Airport

Air travel can be a drag when you’re on crutches. A plane is one of the few places they can’t be laid conveniently by your side. The flight attendant will notify you that in case of possible airline disaster, or even just turbulence, they have to be stored with carry-on luggage in overhead compartments. I don’t like it much, but it’s part of the trade-off for traveling with a disability.

In the case of my first time traveling with my friend Paul, who was always protective of my freedom and mobility, taking away my crutches was a transgression on the part of the stewardess he never forgave. I watched a little black cloud form above his head when she asked for my crutches and locked them above.

“Please fasten your seat belts,” I heard the captain say while I stretched my back by inching my arms and then my head forward to the floor. I always get more tense confined to small places, so I stretch for relief.

When the stewardess came by, now checking seat belts row to row, she stopped and said to Paul, “What’s that?” she pointed to my back.

“What do you mean?” he said testily.

She repeated herself. “Who does that belong to?” she pointed to me.

“That is my girlfriend,” he said defensively.

“It’s your girlfriend’s?” she asked.

“No. It IS my girlfriend.”

“Oh!” I heard her say. “Is she o.k.?”

“No, she’s in pain,” he said, irritably.

“Now, why did he have to say that?” I thought. The fact is I have chronic back and phantom pain; it’s a hidden handicap I’d rather keep hidden. I heard their exchange while I was stretching, and I thought at that point, “God, he’s not going to give her a break.”

I then heard her whine back, “I’m sorry. I thought she was a duffel bag!” I have encountered many attitudinal barriers as a person with a disability, but I’d never been mistaken for a piece of luggage before.

I raised up to catch her eyes and to say “I’m ok,” and also to help her laugh a little at herself, since everyone had heard her. I smiled broadly.

“I’m sorry,” she said, batting her eyelashes and stretching her voice further, “I thought you were a duffel bag!”

Unfortunately, she was a humorless person, but many heard her and one man was sniggering, so I just chalked that one up to traveling with Paul. When Paul and I had another encounter at our destination, I realized attitudinal barriers come in all shapes and sizes.

At the Denver airport, you aren’t given wheelchairs, but utility carts, to take you to the baggage area. We were informed by the porter once I was seated, however, that Paul wasn’t allowed to go with me; it was just for the handicapped. (So much for mainstreaming the handicapped.) Paul, who was so loaded down with take-on luggage, his guitar and my artificial leg–which was stored in a garment bag)–that he looked handicapped, suggested we at least let all our “stuff” ride with me. Keeping his guitar, Paul passed all the bags over to the porter.

Loading the wardrobe bag, the man said to me, “What’s this? This your bone?” He had a foreign accent.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “What did you say?”

“This your bone?” he repeated.

I thought this was the most ridiculous word to describe the leg. Perhaps because he wasn’t a native speaker the closest he could get to orthopaedic appliance was “bone?” I laughed to myself while we rode to baggage. I was looking forward to telling Paul. I think he’d enjoy the thing with the duffel bag once it was over. My traveling buddy was by now way behind us walking to the luggage area, the little black cloud reappearing.

When we got to the escalators, the man expected Paul to be behind us, but Paul had gone below to the baggage area. The porter then went to the elevators, leaving me upstairs. I was speechless. What am I? A piece of luggage?

When Paul spotted the man at the baggage area without me he asked where I was.

“She can’t come down.” the man said.

“She can come down,” Paul informed him, as though the man thought I was an invalid.

But the man furrowed his brow and said, “She couldn’t leave her bone.”

“What!” Paul said, exasperated.

With a musician’s reverence the man exclaimed, “She couldn’t leave her trombone alone up there!”

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Gimps on the Go

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When I was a kid I dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent, and I did become a ski writer. But when I graduated from college I could hardly know which way to turn to become a writer. Although I had a picture above my bed with a beautiful mountain vista that said Dream Big Dreams and another slogan poster declaring Follow Your Bliss, I didn’t discover ski writing until I knew I was leaving the east coast.

In 1976 I was lucky enough to take a trip across the country with friends. We were three weekend skiers who had met on the ski slopes and whooped it up on the dance floor every chance we could. While I had just graduated from college and David from high school, Jane took a semester off her senior year for our road trip to the Handicap National Ski Championships at Alpine Meadows, California.

We were the dynamic trio: I was a clever and affable fool and Jane, a passionate, political, and intellectual wit; David was a tall, GQ-handsome, 18-year-old equestrian who laughed in delight at our every utterings and egged us both on with his appreciation of our banter.

Road trips are a special kind of travel; they are a running conversation between the car, its occupants, and the scenery. Like a melody box whose wheels wind up a road show of scenery, the images create their own rhythm: straight-ahead-asphalt, syncopated white lines and yellow, and trees race along side, always rushing, deciduous and evergreen. We rode the hills and dales, hillocks and vales, passed haystacks and tumbleweeds, forging ahead, sometimes bumping over some unfortunate “road kill.” Dead ahead were the other casualties of the road, which are more like static: dead bugs against the windshield — flies, bees, mosquitoes, butterflies — these have to be tuned out or washed away.

The weather provides whimsical background arrangements: whether it be hot sun beating down, or happy little raindrops splattering, or pelting mean rain splats battering, it creates symphonies that in the colder climes might soften with snowflakes so light your they make your windshield wipers screech. Other times the wind howled with snowstorms so ferocious you have to pull over to the side of the road, put it on pause, and wait. These melodies resounded between the flat, broad runs through valleys and rolled round the steep, winding, hairpin-turning mountain passes over the peaks of the Continental Divide.

Playing amidst the wonderful tunes of the tape deck, the vibrations of car wheels on asphalt accompanied the sounds of silence: crunching granola, cracked-open soda, and rustling bags as we reached for a drink or consulted the map. Jane and David spoke little, listening to the taped music, Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadows,” Linda Ronstadt’s “Heart Like a Wheel,” Frank Zappa and his Eskimo song, “Nanook, No, No. Don’t go where the huskies go, and don’t you eat the yellow snow.”

Inside the car, I recognized the road trip melody box of passing scenery even when I wasn’t watching it, and it got my mind to turning, storing up energy for that jack-in-the-box time when — Pop! — I’d sit up and interrupt the rhythm to give my front-seat companions the commentary I’d stored up during all those miles of reading, reflection, and silent conversation with myself about this idea for a story called “Gimps on the Go,” chronicling the adventures of myself and my two amputee friends.

Every pit stop, we make history as a public sensation, I mused.
In truth, before we had even made it past the hills of western Massachusetts, we were causing the public phenomenon I coined “gimp gawking.” Jane, who’s an above-knee amputee, walked pretty well. David’s stump was longer, but he had a unique gait because the new “leg” he had recently convinced a prosthetist to make was a peg leg. Like Jane he wore a socket over his stump, but instead of a hinging knee joint attached to the molded plastic socket so the lower leg could swing through, the prosthetist created a recessed internal threading that allowed a straight piece of wood with counter threads at the top to screw into it.

So while Jane slightly limped, stiff-legged David thumped like Captain Ahab. When you add me to the mix, one leg on crutches, we were a funny-looking threesome. While we were in the car, I didn’t wear my new bulky and uncomfortable artificial leg; so when we made it to a truck stop or a local diner, the public met the fake leg, the peg, and the one-legged woman on crutches. And they stared. Some even spoke up.

“Are you a family?” one waitress asked. Said another at the same truck stop, “Now, were y’all in the same accident?” While David giggled, I usually cracked some wise remarks like, “Yes. After we parked across the street, we were hit by the same truck on our way in here.” Jane was forced to play it straight and inform the person we were three amputee skiers on our way to Colorado. But Jane always had some funny retort to add.

The irony of us being grouped as an accident when our trip was very deliberate brought an eruption of laughter from everyone involved.
“What’s it like to travel with these two?” a truck driver asked David.
“They’re not just gorgeous and intelligent,” David said walking towards the car. He turned, pointed to his head, and added, “they’re both crazy, too!”

The truck driver nodded as if to say “That’s what I thought.”

After we talked about this public sensation business, I told the front seats, “I’m going to call it gimp-gawking,”

