Remembering Frank

A friend memorializes Frank Barham’s life by finishing the journey cut tragically short last year.

Adrainne: How’s it going?

Me: Hot and tired. Having to switch between walking and running to keep enough water in me. Probably 2 more hours unless I get some rain.

Adrainne: It’s not a race. Take your time.

Me: I know. But I also want to be done.

Adrainne: You are on a road that Frank never got to travel. Enjoy the Journey.

Tears well up in my eyes, my breath hitches and goosebumps rise on my sunburned arms as the truth of that text from my wife hits me like a ton of bricks.

After six hours of running alongside major roads with the roar of trucks, the acrid smell of overused brakes and the sun burning my skin, I turn onto a shaded, quiet street. Tall trees form a tunnel over the road and the sounds from a breeze rustling the leaves replace the noise of the highway. Frank didn’t get to experience this payoff a year ago, but I can feel him with me as I move forward with a renewed sense of purpose.

A year ago to the day, Frank Barham would have been excited but probably a bit melancholy, too, as he wheeled his chair along this very road, thinking about all the things he had experienced on his 10-day wheelchair roll from Atlanta to Savannah. A little sad for it to be drawing to a close, tired from the journey but excited to reach his destination. He would have appreciated the shade and the change of scenery after a long day in the sun.

Frank never got to travel this road because as he rolled his chair south on Ga. 21, he was killed in a fiery crash. A tanker truck hit the support van that was traveling behind him, also killing Margaret Kargbo and severely burning Carrie Johnson inside the van.

2

Friends and neighbors

I’m not sure exactly when my wife and I met Frank and Adriana Barham, but it would have been around the beginning of 2000,shortly after we bought a house in the Kirkwood neighborhood of Atlanta. Frank and Adriana lived up the street and we probably met at a party, on a stroll through the neighborhood or maybe while out doing yard work.

Adriana’s intense, effervescent energy and Frank’s deep, soulful spirit made them just the kind of people we loved to be around. We became fast friends.

One day shortly after meeting them, we were set to have the Barhams over to cook out and drink a couple beers. I was getting ready and I started thinking about how Frank would get into our house. We lived in a small 1940s Craftsman that was only one story, but there were three steps to get onto the porch and into the house. I knew Frank was fully capable of getting himself up and down steps by transitioning in and out of his chair — he had been in a chair for the past 20 years — but I felt awkward having him over knowing our house wasn’t easily accessible.

As Adrainne and I set the house up for company, I kept having that apprehensive feeling you get when you know something isn’t quite right. Just before Frank’s arrival, I remembered that my neighbor had a set of ramps he used to load the lawnmower into his pickup truck.

I ran over and borrowed them and set them up on our porch, guessing at how far apart to put them. These weren’t sturdy,professional-quality ramps, they were just 2-inch-by-8-inch boards with metal ends so they would sit flush, but they were all I could think to use.

Soon there was a knock on the door and Frank and Adriana were on the porch and rolling in for dinner. At the end of the evening,we were saying goodbye at the door and I watched Frank roll down the ramps.

I was embarrassed and a little scared as I saw how steep and narrow the ramps actually were and how much they sagged as he rolled down. I thought they probably did more harm than good and that the steps probably would have been easier and safer for Frank to negotiate. He was probably using the ramps just to be polite. What I didn’t know at the time was how much the gesture meant to Frank.

Years later Frank told me that nobody had ever done anything like that for him before and it had moved him to tears. I thought I was just being hospitable, but it turned out to be the gesture that cemented our friendship.

3

Two tragedies

My wife and I never asked how Frank ended up in a wheelchair. I figured that was a question he was asked all the time and he was probably tired of talking about it. It was something he could tell us if and when he felt like it.

Over the next couple years, as our friendship grew, Frank told us bits and pieces of the story. One day he mentioned in passing that he had been in a car accident. Sometime later he mentioned that he had been drinking when the accident happened. On another day he said that he tried to run from the police.

Clearly there was a deep story about what had happened, but we had no idea just how deep the story went.

My wife and I were hanging out with Frank and Adriana at their house one afternoon, and as the afternoon stretched into evening and the beer and wine flowed, Frank took us back to the beginning.

