This story is about what happened on one remarkable day in St. Petersburg — Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008, to be exact. It's about a chance encounter between a couple of Dickensian characters, a crusty one-legged man who lives in the city, and a sad-eyed little boy from Orlando. ¶ The amazing coincidence of their meeting changed their lives. When the broken man met the broken boy, they began a journey to become whole again.
The crusty one-legged man is Bill Hansbury, though everybody calls him Boston Bill because his roots extend to Fenway Park. Pass the lobstah, please.
Boston Bill is 71. He is a hard-nosed bachelor who enjoys swearing, adult stories and well-toned women. He ran in a dozen Boston Marathons in his younger days and in middle age became an even better cyclist. In the fall of 2007, a jog in the woods changed everything.
His right foot was hot and swollen after the run. A doctor told him he had developed a virulent staph infection commonly called MRSA. Maybe it was related to his diabetes. Maybe not. But he had two choices.
Die or have an amputation.
When he awoke in the recovery room his right leg was gone, removed just below the knee. Bill swore like the old Army guy he once had been. An old friend had vanished, one that had carried him thousands of miles in countless races on foot and on a bike.
Boston Bill became the world's grumpiest patient. He hated the crutches, the walker, even the cane. He longed to get an artificial leg and learn how to walk on it, maybe even ride a bike again. Two days after he got out of the hospital, he showed up at North Shore Pool, the gathering spot for the city's elite cyclists, with a borrowed hand-cranked recumbent. He managed 20 miles.
Once he got his new leg, Bill became even more driven. He sat on his bed every night and banged the heel on the floor over and over to train the foot he didn't have to get used to sensations it couldn't feel.
"Most people can't wait to get rid of phantom pain,'' says Mike Rieth, who built Bill's prosthesis at St. Petersburg Limb and Brace. "Bill embraced it." After a while Bill insisted he could feel a crack in the sidewalk under his artificial foot.
Impressed by Bill's motivation, Rieth sent him to talk to other people adjusting to their amputations. Boston Bill was the ultimate tough-love guy. One day, at a bicycle race, he noticed an elderly amputee watching from the crowd. Bill had counseled him in the hospital. The elderly man was sitting in a wheelchair, prosthetic leg nowhere in sight.
"Where's your f------ leg?'' Bill asked him.
"Next time leave your good leg home, too,'' Bill remembers saying. "Look at your wife. You got her pushing your wheelchair around in this heat? When are you going to get off your a-- and take care of yourself?''
Another time, Bill visited the hospital to meet Tom Papaleo, 45, who had lost a leg after an infection. "Maybe I can help you,'' Bill said. "But if you think this is going to be a g-- d----- pity party, you're looking at the wrong guy.''
When Bill found out Papaleo's insurance didn't cover the cost of a prosthetic, he cajoled Reith into building one for him out of spare parts.
"I consider Boston Bill an angel,'' Papaleo says. "But, you know, with rusty wings.''
• • •
Exit the grumpy angel. Enter the sad-eyed little boy.
His name is Jake.
He was born on May 11, 2000, to Jodi and Brett Bainter, who live on Lake Mary Jess, near Orlando. Brett is Florida regional director of the national wetlands conservation organization, Ducks Unlimited. Jodi works in marketing at Disney World.
Jodi was 31 at Jake's birth. He did his best to wear her out as he grew, worming across the floor to get his fingers into things. He was walking at 11 months, then running.
He loved going outside with his dad to gawk at the lake. Brett, an outdoorsman, looked forward to introducing his child to hunting and fishing one day. Jake's favorite bedtime books were colorful nature guides intended for adults. He knew his fish and ducks like other little kids know their colors.
On April 9, 2004, Jake was a month shy of his fourth birthday. The Bainters are still learning to live with what happened that afternoon.
Jake and other neighborhood toddlers were riding their training bikes on the big driveway at the Bainter house. Jodi was working and Brett was home.
Their lot is so large Brett needs a riding mower to cut the grass. He mowed the front lawn first, then slipped behind the house. At that very instant, Jake leapt from his bike and sprinted after his daddy, too fast for the babysitter to grab him.
