Copyright © 1982 Lorenzo W. Milam
In Part I, Lorenzo wrote about being struck by polio in 1952 at the age of 18. “Do not be angry with me,” he wrote. “Or sick. You see: I have vowed that I will tell you everything. Everything. I am going to cut a hunk a mile wide channeling through my soul, and lay it out on the page for you.” In language that evokes for me the genius of Henry Miller, Lorenzo travels the ruined landscape of his own body, sparing himself, and us, nothing.
After having the manuscript turned down by 15 publishers, Lorenzo has finally decided to publish it himself. It will be available this summer from Mho & Mho Works, Box 33135, San Diego, California, 92103. Our thanks to him for permission to print these chapters from Part II of the book. In a future issue, we’ll publish excerpts from the rest of the book.
They fold me up like an accordion and squeeze me onto a lower berth on the Southern Railroad to go to Atlanta. From there an ambulance to Warm Springs Foundation.
Paradise. Paradise of Meriwether County, Georgia. Warm Springs. Two support personnel for each patient. Campus of the gods. Food of humans — prepared to be eaten at civilized times.
Physical therapy twice a day, with experts drawn from all over the country. Exotic rehabilitation equipment, the best that the March of Dimes can buy. Massive occupational therapy program. Support doctors in every discipline having to do with The Disease.
How strange and yet how right. To have a place which caters to one specific ill of the time. My ill. My own ill. They have built a castle on the red North Georgia clay country to care for my ill.
Not some mongrel hospital to care for a hundred random diseases. But a twenty-five building complex on one thousand acres to care for my one disease. My own special complex, dealt with bv specialists.
O Lord if I could take you back there with me, to the Warm Springs of 1953. The beauty of that place: the giant white colonnades of Georgia Hall. The high ceiling of the dining room. The luxurious food, prepared by those who see it as a pleasure, not as some enemy to be beaten to death.
The tranquility of the nights. Those warm nights out of the American south. Voices on the soft wind. Soft lights shining. The shadow of a disease banished. Laughter, joking. Humanity. People coming to life again. People like me, who have been buried in ignorant drab little hospitals all over the country; being brought by bus, by car, by train, by airplane to this paradise: this white, clean, alive, human, deliciously hopeful environment.
Massive tanks for swimming and rehabilitation. Elegantly designed neo-colonial buildings. Trees and birds and squirrels, and over it all the clean rich open air of a rural environment. No wonder I go back there even now and see patients who should have left when I left, but who, through some vague connections with the staff, managed to stay on and on, never to leave that environment.
Roosevelt: I love you! He did it. Back in the dark ages of Physical Medicine, he thought there was some better way of rehabilitation; better than sticking thin limbs in plaster casts (that’s the way they did it in 1920!) He thought there was something better than twenty-pound braces, heavy wooden crutches, locking the cripples in the back rooms of America until they could crawl out into the light like some wormy supplicant. Talk about dignity! Roosevelt, I love you!
He came there, to Meriwether County, in 1924. At that time, it was a spa, one of those hot mineral springs with a creaky old wooden hotel and countless fat black-dress vultures of three hundred pounds, sitting out in the night air and babbling about their livers.
Roosevelt! You dimwit! You were a better doctor than politician! You went into the wrong field! What you did with Warm Springs could have been done with all the basket cases of the world. What you did for my disease, Our Disease — could have been done for countless others.
And there you go off and decide you would rather run the country, give us all the New Deal stuff when you could have just stayed in your natural (and proper) field. A friendly warm loving doctor, Doc Roosevelt, caring for the children and all the other babes that come out of the closets to be cured.
What a saint doctor you would have been! You knew that it was the ads with the children that got them by the heart and nuts and purse strings. Those adorable little girls, in their pinafores, with their clear little blue eyes, and their sweet rosebud mouths. And their little wooden crutches, and their tiny exquisite little braces on their little limbs.
What a pretty disease! No drooling or twitching here! No shitting down the leg, convulsions or other indecent exposures. Roosevelt, you old PR man: you knew how to get $7,000,000 a year for the March of Dimes with that sweet poster girl. We all so puzzled by this thing got her legs. We can cure her, can’t we, doc?
Roosevelt as president; cripples as politicans? What a strange idea.
Misplaced cripple passions. The twisted and distorted bodies twist and distort the mind. Rock-gut twisted ideas, wrenched out of shape on the broken anvils of our bodies. Brains turned acute angles by the round-knee shadows and protruding bones from below.
Do you really think you can trust a crip? Are you kidding: trust some spavined basketcase with decisions of War, of Budget, of State, of Humanity? Are you kidding?
See, we cripples cannot believe in the future. We have no sense of it. We run into this wall, and we learn bam! that there is nothing, nothing to be trusted in the world. If I cannot trust my body, what can I trust. Certainly not a government, or the state, or money; and certainly, in no way, can I trust other people. My body becomes the screen through which I distort the world. The lens is warped, and so am I. So was Roosevelt.
He went through his own personal Depression. Ten years before it socked the rest of the country. That day in August of 1921, at Campobello, when he felt the worm-bud disease turning him to fire, his legs to water. He learned what no-body and depression are, first hand. The man of twenty-hour-a-day politics, reduced to a worm.
Roosevelt. President. The rich cripple President. Flew above all handicaps. Rose to the top. But wouldn’t let anyone see how they had to carry him around in a box. Would never let them photograph him in his wheelchair, on crutches. Would never let anyone know about those twenty-four hour junkets in the second floor of the White House. Him, alone, in his room, alone, all by himself, except for the booze. No one allowed to enter, no one allowed to disturb him, alone with his black mood, the spooks in his head. When I was young and could run pitted against the horrible nightmare thought of Why Me. WHY ME?
Will I ever be the whole man again? No, I will never be the whole man again. They have taken my body from me doctor. O god, doctor. I have nothing to take its place doctor. They have given me a country, an army, a navy, a wife, children, a state, honor, dignity, applause, lots of applause. They love me. But I am not and can never in any way whole and dignified and alive again, never. It came like a fire, and wasted me, wasted me. I was a man, and it wasted me.
O Roosevelt! Driving himself so terribly to be The Whole Man. Not realizing that when cripples drive their souls and bodies so unconscionably, the price must be paid.
He was brave, that Roosevelt. O Lordy he was brave. He must have known that he would never be whole, but he was brave. A clear-cut nothing-from-the-waist-down case, and yet he forced himself to walk. With steel and fire, he forced his arms to take him across the room, across the lawn, down the steps. He knew, some part of him knew he would never be walking at the head of the Labor Day Parade again, but he kept on pouring his will into what was left of his muscles, trying to walk that walk again. He put on his twenty-pound steel braces, and sweating and puffing, demanded of his body that it produce steps for him. There were none there: yet he created them from somewhere. From his burning will he created whole steps where there should have been none. O he was brave, that Roosevelt.
Lift yourself from the chair by your arms alone. Walk on your hands, clasped to wooden poles. Force your arms to be legs, your hands to be feet. No cheating. The swing of your leg has to come from your shoulder. The move of foot has to originate from above the pelvis. You must lift yourself from the chair, out the door, and down the stairs with biceps, triceps, and the piper, and trapezius alone. No cheating. And know that if you make one misstep on the stairs, there are no gluteal muscles, no sartorius to rescue you. If one of your feet misses the step, you have nothing to catch you but your hands. And you must go down. Way down.
He fell once, Roosevelt did. In front of fifty thousand people. During the Democratic National Convention. Franklin Field, Philadelphia, 1936. He was walking down the aisle. Showing he could walk, so they wouldn’t think they had a hopeless cripple for president. Roosevelt, you dummy! Didn’t you ever give up?
Sweating, pouring all of his force into his arms and shoulders to move the hundred and eighty-five pounds of him down a three-hundred-foot aisle. The poet Edwin Markham, an old friend, on the aisle. Reaches out to grab Roosevelt’s hand. Markham, boob: If he is walking on his hands, how can he shake hands with you?
Roosevelt gets jostled. The balance is so critical. The cripple on two tiny rubber crutch tip pins is so vulnerable. The balance deserts him, the leg-brace breaks, and with great finality, the President of the United States of America topples to the ground.
In that second, he sprawls, groaning, some crutch spun off askew. He is at that sharp moment rendered open to the gods. They, with their pitiless hawk eyes, showing they care nothing for Bravery Strength Courage Overcoming-All-Odds. The mockery of self and of respect; and he has to turn in supplication to those around us to lift him from the bestial mud.
