LONDON, ONTARIO - Let’s start with an excerpt from the introduction to the book of my collected plays, Speakable Acts (2017), concerning the background to my second play, Suffering Fools first produced in 1988 . . . .
"Suffering Fools was loosely built around the life experiences of an old family friend I called ‘Rodney Kincaid’ who happens to be mentally retarded (as we knew it back in the day) or developmentally delayed (as we’re implored to call it today). The main focus of the story is the disruption to Rodney’s life and his understanding of himself when the educational authorities determine that he isn’t just a particularly rambunctious 13 year-old boy with a low threshold of impulse control but is in fact unequipped to be enrolled in a public school with ‘normal’ kids and is duly pitchforked into a special workshop.
The fact that Rodney was allowed to flounder about in an ordinary public school until grade seven (only flunking once), attests to the comparative mildness or slightness of his handicap. I think part of what gives the play its power is the viewer’s sense of implication in a great social wrong. Many of us will recognize our own shabbiness toward and bullying of the disadvantaged in some of the actions and long-nursed regrets of Rodney’s supposed friends. And all of us, I think, somewhere deep inside harbour an at least intermittent fear that we ourselves are not quite up to scratch in one way or another and it’s alarming to see how readily anyone can be cast aside and written off once their ‘superiors’ have twigged to their deficiency.
I conferred with the real life Rodney frequently during the writing of the script, worried that I was making him sound too lucid and intelligent, was making him juggle some overly sophisticated concepts. And after spending another hour or two in his company, reveling in the way his mind worked and closely examining his syntax, I was repeatedly reassured that I was not. One evening I remember talking to him about something or other which I characterized as ‘persistent’ and he gently pointed out to me – quite correctly as I instantly realized – that ‘insistent’ would probably be the more fitting word in this case.
Rodney knew I was writing a play loosely based on his life, gave the enterprise his blessing and helped me out by supplying occasional details and reminding me of the proper sequencing of events. (He has one of the most reliable and best-stocked memory banks of anyone I know.) But despite my many invitations and notifications, he has never seen or read or (in the case of the radio adaptation) listened to Suffering Fools. He isn’t vehement about this refusal. He isn’t offended or hurt that I’ve done this with the story of his life. On some level he’s glad of it. But he is quietly adamant that he does not want to see it.
I was initially mystified by his lack of curiosity or vanity until my brother Bob reminded me of the time he took Rodney to see Canadian director Allan King’s first feature documentary, Warrendale, which chronicles seven weeks in the lives of twelve emotionally disturbed children at a Toronto therapeutic centre. About ten agitated minutes after the film started, Rodney stood up and quietly bolted from the theatre. He just couldn’t bear it. On being reminded of that incident, I called to mind the words of Walt Whitman when he told his friend Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke in 1880 that he “couldn’t stand” any longer to wander the hallways of the London Asylum for the Insane where Bucke was the director: “It became a too near fact – too poignant – too sharply painful – too ghastly true.” Rodney didn’t need to see my play. He’d lived it."
* * *
Rodney Kincaid’s great original, Bradley Cudmore (sometimes known to his friends as Cuddly Bradmore), died at 2:30 a.m. on Queen Victoria’s 200th birthday at the age of 71. We’d known his death was coming – or at least was very, very likely – as he languished for 68 days without a word in the intensive care unit of Victoria Hospital. He had developed sepsis when complications arose in the wake of a routine biopsy for hepatitis. For most of that time he was in a coma-like state, hooked up to all manner of tubes including one for breathing that was inserted in his throat.
My brother Bob paid visits on days when Bradley was totally unresponsive. The day I went with Bob and his wife, Brad’s eyes were open and there seemed to be heart-wrenching signs that he knew it was us but all we could do was talk at him – optimistically, one-sidedly, and, I hope, not too inanely – and try not to look appalled at his unreachability and the dreadful prospect before him. The most progress he made was to have his breathing tube removed for up to 14 hours a day but his powers of speech never did resume. And when an infection developed about a week ago in one of the tube’s shunts, all that progress was wiped away in a trice and death shortly followed.