Brett shifted the mower into reverse to cut a patch he had missed. As he backed up, he felt a bump that wasn't supposed to be there.
Turning, he saw his little boy's head protruding from under the mower.
Brett stopped the engine, jumped from the mower and like Superman yanked the heavy machine off his child. He scooped up Jake and sprinted to the house next door, where his neighbor, a nurse, stanched the bleeding while waiting for the ambulance.
The small toes on Jake's right foot were gone. Half the big toe was severed. The outer half of Jake's leg, from the ankle to the thigh, had been sliced off by the whirling blade.
The phone rang at Jodi's office. Brett. Crying.
"It's not your fault,'' Jodi said.
He blamed himself. Couldn't be consoled.
The hospital became Jake's new home, his life now full of pain, morphine, nausea, feeding tubes, catheters, bed sores and visits from weeping relatives.
Surgery followed surgery, in Orlando and at All Children's in St. Petersburg. Consultation followed consultation in Florida and elsewhere.
Brett was so depressed he sometimes wanted to stay in bed.
Jodi kept up with the insurance companies, the paperwork and life outside the hospital.
Jake was old enough to see the difference between him and other kids. Other children ran and jumped and skated and water skied. He watched from the sidelines like Tiny Tim. He cried, threw the occasional tantrum, sucked his thumb, begged his mom to sleep in his room.
He endured tissue and bone transplants, more pain and more morphine. He walked with difficulty, but couldn't run. Would he ever? Ride a bike? Sit with his dad in a marsh, in a blind, waiting for the pintail ducks to fly in low at dawn?
In the wee hours, Jodi searched the Internet.
What about an amputation? Would it be wrong to even consider it? Were they giving up too soon? She and Brett talked constantly about what they should do. They consulted doctors all over the country.
Late in 2007, she and Brett reached an uneasy decision and told Jake. The little guy was braver than they were.
Sleepless night followed sleepless night. Brett walked the hallway like a ghost.
On Feb. 19, 2008, the Bainters headed for a St. Petersburg hospital in their Tahoe. At his home in St. Petersburg, Boston Bill strapped on his prosthetic leg and climbed onto his bicycle.
• • •
He was on his daily morning ride with 60 cyclists when something strange happened. The cleats on his cycling shoes felt as if they had frozen into place. Cycling shoes clip to the pedals and are supposed to uncouple when a rider pivots his feet. But as Bill prepared to stop at a traffic light on Sixth Avenue S, they didn't come loose.
He braced for a fall and aired a few choice Boston Bill words. Two cyclists quickly flanked him like slices of bread to keep him upright. Others pried his shoes from the pedals. He sat on the curb and tried to figure out what had gone wrong.
"This is the first time that's ever happened,'' Bill barked.
The other cyclists continued on their way, leaving the grumpy white-haired man with his bike, his shoes, his artificial leg and his fear of appearing helpless.
Just then, a black Chevy Tahoe braked in front of him and the sad-looking man behind the wheel waved. Bill will never forget their conversation.
"Excuse me, sir.''
"Yes,'' Boston Bill said.
"I notice you're a cyclist.''
"And you're an amputee?''
The young man climbed out of the station wagon.
"I'm Brett Bainter," he said. "That's my wife, Jodi. We were wondering if you'd talk to our little boy. His name is Jake. We're on our way to All Children's Hospital. This afternoon they're going to amputate his leg.''
Boston Bill leaned his expensive Specialized racing bicycle against an oak and hugged the boy, whose right leg was bent at a crazy angle at the knee.
"Jake,'' Bill said as they stood together. "You're going to be fine. Look at me. I'm 70! You're going to be running and biking soon. You've got your whole life ahead of you.''
He kissed the little boy, 7 going on 8, on the top of his head. Jake even managed a smile. Bill beamed as Jodi snapped a photo of the two of them together.
The Bainters blinked back tears as they told Bill what had happened to Jake and the difficult decision they had made.
"Listen,'' Boston Bill told them. "You're doing the right thing. Don't have second thoughts.''
Leaving Bill alone on the street, they headed for the hospital and Jake's amputation.
• • •
Men don't cry.
