The troubled life and death of Army veteran Clifford Lee Nickalo
By Elisha Sauers | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: April 6, 2014
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Tony Nickalo bumped into his father from time to time.
Once, he saw Clifford Lee Nickalo outside Best Buy in Glen Burnie about a mile away from his house, glassy-eyed and incoherent. Or sometimes he saw Clifford hobbling down Ritchie Highway, a graying figure with a cane.
“There were times when I would just, out of the blue, think, ‘I wonder what he’s doing, how he’s doing,’” Tony said. “Next thing you’d know, I’m on my way to work and, whoop, there he is.”
Occasionally, Tony would stop. Other times, it was enough to see his dad was still alive.
Then, one day, that familiar face in his rear-view mirror was gone.
Clifford died in November at age 55, shortly after walking himself to a hospital and slipping into a coma.
Tony and other relatives, many of whom reside near the Anne Arundel County streets Clifford lived on for 15 years, had watched as Clifford’s drinking consumed him.
On the surface, circumstances were clear: Clifford was an alcoholic, and he was homeless. His Anne Arundel County arrest record, mostly for minor offenses, was lengthy. He used paramedics and hospital services freely.
His caseworkers found him a pleasant man, prone to small kindnesses. Others found him argumentative. And when he fell through the cracks of a social service system designed to help him, it was often his own doing.
But Clifford's family could only wonder — why did he give up?
Decades earlier and thousands of miles away, something changed in him. And no one who had met him since could do a thing about it.
Why couldn't he be saved?
In an industrial park in Glen Burnie in 2011, Clifford ambled into a small office with “Arundel House of Hope” embossed on the glass door.
When Larry Geidel, a caseworker assigned to Clifford, met him then, he was appalled by what he saw: a disheveled 53-year-old who could have easily passed for 73.
Clifford was slow getting from the door to a chair by the desk. He dragged his feet. He’d speak a few words in a coarse voice, stop, then double over. An untreated hernia had become life-threatening.
Clifford’s bristly beard made him look like Santa, but several layers of clothing didn’t add much girth to his withering frame.
Clifford’s eyes were brown — or were they? They changed, depending on who was filling out his latest housing paperwork, booking him downtown for public intoxication or admitting him at a hospital.
But after two pints of malt liquor, they’d all but disappear in sunken eyelids.
It was hard for people to look into Clifford’s eyes. There was too much to see.
“He was proud and extremely guarded. He would answer any question you had, but if you didn’t ask it, he wouldn’t tell,” Geidel said.
But with Clifford, unlike others he had met in his line of work, Geidel felt something different. He wrote a word on the man’s file after a two-hour interview.
Clifford was born in Albuquerque, N.M., on June 11, 1958, but grew up in Anne Arundel County from the age of 1. He was the oldest of four children. His father, Robert Lee Nickalo, was in the Air Force, and his mother worked a variety of jobs, including driving school buses.
He had a knack for spades and gin rummy. He loved the feel of a fishing rod in his hand and wind on his face: a suburban kid with the heart of a country boy.
“He was a wonderful guy, a happy guy,” said sister Cindy Walter, who lives in Gambrills today. “A typical brother.”
Clifford attended Northeast High School and appeared only once in a yearbook. No clubs, academic achievements or sports victories to his name. Just a moment captured on picture day of a lanky boy with a pointed chin, flop of bangs and broad grin.
Clifford dropped out of school in December 1975 in the middle of the 11th grade. His girlfriend got pregnant — the child was Tony — and they married.
“He told us the story,” Geidel said. “His father said, ‘You don’t have a choice. You’ve got to support the child.’”
Clifford joined the Army in May 1976 in the post-Vietnam era and was classified as a quartermaster and chemical equipment repairer, a soldier who maintains machinery.
Clifford was in Company B of the 501st Support and Transport Battalion serving in Furth, Germany. He was recognized as an M-16 rifle expert.
There he met his second wife, whom he married in October 1977 — before divorcing his first wife. Less than a year later, she gave birth to Clifford’s second son.
It is unclear why Clifford’s time in the Army ended prematurely. The code JMJ — “motivational problems” — appears in his records, but no specifics are available. He was never in a combat zone, never under fire.
Clifford left after just two years, seven months and one day with an honorable discharge. His final day in the Army was Dec. 4, 1978.
When he returned, he wasn’t the same.
