Tom Fulks

A modern-day Tom Sawyer, felled by the opioid epidemic

Max Eagle at age 6. The San Luis Obispo County local died at age 24 after battling an opioid addiction.
Max Eagle at age 6. The San Luis Obispo County local died at age 24 after battling an opioid addiction.

They found Maxi Boy’s body under a bridge.

Cold and alone, he died knowing his mother loved him. He wasn’t sure anyone else did.

He was killed by fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid mixed with heroin to maximize drug-pusher profits.

Max Eagle, 24, was yet another casualty in the war on our nation’s young by grim reapers profiteering from opioids.

Gun massacres and domestic terror are horrific. But drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 — killing more than 59,000 Americans in 2016, more in one year than the entire Vietnam War, the New York Times reports.

Overdoses killed more Americans last year than guns or vehicle accidents, killing faster than the AIDS epidemic at its peak.

Fentanyl killed Max seven months ago, but predatory opioid peddlers got to him long before that.

Maxi Boy grew up in San Luis Obispo County. When he was little, he didn’t walk, he bounced. Focusing on schoolwork was hard.

He was the adventurer, the risk-taker, the kid everyone called a modern-day Tom Sawyer, a boy born in the wrong era. He was crackerjack fun, the rascal everyone followed who took the blame for trouble, the kid school officials today want medicated.

Like many wandering youth, he lived astride addiction and mental illness. Drawn to any drug he thought might sate his addicted body and habituated mind, heroin was the monkey that rode Max hardest, demanding fealty no matter the cost.

Though he had a record, he wasn’t a criminal. Everyone who knew him knew that. A talented musician, unconditionally kind, Max made friends easily, frequently giving away what little he had to those who had less.

He was just a messed-up kid Atascadero police deemed undesirable. They frequently rousted him, like when he fell asleep in his car waiting for the methadone clinic to open.

That landed him in County Jail, where he detoxed cold turkey, the most inhumane way, hardened guards indifferent to another junkie’s suffering.

When they found him, Santa Barbara police ran his fingerprints and called his mom. She’d dreaded that call for years.

Max had ducked under a bridge to escape a nasty winter rainstorm. Finding a dry spot out of the cold wind, he shot up his final fix.

Before that day, he’d been clean for almost two months, like so many times before. When sober, the sparkle in his eyes returned and his mom hoped against hope. The few who hadn’t given up on Max hoped, too.

His mom, my friend Dana Eagle of Morro Bay, never gave up.

Like any good mother, she struggled with her son, seeking one solution after another, throwing good money after bad, always searching. It was never up to her, she knew, but she couldn’t stop trying to fix Maxi Boy.

And then he was gone.

Seven months later, Dana cries every day, wrestling grief, trying to pin it, to defeat it. She struggles to accept that one mother’s love wasn’t enough to save her boy.

Meanwhile, she’s working to convert her solitary fight into a bigger battle against hunger, homelessness and mental illness. She recently launched, a modest but heartfelt effort to convince local wine drinkers and sellers to become “compassion champions.”

Dana is asking local restaurants, wineries, special events and individuals to save their corks and drop them off at collection sites, or hold for pickup.

She takes the corks, hand sorts them, packages and sells them online to artists, crafts people, designers and builders. Damaged corks are ground up and repurposed for new products.

Profits are donated to the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo, Prado Day Center and Transitions-Mental Health, organizations Max knew well enough. Without judging, they try to help — the kind of partners loving moms need.

The idea originated when Dana used Facebook’s “Donate my Birthday” to raise money for mental health awareness, with more than 750,000 participating nonprofits, but none local.

Corks for Causes isn’t the first cork recycling business nor the biggest. But it’s the only one dedicated to SLO County’s hungry, homeless and mentally ill.

Dana hopes her project in memory of Max reminds our wider community that addiction can affect anyone, regardless of income or social status.

“There’s so much more to Max and others like him than being addicts on the street,” she says. “They’re real people with emotions and talents and stories. They don’t choose addiction. It chooses them.”

Like Maxi Boy, they need love. His mom aims to give them some.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand. He lives in Morro Bay with Dana Eagle.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune