Well, Kenny Graham finally got his Rialta motor home.
At the beginning of the year, Kenny picked up the newly refurbished vehicle in Southern California and drove it back to Bakersfield, grinning all the way.
Exhausted from the excitement and the trip, the 75-year-old former pro football star spent the night at his friend Mark Downing’s house downtown.
When Downing got up about 4 a.m. to check on Kenny, he and the Rialta were long gone.
The next day, I — along with Downing; one of Kenny’s childhood friends, Howdy Miller; Kenny’s brother, Will Graham; and Bryce Miller, a sports writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune — searched all of Kenny’s usual haunts but no luck.
We worried over his safety and wondered if we’d seen the last of the cantankerous, funny, always lively Kenny Graham.
His brother, Will, who’d been through this a time or two with Kenny, tut-tutted our concern.
“He’ll be back,” he assured.
Turns out Kenny did exactly what he told me he’d do the month before — drove to Santa Monica, sat on the beach and smoked a cigarette.
And, sure enough, he came back to Bakersfield, to the vacant lot his father had left him, where I first met him in late May 2016 when he was living under a fig tree.
DON’T FENCE HIM IN
Kenny, a former standout player for the San Diego Chargers in the early days of the American Football League, is nothing if not consistent.
He had been staying at a transitional facility in Oildale, which he didn’t like, from late fall through December.
The room was fine. The food was fine.
But it was a locked facility and he couldn’t smoke in his room.
He nicknamed one of the main staff members “Gestapo lady.” (She was very nice, actually.)
The other thing the staff there did was make sure he took his antibiotics to wipe out any lingering tuberculosis, which he’d had as a kid.
He needs a medical all-clear on the TB before he can get into Brookdale Senior Living, the ultimate goal of his friends, family and administrators of the “88 Plan.”
The 88 Plan was approved last fall by the NFL Player Care Foundation and provides Kenny up to $130,000 a year for the rest of his life to pay for medical and housing needs related to his dementia, which was likely caused by repeated blows to the head during his playing days.
That kind of safety net would be a godsend to most folks.
HIS WAY OR NO WAY
Did I mention that Kenny is also legendarily stubborn?
“Brookdale?” he said when I saw him last week at the downtown post office. “Why would I go there? I have my home parked right out there.”
He’s suspicious Brookdale, like the Oildale place, will have too many rules and he can’t come and go as he likes. That he couldn’t keep his Rialta.
His brother, Will, explains the benefits and that it wouldn’t cramp his style and, oh, yeah, it’s free.
Kenny likes the sound of that because, as he frequently reminds me, “If it’s free, I’ll take two.”
But a few minutes later he confuses it with the Oildale place and complains about rules.
For the past three months his routine hasn’t changed much.
He comes to the post office to go through his reams of sweepstakes mail (“I’m trying to win some capital.”), has coffee with Downing, cuts the weeds on his lot (“I gotta keep code enforcement off my back!”) and takes trips to his old hometown of Santa Monica.
SHORT-TERM MEMORY, LONG-TERM PROBLEMS
Lots of trips, as it turns out. About 12 or 13 since getting the Rialta on Jan. 4.
So many that a check-engine light is on, the sewage tank needs dumping and he’s out of fresh water.
He tried to get that taken care of at a VW dealership in Santa Monica but was turned away.
He rants for a few minutes that maybe the dealership didn’t like the look of his skin.
I explain that a dealership wouldn’t handle RV black water, that there are places right here in Bakersfield where he can take care of that.
Oh, he says, and we move on to other subjects.
A few minutes later, he’s back to the VW dealership.
“I have money!” he says.
A little later in the conversation, he tells me he took a ride in a Hall ambulance. Why? He’s not totally sure, but now he has a $4,000 bill that he tells Downing he’s paying $5 and $10 at a time despite the fact that the 88 Plan would likely cover it all.
Clearly, Kenny’s short-term memory is getting worse.
But ask him about football, or even his Little League days, and Kenny can recall every catch, every hit, his teammates and all his coaches.
On one of his Santa Monica jaunts, he went back to the field where he played as a kid and shows me the Santa Monica Little League baseball he picked up there.
He puts it in his hand and his fingers immediately curl into position.
“I had a great knuckleball,” he says and grins at the memory.
I wonder how many others are dealing with a “Kenny” in their own families.
Strong-minded, stubborn and just forgetful enough that safety is becoming a real issue.
I imagine quite a few.
CLIPPING HIS WINGS
While Kenny is gleeful about the freedom the Rialta has given him, his friends and family fret that the motor home — a gift from one of his former Charger teammates — has created a whole different set of problems than he was facing before.
That became apparent when he didn’t show for a lunch he promised to attend late last week.
It was believed he was headed to Sacramento to visit his children, but since he let the service on his phone lapse, no one could be certain.
So, Miller, Will and Downing met at Sandrini’s and strategized.
What to do?
Kenny needs structure, a to-do list, reminders, Will said.
“He does OK when he has a routine.”
Perhaps a laminated calendar inside the Rialta that he could use to physically check off things like “take your pill,” “charge your phone,” “service the RV” would help him focus.
They all agree to put something together that would get Kenny back on track toward Brookdale.
They just need to find him first.