"Moose: A Very Special Story," written by Oden and co-worker Scott MacDonald, is published by Winston Press, 200 pp., $3.95.
Chester Oden couldn't put his finger on the problem, but the minute he saw his newborn son he knew there was something wrong.
Oden, who was in medical school at the time, tried to dismiss his fears as a student's premature diagnosis. But two days later his gut feelings were proved valid.
A specialist confirmed that Chester Wayne Oden III displayed eight classic signs of Down's syndrome, commonly called Mongolism. He would probably never walk, talk or become socialized, said the doctor, who recommended a good institution.
"My son had enough trouble, being black," Oden, 48, said during a stop in Washington to address health professionals at Howard University. "But being handicapped - that made being black seem easy."
Oden shunned the specialist's advice and raised his firstborn child at home - an experience that changed his life. He discontinued his medical studies at the University of Southern California, took up psychology and special education in Minnesota and went on to work with inner-city youngsters, corrections institutions and mental health agencies in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.
Recently, as a professor of human relations at the University of Minnesota, Oden was asked to give a speech about what he terms the "invisible minority" of handicapped people. Before he approached the podium Oden overheard someone in the audience make a rude remark about the handicapped.
"I saw red rage in front of my eyes," recalled Oden. He threw out his prepared speech and talked instead about "the beautiful things my son has taught me."
"Wayne would rather laugh than anything else in life," said Oden, who dubs his son's affectionate, slobbery kisses "Wayne Specials."
"Here's a guy who's got a guaranteed spot in heave- he doesn't think bad thoughts or do bad things. He got his nickname, Moose, because he's such a big, fat, soft ball of love. he's developed traits none of his seven brothers ever acquired. He has an adventurous spirit and is naturally more gregarious than the rest."
After the talk, a listener who also had a handicapped child encouraged Oden to turn his thoughts into a book. The result is "Moose: A Very Special Person," a compelling account starting with Wayne's birth and finishing as he sets off at age 20 for his first job as an "assistant sanitary engineer" in a Minnesota state building.
Then-Sen. Muriel Humphrey, the grandmother of a Down's syndrome child, writes in the preface that because "society said a Down's syndrome child was helpless, Moose's parents raised him without challenging him to develop new skills. . . but Moose's own inventiveness and his parents' willingness to learn from him enriched the lives not only of Moose and his family, but of all those who encountered Moose's specialness."
Throughout the book Oden presents unflinchingly honest anecdotes about his struggle to do what was best for his son. "When Wayne was born I had wondered what we'd done to deserve the tragedy of his handicap," Oden writes. "As Wayne grew, I began to wonder what he had done wrong to deserve me - sometimes I couldn't believe my own incompetence at fathering."
Through his experience, Oden has developed these suggestions for other parents of handicapped children:
Visit other parents who have a child with the same or similar disability. An afternoon spent with a mother and her Down's syndrome son "succeeded in showing us that parenting a Down's child could be as natural as parenting any other child, and her easy attitude calmed us," Oden writes.
Think in terms of "cans" not "can'ts." Although specialists had cautioned Oden that Wayne might never walk, talk or relate to other people, Wayne did all three. "We had come to a point where there was only one person who could tell us what Wayne was capable of doing - Wayne himself."
Never refer to the child as "retarded" when he or she can hear you. "It's a term they know is derogatory and demeaning. If the child is getting into a situation where you have to intervene, use the word 'handicapped.'"
Avoid excluding the child. Wayne would get upset around dinner time when family members were each performing special chores. Oden finally realized that Wayne's name was not on the family "chore roster"; he had no assignment. "We excluded him out of love and concern, but we were actually handicapping him." CAPTION: Picture, Chester Oden