Thursday, February 11, 2010


November, 1977 + West Roxbury VA Hospital, West Roxbury, Mass

Four of my crippled pals and I were on an unofficial outing, cruising hospital grounds and griping about everything: "This injury sucks", "I hate this place", "the food is crap", "I wish I was dead", etc. The weather was gorgeous with bright sunshine and a welcome breeze that brought low humidity. It was an Indian summer afternoon. Other than griping, which came with the territory, this was a perfect day to hang out.

We were alone, and newly chair bound forever. "Hey, what the fuck, you can't have everything" I said, totally out of character. "Yeah", Floyd responded, "Or anything". For most of us it was just another pointless day waiting for Godot, like the second day of a life sentence in a Turkish prison.

The five of us planned to negotiate several switchbacks concrete downhill ramps and cross the normally well traveled avenue that encircled hospital grounds. We would then spend the afternoon in the well shaded, grassy, and flowered park-like area within that circle. It beat being in bed, at least, surrounded by sarcastic cripples.

Here I was outside, among my hospital buddies, loving the sun and headed to an afternoon that was hospital-free. No pills, no exhausting exercises, no 'do this, do that', no progress reports. Some time off.

City transit buses regularly passed along that expansive avenue and stopped right about where we were. These buses would pick-up and discharge passengers. They were city buses driven by well-trained, courteous, and compassionate operators. These bus drivers were supposedly well-versed in wheelchair etiquette; this included offering assistance as needed.

One of the ramps proved tricky for me, even though it was constructed of concrete and not perilously graded, or so I thought. If you recall, it was a perfectly dry day. All the ramps were dry. The degree of difficulty was doubled because there were no handrails, non-slip surfaces, or other routine safety devices, such as curbed edges. These absent devises stood a great chance of preventing me from tipping over. Irony was provided by the fact that this was a huge VA hospital with a specialized spinal chord unit, not a one-horse facility in say, eat Jesus Knob, Wyoming!

Losing control on the way down could be calamitous, because I sat in a manual wheelchair. The only way to slow down or stop was to either rub my hands, palms against the tires or shove my hands into the spokes. Neither was a particularly good option, but they both beat lying face down in gravel, sand, mud, ice or snow. Or concrete. You do whatever comes to mind first when all options suck about equally.

Anyway, back to the ramp. Three of my cohorts had handled it with ease, one whose abilities were about like mine. "Shit man", I figured "If he can do it, how hard can it be?" Heedless taker of risks that I have always been, I ever so gingerly started down. My chair and I quickly accelerated way beyond my capacity to control, slow down, or stop. With both hands trying to stop, I couldn't steer.

My buddies laughed until I careened helplessly toward the edge, the one without curb or handrail. Predictably, I went over, much like the old Model A in those Charlie Chaplin black and white movies. I came to rest on my left side. I lay unhurt. The laughter subsided, replaced by shouts of, "Help; help, somebody help, hurry" from me and all. We might as well have been yelling at Grant's tomb for the old guy to wake up. I said, "A bus will eventually come along. I think I'm OK until then". [Note: That was my second out of character, non-sarcastic remark in less than twenty minutes. I was getting soft.]

We anxiously waited for the bus; one of the guys sped toward the hospital for help. I hoped I hadn't broken a bone or done something or other I couldn't, but that I would pay for very soon. At last, after nearly ten minutes on the ground, a city bus came along. My friends and I were relieved.

The bus stopped next to where I lay and made that hissing sound old buses do. The front door opened. I looked directly into the driver's eyes. He was a portly man in his mid-forties. His face was florid. He looked about 'normal', if I may say so, neither mean nor angelic. He gazed back at me, directly into my eyes. Funny about human nature: I immediately felt a bond between us, even though the whole thing took about five seconds or so. "Good", I thought, "now he will see what's happened and put me right." I expected him to say something like, 'Hold it there Pal, I'll get some help and get you up right away'.

Without even a nod or other sign of common humanity, he closed the door and pulled away.

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