Rod Whaley was blown off the wooden deck of a swift boat when it hit a string of submerged claymore mines during the Vietnam War.
He saw buddies obliterated while standing right next to him.
"You think you're bleeding to death, and it's somebody else's blood," the 58-year-old Modesto resident said.
He lives with post-traumatic stress disorder and, he said, is fighting a losing battle with cancer.
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But nothing hurts as much as the pain that struck in August, when his 11-year-old stepson, Eddie Johnson- Whaley, came home after playing at church. Eddie had fallen while playing with a friend, scraping his arm. He reached for a couple of aspirin tablets on the counter. Except that they weren't aspirin. They were morphine pills Rod Whaley had gotten out, but forgot to take with him to a car show in Nevada.
Eddie took the pills. He died
Aug. 20, and was buried four days later -- on his 12th birthday.
The boy who had served as best man when his stepdad remarried in March was gone.
"I can still see him like it was yesterday," Whaley said. "It's a real guilt thing for me. I should have kept that stuff put away. I had told him a million times, 'Don't ever take this.' And if he ever needed anything, he always asked me or my wife, Lenore."
Nothing can bring Eddie back. But Whaley can do something he knows would have made Eddie happy.
Friday morning, Whaley will don his Santa suit and climb into his 1960s-era International firetruck that bears a picture of Eddie on the side. He'll drive over to Eisenhut Elementary School, where Eddie would have been a sixth-grader, and he'll listen to the Christmas wishes of Eddie's friends and former students. It doesn't have to stop with the visit to Eisenhut, Whaley said.
"I will go to schools, churches, synagogues -- whatever -- at no charge between now and Christmas," he said.
Eddie, Whaley said, would have loved it.
Theirs was more than a father-son type of relationship. They were best of friends. Whaley married Eddie's mom, Erin Simas, when Eddie was just 6 months old. He was not Eddie's biological father.
"But I'm the only dad he ever knew," Whaley said. "He was my boy."
Whaley and his wife separated after a few years of marriage, but never divorced. Eddie stayed with his mom for a time after the split, Whaley said, but lived with Whaley from age 4 until his death. Erin Simas-Whaley died about a year ago.
"Rod was an absolutely tremendous father to this boy," said Steve Lawson, Whaley's lifelong friend who is now the team leader at the Veterans Center in Stanislaus County. "He raised him, loved him and taught him incredible things. Eddie was a child with special needs, and Rod got him mainstreamed."
Eddie loved to hang around Whaley's auto restoration shop, Vision Concepts and Classic Dreams.
"This little guy -- he could drive forklifts, trucks -- you name it," Whaley said. "He was one of the better hands we had at our business. Everybody liked him."
And Eddie loved the toy firetruck Whaley had given him when he was 5 or so.
"It was the most premier piece of property he owned," Whaley said. "Other kids beat their toys to a pulp. He kept that firetruck pristine. It was his pride and joy."
Eddie's love for that truck compelled Whaley to buy and restore the real one he'll drive to Eisenhut. Before Eddie died, Whaley would dress up in 1930s gangster-style suits and take his vintage Model A's to the school, giving kids an understanding of the era.
The joy of being Eddie's dad provided Whaley a refuge from the physical and emotional residue from the Vietnam War.
"I've had five back surgeries," Whaley said. "I have a pronounced limp, burn (scars) on my face and hands, and chronic pain."
His cancer, which began in his prostate, is now also in his bones. There's no timetable, he said.
"We don't know," Whaley said. "But it's the quality of life that counts, not the quantity. I'm in extreme pain."
Pain now compounded by losing the little boy he loved so much.
"Vietnam," Whaley said, "was a cakewalk compared to this."
Indeed, playing Santa won't bring Eddie back, Whaley concedes. But he knows it would have made Eddie smile.
Groups wanting to contact Whaley for Santa duty can reach him at 524-5540.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.