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Tony Overcame Child Abuse and Embraced Life; Now He Faces Death at 15 : Love: Tony's parents beat him and allowed their friends to molest him. His only friend committed suicide and his father killed his cat. But Tony survived and inspires those who know him.


NEW YORK — Like a lot of guys his age, Tony has Playboy magazines stuffed under his mattress, die-hard hopes for the Yankees, a weakness for chocolate chip cookies and for pretzels that smell of charcoal.

He's also got 54 badly healed bones and a battered body in which infection routinely makes a home. He has suffered a stroke and, little by little, lost much of his left leg. He should not have survived his childhood.

Perhaps because this blue-eyed blond boy was the son of a civil servant and a woman who might be your smiling neighbor, or because he was a gifted and eager student, his teachers never imagined that there might be bruises beneath his layered sweatshirts.

They did not know that he had no bed in his closet-sized room, no coat to wear in winter, no comfort or safety. His parents withheld food, beat him, taunted him, and laughed. They encouraged their friends to molest him, then laughed some more.

The final, irrevocable legacy of Tony's young life is AIDS.

Horrifying as it is, Tony's story is not a sad one. He is 15 today, and he has something to say. "A Rock and a Hard Place," to be published this month by Crown, is his story, a stark but beautiful account of one child's extraordinary grace.

The story begins on the book jacket: Anthony Godby Johnson. To protect their privacy, family and friends are not identified. But the author's name is out front--a proud symbol he did not come by easily, as most kids do.

For a long time, he was just Tony.

As a child, he made lists in huge block letters of the things he longed for most. Always at the top: "Get hugs and kisses like everyone else."

Then, sitting on his front stoop amid New York traffic, he'd release his wishes into the sooty breeze. In the wind, he imagined, there might be magic. He may have been right. Or maybe the magic is simply Tony. Even his voice is full of music, impossibly light.

It was this voice that spoke into a pay phone receiver at 85th Street and Amsterdam Avenue four years ago, on a night that in many ways marked the beginning of his rebirth.

He hadn't dialed the national suicide hotline for help. His decision was made. His courage was used up. He wanted only to let someone know that a boy named Tony had once lived. He didn't want simply, silently to slip away.

Suddenly, though, Tony was crying as he never had before. And from hundreds of miles away, a man with a gentle Southern drawl somehow was able to reach and hold the shuddering boy.

"I promise we'll do something," said the retired serviceman Tony would soon call Pop. And, despite himself, Tony believed it might be true. He took the local referral number and that very night met "a lady with the most beautiful smiling blue eyes I had ever seen." He soon would call her Mom.

She first glimpsed him outside a Midtown diner, his hair too long and his coatless body tiny against the dark winter night. She remembers how solemnly the 11-year-old held the door for her. When they got up to go, Tony tried to pay for her coffee.

They soon sped to a hospital where, perhaps sensing for the first time that he was safe, his body broke down. The vigil was long, and over his bed Tony's new mom fell in love with the gentle man with the Southern drawl who had flown in from Arkansas to make good on his promise.

The couple married and secured legal custody of the boy who had brought them together. In time, the people he no longer refers to as parents were convicted of child abuse and punished.

Finally, he had a family. In a way, though, it was another family that had kept him alive, a patchwork of characters who provided a soul-saving counterpoint to the soul-killing world he knew at home.

There were teachers who embraced him with a sense of self-respect; a coach nicknamed Dogface who gave him a baseball diamond; the Muppets and the make-believe neighborhood of Mister Rogers, who has written the afterward to "A Rock and a Hard Place."

There was Zeke, who toted trash in exchange for shelter in the storeroom of a building near school. From him, Tony learned how to blow bubble gum and properly appreciate doo-wop music. "When the goings-on at home were too much to contend with, I'd find Zeke sitting on a box in front of the building," he writes. "With him I had the luxury of being a child."

There was PG, a stray cat with attitude and an endless hunger for leftover lunch meat. From her and the kittens she bore, Tony learned about the bonds of love. "Even if I didn't eat that day, she wouldn't go hungry, and so, in my own twisted way, I was securing my own survival," he writes. "It made me feel alive and vital."

Most of all there was a best friend named David, also the product of an unhappy home, one he escaped by taking care of his schoolmate.

"David found out which subways had heated cars, and always had two tokens," Tony writes. "We'd ride the train all night and take turns keeping watch while the other slept."

But all these friendships ended in senseless loss.

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