Growing up, Shawn Thornton’s life was anything but normalbut then, so was his mother.After waking from a coma following a car crash, Beverly Thornton’s once sweet and gentle disposition had been replaced by violent mood swings, profanity-laced tirades, and uncontrollable fits of rage. Inside the Thornton house, floors and countertops were piled high with dirty laundry and garbage because Bev was unable to move well enough to clean. Dinners were a Russian roulette of half-cooked meat, spoiled milk, and foods well past their expiration dates. A moment of frustration might prompt her to hurl a knife at Shawn, his brother, Troy, or their dad or to vehemently cuss them out, only to shower them with love and affection moments later as though nothing had happened. And God help the family cat!On several occasions, Bev even tried to jump out of the car on the highway while Shawn and his brother struggled to keep her inside. Yet this same woman was also a devoted Bible reader, Sunday school teacher, and friend to the elderly, poor, and marginalized wherever she went. How the same woman could be a saint one minute and a nightmare the next was a constant source of frustration for the family. Then one day, after decades of embarrassing outbursts, a surprise discovery finally helps the Thornton family come to grips with Bev’s mysterious condition and brings Shawn to a startling realization that changes the course of his life forever.A heartwarming coming-of-age story, All But Normal is a powerful reminder that sometimes the “broken” people in our lives are the ones who need fixing the least.
|Publisher:||Tyndale House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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All but Normal
Life on Victory Road A Memoir
By Shawn Thornton, Joel Kilpatrick, Jonathan Schindler
Tyndale House PublishersCopyright © 2016 Shawn Thornton
All rights reserved.
"Mom, can I go with John to the department store?" Beverly asked, holding up a blouse on a hanger. "I want to exchange this blouse before our trip tomorrow."
She stood in the doorway of the girls' bedroom in their 900-square-foot house in Mishawaka, Indiana. The seven-member Gilvin family was getting ready to head "down home to Kentucky," as they put it, to visit relatives on Aunt Beulah's farm.
"Oh, Bevie, don't do that now," Bev's mom, Betty, said. "We're getting everything ready. You don't need a new blouse anyway."
"But I don't want to wear this white one down at the farm," Bev said with a level of concern only a ninth-grade girl could attach to her wardrobe. Little sisters Connie and Gail, twelve and ten years old, respectively, listened from the door-way. "She just wants to go driving with that boy," Connie whispered. Gail nodded.
"Well, you've got plenty of clothes," their mother said.
"Can't I trade this for something new?" Bev pressed. "It's our vacation. I want to wear the right thing."
The day had been full of rushing around. Betty had packed for all five daughters, of whom Bev was second oldest. Darkness had fallen over the leafy northern Indiana city, and suitcases lined the walls of the tiny home, ready to be shoe-horned into the wood-paneled family station wagon for the next day's journey. From the living room, sounds of voices on television drifted in as their father, Russell, finally got off his feet for a bit.
"Are you all packed up?" Betty asked.
"I think so. Yes." Bev could sense a weakening in her mother's resistance.
"Then go ask Daddy."
Bev's eyes gleamed. She paused before walking toward the living room, gathering her thoughts, her eyes reflecting the words she was about to say.
Everyone knew Bev was clever and highly intelligent and not a schemer. Her sisters considered her the kindest and most playful sister. Her giggle was infectious and smart, not silly. It emanated from a warm heart that loved to laugh. She spent a lot of time with her younger sisters — playing make-believe school in the basement and volleyball in the park, and roller-skating and bike riding on the sidewalks around their house.
Measured in birthday invitations, Bev was the most popular outside the home as well. On Valentine's Day a month earlier, she had received fl owers from a number of boys at school. Few were brave enough to come calling to the house, but Bev's sisters knew she was the focus of special attention from boys.
Bev was at the head of her class academically as well, her report card a tribute to the first letter of the alphabet. When not socializing or playing, she sat in the house and read dense books with no pictures in them and sometimes Latin primers. She had recently won the highest honor given in eighth grade, the Daughters of the American Revolution award, for being the student with the best academic performance, best citizenship, and most well-rounded personality. The family had gathered at the school to watch the presentation, her sisters giddy with excitement, Russell and Betty taking lots of pictures. Nobody in the family had received such an award before, but it seemed obvious that it would go to Bev.
