In many countries where towns have plazas and cafés and bars and butcher shops all within a few blocks of people's homes, there is no margin. There are places for those with defects, impediments and afflictions to mingle with their neighbors, to be taken care of and teased, to feel part of something larger. They become local characters, not freaks. Somehow in the U.S. those places have vanished or never existed, and people like Radio end up in homes behind walls, living with strangers who are just like them, or mumbling through the streets of large cities, ragged and gaunt.
But there remains one rarely noticed place where they can still belong, a niche no sociologist figured on—after all, isn't sports where people turn to watch the strong chew up and spit out the weak? But something about high school athletics is still human enough to accommodate people whose minds work at different speeds and angles from minds in the mainstream, and so you can find these people on the sidelines or in the bleachers all across the U.S., lighting up as they exchange greetings with the regulars. Why, in just the small circle of schools against which Hanna competes, there is one-eyed and slow-witted Lonnie McGee racing onto the field with the football team at Greer High each Friday night, and before him there was Housecat, whose mission in life, until he died not so long ago, was to chase down every foul ball and home run hit at Greer games, even if he had to barge into someone's home to do so, and hurry that ball right back to the umpire. There is Marlee Gambrell, born with heart and hearing and vision defects, hooting "Don't worry 'bout it!" in the darkest moments at Belton-Honea Path High. And up until recently, there was wild-eyed Doris, taking care of the water bottles and ringing that half-ton bell on the sidelines at Easley High. Thrilled, every one of them, to take on the title—team manager—that most teenagers smirk at.
But none of them has been more loved, or more legendary, than Radio. He holds more high school varsity letters than any other man in history, having received one each from the Hanna football, basketball and track teams every year for the past three decades and filed them all carefully between his box spring and his mattress. Who else can lay claim to having missed just one week of high school in the past 10 years? Only once, and long ago, did Radio make the mistake of saying he was in the 12th grade, and then he was consumed by terror when the coaches told him that meant he would be graduating soon. Ever since then he has nodded wisely and declaimed loudly to one and all, "I be in 'lebenf grade," always reaching out a hand to touch his listener when he speaks, always seeking assurance that he still belongs and that everything is O.K.
He awakens each morning before six and, being unable to tell time, has to be restrained by his older brother or by his brother's wife from making an immediate beeline for the bus stop. Radio is the first of the 15 kids at the stop to bound onto bus No. 9 and the first to bound off it in front of T.L. Hanna High. He bops in and out of classes all day, taking copious notes—an unrelenting series of loops—and glowing at the end of each marking period when he receives his report card just like everyone else. A mesh sack full of footballs slung over his shoulder, he bounds onto the practice field after school, and the players, like their fathers before them, rub his head as if he were a pet retriever and laugh as he commences his gibber-jabber commands, gobbledygook pep talks and flapdoodle defensive signals.
"Dat yo' man, boy! Don' you unnerstan' dat? Dat yo' man! Don' you worry 'bout yo' man! You got to git dat kwahback! Ain' dat right?"
"You're right, Radio."
Oh, yes, sometimes Radio can drive them up a wall and across the ceiling. But it's all worth it, every maddening and bewildering moment of it, when practice ends and all the coaches sit in a circle around Radio in their office, competing to see who can recount the latest or most vintage Radio anecdote, knowing that he will bark out some four-word proclamation that will make the moment even richer. Each sentence Radio speaks is a victory for them, because they know it is the love and attention they have been showering on him for decades that has given the mute boy a voice. Maybe coach Jones will tell the story about the time back in the mid-'80s, when he was also T.L. Hanna's track coach, that he took Radio to the all-day Trojan Relays at Northwestern High in Rock Hill, S.C., and wondered for hours what had become of Radio...finally finding out upon returning to the team bus at the end of the meet. There lay Radio in the front seat, doubled in pain, sweating bullets...and there lay the cooler, bereft of all 30 roast-beef sandwiches, not to mention a dozen sodas, that Jones had packed for the kids. "Dem sammiches good!" Radio still yelps a decade later. Which no doubt leads into the tale of the time Radio lifted the entire canister of cheese at a school cafeteria salad bar and dumped a foot-high pile of grated cheddar on his lettuce ("Cheese go good wid salad!"). Which brings up the time Radio was so fixated on the hot dog he was carrying before a game at Greenwood High that when he slipped on the wet grass, rather than release his cargo and use his hand to break the fall, he salvaged the frankfurter and landed on his wrist, fracturing it. Radio sat in the mud and polished off his hot dog and then burst into tears.