Coolness Is Indestructible, but Addiction Blights Lives
We called him “Indestructo.” No matter what risks he took, he survived. He did not just survive. He landed perfectly, with an understated swagger.
I was 13 when we met, and he was unimaginably older, to my eyes, a manly 16. He was bright, and a gymnast, said to have Olympic potential. I was new at a swanky and clannish private school—which started in kindergarten and ended at 12th grade. Most of the students had formed their tribes at age 5. He treated me with gentle courtesy.
He had wavy black hair, long eyelashes, and brown skin. He was the oldest of six brothers. Boys, girls, men, women, babies, cats, dogs, horses, maybe turtles and hamsters found him charismatic. He had a Steve McQueen/Marlon Brando level of coolness.
The morning of the SAT test, he and other boys climbed a high voltage power tower. Tom Lewis had the misfortune to touch a live line. He was burned and fell some distance. Indestructo carried him to the car. Tom lived, with scars and a lost spleen.
An incident on the tennis courts above the campus got Indestructo, his brother, and a girl expelled. I never knew the details; I just knew it was something scandalous.
When I was 15, I got to join his tribe.
We rode on a blue Harley at very high speeds. We rode in a black Barracuda at very high speeds. We did this by day, and later we did this by night, for somebody told my parents that he was a bad influence in capital letters, and they forbade me to see him. I chose to start down a not great path.
I would climb from my ground floor window and get in or on whatever macho vehicle Indestructo had. We would fly around through the humid, flower scented, Georgia summer night air, and return before dawn. One snapshot memory is of him escorting me to my window, as if it had been a proper date. He put out his palm for me to step in, and one-handed, lifted all of me to the window. Showing a rarely seen dimple.
I remember vast parties at a place aptly nicknamed Muddy Acres; with bonfires, dancing, bonding.
My tribe, I knew then, and understand better now, was bound by trauma. His birth father was an alcoholic, and his mother divorced him. She must have had a terrible time, for she was Catholic and it was long before divorce was at all acceptable. She remarried, and his stepfather adopted the four of them—but at times he said contemptuous things about them, compared to his youngest two sons, who were his blood.
Maybe a majority of us had some hurt like that. Childhood trauma is correlated with substance abuse problems, according to the National Institutes of Health.
By the time he was 20, he had not gone to college. He had gone to heroin. Then he had gone to federal prison.
His friends tried to joke about it—because he was Indestructo, he would be fine.
He did get off heroin. That left alcohol and other things, to drag him down. After he served his time, I can’t say he was tougher, because he was as tough as possible to begin with. But he was harder, and he had flashes of meanness that he had not had before, a sharp tongue. Still he was never violent, not with women.
This was a precious life. All of them are—but his brains and leadership and courage could have given a lot to the world. Addiction blighted him. My friend Tom Lewis told me Indestructo and one of his brothers lived on the streets, in Kentucky.
There are ways of preventing the vulnerable from starting down that substance abuse road, and ways to help people leave it once they start down it. The younger someone is when he starts, the more likely it is to take hold and not let go, according to the National Institutes of Health.
I’d like to see a Surgeon General Koop-type figure for drinking and drugs. People smoked all over everywhere before Dr. Charles Everett Koop made it unacceptable. I wish we would make it unacceptable for young people to try marijuana, to drink, to do any of the things that some dismiss as experimentation. Those behaviors should not be taken lightly.
Indestructo has died. His niece wrote, “He was an inspirational and dynamic brother, father, uncle, and friend. … We will remember him as he was.”
Goodbye, Indestructo. You are missed. You were loved.
Mary Silver lives and works in Atlanta.