Johnny Luckey revels in his good fortune

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 19, 2011

SALISBURY — Now that the mornings have turned crisp, Johnny Luckey can see his breath as he bends down to unchain his mo-ped.
He wears layers of clothing, topped off by a reflector vest for the 8-mile trip ahead of him in the darkness.
The mo-ped has been parked all night at the top of the ramp leading into the Rowan Helping Ministries shelter. Luckey has lived here for more than two years, trying to put a life together that once was in a hundred pieces.
He is up and moving at the shelter by 5 a.m. and on the ramp with his moped by 5:30, long before breakfast is served.
Luckey moves with resolve, in a routine that hasn’t let him down all summer and fall. He also carries an approachability and ease making it hard to believe people used to call him “Nitro,” the explosive man he became when drinking.
Even though he’s headed into a pitch-black morning, brightened only by streetlights and the head lamps of an occasional passing car, Luckey pulls sunglasses to his face.
They serve as protective goggles as he hurries the mo-ped up North Long Street, through East Spencer, out to Long Ferry Road and toward the bridge over Interstate 85.
On the other side of the interstate, he stops in at the Rushco convenience store, bustling with construction workers on their way to the Yadkin River bridge project on I-85 or the expansion at Duke Energy’s Buck Steam Station.
After he picks up his bacon-and-egg sandwich and coffee, Luckey balances the bag of food at his feet and steers the mo-ped onto the dark country road toward Buck, where he has been working as a materials handler.
Since Aug. 1, the man once called “Nitro,” has been making $10 an hour and working seven days, 70 hours a week, without a break.
He has perfect attendance.
• • •
When Johnny Luckey finally reached the bottom, he belonged to the streets — drinking on corners, sleeping at night on porches of vacant houses and getting arrested for trespassing, public drunkenness and resisting officers.
At times he would try to be arrested. He would walk into a store, fish a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English malt liquor out of the cooler, open up the top and stroll outside in full view of the help.
He would sit drinking on a nearby curb until the police came, as he had planned, to cart him off to jail. There, Luckey could at least stay warm and be fed for awhile.
“I’ve been waiting for you all day,” Luckey told the officers when they arrived.
But other times, his arrests were just embarrassments.
A drunken Luckey walked down to Walmart one night and fell asleep on a bench outside the store. As he snoozed, his pants crept down, exposing his buttocks. The police arrested him for indecent exposure.
• • •
In his younger days, the missteps were seldom funny.
In March 1984, Luckey received a three-year sentence after pleading guilty to assault with a deadly weapon, inflicting serious injury. He had shot a man in the jaw in the 700 block of West Fisher Street.
Luckey contended that he had fired into the air four times to scare the victim, who owed him money, but was unlucky when one of the bullets ricocheted and hit him. (The man was treated and released from the hospital).
By that time, Luckey already had prior convictions for larceny, assault with a deadly weapon and damage to property.
As the years went by, Luckey’s name kept showing up regularly in the police blotter — and in the newspaper — on charges for cocaine possession, failure to pay child support, assault on a female, communicating threats, drunk and disorderly, shoplifting and misdemeanor larceny.
Family, church members and friends kept telling him he needed help, especially for his drinking. But the warnings just made him avoid them.
Luckey sometimes stood outside the Rowan Helping Ministries shelter on North Long Street and made fun of the people going in, because they couldn’t drink.
• • •
As Luckey was getting older, life on the streets began taking a physical toll.
One night, during a period he was sleeping outside and panhandling for money, Luckey felt so terrible that he barely had the strength to knock on the door of the Emergency Medical Services station off East Council Street.
A woman paramedic answered the door.
“Lady, I need some help,” Luckey whispered.
He was soon wearing an oxygen mask and having fluids pumped into his arm before an ambulance took him to the hospital. The EMS crew didn’t realize he still had a bottle of liquor in his coat pocket.
As he was lying on an examining table at the hospital, he tried to sneak a drink, and the attending physician caught him.
Luckey will never forget the next moment.
“He said, ‘Hold off before you take that drink and sign this coroner’s sheet,’ ” Luckey says.
He handed over the bottle and watched in pain as its contents were poured down the drain. His blood pressure that night was 197/181.
In the hospital, Luckey prayed for God to perform one simple miracle: Take the taste of alcohol out of his mouth.
“The Lord took that taste from me, and I promised I would do the rest,” he says.
• • •
David Holston can’t hide his pride in Johnny Luckey.
“I have people come into my office all the time who say, ‘I’m through using drugs’ or ‘I’m through drinking,’ ” says Holston, shelter case manager for Rowan Helping Ministries. “But I was really struck by him.
“It was the kind of attitude that said, ‘You may think I’m not going to make it, but I’m going to prove you wrong.’ And that’s what he has done.”
To eat at the shelter and stay there overnight, you have to be sober. Luckey first arrived in September 2009, and he has not failed the Breathalyzer test or any drug screenings since.
He attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and intensive, five days-a-week group sessions at Daymark Recovery. If you’re going to work, which is what Luckey wanted to do, you have to solve your substance abuse problem first.
Luckey sobered up.
“A lot of people have helped Johnny along the way,” Holston says, “but Johnny did more than most people in that he helped himself.
“He has decided he’s going to succeed.”
• • •
Luckey grew up in Woodleaf, never knowing his father. He quit school in the ninth grade and first found work picking tomatoes in fields belonging to the Myers, Collins and Wetmore families.