Bev also served as crossing guard at the school, a conspicuous honor given to only the most responsible students. Every day, she left class early, put on her patrol belt, and helped children safely cross the street after school. It made her proud that she had been entrusted with the lives of her younger schoolmates.
Tonight, Bev's well-known tenacity was on display. Her sisters were right. She was indeed hoping to spend a few moments with John Thornton before heading to Kentucky for spring break. She barely knew him — he was seventeen and a senior in high school, and she was fourteen. John had asked her to a dance, prodded by his best friend, Chuck, who was dating Bev's older sister, Sue. Bev's parents agreed she could go to the dance, and John began dropping by the house to get to know her. In truth, Chuck had pressured him into it.
"You can't ask a girl to a dance and then ignore her for two months," Chuck scolded John. That made sense to John. If he didn't get to know Bev, what would they talk about at the dance?
Normally, the Gilvin and Thornton families would never have associated. They shared no friends, no church, no clubs, and little cultural background. The Gilvins were transplanted Southerners. Russell had moved the family from Kentucky to Indiana after World War II in search of a better job and now drove a truck for one of the factories that had sprung up in the Midwest after the war. The Gilvins' modest home, with a simple porch out back and a tiny awning over the front door, could barely contain their growing family. Four girls shared one bedroom. Three-year-old April slept in her parents' room. If someone sneezed at night, everyone said, "Bless you."
The Thorntons resided on the opposite side of town — and on the opposite side of the social spectrum. Their two-story home faced the St. Joseph River on a new, well-to-do street in Mishawaka. John's dad was a proud Notre Dame graduate, a politician and businessman who partnered with the Chicago mafia and ran an illegal casino behind a false wall in Mishawaka's most upscale restaurant, the Lincoln Highway Inn. When his political party was in office, he wielded great power locally, running the license bureau. Political cartoons of him appeared in the local newspaper's opinion pages, and reporters knew better than to dig too deeply into his affairs. The Thorntons were big fish in a small pond and often made the ninety-minute trip to socialize with Chicago's elite. Mrs. Thornton kept weekly appointments at the bridge club and beauty parlor. Their calendar was full and so was their bank account.
When John turned sixteen, his father took him to the auto dealership on Highway 31 in nearby Niles, Michigan.
"Pick out a car," he said, waving his hand toward the lot.
John, newly licensed, chose a sporty, cream-colored '62 Corvair, and his father purchased it outright.
Russell and Betty naturally had not allowed Bev and John to go out alone, protective as they were of their daughters. Russell was gentle and gregarious, a natural salesman and an easy friend, but he was not so friendly to teenage boys interested in taking his daughters around town without supervision. John and Bev had already failed to get his permission to go for ice cream without Chuck and Sue. In John's first visit to the Gilvin house, Russell had seemed standoffish, powerful, and mysterious. It didn't hurt that he had the muscles of a dock worker from driving heavy trucks before the advent of power steering. John got the distinct impression that if he caught him crossways, Russell might chase him around the side of the house with a baseball bat or maybe one of those Kentucky long-barrel shotguns.
Still, John had been courageous enough to call on Bev again, and even with limited interactions, puppy love was blooming between them like the dogwood trees along the boulevard. Now, on the night before the family's spring break trip, Bev approached her father in the living room, heart more hopeful than when she began. Blue television light radiated against the drapes and against his hands, resting on the arms of his chair.
"Daddy?" Bev said. She never faked sincerity. Even when asking with a purpose, she could only come across as sweet and believable. They were kindred spirits, she and her father — witty and sociable but gentle and kind.
"Mm-hm," Russell replied.
"I wanted to go exchange this blouse at Goldblatt's. I'd like to get a better one for our vacation."
"You're running out of time. Goldblatt's closes at nine."
"If I go soon, I can make it."
"Did you ask your mother?"
"She said to ask you." Bev paused. "If it's easier, John can take me."
Russell didn't respond immediately.
"He's got his license," Bev added helpfully.
