by Betty Dravis
Betty Dravis: Welcome to the wonderful world of Dream Reachers, Johnny. You’re a first for me because it’s the first time I’ve interviewed someone so close to the family. But you’re more than worthy to bear the title because you overcame huge obstacles to fulfill your dream of having a home on an island and all that goes with it: blue skies and sunshine…gentle sea breezes…the splendor of tropical storms…endless stretches of aqua-marine water…hammocks lulling you to sleep on hot summer days…lovely chicas dancing around you… (laughs)
All that was yours for a time…
You know, Johnny, just about everyone dreams of living on an island or at least by the ocean, but before we get into how you achieved that, I hear you had a double-whammy—two traumatic experiences–that changed your life drastically. What happened?
John Manha: Thanks for interviewing me, Betty. I’ve always wanted to share my story. But where do I start? I suppose the best place is when life-changing things began to happen. I’m a veteran and had already served in Vietnam. When I was about thirty-three years old, something started happening with my left foot: it felt heavier and didn’t lift on its own like before. It would “catch” on things. That confused me because I didn’t know what to make of it, but it went on for seven years; all the while I was growing weaker and weaker. I couldn’t understand what was happening in my body or even try to explain to my wife. Even when the doctor diagnosed my problem as multiple sclerosis, it was too complicated to understand, let alone explain. MS is an inside job; you can look real fine on the outside…at least for several years.
I was fortunate with my job, though. I had a union job and I pushed on through as long as I was able to function. I’ll never forget the day I quit. It was a sad day, indeed. I was forty years old and forced by health to take a disability.
About a year later I was divorced. Heather, my daughter by my first wife, was just sixteen and I had custody of her since she was nine. She had seen me go through two divorces and I didn’t want her to see it again. That and chances of my health deteriorating made me decide it would be better for her to live with her mother who, fortunately at that time, was stable and in a very good marriage. She even had a pink Mustang for Heather to drive! Obviously, my daughter was not too happy with me, but since the divorce was messy, I felt then—and still feel–that I made the best choice for her.
Betty Dravis: Heather is now a lovely young woman, a fantastic wife and mother, so it worked out in the long run and that’s what matters. Johnny, it’s good that you have no regrets because those can eat away at your soul.
I’m so sorry you developed MS and were forced to retire early, but what’s the second major trauma. It doesn’t seem fair you should get hit with anything else.
John Manha: Life isn’t always fair, Betty, but I’ve learned to take it one day at a time. No use complaining.
My second major trauma came the night after my thirtieth high-school reunion. I was wheelchair-bound and had to have help getting there, but I ended up having a great time. However, the following morning, I took a shower and was sweating like crazy. It was November 1998 and pretty cold outside. When my roommate came home and saw my condition, he immediately called an ambulance.
I was having a heart attack and when I arrived in the ER, they called in the best cardiac team available that day. While I was giving the nurse my closest relatives’ phone numbers, I began to feel euphoric. I asked her if she had everything she needed and if she was ready to go to work. When she answered, “Yes,” I slumped over and immediately was surrounded by the most beautiful lights I had ever seen.
It sounds funny, but I was looking for my baggage and I had none. And then I looked straight ahead and saw a Biblical scene on the wall; people were standing before it and more beautiful lights were behind them. I thought that I would like to be closer and just like that–I was halfway there! The people I saw did not look right at me and I got very sad because I knew I was not going to be able to stay. I turned around and saw an undulating tunnel that resembled the inside of an intestine. It was very long, but I saw the ER room at the end. Strangely, it looked very, very close. I could see the medics working on my body and immediately got impatient with them. “Leave him alone,” I said. “Just let him go. It’s all right.”
I turned to go back to the lights when something warm and fuzzy came over me and I was whirling through that tunnel, back to the world. Grasping, screaming, contorted people were embedded in the walls of the tunnel. They seemed like monsters to me and they were trying to grab me, wanting to go back with me. I was frightened witless… I whizzed through that tunnel and flew right through the physician and into my torso with a loud thump. I remember punching at the nurse. “Johnny, it’s all right,” she said.
I remember answering, “It’s not all right… You people are rude.”
Later in the recovery room, I was crying and the nurse asked me if I had had an out-of-body experience. I told her I had and she asked if I had wanted to stay there. I told her I did. It was such a feeling of euphoria on the other end of that tunnel…where the bright lights were. She told me they could tell because I fought real hard and that I was dead for seven minutes.
