The miracle of Birdie Africa
He grew up as a wild child in the radical cult MOVE. Now, three years later, he has almost caught up, in an amazing transformation wrought by his own courage and his father's love.
Michael Moses Ward is riding down Main Street in a blue reliant wagon, past the old railroad station and Sally Anne's soda shop. It is an October Friday in a small suburban town outside Philadelphia. School is out, the weekend has arrived. The Pennsylvania sky is wide and streaked with purple and gold. Brown and yellow leaves swirl over the street on a gusting wind.
Autumn is when leaves fall from the trees, his father has told him, and you feel cooler and you go to school.
Michael scowls as his stepmother drives past storefront windows full of big pumpkins, Magic Marker signs for the Jaycees Haunted House, wood stacked for the winter.
This is where you live, his father has said. You have to know the names of the streets. What if you get lost?
Michael is almost 16, a student who gets A's and B's in math, English, science and social studies, plays linebacker on the Blue Knights, spends Saturdays biking with his friends, and every day rubs his chin wondering if it's time to shave. He smiles shyly at the girls who like him, but can't think of exactly what he should say.
"Your father is mad at you," his stepmother says.
Michael wears a bleached-demin jacket and a neverending frown. "I don't understand," he protests, his voice cracking from low to high. "Lots of the kids didn't do their homework."
Amal is firm. "Your father says you're grounded."
Amal turns right at the 7-Eleven and parks two blocks down, before a small white house with a pine tree in the front yard. Michael retreats quickly to the living room, where the setting sun comes through golden curtains. While the Knights practice without him, Michael takes refuge in television.
He watches as Dan Rather, Cybill Shepherd, Weaver's Chicken Nuggets and Michael J. Fox flash before his eyes. Then Family Ties is interrupted by a commercial, paid for by mayoral candidate Frank Rizzo. "May 13, 1985" appears on a black screen. A voiceover intones, "Wilson Goode tells us not to judge him on the events of one day. . . . "
Michael watches the commercial flickering before him without expression, then smiles when Family Ties comes back on, the story of a normal American family, his story now. No visible trace remains of the wild child he was raised to be, no vestige of Birdie Africa, except for the scars, scars whose surface smoothness belies their depth and angry origin . . .
. . . In the gray light before dawn on May 13, 1985, Birdie Africa awakened on the floor of 6221 Osage Ave. to the bullhorn voice of Gregore Sambor. Birdie was 13 years old, but he knew few words and could write only one - MOVE. Even so, he understood what the police commissioner meant when he called for "surrender."
Now, the confrontation - the one the Big People had said was coming, the one he had been keeping strong for by boxing with the other children and eating raw garlic - was beginning. Shots were fired, bullet after bullet. The children and women took refuge in the basement. With his mother, Rhonda, and Phil, his best friend, Birdie huddled under a wool blanket that had been soaked in water. The basement was dark. Fortifications blocked the windows. Hours passed, hours of pounding footsteps, breaking glass, gunfire and tense silences. Water dripped from the ceiling, spurted through the windows and rushed down the drain. Explosions shook the house. Tear gas stung Birdie's eyes. He was small and he was afraid.
Then there was a big blast. The men ran downstairs. The basement got hotter. Burning debris fell from overhead. The house was on fire.
Rad ran downstairs and told the children they were going to have to leave. They didn't want to go. They were afraid of the police. They were afraid they would never see the grownups again. But the men started screaming, "The kids coming out! The kids coming out!"
Birdie saw Rad unbolt the cellar door and stick his head out, but there were shots and he said the kids couldn't go yet. Black smoke filled the room and made it hard to breathe. The children started screaming, "We wanna come out! We wanna come out!" Rad tried one more time. The grownups were hollering, "The kids coming out!"
Rhonda was holding Tomasa in her arms. He was 9, the youngest one in the house. Suddenly Tomasa became quiet, and Birdie saw Rhonda slap him on the back, trying to revive him. Tomasa cried just one more time, but then he stopped altogether and made no more noise.
All the children were weeping now. The basement was noisy and chaotic. They were crying, "We wanna come out!" The heat grew unbearable, and Birdie got ready to die.
The children lined up to leave. Birdie was the last. Phil was in front of him. Phil's skin was melting. Rhonda was behind Birdie, and she pushed him out. He ran from the house into the alley behind, stumbling through the tongues of flame. All around him were snapping electrical wires, burning trees and swirling clouds of smoke. The ground scorched Birdie's bare feet. It was so hot he couldn't walk and he fell.
Shadowy forms moved in the dusk. Birdie pulled himself weakly to his feet, but he could only walk in a daze.
Ramona was up on a walkway, and she reached down for him. "C'mon, Birdie," she cried, "c'mon, Birdie!" A police officer nearby hollered, ''C'mon c'mon c'mon, kid, c'mon, son, run," but all Birdie could see was Ramona, telling him to climb up, calling him, he was moving so slowly, but when he put one foot on the wall, he lost his grip and fell straight back on the concrete. When he got up, he wobbled and began to fall again, into the deep puddled water from fire hoses.
"C'mon, son! C'mon, son!"
Then the police officer was there. He grabbed him, pulling him like a helpless puppy away from the treacherous water, and ran with him down the street. Birdie's pants fell off his burned body, and as he was carried to safety he begged, "Don't shoot me, don't shoot me!"
Thirty miles away, a conservative businessman in a gray suit watched televison in horror as Osage Avenue was destroyed. This was not someone else's tragedy. Andino Ward was watching a disaster that would change his life forever. He was afraid his ex-wife and young son were in the MOVE house that was now feeding flames 100 feet high.
And if they were, how could they possibly survive?
Rhonda Cheryl Harris was barely 16, Andino Ward just 17, when they married in 1971 wearing matching tribal robes. A Baptist minister performed the ceremony in Nicetown, where Rhonda had grown up. She walked down the aisle pregnant. Andino was her first boyfriend.
