1 The Little Baby Born I was ripped from my mommy’s womb on the 10th of February, 1969, in a doctor’s office in West Covina, California. My mom is a Little Person, and Little moms just aren’t big enough for a baby’s head to be delivered naturally, so like the three kids born before me, I came by C-section.
First in the lineup was my sister Linda, born in 1960. She was what Little People call tall, what others might consider to be of average height, and from the nuts of a different daddy, a fact I discovered much later when I was in prison and started researching my genealogy, digging into my family’s past to try to understand how I ended up behind bars and why I was the way I was. I found a birth certificate and a marriage license that proved Linda was born two years before my parents even met and married. It wasn’t the only secret I unearthed. There were lots and lots of secrets.
Another of those secrets was Michael, a baby boy born less than two years after Linda. Michael’s baby picture hung on the wall of our living room, a constant reminder that Dad’s first son had died young, barely two months old, of pneumonia. But the truth was Michael didn’t die of pneumonia. Michael died of double-dominant syndrome. Michael inherited two “bad genes,” two dominant achondroplasia (dwarfism) genes—one from mom and one from Dad. Usually a baby that is double dominant doesn’t even make it to delivery. The mom miscarries or there’s a stillbirth. But Michael somehow beat the odds and made it to the world just in time to leave it again.
So Mom and Dad got back in the bedroom and tried again, and on December 18, 1963, my sister Janet was born. Like my sister Linda, Janet was born tall. The chances were fifty-fifty that the babies would come out “normal.” Mom and Dad rolled the dice three times and won twice. They were so proud. Two tall daughters. Success.
Why they waited another six years, until 1969, before they had me, I don’t know. They were Catholic but that didn’t mean Mom wanted a big family. Babies are usually hard on Little women. Most of them have at most one or two kids ’cause they suffer from so many miscarriages and problems. But I guess Dad always wanted a boy. Having lost Michael, and with the odds in his favor, he decided to roll the dice one more time. Plus, Mom had handled her other pregnancies without much trouble, so it seemed like everything would work out again.
I was the heaviest baby of all. Eight pounds plus. They knew the minute I came out that I had achondroplasia. It’s easy to tell, trust me. You know if you have a dwarf child. Back then, there was no way to predict such a birth. Now, doctors can diagnose dwarfism in the womb, giving parents the option to terminate pregnancies. They can even spot the chromosome that indicates double dominance. Now, even dwarf parents, who would be least likely to care if their child is Little, can still choose to terminate a double-dominant pregnancy. There will be fewer and fewer of us walking this Earth. There already are.
I was a third-generation Little Person, the son of dwarf parents and the grandson of a maternal dwarf grandma. Being third generation, my diagnosis was dismal. The more a dwarf reproduces, meaning the same dwarf, the weaker the genes, the more chances to trigger a double-dominant gene. The doctors told Mom and Dad I wouldn’t live long, and even if I did, they predicted I’d have severe physical limitations, suffer from limb deformities, and be in constant pain. They basically pronounced me handicapped, useless, and dead. They were wrong.
This is why other Little People are shocked when they find out I’m third generation. I should be dead or deformed, and I’m not. I was so physically fit when I was a kid—young and active—it actually caused resentment. Some first-generation dwarves are all fucked up physically. They’ve got back problems and leg problems. They walk with braces, crutches, canes, or are stuck in wheelchairs. I was supposed to die young. I didn’t. I am a rarity.
Looking back, I wonder if my birth was the moment when Dad gave up on me. He’d grown up the only Little Person in a family full of tall people and he was ashamed of his size. He suffered from a bad case of self-loathing. He saw himself in me; his troubled legacy continuing against his will. Of course, that was never said to me. God forbid the truth be told. No, instead I was told that dad was happy as hell when I was born. He’d always wanted a boy. He just didn’t know he was gonna get this wonderful specimen.