The bodyguards and secret service men grab Roosevelt and set him on his feet again. He is shaking with his public fall, but remember: he is a driven man; he continues his doll-like still-legged walk, and makes it the rest of the way to the podium. And no one tells!
Roosevelt goes before fifty thousand people, gives his speech, waves to the crowds, and gets carried out to the back to his waiting limousine. No one comments on the public fall. The press is silent. There are no pictures taken. There is a conspiracy. We have to show our President as strong, and brave, and not-a-cripple. They all buy into it: the Democrats, the Republicans, the crowd, the press, the opposition. One of the great conspiracies of our time — and not one word of demurral.
O Roosevelt! Driving himself so terrible to be The Whole Man. Not realizing that when cripples drive their souls and their bodies so unconscionably, the price must be paid. Play the piper, and then pay him. There is no literature on Driven Cripples. Yet as sure as he was president, he would have to end up paying the price for that venomous self-hate, through the Black Moods in the White House.
And we get to pay for it, too. We get to live with your decisions, you cripple nut. Annual budget madness, the permanent war machine, the largest bureaucracy in the world. Hitler may have been right when he said that polio had turned your brain to frankfurters. Only a madman with blighted limbs would saddle us with the Roosevelt Eternal Sinking Debt Machine.
There is one crucial day in Roosevelt’s life-as-president which has never been documented nor recorded. It is, I believe, the most important day in his whole history as president, as a man. Perhaps it happened shortly after The Fall of Franklin Field. Perhaps a year, or three years later. Maybe on the seventh day of December 1941.
It was the day when Roosevelt decided not to try any more. It was the day that, for the first time since the fever had crusted his nerves, he decided not to get up and walk. It was the day when he decided that strapping on the braces, hoisting his weight on the crutches, feeling the squeeze of leather against thigh and calf, the burning weight of wooden handle against palms was just too damn much trouble.
I am sure that it didn’t come just that way. I am sure that Roosevelt said to himself: “I just don’t have time to get up today. Tomorrow, I’ll do it tomorrow.” And then tomorrow came, and then tomorrow, and then there was no petty pace at all. None of the grinding strain to get up and move about. More comfortable in the wheel-chair: the wheels have become my legs. I’ll do it next week; meanwhile: I will let the helping hands move me on my round rubber legs, with their spokes, and these comfortable leather arms. Maybe next week, or the week after: I’ll get back on my feet again.
That was probably the way it happened, and no one recorded the date. The day that Roosevelt stopped trying to be the crippled-but-still-fighting-it, and gave in, surrendered, became, for all intents and purposes, the man of the chair on wheels that he was destined to become in 1921.
As I say, they don’t record that date. But it is an important one. It was the day that Roosevelt succumbed to the unmitigating, undeniable truth of his body. That is, the body is master — and our efforts to rise above it are, have been, and always will be tinsel, cut from the glaze of ultimate defeat.
When my friend Gallagher, the historian, asks people who know Roosevelt, asks them how he reacted to being a cripple; when Gallagher asks the Tugwells and the Grace Tullys and all the Roosevelt nephews and nieces how he dealt with being like that, they always say, “O. No problem. Nothing at all. Didn’t bother him at all. He was magnificent.”
They don’t know, those who thought they knew him. They never got the secret of the withered leg. That secret which I am giving you now. Didn’t bother him at all? Didn’t bother the Master of Control at all? Fat. Fucking. Chance.
There is something quite interesting, exciting, and important that you and I have to get out of the way. Right now. It has to do with all those embarrassing questions we, or rather you, have about cripples and sex. I know, I know the question: namely, how does one make love in a basket?
Those old and tired queries about the union of the Iron Lung Lady with the Rocking Bed Man. How does it work? Who’s there to help? Nurses? Orderlies? Do they close their eyes? What does go on, anyway, when paraplegics and triple amputees decide to make it. How does the thalidomide baby conjoin with the four foot dwarf (or normal, 5’10” you, for that matter)? How does one with no more gluteal muscles than a wren do what is necessary to get from here to there, and back and forth? Who does what to whom, and how, and why (and who cleans it all up)? I’ve heard them all.
Being a basket-case myself, I probably have more answers than you would want to hear. And given the fact that — as I write this — I am poised on the abyss of male menopause, I would have no hesitation, whatsoever, in laying out the answers for you, on the page. The River of Passion which has driven me looney Lo! these many decades is finally, and at last, and not a moment too soon, about to be damned with the bricks of my days. Thank the Lord.
To make it easier on both of us — I am not about to embarrass you, nor me, at this point — let me just say, by way of introduction, that most cripples that I know, have a special, and unusual, relationship with that old bag of grapes down there. It has to do with the twisting of our bodies, and the twisting of our psyches, and the consequent belief that no one in their right mind would want (we think) to engage in an act of congress with a spinal case, a certified quadriplegic, a multiple-spastic-scoliosis-and-iron-lung-crip — e.g., a patient. We are convinced that we can’t make it in the passion sweepstakes.
And for exactly that reason, we seem to have a double dollop of lust. They say that when you remove an arm, or a leg, or a bladder — or the backbone, for that matter — the extra energy gets concentrated in the groin. Extra frustrated energy. I believe, I believe! What they take away from us in motion comes back in spades in the testes and ovaries.
At Hope Haven, I had little opportunity, except in fantasy, to manifest this newly created nut-madness with Randall. I had been returned to a primeval state, where survival was more important than anything else. Furthermore, as one of thirty-six patients in a ward, there was little privacy. If I couldn’t make it out of the ward to crap, or play cards, I was hardly about to get to the sub-basement for a few sub-rosa kisses, flaming caresses behind the coal-burning furnace.
It wasn’t until I came to Warm Springs that my loins entered a request for some consideration and attention. Consideration — hell! After a few weeks there, my lust, Hermann Lust, that is, starts rattling the cage bars, demanding that I pay attention to him, give him some warmth and comfort, let him out of the box. I can scarcely make it through the day without this new and freshly augmented pee-head trying to worm his way into my every relationship. It is quite draining. I mean, there is little enough privacy in your standard hospital bed, what with all the bars and handles rattling about as you gave yourself over to the ministrations of Rosie Palm and Five Kidz. How does one deal with staff, other patients, the real world, when it comes time to manifest that lust in arenas beyond the confines of the warm fist?
I am the last to deny that there are problems when commencing passion in the wheel chair. The logistics of weakened (sometimes non-existent) arm and leg muscles, being intertwined with other weakened arm and leg muscles can lead to especial frustration. Atrophied quadriceps riding hard atop atrophied gluteals — or the atrophied opponens policis in proximity to a partially atrophied mons veneris: these do salt and pepper the potato of passion. But logistically, socially, practically, emotionally — it’s a mess. There are no block-and-tackles, pulleys, or choke-levers designed to make the intricate task of interpenetration easy at all for your average basket-case.
The puritan mentality that runs Warm Springs — or any of the hospitals, then and now — is not about to make it simple for us to exorcise the fire down below. They are going to provide no Brace Shop fixtures to unite us with spring and metal, to provide flexion joints to get us hip-to-hip, lip-to-lip. There are no cord-and-ring exercise devices which will encourage, as a form of positive physical therapy, two patients, with an arm here and a leg there, the wherewithal to come to a fantastic spastic rhythmic clash and climax. Not on your sweet biddy it isn’t. The staff isn’t going to make our task of extinguishing the holocaust legal, gentle, easy, or right.
Yet, my sometimes friend Hermann Lust won’t leave me alone: crying in my ear over breakfast, yanking on my covers at night. I can be alone, admiring the stately columns of Georgia Hall, at one with the fountains, birds, squirrels — and that bugger starts dancing up and down, screaming in my ear, GET LAID. What a gunk!
It is he who brings me into conjunction with two important figures in my new life. One, a princess, a goddess of a fellow-patient — Francince. The other, a waif-like orphan of a figure, one of the Foundation Staff, Miss Fay Trimble.
Miss Trimble: a small figure in white. She is a student in the physical therapy department at Warm Springs. She has a pointy nose and sharp, ferrule teeth. One of her eyes, at all times, seems to be contemplating the end of her nose. The other, presumably, is on me. She has a disarming habit of wrinkling up her nose at those times when something refreshing (a though, perhaps?) drifts through her mind, or when there is some felicitous exchange between us.
Miss Trimble can’t keep her hands off me, her first patient. She isn’t supposed to keep her hands off me. She is a therapist. Physical therapists get into very intimate positions and places with their charges. Which is why most of them, as with doctors and nurses, practice “distance” and a measured iciness.
But Miss Trimble likes me too much for that. In the isolation booth of therapy, physical therapy, she will offer a kiss on the knee as she is putting that object through its paces, through its exercises. A tickle on the bottom of the foot during toe exercises. A too-generous hug as she helps me work out my neck muscles.
At first I do not protest. I have been raised on the American movie cult that every man should have a woman. I have been terrible, heretofore, on the love-involvement scene, always feeling something is wrong with me, maybe my breath or my hair. Now that I definitely do have something wrong with me, it is a pleasure, I think, to have someone developing an intimacy with me.
She changes my feeling of isolation, something wrong. She invests me with the charged sex-laden atmosphere of our mutual entertainment world idols. When she comes into the workout exercise cubicle, pulls the curtains closed, throws her cape (she wears a cape!) to the side, leans her face close to my face, wrinkles up her nose and says, breathes really: “Hi!” I am interested. It is expected. We movie nuts of the forties play out our society-sketched roles.
This passion of the exercise booth never, unfortunately, goes beyond the wrinkled nose and the kiss on the knee. Some aspect of self-preservation in both of us prevents us from extending our intimacies to her, for instance, climbing up on the table, hiking her skirts, and giving us both some well-needed exercise of a more penetrating sort. Miss Trimble and I both are chicken; or rather she is chicken, and I am hardly in a position to insist on plugging her in that private booth.
Our diddling goes on for some five or six weeks — she active, I passive. And then, one Sunday, the coup de main. She invites me up to her place for tea, her little bungalow a block from the campus. She comes to get me at two in the afternoon. I am awaiting her in my wheelchair. She pulls and pushes the beast (it is one of the old wooden variety) across the street, up the walk, and into the ramp at the door of her house. This is certainly going to be the site of the denouement, where cripple and therapist will get it on. Certainly, my nineteen years of virginity are to be brought to a crashing halt: she, bodily lifting my still frail body over to the settee; closing the curtains; her undressing me, personally unstrapping my orthopaedic corset; pulling down pants and with bird-like tongue, kissing and caressing that young man body she had been coveting this past month and a half. And there, while the mockingbirds wait breathlessly in the late March Sunday afternoon drowse, the magic of consummation, as she throws her scanty shift to the floor, and athletically and boldly, she rises up astride my burning etc etc and she etc etc blah blah blah.
Well, alas dear reader: our crisis, when it comes, is not of the orgasmic sort. Probably had Miss Trimble been the least bit aggressive, we could have, in our own way, as the contemporary generation so crudely says, gotten it on, or “done it.” But Miss Trimble is, for reasons of her own, far less aggressive in the bedroom than she is in the therapy booth. We both have a spot of tea; she shares with me some Lorna Doone cookies; she also shares with me her abysmal taste in literature, reading some foul Joyce Kilmer poetry to me as she has heard that I am one of the literati having taken two English courses at Yale, both of which I barely comprehended.
Our crisis, when it comes, is not of the throbbing intrauterine sort. Our crisis when it comes is, at least to me, far more dramatic, far deeper, far more encompassing. Miss Trimble is a dolt; at least, she doesn’t understand about old wooden wheelchairs and such. She doesn’t know (I don’t know) that the ancient wheelchair doesn’t go down ramps forwards: rather, you pull it down backwards, to keep from dumping the prize patient out on the fucking ground.
When we go to leave, we leave in more ways than one. Barely out the door, I am being shoved forward and of a sudden I am out of the wheelchair and a pile in the dirt. Miss Trimble isn’t too well coordinated, and she runs me over with the front wheels and then stands there, fluttering her hands, and in a whimpering voice, says “O dear, O dear me” and “Are you all right?” Of course I am not all right, and in the ten minutes it takes her to find someone to untangle me from the spokes of the chair, get me back seated again, and back to my room, I am in turmoil.
I say nothing. I am very very silent. In contrast to our previous bonhomie, Miss Trimble finds me strangely wordless. I am not hurt, outside. But my eyes are narrowed, my mouth a bit tight. I am, inside, enraged. My dignity, what little precious dignity I have mustered after this past half year, has been trampled on, torn, disfigured. I am filled with the most poisonous sort of loathing for one who has caused me such indignity. I lose all sense: sense of equilibrium, sense of warmth. The next day, I send for the head of the Physical Therapy Department, and tell all. All about the hugs and kisses and ticklings.
I am transferred to another therapist. For the uncomfortable week that we continue therapy together, there are no words exchanged between Miss Trimble and me. After that, there is barely a frigid nod as we meet in the hallway, on the path. I have violated her the only way I know how, for I am convinced that she violated my dignity.
Strange: that I should put up with such indignities at the charity hospital for so long, and bring no blame to anyone for them. The difference is that the indignities I suffered heretofore were merely medical or nutritional in nature. For the first time, with Miss Trimble, I have been subjected to an indignity which reaches into the tattered pride that I have so carefully nurtured in its hothouse for all these months. And once that pride has been trampled, I am out for blood.
Anger and Brooding. That is what we cripples are best at. Sitting around in our baskets, brooding over the wrong done us by the world, by our own accidents and diseases. The bile! The bile that comes out of our withered limbs, our calcified joints. We are so good at it. Our sense of injustice is so huge; our forgiveness so slight.
The poor and the innocent Miss Trimble made two mistakes. She loved me, and she dumped me. She was the first, and my triumph over her was just the beginning of the Old Testament rage I came to direct at the world. Boils, fires, storms would be visited on those who stepped over the line of my dignity, my self-esteem, my desire to be independent.
I have just begun to grow in my new body. It will be the battlefield. There will be those who will try to love me; those who will be drawn to me; who will try to empathize with me; who will think they understand me.
But I have something over them all. I am Troy. I have been sacked and looted and burned by the barbarians. The Huns came and devastated every street, every temple, every square. And, as a result, I have turned inwards.
There is no way I will let myself be understood. There is no way I will permit myself to be reached. Much as rats crowded into too small cages turn vengeful, queer, strange — so one trapped in too little body does the same. In spades.
They say that when you remove an arm, or a leg, or a bladder — or the backbone, for that matter — the extra energy gets concentrated in the groin. Extra frustrated energy. I believe, I believe!
The next physical therapist they put in my grinding machine is Great Green. Greta Green! The good and the sweet and tall and straight Miss Greta Green, who would never have the bad sense to dump me on the ground. Hell: she would never have the bad taste to invite me up to her house for tea. And she would surely never drop her dignity and good sense to fall in love with one of her patients.
Greta Green! Greta Green! The Physical Therapist of Physical Therapists. She who teaches the teachers. They come from all over the country to learn the Warm Springs Rehabilitation technique. They come from California and New York and Florida and Michigan and Canada and Mexico: to learn what Warm Springs developed on its own. In the twenty years since its inception, Warm Springs works in a vacuum, there in the high Georgia country, with millions of dollars, to develop exquisite techniques of rehabilitation. And they come from all over the country, from all over the world to learn the lesson of lessons, the art, the high art of polio rehabilitation.
And who do they learn it from? That’s right, from my own Greta Green. The Master of Masters. The chef d’oeuvre. Going from Miss Trimble to Green Greta is like moving from Borden’s Baby Formula to getting it straight and warm and nuzzly from the teat. She is a princess!
Sometimes I wonder where she is, what she is doing now twenty-five years after my lessons at her able hands. Greta Green: do you still get up at six to go to mass and chew the wafer; then at seven play tennis with your roomie, letting the morning Georgia sun turn your aristocratic face more dark and more handsome, so that when you smile, Greta Green, your teeth come out myriad stars in the dark windswept night; then at eight to breakfast, and then at nine to cure your loving admirer, me.
You can see that I am quite taken with the good Greta Green and she was smart enough not to give me cause to doubt her. No piddling on the exercise table! She is working with me to get my body (not my cock) up in the air. It is Greta Green of the tan face and white uniform, good soul, who will, finally, get me elevated from the dead; it is Greta who will get me elevated from my tomb-body.