Rhonda was an only child, quiet and painfully shy. Andino was bold, driven, a jazz musician and chess champion. Their parents opposed the marriage. But both came from broken homes, and for a while they thought they had found something solid together. They shared a passion for civil rights and for their son. Oyewolffe Momer Puim Ward they christened him. Oyewolffe, Arabic for ''Prince."
The newlyweds and their infant, little Wolf, as Rhonda called him, moved in with her mother, Ramona Shannon. "It was like living with three children," Shannon said. Andino became obsessed with finding a career, and Rhonda, aimless, grew militant. "We were growing apart," Andino said. "We had dramatic differences in opinion about life and the system."
By 1973, Andino and Rhonda separated. Andino took the baby on weekends. Rhonda went on welfare, but deeply hurt, she refused to tell Andino. One night a high school friend took her to a lecture in West Philadelphia. There, Rhonda found friends. When Andino went to Nicetown one weekend to take the baby, he was gone. "Rhonda's down on Powelton Avenue now," her mother explained. She had joined a house with a lot of young girls with babies and, among these members of MOVE, found a family.
Andino drove immediately to the MOVE compound. He spoke to Rhonda on the porch, but she refused to bring Oyewolffe out. John Africa and Andino almost came to blows, but other MOVE men appeared and Andino left. Every visit, he was told he couldn't come into the house. He couldn't see his son. He couldn't talk to his wife. Andino's only hope was that Rhonda would some day renounce her new life.
In 1974, Andino joined the Air Force, which stationed him in California. He wrote to Rhonda several times offering money, which she refused, and begging her to join him, to "make us all a family again." When the Air Force reassigned him to England in 1977, Andino went to the MOVE house once more. Rhonda's hair had grown into dreadlocks and her shyness into hostility. As he stood talking to her through a fence, a gunshot from the house just missed him. He turned and ran.
But even across the Atlantic, Andino could not escape MOVE. In Stars and Stripes he read of its 15-month standoff with police. The adults were threatening to kill the children. In November 1978 he learned that Rhonda had been arrested as a fugitive and convicted of threatening police officers. She was sentenced to prison for one to five years.
Where was his son?
Within a month, Andino was reassigned to McGuire Air Force Base so he could search for the boy. He turned in vain to lawyers, police, welfare and city officials. In the fall of 1979 he visited Rhonda in jail. It was to be the last time he saw her. He begged her, How was Wolf doing? Where was he? Rhonda was hostile and unyielding.
"She told me that if I got any closer," Andino said, "they'd kill him." He would have to search in secret.
Andino quit the Air Force in October 1979. He began taking classes at Community College and again and again went to the police, without result. He grew desperate. By November 1980, remarried and with a baby, he began to work for the Southern Home for Children on Broad Street. Night after night for two years, he would stay late to check records and call foster homes and parents. Then he joined Northwest Institute of Psychiatry in Fort Washington to get access to more records. Nowhere could he find his son.
Andino's son grew up never knowing his father. When he was old enough to ask, he was told his "biological" father was dead. John Africa was his real father, MOVE members said, the father of them all.
In 1984, with another newborn daughter in the family, Andino gave up the search. "I was wracked with guilt," he said. He plunged into work. He started his own financial-planning firm, and by May 13, 1985, business was good. He and his second wife, Amal, were about to buy their first house. Such happy dreams.
But now an orange fireball was filling his television screen. Anxiously, Andino bent closer to get a good look at the boy being rescued. He had seen his son only twice since the separation, from a distance, playing in a park. Never up close, never since the boy was 1 1/2, never in 11 1/2 years.
Andino's heart sank. The boy in the van was too small and dark. And when later he heard his name, it was unfamiliar, Birdie Africa. Andino withdrew deep into himself. Silently and furiously, he prayed to God.
At 7:58 p.m., 18 blocks from the fire, a police van arrived at Children's Hospital. Officers rushed the frail and stunned child into the emergency room. More officers crowded the ER and spilled onto the sidewalk outside. Hospital security guards clogged the sick bay. MOVE sympathizers, they had heard, might try to kidnap Birdie right out of the hospital.
ER director Stephen Ludwig and chief resident Donald Nakayama quickly examined the child: a naked black male with dreadlocks, so underdeveloped they thought he was only 9 years old, with second- and third-degree burns over 20 percent of his body, frightened but responsive.
Birdie hadn't eaten in two days. He was hungry and thirsty. There was soot in his mouth and throat. He was dangerously dehydrated. Ludwig began an IV to increase his fluids. His heart was racing - 150 beats a minute, twice the normal rate - a sign of possible respiratory damage. The doctors felt his limbs and abdomen, but found no internal injuries.
They began to treat the burns - on Birdie's face, neck, chest and back, arms, buttocks and legs. Doctors cleaned them with a mild saline solution. Birdie cried out. Then they applied an antibiotic cream and dressed the wounds. They gave him morphine for the pain.
Through the ordeal, Nakayama was amazed. MOVE members were taught that hospitals existed to hurt people, but in the strange high-tech world of surgical lamps, green monitors and flat odors, Birdie showed great composure. ''He had been through what most people cannot imagine," said Nakayama, ''but it was remarkable how cool he was."
By 9:37, Birdie was resting in a private room with its own TV. Toni Seidl, a social worker, was horrified to find Birdie quietly watching the MOVE disaster. She changed the channel to a Popeye cartoon. Then she helped arrange for the Department of Health and Human Services to take custody of the boy.
That first night, police were anxious and stood guard outside the MOVE child's door. That first night, nurses were pleased. Their patient was in stable condition and, at long last, asleep.
