Chuck College

I went into the restroom, leading Chuck behind me, and in one of the stalls I found a Chuck College lunch sack floating in an unflushed bowl. When I pointed at it, Chuck said loudly, “Oh, no!”

Chuck you’ve seen a thousand times before.

In every NFL promo about the United Way helping people with disabilities, in every magazine article about “special children,” in every TV ad with a Special Olympian shooting a basket or running a race, Chuck is there. When I first went to the Easter Seals Adult Training Center in Great Falls, Montana, to apply for a job, I saw a lot of clients walking through the building; but as with any crowd, the faces quickly evaporated from memory—all, that is, except Chuck’s. To this day, I can still recall my first glimpse of the stout little guy with the flat face, walking down the ramp to the basement. A few weeks later I was hired by the Center as a workfloor supervisor. The following summer my family ate lunch one day with my cleanup crew at a local campground. Chuck, wearing his cowboy hat and boots, was the one who stayed in their minds as well—“the little Mongoloid cowboy” was how my father later described him. He was easy to remember because he corresponded exactly to our image of persons with disabilities. The kids in the Special Olympics ads are usually short and stocky, cute and lovable, excitable and enthusiastic. Chuck was all of these things also, at least at times, with one exception. Far from being a kid, Chuck Putnam was a thirty-year-old man.

Down syndrome (formerly called Down’s syndrome, and before that Mongolism) is a congenital condition caused by having an extra chromosome. It results in moderate to severe intellectual impairment—Chuck had an IQ of twenty-five—along with a number of physical characteristics, all of which Chuck exhibited: he was unusually short (4’11”, and 130 pounds); he had a broad skull and face, and almond-shaped eyes; he had wide hands and stubby fingers; and his tongue was large and fissured—i.e., its top surface was crisscrossed with grooves. Chuck’s dark blond hair was cut short, and he occasionally showed some light down on his face. His gut grew a little each year; he’d point to it and say “Fat!” then laugh impishly. Usually he wore jeans, a T-shirt or sport shirt, and cowboy boots, plus a cowboy hat or baseball cap.

He had lived with his parents all his life except from ages seven to nine, when he was at the state institution for people with intellectual disabilities in Boulder, Montana. Later he attended Special Education in Great Falls. He came to the Center in 1978 at the age of twenty-seven.

Chuck talked in a loud voice, and tests showed his vocabulary and expressive language skills to be at the four-year-old level. Because he had more control over his fingers than he had over his tongue, he, like many clients, accompanied his speech with sign language whenever he knew the appropriate sign. Each client and staff member at the Center had a sign name, usually taken from the first letter of their first name. Sometimes, just to show me he remembered, Chuck would get my attention in the lunchroom, then say Glay while he demonstrated my sign name: the letter G (the thumb and index finger are parallel, with the index finger above the thumb; the last three fingers make a fist) is held in front of one eye before being moved away from the face—the way I might take off my glasses. Glay was the closest he could come to saying Glenn, and since the G was also difficult for him, usually it came out Lay.

He had trouble understanding what was said to him, partly because he was hard of hearing but mostly because the complexity of sentences overwhelmed him. He could take in only five or six words at a time. Whenever he didn’t understand what a supervisor or teacher had said, Chuck would study the person’s facial expressions and tone of voice for some indication of how he should respond. At times he carried on long conversations with himself, thus avoiding his receptive and expressive difficulties altogether.

Chuck and his parents lived only a few blocks from the Center, so he was the one client who walked to and from work. That gave him a special status, and his sign name reflected this: it was the same as the sign we used for walk—the index and middle fingers pointed down and moving alternately, back and forth, like two legs walking along. Through his walks he became friends with some of the neighborhood children.

Even in winter he walked, carrying his cowboy boots in a gym bag so he could wear them during the day. Since he had to bundle up more than the other clients, he was often the last one out of the cloakroom in the afternoon, but he never felt pressured to hurry: Chuck did things at his own pace. First he’d sit on the floor, lacing his boots, then he’d put on his parka, muffler, fur-lined cap, and gloves. He wouldn’t leave until he was wrapped from head to toe. With all that padding, he looked like a diminutive but rotund Arctic explorer.