Jane and Dave traded off the driver’s seat of Jane’s Saab; I was in a comfortable combination of horizontal reading and jack-in-the-box reporting and commentary from my position in the back seat. I might have been luggage, I was so small and compact with half a side gone — a portable passenger turned messenger each time I popped up with excitement and the need to speak. When we pulled close to a AAA trip-tik point of interest, I would sit up from my collapsed position and give the front seat the scoop. Somewhat serendipitously I acquired a coverless paperback book about ski bumming across America, which was, according to the book, a dying lifestyle.
“Listen to this! ‘Not too far from Alpine Meadows is the magnificent Heavenly Valley Resort.’ Let’s go there, too!”
“Yeah, but don’t forget. The California skiers said lodging is free at the Donner Spitz Inn,” David said, “and you can stay there past the nationals.”
The Nationals were our Destination.
“I remember reading a postcard you sent to your friend Kate at the first nationals, David.” I was referring to our first Nationals, which was an annual ongoing event. “You wrote: ‘This place is swarming with amputees.’ That cracked me up!” I’d never thought how he might refer to Jane and me, but I didn’t much like the word amputees; it reminded me of doctors.
David had a laugh that delighted and contrasted with his sometimes dry delivery. “How could I forget them? I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like staying at the top of Donner Pass with all those amputees under the same roof. At least we had different hotels in Winter Park.”
“Not everyone is staying there, just the ones who want to,” Jane said. “Do you remember at the last Nationals, those guys taking off their legs in the bar and drinking beer out of them?”
“How could they even do that?!” David said.
“Practice, that’s how.” I said. It wasn’t their first Nationals.” And we all laughed.
To put it mildly, the Nationals were a place where anything goes. Dozens of artificial legs of all sizes and colors lay discarded at the bottom of the ski lift during the day, and a party could start anywhere, anytime. While discovering the character of the quieter people was a joy for a chair lift ride, the disco dancing brought out the wilder sides of those who couldn’t express their personalities so well on the slopes. The disco was a social opportunity not to be missed, even if you just watched.
“I remember thinking that these people loved life more than anything because they knew how close they had come to losing it. Especially the vets who lost friends in Vietnam. I hated the word ‘gimp’ before I went to the nationals,” I remarked.
“I remember how conscious we were of our amputations before then,” Dave said reflectively. Dave had lost his leg to cancer, and the silence around why he lost the leg and the fact that he went into the hospital one day with two legs and came out with one was confusing to a boy of 14. He found people’s inability to talk about “The Big C” insufferable, so meeting two articulate women near his age who were willing to talk freely about lots of things, including cancer and amputations, was liberating.
Jane and I were both freshmen at UMass Amherst when we lost our legs on the same road eight months apart. Jane was in a van whose driver, deliberately swerved to scare his passengers, and managed to crash on Route 116 going south. I had been traveling north. We both came from large Irish families with tragic fathers and strong mothers. We were soul sisters; Dave was like our little brother.
“We met so many new people, but we didn’t have the freedom,” Jane said, referring to our group-sponsored and -chaperoned trip. “I remember thinking how much fun we were going to have when we had our own wheels.”
“Yeah, we couldn’t have picked a better year for a road trip!” I said, leaning forward with excitement. In April, Canada was hosting the Canadian International Games for Disabled in Banff, Alberta. We would try to go there.
“I’m just hoping we have enough money to make it to Canada. That’s in two months.” Jane said.
“Don’t worry. We have connections,” I reminded her, and we flew past a few more tumbleweeds before turning the tape deck back on.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we were forging our identities and attitudes as amputees during this long trip. The insular joking of small groups is contagious, and we were becoming comfortable calling ourselves gimps. By the end of the trip I had developed — for the story I never wrote until 2000 — a whole vocabulary of gimpolalia: gimp gawking, gimp talking, and even gimp squawking. David and Jane likewise made up their own gimp lyrics to songs and created new expressions, but I coined gimp stalking. It applied both to “devotees,” men who sought out amputee women simply because of their amputation, and to ourselves, when we related to someone and pursued them for the same reason, though with different intent. We were like evangelical Christians meeting, greeting, testifying, and, within hours, inviting people to share the story of how they lost their legs.
I remember one time in Wyoming picking up a hitchhiker, pant leg flapping in the breeze; when he got in he told us his car had broken down. We offered to take him where he wanted to go, and then asked him if he wanted to get something to eat. We usually bought food at grocery stores, but we splurged, eating out at a Denny’s, learning more about him.
“You live here and you haven’t been skiing?” we asked. “What do you do for fun?”
“Oh, I guess I’m just staying alive. Back from ’Nam. I do like to go riding around in my Corvette, smoking weed, and listening to a little music,” he said with one of those ‘can you dig it?’ nods.
We couldn’t. “Man, you have to get out there, meet some people, and get high on the mountains!” We three were interrupting each others’ ideas on where he could ski, how he could get there, explaining how easy it was. “You just gotta stand up. Gravity does the work!”
By the time we gimp zealots reached Canada, the apex of our trip, we were already designing a gimp logo with other amputees at the ski meet, working on an emblem for a tee-shirt. It was a variation of the ’70s beach blanket graphic — a suggestive set of footprints, one set above the other, two lovers facing each other. Ours showed one footprint facing two feet and read “Gimps on Top.” It debuted as unofficial memorabilia of the Canadian event. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When we reached Colorado, we looked up our first connections in Boulder who took us to ski Lake Eldora, which was open even at night. How exotic! At Winter Park we met someone who knew how to get a free ski pass at Vail and Loveland, so went there and met people to stay with. What a blast! In all kinds of weather we were out there wearing ourselves out and loving it. Everywhere we went, we met one or two new handicap skiers who shared information on equipment and who might help you with free ski gear. What a small world Colorado skiing was! In Aspen we looked up a friend of David’s who gave us a place to stay and week-long tickets to ski Snowmass, which was the single greatest contribution to our improving ski technique.
In the mountains of Colorado, breathing in, it’s a special kind of breath you take above 10,000 feet, filled with blue sky and clouds and snow and converging lines and planes and notches, etched with notches for the trees. It’s all so beautiful, the infinite colors and variety of cloud shapes, the pure snow and its blue shadows, the lines and planes and curves of brown earth providing clues to old railroad tracks and hiking trails in summertime. I didn’t want to take my eyes off the view. It was at once stunning yet terrifying. The idea of getting to the bottom was daunting. Then, warrior-like aggression summoned, I broke the trance of viewing the tableau and became part of it.
When you are so totally in motion and your eyes are filled with nature’s terrible grandeur, things fall away. My mind took in new thoughts. When these Colorado mountains were first created, nature had wrought violence upon the earth. Yet it’s so peaceful now, I thought. These huge upheavals of earth were created by glaciers that cut across land mass, and now I’m cutting across with my ski. I may have one foot in the grave, but my other foot is still touching earth. I was still part of it, but I wasn’t still; I was carving a path, picking a line through the best snow in the world.