The next day, Birdie had visitors - Philadelphia police officers from the Juvenile Aid Division. They wanted answers. They wanted to know who was in the house with him, what they looked like, what they were wearing. They wanted information that would help identify the bodies down at the morgue. Birdie said he was afraid his family was hurt. They didn't tell him that everyone he had mentioned, including his mother, was dead.
The hospital staff found themselves drawn to Birdie. They wanted to do things for him. "The way he presented himself changed people's perceptions of MOVE," said Trina Dow, an art therapist. Seidl agreed. "He was a very charming, engaging kid. . . . He was attentive to adults, interested in the world. Someone was doing a good job with him. MOVE knew something about children."
Before he fell asleep that night, Birdie said, "I'd like to see my mother and the other kids."
On Wednesday, Dow visited. When she reached to touch Birdie, he drew away. She encouraged him to draw, but a police officer walked into the room and Birdie stopped. Officials interviewed Birdie in the hospital again and again, sometimes on and off throughout the day, sometimes when he was sedated and receiving oxygen. This time they showed him a picture, No. 501427, of a woman he said had been wearing shorts and a blue flowered shirt. "That's my mother, Rhonda," he said.
On Wednesday, Richard Ward, A salesman at Brooks Brothers, called his son, Andino. He'd gotten a tip from one of his customers who was a police officer. ''Dino," he said, "the boy in the hospital is your son."
Andino ran home to tell Amal, and together they prayed and cried. "Our prayers had been answered," Andino said.
That afternoon Andino found Oyewolffe's birth certificate, met with a city Human Services official to prove he was the father, then rushed to Children's Hospital. He raged at police officers who frisked him, but when he saw his small, bandaged son, surrounded by nurses, Andino started to cry.
One nurse said to Birdie, "Do you know who that is?"
As Andino watched, full of emotion, Birdie looked up. "Yeah," he said. ''That's my father."
Andino couldn't believe it. He ran over and kissed and hugged and held his long-lost son. "I love you," he kept repeating. "I'm so glad to see you. You have nothing to be afraid of anymore. This time everything is going to be OK."
Birdie seemed happy. But Andino realized the boy still thought his mother was alive. Holding his son, drinking in the very sight of him, he silently promised to devote the rest of his life to the boy. He would heal him and help him and never, never would they lose one another again.
At their home, Amal needed to tell her little girls about MOVE, so she drew crayon pictures on a napkin at the kitchen table.
"There was a house," she explained. "A helicopter came over and dropped a bomb. Then the house was on fire. Eleven people died in the fire, but one little boy lived. He was Daddy's son from another marriage, and now he's coming to live with us. It's like a fairy tale."
That night Andino met with Ramona Shannon, Birdie's grandmother. For years Shannon had visited her daughter and grandson in MOVE, bringing food and clothes and begging Rhonda to leave. For years Shannon had cherished the idea of having her grandson safe and with her. But now she agreed that Andino could offer the boy more energy and family support. The next day they went together to tell Birdie that his mother was dead.
"Birdie," Shannon said gently, "Rhonda didn't make it. If you want to cry, go ahead and cry."
"But she was right behind me!" the boy protested. "She was right behind me!" He burst into tears.
Shannon said what she could to comfort him. "God saved you, Birdie, and your mother's gone to heaven. And now you have your father. Your father loves you. And you have me."
But the tears "just kept pouring out of his eyes," Shannon remembered later. "It was so sad, I couldn't watch anymore."
Nurses monitored Birdie Africa as if he had come from another planet. How little he knew!
"When opening anything, using anything, allow Birdie to see it first," a nurse wrote in her notes, "and always explain what you are doing in very simple concrete terms. . . . Birdie is very bright in some areas, but is like a newborn."
"Needs to learn how to brush his own teeth. Never attended school," she wrote, although Birdie said he had been taught "to be good."
Andino brought gifts from the outside world - puzzles, a Walkman, a Rubik's cube. Birdie had been taught that toys and games were evil inventions, but the presents enchanted him. For years he had hungered for the forbidden life of a normal child.
Still, he remained wary of his father, clinging to John Africa's teachings. Andino decided not to ask about MOVE. Besides, the boy missed Rhonda so. Every day, sitting in a warm tub, Birdie had to have his burns debrided. Slowly, tortuously, the dead skin would be scrubbed off to prevent infection. And day after day, he would cry for his mother, cry for an hour, banging his head against the side of the tub. He would wake up in the middle of the night, crying, "I want my mommy!"
On Friday, Trina Dow brought Birdie two stuffed animals to play with. He made his the good guy, Dow's the bad guy and had them fight. Birdie's animal knocked out the bad guy, then handcuffed and arrested him.
That day Richard Ward brought a baseball, a glove and binoculars, and Andino brought a Bible. Birdie had been trying to explain to him John Africa's theory of how the world began. Andino began to read Genesis to his son.
Birdie was resisting hospital food, and losing weight. The hospital fed him raw vegetables - turnips, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes - which he preferred. Gently, Andino encouraged his son to eat new foods. After meals, Andino showed Birdie how to use a toothbrush.
Andino pressed on. Birdie would need a haircut, he said, it's more comfortable this way, you'll look like me, you'll be cooler and neater.
"Every day," said Andino, "I would say it's about time, press a little bit. . . . He'd always shake his head, no, no, no, no. . . . He said it was MOVE philosophy, if you cut the hair, you'd have some deteriorating effect on the brain."
The changes were coming quickly now. Trina Dow watched their impact on Birdie's drawings, so weak and incomplete they suggested he'd lost control of his life. So Dow helped him draw men with beards and dreadlocks to remind him of his MOVE history.
According to MOVE, Andino wasn't Birdie's "natural" father, only his ''biological" father, the boy said. "I made him understand," said Andino, "that . . . he was my son and my blood runs through his veins. He is part of me."
Birdie shook his head, no.
