Before now I have never talked about my childhood friend Jimmy Crafton. It took a long long time to build up enough courage. Writing this on Christmas Eve makes it easier.
It is not a terrible story. I can’t think of anybody that fits the idea of a “hero” any more than Jim. I remember him as a pale-faced little boy with a thousand Watt smile full of tiny white teeth. He was two years younger than me. He was in my sister’s class at Rowan Elementary. He was outgoing and funny. And he was a hemophiliac. He had the rare condition of having too little of the essential blood-clotting proteins in the blood that the vast majority of us get to take for granted. Every day for him was a risk of having an ordinary injury like a bruise or scrape cause him to bleed to death. He missed great gobs of school days with injuries and crippling pain and the need to go to the emergency room in Mason City for life-saving blood transfusions. We were told when I was eight that he probably wouldn’t last past his tenth birthday. The teachers all gave us strict rules for playing with him on the playground… what not to do, what to immediately report, and what not to allow him to do. I remember one time he decided to wrestle both Bobby and me at the same time. He had a deep and passionate love for the sport of wrestling, big in the high schools of Iowa. He aggressively took us both down and pinned us both with minimum effort. And you should stop laughing at how wimpy that makes me sound. Remember, I had to play the game by different rules than he did. Bob and I both had to live with the consequences if bad things were to happen.
The miracle of Jim Crafton was that he did not die in childhood due to his genetic medical difficulty. In fact, he grew up, went to college, and became a doctor all because of the gratitude he had towards the doctors and medical professionals who helped him conquer hemophilia in childhood. He got married. And he even had a son. Those were things he accomplished in life that no one believed were possible back in the 1960’s.
But now we get to the part that I can’t write without typing through tears. A hemophiliac relies on regular transfusions of blood to supply the clotting factors that he cannot live without. And there was no effective screening technique for HIV in blood supplies before 1992. Further problems arose from the blood bank practice of mixing blood donations together by blood type. That meant that even clean blood donations were likely to become tainted through mixing. Far too many of the hemophiliacs in America were given infected blood and became AIDS sufferers at a time when a diagnosis of HIV was basically a death sentence. And worse, AIDS sufferers were often isolated and treated like lepers for fear of contracting the disease from ordinary contact with them. You might remember the sad case of Ricky Ray in Florida. He and his two brothers were all hemophiliacs. They all were infected. They were expelled from school. They even had to live in hiding after loving members of their community burned their house down. We were horrible to people who were dying of AIDS.
But I can’t leave this essay on such a sad note. My friend Jimmy was a hero, a doctor, and a dad. He lived a life worth living and worth knowing about. His life was a gift to all of us lesser beings. And this is the time of year for remembering those we have loved and lost. Jim died of AIDS decades ago. But he still lives in my heart and my memory. And if you have read this little story, he lives in you now too. That is a sort of magic, isn’t it? I only wish I had more powerful magic to give.