At least that's the way Bill grew up in a tough Irish-American family near Boston. He reads action novels featuring manly heroes. He likes Charles Bronson movies. After high school he joined the Army, and after his discharge got married, had kids, sold jewelry and cosmetics, ran a flea market, did whatever it took to put food on the table. In St. Petersburg, he even started a little business selling his own Boston Bill line of sunglasses.
He talked too much sometimes, bragged a little, accepted some blame for the end of his marriage. Even good friends thought he was irascible at times — heaven help the dawdling waitress who got on his bad side. Boston Bill was hardly Ebenezer Scrooge, but nobody was going to mistake him for the kindly John Jarndyce from Dickens' Bleak House either.
But on Feb. 19, 2008, something changed. At 8:40 a.m., near the traffic light on Third Street S, a new feeling washed over him. There was something about the Bainters that got to him. There was something about how he had met them — that chance encounter —that gave him chills.
What if the Bainters had left earlier that morning?
Or even two minutes later?
"They would have missed me. And — this is the big one — what if my cycling shoes had worked? More than likely I would have zipped around the corner and been long gone when those heartbroken people drove past.''
Bill climbed on his bike and went on with his ride. His pedals and shoes worked perfectly. They hadn't failed before that day and they haven't failed since.
• • •
They cut Jake's leg off that afternoon below the knee. They pumped him with painkillers. Boston Bill showed up the next day. Jodi took another photo of Jake and Bill together. Bill said he would stay in touch.
And he did. Not every day. But he seemed to telephone when the Bainters needed him most. He called after they brought Jake home to Orlando from the hospital and the morphine wore off and the phantom pains began and Jake bolted upright in his bed and started bawling. The little boy couldn't always explain what he was going through, but Bill could, and after a talk the Bainters always felt better.
As months passed, Bill enjoyed hearing about Jake's progress.
"Can he ride a bike yet? No? Well, maybe one day? He's running? You ought to join the Challenged Athletes Foundation. I'm a member. It'll be good for Jake. You know, they have races.''
The Bainters joined. Jake competed. He didn't run, but he walked a race.
"Jake has inspired me,'' Bill told Jodi over the phone. Bill bought himself a special running prosthesis and started jogging again. He dreamed of running the Boston Marathon.
The cynical lapsed Catholic who prefers the bike saddle to the church pew now believed in miracles.
"There are all kinds, you know. It's not like one day you have cancer and the next day you don't. Sometimes there are smaller ones. You have to pay attention to your own life and recognize the miracle when it shows up.''
• • •
In May, Bill drove to Orlando to see his young pal, Jake Bainter.
First Jodi took Bill to Pine Castle Christian Academy, where Jake is a second grader and the only amputee in the elementary-through-high school.
"How many of you have heard us talk about Boston Bill?'' Jodi asked, and every second-grader waved frantically. Bill used his special running prosthesis as the show-and-tell. Bill avoided swearing in front of the children and for a moment his rusty wings turned golden.
Then Bill went to Jake's house. Jake showed Bill his cool room. He showed Bill his guinea pig, Tweek, and his leopard gecko lizard, Lo.
"We have our little boy back,'' Jodi said. "That artificial leg is hardly a blip in Jake's life.''
Brett's depression has lifted. He and Jake do a lot of fishing together in their backyard lake now. One day they'll go duck hunting.
"I can catch all the bass I want, but today I'm going after gar,'' Jake said to Bill. "Sometimes I catch great big mudfish. They put a bend in your rod because they're big. You can ask my mom.''
Bill took Jake's word for it. Jake dressed in his play clothes and replaced the school shoe on his prosthesis with a rubber foot. He flew out of the house toward Lake Mary Jess with his leg click-clacking like train wheels on rusty track.
"He has worn out his leg," Jodi said. Jake will receive a new one soon. Perhaps it will have a super-strong knee for running and jumping.
Jake wanted to show Bill how he fast he can run now. He was going to run across the yard to the palm tree by the fence, then to the oak, then back to Bill.
Jake took off and ran very fast, his artificial leg click-clacking like the little engine that could.
"Way to go, Jake,'' Boston Bill said. "Way to go.''
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727. His Web site is jeffklinkenberg.com.