It differed from skiing back east, where the trees are all bare-brown, the hills are round, and the conditions are usually slick, hard-packed to boilerplate. I remember breathing in at the top of the chair lift in New England — where the paths seemed few, knowing how many times I’d fall down, that other people would see me down and vulnerable like that, and it would be so damn hard to pick up my body and start again. I could feel my asthma wheeze kick into my breath. It was so cold, so harsh — what about this is fun? I wondered. Where can we stop and have some food? Then there would be that point when, inevitably, because of the adrenaline it was fun. But it was never fun for long because I tired easily back then.
While we were skiing down those trails in Snowmass day after day, we were building our ski lungs and legs, breathing in constantly, being called to breathe in new life with each new effort, to exchange molecules and energy with the same atmosphere in which the mountains abide. One minute we were skiing, then, like birds of play, we were flying, held aloft, floating down the scene of mountains and trees and clouds and skis, and at the bottom we were on our knees, winded, exhausted and praying for sleep. We skied every day we could, and every day, we could see that we were getting better.
It was hard to leave Aspen and Colorado, but our ticket had run out, so we called our Utah connections — Sally, an amputee in her 30s, and her self-proclaimed “pet normie” husband Ralph (call-me-Steve) Peterson. We had met them the previous year at the Nationals.
It didn’t seem there could be anything better than Colorado snow, but Snowbird ski resort was a revelation. There we took our first tram ride. Though the trails seemed more difficult, the light snow and the wide-open Wasatch mountain range scenery enchanted us. Several days at Snowbird created a high as difficult to describe as manna from heaven is hard to imagine; the snow was so good you could eat it. Like bread rising, my chest rose with every inhalation, and I was filled with energy, new oxygen for the cells. I felt great satisfaction and a kind of spirituality. Skiing Utah was like a breathe-and-feel-good body vibration that made you smile and talk to strangers.
One day, it was warm enough at the Petersons in Roy, Utah, to sunbathe and clean the car. Steve helped us with our roof rack, gave us new skis, and spiffed up our outriggers with decals and flags. We met a whole new contingent of handicap skiers in Utah for whom Jane, David, and I were a complete novelty with our Boston accents, gimpolalia, and our outrageous stories, which we were always expanding. Sally had found friends for life and didn’t want us to leave. We stayed for a week with the Petersons.
Then we headed off to California, where the color and pageantry of the nationals contrasted with the funkiness of the old barn that had once housed snow blowers and the men who operated them overnight on Donner Pass. Doug Pringle was a Vietnam veteran who had purchased the old barn and turned it into a ski lodge called the Donner Spitz Inn. We all traded stories of how hard the wind blew through the cracks in our walls and against the ceilings of our dorm the night before. Legion were tales of alleged cannibals, the eponymous Donner Party, which started out so late in the year in 1846 that they got stranded over the winter by a snowstorm and resorted to eating one another to stay alive. At our dinner table each evening, everyone delighted in controversies, like when a BK (below-the-knee amputee) fell at the last gate and his fake leg fell off: Should officials mark him DNF (did not finish), or should he be able to keep the race time his leg turned in?
Most endearing were the on-the-road characters who, like us, were taking road trips. We met Larry the Irish Eskimo, another veteran, who would remark he needed to lie down and “check my eyelids for pinholes.” And Wally from Michigan whose peg leg was painted red and white like a barbershop pole. Wild Bill was a tall BK who wore suede lederhosen over his leg, which he decorated colorfully laminating a design into the plastic shin.
The 6-foot-plus tall veteran was 19 and a helicopter pilot when he lost his leg below the knee in Vietnam. He was called Wild Bill, not just for his appearance and distinct skiing style, but for his generally unconventional personality. Lifting his arms wide then dropping them, he swooped like an eagle when he came into a turn. He told me he spoke Russian, and I believed him, as it fit with his aesthetic sensibilities. He was a lover of classical music and played his favorite music for race day on an innovative audio headset of his own design. Wired into an 8-track tape-deck pack on his back and bulky earphones, he took off out of the start gates, listening, he told me, to “The 1812 Overture.” While I watched him fly down the course, in my mind’s ear I could hear the fireworks version played by the Boston Pops Orchestra on the Fourth of July, the one with the real cannons firing. One year several of us on the chair lift watched him miss a gate in a downhill event during blinding white-out conditions; he sailed gracefully as a bird over a building-size boulder at trail’s edge and landed unhurt. However, they did cancel the downhill that year. The Children’s Hospital amputee group was made up of sound minds who I’m sure prevailed because they had been invited to stay for free at the Donner Spitz Inn, but opted for different quarters once their chaperones saw the loose arrangements.
Constant was the sound of hairdryers as different people patched with fiberglass their plastic prostheses broken by a good day of skiing. Everyone admired Al Hayes, a double AK (above-the-knee amputee) Vietnam Vet and a handsome New York rehab physiatrist. Although shorter legs yielded a lower center of gravity and control, Al chose to tower and wobble rather than give up his former six-foot height for a shorter pair of legs. He even wore Cuban heels. What a guy!
In California our trip became long and strange. We ran out of money, had nothing left from our food stores but potato chips and Ragu for dipping. We got lost looking for a legendary rehab hospital, Rancho Los Amigos. We became depressed and tired, and we each had to have money wired. Because we had met some people at the Nationals from San Francisco, we then drove to San Francisco to meet up, staying with some motorcycle enthusiasts and making tapes for our further travels. We needed to spend enough time there so that we could end up in Canada in April. But soon we were itching to ski, so we called the Petersons — again.
“You crazy gimps are invited to attend the U.S. Ski Team fundraiser,” Steve told us over the phone. “We’ll have your credentials waiting for you in Park City.” Out came the map, and we doubled back to Utah to attend the Jill St. John Paul Masson Celebrity Ski Meet. I remember feeling like we had arrived in the Emerald City, the merry old Land of Oz, and free food for the whole week. We who’d slept in cars and trailers and eaten chips for dinner were now put up in posh Park City condos with pools, Jacuzzis, saunas, and a liter of Paul Masson wine on each of our beds. The final night is still part of my dreams.
Lowell Thomas was the keynote speaker. I remember him quipping that older people weren’t forgetful, they just had more to remember; it was a twist on things that appealed to me. Kind of like Hal O’Leary’s point that all skiers are handicapped by the size of their feet, so we use skis to lengthen them, outriggers to stabilize.
We joined the Utah gimps and represented the handicap skier community at tables with the U.S. Ski Team. I watched the U.S. skier Andy Mills flirt with one of the stars of the hit movie Nashville, the newly famous country singer Ronnie Blakely, whom we had listened to in the car on tape; Jane, David and I sang along with her, “American Beauty. You’ve got me blushing like a ro-oh-ose.” After Lowell Thomas spoke, and we all ate our surf-n-turf, they cleared out the chairs, and the party rolled onto the wood floors of what must have been a big ballroom.
I remember feeling as naturally high as the chandeliers, dancing on one leg as smoothly as if I had two. I moved around in my mind in what seems now impossible ways, dreaming Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Looking back like this I wonder if I was as smooth as I imagined, but I felt so proud of my balance and strength, my skiing groove was blending with my accomplished dance style. I was tired of watching other people party and flirt. “I am not a spectator,” I remember thinking. Around the same time I had a grandiose exchange with Ronnie Blakely, who was one of the few other people left at the end of the night. David spoke to her first when the five of us were at a table watching the few other people dance. “I just wanted to tell you,” he said. “We love your album ‘American Beauty.’ We’ve been listening to it nonstop on our way cross country.”
She was a star-studded beauty, for sure, and she gushed with a southern accent. “Everybody’s been so great,” she said. “Everyone’s been complimenting me. You have no idea what it feels like to have so many admirers!”