On Sunday the 19th, Birdie awakened to the sight of his new family, Amal, his new stepmother, and Sophia, 4, and Tatiana, 2, his new stepsisters. The little girls tickled Birdie, and he laughed.
By the 21st, after a week in the hospital, Birdie's mood seemed to improve. He'd talk with his father or they'd watch cartoons together. His appetite surged. By the 23d he was walking, though painfully. He was even comfortable with a police officer who spent 45 minutes trying to teach him to write. ''It's OK to learn," Birdie said afterward.
Two days later, on Saturday, Amal cut off the dreadlocks. Birdie glowered until little Sophia said, "You look so handsome," and he smiled. Later that night, he crept nervously to the bathroom mirror. "It looked funny. I didn't like it."
Birdie's drawings improved rapidly, too. In two weeks, the images had become more relaxed, more detailed: a house, trees, grass, a family. One figure appeared to be Andino, large and round-faced with a big grin, opening the door of a house. Behind him followed a smiling boy with no arms.
On May 28, 15 days after the fire, Andino Ward was granted custody of his son. Wearing a gray pinstriped suit with a maroon tie, he took Birdie home
from Children's Hospital. He planned to quit his job for a year or two, he told reporters, to give the boy "the beginning of a life filled with opportunity."
"God has been putting me through my paces for this," said Andino, a born- again Christian. "My son must learn to trust me before he can trust anyone else. There is no one else who can do what I have to do."
As he lifted Birdie Africa into the car, Andino declared confidently, "He will have everything he's going to need. When you look at him a year from now, you'll be looking at a very articulate, intelligent young man, on his way to prosperity. . . . I think that he will probably do great things in his lifetime."
At 7 the next morning, Andino carried his heavily bandaged son to a warm tub and gently sponged him clean. Kneeling, he peeled a single bandage off - and dead skin with it - and his son began to scream. With wet gauze, Andino rubbed off the remaining dead skin, medicated salve and white puss. He rubbed hard, as the nurses had taught him, until the wounds bled.
"He was screaming and hollering, and he looked so terrible to begin with, it was just terrible to see," Andino said. "I had to be as strong as I possibly could. I couldn't let him know how I felt about it."
Debriding had to be repeated, three to four hours each time, twice a day, every day for four months. In a windowless bathroom in the small suburban apartment, from summer into fall, Birdie Africa cried with the pain of healing and the pain of loss.
"It was excruciating for him every day, but I had to be the bad guy," said Andino. "I'd tell him he'd lose an arm or a leg from infection, you have to endure this. . . . I'd give him a break for 10 or 15 minutes, get some juice, rub his head and try to let him know, keep telling him, 'This too shall pass.'"
Sometimes it was more than even Andino could stand. He'd get up quietly, leaving Birdie in the tub, and go out of the bathroom to cry by himself, where the boy wouldn't see him. "I kept telling him, 'It won't always be like this, son. What's happening now, you'll remember as a bad dream. This too shall pass.'"
Between burn sessions Birdie would never leave his father's side.
The boy's needs soon overwhelmed the two-bedroom apartment and the young family of five. Finances were tight. Andino took Sophia out of private school and stopped her piano lessons. The family quickly exhausted their small savings, which had been set aside for their new house. That dream now seemed like a fantasy from ages ago. Amal took in sewing and went to work at a pretzel bakery, on the midnight shift.
Andino and Amal gave up their bedroom to Birdie and slept in the living room on a sofa bed. They sold their double bed, their stereo system, their dining room furniture. They sold almost everything they had.
In July a consortium of 21 charities gave $12,000 to each of the 60 Osage Avenue families, and the city began building them new houses. Birdie got nothing. "An innocent kid was treated as though he were a perpetrator of the violence," said David Shrager, the Wards' attorney. "When I asked for help from the United Way, it was 'nothing doing.' The charities could hardly talk to me, they had no answers. " Finally, at the end of August, three charities - the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Cobbs Creek Emergency Relief Fund - gave Birdie $2,500.
Then, like gifts from God, said Amal, came food, clothing for Birdie and $2,000, raised by the Wards' small fundamentalist congregation.
Richard Ward was worried about the family. He wondered about the wisdom of Andino's giving up his job. So he drove to his son's house to find out what was going on.
"Andino was in the bathroom," the grandfather said, and the boy "was hollering out and crying for his mother . . . 'Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.' And I couldn't watch anymore. I walked out of the bathroom into the bedroom where Amal was changing (the) bed and I started to help her and she just broke down crying. She said, 'Andino goes through this every single day,' and she just cried. I embraced her, but she just kept crying. In fact, it almost made me cry to hear her cry and hearing him scream, 'Mommy, Mommy' five, 10 minutes straight for two hours."
When they had a moment to talk, Andino explained to his father, "I quit my job because I couldn't ask my wife to do what I had to do. I can't ask anybody else to do what I have to do."
Two years later, sitting over a cup of coffee in a local restaurant, Andino burst into tears. Oblivious to the stares of patrons and waitresses, he described those early awful days, how the shared pain of scrubbing his son's burns became a bond.
"I think I showed him, if nothing else, that I'm a man of my word," Andino said, tears streaming down his cheeks. "If nothing else, I told him, it will get better. All he has to be is strong enough to deal with this. This too shall pass."
Birdie had lost 17 1/2 pounds, down to 77 1/2, in the hospital. Amal let him snack on raw vegetables. Putting weight on him seemed too important to quibble about how it got there.
But to Andino, uncooked food was his son's strongest connection to MOVE. So on Sunday, June 2, when Amal took the girls to church, Andino stayed home. He was running the bathwater when Birdie asked for a sweet potato.
"I thought, There's no time like the present to start rearranging his thought processes," Andino said. "I told him, 'No, you cannot have a raw sweet potato. That's over. You did that in MOVE. . . . You're going to have to eat normal foods like everyone else.'"
