Johnny's demons wouldn't let go

Dan Rodricks

April 01, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

The last time I saw Johnny, the demons had just paid him another visit.

They had caught him in a chance encounter at a doughnut shop on Ritchie Highway. They had screamed at him through the mouth of a street evangelist who, for reasons bizarre, picked Johnny for some impromptu fire and brimstone. It turned into a confrontation.

"He kept calling me a soldier of Satan, something like that," Johnny recalled. "I guess the frustration of that, on top of everything, got to me."

The confrontation with the street preacher unnerved him. Johnny and his teen-age son, Chris, had just spent three months in Sarah's House, a shelter at Fort Meade. He was 42 years old, going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, trying to stay away from the bottle, trying to keep a job and a domicile, trying to scratch up the facsimile of a normal life again for him and his boy. The night the preacher screamed, the demons talked Johnny into drinking again.

You might remember the story of Johnny and Chris, described in this space on Feb. 26, 1990.

Johnny had been through years of hard work and hard drinking by the time I met him. He had worked at a brick refractory for 15 years before the shop went out of business. Johnny slipped into the booze again, and the relative normalcy of daily life tore away in large chunks at a time. His second marriage failed. He was unemployed for long spells. He became homeless. He sent Chris back to live with the boy's mother, Johnny's second wife. He met drinking friends and binged with them. This went on for months, and the months became years.

His son, meanwhile, kept getting into trouble. He frequently ran away from home, even slept in cars several nights. He got arrested on petty juvenile crimes. His father, who had vicious problems of his own, feared for his son's future.

"I wanted to get a job and get back with Chris," Johnny said. "One day, Chris called me up, very upset, crying, and saying that no one loved him. I had a little painting job on the side, and when I showed up for work I was a wreck. I was crying. The guy who got me the painting job offered me his basement. We had to start from scratch, we had to start over again."

And they did -- father and son together in the basement of a house in Anne Arundel County. They slapped together a small apartment. They lived in the basement for three months.

But the demons never left. Johnny had more problems with booze. The other people who lived in the house had plenty of it around. As a result, Johnny lost the job with the painting company. He and Chris moved out of the basement. They found a new apartment but the same old problems -- too many other people in the same house liked to drink too much. "My dad couldn't have that," Chris explained.

So father and son packed everything they owned, put it in storage, and moved into Sarah's House. It was a good move. Johnny and Chris had their own room and three meals a day. The son went to school. The father went out and looked for a job, with little success. "I only have a seventh-grade education," Johnny said, "and my only training is as a hydraulic press repairman, but there's no need for them anymore."

Still, Johnny managed to save up some cash from unemployment checks. By January 1990, he had enough money to afford an apartment in Brooklyn Park. He kept looking for a job. Chris started getting good to excellent grades in school again.

But a month or so after that, things started to unravel. The only thing on which Johnny could claim a good grip was a bottle. Chris went back to live with his mother. Johnny spent the next few months living here and living there, sleeping sometimes in the woods around northern Anne Arundel County. "Sleeping with the bunnies" was what he called it. He went to the Salvation Army. He stayed for a time with his older son, also named John, NTC in Owings Mills. A few weeks ago, after another hard year, Johnny started talking about the appeal of walking in front of a truck on Reisterstown Road. "That kind of talk made me angry," young John said. "I told him that, everything else aside, he still had two sons who loved him, and that was worth living for."

Johnny kept going, kept trying to find his way. Back in Glen Burnie last Wednesday, he went, as he often did, to a health spa, where he had earlier paid for a lifetime membership. He showered and shaved, then, by the pool, he had a heart attack and died. Later, someone from the spa showed his two sons the spot where Johnny collapsed. They knelt there and prayed for their father.

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