A Desperado Waiting for a Train
It’s after midnight, the prairie wind is blowing cold and people are secure in their cells at the school for the incurables.
Curfew was hours ago and the guards are lulled into holiday drowsiness. Or maybe they’ve been bribed? Possibly charmed. He was always pretty good at that. Either way he’s determined to escape. Desperate.
So are his accomplices. Determined for him although sadly not for themselves. For whatever reasons they’ve accepted that leaving is not an option for them.
But they know a good one when they see him.
They know that whatever good he can do for them and for others can only occur on the outside. Outside the gates of that dirty, stinking, soul-less place that some joker called a “school.” The place where in his words, “the only thing they taught you was how to feel forgotten.”
They’re counting on him to break free which he does with surprising ease. He makes his way to the rail yard.
What he doesn’t do next changes the course of British Columbia history.
He doesn’t hop on the first few trains that come his way because they are going in the wrong direction. Instead he waits.
Despite his fear of being discovered, despite his desire to get as far away as possible and despite the lonely wind.
A desperado waiting for a train.
Eventually he jumps aboard an empty boxcar heading west and just keeps rolling. Across the prairies, through the wild majestic mountains until he reaches the slippery, city streets of Vancouver.
Where he could breathe. Free. At last.
Where he could have what he always wanted, an ordinary life. And where he could begin to blaze a trail for himself and others with disabilities.
I don’t think Phil Allen ever stopped being a desperado.
And why not? It served his purpose well.
He lived to help close British Columbia’s three big institutions, its segregated schools and its sheltered sweat shops. To teach a generation of college and university students about one of society’s hidden shames – the ruthless exclusion of people with disabilities. And to marry his sweetheart, the beautiful, vivacious and kind- hearted Wendy. Looking at wedding pictures you can see his matinee idol good looks. Wendy told me it was love at first sight. No wonder.
It’s hard to imagine what it was like back then if you had a disability. This was an era when living in the community was unthinkable, let alone holding down a job, dating, or having a place you could call home. Unspeakable dreams. Unimaginable possibilities.
Simple things. Everyday things.
Phil tackled that final frontier, community living for people with disabilities with his trademark philosophy, “that there are wonderful things out there for you to learn and all you need to do is pay attention.”
Like all desperados, Phil knew when to turn the tables. I still chuckle at the memory of Wendy and him coming to teach at my Summer School classes for special educators at the University of British Columbia. He knew that people were looking for a hard luck story about life inside the institution. Instead that trickster began talking about the secrets of a healthy marriage. Before long the teachers became students. Hanging on to every word.
I got to be his sidekick from time to time.
We never really talked about disability stuff. We talked about his various collections of coins, badges, stamps and Christmas ornaments. Where we might go to eat. What movie we’d go to.
Occasionally we talked about the meaning of life.
Phil wanted the world to know that he earned his way. And that all he ever wanted was to make a difference.
Well Phil, to me you are one of the heroes of this country. There are so few people who take adversity and make something extraordinary out of it.
Who beat the odds when they play against the dealer.
And who know they don’t lose their edge by loving.
The last time I saw Phil he was tethered to tubes and lines.
“I don’t mind that that son of a gun is coming,” he said. “I’ve got it all sorted out. I know Wendy will be well taken care of by her family, her friends, her church and by PLAN. And I know I made a difference.”
He was beaming as he said that.
That desperado, our desperado, no longer waiting for a train. After nearly ninety years of living he was getting ready to board his starship.
(Phil Allen, November 18, 1927 – September 11, 2017. Lover of Wendy, life and all things Star Trek.)
- Phil’s story, in his own words, is available as a PDF courtesy of Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network.
- Phil and Wendy appear in Couples with Intellectual Disabilities Talk about Living and Loving by Karin Melberg Schwier. Order.