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Mr. Frank - Ron Johnson

I reached across the naked man in my front seat and turned the heat on the highest setting and pointed the vents onto his bare legs and exposed groin. He was pale and blue.


“What’s your name, sir?” I asked.


“Wade Frank” the guy said in a weak voice.


It was 22 degrees outside.  How long had he been standing there, hunched over, calling out for help?


He was cold and naked, and a metal rod, he intended as a walking cane, was resting on the ground a few steps away from where I found him. He had to be 70 years old, give or take. His pale, naked body was in stark contrast to the darkness of this Rockford side street. It was after 2 am on a December morning. He was pressing the pedestrian call button below the light, crying out in a weak voice, calling out for help. Someone… Anyone.


No one heard him. No one was coming.


How long had he been there, crying out?


What was going through his mind?


When I came upon him, he was nearly frozen and completely naked; barefoot.


The bare feet resonated with a part of me that had endured significant trauma. I had been arrested once in Thailand in 2012 and beaten severely for days by the guards and put out on the street barefoot and still hallucinating from 2 grams of Ice, thrown out and left to make my way back home. Having never done Ice before, this was a very large dose and I hallucinated for over a week. The experience was nightmarish.




I pulled over and let down my window. I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He was talking into the call button on the post.


It was 10 degrees below freezing outside. Maybe I said that, already. But it’s worth repeating. The ground was recently wet from a night rain and turning to slush and ice quickly. He wouldn’t make it if someone didn’t stop to help him. I actually had a friend in a treatment program that froze to death on this same road almost ten years ago. And the streets were empty at 2am. Rockford is a cruel city. The light is very dim. I was on my break from my job at Amazon. I just drove home to get a bite to eat. I was listening to a recording of  “Hills like White Elephants” and admiring the work of Mr. Hemingway.


I had to look and blink and look again. What I was seeing didn’t register.


Mr. Frank had a tube running from his abdomen but no bag attached to it. He was holding the tube in his right hand. With his left, he pressed the call button and leaned, feebly against the metal post.


I asked him if he needed help. That was a dumb question. Obviously, he needed help. But how else do you initiate dialogue with a naked man, talking into a call button on a light post in the middle of the night?


I got out of my car, leaving it parked in the street. No one was around. I didn’t know how to help the man, but the immediate issue was that he was freezing, so I asked him if he would like to sit in my car.


He asked, faintly, if I could carry him. I couldn’t.


He wasn’t a large man, but I had no idea what the issue was. I used to be a fire fighter for a small department in a small town more than two decades ago when I was little more than a child, and though I’m no expert, it’s never wise to just lift and move someone in an emergency situation unless you must. I was worried that I wasn’t assessing the whole situation. I’ve seen many things, but this was unprecedented. He needed warmth, however. So I took him by the arm and gently urged him through the slush to the passenger door of my car and tried to help him into the seat. He asked me to pick him up to put him in.


I hesitated to do so. I must admit, the thought of fluids leaking onto my seat made me slightly hesitant and I was certain that lifting him up would involve me getting t-bagged. I know….I know, I’m not a knight in shining armor, but eventually and quite rapidly I came to the conclusion that this was a human being and humanity won the day rather quickly.


I called 911. I lifted him into the seat of my car. He fell limp and all his weight was pulling down, supported only by my left arm.


“You have to help, sir.” I said.


“Where is your emergency” the dispatcher asked.


“Riverside and Walker Ave” I said.


“What is your emergency” she asked.


“ I found a man, naked in the street. He’s got tubes coming out of him and he’s barefoot and freezing and speaking incoherently.


“Police and EMT’s are en route.” She said.


Within a few minutes, I saw flashing lights coming towards me.


“The police should be pulling up right now” she said.


“I see them.”


She hung up.


Two police cars pulled up and three officers got out and walked over to me. I explained the situation succinctly.


“What is your name, sir?” asked a young male officer who looked to be in his late 20’s or early 30’s.


Mr. Frank answered him.


A female officer approached me. She was about 25.


“What is your name?” she asked.




And your last name?




She jotted my name down on a small notepad with a pen she pulled from her vest pocket.


“It was a good thing you stopped to help him.” She said,


“I’ve actually been in his situation a number of times, ” I said..


“You guys have helped me countless times in situations like this… Well, not exactly like this,”


But they were, mostly. Not just like this….but just as odd and just as desperate and I was just as exposed as Mr. Frank. And when you’ve done this literally, what seems to be more than two dozen times, each time it happens, you are a bit more drained of the elements of vitality that sustain you. You are a bit more weakened and less apt to cling to hope. This is the bottom. I had been there more times than my will could endure. And it’s taken its toll.


