I was named for, respectively, my great-grandfather and the grandfather who never lived to see his oldest grandchild be born. My name is John Joseph Dybala.
I suppose for that reason alone, I was predisposed to becoming a Harry Chapin fan. My mother became a fan when Cats In the Cradle was released just a couple of months after I was born with multiple disabilities so severe that doctors originally predicted I would not live to see Christmas week 1974, when Cats was the number one song in the country. After that, Harry Chapin music was always playing in my house. Of course the first song I took a real interest in was “Corey’s Coming,” followed by “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” and, strangely enough, “Odd Job Man.” It bears noting two things: one, I was a very naive kid. Two, one of the disabilities I was born with was a severe hearing impairment. So I never quite understood the line I loved so much: “What that man has done to me, I done to his wife.” And I’ll let you guess what my ears heard, and sang loudly in the presence of my grandmother, when Harry sang “That’s just a buck an hour, sir!”
I got to go to my first concert, a Harry Chapin concert, in July 1980. I was so excited, I wrote a letter to Harry and asked him if he would play “Corey’s Coming” for me. He responded to my letter, said he would, and did. And he signed the full-leg cast a recent operation had left me in. I cried when they cut it off.
Two weeks before my seventh birthday, and one week before the next Harry Chapin concert, I was in my parents’ bedroom, lying on the bed, half-watching television at 10:30 at night. I should have been in bed, but another leg operation left me unable to climb into the bunk bed I shared with my brother. I was watching, I think, 20/20 and I heard the magic name of Harry Chapin. I looked at the screen just in time to see his picture, with “1942-1981” underneath it and hear the words, “Harry Chapin was killed this afternoon in a car accident in New York.” After a moment of stunned silence, I began screaming for my father.
Harry’s music continued to stay with me over the years, in many subtle ways. After my leg was amputated, I began getting teased as a freak and worse by the playground cartels. One afternoon when I came home crying, my mother said to me, “You know how reality is only just a word? Well, normal is only just a word.” It didn’t exactly make everything go away, but that has stuck with me since then.
My entry in the senior directory in my high school yearbook could include a quote. I knew immediately what I wanted to put, and I used the infamous chorus from “I Wonder What Would Happen to This World.”
I went on to college and decided to become a math teacher. Last February, I was filling out applications for student teaching and came to the essay question: “What is your philosophy of teaching?” I began outlining some things, tried to write, but it wasn’t coming together. So I decided to head home, and on the way, I popped my HC mix tape in and “Flowers Are Red” came on. I got home, had dinner, and using “Flowers” as the basic theme, I finished the essay in 45 minutes. It was also the title of a portfolio I did on some field work I had done. I entitled it “Polka Dot Flowers In the Garden of Education,” dedicated the portfolio partially to Harry, and got an A on the project.
And I have never, ever been able to break myself of one habit. I work as a cashier in a small discount store, and whenever it gets really busy and I’m starting to get frazzled, I still sigh and say, “And the excitement continues to build!” I actually found a fellow HC fan that way. She heard me say it, looked straight at me and said, “Harry, IT SUCKS!” with a huge grin on her face. I said, “I’ll go you one better. My name is John Joseph.”
I miss him. But he lives on … in my classroom, where even mathematics can and will be painted in all the colors of the rainbow, and in the mind and heart of a John Joseph who still looks for Corey.
Fort Collins, CO
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