She will get me up on my own feet, up on my feet, standing on my own feet (not someone else’s.) It is Greta who will teach me. Who will teach me to, who will teach me, at last, after all this time, who will teach me, at goddamn last, to get on my own two feet. At last, on my own goddamn feet, on my own two feet, and, once there, once there, to w-a-l-k. Me, walk!
We first learn to move on our own two pins when we are (on the average) 1.13 years of age. At that time nature, the body, all is on our side. Evolution is on our side. The act of raising ourselves from the dirt is a natural consequence of the bones and the muscles given to us. We teach ourselves to do what is ultimately natural for us to do.
Learning to walk at the age of nineteen is different. First, there is the natural weakness of muscle — general lack of coordination that comes with old familiar muscles gone, and few, too few, to take their places.
Then there is the support equipment, some twelve pounds of braces, crutches, back support. I lost thirty-five pounds from the wasting disease, and gain fifteen in metal and cloth and leather. You expect me to walk with all this junk tied to my body, Greta Green?
Let me tell you about the equipment. The magnificent equipment. I am not just talking about the stuff they use to retrain muscles, to work out with. I am talking about the braces and corsets and wheelchairs. The best in the industry. The art: that high medical art of fitting one to high quality, individually designed equipment.
Greatest Art: hand splints and arm splints with bands and padded enclosures for wrist and arm. High quality metal sculptures: braces and splints and pullers and holders and pushers; corrective equipment cut and welded and soldered and burnished, with carefully crafted sewn leather and functional design. Bahaus to the extreme. Form fit to function.
There are two basic types of equipment. The first are stretchers and hangers designed to undo the muscle contraction and overuse that come into Warm Springs from other parts of the country. For every Warm Springs there are a thousand Hope Havens: and the equipment is designed to undo the wrong imposed on young sick bodies by the meatheads in the medical profession around the country.
Then there is the equipment for actual muscle substitution. An orthopaedic corset, a back muscle and stomach muscle alternative. It keeps the huge and heavy upper torso and head from grinding down with all their weight on the relatively frail backbone. Braces are metal bone strapped with leather to substitute for quadriceps, hamstrings, tibia, gastrocnemius. Missing muscles are remade out of aluminum and leather. This is my intimate friend: corset and brace. My old pal, B. & C.
You may ask (I have been asked) when I finally realize that I shan’t be dancing at the Spring Prom, surfing in mid-July. When does that mean little parcel of knowledge finally bubble into my brain?
I think it is probably when I get sent to the Warm Springs Brace Shop. They take me down on a stretcher (I am not yet in wheel-chair) and Bud, the foreman, puts a long piece of butcher paper under my leg, and, with soft lead pencil, traces the image of my leg, the form below, so they can make up a pair of braces for me. I am lying there restless for an hour, staring at pictures of a hundred different pieces of equipment fabricated by the Brace Shop, dull-eyed cripples photographed with metal contraptions on wrists, tiny C bars for hands, metal spring supports for arms, metal back braces to right S-shaped backs, elaborate spring devices to correct drop foot, metal frames to straighten bent legs: the thousands of paraphernalia that better the lot of the poor basket case.
Do I despair? Do I rebuke the gods for sticking me, for the rest of my days, with metal-and-leather, cotton-moleskin-and-stays? Do I raise my eyes to heaven, and deliver a foul dark curse against all the gods of the skies, for putting me, gentle me, into straps and bands and stays that are going to keep me captive for the rest of my days?
Do I, on that day, when the knowledge finally penetrates, when I finally see, at last, that I am Cripple, that I forever would be one of the walking wounded on this blasted earth, me of the creaking walk: do I, at that moment, lift my moist eyes to the great smoky gods that reign forever over us poor-fly mortals and heave on them, Tantalus-like, my fatal curse? Me, never ever again to walk the path of the Normal: do I blast the gods at the very fount of their beings?
No. At that moment, when they are fitting me with the paraphernalia which I carry about with me even today, thirty years later — while they are socking me with the bands and straps and knots that will bind me forever, I am (I have no doubt) mooning, in my head, about some latest truelove or humming some idiot Billy Eckstein or Frankie Laine love tune to myself, or preoccupying myself with the usual trivia which is the wont and expectation of your average, typical, moribound nineteen-year-old American male of the year of our Lord and Grace, 1953.
That I would curse the gods, much less figure out what is happening to me, strains the knowledge that is given to the typical child of our time. That I should have the prescience to see what a devilish life I have ahead of me, had I been blessed with that cruel knowledge, I should promptly have stuck my headbone in the nearest Warm Spring and done myself in.
It is not that I am stupid. Rather — it is that I am sensible. I need the self-protection of selective vision. By myself, by my own wonderful lack of vision, I have protected myself from the terrible blearing insight which certainly would have drowned me in grief. Me, on that stretcher, Bud drawing crude caricature of my thin and bony leg: that I should know at that moment what I know now could only lead to despair and eventual self-destruction. I, humming fool love-songs to myself and thinking on trivial affairs of the heart, am being protected by the supreme wisdom of my own mind from the fatal and poisoning knowledge which, over the next years, was to come fire and nigh about blind me to what I am coming to see, only now, is the true self and real being.
One afternoon, I am watching Greta Green out of my window. I am on the second floor of the East Wing. We overlook the east courtyard of the Quadrangle. This is the heart of the Foundation.
The birds are singing, and Greta Green looks like a bird with her white feathers and dark limbs. It is a nice day in April, and Miss Green is out to teach the other birds how to fly. They are students who have flown in from all over the country to learn how to raise the blind, the halt, and the lame.
For their first lesson, Miss Green dresses them in equipment. Over their uniforms there are tied metal supports and cloth backing and shoes with pegs and high full-arm Canadian crutches. They stand up straight-legged in metal, so they can learn, so they can learn that hard lesson. That is: equipment, the equipment that will make us walk again is an impediment and a bother. A necessary impediment, but one just the same. Because without those external bones of aluminum, many of us could never move out of our chairs again. And it is incumbent on those who think that they are going to teach cripples to rise from their beds to know the impediments of rehabilitation. Learn them first hand.
I watch Greta Green out that window, and her straight-backed stiff-legged students trying to climb stairs, walk backwards, get up on the straddlers. I watch her teaching the teachers how to fly, and I don’t know it then (I don’t think of it then) that soon enough she will be teaching me how to fly. To fly out of the nest. Like I knew what I was doing.
It is one day in early summer, that fine summer of 1953. Some anonymous day in, say, June; let’s say, the 17th of June, 1953. It is some nine months since I last placed weight of body on leg and foot.
I am, as I say, thirty-five pounds lighter than before, having been on a special crash diet course, and I am, it is said, some three inches taller (we grow in bed.) And, Greta Green, in white, with some anonymous Push Boy in white (Push Boys push wheelchairs and stretchers down the long halls of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation), dressed, the two of them in white like angel birds, he pulling she pushing, pulling and pushing me in my two long-leg braces, one orthopaedic back-brace, two full-arm crutches, us together there in the anteroom between the warm sulphur smelling exercise pool and the physical therapy exercise room, they, Greta Green and Push Boy, get reluctant me up from the sitting position, from there through an arc of ninety degrees, legs snapped into the wobbling and uneasy position of, are you ready:
On my own two feet. With no other support than their four hands on belt back and chest, my two metal leggins, my aluminum-stay clad waist, my two metal pins, and any other support that I can grab on to.
What is my first thought, you ask? What is the first thing I think of when I, after nine months in the sack, am finally, and once again, elevated to the raised position of unbelievable complication which man describes so simply (oblivious to its complexities) as “standing.”
What is my first earthly thought? Is it “O God, I’m on my feet again?” Is it “I kept the faith?” Is it “Sweet Jesus, look at me now?”
No. It just doesn’t work like it does in the movies. All I can think of is “Good Christ it is such a long way from here down to the floor” and “I wonder why my hips are so slippery.”
And I most definitely don’t stand around there forever. I am a bit scared way up in the sky, and, after all, I can only hang on for dear life for four or five minutes before I am exhausted. Suffice it to say that those few moments are quite enough for my first attempt at mountain climbing since September of the previous year.
You would have liked it though: that day, with the sun coming in through the blue frosted windows of the therapy pool area. There are the stacked windows next to the door, and the red scuffed tile floor, and the heady smell of sulphur in the air from the hot springs below, the eternal fire of geothermal power bubbling up clear and hot from some reddish magma mystery below.