The story of what snapped in Clifford long ago is like a line told through a game of telephone. Some people heard he was in a tank that slipped on a brick road and killed someone. Some people thought he was run over by a tank in the service.
Others thought he was run over by a truck, but after he was in the Army.
Patricia Nickalo, Clifford’s mother, believes something terrible happened to him in the military, but even she doesn’t know. She wonders if Clifford confided in his father, who died in 1981.
“They’d be up all hours of the night talking,” she said.
In the cold and dark of an ambulance some nights, he’d talk about an incident. He’d become emotional, paramedics remembered, as he told a story in fragments.
No one has been able to find a record of a crash during Clifford’s service.
When a Baltimore Washington Medical Center nurse looked over the scruffy patient, one of the first things she noticed was the bracelet.
It was from the hospital, but from a 2011 admission, and the nurse thought it might be a red flag, affecting his treatment.
“You should take that off,” she advised, according to a medical record from Feb. 27, 2012.
Hundreds of pages in the House of Hope’s files enumerate Clifford’s medical problems, many caused by drinking.
Hernia. Limb plastic surgery. Lung disease. Appendectomy. Allergies to penicillin and tomatoes. Foot ulcer. Toe ulcer. Heart attacks. Strokes. Seizures. Chronic pain. Broken arm. Half his stomach removed in surgery. Bowel resection. Right hand carpal tunnel syndrome. Steel rods in his jaw. Neuralgia. Hearing loss in his right ear. Vision loss in his right eye. Circulatory problems.
He couldn’t stand for more than 15 minutes without pain. He couldn’t sit for more than 15 minutes without pain.
At one point Clifford had so many doctors, Geidel began writing down his appointments on 3-by-5 index cards to help keep each day straight.
But if they gave him instructions for dressing a fractured bone, cleaning a wound or taking medications, he rarely followed through.
Geidel learned Clifford had been to a hospital for other problems while suffering from the hernia. Each time they released Clifford, he’d go without surgery.
Geidel couldn’t believe it. He called one of his own doctors to see if he could help. The doctor agreed to operate for free, but it took three months to sort it out.
Clifford's files said he believed he had been struck by cars five times. He could barely walk after a 2005 accident. A hit-and-run driver ran over his legs and shattered the bones. Most speculated he had passed out in the road.
“My legs are just plastic rods now,” he said, according to a report.
One report noted he said he drank the equivalent of about 1½ gallons of vodka a week.
Caseworkers in social services and government subsidy programs have a term of art for folks like Clifford: chronically homeless.
There are those who will rebound quickly — find a job, go to rehab, or fill that doctor’s scrip for an antipsychotic drug.
And then there are the Cliffords. They’re not merely in between jobs. They didn’t just fall on hard times. They’re stuck in a moment, for whatever reason, unable to move forward.
“This is something that we run into a lot. People will say, ‘Oh, Cliff just needs a job. Cliff just needs to pull him up by his bootstraps,’” said Mario Berninzoni, director at the House of Hope. “He can’t. He doesn’t have the boots to be pulled up.”
It isn’t always about money. Clifford should have received about $2,100 in pension and disability payments each month, although there were periods when he didn’t collect it.
It isn’t always about a safety net. Clifford had family in Gambrills, Pasadena and Glen Burnie.
And it isn’t always about lack of resources. Caseworkers gave him information on treatment programs.
It could have been something more crippling: lack of will.
“He never complained about being homeless or his situation, like getting housing. We wanted to get him housing,” Berninzoni said. “Part of it was he wasn’t concerned about himself.”
Behind a Glen Burnie shopping center is someone’s living room.
Ragged clothes and bits of trash are scattered in the grass. A woman’s underwear is looped over a tree branch. Empty cigarette cartons, a threadbare floral comforter and sneakers are strewn about.
A certificate from drug rehabilitation lies on the ground.
But amid the debris, some personal effects are carefully sealed in plastic bags: toothbrushes and toothpaste, a sewing kit, a yellow composition book.
There’s a deconstructed tent in one clearing and broken pieces of fiberboard made into a footpath, leading to nowhere. An easy chair sits deep in the thicket, draped with a blanket. A beacon of humanity in the wilderness.
But while this was Clifford’s stomping grounds for parts of 2012, he didn’t sleep near the others.
About 100 or so paces away, at the front of the Gavigan's furniture store, he and his friend Chris would take shelter for the night in an empty shopping cart corral.
Chris, who asked that his last name not be used, kept a watchful eye on Clifford.
“He would sleep right on the concrete. I used to scrounge him up some cardboard just to get him off the ground,” Chris said.
In 1986, Clifford was back in Maryland and attempting marriage for the third time.
On Valentine’s Day, he and Joanna Helwig married at the courthouse in Annapolis after five years of working together at Fairlanes Ritchie bowling alley. She wore a calf-length lace dress; he wore a blue suit.
Things were OK in the beginning, she said. He’d cook spaghetti or chili some nights for dinner and helped a little around the house. He was charming and soft-spoken.
But the drinking got out of hand. He’d say he was sad about his father’s death, which happened five years earlier.
Helwig would come home and have to clean up vomit in the bathroom. She’d pull out empty bottles of Southern Comfort shoved in the couch cushions. Bar owners would come after her with his unpaid tabs.
He worked at a Mars supermarket for a while, but started having trouble holding down any job. The marriage unraveled when Helwig discovered he had two previous marriages and children. One day a sheriff came to their house because Clifford owed child support.
“It’s scary that you could live with a man and trust a person that in reality you know nothing about,” Helwig said. “He was a master of illusion.”
They divorced in 1993 without children. She learned later he tried to make a second go with his ex-wife in South Carolina.
In South Carolina, Robert Nickalo, Clifford’s second child, doesn’t have early memories of his dad.
He knows what he has been told: His parents met in the Army while his mother did secretarial work. They took him to his first movie in Germany.
Then they left the Army and moved to Rock Hill, S.C.
But Robert didn’t know he had a half-brother in Maryland named Tony. He didn’t know that when Clifford married his mother, he was still married to his first wife — or that Clifford divorced the other woman only when they moved back to the states.
And neither Clifford nor his mother ever said why he left the service so soon.
“You get the feeling that something happened,” Robert said.
When Robert was 2, his mother filed for divorce. The separation was finalized just three months before his little brother Nathan, Clifford’s third and youngest child, was born.
Then one day when Robert was 14 and Nathan was 12, their mother loaded them in a car and said they were going to meet a friend.
“This is your father,” she told the boys. Clifford took them fishing that day.
A couple of months later, he moved in with them. He got a job as an industrial painter.
That year Clifford tried to show Robert how to be a man. They’d get in the truck, roll down the windows and listen to Hank Williams. Robert prefers old country still.
“It was one of the best times of my life,” Robert said.
He showed Robert how to shave with a razor. Twenty years later, Robert does it the same way. He recently taught his oldest son the same way Clifford showed him.
But there was drinking, Robert remembers. Lots of drinking.
At one point, Clifford was in a crash. People said he fell asleep at the wheel. “He ran his car underneath a big rig,” Robert said. “It was a miracle he lived through it.”
Clifford would sit on the couch and stare at the TV. He didn’t speak, didn’t move. There was no violence in their home, Robert reflects, just an empty shell of a father.
Clifford left one weekend after an argument and never came back. Last Robert had heard, his dad was a truck driver.
He never knew Clifford ended up on the streets, until he got a message from a reporter in February.
Tony’s first memory of his dad was meeting him at 18 in 1994.
“Put your shoes on,” his mother said. “There’s someone outside who wants to meet you.”
Afterward Clifford flitted in and out of his life for years. He’d show up at the bowling alley where Tony worked and ask for money. Tony had a newborn to support and usually couldn’t spare it.
Years later, when Tony saw his dad around the county, Clifford was often too drunk to recognize him.
“It’s not like when you’re growing up with somebody and they develop Alzheimer’s and they stop recognizing everybody,” Tony said. “I’ve never really known him any kind of ‘deeply,’ except to run into him a few times.”
His sister Walter sometimes ran into Clifford, too — the shadow of her former brother. She’d refuse to give him money, fearing he’d spend it on booze. Instead, she’d bring him a chicken dinner. He’d tell her she was dead to him. He didn’t have a sister.
Probably the alcohol talking, she’d tell herself.
“I hope that was just his way of protecting us from his demons,” Walter said.
In August, a veterans caseworker asked Clifford how much he was drinking.
“As much as I can afford most days,” he said, according to notes from that day.
He also showed signs of depression.
How often do you feel down?
“More than half the day.”
