Tuesday, February 16, 2010


July, 1979 + Wellington, Maine

The good folks at the VA hospital knew Linda, Sarah, and I planned to resume life in Maine, as we were able. They also knew I loved to be outside walking in the woods, seeking the elusive edible mushrooms, chasing around the hayfield, touring the homestead, and getting my hands dirty in our rich, well-composted gardens. We all were aware of the impossibility of doing these things in a manual wheelchair. I could hardly manage a well kept lawn;woods and gardens were out of the question.

I became a test subject, trying out various chairs for usability in Maine. Everyone had some drawback. Operating most seemed like demolition derby with trees, rocks, and pitfalls instead of other junkers. We were all invested in finding something that served the purpose. We settled for a standard electric chair with a very heavy under carriage to prevent tipping over. Sadly, the woods were out of reach, as was just about all the rough terrain. The new chair did, however, make getting around the house, up and down ramps, onto the grounds, and into the gardens much easier. At least I wasn't going to be stuck indoors in good weather.

My favorite occupation was growing things that yeilded a tangible harvest, such as vegatables, fruit, berries, and grapes. This new chair allowed access to the gardens, as above. In short most of what constitutes gardening would be within reach. I could work close to the ground.

Linda and my friends had constructed several bins in which I could immerse my hands in good Maine dirt. These bins were three feet long by two feet wide by four inches deep. Much like window boxes. I could easily poll under these and work directly in front of me. Linda and these friends definitly looked out for me. On the day at issue, Linda was working outside alone. Sarah was gone with friends. We had no phone.

Motoring in that chair outside was like sailing on a choppy sea. The chair and I lurched side to side and back to front. I barely hung on. Whatever I was holding at that moment was taking its chances.

The day of this adventure was hot, especially for Maine. Garden soil was hot at the surface and very dry, like a typical day in the Sahara. That strange sound of summer when the sun bakes and parches the landscape was everywhere. I thought that was the sound of insects, grasshoppers, and bees complaining about the unrelenting heat. A shrill sound like piccolos, flutes, and violins seemed to lament for the death of Juliet. The sinister hum of high-wire electric lines emitting tens of thousands of volts of wasted electricity was in the air. Radiation rained down upon us. That high pitched screech somehow made the day hotter and drier.

I forgot was I was doing. Maybe I was inspecting, sightseeing, planting, watering, or thinning. The chair and I rocked right and left ominously as we hit some rough, uneven patches. I felt undaunted. I trusted (1) the good hospital professionals who tested and recommended this chair, (2) the chair itself, undercarriage and all, and (3) myself, to know when to ride over rough ground and when not. Everything was in order. I launched into the main vegetable garden. Linda looked out from time to time. She had seen guys on floors and lawns before. The garden was rough , yet managable.

The garden was set up in rows running North to South. I headed into it at the north end, looking straight into the summer sun. I squinted as I charged headlessly ahead. The going became choppier. There were many unplanted areas where rows were dug but not seeded. Cognisant of these spots I avioded them.

Steering straight ahead was a challenge. I turned here and there as the ground required. When I reached the south side border I turned around without a lot of effort.

Then IT happened. I gazed down and to the left while I steered sharply to the right. This would have been no problem if my right wheel and tire had not done the very same thing. A six inch drop-off grabbed my front wheels grabbed my front wheels and threw me, chair, and all into an unplanted row I hadn't seen. I once again tipped over in what seemed like slow motion.

I lay on my right side, face down in the Saharan soil. I couldn't move, due in part to this injury and in part to the tightly fastened seat belt. This was no joke. I was in real trouble. I could only with effort breath at all, so I was not able to call out to Linda. Each laborious intake of air brought the dries dust, which lined my mouth and throat and threatened my breathing even more. The pain in my neck muscels was killing me, as I struggled to keep my nose and mouth out of the dust.

So there I was once more, this time at the homestead in the garden strapped into my chair, unable to move, face down in soil and dust and barely able to breath. Alone. Ten or fifteen minutes of this and I would be cooked. "Too bad about Ray; he died from dust inhalation. Yeah, very rare."

I endured this for about ten minutes. Linda was my only hope. She peered out a front window. There I wasn't. She didn't panic. "He's probably touring the grounds". She heard no sound, not me mumbling a Dylan tune, or the hum of the electric chair. Linda was very aware and solicitous of my well-being.

At this point, after about ten minutes, as I say, she decided to check me out. She saw me and my predicament. She came running. What happened? (As if there were any question). She was alarmed but not frantic. Linda had seen this movie before and was always ready and eager to help anyone in a situation. She had witnessed her fair share of close-call big city overdose scenes and family emergencies. Linda had toughness and empathy in equal measure and would approach a problem head-on. She immediately put something, cardboard as I recall, between my mouth and dusty finish. At least I could breath some in gulps, fits, and starts. This was at best a temporary expedient.

In a barely audible voice I whispered, "I fell over. Get help". As we had no phone, this meant rushing from household to household to find someone (1) at home, (2) strong enough, and (3) willing to come to help. The Wellington community was spread out and many homes difficult to reach, so this took precious time.

Meanwhile my neck muscels were becoming so soar and painful I could hardly keep from going face down onto the cardboard. This was no picnic either.

I couldn't hold out long in any event. My breaths were taking less and less unadulterated air. My neck and upper body muscles had given about all they could. Dust was everywhere. I was getting closer to Death's Door. I remember thinking, "Wouldn't it be ironic to die face down on the ground I love because I tipped over in a wheelchair I got specifically for the purpose of not tipping over on this very ground".

My musings were cut short. Linda reappeared with Chuck. With groans and great exertion, they put me upright and helped usher me back into our house where I drank enough cold water to satisfy an Indian elephant. Perhaps this captures the day:

I once had a quite heavy chair,
that should take me 'bout anywhere,
but no, I soon found
face down on the ground,
I was gasping and gasping for air.

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