You would have liked it, I am sure: watching me for those few minutes; I, for the first time in so long, so very very long, feeling the weight on the balls of my own feet, standing so tall (6’3”!) and trembling with the novelty of it.
I think if you had been there, and had been told what the occasion was, about what you were watching for the first time, I think you would have been proud of me. And Greta Green, and Anonymous Push Boy. If you had known what was up (me!), getting Lorenzo back on his legs after nine months down, I think you would have enjoyed the occasion.
If you were some Hollywood director, you probably would have shot the whole thing in soft greens and blues, with Vaseline smeared on the camera lens (to give it that insubstantial Love Story appearance, as if a dream, seen through a wonderful mist.) Fortunately, or unfortunately, I am no Hollywood Director. My First Day back in the stratosphere is lost forever. And it is just as well. For one thing, it really isn’t much as far as external drama goes. Most of it is internal. There is only Up.
For another, there aren’t any well-wishers anywhere around: it just isn’t done, when we rise from the dead, to have an army of interested curiosity seekers and friends around to get in the way and possibly embarrass those who, on their first time up, might come down with acrophobia, or slip and fall and mess up the whole scenario.
And, even more importantly, I have some doubts that I got the significance of the whole session. I am, in 1953, so carefully shielded from feelings of failure and, consequently, of success, that I doubt the whole session reached me. After all, I have been building, for months, important isolation booths in the head to protect me from the ravages of the first month of this disease; and I am fairly sure the self-protect machinery extends to that particular triumph.
I don’t write home some ecstatic letter. There is no Prayer of Thanksgiving. I don’t even report the event to roommates and friends at the Foundation who are either having triumphs of their own, or, more possibly, are so completely paralyzed that my story would be cruel braggadocio.
Events like this one are only significant when basted with the juices of subsequent events. The most important day of (perhaps) the next ten years becomes crucial when we look at it a long time afterwards to appreciate the thrust of it.
I stand on that day (and every day thereafter) not because I am strong and brave and true and have to defy the nay-sayers with my natural tenacity; but rather, I stand because it is what is expected of me. I get out of that chair because I have no choice: there are two people pushing and pulling me into the standing position. To resist would have been futile. It would have taken far more bravado to resist, to say Greta Green “No. I don’t think I want to do it today. Let’s wait.” She wouldn’t have tolerated that.
The significance was lost, much as the statement made four months earlier, by Doctor Bennett. He was the one who ran the whole show at Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. He looked at my muscle chart, poked around my body for a few moments, and ventured the opinion to the interns, therapists, and various secretaries in the office that, because of the singular weakness in my right posterior shoulder girdle, there was a probability, a quite high one, that I should never stand again, much less walk.
I didn’t even hear the old fool say that. It was the therapist who was assigned to me for the day who said kindly, “Don’t worry, Lorenzo; I don’t think he’s right. I wouldn’t listen to him.” I didn’t even understand her either.
We do as we are told. If, instead of going into the Army of Cripples, I had gone into the Army of the U.S. Government, travelled to Korea, and learned how to stick people in the gut with a bayonet: well, so be it. I would have done what I was told, not because I am a good or bad person, but because there is someone up there with the proper authority at the proper time and they tell me to disembowel the enemy and I do it, no matter what I may personally think of the insides of some poor peasant working for the People’s Army. That’s faith!
How in the hell have the gods determined to split the universe of men sick and men well? What are their strange, bizarre, incomprehensible criteria over who runs, who walks, who sits, and who lies flat?
When I first get to Warm Springs, I think of the nurses and orderlies and doctors as being just the same as me. The only difference (a slight one) is that they are up, and I am down. They stand and walk, I lie down or sit in a wheelchair. Outside of that minimal distinction, we are just the same.
But during my time there at the Foundation, I begin to perceive distances between us. There are some subtle and strange differences between Patient and Staff. And it isn’t just that they Up, and I am Down (and I’ve been Down so long it don’t look like Up to me).
I find myself envying them. I find myself wondering about the magic which protected them from the disease, isolation, the travail of rehabilitation, both physical and mental. What spirit, I wonder, kept them from being blasted by the disease of the ages?
Rodney the push-boy, with his sour face and mossbound teeth and slow wit. What has he done to keep the virus from creeping into the backbone, turning the cells poisonous and vicious. What is it that Rodney has that separates from sensitive me, or wise Hugh, or gentle Jan? What is the ethic of disease? What is the logic (if there can be logic to a civil war of such dimension within the body) that gives Rodney the full use of arms and legs and back and shoulders and hips — while my beautiful and kind Francine has the threads in her backbone scarred and ruined so that she can never move to or foot or leg, ever again?
What is the wisdom, the god-wisdom that provides Rodney with an evening after work to stuff mashed potatoes in his face, pick his nose, amble down to the Dew Drop Inn and slug down eleven cans of National Bohemian Beer and then (legs and arms intact) indulge in a senseless brawl with two other male orderlies? What magic does Rodney have in his stars, his make-up, character, birth, parentage, (his round-shouldered father, his red-faced mother with a grey bun pulled back so tight) that gives him the right to run headlong into Willie, the orderly, and try his best with his fist to turn one of Willie’s eyes blue and knock out a tooth or two in the process? What divinity ordains that Rodney have full use of back and legs and arms so that he can be smashed down on the asphalt tile floor of the Dew Drop Inn, next to the spittoon, and almost without thought, raise himself back up to standing again (against a blow that would have felled a cow) and start whaling away at Willie, despite the barkeep’s intense efforts to get them outside where they belong? And all the while my beloved Francine; not a muscle, not a twitch in her legs, struggles to pull herself by arm power alone from wheelchair to bed, an effort of a few muscles and much will which takes some five minutes and leaves her panting and breathless. How in hell have the gods determined to split the universe of men sick and men well? What are their strange, bizarre, incomprehensible criteria over who runs, who walks, who sits, and who lies flat?
We learn to sit and we learn to stand and we learn to walk and we do it because it is expected of us, and in the interim we don’t think of the importance of what we can do (or what we can’t do) for the rest of our lives because we are twisting ourselves up into emotional bundles, falling in love or at least thinking that we are falling in love. With Francine.
Francine Coupe! You sweetie! Outside of serious Greta Green it is you I should like to see the most. After twenty-five years apart, each of us grinding along on our separate courses. What it would be for the two of us to get together at the corner saloon and compare notes on what we have and haven’t done?
Francine. Francine Coupe, of New Orleans. A classic beauty. Classic! I return to Warm Springs a dozen years later, and they still ask me about Francine of the black hair, high cheekbones, exotic brown-black eyes, one mole on upper right cheek, perfect skin, perfect person, perfect perfect.
We met by accident, Francine and I: on a remote island resort in the Caribbean. My family and I occupy the castle on the hill. Francine is a simple waif of seventeen, in her ragged tattered shorts; she, hunting conch shells and sand dollars alongside the surf when I first chance upon her. It changes our lives: that meeting on the desert beach. We in the white hot sands, palms at noon rattling in the first of the afternoon breezes and, her cool, moist, salty, firm lips on my own. You Francine! And the nights when the moon is so bright that you would think it was the sun, blazing cold white light down where the surf curls lazy C’s onto the beach, darker sands under our bodies, as we lie there, our legs in the water boiling up around us, the surf pounding, wetting our tan trim bodies, pounding our hearts to bits as we lie there each to each in desperate child-innocent love.
Wait a minute! That’s not me, nor Francine. I meet her in Second East Hall at the Foundation, just outside the nurse’s station where they dump the bedpans. She is lounged naughtily back in her blue canvas wheelchair. She has just arrived, and I remember thinking, “she really is quite beautiful.” And she is.
We become the talk of the Foundation. Lorenzo and Francine. Always together. Eating together, playing together, going to the twice-weekly movie together (hold hot hands together). Race wheelchairs down Founders Hall together. Wait in line for lunch together. Go to standing class together.
Francine appears just as I am leaving my bed. Slowly, very slowly — I am allowed time up. A half hour a day. Then an hour. Two hours. Three. It takes months to work up to the twelve hours a day in wheelchair which is de rigueur for those of us who are part of the sporting set at Warm Springs.