In retrospect, since I was raised Catholic, I thought that tunnel was Purgatory and the bright lights were Heaven. You know, Betty, I’m really a blessed man. I recovered from that in six days… What’s more, it was the best I had felt in years. On top of that, it was such a rejuvenating experience that it changed me forever, making me grateful to be alive. The experience left me knowing that there is life after death. I’m now taking time to smell the roses and sharing my belief with anyone who will listen.
Betty Dravis: I’m sorry you had to suffer through a heart attack, Johnny–but what a story! Your out-of-body experience is dramatic, frightening and inspiring at the same time. A number of people have reported supernatural experiences like that and lived to tell about them. Those stories always fascinate me.
I empathize with you, but I’m certainly glad you came back. I suppose God isn’t finished with you yet. Perhaps He enlightened you for a reason and you’re meant to inspire others by sharing it. All who know you certainly admire your positive attitude and determination to proceed with your life, even though you’re now confined to a wheelchair. You’re an inspiration to us all.
But now tell us when you first thought of living on an island?
John Manha: I don’t know exactly, Betty. The idea could have come when my sister started talking about moving to Hawaii. Then I really became interested when my friends, Ron and Karina Smith, moved to Roatan Island to open Bananarama, a dive shop with bungalows. I read about Roatan and learned this: Roatan off the North Coast of Honduras in the Caribbean, is part of the Bay Islands and is a vacation paradise and home to pristine, white, sandy beaches, amazing tropical jungle-covered hills with a diverse and unique reef system and heartwarming people. It has a unique culture and authentic Caribbean charm. Roatan and the Bay Islands are often called the Caribbean’s best-kept secret.
When I read that, I visited my friends and fell in love with the place. That’s when I started fantasizing about living on an island–and Roatan was it!
Betty Dravis: That’s interesting, Johnny, and it’s so important for everyone to have a dream. So tell us how you finally fulfilled your dream. Did you immediately formulate a plan of action, or did it come gradually over a number of years and circumstances?
John Manha: The idea evolved gradually. I often talked to my daughter and her mother about it. I kept on doing things around my Livermore, California home—like repairing the roof and such–but I began picturing myself on an island. It seemed like paradise to me… It took some time to settle my affairs in the States, sell my home and contract with a Roatan Realtor to find a site to build my dream home. From the time Ron and Karina moved there, it took about three years before I finally made it.
Betty Dravis: I understand that your Realtor found you a good site that you approved, sight unseen. Since you were in a wheelchair, how did you get around when you first arrived on Roatan to look at your property and arrange for the construction? Who greeted you at the airport?
John Manha: It’s so funny that you ask that question… (laughs) I rolled out the doors of the airport and there was a woman sitting on the bench who immediately got up, grabbed my wheelchair and took off with me across the parking lot. I was telling her to stop, while trying to stop at the same time…and I couldn’t. She was very strong and didn’t understand a word of English. I didn’t speak any Spanish either, so was at her mercy.
She took me to my Realtor, T. J. Lynch of RE/MAX, who had been handling my affairs since January of 2001. When I asked about the woman on my wheelchair, he replied, “That’s just Candida.”
When I said, “Oh, that’s just Candida,” he burst out laughing, explaining that he had hired her to take care of me at the airport. All I could say was, “Wow, TJ! You are the man!” I never suspected at the time, but years later Candida would become my fiancée.
Betty Dravis: Oh, that’s a funny beginning for a romance, Johnny. I can picture you fuming and fidgeting as an unknown woman pushes you across the airport. (laughs) That seems like poor communication from the Realtor for not informing you ahead of time, but it worked out.
I’m dying to know more about how your relationship with Candida evolved, but let’s take things chronologically. Even before your home was completed, Candida introduced you to a young woman named Rosa who became your housekeeper and personal assistant. You also met more helpful friends. Tell us a little bit about Rosa and your friends, including Candida.
John Manha: Well, Betty, Rosa was an interesting girl. When she first came to work for me, she was only eighteen years old and already had a two-year old child…a baby girl. I immediately took a real big liking to Rosa and treated her as a second daughter.
I rented a house across the road from my building site, so I could easily supervise construction. I also hired Rosa to come in and help me five days a week. Meanwhile, Candida started dropping by several times a week to visit. We three became friends and I learned that Candida had three children that were already out of the “nest.” She was forty-two at the time and was running a hotel in the West End. She was an intelligent, strong, caring woman and I grew to admire both women. We learned to communicate and I picked up some Spanish from them and they learned some English from me.
