Down in Number 5
is inspired by the true story of Carl Short and his son Sammy. My father grew up in WWII Appalachia, and Sammy was his childhood playmate. But when my father grew up, Sammy remained a child. Eventually I got to know Sammy as well when we sat together, singing hymns in a tiny church in Midkiff, West Virginia.
In 1986 Carl found out he was terminally ill and approached my father to take Sammy on. When my father was unable to do so, Carl took his fate and that of his beloved son into his own hands. The news came as such a shock, but even as a teenager I never questioned that Carl's act was anything but one of love.
When I began researching the story 20 years later, I asked friends and family how they felt about Carl's decision. They condemned the act as one of cowardice and senseless desperation. But then I went to five West Virginia families with adult Down Syndrome children. We spent hours discussing Carl's story and their own. Every single one of those parents empathized with Carl and admitted to entertaining similar thoughts. They are perpetually haunted by the question of what will happen to their child after they are gone, and the belief that no one can take care of their child like they can.
Carl represents a bygone era when people helped each other to get by. Without this community support structure, Carl's back was against the wall. He simply did not have access to resources that most of us take for granted. These circumstances in combination with the Appalachian mentality of stoicism and graceful acceptance may have brought Carl to his final decision. Down in Number 5
is my attempt to fill in the blanks and tell the story of Carl and Sammy with compassion, dignity and respect.