It was July 1973 and Frank was a 17-year-old. He had just graduated from high school in North Carolina and was at a pool party to celebrate with friends and family. As the party picked up steam, people started getting thrown into the pool. Frank didn’t remember exactly how it happened — he might have acted alone, or his friends might have joined in — but at some point his dad, after whom Frank was named, was thrown into the pool and Frank went flying in with him.

When Frank surfaced, his dad was floating in the water. Frank’s first thought was that his dad was playing around. Frank expected his dad to grab him and dunk him like he used to do when Frank was little, but his dad never moved.

He had hit the side of the pool and broken his neck. He was paralyzed.

Frank was devastated not only for the injuries he caused his dad, but also for what he called the ripple effect of a spinal cord injury, which forever changed the lives of everyone in the family.

The deep sense of guilt Frank felt following the accident sent him into a self-destructive lifestyle fueled by drugs and alcohol.

“People talk about being in the fast lane back in the day; I was in the (expletive) supersonic lane man,” Frank said in a 2015 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shortly before his roll to Savannah. “I just wanted to see how much life I could pack in.

“I didn’t want to live long,” he said. “I wanted to burn bright.”

In 1980 Frank was living in Austin, Texas, but decided to move back to North Carolina. After driving straight through, he spent the next week partying every night and looking for work every day.

Late one night, he left a party where he had been smoking and drinking. Driving down a country road — he said he was probably weaving like crazy — he looked in his mirror to see a police car. In a split second the guilt and angst of the last seven years came to a head and he thought, Not (expletive)tonight. Come get me.

Frank took off. He remembered the car going airborne, and he remembered being wheeled into the emergency room. The next thing he knew, he woke up in intensive care.

Frank remembered the first time his dad visited him in the physical rehabilitation center after the accident.

Damn. Look what I’ve done to the both of us, he thought.

The pair just sat there looking at each other in total shock.

4

Motivated by music

Well, I’ve had one hell of a life. That’s all I wanted, Frank, 24, thought at the time.

Eventually, though, “I had to make a conscious decision to live again,” he said in 2015.

Frank had been a musician in high school, but he’d laid down his trumpet to pursue basketball, ending up on the University of North Carolina’s JV team as a walk-on. After the accident, he was encouraged to get involved in wheelchair sports, but he decided to pursue music instead. He wanted to learn to play the harmonica.

“There were times where I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to go on — that the only reason I went on is I just wanted to see if I could become a decent musician,” Frank said. “I realized it was something that was very deep and important to me and I thought, You know what? I’ve lost everything, I don’t know if I have anything else.’ ”

That passion for music did keep him going. He learned to play the chromatic harmonica, a type of harmonica with a push-button slide that gives the musician more notes and a full chromatic scale. Then he switched his focus to djembe drums.

One day, when Frank was living in a warehouse loft in Little 5 Points, he was eating at a small Cajun restaurant when he noticed an attractive woman walk in. Adriana had just moved to Atlanta a month earlier from Mexico to study art. She immediately noticed Frank but avoided looking at him because she didn’t want to stare at the guy in the wheelchair.

As Adriana pondered the menu, she heard Frank speak to the waitress with his deep, soulful voice and she was captivated. When she looked up, he was smiling at her. She was smitten.

Five weeks later they drove to Tennessee and got married. They kept the marriage quiet, eventually telling friends and family they were engaged. They celebrated their first year of marriage with a wedding at the warehouse, complete with art, music and a friend swinging from a trapeze. One of Frank’s djembes served as an altar, and Adriana gave Frank a wedding earring instead of a band for his finger.

To support himself and Adriana, Frank worked as a programmer writing code, an actor and a middle-school teacher. But he remained committed to his music.

Djembes are big and heavy. They were difficult for Frank to transport and required some ingenuity for him to play. Since he couldn’t use his legs to hold the drums in position, he would use a belt to strap them to his legs. Playing gigs was a challenge because few venues have wheelchair-accessible stages, so Frank would have to crawl up the steps to perform. When he began to develop neck problems from transporting the drums, he switched back to the chromatic harmonica.

