Danny Henry did not die Thursday.
That made it a good day.
“I’m alive,” Henry said, his left cheek a purple spiderweb of bruises from a late night stroll to relieve himself in the woods, where branches raked his 70-year-old face.
His bathroom is in the woods because Henry lives in the woods.
The morning sun slanted in but could not brush back the cold of 31 degrees. “Livin’, one more day.”
He woke up from his bed of old blankets and a tarp underneath bushes and trees a block from downtown Rock Hill where presidential candidates had come in hordes for months before the February primaries talking about fixing America and taking care of veterans. The candidates and their limousines and buses and security guards and Secret Service rolled right down the block from Interstate 77 past where Henry lay.
Former President Bill Clinton spoke a week earlier about 200 yards from where Henry shivered.
Under one blanket was a half-empty pint of whiskey, wrapped up a bit because glass breaks. Under another blanket were adult diapers in a bag, half-empty too.
Next to the makeshift bed, which was next to the swiped shopping cart that held his whole life, sat worn-out sneakers with holes in the soles. Next to that lay several books. Henry will read a book, that’s for sure. He’s no dummy. He’s got two years of college under his belt and a life of day labor and, five decades ago, Vietnam – where his country sent him to fight a war.
One book, dog-eared, thumbed from a million readings, is longtime best-seller “Left Behind.”
“That’s just a story, make-believe,” Henry said. “Fiction. ‘Left Behind’ is just the name of it. This is real.”
Pointing at the tarp and the blankets, the guy – about 5 feet 2 inches tall – somehow smiled.
Next to him was retired state trooper and Air Force veteran Jim Carter, who works for the York County Veterans Affairs Office.
“Not the first time for me to take a trip with Danny,” Carter said. “He’s a documented veteran, Vietnam. We help him every time we can, when he will take the help.”
Henry is a regular at the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen, where he usually eats six days a week. I’ve interviewed him there a few times. Always a good quote, Danny Henry, a quick wit. He’s bounced around for years, doing yard work for a buck. He does not deny that he drinks whiskey or beer when he has money.
“Don’t like wine, though,” Henry said.
He had been living with a friend, Kim Gwynne, but Gwynne said it could go on no longer, so Henry needed help. He told me where to find him in the woods, and then the veterans office people came back again. Another longtime homeless friend, Terry Goins, a roommate of Henry’s when they had enough money for a place to stay, also tries to look out for him.
Henry has spent more than a few days in the Rock Hill city jail in the past 15 years, always standing up tall and pleading guilty to the eight counts on his record that include stealing electric current and public disorderly intoxication and a few driving offenses back when he drove.
“Danny, you ready?” Carter asked.
“Ain’t sure,” Henry said.
And there it was.
Henry had agreed the day before, Wednesday, after I found him in those woods and called county veterans affairs director Joe Medlin and found out that everybody there knew him and had helped Henry many times. But the help never seemed to stick. Just two weeks ago, they had taken him to a shelter.
But Henry does his thing and changes his mind.
The veterans office had found Henry’s family, who could no longer do anything for him. Henry had left a VA hospital before, after Medlin and Carter took him. Here he was, back behind a house in the woods.
Medlin, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, dropped all he was doing Wednesday and came right over to tell Henry that he would take him right then to the VA hospital. Henry would get the medical treatment and more that he is entitled to in this country that he fought for.
“Danny, I can’t make you go, but you don’t have to be sleeping out here,” Medlin told him. “You don’t have to be homeless.”
Henry agreed to go.
“I need a change of venue,” he said, strongly enunciating the word “ven-yew,” and looked at the woods where his life was piled. “That isn’t a home anyway.”
But Henry wanted to get his Social Security money first.
“$640 every month, direct deposit, right in the bank down the street,” Henry said.
There is not a street person in Rock Hill who does not know that. Henry’s monthly money sparked more York County benders than an I-77 pile-up.
Yet that meant Wednesday night into Thursday morning Henry sleeping in the cold. All prayed for clear skies.
Finally, Thursday morning, Henry told Carter, who was there early: “Let’s do it.”
Carter told him all the blankets, the tarp, the shopping cart – there was no place at the hospital for that stuff. Henry nodded. He had to leave it behind.
Henry packed up a tattered backpack with a few things. Gwynne hugged him and told him to get the help he needs. Goins shook his hand.
Henry got into the front seat of the Veterans Affairs car. In his hand was the book, “Left Behind.”
Carter pulled out into traffic, with Henry safely strapped under a seat belt (a retired state trooper is still a state trooper), and headed to the Dorn VA hospital in Columbia.
Danny Wayne Henry was not left behind any more.
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065
Follow Herald columnist Andrew Dys on Twitter @AndrewDysHerald
Need help? Want to help?
If you or someone you know is a veteran who needs help, or if you want to learn more about what you can do to help veterans, call the York County Veterans Affairs office at 803-909-7525.