The Can Man: John’s Story

If you ask John Linville about his favorite things and he has his communication device handy, he might push the button that shows a picture of a small bottle. “I like working for Texas Pete,” the machine will say. And John will laugh out loud at his favorite thing.
Each of the keys on the device stands for a phrase or idea about something in John’s life that he might want to talk about. During the week, John works at Forsyth Industrial Systems, a county program for disabled adults where they often do contract work for local companies. John likes to pack bottles of Texas Pete hot sauce for shipping. So when the time came to program his speaking device, his caregivers made sure to include a key for Texas Pete.

John and the others at Forsyth Industrial get paid at the end of the week and John earns extra spending money by collecting cans for recycling. He keeps them in a bin at the back door of the group home he shares with five others on Independence Avenue. When he gets home in the afternoon, he crushes cans and when the bin is full someone from the group home sells them for him at a metal recycling plant.

Sometimes on payday, John will push the key that shows a picture of a check. “I got paid today,” the machine will say. That makes him laugh. So does the phrase he hears when he pushes the button showing a small, black beetle. “Bug off,” the machine says. Some days John finds his voice. “Bug off,” he will say. “Bug off.”

John was born with cerebral palsy and has never been able to speak. The electronic device makes it possible for him to use 40 phrases. That’s it. His caregivers update the device as his interests change. But his words are limited to the 40 keys on the board. However, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t “talk” about all kinds of things. Long before electronic devices, John figured out how to express himself about the things he had to say, so much so that people who know him well speak about the things they “talk” about with him in spite of the fact that he can barely say a single word.

John was one of triplets, born two months prematurely in an era when most babies that tiny died. John weighed two pounds, a little bit less than his brother Joe. The smallest, Jerry, died shortly after he was born. John’s sister Linda McCoy remembers going to the city hospital in Winston-Salem to see her mother. There was no air conditioning then and the window to her room was wide open. Linda remembers that her mother was glad for the “vacation” of a two-week stay in the hospital, after the ordeal of giving birth to triplets. The family held Jerry’s funeral without her. Linda remembers that his coffin was about the size of a loaf of bread.

Joe was healthy, but John was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. He was slower to start walking or sit up, and he required more care than the others. And he couldn’t speak.

The family lived on the south side of Winston-Salem, at the county line. Their mother, Sarah Nell Linville, went to work at McLean Trucking. Their father, Dwight, worked at Roadway. In the summer, the kids worked on their grandfather’s tobacco farm and kept up the community cemetery nearby. The Sears Roebuck catalogue sat on the table in the den – John’s lifeline to the spoken world. For example, if he wanted to mow the back yard, he would go get the Sears catalogue and point to a picture of a riding lawnmower. “Can you imagine not being able to talk and you want to tell them something,” Linda says. “But through the Sears catalogue, he could actually communicate.”

When John was still a child, someone suggested that his family check out Dorothea Dix, the state mental hospital in Raleigh. His father went to have a look and came home shattered by what he saw there. No matter what, he announced, John would always live at home. An institution was no place for his son.

His sisters and brother went to school or got married and moved away. John stayed home. His parents signed him up for what was then called the sheltered workshop. When his father died, someone suggested that his mother look into a group home. She did, and he moved to Independence Avenue in 1995. He was 47.

John learned to do things he never had at home. He kept his room clean. He cooked. He did his own laundry and he ironed. During the day he still goes to the sheltered workshop, now called Forsyth Industrial Systems. Once a month he goes to a dance for disabled adults.

Sharon Wilson, the manager at Independence, noticed his kindness early on. If someone is sick, he’s the one who tells her when she comes in Monday — tells her, that is, by leading her to his housemate’s room and pointing. Sharon and John are about the same age. When her mother died three years ago, he consoled her. And then it was his turn for grief.

John’s mother went into the hospital in November 2011. Linda often took John to see her. One day another sister, who lives out of state, joined them and afterwards they went to the K&W Cafeteria. “My sister said, ‘John do you want to say grace?’ and he nodded and he did his hands like this and he was saying something,” Linda says. “Well Jenny and I were blubbering at the table. But he knew exactly what he was saying.”

Sarah Nell Linville died Dec. 4, 2011 at the age of 97. I met John a month later. He showed me his communication device. “I like working at Texas Pete,” the machine told me. “I got paid today.” And then he wanted to show me his room, with the bed neatly made and his family photos arranged on his dresser. A bright yellow laundry basket that had been his mother’s sat on the floor at the foot of his bed. He pulled something off his bulletin board to show me. It was the program from his mother’s funeral service. The program shows her picture and says that she “received the gift of life on June 15, 1914 and the gift of eternal life on Dec. 4, 2011.” Sharon patted John’s back as he showed me the program and the pictures he keeps of him and his mother. “It’s OK,” she said. “It’s OK.” John didn’t have to say a word. I understood.

Phoebe Zerwick, October 2013