'The old Irish came out of me'

Dan Rodricks

April 12, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

I get the impression that Mr. Thomas Abell has been around the block a few times and that there were a lot of bumps along the way -- so many, in fact, that the other night, when three thugs robbed him and knocked him out of his wheelchair (making Mr. Abell the victim of one of 1991's most perverted crimes), he was able to survive without bitterness.

"I was angry. The old Irish came out of me for a while," said Mr. Abell. "I cursed a bit."

But he picked up and moved on. "I've had so much happen to me in my life," he said, "I guess it didn't make that much TC difference."

By yesterday afternoon, he had a comfortable seat on a bench on the front porch of his rowhouse in Medfield. New tomato plants were in boxes at his feet, and a gardener was busy fixing a flower bed on Mr. Abell's front lawn. It was a perfect spring day in the city of Baltimore.

Mr. Abell, who is 65 years old, seemed downright jolly at times, telling stories, telling jokes.

"He's always joking," his wife, Arlene, said. "We go into a restaurant and the waitress asks, 'What would you like?' and he says, 'How about a blond with a million dollars and a Rolls Royce?'"

"She doesn't have to be blond," Mr. Abell laughs.

He wore a white shirt and suspenders and sat with his hands folded across his ample stomach. Plastic tubes ran from his nose to an oxygen tank on the porch.

"I have black lung, white lung, bad heart, diabetes," Mr. Abell said. "I'm originally from Ohio."

He was one of 15 kids.

"During the Depression, my father would take us down in the mountains near Pennsylvania, West Virginia and we dug coal. Did that a lot. That's where the black lung came from, I guess. The asbestos must have came from my Navy days, I guess. I was in the Navy during the war, worked in a shipyard. I was a mechanic in the Navy, and after the war I had service stations in various places, California, Maryland, Virginia. Had a motel in Wildwood, New Jersey, during some boom years. . . . But I've been on total disability for 18 years. I've been told I'm the highest diabetes case in the state. I'm on 400 cc's of insulin a day."

He can walk only about a dozen steps before losing his breath. So Mr. Abell has a wheelchair. It's electric and, when juiced up, can zip along nicely on the city streets. Mr. Abell took it out last Friday night to buy some groceries at a nearby supermarket.

(At the time, Mr. Abell and his wife were living in an apartment in northeast Baltimore, near McClean Boulevard. They are still in the process of moving into the rowhouse in Medfield, which belonged to Mrs. Abell's parents.)

Just after 9 p.m., Mr. Abell purchased a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, left the supermarket and headed back to his apartment complex via a small side road. As he scooted along in the street, he passed three young men who were strolling on the parallel sidewalk.

Moments later, one of the young men jumped in front of Mr. Abell and grabbed the power stick of the wheelchair. Another young man yoked him.

"I was surprised. Being in a wheelchair, I didn't think it would ever happen to me," Mr. Abell said, according decency and discretion to criminals unknown.

One of the men reached into Mr. Abell's back pocket and took his wallet. "My wife had gone to the bank for me that day. I had a little more than $300 in there. They took that. I asked them not to take my wallet because I had all my IDs and medical cards in there."

"Go to hell," one of them replied.

"They took my wedding band, and they took a ring that had a shield on it with a diamond and a black onyx and the initial T."

"We haven't taken everything," one of the men said.

And the youngest of the gang pushed Mr. Abell out of the wheelchair. He hit the street with the plastic tube from his oxygen tank still attached to his nose.

"I pulled the tube off and the young one got in the wheelchair and started fooling with the stick," Mr. Abell said. "He got it running and took off down the street in it. I was screaming. No one was in the street at the time. I screamed and screamed until I couldn't scream any more."

Several long minutes passed -- Mr. Abell thinks it was a half hour -- and a neighbor came by and got Mr. Abell to his feet. "I stayed there a while thinking maybe they were going to come back with the wheelchair, that they were just joy-riding or something. They didn't come back, though. What can you do?"

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