Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Smart Ass Cripple’s Good Old Fashioned Down Home Brace Burning

When I think about torture, which I do often, I think of Connie Francis and Milwaukee. It’s not their fault. They’re a fine enough pop singer and city, respectively. It’s just that I can’t help but associate them both with torture.

As for Connie Francis, it’s Wheatley’s fault. He was this guy with cerebral palsy who was my first roommate at the state-operated boarding school for cripples. His most treasured possessions were his two Connie Francis albums. Those were the only albums he had and he played them over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over… I can still hear her voice echoing through the dark, haunted corridors of my psyche:

“Lipstick on your collar

Told a tale on you-woo.

Lipstick on your collar

Said you were untrue-woo.”

And Wheatley played it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over… And he sang along, too, except it was more like a howl. And I’m 13 years old and here I am trapped in this place! I’m slowly morphing into an axe murderer. Everyone has experienced this form of torture and the insanity it induces. It’s like when you’ve got a song stuck in your head and you can’t beat it or shake it out for the life of you. The songs that get stuck in your head are always profoundly annoying songs, like jingles from car dealer commercials or anything by Kenny G. You never get Mozart stuck in your head. And the song burrows in deep like a brain-eating parasite and taunts you with increasing delight until you start searching the internet for the nearest 24-hour lobotomy lab. And if you can’t get a lobotomy on demand soon, you’ll give yourself one through the ear with a knitting needle. Anything to make it stop!

And Milwaukee reminds me of torture because it is the birthplace of the Milwaukee brace. I wore a Milwaukee brace throughout my teens. Here’s a picture:

For those who can’t see, it’s a plastic girdle that fits around the pelvis and hips. A vertical metal bar runs up the front to just under the chin, where a padded perch rests. Two similar bars run parallel up the back to behind the skull, where there is a padded headrest. The idea was to prevent scoliosis.

I remember when I was fitted for my Milwaukee brace there was a sling hanging down from a little crane above my head and the brace maker secured the sling under my chin and cranked me up until I dangled just above the exam table. And then he wrapped plaster around my trunk. I felt like a fucking piñata! I kept expecting kids to burst into the room and beat me with sticks.

When you wear a Milwaukee brace, you feel like you’re wearing a barrel. You feel about as sexy and attractive (and agile and nimble) as a guy wearing a barrel, too. And you’re supposed to wear it 23 hours a day every day forever, only talking it off to bathe.

When I went away to college, living on my own in the dorm, I ditched the Milwaukee brace.

Generations of cripples have experienced this form of torture. It gives me a notion to start a new annual ritual: Smart Ass Cripple’s Good Old Fashioned Down Home Brace Burning. I’ll build a huge bonfire. Cripples from all over the universe can come, bring all their old albatross braces and throw them in. Then we all dance naked.

It will be intensely therapeutic. It will help me exorcise those nightmares of an adolescence spent squeezed into a Milwaukee brace, listening to Connie Francis.


  1. Dear Mike,
    Save a spot on top of the bonfire for mine, too. They went from the bottoms of my feet to the tops of my shoulders. The doctors were so proud that a near-quad could balance like a telephone pole! After a few years of practice - and major injuries - i let them go.

  2. 'Though it hardly compares, Margy's MD insisted that we "brace" her FOP great toes (like bunions) in an effort to straighten them. Diagnosed at 3 weeks, she dragged the metal braces along behind her until she started walking at 9-10 months. Who could blame her for starting to walk so early!!? Were they thinking they could undo the prenatal genetic distortion, the chief diagnostic characteristic of FOP? And when her first hip began to go FOP, she was put in traction -- and the MD left for India for 6 weeks. Orthopedists think they are engineers, perhaps, but their contraptions/ concoctions seem too much like Rube Goldberg devices.

  3. This is a wonderful idea. Mine were called KAFOs and i ditched them in college too. I think my mom still has them (god knows why) and i think a viking funeral for them would be pretty damn cathartic.

  4. Wow, that photo brought back memories. I wore that damn brace for 4 years 23 hours a day and still ended up having scoleosis surgery.

    1. Me too. Grades 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, and nine.5 1/2 years total. Horrible permanent psychological damage and still required surgery. Is there some reason why we can't file a class action suit?

  5. Ok, this probably sounds like not a big deal, but for me it was contact lenses. I was legally blind as a kid (uh, still am and more so) and so I wore these really thick glasses with coke bottle bubble things in them. I knew they were ugly, but they were comfortable and fine. But everyone said I had to wear contacts, so I wouldn't look so weird. But with contacts I still had to wear glasses, albeit more normal looking ones. Two pair, in fact. One for close up and one for far away because bifocals were too advanced for my shitty eyes. So, the contacts caused my eyes to be in pain ALL THE TIME. I had a lot of surgeries, so I don't know but I would get red rings around my pupil where the contacts had been, they itched, they hurt, my eyes watered, no matter what I did. Not to mention having to flip glasses back and forth, which was useless. All this so I could look NORMAL. Anyway, now I can't TALK to people about their contacts, I can't look at them, I can't think of them. If they have to change them or do something with them, I have to leave the room. Occasionally I have a doctor suggest them again and the shudders get me so bad and with my adamant NO FUCKING WAY, they are taken aback and never mention it again. Just writing this is making me, just..just..GAH!

  6. Perhaps it's one of the few constructive coping mechanisms I have in regard to such memories of my own, but actually I do, mercifully, get Mozart stuck in my head. Here's a lovely cut from the film (you know the title) with a nice list of the names of the pieces sampled in the scene. And, sexist though it may be, and not to detract from Elizabeth Barrett'S fine acting talents, but may I say that she looks particularly lovely munching away on candied chestnuts, strategically using her feminine wiles as a way to impact her petitioning to Salieri. But I guess if you're not a fan of Mozart, then I'm really just as Wheatley

  7. pop quiz: what was mozart's " disability?"

  8. After 3 hip surgeries, 2 of them involving body casts, I had a crutch burning party. It was great!

  9. Do not destroy your old Milwaukee brace from the 70s and 80s they sell on eBay for $350-500.00 just listed mine and had 1st bid for $350 within minutes.