I also became friends with the contractor, many of the workers, restaurant owners and supermarket owners where I would cash my checks. There was a nearby bank, but it had very slow service. It was easier to cash my checks at the supermarket; all I had to do was call and they’d have the cash for me the following day. Sad to say, but I would’ve had to wait three days for the bank to handle my transactions.
Betty Dravis: So you and Candida learned to speak each other’s language a little. Well, Johnny, that’s a far cry from your first meeting at the airport. (laughs) But thank God for putting people like Candida and Rosa in your life…people who recognized that you are unique and did everything they could to keep you moving in the right direction. But when your home was completed, what was a typical day in “Paradise” like? Did it resemble your long-awaited fantasy?
John Manha: Betty, when my home was completed and I could really relax, my day went something like this: Rosa arrived about eight-thirty in the morning, made coffee and cooked my breakfast. I would wake up when I smelled the coffee. Go ahead and laugh, but it’s true. (laughs) I greeted Rosa and went upstairs to the outside deck. Around nine, she served breakfast and ate with me; we talked about what I wanted to have done that day and structured a period of time for her schooling. I was very big on insisting that she finish school.
By the way, by the time I had to leave the island, she blessed me by graduating from high school with honors. She also had two more children by then…sort of the “island way” for young girls there.
Anyway, back to my day… After breakfast, while Rosa worked, I walked over to the hammock… excuse me, I rolled over to the hammock. I had 190° view of the ocean from my deck, with seven- to -ten-mile-an-hour breezes blowing almost every day. With the temperature always somewhere between 80° and 95°, it was heavenly… It was so relaxing, I often fell asleep there.
I had a lot of CDs which Rosa loved hearing, and the music was soothing as I swayed in my hammock. That was the time of day when I would count my blessings as I thought about all the fantastic people that had helped me get to that point. And of course, never forgetting God’s part…
If I woke up before lunch, I fooled around on my computer or made a few telephone calls. On some days I went to the swimming pool and floated around on my raft. No matter what I was doing, Rosa always found me at noon when we would have lunch outside on the lower deck.
After lunch, I sometimes went to the West End beach in my electric wheelchair. I would visit my friends at the dive shop and maybe go diving or snorkeling or just fool around on the beach and meet people. I not only met locals but people from all around the world. They all had great stories to tell.
Since Rosa left at 3:30 every day, if I returned home later, she had something made for my dinner, leaving a note telling me what happened while I was gone…if anything at all. After dinner, friends often dropped by. If not, I watched a couple of movies or perhaps messed around more on the computer and then went to bed.
Since I could still get around a little with a cane in those days, I often went for drives in my little 1983 Mazda RX Seven, which was the only sports car on the island.
That’s how a typical day on the island went. It was a little paradise…
Betty, I also had a cycle of alternating my time between the States and Roatan; staying in both places three months at a time. I tried to rotate with the best seasons in both places. That way I got to see my daughter, and the bonus was that I kept a year-round tan. (laughs) Another advantage of going back and forth was that each time I returned, all my female friends welcomed me home in grand style…in exchange for the trinkets I brought them. (laughs) I really was a jet setter and an expat. I lived like that for seven years. I was living my dream and loving every minute of it, as you can see from the following photo.
Betty Dravis: That does, indeed, sound like an idyllic life, Johnny. So why did you eventually sell your island paradise and move back to the states?
John Manha: Unfortunately, I developed a severe infection, Betty. It started in both feet and my right leg. When I first got to the island, Candida had given me a dog. I used to take that strong little puppy out for walks, holding the leash from my wheelchair. I guess my foot got tangled in the leash or something, but it ended up caught in the caster of my wheelchair. That started the infection, but it never seemed serious until later in the summer of my fifth year there when a red line crawled up my right leg. I passed out following a shower and was rushed to the hospital.
Due to better medical care in the States, my daughter Medevaced me from Roatan to San Jose, California. They sent a little Learjet with a pilot, copilot, nurse and doctor. It was pretty exciting to me. It really was a class act, for which I am grateful because the infection was very serious. I spent four days in the hospital where I received intravenous antibiotics and then several more months in a rest home. I was determined to go back to my island paradise, so after a few months in my cousin’s home, I want back…only to get infected again.
Three months later, I was back in the States, in a little home in Manteca. I could get better medical care here and I wanted to be near my granddaughter Mia, too, so I reluctantly sold my island home, bought a custom van, complete with ramp and all comforts, and later purchased my new Del Webb home. Since then, Heather and her husband Jesse Rodriguez have had another girl, Andrea Rose and are expecting a son.