Every day he brought a briefcase, in which he carried a pencil, a writing pad, and some sports publications. These might include the sports section from the Sunday paper or an illustrated book about rodeo, but more often he had a couple of yearbooks analyzing the pro and college teams for whatever season it happened to be. He looked forward to the games he could watch on TV over the weekend or on Monday night, and occasionally his father took him to a rodeo or a high school game. He grasped the basic idea of each sport without really understanding the rules or the scoring. Sometimes during morning or afternoon break he’d copy a list of football teams from one of his yearbooks. His printing was large and legible, though most of the words would be misspelled.

Proud of his list, he’d hold it up in the air and shout across the lunchroom, “Lay, look!” He hungered after the attention of staff, so whenever he saw that I was coming over, he’d grin, lower his head to his chest, then clap his hands quickly and quietly in front of his face.

As I approached his table, he’d cock his arm as though he were about to throw a pass. “Look, Lay: football!” Then he’d show me his list. I’d point to some of the words and ask him to say them. His face would become pinched as he struggled to get his mouth ready for the first sound. After he expelled that, the rest of the word followed without too much trouble. “Mmmmmmm—’Bama!” he’d say, or “Mmmmmmm—’Lahoma!” or “Mmmmmmm—Cowboys!”

His briefcase was his constant companion, always with him at lunch and break. Sometimes I’d see him walking through the building, his briefcase in one hand, his lunch sack in the other. Each morning before leaving home he wrote his name on the sack, but instead of writing Chuck Putnam, he always wrote Chuck College—his own quiet statement of how he saw himself, and of the quixotic hopes and aspirations he harbored.

Besides his sports publications, Chuck’s briefcase often contained one or two books he had checked out from the library. These covered a wide range of subjects, though I always thought So You Want To Be a Policewoman was among the oddest ones. One day he had a book by Quentin Reynolds called The F.B.I. This was part of the Landmark series for children, and seeing it was a little nostalgic for me, because it, along with The Hardy Boys’ Detective Handbook, had been one of my favorite books in elementary school. Chuck, incidentally, was a virtual contemporary of mine, since he was born a year after me, in 1951. He will never be able to read Reynolds’s book, but he did enjoy the photographs.

The next morning he brought another Landmark book, this one about California history. “Look, Lay: ’Fffff—fornia!”

“Say, isn’t that something? That’s where I’m from—California.”

“Yeah?” he replied, smiling hesitantly, not sure what I had said.

I browsed through the book, stopping at a map.

“Mat,” he said.

“Yeah, that’s right, that’s a map. Hey, tell me what this word is.”

He looked where I was pointing. “Oh. Right.” He took a moment to get his mouth set. “Uh, In-dians.”

“That’s right, Indians. What does that mean?”

“Well…” He looked stumped.

“What are Indians?”

“Oh.” Then silence.

“What do you know about Indians?” I said.

Another pause, then tentatively he held up his hand, palm out. When I nodded, he said, “How!”

“That’s right, sometimes on TV shows they say, ‘How!’ What else do you know about them?”

He brought his hand up to his mouth and went, “Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo.” Then he pretended to shoot a bow and arrow.

“That’s right, they used to shoot arrows,” I said, giving his book back to him so he could get ready for work.

The rest of the day, every time he saw me, he held up his hand and said, “How!”

Like books, newspapers could arouse Chuck’s enthusiasm. One morning he walked up to a work table and began looking at the newspaper sheets that were laid on it for protection. “Look, Lay,” he said, pointing to a photograph of a boy in a cowboy hat.

“Yeah, a little cowboy—how ’bout that?”

He studied the pictures on the other sheets, and when he came to one showing a bride cutting a wedding cake, he shouted, “Lay, look!” He kept speaking, loud and fast, but was so excited I didn’t understand anything he said until he ended with, “Me? That?”

He was pointing to the picture, so I said, “Sure, you can have it.” He tore it out, folded it, put it in his pocket, and walked off.

Nothing stirred Chuck’s passions like wedding photos. Once during break he showed me a library book that offered advice to newlyweds. He turned to a photograph of a bride and groom before the altar, then pointed to himself and said, “Me!” More than sports pictures, more than cowboy pictures, wedding pictures spoke to his deepest dreams.

Like the other clients at the Center, Chuck was there Monday through Friday from nine to three. Each client spent part of that time in classes and in the lunchroom, plus three to four hours a day on the workfloor. The workfloor referred to a number of different areas, some on the main floor, some in the basement. These included the Toy Department, Sewing Department, and shop. The clients walked between the basement and the main floor on a long, carpeted ramp. This was safer than the stairs, in case a client got pushed or had an epileptic seizure, plus it allowed the clients who were in wheelchairs to work in the basement.