“Oh, but we do,” I said, disabusing her of her misperception of us.
At that point in April, Utah skiing became more like water skiing at the lower-elevation ski areas. We needed to go north, so we went to Jackson Hole to visit Charlene Rawls, our Wyoming connection.
We were running on frayed nerves because Jane and David had driven all day, and I had my usual phantom pain attack from sitting too long, but we didn’t want to spend our money on lodging. We tried to contact Charlene, who had told us to go to any bar in town and ask for her.
Hundreds of antlers piled in one spot in the town square gave us a clue where to find the Cowboy Bar, where all the barstools were horse saddles. We had no money to buy a beer at the Cowboy Bar, but we did get treated to a few shots called kamikazes. Every waitress or waiter in town seemed to be a friend of Charlene’s, who’d lost her leg below the knee and was quite the downhill racer, but few knew where she lived. We stayed in a hotel the first night out of desperation. We found her the next day. The next night I slept in the car in 20 below zero cold because I was allergic to the cat in Charlene Rawls’ teeny tiny mobile home just outside the Jackson Hole resort.
At the last edge of its grid, the town of Jackson Hole even had a little ski area, the Snow King. At the Snow King Resort, we were invited to ski for free by the manager who was also a gimp, due to polio. I remember feeling so competent I chose to ski over a jumping style bump, wiped out on my outriggers; a black and blue on my left breast developed into a healthy rainbow of colors that lasted over the rest of the trip to remind me I wasn’t that good a skier yet. In Jackson we could feel the excitement of the cowboy who had ridden long and hard and found a rest stop, a watering hole. Even though we couldn’t afford a place to stay, the gorgeous Tetons, the Snake River, the galloping beat of country western rhythm and blues played on electric guitar roused our spirits.
But neither the five fabulous days in Utah nor our reprieve in Jackson Hole was anything compared to our last stop on the amputee ski bum line: Alberta, Canada (Author’s Note: Actual date for Celebrity Ski Meet in Park City, Utah was after Canadian International Ski Meet in Banff, Alberta, Canada).
The Canadian International Games were hosted by the Canadian government, Sunshine Village Ski Resort, and the Banff Springs Hotel. A room at the hotel cost a handicap skier only $10 a night, we were told, and with our replenished funds we had budgeted for it.
As we drove through the resort town with its boardwalks and shops, asking directions to the Banff Springs Hotel, none of us knew what to expect. As we approached, the hotel seemed to rise like a castle through the mists. Hewn of granite from the surrounding mountains, it was topped with turrets and cupolas above balconies of many different sizes and shapes. A river appeared to be winding through it. The snow on the trees reminded me of an embroidered tapestry. We returned to the Canadian event for several years, so my memories seem to drift into each other regarding the inside of the Banff Springs Hotel, though I remember the Japanese skiers the first year because of the second year’s surprise.
Inside were large function rooms, rooms of state, halls where each night a different event was planned to welcome all countries to share information in symposia aimed at understanding not only disability but different cultures. Skiers from France, Germany, and England joined the North Americans, and there was a Japanese delegation. The different exhibits hinted at a disability culture so varied that any able-bodied visitor would be enriched by the vision of what individuals with disabilities had always seen for themselves: life on the go, with unique problems, rife with creative solutions, visions, and technologies. To a young mind it was a vision of hope and a society of inclusion. I felt inspired to be an ambassador, learning to say hello in different languages and resorting to pantomime when the person encountered assumed I could converse beyond that.
At the formal occasions, we greeted old friends and met new ones. Many of the U.S. veterans came, although in Banff, the toll taken by the Vietnam War wasn’t as apparent; here the young men our age were amputees from disease or injury, like us.
Before one of the parties, Wild Bill sought out Jane and me to sew on a button for him. We were going to a western style Hoe-Down, and he looked like he was of another age, wearing a ruffled white Edwardian shirt with a velvet suit and knee-length britches, a velvet-flowered cover for his plastic leg.
Mornings, we drove a winding road along brooks, streams, rivers — mountain goats staring serenely from rock ledges — to the bottom of the mountain resort, Sunshine Village. There, the activity wasn’t about competition as much as recreation, exchange, and education. Thus I found myself on the hill one morning in a clinic where for more than an hour we were initiated into the mystery of the sport. How many times had I heard, “It’s all in the knee”? This teacher had another angle.
“It’s all in the ankle and the ski.” They taught us how to control our ski with our ankle and boot. I hadn’t taken a ski lesson since we left New England. “Feel your shins at the front of your boot. Feel your ankle, how if you roll the ankle into the hill you can feel the edge of your ski bite into the snow; now roll your ankle in the other direction, feel that slide.” What sacred words did he use, what incantation isolated my ankle and animated my ski into the direction of the hill? It was trance-like. I was ready, and I got it. I was learning to ski my ski because I was suddenly strong enough and confident enough in my body to pay attention. I rejoiced in this knowledge, and in Banff I made a promise to myself to always stay physically strong and healthy.
In the afternoons we socialized at a warming house after skiing. I discovered how much more easily you could stand in one place and pivot with your ski boot on, and Jane and I were dancing like that hooting and hollering. “Whoo-hoo-hoo,” I said to get David to join us. It worked, so I gave my banshee cry, a universal language to the international roomful of monoped wallflowers, daring them to join us. I felt lit up, on fire.
I remember one day taking the lift up to a half-glacier mountaintop, bald of trees. The Canadian Matterhorn was at eye level; I was feeling on top of the world. I was at tundra elevation, mountaintops like church spires surrounding me. No one I knew was anywhere around. A deep revelation came to me, a feeling of awe and gratitude I had never known or felt before. The feeling was reverent and eternal. I would never have been here, known this moment of bliss, this world of good people if I hadn’t gone through the hell of my accident and its aftermath.
Suddenly I knew I was going to be all right. I was going to have a good life. Life is good. Thank you, God. Thanks for my life. With wings on my arms, my ski under me grooving with my spirit, I steered my foot toward the glade of trees below and, whooping and hollering, I sang and praised God. For the first time, I chose to take not the fastest route but the long meandering way down, skiing between the trees toward the bottom.
There I exchanged outriggers for crutches and hurried to join everyone at the warming house. One of the Japanese skiers was walking toward me, and I racked my brain for the right greeting. Was it “Conichiwa”? Or was it “Ohio?” Not sure, but smiling at him anyway, I was surprised when he greeted me first.
“Whoo-hoo-hoo!” he hollered. As he ran past me with a huge smile, I doubled over in laughter recognizing my banshee cry.
When we returned from Banff, our melody box stopped at the Massachusetts state line, where we popped a bottle of champagne and toasted our safe return and the newly bonded gimp friendship we had formed.
The next year I returned to Banff, this time with my boyfriend Scott. The first day when we entered the elevator at the Banff Springs I was pleased to see there was again a Japanese contingent. Several Japanese people in the elevator seemed to recognize me, and I was puzzled when one turned to me and said, “Ah, Cale san. Number-one Japanese movie star.” I laughed, and when two of the people got off the elevator, another turned to me and said, “Did you know that was the Prince of Japan in the elevator with you?”
The mystery was solved two evenings later when the Japanese premiered their movie of 1976, and there was David on celluloid showing the Japanese how he took off his peg and screwed it back on again. There Jane and I were on the dance floor. And in many other places, there was I, Cale-san Number One Japanese movie star, whooping and hollering and generally hamming it up, having the time of my life.