Andino was astonished at his son's reaction. Bandaged and weak, hobbling on burned feet, unable because of scar tissue to move his left arm, Birdie attacked.
"He became violent, trying to hit me, and I had to restrain him," Andino said. "He tried to run out of the room and I grabbed him and we went down on the floor. We wrestled hard for 20 minutes."
Andino felt as if he were wrestling with a dead John Africa for the very soul of his son.
"I held him and I pinned him and I said, 'There's going to be no more raw sweet potatoes.' I tried not to hurt his burns. I said, 'I can fight you all you want, but you're going to get tired before I do.'"
Birdie tried to go out the front door. Andino stopped him. He hobbled into his bedroom and started to climb out the window. Andino stopped him again. He said he was going to leave and "walk back to MOVE."
"No, you're not going back to MOVE," Andino said. "MOVE is gone and you're here now and you're going to eat normal foods like everyone else."
When the fight was over, Andino gave his son time to cool down. Birdie watched television in the living room. "It's a new life now," Andino told him, "and this is the way it's going to be. They'll be no raw food."
Birdie stared stonily at the TV. When Andino called him for his bath, the boy refused to come.
"I let him sit there and watch the Three Stooges," said Andino, "and suddenly he was crying and I said . . . 'It's OK for you to cry, but I want you to understand I'm your father, and this is the first thing on a list of things we're going to deal with.'"
Birdie looked up. "I don't care if you hate me at this point," Andino said. "I still love you and the reason I'm doing this is I love you. I don't care how much we fight, I'll still love you."
Birdie said nothing. He just looked at his father and kept crying.
Forty-five minutes later, Andino got the bandages ready and freshened the bathwater.
"I was frightened," he said. "I was taking a calculated risk and praying to God it would work. I came up to him and said, 'OK, son, it's time for your bath. ' I was ready to pick him up physically and put him in the tub, pajamas and all, if he resisted. I thought, here goes the next fight."
Andino was surprised once again.
"He got up. I was thrilled."
In the bathtub, Birdie "screamed more than usual that day. His rage and grief came out. . . . It was like a large child crying and ranting - throwing a temper tantrum. When the tantrum was over, I told him, 'Now that you're done, I want you to know I still love you. It's going to be this way. It's a new world.'"
Birdie Africa never asked for uncooked food again.
In July, Birdie still stood only 4 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed less than 80 pounds when his father took him, shy and frightened, to visit Solomon Katz, a biological anthropologist and child growth expert at the University of Pennsylvania. Katz, an authority on primitive diets and culture, was astonished at the 13-year-old's size.
"He was much closer in development to a Third World child than a normal Philadelphia child," Katz said. "He was so thin and frail . . . and very shy, like he hadn't had contact with people. . . . He reminded me of a feral child."
In his office, Katz charted the tragic result of MOVE philosophy. Birdie's diet, even more primitive than that of hunting and gathering tribes, had delayed his physical and intellectual development. He would never recover fully what he had lost.
In one sense, Katz said, Birdie had remained remarkably pure, as John Africa had intended. He had no cavities. Without exposure to junk food, his teeth were perfect.
Katz was concerned about the isolation from society Birdie had suffered. He lacked the skills of other children. His closest friends were all dead. Would he be able to relate to normal children his age? Birdie seemed worried himself. In a voice so meek that Katz had to bend closer to hear it, Birdie asked, "Who will I be playing with?"
By the end of June, Andino's strategy had begun take shape: To prepare Birdie for school in September, he would have to remake his son's social and personal habits - deprogramming 11 1/2 years of MOVE in two months.
One of Andino's biggest challenges was convincing his wild child he was wild. In MOVE, the children were considered the "pure ones," and Birdie thought he knew everything he needed to know. "I kept telling him," Andino said, "you have to realize your deficiencies."
In early July, Andino told Birdie that in a new life he needed a new name and asked if he wanted to be called Junior. Birdie shook his head, no. So Andino read names from the Bible. Birdie chose Michael, the Archangel, the fighter. Andino gave his son the middle name Moses, "because you are like Moses. You were saved, you were drawn from water."
In mid-August Andino trimmed Michael's three-quarter-inch fingernails. In MOVE, cutting fingernails, like combing hair, was a corruption of natural growth. When Michael resisted, Andino promised him a toy. Michael flinched at every clip. Afterward, they went to Toys R Us, and Michael picked out a transformer.
As his burns healed, Andino said, Michael needed to learn how to take a shower. "He said showers weren't necessary - he would go down to the creek and swim and that would be his bath," Andino said. He taught his son how to wash, and every day for three weeks he would inspect the boy to make sure he had showered properly.
Slowly Michael Moses Ward began to look like a suburban teenager, with short hair and sports shirts and sneakers, "but he was still holding on as much as possible to the ideologies of MOVE," Andino said.
In late July, Richard Ward took Michael and Sophia to My Bodyguard, Michael's first movie. The grandfather didn't notice the PG rating.
"Suddenly it's all these young kids cursing, and they're half dressed . . .," Richard Ward said. "So I said to Michael, 'This isn't the kind of movie we should be seeing.' . . . I must have had to say to him three times, 'Let's go.' And he pouted and he didn't make any effort to get up because now I'm standing and my granddaughter is standing, and that's when I picked him up."
To the astonishment of Richard Ward - and moviegoers nearby - Michael unleashed a stream of MOVE obscenities. Ward was enraged. He dragged his grandson home.
At home, Andino said, "This is the last time you'll go anywhere until you get your act together. You better not open your mouth ever again like that or let words like that come out."
"He fought hard to preserve who he was," Andino said, "until he realized who he was wasn't very pleasant."
Next, Andino confronted the issue of friends. The first step was to let Michael out on his own.
