Happiness Is A Distinct Possibility
Thomas Calabrese – Every incident that we experience in our lives mold us into the person we are. Some of the occurrences are so insignificant that we don’t even pay attention to them even as they are happening and others are so monumental in their importance that they are indelibly etched into our memory. Tragedies, triumphs, victories and defeats, days turn into months and months into years and the tally adds up. A famous quote is; hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times’. A weak-willed man will melt under the heat of pressure and adversity while a strong man is forged into hardened steel and fierce determination by much more difficult trials and tribulations.
Roy Autry was the only child of Gunnery Sergeant Jim Autry. His mother, Lori was a stay at home mother and they lived in the Stuart Mesa housing area on Camp Pendleton. Roy was staying at his friend, Chris Buford’s house while his parents were taking a short vacation to Big Sur before Jim’s upcoming nine month deployment to the Middle East.
The couple were returning from their trip when their right front tire had a blow out as their car was coming around a hairpin curve. It could not have been a worse place for this to happen and Jim did not have enough time to regain control of the vehicle. It skidded off the road, through the guardrail and down the rocky cliff. When the car stopped tumbling, it burst into flames from a ruptured gas tank.
Roy was nine years-old at the time of his parents’ death and he went to live with his Uncle Gary and Aunt Patty. Gary Yates was Roy’s mother’s younger brother and was one those weak-willed people that I previously mentioned. Gary bounced from job to job and lived paycheck to paycheck and his wife had a similar mindset that the world was against her and everybody was to blame for her failures but her. She worked menial labor jobs because no other employers would hire her. Gary and Patty would have never considered taking Roy in except for the fact that the court appointed attorney set up a monthly payment amount of $2000 from Roy’s inheritance and father’s insurance military insurance to be paid to his guardians.
It did not take long for young Roy to realize there was a distinctive difference between his loving and responsible parents and this dysfunctional couple who were constantly bickering. Every so often, a welfare worker would stop by to see how Roy was doing and each time he would lie and tell the official how wonderful things were. Why would he do such a thing? Roy developed an empathy for the struggling couple and didn’t want them to lose the money that helped more with their bills than it did to take care of him.
His father had taught him the value of being self-sufficient so he asked very little of Gary and Patty. Two months passed and he felt more like a boarder than a member of the family. There was one morning when Gary got up early at 5AM and walked down the hall toward the kitchen and nonchalantly looked into Roy’s room and saw that it was empty. He rushed back into his room and woke up Patty, “Roy’s gone!”
The couple got dressed and went looking for Roy. They found him walking in the dark about five miles away within sight of his school.
Patty shouted out, “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to class,” Roy calmly replied.
Patty was confused, “School starts at eight, it’s a little after six.”
“The janitor lets me in early to study,” Roy replied.
“It’s dangerous walking around in the dark…are you crazy?” Gary asked.
Roy looked at Gary and Patty with emotionless and determined eyes, “I might be crazy, but I’m not stupid. If I can’t do it myself, then I’ll do without it. Why would I ask someone who doesn’t care about me to help me do anything…that doesn’t make any sense. Besides you’re having enough trouble taking care of yourselves without worrying about me,” Roy walked off without waiting for a reply.
The words cut deep into Gary and Patty’s heart because they knew Roy was right. While driving back to the house, Gary had an epiphany, “You know what, Patty?”
Gary said, “There’s a special place in hell for people like us. We were entrusted to care for that young boy and we’ve been too selfish and consumed with our own problems to realize he could have been killed or kidnapped walking to school at this time of the morning.”
Patty wiped away a tear, “So what do you want to do about it?”
“Change,” Gary said, “I need to change how I do things.”
“If you can do it then I guess I could give it a try too.”
That afternoon, Gary and Patty were waiting for Roy when he got out of school and they went out for ice cream. This was the beginning of a whole new life for the struggling couple. Gary started working harder and his supervisor at the auto parts warehouse commented, “What’s got into you, I’ve never seen you work like this before.”
Gary responded with a smile, “I’m feelin’ energetic and motivated.”
Patty was working at the local International House of Pancakes (IHOP) and approached her manager, “I need to change my shift a little bit.”
Bruce Hemstead shook his head in disgust and grumbled, “What do you want now?”
“I’m taking care of my nephew and I want to be home to see him off for school and be there when he returns. I can work the same amount of hours and I’ll work twice as hard if you let me do this,” Patty said.
Bruce hesitated then replied, “This is your last chance, you mess this up and you’re fired.”
Roy was the magnet that kept the family together and over the next four years Gary received two promotions and was now the shipping manager for the rapidly expanding company. The owners were so pleased with his work effort that they wanted to bring him into an upper management position. Patty did not let down Bruce and after he was promoted to the district office, he recommended her to be the new manager. Before long, her location became the top performing restaurant of all the franchises in the state.
Roy was now in high school and doing well in academics and sports. He was the starting quarterback and his team had a big game against crosstown rival, West Mesa for the conference title on Friday evening. A lot of scouts would be there to watch Roy play and depending on his performance, it could have serious consequences on which universities offered him a full scholarship.
It was a sold out game Gary and Patty were sitting on the Rancho Grande side of the field and once Roy saw them during pregame warm-up, he found himself looking up there during the entire game. Their presence was a great encouragement to him. Roy threw for 310 yards, with four touchdowns in the air and two on the ground and his team won 45-44. The winning touchdown came in the last ten seconds with Rancho Grande on the West Mesa nine yard line and behind by six points. It was fourth down with only time for one more play. Roy rolled to his right, saw his receivers were covered and double pumped to freeze the linebackers in position. Just as he was ready to be crushed by three opposing players, Roy performed a desperate maneuver, he faked a lateral to the trailing halfback then then threw the football underhanded twenty yards into the air, but only seven yards in front of him. He did a forward roll, sprung to his feet, caught the football and ran it in as time ran out. What a play! What an ending! What a game!
Roy met Gary and Patty after the game and before going into the locker room and asked, “The guys want to go out to celebrate. Do you mind if I go with them?”
“Enjoy yourself, we’ll have our own celebration tomorrow,” Gary replied.
“Great game…we’re proud of you,” Patty kissed Roy on the cheek.
Roy smiled, “That means a lot coming from you. I won’t be late.”
After going to a local pizza restaurant for three hours, Roy drove home and parked in the driveway. He opened the garage door and immediately felt that something was wrong, but couldn’t figure out what out it was. When he entered the house, it was deathly quiet and completely dark. His aunt and uncle always left a light on in the hallway when they knew he would be coming home after dark. Tonight it was off.
Roy quietly went back into the garage and called 911 on his cellphone. “There’s a problem at my house. My name is Roy Autry and our address is 329 Camino Del Astro.” There was a squeaky step on the stairwell and Roy heard someone step on it. He quickly hung up, opened up a tool box, pulled out a long screwdriver and stepped behind a stack of boxes.
In the darkness Roy saw the slight reflection from the street light coming through the garage door window off the barrel of a pistol. The man holding it moved closer to where Roy was standing, so close that Roy could hear him breathing. Suddenly their eyes met and the man fired three shots.
Luckily for Roy, the boxes were filled with pots and pans and the bullets didn’t go through. He pushed the boxes and they fell on the man. This gave Roy enough time to jump forward and stick the screwdriver in the man’s chest. He made sure the man was dead by twisting and jamming it deeper. Taking the pistol, Roy could hear sirens in the distance growing louder. When he re-entered the house, he saw two men coming down the stairwell. They both fired and one bullet grazed Roy’s left forearm. The young boy emptied the magazine of his pistol into the men and they tumbled down the stairs. A moment later, the police burst through the front door and yelled, “Drop the gun!”
Roy complied as blood flowed from his wound. It was found out later that the three men were part of a ruthless home invasion gang that had hit six houses in the county in the past month. Gary and Patty were being held captive by the trio and when they heard Roy drive up. They tried to warn him and were killed when they refused to stop struggling. It wasn’t a fair trade, but those three criminals would never hurt another family…thanks to Roy.