I have just been released to do six hours a day butt time in my wheelchair, and freed of certain equipment which allows me to wheel myself from here to there when Francine arrives on the scene. She and my passion for her are tied to the newest and most precious freedom: independence.
In de pen dence. Jesus Lord, how great it is. To wheel to lunch and supper on my own. To careen down the hall on my own. To wheel into the shitter on my own. To take my own dump by myself. Whee! I am my own person!
To wheel myself (not be pushed or pulled by someone else) to treatment. To wheel myself to the Brace Shop or the Corset Shop. To wheel myself to the movies. To go places on the campus I didn’t realize existed before. I am free. I can push myself from here to there on the beautiful campus, and no one will stop me.
Francine comes at a time when I am just enjoying this new freedom. Realize how important it is: I have been locked in one ward for the first six months of my new life and in the beginning of my stay at Warm Springs I am mostly in one room. Now, I can move up and down the halls, even enjoy some privacy on my own, even take my own bath, get in and out the tub by myself. I am free.
Francine comes party to my new freedom, and I see it as part of my freedom to go everywhere with her, to be with someone who is as new to it as I am myself. With Francine, I can slip out to, say, the deserted card room in Builder’s Hall and we can hold hands and I can look deep into her moist honey eyes and Jackie Gleason leads the orchestra in our theme song which is
My funny valentine Sweet funny valentine Your nose is laughable, Unphotographable You make me happy when you do walk . . . Don’t change your face for me Not if you care for me Stay sweet valentine stay . . .
and the strings come up high in close harmony and Francine and I stare deep deep into each other’s eyes and we know what love is.
This is the most serious thing that has happened to me up to that time, at least in the love department. Except for Miss Trimble, I had never had someone who saw me as desirable or interesting or lovable — and of a sudden this bombshell thinks that I am the most wonderful man in the world. It is a heady experience, and despite my own hesitation at calling it anything as strong as Love, now, it is important in the agonizing crawl-walk to freedom to have the enormously desirable Francine as my ally in the journey upwards.
It is in the midsummer that Francine and I start parking our wheelchairs behind the Pithacanthrium so archly called Bush Thirteen. There, while the stars blare down by the thousands, we sup at each other’s lips and gradually extend our intimacies with each other. At first it is kissing, and then it is kissing and caressing, and then kissing and caressing and rubbing, I touch every part of her, and she does the same to me, and one night (sweet night!) she takes us both beyond redemption, o Lord! she caresses and loves o rub-a-dub, o rub, o dub, and sudden the lights all over, the sweet heady smell of magnolia the stars banging forth, stars come comets sprangling forth, the rockets red glare, aburst in night air, give proof to the night that our love is so rare. I say, you, Francine!
I am so smitten with us, so tenderly torn, and she holds my head to her night-swelling chest and runs her hand along the line of my hair, fingers about the tender swollen corolla of my ear, and the last of the swollen stars gracefully fall away into the last of the night luminous fruit velvet blue melt in the last of the North Georgia sky, to the depths of the warmest springs springing forth forever and a night . . .
Francine, Francine, Where are you, where are we now? I heard that you married your soldier love boy friend, shortly after you and I gave up being cripple lovers. It is just as well, don’t you think? Can you imagine the magnifying effect we would have had on each other: extra focus on our half bodies, never having either of us complete, and thus, emphasizing our separateness from the rest of the world. It is a good thing that we each went our separate ways: me back in college, you into the arms of your khaki-colored Master Sergeant Honey.
We live out the spasm of our cripple love for the rest of that summer and fall or our discontent. In August we move the scene of our passionate chair-bound wrestlings from the all-too public Bush Thirteen to the new complex which was to become Roosevelt Hall. There, on the lower floor, in what was later to be a broom and sweeper closet, with the water of the cement layers coming dripping down the walls, we try with all our might to consummate our cripple love, and fail. John Longstaff was kind enough to instruct the both of us on how to get down from the wheel-chair seat to floor, on a blanket spread there; but you and I were never sure we could get back up. What would it be like for us to be trapped on the floor there, exhausted from our night passion, having to wait until morning for some bemused construction worker to respond to our scratchings on the door, to lift us back into our respective chairs? “We were just sitting here, and just somehow fell out onto the floor, you know?”
In September, I left; you in October. In December, we were reunited at your grandparents’ house in Ferndale, Louisiana. There, for the first and last times, we shared a bed, you and I, valiantly pumping away with what few muscles we had, you below, me above.
We struggled to carry out our love in that icy house in northwest Louisiana. You in the front room, me in the next — except for the hours from eleven to six or so, at what time you let me, cold me, in at your warm side.
We, sharing that white frame house where the cold breath of the plains comes raging down from the north. You and I and two grandparents and an aunt who probably would have called the police on me in your bed in their house in cold norther Louisiana, in 1953. But because we are two cripples (how do they say it? hopeless cripples) in that cold frostybound winter in Louisiana, just outside the cajun country, where the coffee is coal black with chicory: they, the three relatives, never comment on the fact that there is one bed in the front of the house which is mussed beyond all believe, the other barely slept in.
They are kind to us and we are kind to each other in that crisp refreshingly healthy time just before the two of us are to be launched on our new careers as professional, full-time cripples: me on my two tall silver wings; you in your famous blue canvas back portable wheelchair. Me on foot, you in your chair. You in your chair. You always in your chair.
For you are never to walk. Not since that summer day in August at the upper Georgia Hall walking court, during “walking class.” When you try out your new braces and new crutches. For the first time by yourself. All the other times there have been pushboys and physical therapists to hold on to your belt. But the rest of us are getting up, me and John Longstaff and Margot, all of us in full triumph on our new feet, walking, friends out for a stroll together.
We are full of the triumph of getting onto our own two feet, by ourselves, to try out our new stuff together. And you do too: you, Francine in blue shorts and white blouse. You my Francine, my beautiful Francine: I never realize how tall you are. I never realize how tall you are until you are tall no more.
A swing through, and you miss. Feet go forward, but the balance is wrong, the balance is all wrong Francine. And you begin to go backwards. Ah Francine.
You fall backwards. There is nothing to stop you in your fall backwards. You don’t have the muscles of the other 99% of humanity that would permit you to twist, to catch yourself. There is nothing you have to protect yourself from the ground.
To this day, a quarter century later, I can hear the sound that your head makes when it smacks into brick pavement. I can hear the noise of your head.
I see you now there, my helpless friend, my helpless love. We are all helpless. There is no one, no one of your friends there who can reach out to you as you fall; none of us can reach out to you after fall. There is no way I can reach down to you, there is no way I can kneel down to reach you as you lie there on the ground my Francine.
Your body is askew. You are so hurt by your fall that you cannot cry out. You don’t see my gut soul frozen with the recognition of you all of us lying helpless there, the army of us cripples fallen over backwards to smack our heads and with the shock of it, just barely able to groan, barely.
We try in any way we can to get out of ourselves; we try to rise out of the dirt, to get up, get on our feet for a moment, for five minutes — and then, we catch our foot or slip on something, and we are arched back and our heads crack against the red brick pavement, and in an instant the blood of our skulls leaks out to mix with the cracks of dirt in the pavement and we can barely see with the blow of it, barely groan as we are lying there and there is no way that any of our friends can reach out to touch us. And we know we have tried to beat the gods, and that we have lost.
I believe there is a god who created Francine. And he created a disease to smash her down, so that on that August afternoon, with the cicadas all around, in her attempt to be free, she would instead fall backwards so violently that she would never ever again try to get onto her feet. She would never try to get on her own two feet ever again.
If I could get on my knees (if I could get on my knees!) I should send up to the heavens such words that the very lilies of the valley would shrink and turn ashen at the words that I would offer up to Our Christian God that gave to my kind, never hurtful Francine such a muscle disease so that she comes to lie broken askew on the bricks, her head softly leaking the red-turning-dark on that rich sweet-smelling day in August so that she would be laid in the bed for two weeks, and laid in the chair forever after, so that she would never ever again get to her feet, onto her feet and off the ground. Never again.
I can’t forget: one night, the sun just failed in the west, Francine and I so aware of the night, and our place together; and she tells me that if she could do it all over again, if she could do it all over again so that I wouldn’t get polio: she would do it twice, take sick all over again, so I would not have to to through it. Thus she loved me, so.