"I thought it was something that needed to be done," Andino said. "My wife was against it. She was afraid something might happen. We talked it over, and I said, 'I have to know what he'll do. . . . Can he handle himself?'"
Andino explained the layout of the neighborhood to Michael. "I told him, There's the park down there, and this is the street you live on. I told him to be careful, and don't go into anyone's house."
Michael lingered on the threshold of the apartment, wearing long khaki pants and a long-sleeved blue-and-red shirt to cover his burns. "Well, go on out," Andino said.
Slowly he walked away in unsteady, childish steps and disappeared around the corner. Twenty minutes passed. Half an hour. No Michael.
"We were on pins and needles," Andino said. "We didn't know what to do. What if he got hit by a car? What if someone picked him up? I resisted the urge to follow him."
Soon, down the sidewalk walked Michael, in the midst of five giggling girls. "We're just bringing Mike back home," said one girl brightly. "Can he come out and play later?"
The girls had given him a book, Mystery Horse by Margaret Goff Clark, inscribed to Michael, From: All of us. Andino laughed.
"What do you think of those girls?"
Michael smiled. "They're cool."
In late July, Michael was hanging around outside the apartment when a boy asked him what he was doing. Nothing, Mike said.
"You want to go to the bike store?"
Nick was a seventh-grader, big and sure of himself. Mike was small and shy. Soon Nick and other friends were coming over to Mike's house to play with Gobots on the porch, wrestle on the living room floor, eat pizzas in the kitchen. Amal was worried about who these new friends were. Andino calmed her. ''I can't teach him to be a teenager. They can."
Because Michael and Andino had been on TV, people in the area knew the family's history. Once, a new friend called him Birdie, and Michael looked angry. "My name's not Birdie," he shot back at him. "It's Michael."
Andino marveled at how quickly his son picked up mainstream teenage culture. The MOVE child who had run naked, even in wintertime, until he was 6 years old was wearing Sears blue jeans, Hawaiian shirts buttoned up to the neck and black sneakers with extra-wide pink laces never tied.
As the summer ended, Michael asked for money. Andino was startled. Michael didn't know a nickel from a dime; Andino had been unable to teach him.
"We want to go to the store," Michael said. Andino gave him $2.
"I knew he didn't even know how to go into a store and pick out anything," Andino said. "I thought, let's see what happens."
At the 7-Eleven, Mike stared into the big refrigerators and turned to his best friend. "He asked me what coin was worth how much," Nick said, "and how much a root beer cost. " Nick explained everything, and Michael came home smiling, with a root beer Slurpee.
"Later Michael said to me, 'I need to learn about the money. ' I said, 'Oh, really.' . . . It was like his awakening."
It was a summer of many new things, the summer of 1985. Andino taught Michael about the seasons and the ocean, the moon and the rocket that had gone all the way there, about stars and language and twilight. Michael had many questions. "How can people be in one place and then move so fast to another place?" and "How can people be shot and then come back to life?" So Andino explained television.
One morning Andino sat Michael down in the living room. "Enough time has gone by," Andino said. "I am your father, and I've allowed you to call me Dino long enough. You're going to call me Dad, and every time you call me Dino, I won't respond, and if I don't respond I can't do anything for you."
It took about a week.
"From that point on, he called me Dad," said Andino. "It was nice to hear."
Over dinner one night, Andino explained to Michael that he would be going to school soon and would have to be tested to see what he knew. Michael was disconsolate. "I don't know anything," he said.
Andino asked Jules Abrams, director of the division of psychology at Hahnemann University, to evaluate his son to determine what schooling and tutoring he would need.
In a series of tests, Michael couldn't do math, spell or even recognize letters. He couldn't name which month came after March, who discovered America or in what direction the sun set. He couldn't count. "His scores were all below first-grade level," Abrams said. The average IQ of the general population ranges from 90 to 109. Michael's IQ was 57, generally the level of profoundly retarded people who will never be able to care for themselves.
Abrams held out some hope, since Michael came from intelligent parents and the tests measured what he had absorbed from his environment. "In MOVE, he hadn't had the opportunity to acquire anything," Abrams said. "He was suffering from cognitive deprivation, a lack of exposure to society. He had learned absolutely nothing."
The question was, how much of his intellectual functions would the boy ever recover?
Two weeks before school began, Michael told Andino he wanted to go by himself the first day. Andino, who'd worked so hard to reach this day, felt cast aside. But in West Philadelphia, Michael had seen the school buses packed with children, and he wanted to ride the bus.
"We got him his own alarm clock, and he was out there bright and early standing waiting for the bus," Andino said. "He was elated. It was pride and joy to be out there waiting for that bus every morning. He was always up before we were, in the shower, brushing his teeth, dressing, having cereal for breakfast, standing out there waiting. We never had to wake him up. It was amazing."
Andino couldn't afford full-time tutoring and he couldn't put his son in with his age group, 13-year-olds, yet Michael would hardly be comfortable in kindergarden, his intellectual level. So Andino had enrolled Michael in public school, with students at a similar stage of physical and intellectual development - educably mentally retarded, or EMR, students 10 and 11 years old.
In school, Michael pushed his tray in the cafeteria line, dazzled by the choices. Everything - the Pilgrims, George Washington, birthday cakes, gym class, a visit to a planetarium - was new. "You could see in his eyes," his teacher, Diane, said, "that he just wanted to learn about the whole universe. . . . It was like working with a blank sheet of paper. Whatever I taught him, he drank up like a sponge."
He learned how children go to school around the world. He learned about cities and towns. He learned about "neighborhood helpers" - like police officers and firefighters - and came home angry. "He was adamant about police and firemen being bad," Andino said. "He said police beat and hurt you."
Andino did not know what to say.
