Arumpha!Major Ed Forster shares another installment of “Others,” stories highlighting actual events that occurred during more than four decades of officership.
My desk was piled high with unanswered mail, and several projects lay on tables throughout the office. I closed my office door, an unfriendly gesture in a friendly community such as mine, so I could give my full attention to the papers that had been neglected because of my busy involvement with people.
For a corps officer in The Salvation Army, there is always a dynamic tug-of-war between the demands of people and the necessity of paperwork. Our building was burgeoning with people, but I hardly had time to record them statistically. Each afternoon, our gym and classrooms hummed with the excitement of our Salvation Army Girls Association (SAGA) program and its membership of 600+ girls.
We had just accepted a new community-based program that would fill our daytime hours, but it didn’t require my involvement. It was a “reintroduction to the community course” for patients from the state hospital, a first step in the massive deinstitutionalization that was to follow.
I soon discovered that re-entry into the community was going to be difficult for people who had spent large portions of their lives “institutionalized” at the hospital. Even though I made several attempts at conversation with people in the program, I seldom got beyond exchanging views about the weather.
My closed office door was a defense against participants in the program who might wander into my office just to talk. The prospect of such conversations didn’t disturb me as much as the thought that my paperwork would never get done.
But the closed door began to bother me. I felt like I was being selfish to people who might really need me. I finally opened my door, which gave me a view of our main hallway. People wandered by, but they seemed to be in a world of their own. The building was strangely quiet despite the presence of more than 50 patients and their aides.
When I left my desk to go to the drinking fountain, I met an extremely tall, desperately thin man, hunched over in the hallway. Unlike the other patients who passed by my door, he was young.
“Hi,” I said, “How are you doing?”
Without answering, he straightened up to his full height and scuffled away to our activity room.
After talking with someone from the hospital staff, I learned that my tall, thin, silent friend was named Jim. He was in his late twenties. “He doesn’t communicate beyond a few phrases.”
I began to take daily strolls through the main activity room. I spent a few moments each day sitting beside Jim and talking with patients around him. He didn’t acknowledge my greetings or my presence, and often walked away as soon as I sat down.
One day, I saw Jim standing by himself, staring out at the sunlit parking lot. I stood beside him, he didn’t move. We both remained still and silent for several moments, then I said, “Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Very indicative,” he said and then walked away.
I was excited to learn that he could speak, and he would, if encouraged to try. As days passed, a strange pattern of communication, and particular responses, followed.
Jim had a four-word vocabulary that he used to respond to every inquiry he cared to answer. The words were “very, indicative, negative and arumpha.”
He would say, “very indicative” for yes, “very negative” for no and “arumpha” when he felt strongly moved or amused by something said. An aide confirmed she had never heard him use any other words.
“Even though he’s been to college,” she said, “he is apparently unwilling to talk to people any more then he feels is necessary. I don’t know what happened to him, but his behavior is certainly strange. We think it may have something to do with drug abuse.”
I struggled with approaches I might use to reach Jim. It was important for him to be willing and able to communicate if he was ever going to function again in the community. I felt helpless. If experts from the state hospital couldn’t get beyond his four-word world, how could I?
I prayed for an answer and asked the Lord to direct me, and use me, if it was His will. One night, I read an article about an emotionally disturbed boy who wouldn’t talk except when he was playing checkers with his therapist. I could hardly wait to try it with Jim. The next day, I said to him, “Do you like to play checkers?”
“Very negative,” he said. It meant no.
“Well, how about chess?”
“Very indicative,” he said with an interested tone.
“Good,” I said. “I’ll bring my chessboard tomorrow.”
“Arumpha,” Jim exclaimed. He was excited, and so was I.
The next day, I brought a chess game into my office. It was a very inexpensive set with plastic pieces and a folded game board. I said a silent prayer as I placed it on my desk. “Lord, I’m not a very good player, and the dust on this box shows how little I care for this game, but I believe you’ve led me to this means to reach Jim. May Your will be done.”
When I met Jim in the hallway, I asked, “Are you ready to play chess?”
“Very indicative,” he said with a hint of a smile.
As I set up the board on my desk, it occurred to me that I wasn’t even sure where the pieces went. I placed the castles on the ends, then fumbled a bit, deciding to skip the other pieces that belonged on that row. I placed the pawns on the row in front.
Jim, sensing my confusion, placed the knights, the king, the queen and the bishops for me.
“Do you want to go first?” I asked, hoping he would so I could follow what he did.
“Very negative,” he said.
“Lord,” I prayed silently, “this doesn’t seem to be working. Please help me to know what to do next.”
I picked up the knight and awkwardly tried to remember the peculiar two forward, one left or right move it was supposed to make. After taking my hand off the piece, it happened. Jim emphatically exclaimed, “Very indicative! That move’s called ‘the Queen’s Scout.’”
It was the first time he went beyond his four-word vocabulary with me, or with anyone at the hospital. I was elated at Jim’s freedom of expression. My chess move hadn’t excited me half as much as it did him. I hardly knew what I was doing, but Jim’s breakthrough into the possible expansion of his previously limited communication made me euphoric.
\Throughout the three games we played, all of which Jim won quickly, he continued to talk openly. He told me about his family and the schools he’d attended. He talked about his likes and dislikes. It was as if we were old friends.
When the board was folded at the end of our last game, Jim retreated into his four-word universe. While it was hard to understand, I was greatly encouraged by what had happened between us.
Our chess games, and our conversations, continued for several days. I couldn’t beat him at chess, so I suggested Scrabble. It worked just as well conversationally, except I usually won.
I knew deep down that Jim needed fellowship with people of his age, so I made the game board a lot larger. I decided to try it with basketball, and with players other than myself.
Even though Jim was 6′ 7” tall, he had seldom played basketball, but he was willing to try it. I got him involved with our men’s club team. His conversational horizons were broadened to include four other people on the court. He also talked with an expanded vocabulary to the players on the bench.
The team loved Jim, and they accepted him as he was. I was especially moved to see Jim holding hands with other players in our opening prayer circle. We were all united in the love of the Lord, despite our differences.
The program from the hospital ended shortly after the basketball season, and Jim finally went home to his family.