Back to excerpts from “Have Crutch Will Travel”

Apres Ski

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I never thought I’d have to lose a leg to become athletic, but that’s how it happened after a new friend, a recent amputee herself, asked me if I’d like to go skiing.

“What? And break my one and only leg?” What is she, a masochist? I wondered. That was before I learned masochism is a prerequisite for being an athlete.

“Cale, most people break a leg because they cross their tips. We can’t do that.” I forgave her good attitude; however, I saw I had to be more sophisticated in my excuses.

“Skiing is an elitist sport,” I sniffed. “You have to have money.”

“No. It’s free if you’re disabled,” she offered.

“But I don’t know how,” I said like the stubborn coward I was.

 “They teach you,” she said deftly.

“Where am I supposed to get the equipment?” I really didn’t want an answer. . I had cracked my head open once on the sloped driveway aside my house trying out a pair of skis.

“They loan it!” she added, “Free!”, and we both recognized we’d been through a major life crisis, her having all the right answers to both of our excuses.

After the success of gracefully mastering crutches, I was soon to be humiliated by both the laws of physics and the athletic challenge of learning to ski with a body still a stranger to me.

Inside her car outside the lodge, my new friend and I sat for several hours telling our stories. I told her, “When I was in high school I was a ‘hoodsie.’ The most athletic thing I ever did was run — and that was from the cops.” I didn’t mention I had been a bowler, since I only did it to wear the shoes and be ogled by the boys. She was a swimmer, played tennis and lacrosse. She had also skied before.

When we entered the lodge, I felt like Ann Boleyn heading for my beheading. Then I saw a gathering of guys lounging at the fireplace drinking Schnapps and hot chocolate. Social life, now that I could relate to. Jane steered me away and took me to the handicap skier station where we stood on platforms, sat on benches, and by the time I got all my gear, I was exhausted. “Okay. Let’s hit the bar,” I said cheerily. Instead we were led out into the frigid air to the hilltop. Unlike most ski resorts, Haystack in Vermont is unusual in that you ski from top to bottom before taking your first lift back to the hilltop. Waiting at the top, our teacher, Fran, a large 30-something three-tracker, instructed us on how to put on our skis and take up our outriggers.

Outriggers are crutch-like ski poles with 12” ski tips at the bottoms that ride over the snow, making a platform of three skis instead of two, thus the expression three-tracker. Once you become a really good skier like Fran, you ski with your one leg and use the outriggers to balance every once in a while. That first day, though, three skis weren’t enough.

In the two years I had been an amputee, I had never worn pants. My vanity required long dresses which flared at the waist so I could also hide my loss of a hip. With these ski pants I felt like a dorky stork standing over the ski as I readied to put my foot into the binding. My balance was good, but it did call for the earth to stand still.

With my crutches gingerly gripping the snow, I leaned down. The ski flew backwards, and I forward. Fran caught me right in time from falling flat on my face. She held me around the waist while I got the ski on. I stood like a perturbed flamingo while Fran handed me the outriggers. Then the principles of friction vs. sliding demonstrated themselves. The first thing I did was treat the outrigger like a crutch and put some weight on it. Like a banana peel it slid out from beneath me. I was on my butt before my ski had even moved. I was stunned. Fran didn’t offer to help me up. I hardly had strength to lift myself, let alone the fool outrigger at the same time.