His entire family descended from a brood of big, bad revolutionaries based in San Antonio, Texas. His great cousin, by marriage, was Jim Bowie, defender of the Alamo, and his grandmother was Anna Navarro, a woman considered to be a serious agitator in the Texas revolution. The Navarros were from Corsica originally, Italians, with some Spanish blood mixed in. The Rossis were also Italian, but northern Italian, with a last name referring to the plural form of the Italian word for “red.” They named my dad Melvyn Louis Rossi. He hated his name. He went by Sonny instead.
There was no history of dwarfism in their family tree, so when Dad was born the son of two tall parents and the sibling of four tall sisters, he was considered a genetic malfunction. He had a broad, high forehead, a pointy chin, and prominent ears. In profile, his dwarf features were even more noticeable. He had a face as concave as a waxing moon. Dad had a typical dwarf nose, upturned and somewhat hooked at the same time. His hands had a kind of built-in V between the third and fourth fingers. It was not something easily seen, but his plump, short fingers didn’t quite close together. They had to be forced. His legs were slightly bowed.
They’d never seen the likes of him before. Born in 1936 and growing up in Texas in the ’40s and ’50s, Dad faced the same kinds of problems that black folks were facing: blatant prejudice and discrimination. Much worse than anything I’d ever have to handle. And it wasn’t just that he battled it in the world. He came home to it every day. Though his mom, Elsie, was a practicing Catholic and Italian who raised her kids to believe in the importance of family, she couldn’t control the actions of her husband. My grandfather made my dad’s life a living hell. Which is why we were told he was dead; that he died before any of us kids were born. This turned out to be another one of Dad’s secrets. His dad wasn’t dead. He didn’t die until the 1990s, but Dad never spoke a word about the man.
My mom’s childhood was a bit easier. She was born in Los Angeles but ’cause her mother was Southern, she was given a Southern name: Dixie Lee Brown. My mom’s father, whose name was either Fred Stevens or Chester Brown—depending on which birth certificate he was using at the time—was over six feet tall. Her mom, my grandma, Mary Brown, or Nonnie, stood only three-foot-seven. They were a married couple working in the circus, though I’m not sure which company. By the time they had Mom, Nonnie and Fred/Chester had retired from circus life. Tragically, Fred/Chester died of tuberculosis nine years after Mom was born, around 1945. Mom only half remembered him. Nonnie never remarried.
Mom and Nonnie looked like each other, and for the most part, I looked like them, too. We all had round cheeks and chins, wavy, sandy-blond hair, the same smiles and the same pudgy, triangular noses. In a world where we were different, we could look at each other and see similarity. It was a great gift. One that Dad never experienced as a kid.
So, at seventeen, he left his family in Texas and moved to Los Angeles. L.A. was, and still is, more accepting of Little People than most of the world. It was the home city of Billy Barty, a well-known film actor who founded the organization Little People of America. There was always work in Hollywood for Little People. Back then you weren’t a doctor or a lawyer, you were a Munchkin. You wanted to be a Munchkin ’cause it paid well. You couldn’t get a job doing other things unless it was demeaning or hard labor, and none of them paid like Hollywood. So most Little People moved west with dreams of tap-dancing down the Yellow Brick Road.
Dad had no such intention. He’d always wanted to be a mechanic, but growing up, he had to hide his tools under his bed ’cause his dad would beat the crap out of him for wanting to work a real job. He just figured his son was a circus freak. That he shouldn’t have any hopes for anything other than a life of freakdom. Grandpa must have thought he could beat the mechanic out of Dad, but it didn’t work. Dad got his first job with Lockheed. He was hired as a riveter for airplanes ’cause he was able to fit into the small places. How he met Mom, I’ll never know. They never talked about their relationship or their past. The only thing I knew for certain about their marriage was that Mom was treated more like a slave.
Dad preferred a regimented life; we all had to work and live around his schedule. Dinner was always at five o’clock. No matter what. God forbid Mom was one minute late with his dinner, and if I dared to show up at 5:10 p.m., I wasn’t allowed to eat. There was no talking or laughter around the table. Dad would just inhale his food as if eating was a task to get done so he could go sit in front of the TV. There was no meaning or purpose or feeling behind anything he did.
Excerpted from Four Feet Tall and Rising by Shorty Rossi with SJ Hodges. Copyright © 2012 by Shorty Rossi. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.