My brother Ted could be speaking for all the Goodden brothers when he sent word from his Hornby Island home upon learning of Bradley’s passing: “Brad's death is a real loss for me. He was a lifelong friend; we don't have many friends who go back to our beginnings and remain constantly in our lives. I miss him terribly already. Brad had a way of being in the world that was original to him – one that brings me down to the ground of what is most important – the need we all have to be accepted for who we are. I hope there is a funeral worthy of him, and I hope this message will be read to those who come to celebrate his life.”
Five years older than me, at first Brad was much more involved in the lives of my three older brothers. I was three or four when I first set eyes on him, perched on the bank of the creek that ran behind Connington Street, playing with live snakes and being goaded by other kids to run them between his teeth and bite them. And once he’d done what they all coaxed him to do, then he was rejected as a disgusting person. It was horrific and bizarre but in terms of the real motivation behind it, I would eventually come to discern the kind of exploitation and scapegoating that Bradley was uniquely vulnerable to for much of his childhood.
A few years later, my brothers would often bring him home as one more constituent in that pack of kids who gravitated to our house just across the road from Mountsfield Public School after classes were let out. Still shuddering to recall the incident with the snakes, I was a little leery of this strange kid who would do weird things like stand transfixed as my mother operated her Mix-Master and then run screaming out the kitchen door when he thought that she’d turned it up too high. (Did he fear it would explode?) None of my brothers’ other friends behaved anything like this.
What with Brad’s flunking and the fact that my brothers were successively born within a year and a few months of one another, the younger two had the experience of having Bradley in their class where he could be a pretty lively and distracting presence. His first day in kindergarten he made an indelible impression by dumping an entire box of wooden beads in the toilet “because it made the colours brighter.” Later on he got in trouble for slipping into the cloakroom to pee into the boots of his arch-enemy. And, most famously, he once dropped his pants and got chased around the room by a badly frazzled Miss Shipley; a reportedly wonderful teacher who just wasn't equipped to deal with this kind of chaos in the classroom.
That happened in grade four and it’s quite amazing to consider today when we handle these situations so differently, that Bradley didn’t get shuffled off to the Opportunity Workshop until grade seven when he was thirteen years old. Not too surprisingly, he hated the Workshop with a passion though the rawness of his anger and his abject humiliation at being intellectually downgraded in this way did at least recede over the next 40-plus years that he attended there.
I remember not too long after high school going riding with a friend who kept her horse at a commercial stable and being envious for Bradley’s sake when I was introduced to a man of about Bradley’s age and mental acuity who mucked out the paddocks there, groomed the horses, brought them out to their owners and then returned them to the stable. No, at the age of 13, Bradley (and just about anybody else I’ve ever known) wouldn’t have been ready to shoulder such responsibilities in a dependable way but by the age of 23 or 30, I have no doubt that he could have. And if he’d ever been offered some semblance of real occupation in his years as an adult (and not the menial, make-work tasks that made up the routine of the Workshop), I suspect it would have brought great meaning and dignity to his life.
Certainly the Workshop placed him beyond the range of conniving little shits who’d get him to enact the stunts they didn’t have the nerve to commit themselves, and that was undoubtedly a good thing. But I'm glad to report that we didn’t lose him to that more limited, circumscribed existence. He attended the Workshop but he wouldn't let it entirely contain him and he found a way to renew his contacts with friends he'd made before the big change. I believe that Bradley’s eight years in the normal school system gave him a kind of stake in a larger world beyond the Workshop's walls which he never felt that he had to relinquish. In my younger years there were times when I behaved very badly towards him and I will always be grateful that he didn’t hold that against me and allowed me to become his friend.
