One Last Visit With Channon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some kids draw stick people. Channon Phipps drew a stick house, with attached garage and trees with bare branches blowing in the wind. There was even a television antenna on the roof.

The mood of the pencil sketch he gave me was off-kilter, square windows and doors tilting right and left. Even then, when he was a decade away from dying, his simple gift touched me deeply, and I have kept it in my top desk drawer ever since.

We had met back in 1985, he a fifth-grader with hemophilia and HIV, I, a rookie reporter with diabetes. I understood what it meant to be a kid who has to fill a syringe and empty it into your own skin every day. We'd both been doing it as long as we could remember. His stoicism made me weepy as I drove back to my office and wrote his story.

Those were days when lack of knowledge about HIV transmission fueled paranoia and cruelty and the temporary abandonment of tenderness that most try to offer sick children.

Channon, 10, had been asked to stay home from El Toro grade school until his district could draft a formal AIDS admissions policy. Parents were alarmed. District workers in surgical gloves and masks carted into his kitchen a computer and school supplies.

The scene, he told me in a rare teary moment, was like the movie "E.T.," when the little alien is seized by researchers and quarantined.

Channon, the first California student known to be barred from class for having the AIDS virus, filed suit. A judge ordered that he be returned to class. As quickly as Channon had squinted into the TV lights of celebrity, he dimmed from our view.

But I never forgot him. One day in late 1991, as he crossed my mind, I spoke with an editor about him. How, we wondered, was he faring all these years later?

It took some time to connect with him again: He wasn't dodging me as a reporter so much as he just couldn't be bothered. Perched on his skateboard, he waited for me outside the Ralphs grocery store near his Laguna Hills house, our chosen rendezvous. Cheeky and adorable when last I saw him skate away from my VW bug seven years earlier, Channon now had lost his youthful chub and sported baggy skater shorts, P.F. Flyer high-tops and braces.

At 17, he towered over me.

He was madly in love with Lisa Shultis, his sweetheart since he was 15. They met when his family moved to a cul-de-sac around the corner from her home.

We sat on a concrete bench talking for a few hours, and what I remember most was how excited he was about having saved the money from part-time jobs to buy Lisa an engagement ring. He described, in the elaborate detail teen-agers employ when talking about love, how he would surprise her Christmas Eve with his proposal: "I'll go. . . . Then she'll hopefully be all. . . . Then I'll probably go. . . ." He was glowing with anticipation. That he was living as though he had a future struck me as remarkable, and inspiring.

*

Only when I eventually forced myself to ask Channon about his mortality did he ever discuss it. Maybe his matter-of-fact attitude was a lot of youthful denial, although he had taken in stride other burdens such as his hemophilia and bleeding bouts and self-injections of blood-coagulating chemicals since we'd first met.

Chomping on potato chips in my car one day, Channon cranked up my stereo to some horribly loud heavy-metal song and looked at me for a long moment.

"If it's gonna happen, it's gonna happen," he said finally, with the sounds of Queensryche screeching in the background. "I don't let it get to me. I look at it like a deck of cards. You got a couple of crummy ones. Have to play your hand though. Donchya."

In his early teens, Channon told me, he'd withdrawn from the public schools he'd battled to get into and was tutored at home. He got tired of the hassling and name-calling by some boys on campus.

The very fact that he was hardly the AIDS poster boy and lived out his share of rebellion made him all the more human and tragic.

For besides his ill fortune at having been born hemophiliac and 10 years later contracting HIV through contaminated blood products, Channon was dealt other hardships.

His teen-age parents were drug addicts, so his aunt, Deborha Phipps Franckewitz, 18, adopted him. She herself suffered drug problems.

Eventually, Channon's parents sobered up and reconciled with their adoring son, who carried frayed photographs of them in his wallet and proudly showed them to me once. Both parents would die a few years later.

By the time he was 18, the aunt who had raised Channon as her own had embezzled the $52,000 balance of his trust fund, the result of a lawsuit settlement. It had been the nest egg he planned to support himself with, given his lack of education and reliable health. He told me he'd dreamed of taking his fiancee to Hawaii for one last splurge at life.

*

The aunt, who has since died, admitted she blew most of the money and was arrested and convicted and served her time in Orange County Jail.

The betrayal threw Channon into a downward spiral. He started doing speed and got caught with a small amount outside a South County bank in 1993. When I visited him in jail, his long, lustrous hair was buzzed and his face was almost gaunt from a bout of AIDS-related pneumonia, as I recall.

As he always had been, Channon was blunt and soft-spoken about himself, his blunder with the drugs, his need to find a new environment and start fresh where "nobody knows me."

We talked after that by telephone, but that mental picture of him in a jail jumpsuit, chin sunk in his hands but still able to smile, is my last. Even at his lowest, he flashed me a broad grin before I left and told me to quit worrying "like some old lady."

Two weeks ago, when a friend asked me how Channon was doing, I called his uncle to check on him. He said Channon was still living with his beloved Lisa and her family, and he was hanging on well despite his long battle with AIDS.

I was devastated to learn he had passed away a week ago, at age 20, after a week of battling hepatitis at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana. Times photographer Mark Boster, who had come to know Channon almost as well as I and had captured Channon from brace-face kid to longhaired rebel--always, it seemed, gliding along on a skateboard--had already learned of his death. We talked quietly about the funeral, as though we hadn't known all along that this day was coming.

"This will probably be the last story you would do about me, because a lot will change. . . . I hope people understand; I've been through so much," he'd said in the last article I'd written about him.

I pulled out the pencil drawing, my keepsake of one of the more memorable people I've had the honor of knowing. "To Nandy from Channon," he'd scribbled at the top. The drawing was one he'd made at his kitchen table that overcast afternoon of our first meeting, when we showed each other how we administered our respective shots.

If he were here today, I know he'd roll his eyes at the ceiling to think I'd kept his present all these years.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°