I liken it to receiving a penny, doubled every day for thirty days. It adds up to more than you expect, quicker than you anticipate. Every time you have the life drained out of you and you embrace the idea of death, only to find out that you have failed yet again at something that should be so easy. Some deity is keeping you alive, for his amusement, perhaps. It turns out that when you embrace THAT idea, it changes everything.


All those years of dragging along the bottom, I kept thinking death would eventually embrace me, but I was constantly rejected by even death. That probably should have made me optimistic, were I not so bad at life. I could have died a hero in Iraq several times, but instead I had to come home and be paraded before the courts, hick lawyers mocking me to the bellows of the judge and court in my small town for inhaling duster; my mugshots plastered across the internet for my children to see….me covered in bile, a wreck…in every way. How long could I go on, dragging along the bottom?


I thought of one of my favorite pirate shows, “Dark Sails” where the pirate Blackbeard gets keelhauled.  I never could have imagined such a horrible fate, but I lived it out as time after time I was pulled from the water, more and more mangled, but each time still coughing up the water and breathing the air of life…I would have relished someone actually shooting me and putting me out of my misery...but I had to endure. The major difference in that, my fate could not be glamorized into something romantic. I was the worst of the worst: Utterly pathetic. I was without hope. And everyone knew it.


I don’t know if this was Mr. Franks first time experiencing this, but his demeanor spoke of a man who was helpless and devoid of hope, barely clinging to life: metaphorically, as well as literally.


The flashing blue and red lights illuminated the trees and glittered off the wet leaves. The incessant alternating flashes, hypnotic against the icy residue on the street, took me back to a number of incidents, like this…with me as the star of the show.


Mr. Frank was addled and barely answering the officers questions.


He did know his name, however; and his birthday. But that seemed to be the limit of his recollection. He didn’t know where he lived or anyone that could be contacted.


I was caught in a flashback.


The female officer continued to ask me questions while the two male officers interrogated Mr. Frank.


I looked beyond her, at the scene unfolding before me…the sound of the police radios called me back…I was lost in a memory of being pulled from Walmart bathrooms on a stretcher, where I would steal duster and huff it in the stall and then a specific time I was arrested covered in vomit in the parking lot in my truck, handcuffed and loaded in a police car in front of family friends who happened to be shopping that evening. Often my compulsion to obliterate the torment and mental anguish going on inside my head led me to making severely poor choices about where I would use this drug. I just wanted to escape life as drastically and expeditiously as possible.


The EMT’s arrived. They lifted Mr. Frank out of my front seat and onto a stretcher.


They buckled him into the stretcher and wrapped a thin hospital blanket around his naked body.


I could feel the gentle warmth of the countless blankets that had been wrapped around me over the years. Hospital blankets all have the same feel. They are kept in a warmer, so they are always a pleasant respite in the midst of this emotional chaos.


The blankets were but a thin veil against the elements of a harsh world, warmly embracing a feeble body with a soft hope, and a light assurance that he was now safe in the arms of someone who was trying to help him. It was an all too welcome assurance. 


Mr. Frank would be ok.  He looked at me for the first time. There was shame and confusion in his eyes. But there was also, gratitude. I could relate.


“Thank you,” He said, softly, as they rolled him toward the back of the ambulance.


“May God bless you and keep you, Mr. Frank. I hope you get to feeling better”


I didn’t know what else to say. What words are there to comfort a man so disconnected and dejected? But a cheerful voice, from my experience, is always welcome.


The same God that had held me through countless incidents like this, I knew, had now embraced Mr. Frank and given a faint assurance that he was going to be ok.


-At least for tonight.


I sat back in my car and watched the ambulance carry Mr. Frank away from the dark corner where I had found him.


And like that, his presence was no longer there. Only a dim street lamp and a memory, already fading, in my mind.


I thought back to my many ambulance rides and that hopelessness that fell deep into the pit of my stomach each time, keeping company with dread.


But he was safe.


I hoped, for his sake, that his nightmare was over. But from my many experiences, it was just beginning.


The hospital is a lonely place. And 70 years is a long time to be alone and cold and exposed to the elements.


It inflicts wounds in an intimate way.


I said a prayer, and thanked God for reminding me from where I’ve come.


And I fought back against a small voice taunting me, accusingly.


But I was safe…at least for tonight.


In NA we have a saying. “One day at a time”


….really, I’ve found that it’s a moment at a time…we have to be proactively positive and maintain optimism. The darkness is always there, gnawing at the edge of the light.


Ron Johnson is a former Marine and Systems Analyst for Space and Naval Warfare fell into a horrible addiction after Iraq. This is a reflection of my experiences.

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