How often do you feel bad about yourself, that you are a failure or have let yourself or your family down?
The caseworker talked to him about treatment, but Clifford declined to be registered.
Veterans Affairs officials said because of medical privacy laws, they couldn’t talk about Clifford or whether anything happened to him in the service. But the notes from some meetings open a small window into Clifford’s world.
A caseworker once asked Clifford if he had any family close by.
“I don’t know if they’re in the area, and I don’t care,” he said.
Felicity Kern, 35, knew Clifford from Greenland Beach in Pasadena, where she lived as a teenager. Years later, she tried to keep an eye on him when she saw he was homeless, sometimes bringing him clean clothes and meals.
She worried about him at night sometimes, knowing he had been roughed up on the streets. In 2009, she invited him to her Thanksgiving dinner in Pasadena.
To thank her for her kindnesses, Clifford would bring her little glass figurines he bought at the dollar store. He listed Kern as his medical emergency contact. And one day he called with an urgent request.
“I gotta see you,” he said.
He asked if he could name her as his legal beneficiary.
“OK, Mr. Cliff,” Kern smiled, knowing he had no estate to speak of.
Maybe it was the fact she had worked for six years at Sarah’s House, a transitional housing charity for homeless families, that gave her compassion for Clifford.
Even after more than 15 years on the streets, Clifford didn’t see his situation as permanent. The beard on his face was temporary. The cane that got him around was temporary.
He told his friends who worked at House of Hope, they’d see.
“I’ll pull up in a limousine one day, clean as a whistle, maybe wearing a tuxedo,” he said.
They might not recognize him without the beard. He’d give them a ride.
For his last two years, when Clifford was sober, he slept at the House of Hope’s winter relief shelters — about 100 cots at churches and synagogues dispersed around the county. He had to pass a Breathalyzer test to stay.
Clifford enjoyed helping the staff, emptying garbage cans and doing chores. But often taking out the trash was a chance to sneak a swig of vodka — sometimes disguised in a bottle of lime Gatorade.
And when he wasn’t sober, paramedics, who saw him four or five times a week, would take him to Baltimore Washington Medical Center when he called. Clifford could be found resting on a bed in a hospital hall, finally warm.
Clifford was the homeless man who shouldn’t have been in poverty. What happened to the monthly stipend — about $2,100 — he should have collected from the Army and a disability payment?
“All the money he had on his card, he’d go down to the bank and make sure it was there, then he would take it out little by little by little until it was all gone,” Geidel said.
He’d take other homeless friends to Poseidon, an all-you-can-eat buffet in Glen Burnie that is now closed. He’d pay for motel rooms, so they could get a break from sleeping outdoors.
He’d buy gifts: a $5 Safeway gift card or a keychain that looked like his eagle tattoo for his caseworkers. Valentine’s Day candy went to all the ladies at House of Hope.
And drinks — for him and everyone else.
Arlene Scott, another caseworker at House of Hope, had been going house-hunting with Clifford.
She had encouraged him to apply for veterans programs. For the longest time, he resisted, not wanting to admit he was in the Army when representatives stopped at the office. They’d ask for a show of hands, and Clifford wouldn’t raise his.
With Scott’s help, he was approved for a housing voucher. All he needed was a landlord to give him a chance. He’d been rejected once already during a background check, but hadn’t given up.
Clifford wanted an apartment in Brooklyn Park but was also afraid of getting his own place.
“I’ll be by myself,” he told Geidel.
Before that moment, caseworkers hadn’t considered that Clifford was afraid of being alone.
“It’s almost like he was at the very crux of everything,” Scott said. “If he had taken like one more footstep, everything he was waiting for probably would have come to fruition.”
“Mr. Nickalo is known to this officer as one of the homeless people who live in the Glen Burnie area,” county police Officer Terry Custer wrote in his report.
It was Oct. 4, 2002. A resident had accused Clifford of trying to open his pickup truck, which was parked at the resident’s house. Police took him to the station and charged him with tampering with a vehicle.
“He is always attempting to get money from citizens to support his alcohol habit. Mr. Nickalo does not have a fixed address; he lives in the woods with some of his friends.”
Clifford’s criminal records are full of public intoxication, open container, loitering and trespassing charges. A handful of times he got in fights and was arrested for assault.