"It was hard to argue. I couldn't tell him he was wrong. I couldn't tell him . . . that they're upstanding people. All I could tell him was, 'Do not judge everyone because of what happened. As devastating as it is, not everything is like this. The world is not all like this. There are good people in the world.'"
On Oct. 12, Andino took his son to Philadelphia. In an office sat William H. Brown 3d, chairman of the MOVE investigation commission. Speaking gently, Brown interviewed Michael for two hours about the Osage fire. Michael, obedient but terrified, talked about the location of MOVE houses, John Africa and other MOVE members.
"He was a frightened little child and he didn't want to do it," Andino said. "He had a fear MOVE was going to hurt him if he talked about things MOVE normally never talked about."
Three months later, in January 1986, Michael was called as a defense witness for Ramona Africa, the only other survivor of the MOVE fire. She was accused of aggravated assault, conspiracy and other charges stemming from the May 13, 1985, disaster. David Shrager, the Wards' attorney, had made elaborate plans to conceal Michael's appearance at the trial, but when he, Andino and Michael got off the elevator in City Hall, they were confronted by TV cameras and lights and people behind a barricade, some of them MOVE sympathizers, some just followers of the case.
"They were whispering, 'It's Birdie,'" said Shrager, "and all of a sudden they were yelling, 'It's Birdie! Birdie!' They were treating him like a folk hero almost."
Michael was petrified. Andino rushed him into the courtroom.
When security people brought Ramona in, she caught Michael's eye. "A deep and sincere smile came across her face," said Shrager, "a very warm smile. To me it was very poignant . . . as though he'd come into the presence of a loving aunt who hadn't seen him. I thought I saw a tear in her eye." Michael averted his eyes.
Ramona was acting as her own attorney. In the presence of Andino and Shrager, she spoke to Michael in a quiet voice, very soothingly, for a few minutes, explaining, "It'll be all right. I'm just going to ask you a few questions."
Michael nodded but never looked up.
Then Ramona quickly began speaking in MOVE jargon, an attempt, it seemed to Shrager, to rekindle their old ties.
"OK, that's it," the attorney said, and he broke off the conversation.
On the witness stand Michael answered in a small childish voice while looking down. Only once did he raise his voice, when talking about the fire.
"Did you think somebody was trying to hurt you? " Ramona asked.
"Yeah!" said Michael.
"Did you think they were trying to kill you?"
"YEAH!" he said.
After the long testimony, Shrager and Andino steered Michael through a side door, past a police officer and guard dog, into the early evening air. A light snow was falling, and as they led Michael under the city, along the concourse to Suburban Station, he was totally quiet, deep in his own thoughts.
A few months later, Michael had to testify yet again, before the state grand jury. Before each legal appearance, before each visit to the doctor, Michael's nights would be a torment of nightmares. He and Phil, Tree, Rad and his mother were running, "running and running and running, and a fire was chasing us." Searing flames would trap him and his family, leaving no escape. He and his father would run into a burning house filled with monsters. The world and all its buildings and all its people were on fire.
It's over, his father would tell him, you're safe, you're all right. Every night, Michael knelt by his bed and said the Lord's Prayer, asking God to make his nightmares go away.
By the end of his first school year, Michael had advanced to almost a third-grade level. His IQ had leaped to 74, with a non-verbal IQ of 82, close to average.
"It was just remarkable," Abrams, the psychologist, said. "He was a blank slate. With just an ordinary amount of stimulation, he made tremendous gains. "
By June 1986, Michael's shoes were pinching, and his clothes were pulling at the seams. His stepmother threw out his size 6 sneakers and bought him size 7, then threw them out and bought size 8, and started sewing him a whole new set of clothes. His face had grown plump and was taking on a more adult cast. Overnight, it seemed, he had grown half a foot taller. With his left arm freed by surgery that removed the binding keloid scarring, Michael learned to play sports.
Soon he was a tentative player in a youth baseball league. During his first game, a fly ball was hit to right field, a position he'd been given for its inactivity. Andino and Amal held their breath. "The ball came out to me and I stuck my glove out," Michael said, "and the ball went in the glove. I ran in, and the coach ran out and picked me up and everybody was cheering. . . . It was fun."
That summer, Michael asked his father for a new pair of Nikes, a skateboard, new remote-control cars and a new bicycle - a lime-green GT Performer. "Whoa! " Andino said. "You're acting like money grows on trees."
Andino was about to go back to work, taking a service job at a health-care company, which would ease the family's financial problems a bit. But he decided Michael still needed to learn about money and responsibility. He taught the boy to take out the trash, wash the dishes, clean his room and vacuum the living room, and he gave him an allowance of $6 a week.
Amal was astonished at how obedient her stepson was. Sometimes she entertained a silly thought: MOVE had created the perfect teenager. Maybe too perfect, she thought.
"My friends tell me all the trouble they're having now with their teenage sons, how they are talking back and being smart," Amal said. ". . . Sometimes I wish he'd talk back to me so I'd know what he's thinking."
In his second year of school, Michael began to notice something wrong with the other students. He wondered why they weren't as sharp as the kids he played with on weekends. He asked Kathy, his new teacher, why they still couldn't read and write.
Even among these EMR students, though, Michael struggled to keep up. He was flustered when they knew "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and he had never heard it. He was angry when he couldn't understand how to read a thermometer and they could. "I never had that," he'd say. "Give me a break."
Andino met with Michael's teachers every three months. At the next meeting, Kathy said Michael was having problems. Maybe there was a limit to what he could learn, she said gently. Maybe he would never catch up.
Andino was furious.
"He is GOING to learn this," he answered. "I don't want to set up a failure. I don't want you to baby him. I don't want to hear about limits and neither does my son. Push him as far as he can go!"
A new set of rules was imposed: Homework would have to be completed before Michael went out to play. After dinner, Michael would read two chapters of a Hardy boys novel and then start on Bible verses. At bedtime, he'd read them back to his father. Television would be restricted.
