There, But For The Grace Of God ...

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His name was Joey Miller. He lived with his oldest sister and her husband, who rented the downstairs apartment of the two-family apartment house in New London, Conn., where my family rented the upstairs apartment.

What had happened to Joey's parents I never knew. He never mentioned it and I never asked, because knowing Joey as well as I did I suspected that the answer would not be a happy one.

Two things made Joey a rare person.

One was the fact that every time you saw him he was laughing, or at least grinning. Not in the silly, empty-headed way that some people laugh and grin, but in a way that let you see how much he genuinely enjoyed life.

Joey was -- how should I put it? -- special. He didn't just smile when good things happened to him.

He made the bad things seem good. When something bad happened to Joey he had a unique ability to turn it into something to smile about.

It's just as well that he dealt with life that way because of the other thing that made Joey so rare. He was one of those people who never got a break. No matter what he did, and no matter how well he did it, fate always stepped in and screwed it up.

I could tell you stories, but I won't.

Oh well, maybe just one. One fine summer day Joey went for an interview for a job at the commercial beach for which New London is well known on the East Coast.

Getting a job at the beach, with all its perks -- mostly female perks, of course--was something that every teenage male in town dreamt of, but few ever managed.

Joey had an uncle who had some pull, hence the job interview. I went along with him just to keep him company, and -- as always -- fate stepped in and ruined things for Joey, though it didn't look like it at first.

The interviewer, thinking that both of us were there for a job, hired both of us. I was ecstatic -- until the next day that is.

I popped out the front door the next morning headed for my dream job and there was Joey reading the classifieds. It seems that there had been only one opening after all and they had told him not to come back.

I offered to quit, feeling guilty, but he wouldn't have it. As usual, he just laughed it off. And later that week he told me he had found a better job, so it didn't matter.

Yeah sure! He spent that whole summer hand-spading gardens, hoeing weeds, spreading manure, turning compost bins, and carrying 200 pounds rolls of sod around.

And -- get this -- he loved it.

In fact, he told me that he had found his niche in life; he was going to be a gardener. And so I spent four summers at the beach surrounded by out-of-town girls just aching to have a wild time while they were away from Mom and Dad, while Joey spent the same four summers shoveling -- by his own grinning account -- 84 tons of manure.

I will admit that he certainly turned into a solid ball of muscle during those four summers. And he developed the wind of an African gazelle.

He liked to run and he used to prod me into running with him. He had a regular 8- or 12-mile course he ran three or four times a week. Well, I may have started out with Joey, but after the first half mile he always was so far out of sight that I just sat down and waited for him to come back. And even then, when he came trotting back, grinning and making jokes as he ran, he invariably left me behind again. And when I got to the spot where he was waiting for me, he was still grinning and laughing, while I was barely able to drag myself back home.

"All I want out of life is to get as deep in the soil as I can get and stay there," he told me one day when I took a bus out to the place where he worked and kidded him about being up to his armpits in dirt.

That goal, at least, he achieved.

Hounded by his three older sisters and his brother-in-law to do something "better" with his life instead of just gardening, he took a job as an insurance salesman.

I never talked to him about it because I was in the Air Force and stationed overseas by then, but my mother wrote to me and told me he had dropped in one day to say hello and still had that same old grin on his puss.

Six months later I came home from overseas with my new bride and 9-month-old son. My mother showed me a newspaper clipping. There was Joey's smiling face.

In an obituary.

He died of a massive heart attack at age 28, driving a car on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Where to and why they didn't say.

I've often wondered whether Joey is up there somewhere looking down at the rest of us and laughing at our antics.

But knowing Joey, if he isn't, if his usual luck held and they put him on the down escalator, I haven't the slightest doubt that he's down there shoveling fire and brimstone and loving it.

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