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The Ride of His Life : Willie Ross lives in a mysterious world of silence. But his parents know what truly excites him: Limos.

February 13, 1996|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bobby and Gene "Bud" Ross watch their son Willie shift his attention from a magazine to the overhead lights as he awaits his turn at the Palisades Barber Shop. He closes one eye and raises a hand, gazing in silence at its mysterious ballet of slow, flowing movements.

They watch as Willie steps into John Barrowman's chair without being told. As a teenager, Willie would thrash violently, and it would take the strength of both of them to hold him still.

So often during Willie's life, their strength has been tested.

In 1964, the same year Bobby's oldest son from a previous marriage walked up to their back door in Longmeadow, Mass., complaining of a rash, a doctor confirmed that she was pregnant. It was in the midst of an outbreak of rubella, commonly known as the German measles.

Bobby and a second son also fell ill. They were among 12.5 million rubella cases reported during the outbreak. And Willie, born on Valentine's Day of 1965, was one of 20,000 children born during the outbreak with congenital rubella syndrome, according to the records of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Of those 20,000 babies born of mothers who contracted rubella during their first trimester, 11,600 were born deaf, 1,800 were developmentally disabled. Willie was both.

Through meticulous notes that Bobby keeps in her journal, she recalls how in August of 1981, when Willie was 17, there was a transient pause as he sat motionless in Barrowman's chair; and she thought to herself, "Just look at him. He looks so handsome and grown up. So normal."

Willie is 30 now. He has made small strides over giant hurdles. He has learned a sketchy vocabulary through gestures and sign language, words and phrases but not complete sentences.

For the most part, Willie's life of silence is a mystery. He cannot fully understand our world as we cannot understand his, creating a void through which no passage has been found.

Still, inferences can be made based on his behavior, and that is how his parents know that one thing that truly excites him, that causes him to stand on his toes and thrust out his chest, raise his head and breathe heavily until he breaks out in a sweat . . . is limousines.

It has been that way since he was a child.

Toys or cartoons didn't interest him, but for unknown reasons limos did. Since 1982, his parents have rented him a limo for his birthday, for each celebration of his life.

Late last year an advertisement for the 12th annual Limousine & Chauffeur Show in Las Vegas caught Bobby's glance. She decided to send Willie, even though it was a week before his birthday.

But first he needs a haircut.

*

From a hill near their home in Pacific Palisades, you can see Catalina Island, Los Angeles International Airport, downtown L.A.--all of which are hidden by clouds as Bud and Willie, with neatly trimmed hair, quietly walk their familiar route.

It remains a special moment between father and son. After Willie had surgery to lengthen his Achilles' tendons to prevent him from walking tip-toed, Bud pushed him up this hill in a wheelchair.

Willie walks stiffly, unlike the graceful strides he showed as a youngster running on the beach. But the feeling of movement enthralls him--standing on a pier and watching the tide, feeling the wooden planks tremble beneath him, riding roller coasters, forcefully slamming doors to feel the vibration.

In addition to being hearing impaired and developmentally disabled, he is legally blind and wears thick glasses. He examines the world largely through smell, touch and taste.

He pinches off bits of flowers and shrubs that line the street, lifting them to his nose then tossing them over a shoulder. Geraniums powder the air with their distinct scent. It is quiet except for birds and footsteps that Willie cannot hear.

Bud explains how since 1965 their lives have become a search for answers and for a place in life for Willie, one of their four sons. They searched for doctors and dentists, churches and restaurants, a barber who would not turn them away because of Willie's disruptive behavior.

When they couldn't find a program meeting the needs of hearing-impaired children, they helped start one in a church basement. The Willie Ross School for the Deaf in Longmeadow now is in its 29th year.

Shortly after the school opened, however, the family moved to Southern California, where they had once lived. Experts here told them that Willie could hear, that Willie could not hear, that he was autistic, that he was not.

All the while, the Rosses struggled to contain a child who was hammering fists into his head up to 400 times a day, thrusting his chin into his shoulders until they were bruised.

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