We have good times, too. Francine and John Longstaff and Hugh Gallagher and Margo and I and a half-a-dozen others, the in-crowd of late teen-agers at Warm Springs. We, four-and-four at the tables for lunch and supper, with Henry the Waiter. It is the summer of Eat Me Raw (later reduced to E.M.R.) and Pogo and new Peanuts. We go to bad movies in the old movie house and smooth: the old movie house so dangerous with rotting wood that the Warm Springs Fire Department comes with fire hose and trucks to stay for the whole movie in case there is a blaze because you know what that would do to 300 wheelchair and stretchers.
We race through Georgia Hall and at lunch throw food across the table, we are children again, squash in the hair, bread in the lap. We get willie the Orderly to find some Georgia Mountain Moonshine which we keep hidden in the lightbox of the Wheelchair Review Newspaper. We mix that awful stuff tasting of copper and rubber with Cokes and get snockered and John Longstaff, trying to do wheelies in his chair, falls over backwards and lies there giggling giggling singing about the glories of the moonshine.
We sing in the church choir because it is something different to do, sweating over our hymns, Francine looking at the back of my head (bass up front) and she confesses to me it is the back of my head that she really falls in love with.
In the nights we play bridge or hearts or rummy in tall Georgia Hal, like a railroad station or twenties movie theatre hall; and we gossip about who is loving whom, who is caught in a kiss, and our gossip extends to the power masters, the President of the Foundation and the head of all the physical therapy departments, who, it is rumored, are in bed with other, despite both having mates in other places, other times. Hester and Fester are lovers we gossip, maliciously, so proud of ourselves that we coming back to life so that we can even gossip. Or the two women therapists, or the German teacher and the occupational therapist, or the or the or the . . . all the lovers for us to giggle about.
O we race down the path that angles down so we can spin in our wheelchairs, down to the big bump that goes into First East, past Surgery: free in our shining wheelchairs, on the angle hold sliding onto one wheel and you’ll turn a corner (or turn over if you don’t know what you are doing).
Up past Roosevelt Hall, to the squirting pool, built with C-sides so that the water squirts up, the waves well up, the squirt stops, and then starts again: subject to all of the usual ejaculatory comparisons. The languor and hot Georgia damp of the evening, as sky turns luxurious pink to passion blue, and we watch the multitudes of fat brown-grey squirrels having congress in the eaves of Georgia Hall.
Gossip and play. We are free for the first time, really free of the nightmare that gripped us just months before. We are at home base now: playing games, busy with staff and patients, each day full to bursting with new tricks, new steps, new abilities. And we are not eighteen or twenty-two but fourteen again: for we are reborn. We have come born again out of the ashes of shared horror, and have come whole again. We have the deep camaraderie of brethren who have gone through the same roasting mill, and now we have come out of our antiseptic environments into the world of the heavily scented trees and at night the five-cluster lights that immerse the entire campus with a heavy white creamy sauce of summer night, and the sly reflections of some distant friend wheeling silently a long way away over the distant dream of the campus.
I think there is no way that I can again have the happiness that came to me that summer, that swollen summer of joy in 1953. I can never ever be normal among the normals who make up the world, and, for the last time that summer, I am among my own people, the cripples of 1952-53, joined together in that last summer of our youth, together in the heady air of North Georgia.
For being cripple in the environment of three hundred other upwardly mobile cripples has its own special distinctive rapture. We speak the same language. Our bodies know the same limitations. Our restricted world is restricted commonly among the three hundred of us, and especially the dozen or so who make up our age group.
We will within weeks be going back into worlds which many or may not remember us: but we can never forget that special union of the paradise island set up by master Roosevelt and his merry crew who invented joy on earth for cripples fortunate enough to get out of the claws of the doctors in the small grey hospitals around the country and into that wonder.
I can’t forget, I can’t forget: the nights at the movies in the house of laughless laughter. We polios uniformly have lost our diaphragm muscles, so when we laugh (or cough, or sneeze) we do so in miniature, so you can barely hear it. One friend’s mother couldn’t believe it, as she sat at the back of the movie house in some Fred MacMurray comedy, watching hundreds of shoulders shaking in silent mirth.
I can’t forget: Francine and I called to task by the evening nurse for holding hands in the hallway of Second East. So that afterwards, if we wanted to show passion, we had to do it by ourselves, out of the sight of this frosted biddy with her pluperfect moral system.
I can’t forget: being assigned to occupational therapy, to print class. They tell me to print up something of my own devising on the 1912 print machine with the big wheel going ’round, and I set the type (Bodoni 6,10,18 point) to print up a thousand hand-sized cards, each imprinted in blue with the following message:
The Person Handing you This Card
AIR - RAID WARDEN
Lie Flat On Your Back
Do Exactly As You Are Told!
Lorenzo W. Milam Warm Springs Director Civil Defense
I can’t forget: jerking off with my friend Dennis in his room over in Builder’s Hall. And him telling me that the reason that his cock can’t shoot worth a damn is because the day he got polio he went ahead and jerked off three times anyway, and it wore him out, just wore out his shooting muscles.
I can’t forget: the Hennesey Brandy smuggled in by my family, which we drink furtively in the middle of the campus out of paper cups with crushed ice; us, looking around for any intruder so we could quick dump the liquor out on the grass, it being highly illegal and grounds for expulsion.
I can’t forget: the handsome blond Lief from Minnesota who comes to visit for recheck. He walks so well, with only one cane, hardly needs his wheelchair. He so handsome, his chest developed by his months on crutches. Just before he is to come to visit for the second time they tell us that he has put a gun in his mouth, aimed for his brain, missed, and blew his eyes out.
I can’t forget: the triumphs, the triumphs. The first time I get down from my high hospital bed by myself, get down by myself into my own wheelchair, so that I don’t have to have some orderly come in and help me down. I can do it by myself. The first time I stand by myself, with no one else around. The first time I walk to the dining room. For months I have come to the dining room in a wheelchair, and one day I am told to walk to the dining room, and I do. And when I get there I don’t know what to do with my crutches after I sit down.
I can’t forget: wheeling down the hall where the outpatients stay, and hearing a man and his wife screaming, arguing, and she is screaming, I can hear her through the door: “Well, you’re not the cripple! You’re not the one who’s crippled. I am. You want to hit me? Go ahead. Sure, you’d like hitting a cripple. Go ahead.”
I can’t forget: the push-boy who gets the girl patients in the elevator between First East and Second East, trying to kiss them. He’s the same one who when he is changing my bathing suit for me after therapy says, “Pretty big dick you got there boy.”
I can’t forget: friends and family coming from home to visit for my birthday, and me and Hugh and Francine so ill-at-ease with them. They will be looking at, I know they will be looking at my friends and thinking of them as Lorenzo’s crippled friends. They won’t know them or their minds — just their wheelchairs.
I can’t forget: reading “The Warm Springs Story,” a dingbat book, supposedly the Official History of the Foundation. The author, full of the sentiment of the disease, full of bullshit about how brave, and noble we are: wringing every ounce of emotion out of the push-boys falling in love with (and marrying) women patients; the physical therapists falling in love with (and marrying) the men patients; the passages on Roosevelt complete gooey caramel. Not a word about constipation, about muscle adhesions, about the body driven out of its mind; about death of the soul. “O gorp!” we say, as we read every word of that tripe.
I can’t forget: the three physical therapists who extract permission to take a dozen of us patients up into the scrub deep-red clay country of Meriwether County for a picnic. We are carried bodily to the campsite, laid on the ground on blankets. Our first beer in months! Next to me Merle, whose polio has wasted his neck and shoulder so that he looks like a turkey-gobbler, drinks so much beer that he has to puke, and to do it, he digs a little hole in the dirt, right next to me. Gobble, gobble, he says, as he throws up, right next to me.
I can’t forget: one night, the sun just failed in the west, Francine and I so aware of the night, and our place together; and she tells me that if she could do it all over again, if she could do it all over again, so that I wouldn’t get polio: she would do it twice, take sick all over again, so I would not have to go through it. Thus she loved me, so.
I can’t forget: one night, one of the dining room waiters, a black, is shot mysteriously, just disappears. Several of the Foundation’s grounds staff are implicated — but a police investigation absolves them completely, to remind us that we are in the deep, deep, south, the blacks in terror for their lives, and there is no appeal, no appeal in our paradise cripple country.