"It was so difficult for him to learn things," Andino said. "His concentration was so intense he'd give himself a headache. He'd jerk up his body and frown his face up so hard and want to get up and walk away, and I'd have to calm him down: 'Look, you can't fall apart like this. This is what it's all about. But have no fear. You will get this.'"
Michael was having trouble with division. He'd come home from school with 10 homework problems. Once he'd done those, his father would say, "Fine, now here's 20 more." Every night Andino would stay up late, making up math problems.
Once Michael came down near tears, saying he just couldn't do it.
"You can do it," said Andino. "You will do it. You're going to do it.
"I'd send him back to his room five times. I'd say, 'This is the principle you use for this problem, now go back, go back, go back, go back, go back. You like riding bikes, Mike, you like video games, you like swimming and football, but football isn't going to feed you. This is going to feed you.'
"Every new thing the teacher taught, he'd fret and fuss, bang his head against the wall for two weeks, and then he'd finally get it," Andino said. It was then that Andino noticed something special about his son. Every time Michael mastered a problem, he would move on to the next as though he'd never been frustrated before. Michael seemed to have the gift of forgetting pain.
By June 1987, Michael was writing three- or four-paragraph stories. The child who hadn't been able to recognize letters was reading 135 words a minute, slightly behind the 150-200 words a minute a normal 15-year-old reads.
"You could see his new confidence," Kathy said. ". . . All of a sudden he became a warm, friendly person and would get this big glowing smile on his face. And I started to see the true Michael emerge."
Andino began to think that in MOVE his son had developed remarkable character. "He's vehement, frenzied, hungry. He has incentive. . . . He's amazed his teachers, he's amazed me. All of a sudden he hurtled out of nowhere."
It is Saturday morning, the day after Michael was grounded. No biking with Nick this weekend. Even so, Michael is sunny and pleasant as he devours scrambled eggs, pancakes, bacon, milk and juice. He mows the lawn and then gets his hair cut at the local barber shop. At his father's company picnic that afternoon, Andino gives Michael a big hug and teases, "What kind of haircut is that?"
Michael looks down shyly.
"I wanted to get it like that kid on The Cosby Show," he explains. "Also there's a kid on the football team that has a haircut like this."
"All right, Michael, whatever you say," Andino laughs, obviously pleased. ''I don't know what you guys are all into. It's a foreign language to me. "
Later, Michael and Andino join a touch football game. Michael and another boy are made captains. The other boy picks to win - grownups in their 30s. Michael picks friends, kids around his age, including a nervous 14-year-old who throws interceptions and drops passes, but Michael likes him, so he lets him run the team.
Finally, Michael takes over as quarterback and throws one interception and two touchdown passes, one over the outstretched fingers of his father. "All right!" Michael says with a big grin, and he runs up and gives the receiver a high-five. When Michael's team loses, 13 touchdowns to 6, one kid blames the 14-year-old for fumbling away the game. "No," Michael insists, "he played good."
A few days before Christmas 1987, Andino takes Michael shopping in the mall. He has just turned 16. It will be his third Christmas home. He seems happy.
In less than three years the imprint of MOVE's indoctrination seems to have vanished. Tiny, malnourished Birdie Africa has grown almost a foot and gained 40 pounds. Every time he gets in the car now, he says, "Dad, when are you going to teach me to drive?" He wants a Corvette; he wants a summer job at McDonald's; he wants to go to normal school. He is still shy around strangers, but he is a "chatterbox" at home, and he has the savvy of any 16-year-old around his friends. His last five report cards have put him on the honor roll. In the last year he has become impeccably groomed. He is now in EMR eighth grade.
Andino already talks to his son about college and marriage, about safe sex. People who are happy for the boy stop him in the mall. Some send him gifts. One woman has named her baby Michael after him. "He is a miracle," Amal believes. "He is a miracle from God."
Michael dreams of being a carpenter, a stunt bicycle racer, a professional football player. "You can be anything you want to be," his father always says.
But Andino still worries. At what age will Michael be able to take care of himself? How will he come to view MOVE, the bombing of his house, the death of his mother? What wounds lie below the surface?
"This is always going to be with him, always, throughout his life," says Andino. "Whenever he looks at his body, whenever he looks in a mirror and thinks, 'I don't have a mother.' . . . If he doesn't have the proper perspective, he could return to his origins," become isolated and embittered.
Michael will live with the physical scars of MOVE until the 1990s. After three operations, he faces at least six more to remove his scars. As daunting, perhaps, will be his testimony in the future in the case of Michael Moses Ward versus the City of Philadelphia. The Wards' lawsuit contends that the city violated Michael's civil rights in the Osage Avenue disaster.
"When he smiles he can light up a room," says David Shrager, "but he still has a look on him sometimes like a guy who's been on the narrow edge and wondering, Could it happen again?"
Rhonda Harris Ward's burned remains lie buried near the middle of St. Albans Cemetery in West Oak Lane, in a circle of trees, far from the sounds of Cheltenham Avenue. Every Mother's Day, Michael Moses Ward stands quietly by his mother's grave. He does not cry, does not show emotion. Andino has worried that trips to Michael's former world will depress or even cripple his son. But again and again, he discovers his son's strength of character.
"I encourage him always to go talk to his mother, to tell his mother how he's doing and how he feels, that he misses her," Andino says. "I walk away and let him talk privately."
After last year's visit, Andino walked his son back to the Plymouth wagon for the long drive home. They drove past shiny new office buildings, church steeples and grassy hills, on a highway Michael doesn't know to a place he can't easily find on a map.
You have to know the names of the streets, his father tells him. What if you get lost?
I'll just go to the street sign and read it, Michael says now. And I'll go to a phone and call you.