Betty Dravis: I’m very sorry you developed the infection, Johnny, and that you were forced to return to the States in an emergency situation. Since you now have two granddaughters, Mia and little Andi, and have purchased a lovely home in a luxurious Del Webb community, it all seems to have worked for the best. How do you like your new home?
John Manha: You can say that again, Betty! I love my house! I love this community! Of course, I miss the ocean and my island life on Roatan, but this place is another kind of paradise. It is luxuriously landscaped, has a lakeside clubhouse complete with an exercise room, several swimming pools and hot tubs, library, billiards room, all kinds of planned activities and much more. My, oh my! I really didn’t think I was going to like living in Manteca or anywhere in the United States for that matter. And I believe Candida is going to love it too.
Betty Dravis: Johnny, now that you mention Candida… That isn’t the end of your Island Dream because something else happened while you were there that promises to change your life in the future. Since I and my readers are suckers for a good love story, please tell us what happened after you left Roatan?
John Manha: You know, Betty, “love” was never mentioned between me and Candida during the seven years I was there. We got along well and were good friends…but as I started settling into Manteca, I started feeling like something was really missing. It drove me crazy. Then one day I realized I was missing Candida. I called her and told her how I felt and asked her if she felt the same way. She told me I was “stupid” not to realize that she had loved me from the first day.
We immediately started filing papers for her visa. The government needed a letter stating why I wanted to marry this woman. I told them the story–starting from the airport–and how we remained friends for a very long time until we realized we loved each other. I laced it with all kinds of cute anecdotes. The process has taken almost two years so far because we’ve had communication problems with the attorney handling our case.
Candida and I still feel the same about each other, even though we’re far apart, so in February of 2010 I flew back and officially proposed to her. I spent three days there and it was wonderful. I had heard about relationships like this working really well, but had always thought that wasn’t for me. But here I am—and loving it! What I mean is that we’re handling the delays well, even though it’s hard… I can’t wait till she gets here and we can marry in that lovely gazebo at the clubhouse.
Betty Dravis: That’s a beautiful love story, Johnny, and I hope all goes well for you and Candida. I’ve seen photos of her and she’s a lovely woman, as well as being a nice person.
But you’re not the type of man to stop at one dream. I hear you have another one you’re working on—an entrepreneurial dream this time. Tell us about the new business venture that you’re embarking on.
John Manha: I believe you should always have a new dream, and what I’m doing now is something I never ever dreamed of trying. I am an investor now, flipping houses. Before this, I learned how to sell notes. Between both, it involved almost a year of training and learning…not to mention money. Anyway, I am really excited about this. I’m working on my first deal now, and I know it’s going to explode. I hope I explode right along with it! I’m pretty sure I will. Succeeding with my island dream gives me confidence that I can tackle this project and succeed, as well.
Betty Dravis: I’ve seen you do many things others thought were beyond your capabilities, Johnny, so I have no doubt you’ll succeed in whatever you set your mind to. There’s a lot of competition in the housing market, but if anyone can do it, you can. You are that determined: a never-give-up guy with a positive attitude.
Now, Johnny, who has been your biggest inspiration in life? Do you have a mentor or someone you’d like to pattern your life after?
John Manha: Putting aside my personal feelings that Donald Trump has done some asinine things in his private life, I admire his business dealings. Others are Preston Ely, Than Merrill, Kenny Rushing, Pete “The Ninja” Skouras, Al Aiello, the income tax genius, Ron Le Grand and Anthony Morrison. If I could grasp their knowledge, I’d be a millionaire in a month, perhaps less. I guess I’m one of these people who just want everything now. Yeah… (laughs)
And of course you, Betty! You have been an inspiration to me like no other. Your schedules and work habits just blow me away; the hours you keep are simply incredible. And you’re prettier than those others too. (laughs)
Betty Dravis: I hope so, Johnny… (laughs) I do admit to having a good work ethic, but I’ve never come close to the big bucks, so you better stick to those successful men…while mimicking my perseverance. (laughs)
And now, I’m going to put you on the spot. Since most people have had embarrassing moments at some time in their lives, do you mind sharing one of yours? It can be funny or sad, but I find they’re always interesting in retrospect.
