Sunday, December 11, 2011


How about those old-time FDR wheelchairs? All wicker and wood, rigid and perpendicular. As agile and nimble as a covered wagon. As comfortable as an X-ray table.

Whenever I see one of those FDR wheelchairs, I get a bad case of the willies. But it’s way worse than just the willies. It’s a cold, deep shudder.

What if I was a cripple back then? I didn’t miss by much. Just make me about 15 years older and there I am. Having an FDR wheelchair was the best cripples back then could hope for. That was our shining symbol of hope and liberation. Back then, I’d have been sooooooo screwed. I’d have been stranded if I had to get around by pushing an FDR wheelchair. Hell, even those linebacker cripples of today who do marathons in their wheelchairs would be stranded if all they had were FDR wheelchairs. That’s the equivalent of trying to run a marathon in a potato sack.

And what about way way way back, back before there were even any FDR wheelchairs? What was the symbol of hope and liberation for a cripple like me way back then? Leeches? The doctors cover me with leeches that can suck all the muscular dystrophy out of me? Then what? Way back then, cripples like me were thoroughly, comprehensively, inalterably screwed.

Do you ever go to historical re-enactments? Do you ever notice that there are no cripples in historical re-enactments? That’s because whatever the period in history, the cripples were screwed. The only cripples people ever saw were blind beggars, village idiots and Helen Keller.

Seeing an FDR wheelchair gives me the intense willies the same way I used to get the willies when I was a kid and the disabled veterans called our house selling light bulbs. My mother could’ve bought light bulbs anywhere, but she waited for the disabled vets to call so she could order light bulbs and help a good cause at the same time. But it gave me the hard-boiled willies. Is that what cripples do when they grow up, I wondered, sell light bulbs over the phone? Is that the best we can hope for? And these were disabled veterans, too. These were the guys who saved us from the Nazis and the Communists. If all a grateful nation had to offer them was a chance to sell light bulbs over the telephone, then an ordinary cripple like me was invariably, inevitably, inescapably screwed.

I see an FDR wheelchair, and what grabs me is beyond the willies. It’s more like survivor guilt. I just barely escaped. Make me 15 years older and I would’ve been screwed like the cripples of yore. The bullets that took them down whizzed right past my head.

Survivor guilt can make it hard to have fun, if you’re not careful. You can get caught up in feeling like you’re disrespecting those who didn’t make it if you’re not perpetually somber, like a black-veiled widow. But I feel better when I do the opposite and get out there and have fun on behalf of the cripples of yore. I make it my business to have all the fun they weren’t allowed to have. It makes having fun twice the fun because I feel like I’m getting even.