After recovering from his wound, Roy met with Gary’s lawyer, Greg Whittington who informed him, “Gary and Patty set up a trust for you in case something happened. They made me executor of their estate until you turn twenty-one.”
“You do what you think is best, If Gary and Patty trusted you then I trust you,” Roy had no interest in dealing with practical issues right now.
“What are you going to do now? I ‘m here to help in any way that I can,” Greg said.
Roy’s eyes were vacant, “I’ve lost two families already, I’m not going to lose a third. I’m joining the Marines and hope that they send me as far away as possible.”
He got his wish and after qualifying to become a Recon Marine, he was sent to the Middle East. Roy wasn’t unfriendly or hard to get along with, but he made a conscious effort to never get close to anybody again. He wore his grief over his heart like a flak jacket and approached every mission without fear or hesitation. Company Commander Captain Pete Albertson was concerned for his hard charging Marine and called him to his office, “Take a seat, Sergeant Autry.”
Roy complied and Captain Albertson continued, “You’re a damn good Marine and if there is anything you ever want to talk about, my door is always open.”
“Thank you, sir, I appreciate the offer, but I’m fine,” Roy replied.
“Remember what George Patton said, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his.”
“And George Washington said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace. I guess we could banter back and forth with sayings, but the point is, command sets the rule of engagement and I follow them,” Roy made a comment that sent a chill down Captain Albertson’s spine, “I like combat so use me up then throw me away. It will save the lives of other Marines.”
“You’re a hard man, Sergeant Autry,” Captain Albertson sighed.
“Just the opposite, sir, “Roy said, “Actually I’m a broken man who is just trying to hold the pieces together.”
If you’re a Marine commander and you’re lucky enough to have a man like Sergeant Roy Autry in your unit, you stay out of his personal life and let him do his job. Six months later, Sergeant Autry and his men were on patrol in West Lebanon when they came under attack from Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia Islamist militant group. The Marines were outnumbered and trapped inside a bombed out building. Roy told his men, “If we stay here, we’re dead. Give me your extra ammo and I’ll be right behind you. Now move!”
Corporal Ronnie Griffith argued, “I’ll stay with you.”
“That’s not an option…follow orders, Corporal!”
The Marines moved out and Roy provided cover fire and when he started to run low on ammunition, he started to run and catch up with his men. A rocket propelled grenade hit the building and the ceiling collapsed on Roy and trapped him. The terrorists dug out an unconscious Roy Autry and took him prisoner. For six months, Hezbollah leadership tried to negotiate a trade for imprisoned terrorists, but no avail. They tortured Roy on a regular basis and only gave him enough food and water to stay alive.
Roy was well prepared to die in captivity and hoped that the current administration would not violate standard protocol and negotiate with terrorists. He came to the conclusion that the best course of actions to protect his fellow Marines was to die, but his body and mind would not cooperate because his self-preservation instincts were too strong .If he was going to get his wish the terrorists would have to kill him. However, there was one catch, Roy wanted to take as many of the bad guys with him as possible so he took the mental and physical abuse from the terrorists and it fueled his pent up rage. His time for retribution and a reckoning came when Israeli Defense Forces moved into Lebanon. The terrorists knew they had to move quickly so when two guards moved Roy from his cell, he pretended to be docile and compliant even as he was being beaten. At the right moment, Roy unleashed all his anger and killed his two guards in merciless fashion with his bare hands. He saw the explosions in the distance and knew that the IDF forces were rapidly approaching. Roy could have escaped, but chose to stay and fight. His rules of engagements were simple…if it moves…kill it!
By the time the Israeli forces reached his position, Roy was sitting calmly among the human carnage, covered with blood and drinking a bottle of water. He greeted them calmly, “How you guys doing?” Roy looked up at the blue skies and added. “Nice day for a battle.”
The Marine Corps felt that Sergeant Roy Autry was too mentally unstable to stay on active duty so they started processing him for a medical discharge under honorable conditions. He was recommended for a silver star for his actions in Lebanon. While staying at the transient barracks aboard Camp Pendleton, one of the counselors suggested, “You should register at the Veterans Administration for medical care.”
“I’m fine, “Roy retorted.