He eventually formed Frank Barham & Brazilian Fusion, which melded his love of heavy African beats, funk, blues and world music. The band began playing gigs around town and recorded a CD called “Levitating,” which I took as a reference to the freeing, floating sensation he must have felt when he lost himself in his music.

5

Wheel 2 Live

In 2004 Adrainne and I moved out of Kirkwood, and most of our friendships from the old neighborhood slowly dissipated. We were now living across town, our family had grown to four, and we just got busy in our own lives. While we didn’t see Frank and Adriana very often, when we did, we picked up right where we left off.

They helped us get settled in our new home and joined us for Christmas Eve church service a couple times. We would occasionally run into them at festivals or at the park. We also tried to make it to one of Frank’s gigs, but life kept getting in the way.

One day I got a Facebook invitation from Frank for a festival he was playing in Grant Park. This was perfect. It was on our side of town, the weather was great and it was on a weekend afternoon. Adrainne and I caught his band and then managed to find him after he left the stage.

As always with Frank, there was very little small talk when we sat down with him next to the stage. We talked a little about his band and the show, but pretty quickly Frank started telling us about this crazy idea he had to roll from Atlanta to Savannah. (I’m an ultrarunner and have run dozens of races up to 100 miles long, so I have first-hand experience with crazy ideas.)

Frank had some loose concept about why and how he was going to do it, but he was still far from having all the details ironed out. Frank was always passionate about what he was doing, but I could see in his eyes that the fire was burning strong with this idea. It was the kind of look where I knew he was on a journey that was deeply important to him, and I would support it whether I understood it or not.

Frank’s crazy idea started to take shape, and as it did, it seemed less and less crazy. Calling the event Wheel 2 Live, he planned to use his 300-mile roll from Atlanta to Savannah to highlight the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which had hugely impacted his life. He was going to use it to bring people together with his music by playing a concert on his arrival in Savannah. He was going to use it to get back to his athletic roots. He was also hoping to raise money to buy wheelchairs for those in need. But most importantly, he was going to use it to heal himself.

Frank said it best in an interview shortly before the beginning of his roll:

“There’s something about this project that I think I’m going to learn some stuff about myself and it’s become incredibly personal,” he said. “I’m hoping to finally forgive myself for this. I think I’m hoping to find my absolution that I’ve been searching for in this project.”

Absolution seemed to come on the fourth day of the roll, somewhere around the 100-mile mark. That night, Frank posted on Facebook:

“I had some very intense personal moments. On one long painful hill, I was reaching deep to maintain my pace. I was afraid if I stopped my right shoulder would tighten up on me. I was so focused that the pain seemed to drift into the background and I felt this presence of my father.It wasn’t like I heard his voice but I felt his spirit and I felt his pride in me. As I drifted back into the reality of the moment, I realized I wasn’t struggling anymore. I had found a new reserve of energy that I didn’t imagine existed. I was blazing up this monster and was about to reach the crest of the hill. I thought to myself, ‘Thanks Dad, I love you.’ ”

The morning he was killed, he posted this:

“Feeling really good this morning, day 10. Once I bandage my right hand I will be ready to burn up some road. Another 30 miles today and I will be 24 miles from Savannah. Some groups are organizing to run and roll into Savannah with me on Friday.

“There is no question that I will finish at this point! Ability and heart mean more than disability! Wheel 2 Live!!!!!!!!”

6

Journey interrupted

On May 21, 2015, I was on assignment for the AJC, covering a plum of a story. It was the anniversary of the newspaper participating in a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, and I got to spend several days hiking and camping near Harpers Ferry, W.Va., with some of the original journalists on the trip.

I love hiking and camping as much as I love hanging out with interesting people and making great photos, so this was an assignment I locked onto as soon as I heard about it. The dates for our trip had changed several times due to conflicting schedules, but we were finally out on the trail on a cool, drizzly morning.

I had been leap-frogging our group for the past hour so I could shoot still photos and videos as they passed by, and we were now at an overlook where I was shooting photos of the group. My phone rang,disturbing the peace of the trail, so I snatched it out of my pocket and hit mute as quickly as possible.