Oh, my. I was most unhappy, and the cheerfulness around me made my mood more foul. My friend was already several hundred feet down the hill, a natural kinesthetic learner. “You can do it, Cale,” someone gushed. Right. Each time I tried to get up, the ski slipped downhill, me laying on its tail.

“Lay your ski across the fall line,” yelled Fran. The fall line she had explained earlier was the path a ball would take if dropped down the hill. Fran side-slipped down to me, stopped my slide, and then lifted my ski — with my leg attached — up into the air, turned me around on my back and headed my ski across the slope. “You want to get up with your ski across the fall line and use the uphill outrigger to push up off the ground,” she said.

“No, I don’t. I want to go in and have some hot chocolate now,” I grumbled to myself. My crutches, however, were 10 feet above me, my ski having slipped that far down the hill as I was trying to get up. I knew Sergeant Fran would never bring them down to me. I was in for the duration. Her duration.

The day was a nightmare. My ski pants kept falling off me, and I couldn’t pull them up without letting go of the outrigger and falling down myself. Those moments when I would get set upright, point downhill and start to get some speed, I’d instinctively lean back to keep the ski from going further down hill. Boom. Skiing taught me another law of physics: if you lean back, the ski goes forward faster; if you don’t keep your weight centered, you’re down.

“Bend your knee,” she instructed, and I looked down to see what part of my body my knee might be.

The concept of turning was never introduced that day because I used up a flotilla of instructors trying to teach me to merely stay up. I could hear voices from uphill calling, “Kyle. Get UP!” and I thought, I’m glad I’m not this Kyle guy because I gotta sit down and rest. When I realized they were actually yelling at me, I was genuinely puzzled. Why rush to get up if I’m just going to fall down again ?

When I finally got to the bottom of the hill, I collapsed in relief and created a snow angel. I didn’t care if I embarrassed the other gimps. When I looked up into the blue sky, I saw a circle of trees, and realized I wasn’t even cold. I was exhilarated. I looked uphill to see how far I’d come, and I felt a bolt of happiness. It wasn’t that hard –as long as I didn’t have to do it again real soon.

However, I was subsequently introduced to the converse of Newton’s Law of Gravity: What goes down must come up again. At Haystack you skied down and took a T-bar up. A T-bar is a rope tow with an iron piece shaped like an upside down “T”. A skier holds onto the stem with one hand, tucking the “T” under her butt, and is towed to the top.

This assumes you have not only balance and strength in your leg, but a butt. No one made the connection that my pants were falling off because, not only had I lost a leg, but half my derriere. So no one could figure out why I was such a terrible spaz on the T-bar. It took the rest of the day to get me up it. Eventually one of the instructors skied me between his legs, his butt on the T, and my back leaning against him. If I get to the top, I asked him, can I stay there? He offered to buy me that hot chocolate himself. My hero!

The thing that was most exciting about that first day of skiing was that it ended. I came a few times more that winter, even conquering the T-bar, and by my last lesson could traverse across the slope and stay up. The next year I discovered paradise at Sunapee, New Hampshire, where they had a chairlift. It would take at least one more season before I was strong enough to stand up from a sitting position, balance my body over the center of the ski, and turn with enough finesse to completely control my speed.

In five years I would be competing regionally and nationally, and in 1979 become the Women’s National Three-Track Champion. In 1980 I represented my country in Olympic Games for Disabled in Norway. All that for a hot chocolate après ski?

All that because skiing gave my body back to me.

Back to excerpts from “Have Crutch Will Travel”

and we both recognized we’d been through a major life crisis, her having all the right answers to both of our excuses.

After the success of gracefully mastering crutches, I was soon to be humiliated by both the laws of physics and the athletic challenge of learning to ski with a body still a stranger to me.

Inside her car outside the lodge, my new friend and I sat for several hours telling our stories. I told her, “When I was in high school I was a ‘hoodsie.’ The most athletic thing I ever did was run — and that was from the cops.” I didn’t mention I had been a bowler, since I only did it to wear the shoes and be ogled by the boys. She was a swimmer, played tennis and lacrosse. She had also skied before.

When we entered the lodge, I felt like Ann Boleyn heading for my beheading. Then I saw a gathering of guys lounging at the fireplace drinking Schnapps and hot chocolate. Social life, now that I could relate to. Jane steered me away and took me to the handicap skier station where we stood on platforms, sat on benches, and by the time I got all my gear, I was exhausted. “Okay. Let’s hit the bar,” I said cheerily. Instead we were led out into the frigid air to the hilltop. Unlike most ski resorts, Haystack in Vermont is unusual in that you ski from top to bottom before taking your first lift back to the hilltop. Waiting at the top, our teacher, Fran, a large 30-something three-tracker, instructed us on how to put on our skis and take up our outriggers.

Outriggers are crutch-like ski poles with 12” ski tips at the bottoms that ride over the snow, making a platform of three skis instead of two, thus the expression three-tracker. Once you become a really good skier like Fran, you ski with your one leg and use the outriggers to balance every once in a while. That first day, though, three skis weren’t enough.

In the two years I had been an amputee, I had never worn pants. My vanity required long dresses which flared at the waist so I could also hide my loss of a hip. With these ski pants I felt like a dorky stork standing over the ski as I readied to put my foot into the binding. My balance was good, but it did call for the earth to stand still.

