myself.

    That’s very likely my most enduring public legacy.

    Reglue is the most public part of Ken’s legacy, the way he’s ensuring the world is a better place him having been here.

    Of course he’s long past the break-even point. The world is unquestionably a better place with what he has done already.

    But… even if he can only make it a few hours, a day a week or a month, or if/when it comes to that, when they’re bringing the parts to the nursing home for him to assemble so they can pick it up a week later when they bring the next one… I expect he can’t imagine it being any other way, just as I can’t quite imagine not helping out where I can on the various lists, etc, from the nursing home if so it be.

    And if we have our way, when our day is finally done, they’ll find us, him still putting in that final screw or about to hit enter on his last installation prompt, me about to hit send on that last reply explaining why the COW nature of btrfs2 causes it to work that way, and what the implications of the nocow attr alternative are…

    And we can’t imagine it any other way…


    [1] Some might recall an earlier reply where that status was up in the air. It was always a long shot, tho it /did/ point out to me how quickly that could change. But unless it does… and I still can’t imagine not doing linux, etc.

  • Colonel Panik

    Zorro, eh? I cannot imagine you being any other Old West hero.
    Perfect!

    Surprised to find out you are only 61, you do crotchety very
    well for someone so young.

    Ken, you just do what ever you want, take a day when you need
    to but keep that your decision.

  • Abdel

    Duncan, that’s a marvellous story of yours.

  • Steve Nordquist

    I’m still not convinced that they won’t produce video a few months out showing you were wearing a Zorro mask and causing your desk to rattle in order to make words. I do know my rattlings might have come out harsh as I eked out “Trying Remission, Thanks. What are you seeing that would possess that question?”

    Oh, and they should bring you a sound board from…I was going to say The Big Lebowsky, but maybe Silver Linings Playbook, that FOSSish film series (CC animation), or a particularly good Hacker Public Radio are more appropriate than ah…Vocaloid. Unless you get hair extensions, you know.