Yes, he could get a little tiresome when he was banging on about one of his manias. Collecting his data from album covers and entertainment magazines, he had memorized the heights – ‘shoes on’ and ‘shoes off’ – of hundreds and hundreds of people; celebrities and friends. I used to wonder if he was bluffing and once compiled my own list of 20 or so pop and movie stars’ heights and grilled him on them. His accuracy was near-perfect. He also memorized all the City of London bus routes and spent one summer (1968 or ’69, I think) monitoring the progress of crews from the City or the Fire Department as they made their way around London painting all the red fire hydrants yellow. Of course there were times when I’d reach a limit and say, “Okay, enough about heights” or "I don't care about hydrants" and we’d change the subject. But other times I was happy to let him go on one of his tears, thoroughly enjoying his enthusiasm for such absurd arcana.
There also were times when he could be startlingly insightful. My mother’s first name was Verna but he would often refer to her (when she wasn’t in the room) as ‘The Furnace’. And he was onto something there. She did provide the steadiest source of warmth – and at times could emit an intimidating conflagration of emotional power – in a home that was otherwise occupied by constitutionally ironic and too-cool-for-their-own-good men. I don't know if he ever touched me more than he did at my dad’s funeral in 2003. I had just narrowly resisted punching out the lights of a tattooed nitwit who was going out with one of my nieces and had oozingly informed me that my father had “gone to a better place”, when Bradley came up and shook my hand and said, “Jack was a good man”; at which point I took him in my arms and had my fourteenth cry of the day.
Then there were the songs he wrote. There must be a few hundred of these at least. There’s nothing on paper. Bradley would work them all up in his head and sing them out a cappella, contriving wildly unorthodox melodies that seemed to be equally inspired by old children’s songs and brassy show tunes. The surreal lyrics are about love objects (Beth Carrie Sleeping on the Lunch Table), foremen at the Workshop (Mr. Cockle Bockle) and movie stars (Julie Andrews the Drunkard).
I used to have a sort of vanity project of a band called The Polymorphous Perverts who played New Year’s Eve gigs in the basement of the Victoria Tavern and my friend, ace guitarist Doug Moore (who currently plays bass with Lighthouse), contrived some instrumental backing to a handful of these songs and Bradley sat in with us for what proved to be our most memorable show. We’ve got that astonishing performance on tape, complete with one over-refreshed hag at the back of the room who clearly would’ve preferred songs by Engelbert Humperdinck and can be heard bellowing at Bradley over the applause at one song's conclusion, “Sit down, you prick!”
Back in the '80s my brother Ted entertained fancies of becoming Bradley’s manager/agent and compiled more intimate field recordings of just Bradley singing his entire oeuvre. If Ted still has those tapes, now would be a good time to release a sampling of his finer gems on an unsuspecting world. In more recent decades, Brad took to leaving his newest songs on other people's telephone answering machines. If somebody picked up the phone on a day when Brad was looking to lay down a new track, sounding a little flustered and a little sheepish, he'd tell them to hang up and let it ring through next time.
And finally there was the Bradley Cudmore Five-Pin Boxing Day Invitational which took place nearly every year at the Fleetway 40 bowling alley. The tradition started up at a time in our social history when just about everything but bowling alleys and drug stores was actually closed on Boxing Day. It was an annual opportunity to shake off some of the over-stuffed torpor endemic to that day and get out and move our legs about and admire Bradley’s new shirt.
When it came to ploughing his way through the pins, Bradley was a remarkably consistent middle-achiever. I don’t think he ever came in first place or last. One of my favourite and most lasting images of Brad is the way he would launch each ball with a minimum of effort and fuss, setting it off on a reasonably well-aimed and desultory trek that took at least ten seconds to make its way down the lane. And all the while that each ball was in transit, he’d stand stock-still and stare straight ahead down that hardwood highway to the pin-studded horizon; his right shoulder drooping down a little and his right hand subtly coaxing the ball forward with a semi-circular fluttering motion.
Sadly, there was no 2018 Invitational thanks to an answering machine glitch which made a message go unreceived. Will we gather this year in his honour? I do believe we must.
Photos: Courtesy of Big Bonnie Goodden, 5 feet 11 inches, shoes off.
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