I can’t forget: the patient who is Total, one of the few admitted to Warm Springs who has no muscles, no muscles except ones to turn the head, open and shut the mouth, open and shut the eyes. That’s it. He comes with a faithful friend, who feeds him, holds his cigarettes, wipes his ass, blows his nose, talks to him. A faithful and good friend. And one night the clerk at the front desk asks me (asks me!) if it is true that “they have a Queer thing going.” Making me realize that in this majestic place are stuck tiny-nut minds who cannot conceive, cannot conceive the luck of a frozen man to have a lover, male or female, dog or cat: anything for a bit of human love and warmth. The tiny gossip of tiny minds.
I can’t forget: Maurine, of the long sad face. Her only involvement from polio is in her left gastrocnemius (heel) and her jaw. So that she walks with a slight dropfoot (but she walks!) and has to have all her food ground up for her into a paste, and I see her sitting there before me, at our table, that dreamy look in her eyes, as she chews on a mush of hamburger, ground carrot, ground lettuce. Sweet Maurine! John Longstaff did an excellent imitation of your drooling chops when you weren’t looking.
I can’t forget: the iron lung they keep on First East, for emergencies. And a delegation of patients goes to the head nurse and asks that a cover or sheet be draped over it, anything: so they wouldn’t have to see it there every time they are wheeled by, see it and remember, those days or weeks, or months, in that terrible tin-can.
I can’t forget: the orderly pulling off my bathing suit in the dressing room, after physical therapy, and he catches the band of the suit around my nuts, almost pulls them off, and I yell, and he leans toward me, black face, gold teeth gleaming, says: “Almost got your family jewels there boy, eh?”
I can’t forget: the power plays among the staff, with the good Dr. Bennett playing the role of Stalin, so that overnight, old faces, faces from ten and twenty years at the Foundation would disappear, heads would roll, to make sure that the entire staff was loyal to one man. And we, the patients on whose behalf all this murder had taken place, would whisper and wonder, what was being wrought, for our good, by the new Brutal Order.
I can’t forget, I can’t forget, I can’t forget: but I do. There are months of me laid in the clay country of North Georgia and memories blend and meld with dreams and fantasy and sometimes I don’t know what is real, what is unreal. The good and the bad, and now it is all gone. Why am I remembering it so burningly — those six months of my life? That is the end of Paradise, and you can never go back, they will never let you go back to Paradise. It is taken from us: the circus we love at age ten turns out to be, a dozen years later, some seedly little tent with ragged, mange-coated animals who are half-starved, who live in stinky cages.
It’s always like that, isn’t it? I can put the perfect set on what I had back then; idealize it, bathe it in the warm soft glow of my own experience there. For others it might have been a nightmare; for those there now it may continue to be a Paradise. I can’t say, there is no way for me to say, there is no way for me to know again what is now so poignantly ripped from me, that sweet fading light of late summer that comes trailing through the high windows of Georgia Hall, bathing us for a moment in some magic gold shimmery wave of brightness. Then, as is so typical in those subtropical environments, the light is snuffed out and it is dark and the tall crannies of the Hall come to be haunted with ghosts out of some night long past, and the whole pleasurable interlude is gone forever.
A year to the day of my initial infection, they come to get me in the family car, to drive me two hundred miles from Warm Springs to home. Hugh and Francine come to see me off at the loading dock of Georgia Hall. I am uneasy at leaving my new security.
The last vision I have of the Foundation is through the back window of the car, where it and the two of them are consumed by the cloud of dust raised by my departure. I wave to my friends, and wave, and they are gone. I have known them for half of my new life, loved them, in ways I have never known or loved anyone else. And now they are gone, and I am going out into the world where I will be officially classed as a cripple.
I am no longer in the fever stage of the disease. I am through and past recuperation. I am to normalize myself. I am to live at home. Several years ago, I started out to be a man, moved out of my childhood home. Then I sickened and paled and withered. Now I am going back, a child again.
The life around me takes on a new dimension: inconvenience. Stairs become walls. Slippery tile floors are murderous. Throw rubs can do just that to me.
My body, once such a convenient instrument of movement and transportation, has become a ponderous machine. Time becomes the key when natural motion is taken away. Time to dress, time to move, time to sit down, time to stand up, time to arrive, time to leave. The very act of dressing for the world is no longer pants shirt socks shoes, but rather pants shirt socks back brace leg braces orthopedic shoes crutches.
Life has a new complexity, an undreamed of complexity. The bird-child is now a paleozoic creature which must move at the pace of a sloth. The mind may still burn at high speed, but the torso and legs and body move slowly if at all. Legs are dead weights: they either have to be moved by others, or by my own hands, arms, shoulders.
With no abdominal muscles, one no longer “sits up” in bed: one pulls oneself to the sitting position; the lack of back muscles bows the torso in concavity. The body could easily be confused with a corpse, 150 pounds of dead weight. And there is no way this 150 pounds can be moved elegantly; rather, it moves at a slow crawl.
I am in disguise. Despite what does exist, I must pretend there is much more. This prevents the Helping Hands. And there are Helping Hands, encumbering me every time I try to move. They are out to prevent me from being my own man. They want to move for me, across the table, across the room, not knowing that their assistance is my destruction. You fools. You fools! Don’t you know I can do everything, everything for myself.
Everything, everything. Except run (hear the slap of my own feet on the pavement), climb a tree (feel of bark in the palms of my hands), carry a box (know the power of my back muscles), run laughing with my love into the waterfall (the shock of the cold racing down the full expanse of our bodies drawn together), jump into the icy creek (the freezing water shrinks my nuts, forcing me to kick out), racing on a motorcycle down the beach (wind tearing at my hair, my eyelids, billowing my cheeks, the thrum of the hot, heavy machine between my grasping legs), go mountain climbing (sixteen miles from all humanity, and the sun sets against an icy peak, turning the whole world blue-black in cold ecstasy), paddle a boat down the Sewanee River (we and the kids out in the fresh, achingly fresh wilderness, gathering wood for a night around the fire, where we will cook our food and talk and sing, and then roll out our sleeping bags under the thousand stars), crawl on the roof of the house to repair it (the pleasant scare of heights, and the comforting feel of hands and legs grasping the apex), amble down to the sea’s edge to the retreating tide (and the cool wave’s waters bubble around my toes, around my ankles, the feel of sand under my feet, my feet sinking amiably in the sand), walking through the fields to select a pine tree for Christmas (I have chosen to go barefoot, in the fields, and the brown pineneedles are slick under the soles of my feet), sitting on the dock at midnight, in the moonlight (the river shuffles along the pilings, and I can feel the misty waters under my feet; I have taken off my shoes, wriggling my toes in freedom, with the feel of the cool planks along the back of my legs), roll on the living room floor with the kids, me up on all fours, like a dog, barking (child bodies around my own, wrassling with my own), dancing in the early morning at the Florida Yacht Club with the girl I think I love (a slow dance, to “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and the perfume body is next to my own, and I feel her hair across my cheek, and we are so close to each other I can see the pulse of life in her lower neck and count the freckles littering her back), in bed next to the one I love (wrapping legs around each other, legs around legs, straining against each other, the primitive love force in bed together, as we strain against each other with all the muscles at our command, our bodies so close, in ecstasy, that we are, in that muscled exchange with the force of all our love, for all practical purposes, one person).
I must let no one know how I have been blasted by this disease. They are not to know what I cannot do. I will not permit them to see my new body uncovered, my legs shrunk to the size of telephone cables, my stomach turned a round pink moon, my backbone jutting out past atrophied, nerveless muscles. I will not permit them to know. I shall not let them know in any way, shape or form how truly helpless I am. They will never know (I vow) that my balance while walking is so fragile that I can be knocked over with a pin.
I must appear as powerful. No one must know that I am a literal push-over. I shall not permit them to see me as helpless. They must never know the full power of their own two legs, torso, arms. They must never know that by the simple expedient of putting a hand up against me, they can stop me from anything: getting up from the lying position, standing, walking. I must keep them from knowing that I am just a shadow man. They can never know they can work their will with me — that by stealing away a couple of pieces of steel and leather, I am truly their slave. I cannot permit them to know the fragility of my hold on motion, and freedom. My freedom and life. They must never know that by one or two simple expedients, I am a snake to their thrall, and they have full control over me.
I am a slave of any man or any woman who chooses to be master; and they must never choose. They must never know my frailty.