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09 January, 2010

BILL, MEL AND ME: THREE GUYS FROM DRESDEN IN TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS

Some faces from the past tend to haunt me.  I have never talked about it before, but two individuals from my youth (roughly 60 years ago) still have that kind of lingering effect on me.

There is a good chance that very few of my Dresden friends will even remember Bill Malvern and Melvin Travis.  As far as I know there was no connection between the two during their Dresden days.  Bill was a good 10-12 years older than Melvin, but later in life they found themselves sharing something very much in common -- mental illness.

Melvin and his friend and big brother neighbour, Donald Dudley, were both members of my "Bull" Patrol in Boy Scouts.  Melvin was inclined to be a bit slow and had a perpetual runny nose.  He was also shy and reluctant to participate in Scout activities without considerable coaxing.  As leader of the patrol, I always felt sorry for him and tried to pay special attention to him, but I always suspected that I was not completely making an inroad.

Bill, on the other hand, was a bit of a town character.  He worked with horses, drove a pretty sporty car and hung around with us younger guys for a couple of summers, particularly on the baseball field.  Too old to play on our teams, he liked to shag flies in the outfield during practices and when he would catch a fly ball he always announced: "Just call me Skyhook Bill!"...So we did..."Skyhook" it was.  After all, we're talking about Dresden, the nick name capital of the world.

My dad, Ken, the coach of our bantam team at the time, kind of took a liking to Bill and asked him if he would umpire one of our games.  Bill readily agreed and did a surprisingly good job.  From that point on, Bill was our umpire of record, even travelling with us for road games.

Over the course of the following winter something happened to Bill. Rumor had it that he had consumed some bad liquor at the race track in London and he seemed to drop out of sight.  Without going into detail, a very unfortunate Melvin eventually ran into some difficulty and became a ward of the province.

Some six or seven years later I attended a Senior "B" hockey game at the St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Arena and I spotted a familiar face in the stands at one end of the rink.  I recognized the face as belonging to Melvin Travis, my old Boy Scout buddy.  I immediately walked over and sat down beside him.  "Hi, Mel!  How're you doing?" I asked.

No response.

"It's Dick Wright," I insisted.  "Remember me?"

Again, no response.

As I looked around at others in that particular section of the arena, I realized that I had unknowingly joined a group of patients from the Ontario Psychiatric Hospital in St. Thomas.  Embarrassed and the recipient of some strange stares, I patted a still silent Melvin on the back and sheepishly made my way to the other side of the rink.

From my new distant vantage point, I noticed another familiar face a little higher up in the hospital section.  Sure enough it was good old Bill Malvern.  Discretion seemed to dictate that I not make another attempt to renew acquaintances at that particular time and place.

As sports editor at the St. Thomas Times-Journal, the following year I was asked to be guest speaker at the Ontario Hospital's annual sports award banquet.  I presented two awards that evening, one to a very proud Bill Malvern who had been named "floor hockey coach of the year" and the other to a still shy Melvin Travis, "house league most valuable player of the year".

Two guys from Dresden, happy as all get out in a world that I did not belong in.  "Thanks again!" Bill shouted as I left the hall that night.  I don't think he remembered me and I resisted the temptation to ask if he did.  Maybe it was just as well.

In spite of the lump that I still get in my throat, I choose to remember Melvin and his floor hockey coach, Skyhook Bill, the way I last saw them, proudly clutching their trophies and accepting congratulations from a cluster of admiring fellow patients.  God bless their souls!

NOTE:  I regret that I am not absolutely sure of the spelling of Bill's last name.

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