Her father's thoughts seemed set on the next day and the long drive, not on the television show that continued before him. Connie and Gail stood behind Bev and awaited the verdict.
"I hope they let her go," Gail said softly, thinking of her brand-new roller skates. Bev was the hero among the girls that Christmas because she had prevailed on their parents to buy them all new roller skates — not the clip-on kind but roller skates with real boots.
"I hope they say no," Connie whispered back. "That boy's too old for her."
Russell seemed ready for bed and tired of making decisions. He heaved the air from his lungs.
"Whatever your mother says."
"Okay. Thank you." Bev went quickly to see her mother, her goal coming to unlikely fruition. "Daddy says it's okay with him if it's okay with you."
Betty looked up from packing a bag for April and shook her head a few times slowly, unconvinced but worn down. Bev wasn't usually this insistent, and the other girls needed help getting to bed. Tomorrow would be long, and she didn't want cranky kids stuck in the car together.
"Fine," Betty said. "Go ahead and go. Just don't be late. And come right back."
"Yes, Mom," Bev said and disappeared to call John before her parents' decision could change. Gail beamed at Connie. Connie bunched up her lips.
"He's still too old for her," she said. Gail shrugged and hopped off to make sure she had gathered all the toys she wanted to take.
Lately, Bev's sisters admired not just her grace and gentleness but her deepening faith. The Gilvins were regular church attenders but not overly religious. Russell often worked second jobs on Sundays or went to car shows. Betty took the girls to Twin Branch Bible Church, a congregation that met in a three-hundred-seat A- frame building twelve doors down from their home. Bev had always embraced faith more passionately than the others in her family. She worked with Child Evangelism Fellowship to conduct backyard Bible clubs and summer 5-Day Clubs for children. She also began attending Youth for Christ meetings led by a committed young couple, George and Pat Phillips. Their zeal for the Bible and prayer inspired Bev, and in recent weeks, her prayers took on an urgency that caught the attention of the Phillipses and her friends.
"Pray for this boy I like, that he'll come to Jesus," Bev asked repeatedly at Youth for Christ meetings. "And for my dad to come to Jesus too."
That prayer became the focus of her life, and friends heard her pray with startling passion, "God, use me in any way that you want to see John and my dad come to know Christ."
John had attended church with Bev's family a couple of times, though he would have rather spent time alone with Bev, enjoying conversation outside the presence of spying sisters and Bev's parents. That kind of opportunity had not come until now, the evening of March 30, 1962.
At around eight o'clock, John pulled up outside the Gilvin home in his Corvair. The quad headlights lit up the street, and the Chevy bow-tie badge seemed to glow with inner warmth. Without making a scene, Bev traipsed out the back door and hopped into the passenger seat. John's lanky frame and goofy smile were visible in the darkness.
"Hey," he said.
"Hi," Bev responded, grinning across the divided bench seat. He thought she was vivacious and beautiful, good-hearted and mischievous, all in right measure.
"Well, here we go."
John took the long way to Goldblatt's, making a circle around town. Otherwise it was too quick, and there was no time to be together.
"Isn't the dance going to be fun?" Bev said.
John shrugged. "I don't dance much. I guess we'll watch Chuck and Sue."
"I think we could try," Bev offered.
He nodded. There was a silence. "Kentucky, huh?"
"My Aunt Beulah's farm. It's always so much fun. They have farm animals, and my cousins will be there."
"Pretty far away."
"A day's worth, I guess. But it's a pretty drive."
John drove on in silence.
"Guess I'll see you when I get back," Bev said.
"That'd be nice."
John was often at a loss for words with Bev. She struck him as so smart and genuine and promising. John, by contrast, was disappointing his family's academic expectations. Classrooms didn't fit him well. As a boy, he stared out the windows at passing airplanes, wondering where the passengers were going and wishing he could join them. When teachers called on him, especially in math class, he usually had no answer. Equations made no sense to him. This surprised his parents because Wilson Thornton, John's grandfather, was known for a geometric algorithm he created in 1951, which was lauded among mathematicians across the country. Wilson's name even appeared in popular geometry textbooks.
