Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cruz Roja

Cripples should always wear clean underwear. Because sooner or later you’re going to find yourself in a Cruz Roja situation.

A Cruz Roja situation is when you arrive somewhere in your wheelchair and find that the only means of access and/or egress involves going up or down stairs. But don’t worry. The proprietor has a solution. Goon power! If it’s a restaurant, for example, all employees are rounded up—the servers, the bartenders, the cooks in their aprons and mushroom-cloud hats—to carry you. But they soon learn that carrying a deadweight cripple up and down stairs is a lot like betting $50,000 that you can eat 30 hot dogs in 30 minutes. At first it seems like a snap. Easy money. But halfway through, your gut splitting from the strain, you realize you’ve made a horrible mistake. But there’s no turning back. You pray just to get through it alive.

And if you’re the deadweight cripple, you’re reciting the same fervent prayer. And even if you do survive, by the time they all finish grappling and pawing you, your shirt is wrapped around your head and your pants have fallen down to your ankles.

So always wear clean underwear.

Here’s why I call this a Cruz Roja situation:

The time was 1988. The place was the airport in Havana, Cuba. We were a delegation of American cripples invited to visit the island by an organization of Cuban cripples.

Our plane taxied up to the terminal. No jetway. A steep, narrow stairway was rolled up to the door. Two men boarded the plane. They wore white t-shirts with red crosses on them. The shirts said Cruz Roja. The men were in their fifties, beer-bellied.

“Are you here to carry us off the plane?” someone asked in Spanish. “Si!” said one of the Cruz Roja guys. “Soy muy fuerte. (I am very strong.)” He made a muscle. “Yo como mucho jamon! (I eat a lot of ham!)

There were five of us U.S. cripples for the Cruz Roja guys to carry. They looked us over, searching for their first victim. We all cowered back, each hoping they’d pick the other. They grabbed poor Drew. Now being a cripple swept up in a Cruz Roja situation is exponentially more terrifying when the complete strangers carrying you don’t even speak your language. Drew knew so little Spanish that the only phrase in his vocabulary he learned from me, the hopeless gringo. I told him when in doubt just say “Un momento, por favor.” At least that might buy him some time.

The Cruz Roja guys hoisted Drew up in a fireman’s carry. But Drew’s ass drooped, nearly scraping the ground. “Un momento, por favor,” chirped Drew. The Cruz Roja guys grunted and groaned. At the top of the narrow stairs, they stopped. Realizing they would never fit through three abreast, they discussed a change in strategy in Spanish.

“Un momento!” Drew said.

The Cruz Roja guys flung Drew up like a sandbag and sat him on the handrail of the steps. Here’s Drew, a guy with no trunk balance, one butt cheek perched on a three-inch wide cylinder, teetering and staring down at a sheer 15-foot drop.


A Cruz Roja guy clinched Drew from behind with a great Heimlich hug. The other scooped up his legs. They carried Drew down single file.

Down on the tarmac, his pants half off, Drew wanted to kiss the sweet earth like the Pope. The Cruz Roja guys panted, in need of a good refreshing jolt from a defibrillator.

So please, crippled brethren, always wear clean underwear. I concede that the odds are not great that your underwear will remain clean. At some point during your harrowing Cruz Roja carry, you’re bound to soil them.