Looking down I saw the call was from Ryon Horne, the AJC’s crack video producer. I figured he wanted to remind me to shoot something on the trail, or maybe he needed to ask me a question about a story that was about to publish, so I stepped away from the group and hit accept.

A tanker truck passes a flag marking the spot on Savannah Highway in Screven County where Frank Barham was killed in a fiery crash in 2015.   Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

A tanker truck passes a flag marking the spot on Savannah Highway in Screven County where Frank Barham was killed in a fiery crash in 2015. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

The line was silent for a second, then Ryon said with a cracking voice, “Frank’s dead. There was an accident.”

I knew Frank should have been nearing the end of his roll — I had been following and cheering him through social media — but I just couldn’t comprehend what Ryon was saying. The call was so out of context that it just confused me. I was in this beautiful setting with my mind wrapped up in my work, I hadn’t even considered that Frank’s roll could end in an accident. I didn’t know that Ryon even knew Frank.

I could hear Ryon’s tears through the phone and all of a sudden I realized what he was saying. I fell to my knees and tears streamed down my cheeks as Ryon told me what he knew of the accident.

I thought about Frank. I thought about Adriana.Then I thought about myself.

I was so proud of what Frank was doing with Wheel 2 Live that I had hoped to run the final portion of the roll alongside him. He didn’t know it, but I was going to show up and surprise him so I could keep him company the last day or two and we could celebrate his finish together.

If the dates for the Appalachian Trail story hadn’t changed, I probably would have been running alongside Frank when he was killed.

I probably would have been killed, too.

There was no question, I had to finish the journey for him.

7

The finish line

As West Bay Street brings me into Savannah’s Historic District, I turn right onto Jefferson Street. I have to dodge, weave and run in the street to get past the Friday evening tourists. I am just blocks from the end, where I know Frank’s wife Adriana will be waiting with a few friends and my wife and kids.

When I turn the final corner, I slip my hand into my running vest and pull out the small bundle I carried from the site where Frank was killed, 44 miles and eight hours away. I had wanted to make sure apart of Frank finishes his journey, so I’d brought a piece of his harmonica and a pair of his wheelchair gloves.

I am tired, hot, sweaty and exhausted, but mainly I am emotionally spent.

I arrive at Telfair Square to see Adriana, wearing the simple dress she had worn the day she married Frank, holding a finish-line tape and jumping up and down. She gives me a long, tight embrace and I listen as her joyful laughter becomes gentle sobs.

I hand her the keepsakes I’d carried with me, and I tell her I could just imagine Frank dancing by turning circles in his wheelchair the way I’d seen him do so many times before.

She looks at me with a sparkle in her eye, smiles and says, “He doesn’t use a wheelchair anymore.”

BEHIND THE STORY

In the same breath longtime AJC photographer Ben Gray told me he was moving to Jerusalem, he told me about a great story idea for Personal Journeys. After he told me about it, I knew there was only one person who could write it: Ben Gray. His eyeballs practically rolled back in his head as he contemplated adding one more thing to his already overloaded plate as he prepares to leave the country. But it didn’t take him long to agree. For this story, Ben drew from his 16-year friendship with Frank Barham and filled in the gaps with interviews with Frank’s wife, Adriana, and an audio interview AJC video producer Ryon Horne recorded with Frank just before he left on his roll to Savannah. I like to think of this story as Ben Gray’s parting gift to our readers who are sure to carry a part of Frank in their hearts after reading this moving story about mistakes, redemption and friendship.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
svanatten@ajc.com


ABOUT THE WRITER

Ben Gray has been a photojournalist for more than 20 years, working at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the past 18. In his time at the AJC he has been assigned to the state Capitol, the Falcons, breaking news and general assignment. He also spent three years as the director of photography. Ben is an avid ultramarathon runner, having completed two 100-mile races. He will leave the AJC in July when he and his family move to East Jerusalem where he and his wife will work for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Lands. You can follow their new work, as well as Ben’s running adventures, atrunographer.com.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Ryon Horne is an award-winning filmmaker and video journalist. He joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 16 years ago and has been the company’s video and audio producer for eight years, covering breaking news, entertainment, sports and features.