John was a different bird. In grade school when the teacher taught two plus two is four, John's immediate response was, "Why? Who says it's got to be four? Let's make it five. How about twenty?" It seemed to him that teachers were assigning arbitrary numbers to arrive at easy solutions. John questioned everything in the same independently minded way. It didn't help his grades.
His parents put him in college prep classes in high school, clinging to their dream of another generation of Fighting Irish. Many family members — cousins, uncles, grandparents — were college-bound or had their degrees framed and hanging on the wall. The plan was for John to attend college and become a teacher. But reality was going another direction.
Finally, the high school principal sat the Thorntons down.
"John won't be following in your footsteps to Notre Dame, Mr. Thornton," he said bluntly. "He hasn't performed well enough. He's had to take extra classes to make up for the ones he failed. Right now, he's struggling in all his college preparatory classes. My question is, do you want him to graduate from high school at all? If so, I recommend he switch to classes he can pass and enroll in summer school so he can at least earn a diploma."
It was bitter news for the Thorntons, but not much more could be done. They had given him the best they could with their money, influence, and encouragement. Now, with an uncertain future ahead of him, John would have to make his own path.
"Say, how do you drive a car like this?" Bev asked as they glided through the night. A light spring snow still graced the sidewalks, though the streets were clear of it.
"You mean shifting gears?"
"Yes. Daddy's trucks always have a gear shifter coming up from the floor."
"This one's very much the same. You just — well, here. Put your hand here."
He pointed to the gear shift protruding from the floor.
"I'll speed up. You move that thing when I say so."
John stepped on the gas as they traveled down the four-lane road.
"Okay — now," he said. Bev switched the gearshift lever. The car smoothly settled into a higher gear and a lower rev. "Good job, Bev!"
Bev smiled. "I drove a car! I can't wait to get my license someday. Then I could drive us places."
John smiled back in spite of himself. He was drawn to the liveliness and affection of the Gilvin family. Home life at the Thorntons' was good but staid. They showed love through duty and commitment, not gauche displays of emotion or bantering conversation. Something about this Southern family and this girl sitting an arm's length from him struck him as fresh and exciting.
"Coming up to Goldblatt's," he announced with a trace of new-driver's pride.
Goldblatt's was in the town's new shopping plaza on Miracle Lane. Bethel College, a small Christian school, sat opposite the mall. They had named the street, deeming it a miracle they had been able to buy the campus. Bev, her hands folded on the white blouse in her lap, sighed contentedly and pondered what she would exchange it for. She was thinking of a pair of blue jeans.
John signaled and arced left into the intersection.
The impact was so sudden and jarring that neither John nor Bev knew what had happened. Coming the opposite way across Miracle Lane, a pickup truck banged the Corvair's passenger side bumper, sending John's car spinning backward and sideways. Another car collided with the back of it. John's head smacked the window and driver's side door. Bev's head came down squarely on the dashboard. For both of them, everything went black.
The three damaged cars sat silently, waiting for help. Bystanders rushed over, alerting other drivers and peering into car windows.
"That sports car turned into the intersection. He must not have seen the oncoming traffic."
"Who hit him?"
"That truck. It can't have been going more than thirty, forty miles an hour."
"Nobody looks too badly hurt."
The pickup driver got out of his banged-up vehicle and walked over.
"You okay?" someone asked.
"I think I'm fine," he said. "He turned right in front of me. I couldn't stop."
He sat on the curb and waited. Within minutes, emergency personnel arrived and helped John from the car.
"Can you stand up?" a medic asked.
"Yeah," he said, feeling woozy and not completely aware of what had just happened.
"Can you walk over here and sit down?"
"Does it hurt anywhere?"
John held up his hand. There was a small cut on the back of it. The medic looked him over before ushering him to the ambulance.
"You're a lucky boy," he said. "They'll stitch that hand up for you at the hospital."
"This one's not awake yet," said another medic, examining Bev in the passenger seat.
"How's she doing? She alive?" one medic asked.
Excerpted from All but Normal by Shawn Thornton, Joel Kilpatrick, Jonathan Schindler. Copyright © 2016 Shawn Thornton. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
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