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Hal Walter: A Gorilla Named Train

Photo by Hal Walter
Photo by Hal Walter

My friend Don Conoscenti, a Taos musician who also lived in Alamosa for a while, put out a new album recently called Anastasia. The collection includes new songs as well as remakes of some of his previous work.
My son Harrison is a fan of Don’s as well, dwelling particularly on a track called “That Train.” The stereotype of autistic people is that they take everything literally, but Harrison has become increasingly aware of metaphor through music. Ironically the lyrics of “That Train” speak to me in my advancing middle age as I reflect more and more about life’s minor questions like, “What is the purpose of my existence?”

“If you leave this world defeated, you’ve got your own damn self to blame.”

One evening I found a bright blue, green and white gorilla on the bathroom countertop. I think this stuffed critter has been around here since Harrison was a baby. He never played with toys like that, so I found it peculiar that he had brought it out from a closet. He is 12 now, and apparently sought out the gorilla after seeing either a ventriloquist or puppet on YouTube.
The next morning as we got ready for school, he started out the door with the gorilla under his arm, wanting to take it to school with him. I told him that it was a bad idea and the other kids might not know what to think. I expected an argument, but he handled it OK. He then asked if he could take the gorilla in the car. I said OK, but just to the bus.

“Will I end up like that train, asleep beneath the snow, rusting in the rain?”

Harrison has been running on the middle-school cross-country team this fall, and struggling with meltdowns during the races. This season I nicknamed him “The Blur,” after an old friend of mine, because he has the physical ability to run very fast, but when things go awry, everything becomes a blur for him and everyone around him.
The meets are often long trips, so sometimes we leave the day before and stay over. On one trip to a meet in Gunnison we decided to camp out the night before the race.
We stopped in Salida for dinner, and also to get batteries for the LED lantern at Walmart. As we were walking toward door, Harrison suddenly stopped and sat right on the greasy blackish-gray sidewalk with all its aging chewing gum spots that had been ground into the cement by so much foot traffic. His shoe was untied and he does not understand this a grimy place to just sit down. I cringed, thinking at the very least I now needed to direct him to the restroom to wash his hands.
Just a few feet away, sitting against the wall, was a homeless man, maybe late-30s or early-40s, smoking a cigarette. He was right at eye level to Harrison and watched him tying his shoe, something that takes more time and effort for Harrison than it does for you or me. I read recently that a high percentage of homeless people may be on the autism spectrum.
Also watching intently was this guy’s dog, some sort of oversized Pug mix that looked like Yoda from Star Wars. Harrison had not noticed either of them when he sat down, but as he finished tying his shoe he must have felt their gaze and looked over at them.
He asked the homeless man the dog’s name.
“Train,” the homeless guy responded. That was all he said.
Harrison looked up at me and smiled, “Like ‘That Train!’” he exclaimed! Clearly, he associated it with the song. Of course the homeless guy had no clue what he was talking about. The Blur jumped to his feet and ran into the store.
If the dog’s name had been Bob or Chase or whatever, we both would have likely completely forgotten the interaction, or that we had even stopped there at all. But the subject of the dog named Train came back up several times over the next few weeks, as the meltdowns continued in four straight cross-country races.

“If you build your dreams from glass and steel, sand and rust is all your life becomes.”

[InContentAdTwo] That first morning after the gorilla appeared, we drove over to the bus stop and the entire way Harrison was carrying on a conversation between himself and the gorilla, for which he used a different voice. He asked again to take the gorilla to school and I said no. Then he wanted the gorilla to stay in the car until I picked him up after school.
On the way back home I thought how strange this was. I mean, isn’t this more like 3- or 4-year-old behavior? I left the gorilla on the back seat of the car for the day, and the conversation resumed following cross-country practice after school. He covered the gorilla with my jacket and made a pillow for it on the ride home.
Back home I asked Harrison to vacuum while I made dinner, something he would typically protest, but instead he had the gorilla “help” him with the vacuuming. Then the gorilla sat on the counter as he worked on homework.
The new friendship with the gorilla was both endearing and alarming. I wondered if he was regressing, or resorting to friendship with a stuffed animal out of lack of real friendships with other kids, or if this was just where he is emotionally and socially on some levels.
At some point he suggested we should name the gorilla and I said sure. Then he asked what we should name him. Thinking back to the dog at Walmart, I impulsively suggested he call the gorilla “Train.” He beamed at this idea.
In the following days I found myself communicating to Harrison through Train, who coached him through difficult tasks like getting ready for school. At first I thought it odd that a stuffed gorilla had become our new communication liaison, but then we so often hear of autistic kids who cannot speak yet can somehow communicate perfectly by typing on a keyboard.
Harrison asked how I knew what Train would say, and I said I was “channeling” him. He seemed to accept that as a reasonable answer.
The final cross-country meet of the season was in Monte Vista, and although he had finished at each of the previous four meets, each had also been discouraging due to meltdowns during the races, and I felt like it was a real long-shot to expect anything different. When we loaded up early that morning for the long drive to the San Luis Valley, Harrison packed Train in his team duffel bag.
We arrived at the meet and began the usual rituals of finding his coaches and teammates, the port-a-potties, looking over the starting area and the course. My friend Peter May of Endurance Alchemy Lab in Crestone arrived to help Harrison out with some aroma and sound therapies. At the last minute before the race, I pulled Train out of the bag and held him up.
“Train says, ‘Run like The Blur.’”
And thus it was that a gorilla named Train coached Harrison to the best race of his cross-country career. He ran strong from start to the finish, creating that rare moment in life – and in sport – when simply not giving up transforms to triumph.

Hal’s books Full Tilt Boogie and Endurance are available from The Book Haven in Salida.