He started drinking regularly when he was 19 or 20.
“Beer, liquor, wine — all of the above,” he says. Alcohol gradually gained control of his life, without his noticing.
He worked in manufacturing plants such as Cone Mills and Abex. He wouldn’t drink on the job, but he usually was off to buy a 12-pack of beer as soon as the day was over.
Later, he kept beer hidden in the trunk of his car because his girlfriend kept complaining that he was drinking too much. He also ignored her warnings about drinking and driving.
“Don’t go nowhere,” she said.
Over time, Luckey says, he was charged five times with drunken driving.
Other jobs in other factories came and went, lost usually because of his drinking.
Hung over, he would wake up, see the time and decide staying home was better than arriving late. The trouble was, he never called in that he wouldn’t be showing up.
Luckey fell into mowing yards, raking leaves, cleaning gutters and cutting down trees. Likewise, he began “hanging out on the block,” wanting everyone to get drunk with him.
When he was by himself, he was depressed and drinking out of sorrow, beating himself up that he couldn’t do better.
When he was with other people, he was drinking to be sociable. The people around him enabled his drinking. But he also could turn volatile, if anybody looked at him the wrong way.
• • •
Several years ago, in an attempt to go where no one knew him, Luckey boarded a bus for Pensacola, Fla., and arrived with $32 to his name.
He stood at the bus depot all day, not really knowing what he would do next. A cab driver finally befriended him, took him to the Salvation Army shelter and on departing, pushed a $20 bill into Johnny’s hand.
Soon, Johnny signed up with a temporary employment agency called “Labor Finders,” and it led to some work, helping set up new stores in a local mall. Later he worked as a mover for American Van Lines, traveling to jobs in several Southern states.
“I loved it,” he says. “I had to depend on me, and it was good. I was trying to break the monotony of drinking every day.”
He would occasionally take a bus home on weekends to visit his mother and sister before returning to Florida. After a year, he was renting a place for $250 a month.
In Florida, he says, he had no other choice than to stay sober. But when he came back to be with his mother, who was dying, he fell into old routines and new trouble.
“The day we buried her, that’s when I started drinking again,” Luckey says.
• • •
Luckey says it helped him, to sit in AA meetings and hear from people who had been as low as him, yet were now sober for five, 10 and 20 years.
He resolved to be around people who didn’t drink. He patched up relationships with his family. He prayed a lot. Don and Sue Ingram on East Lafayette Street sometimes had work for him, and he appreciated it. He finally started listening to the people who had been warning him he needed help.
Don Ingram says he gave Luckey a place to stay during those tough early weeks and months as he dried out.
“We’d just sit in here all day, all week,” Ingram says from his living room. “He’s a good guy.”
Other down-in-their-luck guy men have helped the Ingrams with washing their cars or mowing the yard ended up stealing from them. But not Luckey. He also helped with yard work or would repair cars in the side yard. Ingram still has Luckey’s tools if he ever needs them.
When the Ingrams went on vacation for a week, they asked Luckey to house-sit and watch their dogs.
“He’s come a long way since he’s got that job,” Ingram says.
• • •
One thing that makes Holston confident Luckey will make it is how he dealt with frustrating issues during his rehabilitation.
He was finally off probation. When he was trying to get his photograph ID for work purposes, he learned someone had stolen his identity during one of his many times in jail.
He and Holston went through multiple layers of red tape before former state Rep. Lorene Coates made a telephone call on his behalf to secure the ID he needed.
“Being homeless and needing a picture ID is difficult,” Holston says.
Luckey also wants to regain his driver’s license — the reason he drives the mo-ped and not a car. It’s a strange twist, but Luckey has been clean and sober too long for his former sessions with Daymark Recovery to meet the state requirement for treatment before he can be considered for a license again.
By the time Luckey met Sherry Russell, a counselor for the state’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services, he was clean and ready to work.
“The thing that set him apart, or impressed me,” Russell says, “was that he did not have a woe-is-me attitude. He was truly motivated.”
Luckey told her side-splitting, funny stories about his experiences. But he also showed insights into his past mistakes and persuaded her that he now wanted the best from life.
“To me, he had a lot of hope and was very, very humble,” Russell says. “Of all the people I see, he definitely is a great story of someone who did not give up.”
One day the assistant unit manager for the Employee Security Commission told Russell that Sunbelt, a subcontractor at the Buck Steam Station project, was interviewing people for labor positions. She told Luckey to apply and interview.
“He seized the opportunity immediately,” she says. “He said he wanted to work, and he meant it.”
• • •
It’s dark when Luckey heads to work and dark when he returns nightly to the shelter.
“It’s beating the wheels off me, but I am happy,” says Luckey, who is now 53.
Sunbelt’s work at Buck Steam could be winding up as early as this week. Luckey wants to stick with the company, wherever those journeyman jobs will take him. He plans to relocate and make his base in Pensacola, a place he likes.
An interesting thing has happened at the shelter. Luckey has turned evangelist, talking to others who he fears will have to hit bottom before they can straighten out their lives the way he has.
“I talk to them all the time, because they can’t tell me anything I haven’t experienced,” he says.
When Luckey was going through the red tape of getting his picture ID, he saw on a copy of his birth certificate that his last name had been misspelled. It said “Lucky,” without the “e.”
After all these years, he has decided that’s the way it should be spelled.
“I’m lucky even to be living,” Johnny Lucky says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or