It's the last weekend of July, in the midst of a mid-summer
heatwave. After driving for miles up and down the green hills of the
Catskills through tiny, non-descript towns, the signs welcoming
baseball fans begin about 10 miles outside of Cooperstown, New York.
Rolling farmland slowly turns more populated. Old barns house
antiques instead of cows. New motels welcome young sluggers en
route. There are ice cream stores, batting cages, miniature golf and
a Corvette museum vying for visiting dollars.
The village of Cooperstown, population 2,000, has been invaded by
hundreds of families -- dads in baseball hats, T-shirts, long denim
shorts and sneakers walk with their dressed-alike sons. They wander
along Main Street, past Shoeless Joe's and a cafe with a "Pete Rose
for Commish" banner, toward giant Otsego Lake, stopping to buy
souvenirs that mark why they're here: To celebrate the induction of
the Baseball Hall of Fame's newest members, former Philadelphia
Phillies Mike Schmidt and Richie Ashburn.
It's not baseball that brings me to Cooperstown on the last day
of Induction Weekend 1995. As the final event of the ceremony -- a
game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago Cubs -- is about
to begin, a recording of the national anthem blasts out of the
speakers from Doubleday Field, just down the road from the Hall.
I walk the few blocks between the stadium and Bassett Hospital,
where I will meet Henry Nicols, Sr., who goes by the name Hank and
is the father of the Henry with whom I have requested an interview.
Over the phone, Hank gave me somewhat detailed instructions on
how to find him at the hospital where he works. "Just go to the
information booth. They'll know how to contact me." A guard greets
me and uses his walkie-talkie to contact Hank. I'm then directed to
an office in another building. The whole procedure's a bit Mission
Impossible for the country, but I'm curious.
When I finally meet Hank, he tells me the elaborate screening
process is intentional. "My visiting with you first was just to make
sure you weren't a nun," he says. A what? Hank explains that
well-meaning people, nuns for example, as well as lunatics and other
unsavory characters sometimes try and contact his son, Henry, who
has AIDS. "We get threatening letters," he says, "from people who
are well-meaning, but off-center." Hank's not crazy, but his
statement is puzzling. Later, his wife explains: "There are people
out there who believe that AIDS is a punishment from God," says Joan
Nicols. The family tries to protect Henry from the lunatics. And the
What's clear is that I've traveled the distance between baseball,
the most American of pastimes, to AIDS, the most American of
diseases. They coexist in Cooperstown in the form of Henry Nicols.
Henry, a lanky kid with a loping gait, walks into his Dad's
office a few minutes later. Henry is a youthful-looking 22-year-old
with bright brown eyes, straight light brown hair that is parted on
the side, cut short, and hangs over one of his eyes. He's stylish,
not a slacker, and if I were a 22-year-old woman (not 33), I'd think
he was a cute boy. Like almost everyone in Cooperstown, he wears
long denim shorts, a T-shirt with a Drew University symbol on it and
Henry is friendly, warm and smiles easily, but he's a funny
contradiction. If he's talking about AIDS, the topic is so familiar
the information just flows out of him. Some of it sounds almost
rehearsed, like a politician with an agenda, but he knows what he's
saying. He's got the AIDS speeches down pat.
On the other hand, he's got the shy, geeky, post-teenager thing
going on, like Keanu Reeves in those stimulating Bill and Ted films.
He's worried about whether he should look me in the eye, or look
away, volunteer information, or be quiet. Later, when we're alone,
he talks about the weather, slightly nervously, staring at the
mountains. It's charming in a way that reminds me of my own awkward
AIDS arrived in bucolic Cooperstown with a sonic boom in 1991 via
Henry, who was then a 17-year-old high school student, a hemophiliac
and a Boy Scout. Henry came from a God-fearing, hardworking,
close-knit, community-oriented family that fit in so perfectly with
the small town ideal that if they didn't live here already, they'd
have to move.
As a hemophiliac, Henry had his share of physical challenges and
mishaps growing up, many of which resulted in blood transfusions.
From the hundreds of transfusions came HIV and now AIDS. Henry has
known he is HIV positive since he was 11 years old, a fact the
Nicols family, as a unit, decided to keep a secret.
Henry says that until he was 17, he lived in fear. He listened to
the news reports when Indiana teenager Ryan White, who had AIDS, was
thrown out of school because other parents didn't want their
children exposed to him, and when the Ray brothers, the three HIV
positive hemophiliacs from Florida, had their house burned down and
their dog killed. Henry hoped that by keeping AIDS a family secret,
he would avoid such heartbreak.
"For so many years we had been hiding it. We'd been biting our
tongues, and paranoid every time anybody made a stupid AIDS comment
because we were afraid someone would find out," says Henry spitting
out the word "stupid," and squirming a bit when he talks.
More often than not, secrets breed fear. Did the family suffer
psychologically and seek help? Hank says that indeed he found a
shrink for the family, but, "he told me to leave Henry alone." Joan
says that "because he was infected, Henry grew up a little faster
and was more of a loner than most kids."
It certainly wasn't doom and gloom in the Nicols household. Henry
had as normal an adolescence as possible, reveling in such things as
girls and partying.
"How's dating?" I ask Henry.
"Well, I am partial to blondes," he says to me, a proudly
bottle-blonde reporter, flirting.
"I'm too old for you," I say.
A bit later, Hank casually mentions that Henry is "dame bramaged"
in that nerdy way that fathers everywhere talk, just to embarrass
their children. But Henry's game. This is how the Nicols talk about
Henry: "It sounds kind of sick to say this, but we're kind of
lucky I was infected when I was about 10."
Hank: "We had him neutered."
Henry: "My family is kind of strict, so I wasn't having
unprotected sex or using IV drugs at age 10," Henry says, smiling.
