My friends the Brices, who live in Maryland, let my crew and me spend the night in the guest room in their basement. In the morning, their happy dog bounced in and greeted everyone, tail wagging. He looked like an animated mop. But the dog saw me sitting in my wheelchair and he instantly transformed into a snarling, insane monster. His bark was that shrill yap that makes you jump out of your skin if you don't see it coming, like stepping on a squeak toy in the dark.
It’s a good thing Marian Brice was there to hold the dog back or he might have torn my face off. “He thinks you’re a vacuum cleaner!” she laughed. The vacuum cleaner, she said, is this dog’s self-declared archenemy and nemesis. It brings out the beast in him. He attacks it. She wrestled the furious, snapping hellhound out the room.
But it shook me up good for the whole day. It wasn’t so much that I nearly got mauled to shreds in a case of mistaken identity. It was more the sudden, psychologically humbling effect of being busted by a dog. It again reminded me that no matter how hard you try to rise above it all and play the role of the independent, self-sufficient, overcoming cripple, sooner or later something happens to make it clear that on some inescapable, primal level you’re still a cripple after all. And you always will be.
You can never dodge all the slings and arrows that come with crippledom, unless you hide under your bed. The rich cripples try to buy their crippledness away. They know that the best insulation from the cold realities of being crippled is a thick layer of money. If you can pay cash for your wheelchairs and equipment, you'll never have to flagellate yourself at the feet of a bureaucrat. If you can hire enough goons to carry you around, even the Taj Mahal is accessible. You can go everywhere and do everything just like the uncrippled. You can buy total acceptance. But inevitably, regardless of who you are, you’ll be put in your place. A cab driver will see your wheelchair and blow past you. A passerby will drop change in your lap. A waitress will ask your date what you want to eat. And you suddenly remember where you came from.
I suppose these encounters are good for us in the long run. They keep us from getting too big for our wheelchairs.
That same day the mop dog nearly killed me I went to the FDR memorial in Washington. Now if there ever was a cripple who could totally leave behind his crippledness and every indignity that accompanies it, surely it was him. He had everything the independent, self-sufficient, overcoming cripple needs. Not only was he rich but also he had a loyal, well-paid crew of servants and luxury housing all provided at public expense.
But at the feet of a sculpture of Roosevelt was a sculpture of his beloved Scottie dog, Fala. And so I wondered what happened when Fala first saw Roosevelt in his makeshift wheelchair? Did he bark frantically like some dogs do when they see wheeled vehicles? Did the upstart canine treat the president of the United States like a common vacuum cleaner?
My morning dog showdown reran through my head. But this time the cripple was Roosevelt instead of me and the dog was Fala. The setting was the oval office and restraining the dog, instead of Marian Brice, was a secret service agent. I was mucho amused.
I doubt that this happened but I like to imagine it did. I like to imagine Roosevelt could still relate to cripples like me.