With my crutches gingerly gripping the snow, I leaned down. The ski flew backwards, and I forward. Fran caught me right in time from falling flat on my face. She held me around the waist while I got the ski on. I stood like a perturbed flamingo while Fran handed me the outriggers. Then the principles of friction vs. sliding demonstrated themselves. The first thing I did was treat the outrigger like a crutch and put some weight on it. Like a banana peel it slid out from beneath me. I was on my butt before my ski had even moved. I was stunned. Fran didn’t offer to help me up. I hardly had strength to lift myself, let alone the fool outrigger at the same time.

Oh, my. I was most unhappy, and the cheerfulness around me made my mood more foul. My friend was already several hundred feet down the hill, a natural kinesthetic learner. “You can do it, Cale,” someone gushed. Right. Each time I tried to get up, the ski slipped downhill, me laying on its tail.

“Lay your ski across the fall line,” yelled Fran. The fall line she had explained earlier was the path a ball would take if dropped down the hill. Fran side-slipped down to me, stopped my slide, and then lifted my ski — with my leg attached — up into the air, turned me around on my back and headed my ski across the slope. “You want to get up with your ski across the fall line and use the uphill outrigger to push up off the ground,” she said.

“No, I don’t. I want to go in and have some hot chocolate now,” I grumbled to myself. My crutches, however, were 10 feet above me, my ski having slipped that far down the hill as I was trying to get up. I knew Sergeant Fran would never bring them down to me. I was in for the duration. Her duration.

The day was a nightmare. My ski pants kept falling off me, and I couldn’t pull them up without letting go of the outrigger and falling down myself. Those moments when I would get set upright, point downhill and start to get some speed, I’d instinctively lean back to keep the ski from going further down hill. Boom. Skiing taught me another law of physics: if you lean back, the ski goes forward faster; if you don’t keep your weight centered, you’re down.

“Bend your knee,” she instructed, and I looked down to see what part of my body my knee might be.

The concept of turning was never introduced that day because I used up a flotilla of instructors trying to teach me to merely stay up. I could hear voices from uphill calling, “Kyle. Get UP!” and I thought, I’m glad I’m not this Kyle guy because I gotta sit down and rest. When I realized they were actually yelling at me, I was genuinely puzzled. Why rush to get up if I’m just going to fall down again ?

When I finally got to the bottom of the hill, I collapsed in relief and created a snow angel. I didn’t care if I embarrassed the other gimps. When I looked up into the blue sky, I saw a circle of trees, and realized I wasn’t even cold. I was exhilarated. I looked uphill to see how far I’d come, and I felt a bolt of happiness. It wasn’t that hard –as long as I didn’t have to do it again real soon.

However, I was subsequently introduced to the converse of Newton’s Law of Gravity: What goes down must come up again. At Haystack you skied down and took a T-bar up. A T-bar is a rope tow with an iron piece shaped like an upside down “T”. A skier holds onto the stem with one hand, tucking the “T” under her butt, and is towed to the top.

This assumes you have not only balance and strength in your leg, but a butt. No one made the connection that my pants were falling off because, not only had I lost a leg, but half my derriere. So no one could figure out why I was such a terrible spaz on the T-bar. It took the rest of the day to get me up it. Eventually one of the instructors skied me between his legs, his butt on the T, and my back leaning against him. If I get to the top, I asked him, can I stay there? He offered to buy me that hot chocolate himself. My hero!

The thing that was most exciting about that first day of skiing was that it ended. I came a few times more that winter, even conquering the T-bar, and by my last lesson could traverse across the slope and stay up. The next year I discovered paradise at Sunapee, New Hampshire, where they had a chairlift. It would take at least one more season before I was strong enough to stand up from a sitting position, balance my body over the center of the ski, and turn with enough finesse to completely control my speed.

In five years I would be competing regionally and nationally, and in 1979 become the Women’s National Three-Track Champion. In 1980 I represented my country in Olympic Games for Disabled in Norway. All that for a hot chocolate après ski?

All that because skiing gave my body back to me.

Back to excerpts from “Have Crutch Will Travel”

Gamble In Vegas

17_summit.jpgOne day I walked a mile down the Grand Canyon and then back up again. That’s two miles of crutch walking, which, if you think about it, is like vaulting over portable parallel bars.

The next day, at a treeless KOA campground outside Las Vegas, I met a handsome biker riding a Suzuki 1000. He told me he’d had his ear drums blown out in Vietnam and his vision blurred by a shell blast, putting him in the ranks of disabled American veterans. He was sensitive to my amputation, aware because so many veterans lost limbs in the war. We talked, and he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. I hesitated. This is how I lost my leg in the first place. I told him to let me think about it.
Continue reading “Gamble In Vegas”

Introduction

I must have been showing off the day I met Posie Churchill. I had been invited to visit the Rehab floor of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) for a peer visit, which is where an amputee visits others in their hospital beds. My amputation had been performed there at MGH in Boston in 1971. That day in 1975, I was showing three young men who had just lost limbs how a person on one leg can ski. Balancing over my right leg, arms at my side, I stood up straight, facing them, and held my crutches off the ground.
Continue reading “Introduction”

C’est la Vie

 

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When my friend Louise was studying mime in Paris in 1979, I went to visit her. She explained in advance that I could stay with her, but we would only have time together on the weekends. She worked as a governess for a French family and was studying under Etienne Descroux, the great Marcel Marceau’s teacher; she had a very busy schedule.

Louise had asked her English friends Patrick and Helen to hold an overnight welcome party. Patrick and Helen lived in the suburbs in a ground-floor bungalow which accommodated my crutches quite nicely.
Continue reading “C’est la Vie”