The counselor responded, “A lot of guys tell me that and I say, it’s better to have it and not need it then to need it and not have it. Besides I know the system and which paperwork to bring. I’m going down this afternoon with a couple other Marines, you might as well go with us. It won’t take long.”
While at the VA clinic on Rancho Del Oro in Oceanside, Roy noticed a well maintained recreational vehicle with a for sale sign on the windshield in the parking lot. He walked over and wrote down the information and made a call that evening, “I saw the ad on your RV while I was at the VA.”
The man answered, “I have a print out with all the information. I’m going to be volunteering at the military stand-down at the Oceanside soccer fields, its right across from the clinic. I’ll bring the RV and you can get a closer look at it.”
“What time?” Roy asked.
The man replied, “I’ll be there from eight to four. Just call me at this number when you get on site. One more thing, what’s your name?”
The man replied, “I’m Dave Hackworth….see you tomorrow, Roy.”
The military stand-down was a yearly event for homeless veterans and former military personnel. It included showers, clothing, medical, dental and veterinarian care as well as a job and pet adoption fair.
Roy met Dave at the RV and they shook hands. Dave asked, “Roy Autry, aren’t you the Marine that was held prisoner in Lebanon?”
“Guilty as charged,” Roy shrugged.
Dave handed Roy a print-out with the pertinent information about the RV on it and suggested, “Why don’t you take a look inside and see what you think.”
Roy went inside the RV and saw it was meticulously maintained and when he came out, Roy said, “You’re asking $40,000?”
“I’ve only put 500 miles on it since I’ve had it. It’s just taking up space, you’ll be doing me a favor if you take it off my hands…how about $35,000?”
Right about that time another man walked over, “Hey Dave, what’s going on?”
“Johnny Boy, I’d like you to meet Roy Autry.”
John Garchman said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, looking for a job?”
“I don’t know what I’m looking for…maybe someday when I see it, it will flip a switch in my brain.” Roy smiled.
Dave explained, “Johnny owns a storage lot, garage and a towing service here in Oceanside. He’s also a former Marine and I told him about you.”
A moment later, a big black dog ran up and jumped on Roy. A beautiful young woman approached and apologized, “Sorry about this, Kenny has been depressed lately, but when he saw you he jumped over the fence like you were his long lost owner.”
Roy bent down and petted the affectionate dog and for the first time in years, he felt some measure or tranquility and happiness. “Kenny doesn’t work…he reminds of someone I served with in the Marines…Guns Gilhooley…you like that name, Gilhooley!”
The dog started barked in approval and ran into the RV like it was his new home.
“If this dog is up for adoption, I’ll take him and I’ll also take the RV for $35,000” Roy turned to John Garchman, “What kind of job were you offering?”
“I’m always looking for good tow truck drivers.”
“As long as my dog can go with me,” Roy said.
“That can be arranged,” John smiled.
Three months later, Roy and Gilhooley were living in the RV at the storage facility. This arrangement served two purposes; it gave John Garchman extra security and provided Roy with the isolation that he needed. When he was driving his tow truck driving around North County, Gilhooley was sitting in the passenger seat. The simplicity of the job, his living situation and having his beloved dog by his side was the right prescription for Roy Autry. There was one more piece to this human puzzle. Leslie Christiansen, the veterinarian assistant, would regularly stop by at the storage facility. At first, she used the excuse of checking on Gilhooley, but it eventually became apparent that there was a strong connection between her and Roy.
It was Sunday, December 10, 2023 and Roy wasn’t scheduled to go on duty until that afternoon so he decided to take a morning run through Calaveras Hills. Roy and Gilhooley got to the trail just after sunrise and 15 minutes later, Roy was already perspiring from the heat. Suddenly a rattlesnake appeared out of the tall grass and was ready to strike Roy. Gilhooley instinctively jumped in to protect his owner and was bitten several times before killing the snake.
Gilhooley started to experience serious effects within seconds and fell over. Roy carried him to the RV and called Leslie on his cellphone while driving, “Gilhooley was bitten by a snake, I’m on the way to the vet hospital right now!”
“I’ll meet you there,” Leslie said.
