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Editor's column: ‘Sweet lemonade’

When the past helps, not haunts: Marshall man displaced by last week’s fire says past experiences help him move on

June 30, 2012
By Per Peterson , Marshall Independent

James Schank spent 15 years of his life living on the streets of San Francisco. He's slept in doorways, during which time the only wheels he owned were at the bottom of a shopping cart. He had lost control of his life.

He's a nomad from Ohio, but calls himself a native of all over. Alaska's the only state he hasn't been to.

"I've been kind of a vagabond," he said earlier this week, days after a fire displaced him and 20 others from the Marshall apartment complex he had called home for about a year.

Thanks to the fire, he's on the move again. Only this time, he's got a positive attitude and will on his side.

"My initial reaction was, 'God, not again,'" he said. "I was upset. The most important part of all this is nobody got injured and nobody lost their life. For that I thank God and I'm grateful. But I'm back to square one."

Square one is nothing new to Schank. He's been a resident there plenty of times in the past.

This is the second time he has been burned out of a building and has had to pick up the pieces and move on. He's also had to persevere through the deaths of his mother and a very close friend he considered a brother.

"Life is gonna happen," he says. "I can either fight it and go nowhere, or I can accept it and move on. If this would've been, even two years ago I would not have been able to deal with this as I have. Today I can deal with it. Once I got over the initial shock, the initial anger, it's like, 'You know what, what can you do about it?'"

Still, there was some initial self pity and worry. He immediately had major concerns about finding a new place to live. He got the apartment through Western Community Action of Marshall and was told at the time that that kind of placement is a one-time deal. That meant square one was located between the proverbial rock and hard place, because he didn't have the money for first month's rent and a deposit at a new place. But then, a silver lining: Because of the circumstances, he was guaranteed a new place to live.

Schank wasn't at the apartment complex at the time of the fire. The son of a friend who saw the fire called him to tell him the news, and by the time he got to the apartment smoke was billowing out of the windows. That's when he knew. He knew his belongings were gone. He knew he would have to find a new place to live. He knew life had thrown him yet another nasty curveball. But as it turns out, this is one he could handle. It also helped that he received plenty of support from co-workers at Mid Continent Cabinetry in Cottonwood and from the friends he's made through his recovery.

"Considering how much smoke I saw coming out of my apartment, I pretty much knew I've been through this once before, years ago. Once is one time too many, two is definitely overkill, so to speak," he said.

Schank said Thursday he had hoped to get the keys to his new apartment sometime in the next few days. He's getting some furniture from a woman who has an excess amount of furniture that he said had been donated to her.

"Within about an hour of the fire I had about four offers of a place to stay," he said. "That's the kind of friendships that I've developed today. Where I'm staying now, I've been told the spare bedroom's mine for as long as I need it. I'm very grateful for that, but it would be nice to have my own place."

Schank, clean for five years now, said through his 12-step program, he has learned there are things beyond his control and to accept things for the way they are. Life, he says, doesn't always go as planned or how you want it to.

"I have to let God, as I understand him, take care of it," he said. "This is a situation where you have no choice but to accept what it is. I don't like it, but what are you gonna do? That's why I chose not to sit around too long. Life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Today I feel like I've made some very sweet lemonade. "

Schank's addiction, which started when he was 18 years old, essentially took his from his family. But after cleaning up, he was able to spend the last two years of his mother's life with her. Now that he's back in Minnesota he's much closer to being the father he wants to be. Now, his days of addiction are nothing but a distant memory.

"For me, enough was never enough," he said about his substance abuse. "The old adage one is too many and a thousand is never enough - that's true. When I quit using I weighed about 130 pounds, wearing a size 28 pair of jeans and had about eight teeth left in my mouth."

Times are different for this former nomad. As devastating as the fire was, the temptations he succumbed to decades ago weren't in play this time around. As he became clean, he learned temptations were merely that. He had passed tests before and wasn't about to fail this one.

"I figured if I didn't use over my mom passing and over a person that I consider to be my brother - if I didn't use over that, I'm definitely not using over this," he said, laughing. "For me today using any kind of a substance is not an option. It's a choice. An option is going to McDonald's and saying you want your cheeseburger without pickles."

Yes, times are different for Schank now. And square one is once again behind him.



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