"It wasn't a problem with me infecting anybody." But AIDS educator
Henry quickly eclipses playful Henry as he continues. "It's very
easy to avoid behaviors that put people at risk. This made me and
everybody I've ever dated realize that there's more to dating than
sex. There are a lot of ways to show someone that you love them
without putting them at risk. It's not as bad as most people think."
Henry finishes on automatic pilot.
As a child, Henry wasn't rebellious. Nor were his two sisters,
says Joan -- mainly because when they were growing up, Hank was a
police officer. But Henry did get drunk once. "At about two in the
morning, I heard Henry and his best friend Chris being really loud
in the hot tub," remembers Joan, who got out of bed to check out the
commotion. "Chris couldn't get out of the tub, and there was Henry
barfing pink barf on the deck." They'd been drinking a concoction,
sex on the beach, with a red tint. The event, says Joan, "was
Henry giggles a bit at the memory, and defends himself. "That was
the hot tub's fault." Then he turns serious. "Alcohol is bad for an
immune system. I do sometimes drink," he says, "but I don't get
smashed every night."
Anyway, drinking doesn't fit in with Henry's other passion --
Scouting. Joan calls Hank "Mr. Boy Scout" and since Henry was a
child, he's been encouraged as a Scout. Out of that archaic -- some
would even say reactionary -- organization came an AIDS evangelist,
a poster child and preacher for the AIDS movement.
Henry achieved Scouting's highest honor, the rank of Eagle Scout.
First, he earned 21 merit badges, and then proposed a project
demonstrating leadership and serving a community. Says lifelong
Scouter and Nicols family friend Bob Hildebrand, "Typically, it
involves cleaning up a local park or painting furniture in a
community center." Henry isn't typical and his project was simple
and courageous: To tell the world about his life with AIDS.
It was a brave move. "Most of the courage came from anger," Henry
says, "because I was so tired of having to keep this secret. It's
like having to hide the fact that you're Jewish or something totally
stupid that you should never have to hide. I was angry at having to
keep this secret. Basically, if anyone has a problem with that, then
it's their problem. It's not my problem because I am not going to
deal with it anymore."
Henry took control of his AIDS destiny in a modern way. He
planned a press conference. "We figured it was best to get it out
and then it would be old news," says Henry. "But it didn't work out
that way. It became huge news, like, instantly." Then Henry's life
First came relief: "After this, it was sort of like you could be
yourself now, you could stop living a lie and stop pretending and
let people know who you really were," says Henry.
The second part of Henry's Eagle Scout project involved visiting
schools and meeting with kids to explain to them what he knew about
AIDS in a non-judgmental way. It was so successful that Henry and
his sister Jennifer still travel together to colleges, Japan and
anywhere else they're asked to go spreading the safer sex gospel.
"It makes him feel like he's doing something worthwhile," says Joan.
"It keeps him fired up."
"We have a presentation that lasts about 30 minutes and then we
do questions and answers. That's the most important part. That's
when people ask what they need to know. A lot of high school and
college age students think that, basically, you get AIDS and then
you just die and that's it. They don't realize that you're still
living. A lot of them don't believe that you can get AIDS from
someone who looks healthy. We try and blow that out of the water and
I think we usually do a pretty good job," says Henry.
He admits that frustration gets to him. "Nobody ever believes
they'll get killed in a car accident or by drunk driving and nobody
ever believes they'll get AIDS. It's this teenage and young adult
sense of invulnerability that is so frustrating because they don't
believe that AIDS is where they are. They don't realize that AIDS is
I can't help thinking that other than the fact that Henry has
AIDS (his T-cell count is zero but when it was a high four, he named
them, two boys and two girls, so if they reproduced he could explain
it), he's so normal, another kid growing up in a small town anywhere
Although Henry has full-blown AIDS, his health has been
remarkably stable with no ongoing opportunistic conditions;
he's avoided being hospitalized since Thanksgiving 1994. "He's a
bit of an anomoly because he really looks good," says his father.
"He's averaged one hospital stay a year for the last three years. In
1991, he had multiple system failures, and one time we were told he
wouldn't make it through the night. It scared the shit out of us.
But he bounced back quickly." So how does Henry cope physically?
Lots of sleep, says his dad -- up to 16 hours a day.
He's healthy enough to mountain climb and water-ski and babysit
for his toddler niece, after all. But Henry reminds me what it's
like to be terminally ill. "I've never known anything different," he
says. "I've never known what it's like not to be a hemophiliac. I
can't remember what it was like not to be HIV positive. It's always
been there and it's part of me. There's never a day that goes by
that I don't think about it. Almost as long as I can remember, it's
From his pragmatic point of view comes a wise AIDS statesman who
has grown increasingly aware of his ability to capitalize on his
camera-ready appeal. "People look at me as an innocent victim who
wasn't doing anything wrong, who doesn't deserve this. Well, that's
frustrating as well: No one deserves this," he says.
Henry is spreading the word beyond mere speaking engagements.
After the press conference, the writer Michael Ryan heard about
Henry and decided to make a documentary about his life. "I had done
magazine articles on AIDS and had friends who had died," says Ryan.
"Part of me looked at Henry and said this is propaganda, a way to
tell middle America about AIDS." Ryan produced and directed Eagle
Scout, which aired on HBO this past summer. Within 30 seconds of its
first airing, the phone at the Nicols home was ringing with
strangers wishing the family well. The film captures the essence of
Henry, a good Eagle Scout with a handsome face who just wants to
tell people about AIDS. He's a role model.
"I never really thought of myself becoming a role model. It's not
something I said as a little kid -- one day I am going to be a role
model. It's just something that happened."
A kid with AIDS teaching compassion is a great role model, maybe
even better than a baseball player. Maybe Cooperstown really is home
to heroes after all.