Confessions of a
Former (I Hope)
Super CripHugh Gregory Gallagher
So there I was in Darkest Africa. In fact, it was dark. The sun had just set and though the game park was closed for the night, I was wheeling down the path to the river where the hippos spent their days. All at once, the ground began to shake. I heard a boom, boom, boom, coming toward me from the river. just in the nick of time, I wheeled my chair off the path into the tall grass. Thundering past me, so close their leathery skin grazed my wheelchair, came eight hippos in single file on their way to the pasture where they graze.
So there I was in Alaska, "The Last Frontier." Piloting my little plane, an Aerocoupe, I was flying over Cook Inlet. The great Alaska Range was to my back, the Chugach mountains straight ahead. I was returning to Merrill Field in Anchorage. And then my engine died. Not only that, the electrical system failed as well and I found myself without radio contact. Very coldly, very calmly I assessed my situation. I did not have my wheelchair in the cockpit. The Inlet waters were icy. If I ditched in the water, I would surely die before being rescued. I remembered that the plane could glide approximately seven times its altitude. I estimated I could just about make the field --- if I was lucky.
And I was, just. I did not fly the pattern, I came straight in without warning. I coasted to a stop just under the control tower. The controllers went crazy, waving their hands, trying to tell me to get my plane off the runway because there was a plane landing behind me. But of course I could not move.
So there I was in England for three years. Living in a room without central heating or running water, the washroom toilet a block-and-a-half away, up a ramp and down a ramp. It was an old Victorian affair with narrow stalls and high square walnut seats on the toilet. It too was unheated. It was so cold that my legs turned blue in September, not warming until April. I did not take a bath or wash my hair for a year at a time.
So there I was, down by the trucks at the docks in Greenwich Village. It was three in the morning in the car, pulling my chair in after me, when the crazed junkie came at me. I got the door shut as he tried to break the window by pounding on the window with the butt of his hunting knife.
So there I was, the lion charged the car, roaring as it sprang at my open window. Desperately I wrestled with the handle trying to get the window up before I was roadkill.
So there I was in a dog sled, just north of the Arctic Circle. So there I was, carried in arms, past the honor guard, up the steps and into Air Force One. So there I was when the Soviet agent asked me to procure a top secret document, and there I was when the CIA asked me to go to the Congo. "The Soviets will never suspect that we have an agent in a wheelchair out in the black."
"There are steps at the door," exclaimed the Prince of Wales, "how on earth did you get in here?"
"Oh, Your Royal Highness," I replied, "Through the garage and up through the kitchen."
"You know," he mused, "not even Buckingham Palace is accessible!"
"I guess that's why I've never been invited," I said, but not loudly.
So there I was, the only person in a wheelchair in all of Oxford, all of Claremont-Pomona, all of Capitol Hill, all of the White House. So there I was.
§ § §
Doing these things --- and many more --- did not make me a Super Crip. It was how and why I did them.
They were wonderful things to do. Some of them were exciting, some were fun, all of them interesting. I would not have missed them for the world.
What I regret now is that I did them all out of desperation. Here I was, a nice young man who had a bright future, suddenly "struck down by the deadly disease," polio, back in 1952. What was I to do? First of all, I would not talk about it; I would not even allow myself to think about it. I would carry on just as if I had never had polio, just as though I was not using a wheelchair.
I did not want to know, did not even like disabled people. I hung out with the able-bodied. I was absolutely determined. By hook or by crook, I would compete with the able-bodied. Not only would I be as good as they, I would be better. I would work harder, go farther, achieve more, so help me God. And I guess I did.
It was at terrible cost to my person. I repressed or denied everything. I had no feelings; at night, I had no dreams. No sex. I simply ignored pain and fatigue. I did not allow myself to get sick. I took risks and did things no sane person would ever do. I lived in terror of collapse, of fear that the world would see how hollow I was. I had a million friends but I could confide in no one because, in truth, I had nothing to confide. When asked about my handicap (as it was called in those days) I would reply, "I never think about it, never think about it at all."
I continued in this desperate fashion, wracked with constipation and insomnia, until July 4, 1974. On that day, I bombed out of Super Cripdom. My body collapsed physically, and I plunged headlong into a deep and chronic clinical depression, which took me years to climb out of.
Since then I have learned a lot about myself and about the world. I have learned how very nice it feels to take care of my body and its needs. Nowadays I lie down when I am tired, and I baby myself when I am sick. I set my own priorities. I do what I want to do and not what the world thinks I should. In my old Super Crip days, I was afraid the able-bodied world would shun me if I let them see a weakness. I was very wrong.
So, if you are a disabled athlete, compete in sports and go for the gold. If you are a disabled politician, go for the White House. If you are a crippled car thief, steal cars. Do not be a Super Crip and waste time trying to compensate or obfuscate your disability. What the hell, it's part of you.
Since I bombed out of Super Cripdom, I have continued to have an exciting, reasonably productive life. The difference is that now I enjoy it.--- from Black Bird Fly Away
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