John Manha: I never have gotten embarrassed too easily in any situation, Betty, but thinking about this, I would have to say it was when I got married the first time. I had already been playing in a band and was used to people looking at me, but this was really personal stuff! It felt like an intrusion into my soul. It didn’t last very long because I had nothing to hide in there. (laughs)
Betty Dravis: That’s too funny, Johnny… People watching you exchange vows embarrassed you, while being pushed through an airport by a stranger didn’t! (laughs)
This might seem trivial, but what are your favorite foods and restaurants? I know you have a sweet tooth, so I won’t divulge your consumption of ice cream and cookies, if you share your favorite “good” foods with us. (laughs)
John Manha: Well, I like shrimp, lobster, steak, chicken and all fruits and vegetables, including asparagus. Then there’s the “goodie” department… Many members of our family like to dine at Applebees; their “Triple Chocolate Meltdown” (cake and ice-cream) is out of this world. I remember someone taking a photo of you with that dessert. It was decadent, wasn’t it?
Betty Dravis: You’re right, Johnny, our families have had many fun dining adventures at Applebees. As for that huge slice of chocolate cake with ice-cream and chocolate dribbles, it was yummy. I paid for overindulging later, though. (laughs)
Now let’s leap from eating to exercising, since you like your sweets a little too much… I know how important keeping upper-body strength is for you, so how do you keep fit enough to perform all that heavy lifting you do? You know, by leveraging with your wheelchair… (laughs)
John Manha; All of my life, Betty, I have done many jobs that required lifting. I’ve been a hod carrier, a plank setter, a scaffold setter and bucket-loader operator. I’ve also used a pick and shovel, and like any other guy, I’ve split wood for the fire. While I was living on the island, I did exercises in the swimming pool or in the ocean, using water as resistance.
Since moving into this Del Webb Community of Woodbridge, I’ve been working-out with a weight trainer. My family and everyone who sees me move furniture and other heavy purchases are amazed at how I use the principle of leveraging, applying it to my wheelchair. I love a challenge, so for me it’s kind of fun.
Betty Dravis: That weight trainer must be a big help, Johnny, and I am one who has seen you maneuvering heavy items with your wheelchair. Quite a feat!
If you could reach more people in wheelchairs, what advice would you give them about making the most of their individual situations?
John Manha: I’d like to tell them to accept their situation as it is and work with it, always keeping a positive attitude that tomorrow could be better. You never know what new medical discovery might be just around the corner. Meanwhile, don’t become a recluse. Get out and mix with other people as much as you can. As for heavy lifting, the first thing I want to say is to read a book on leveraging weight. Then try lifting things, always keeping your limitations in mind. You might start with shopping. At the grocery store, see how much you can get in one of those little baskets and then hang them on your wheelchair. This works well with an electric wheelchair, but a regular wheelchair would probably be impossible. And remember, necessity is the mother of invention.
Betty Dravis: That’s a positive way of looking at it, Johnny, and I hope you inspire others to make the most of their own lives.
What’s your favorite quote?
John Manha: I have a couple: “It’s easy to get to the top once you get through the crowd at the bottom.” That’s by Zig Ziglar. And the other is, “Success is not so much what we have, as it is what we are.” – Jim Rohn.
Betty Dravis: That Zig Ziglar is funny, but does he tell you how to get past that crowd? (laughs) And Jim Rohn is absolutely right about success having little to do with material things. Thanks for sharing those.
You’re such a versatile man, Johnny, that it would be easy to miss something in this interview that you’d really like to share. Before closing, if I missed anything, please share it now.
John Manha: Well, Betty, you didn’t ask about my pet peeve. My pet peeve is too much swearing, exaggerated street life and scantily-dressed young women in too many movies. Would it be too much to ask the producers to lighten up. It’s a bad influence on our children.
Betty Dravis: I agree with you there, Johnny, and we, as individuals, can do our part to stop it by not purchasing or attending those kinds of movies.
If anyone wants to converse with you on Facebook or other websites please share your links with us. Also, share your business links.
Office Phone: (800) 809-0292
Thanks for sharing your busy time with us, Johnny. I wish you the same luck fulfilling your entrepreneurial dreams as with your island dream. With that same positive attitude, determination and drive, you will make it to Millionaire’s Row. You certainly have a lot of powerful men partnering with you.
Be sure to come back and tell us how it all works out. Cheers, my friend!
John Manha: Thanks for the interview; I enjoyed it very much and am honored to be included in such talented company. As for keeping you informed, with our families so close and your nose for news, you’ll probably be the first to know. (laughs)