Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 9, 2007

Music, cops and cousin Pete

My cousin Pete turned 51 late last month - nothing unusual, except he was only supposed to live to age 21, that being the life expectancy for a child born with Down syndrome in the 1950s.

After he was born, Uncle Bob and Aunt Hazel told their other boys, Bob Jr., then 14, and Jeff, then 9, that their little brother might not live long. Then they set about raising Peter with the same love and dedication they gave their other sons.

Although I didn't think much about it at the time, over the years, I came to admire and appreciate the patience, perseverance and just plain love that Bob, Hazel, Bob Jr. and Jeff showed Peter all those years.

When I was little, I always looked forward to their visits. Many summers, they drove from their home in California to ours in Kansas and we traveled by train to visit them.

Since Bobby and Jeff were several years older than sister Gaila and me, they would go off on adventures with our older brother Dave, while Peter, Gaila and I often would hang out together.

At times, though, Peter's rambunctiousness could be somewhat daunting. My sister was sometimes afraid he'd hug her too hard. I worried he might accidentally hit one of us when he threw rocks at the granary door, one of his rituals when he visited us on the farm.

But we loved him and were fiercely protective, glaring at anyone who stared at him.

Bob Jr. also remembers the stares and said the public wasn't nearly as receptive to those with Down syndrome then as they are today.

He and his wife Kate talk about Pete with deep affection.

"He's just plain fun to be around," Bob Jr. said. "He contributes a lot to our lives."

Peter has a sunny personality and mischievous grin and enjoys people. He loved being with Mom and Dad. After Dad died, the next time he saw Mom, he gave her a hug and said, "Edgar." When we paid a visit to the farm a few days later, he said "Edgar" again - his way of saying he was thinking of his uncle.

Peter has always loved music. He sits cross-legged, puts on his head phones and shakes his tennis shoes and bangs them together. He has an uncanny ability to identify songs and the artists. One time when his brothers were playing "Trivial Pursuit" and it came time to name musical groups, Pete answered before any of the others could respond.

When Aunt Hazel died in 1989, Uncle Bob wanted to make sure that Pete would be well cared for when he was gone. So Bob Jr., Kate and Jeff found a group home called Wide Horizons in Ogden, Utah, not far from where Bob and Kate live. Pete has been living there since.

Pete visits Bob Jr. and Kate regularly, but they said he is always anxious to go back to Wide Horizons, where he has many friends and enjoys numerous activities, including Special Olympics, fishing, hiking, snowmobiling, dancing, eating out, movies and bowling.

Pete has a job that involves counting out bone-shaped biscuits for a pet food production company. One day Bob Jr. and Kate took Jeff along on a surprise visit.

"When he saw us, he hugged all of us and said, 'My Jeff!'" Kate said. "Then it wasn't long before he was back at work again. Talk about a work ethic!"

Bob Jr. laughed when he recalled the time he and Pete were traveling in Bob's Buick Park Avenue. As they zipped down the interstate, they were singing "Jeremiah Was a Bull Frog" by the group Three Dog Night.

"We were singing about birds and fishes in the deep blue sea and Pete was flopping his arms and having a great time," Bob said.

Suddenly three police cars came up behind them, lights flashing.

"Pete loved cops so seeing them made him even more excited," Bob said. "I slowed down and stopped and the police cars boxed me in - two in front and one in back. The cop in the back car came out with his gun drawn and told me to put my hands up where he could see them. In the meantime, Pete was going even more nuts than ever."

It seems the area was a known route for transporting drugs and Bob was sure the cops thought Pete was on drugs.

"I rolled my window down and tried to explain the situation," he said. "The cops were completely befuddled. They said they believed me, but they never did apologize."

When Bob and Pete arrived at Bob and Kate's, Pete was so excited that the first thing out of his mouth was, "Kate, cops, cops!"

In the 1950s, many Down syndrome children were "sent away" to institutions. Bob Jr. said he remembers seeing a facility for the mentally handicapped, where the chaos and lack of cleanliness made him feel fortunate that his parents decided to keep Pete at home.

And I feel that way as well for Pete has had a positive impact on my life. The last time I saw him was at his Dad's 90th birthday party in late 2005. He looked a little older - but he still had that impish grin. Happy Birthday, cousin!

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