Anne Arundel County police recently searched their database and found 53 incident reports involving Clifford in some way. In his last 14 years, Clifford spent 1,423 days in jail. Here is a look at some of his booking photos over time
In October 1997, police responded to complaints because Clifford was just standing next to the Pier 1 store in Parole to get out of the rain. In January 2003, he shattered a Taco Bell drive-through window in Glen Burnie by banging his head and shoulder against the glass, police said.
His longest stint in jail was for a second-degree assault conviction.
In September 2008, police arrested Clifford at BWMC. They were called to the emergency room for complaints he was being combative when staff attempted to discharge him, according to the report. Clifford was accused of biting an officer on the right hand and punching a security officer in the face.
On a handful of occasions when he believed police were about to arrest him, he’d clutch his chest, complain of heart pains and ask to be taken to a hospital. Because of protocol, officers were required to take him.
Anne Arundel County police recently searched their database and found 53 incident reports involving Clifford in some way. In his last 14 years, Clifford spent 1,423 days in jail.
To Anne Arundel County paramedics, he was a “frequent flier.”
Although Clifford was a sick man, some of his calls were made because he was lonely. Or cold. And almost every other day, it seemed, the Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park stations would receive a 911 call for a man lying beside the road or man with an unknown problem. That could have become code for “Clifford.’’
Keith Whalen, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters union, remembers when Clifford had a cast that was long overdue to come off.
Clifford asked the medics to sign it every time they took him to the hospital. They’d write a unit number, then a hash mark to keep track of the times they had seen him.
Instead of four to six weeks, he wore it for closer to 12.
“A unit went and found him, picked him up and took him to get the cast off,” Whalen said.
But the last time Clifford went to the hospital, he walked there himself, into the emergency room at BWMC. He had a seizure right there and collapsed. For more than a week, he was in a coma.
Doctors called a number they found listed as Clifford’s emergency contact with the name “Felicity.” She called someone she knew who also knew Clifford’s mother, who told Tony and Clifford’s sister.
Meanwhile, back at House of Hope, Scott was looking for Clifford. He had missed their appointment to see about another apartment. She called his caseworker at Veterans Affairs but didn’t immediately think to check hospitals.
When Clifford’s homeless friend Chris walked to the side of his hospital bed, he didn’t see the grumbly old man he knew from the streets — the one pushing a rum and bottle of Coke into his hand and pleading “Drink with me.”
Clifford was silenced by the intermittent beeps of life-support equipment. A respirator forced and tugged the air through him. His face seemed shrunken without his beard.
He didn’t recognize the man in that bed.
“I was a bit ... I was pretty sad, you know?” Chris remembered later, swallowing down words, his eyes darting to the side. “I miss him, the old bastard.”
When he died Nov. 15, 2013, it took some time for county paramedics to believe the news. Clifford was something of a legend. Rumors had swept over the agency before that he had died. He’d pop up somewhere in north county a few weeks later.
“He had nine lives like a cat,” paramedic Val Haines said.
House of Hope staff estimated Clifford had amassed $230,000 in medical bills while he was homeless. The hospital wrote it off, caseworkers said.
When Clifford’s mother heard her son had died, it didn’t shock her as it would most parents, who never expect to outlive their children.
“For years I’ve been waiting for the cops to knock on my door and say they found him dead in a ditch,” she said.
Five days after his death, an eclectic group, including two vans of other homeless people, gathered for a memorial service at Crownsville Veterans Cemetery. A pastor read a eulogy. Some who attended said they learned more in 15 minutes about Clifford’s life than they had in years.
“We were like, ‘He has a sister? That’s his brother? That’s his niece?’ He didn’t share any of that with us,” Scott said.
His Maryland family mourned their loss decades ago when the drinking took hold, but today they are seeking closure. In the postscript of Clifford’s life, Tony has requested his father’s military records. Maybe they can chip away at that question: Why?
“He had suffered long enough with whatever it was,” Walter said.
Months after Clifford’s death, his South Carolina family has just begun to grieve. When the school year ends, Robert might bring his sons to Maryland to pay their respects.
Geidel, one of Clifford’s caseworkers, sees Clifford often.
He’s buried 15 feet from Geidel’s in-laws at the cemetery. It gives him comfort to see the smooth gray stone on the ground with Clifford’s name on it. Thatches of straw hold seed to the ground. Maybe the grass will take root this spring.
“You just have to not take it too personally and just have to keep in mind that there are lots of people who need help,” Geidel said.