Both clients and supervisors occasionally transferred from one work area to another because of production needs and individual preferences. The largest department was the Glass Department, which produced and sold thousands of mosaic glass candleholders each year. At any given time, three or four supervisors worked here, and thirty to forty clients. The clients were divided into three crews: assemblers, grouters, and steelwoolers. Some steelwoolers also doubled as packers. My last year and a half at the Center, besides supervising my own crew, I also managed the Glass Department as a whole.

For several months Chuck worked with me in the grouting area. There was a lot of cement dust here—the grout was made from cement, water, and black dye—so for health reasons everyone had to wear a filter-paper mask over their mouth and nose. The masks were uncomfortable, but most clients were good about keeping them on. Chuck, however, preferred to sit with his mask perched on top of his head, like a papal skullcap. If I asked him to put it on, he’d ignore me, as though he hadn’t heard a thing. Chuck was a selective listener who used his hearing problem for his own ends. Often he didn’t hear things with absolute clarity, but it was only when I told him to do something he didn’t want to do that his hearing deserted him completely.

If, at this point, I walked over to him, he’d ask in an irritated voice, “Whuddya want?”

“You need to put your mask on.”

“Mom and Dad!” he’d snarl. He thought that invoking his parents’ names would intimidate supervisors, causing us to back off.

“Let’s go, Chuck.”

“Waaaaatch it!” Then, though he’d refuse to look in my direction, he would slowly, slowly, bring one hand up to his mask. Just when he appeared on the verge of pulling it down over his face, he’d stop, decide that his nose itched, lower his hand, and begin to scratch.

After a while I’d tell him to speed it up, but he’d reply in an annoyed tone, “No! Wait! Wait a minute!” Then he’d cover his mouth with his hand and force a series of coughs. Afterwards he’d spend a long time clearing his throat. When it seemed his stalling tactics had finally been exhausted, another supervisor might walk into the grouting area. Chuck would look at me for the first time, then point to the supervisor, as if to say, “Hadn’t you better go see what she wants?” But I’d remain where I was until Chuck reached—slowly again—for his mask, and pulled it down over his mouth. He’d do this without expression, his eyes looking straight ahead, not acknowledging my presence—as though he was doing it on his own, as though my hovering over him was of no account. Then he’d resume his work.

Chuck had strong fingers and was a good grouter, but he had another idiosyncrasy that got on people’s nerves. The grout was a clay-like material, and bits of it were always sticking to the grouters’ gloves. Every few minutes they’d pick these pieces off and put them back in the grout can. Chuck, however, thought it was easier to flick the pieces off his fingers—something that aroused cries of protest from the clients across the table, whenever Chuck peppered them with pellets.

At the end of the day, supervisors would ask clients to do whatever jobs needed doing, like brushing off tables or putting supplies away. Chuck, however, always insisted on sweeping the floor, as if that task were reserved for him alone. He never became violent, but Chuck was a verbal bully, loud and argumentative and dictatorial toward any client who tried to help with the sweeping. Our nurse once described him as an ornery leprechaun.

Chuck was also part of the cleanup crew I had in the summer of 1980. Every day I drove six clients out to the campground in our van. I’d give each client a trash bag, and we’d pick up papers, cans, and the ubiquitous cigarette butts—the only thing that sprouted faster than weeds in that flat, homely country on the edge of town. Usually it took us all day, so everyone would bring their lunch along and we’d eat at a picnic table.

Most of the time when we were working, Chuck would dawdle forty or fifty yards behind the rest of us, totally unconcerned about keeping up. He wasn’t too interested in picking trash up off the ground, either; sometimes, when he thought I wasn’t looking, he’d step over it instead. I kept him on the crew mainly because he was reliable about carrying garbage sacks to the dumpster. With some clients I had to worry about them getting lost along the way, or running off to explore some distant part of the campground; but Chuck, I knew, would go straight there and straight back, however slowly.

One day we cleaned an overgrown field that, although not used by campers, was covered with wind-blown trash. It was located at one end of the property, perhaps a quarter mile from the dumpster. Chuck was doing the hauling, but the other clients were filling trash sacks two or three times as fast as he was carrying them. There was a hump in the land near where we were working. Each time I watched this poke-along cowboy, with a trash sack slung over his shoulder, first receding, and then, as he crossed the hump, vanishing entirely, I knew a good twenty minutes would pass before he’d come back into view. Then, slowly, he’d walk over to the long, winding line of sacks, grab the nearest one, and amble off into the distance once more.

In the lunchroom Chuck was animated and sociable, and he was popular with the other clients. One day several of them were showing me a magazine article about TV stars. Leroy pointed to a picture of Lorne Greene.

“Yeah, he was on Bonanza,” I said.

“No!” said Chuck. “Fire!” Chuck, Leroy, and Cyrus all shook their heads at me and signed fire. (Cyrus was completely nonverbal, and Leroy nearly so.) I realized they were right, because Lorne Greene was currently in a series about firefighters called Code Red.

Susie, who was as short as Chuck and, like him, had Down syndrome, turned to me. “Muh fav’te show—Ca’tw’ight.”

“Ben Cartwright?” I said. “On Bonanza?”


“Yeah, I used to like that one myself.”

Chuck hadn’t absorbed much of this exchange. “Whud she say?” he asked me.

“She said she liked Bonanza.

“Oh, Lay,” he replied, pooh-poohing me with a flick of his wrist, as though I’d said something nonsensical. He turned to her and said, “Su-sie,” then spread his hand over her face. She giggled, returned the favor, and said, “Chuck!” They went on like this for a while, a couple of kids in a school cafeteria.

Chuck’s uninhibited behavior often made him a catalyst to strange events and strange conversations; he generated anecdotes. One day after lunch he and Jerry came out of the large shop restroom, Chuck swaggering and smiling, Jerry cackling. Jerry was so overcome by what had just happened that he couldn’t keep it to himself. Alternately whispering and laughing, he spread the story around until finally it got to me: Chuck had thrown his lunch sack in one of the toilets.

I went into the restroom, leading Chuck behind me, and in one of the stalls I found a Chuck College lunch sack floating in an unflushed bowl. When I pointed at it, Chuck said loudly, “Oh, no!”

“Chuck, why did you put that there?”

He looked up at me. “Jerry!”

“That’s right, Jerry said you put it there.”

Wide-eyed now: “Oh! Me!”

“Chuck, you don’t throw sacks in the toilet.”

“No! Bad!” he said, showing me the sign for no. He reached down to fish it out.

“Hold on,” I said, pulling a wastebasket over so he wouldn’t have to carry a sack dripping with urine across the restroom floor.

He grasped the sack with a thumb and a finger and dropped it in the garbage. “’M sorry, Lay.”

“Okay, flush the toilet and wash your hands.”

As he washed his stubby fingers, he looked at me and again said, “’M sorry, Lay.”

“Okay, Chuck, but remember, you don’t throw trash in the toilet.”

“No!” he said. We both signed no.

“You always throw your sack in the garbage.”

“Right,” he said, nodding.

“Okay, you can go back to work now.”

“Thank you, Lay. Thank you.”

Chuck was someone you couldn’t help but notice. Some clients, the unassertive or the self-absorbed, blended in quietly at the Center; others, like Chuck, stood out.

Most of the clients who worked in the Glass Department went to second lunch, from 12:30 to 1:00. Sometimes, however, Chuck was scheduled for a class during that half hour, so instead he’d go to first lunch, from 12:00 to 12:30. One day, after his class had been dismissed, he was walking back to the workfloor when he passed the open doorway to the lunchroom. It was already a few minutes past one, but it must have been a lazy day because clients and staff were still in their seats, reluctant to move. Chuck peered into the lunchroom for a moment, then looked over at the staff table. He signed work and told us, “Go work!” then pointed down to the basement. This had no effect, so he continued to scrutinize us as he put one hand on his hip. Finally he looked straight at me, repeated his sign, and barked like a stout little commandant: “Work, Lay! Go work!”

“Is it time to go to work?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he said, with the hint of uncertainty his answers had whenever he wasn’t sure he understood the question.

“Okay, thank you, Chuck.” Then I announced, “Chuck Putnam says it’s time to go to work,” at which point the clients stood and began heading out the door.

Chuck waved at me, then turned and clapped his hands quickly and quietly in front of his face. Then he walked off, the Chuck who went his own way—blunt, bossy, and independent—along with the Chuck who thrived on the attention of others.

1 thought on “Chuck College”

  1. ‘Chuck College’ took me into his world completely; I didn’t want to leave. A most emotion-inducing narrative; impossible to not both love and respect Chuck. I so hope that he hasn’t lost (after all these years) his heart, and enthusiasm for people and living, and his unique ‘Gusto’.

What do you think about what you've read?