While sitting on the bench outside the vet hospital, Leslie walked out sobbing, “We did everything we could. Gilhooley had too much venom in him. I’m so so sorry.”
Roy’s heart was broken and his legs trembled and barely could get the words out, “I know you did your best. I’d like a few minutes to myself if you don’t mind?”
“Absolutely,” Leslie responded, “I’ll be inside when you’re ready.”
After Leslie walked off, Roy broke down in tears, this hard fighting man who had lost so much had finally reached his breaking point. A man sat down next to Roy and commented, “Been a tough life, huh?”
“Tough enough, “Roy sobbed.
The man added, “Gilhooley is a great dog.” “What would you do or give to have your dog back?”
“What did you say?” Roy said.
“I have the power to give your dog back to you, but I want something very valuable in return from you,” The Man said.
The man looked like a combination of Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ and had a melodic and mesmerizing voice. Even in his all-consuming grief, Roy had a positive feeling about this stranger and responded, “Whatever I have is yours.”
Suddenly Leslie came rushing out and said, “Gilhooley is awake!” and rushed back into the office.
The man said, “There’s a lottery ticket in your glove compartment, I’ll take that.”
Roy went into the RV, returned with the ticket. The man commented, “This is a winning ticket worth 213 million dollars. Your dog’s life or a lifetime of luxury?”
At that precise time, Leslie came walking out with Gilhooley and Roy responded, “My dog, it’s not even up for discussion!”
The ticket burst into flames and the man disappeared, His voice lingered a few seconds longer “I’ll see you around, Marine.”
Leslie walked closer and Gilhooley leaped into Roy’s arms. She asked, “Who were you talking to?”
Roy looked upward, “Giving my thanks to the man above.”
Three months passed, Roy, Leslie and Gilhooley were part of a search party looking for a lost little girl who went missing while her family was camping near Palomar Mountain.
Gilhooley ran down the trail and started barking at an area behind a bush. It seemed that the little girl had a nightmare, went looking for her parents, became disoriented and fell down a ten foot deep hole. She was knocked unconscious and unable to hear people calling for her.
Roy descended into the hole, checked on the girl and yelled up to Leslie, “She’s breathing, I think she has hypothermia.” He took off his jacket and wrapped it around the girl to keep her warm while Leslie called the command center to tell them they found the girl. In a matter of minutes a large group of emergency personnel arrived on site. Roy handed to the girl up to a paramedic then was helped out of the hole. The parents were overcome with gratitude and rushed over to embrace him.
Roy responded, “Don’t thank me, Gilhooley is the one who found her.”
A few minutes later, the mysterious man from outside the vet hospital showed up while Leslie was speaking to the media. The man said, “As much as we could use a man like you in heaven, there is still a lot work to be done down here if you want to stay.”
“As long as I can remember, I’ve been willing to leave this world” Roy confessed, “Now that I’ve got two things worth living for, you ask me if I want to go. You need to do something about your timing.”
“We’ll be ready when you are and remember… God never gave you more than you could handle. You were born to be a warrior.”
“What about Gilhooley?” Roy asked.
The man smiled, “It wouldn’t be heaven if we didn’t have dogs.” He reached down and pulled a piece of paper that was stuck to Gilhooley’s right paw and handed it to Roy. Five numbers were written on it. The man winked, “It might a good time to play the lottery again.”
Leslie walked over, “Who were you talking to?”
“Just saying thanks to God above for letting us find the girl.”
While driving home, Roy turned to Leslie, “I’m feeling very lucky, do you mind if we stop off so I can buy a lottery ticket?”
“No problem,” Leslie lightly touched Roy’s arm, “I’m feeling lucky too.”
While driving on Highway 76, Roy looked up and saw the images of his parents and Gary and Patty on a massive white cloud. Five days later, a new report came out, “The winning Powerball ticket was purchased in Oceanside, California, but the winner has yet to come forward. This will be the largest jackpot in American history, 2.7 billion.”
Adversity taught Roy the hard way that he couldn’t control what life threw at him. It also made him realize that by never giving up, happiness is a distinct possibility.