Thursday, September 18, 2008

Disability is a state of mind

In 1975 I was working in a band out of Newcastle. The keyboard player was a guy whose nickname was "Wheels", largely due to the fact that he hung around in a wheelchair, as a result of being run over by a car when he was fifteen. He'd been a promising athlete, playing football and other sports, and one day was simply crossing the road (on a pedestrian crossing) when a lunatic cleaned him up. He was a paraplegic with no feeling below the waist, except that his excretory and sexual functions still worked fine. (Sorry to belabour you with the plumbing details, but Wheels was not shy about talking about it, so neither should I be.)

He was fit and immensely strong, when I knew him. I once asked him, half jokingly, to bring my guitar amp over to me. He just reached down, picked the thing up with one hand, held it above his head, wheeled over to me using his other hand, and plonked it on the floor next to me. "You lazy prick," he said.

His only concession to his disability was when he needed to go up a flight of stairs. In that case, one of us would get behind, the other in front, and we'd carry him up or down. In just about everything else, he was completely able. (We did play a few tricks on him, from time to time; once, at Forster, while he was in the pool, we stole his wheelchair and went to the pub. He was furious; he'd had to drag himself around the pool perimeter and back to the hotel reception, where an aghast receptionist had to phone the bar to retrieve the wheelchair. Fuck, it was funny.)

Wheels was notoriously hard on his means of conveyance. He was always breaking the wheels and frame of his chair; he'd often complain that wheelchairs were "built for namby-pamby poofters. They should just wheel the bastards around in a pram." He would cross the road, take a flying run at the opposite gutter, and smash the chair up onto the footpath. Consequently, his chair was held together by bits of welding rod and wire. It was an ugly sight. He generally did all the repairs on it himself.

His stubborn independence made him immensely likeable, and he was always surrounded by a bevy of young women. Christ, he could pull the girls, and would offer them rides around the place - of course, they'd have to sit on his lap. When we were on tour, the girls looked after his (ahem) every need.

His one major downfall was that he was a notoriously horrible driver. He owned a big muscle car - a 351 Ford coupe, that he'd had modified. The steering-wheel had a big knob which he'd hold onto with his left hand, while his right would operate a lever which controlled the brakes and throttle. Nobody wanted to be his passenger, but sometimes it was unavoidable.

"Jesus, Wheels," I cried one day as we were tearing through the suburbs at high speed, "one cripple in this car's enough - don't make two of us, for Chrissake!"

"Oh, then just shut your eyes, ya coward," was his only reply.

The band got a job on the S.S. Oriana, a cruise ship that did two- and four- week cruises around the south sea islands. It was a good gig; we played every night for about three hours in the auditorium or one of the main bars on board, except when we were in port, in which case we were free to disembark and see the sights.

The Oriana was an ageing, stately old ship that only had a few more seasons in her when we were working on it. Apart from two elevators, it had no concessions to "wheelchair access", as it's said, so the only way up or down between decks were these narrow stairwells, otherwise Wheels had to trundle a fairly long way to the elevator, then a fairly long way back to where he wanted to be. He always opted for the short-cut, and got pretty good at holding onto the bannisters and thumping his way down the stairs. Consequently, we were only a few days into the cruise before his wheelchair gave up the ghost and fell completely to bits.

Now, by this time, Wheels had become a firm favourite with many of the passengers and crew. He was continually pissed as a newt, because everyone wanted to buy him a beer. So, when his wheelchair carked it, a few of the crew-members took it upon themselves to see if the ship's engineers could fix it. They took it away, and gave him a replacement, for the time being, of an old wheelchair that was to a modern one like a penny-farthing is to a sleek racing-bike. Wheels was fairly embarrassed by this old clunker, and was mighty relieved when his own machine was returned to him.

And not just relieved - amazed and overjoyed. The engineers had taken to their task with alacrity. In fact, with the exception of the wheels themselves, which had been reinforced around the rim (they'd even manufactured new spokes for the wheels), the entire contraption was brand new! They had made an industrial-strength wheelchair, with cambered axles, a new design for the front trailing wheels, a hugely complex and robust frame, and an ingenious suspension system. Wheels was in heaven. Years later, that same basic design became standard for wheelchair athletes; my friend's was the prototype.

Wheels spent hours testing the machine out; he'd career around the outside deck at high speed, pulling incredibly sharp turns, and occasionally coming a gutser. I was afraid that, in his perpetually inebriated state, he'd hit the guardrail and catapult himself into the sea below. 

One afternoon, he and I were having a quiet drink in the main auditorium. There was tiered seating around the perimeter of a huge dance floor, and we'd decided to go right up to the top level to get the view. There were three or four dozen other passengers in the place, all with the same idea. We were somewhere between Fiji and Tonga. I'd helped Wheels up the series of low steps to the top, and we were chatting away with a couple of G&Ts in front of us.

Suddenly the ship took a bit of a lurch to the side, probably hit by a bigger than normal wave. The wheelchair rolled back just far enough for its back wheels to go over the first step, and Wheels and his conveyance tumbled all the way down to the dance floor, where the chair skidded away, out to the middle of the room, while Wheels was left in a heap at the foot of the stairs.

At this sight, of course, I just completely cracked up. I dissolved into gales of unbridled laughter. Tears were streaming down my face as Wheels gave me a sour look and began to drag himself across to the middle of the dance floor. It was a painful sight, but hilarious. He grabbed the wheelchair, turned it back onto its wheels, and crawled up into the seat. He wheeled back over to the bottom step, stopped, and called up to me "Well, are you gonna sit there laughing all day or are you gonna give me a hand up?"

I went down and helped him back up. We took up our drinks and continued as before. My only concession to the event was to say "You OK, mate?"

"Didn't feel a thing," he replied sarcastically.

Just then, I noticed an eerie silence in the room. I looked up and around, and noticed that everyone in the place was looking at me as though I was the worst, most evil animal to grace the earth since Goebbels. They just didn't get it. The mood was definitely dark; I was hoping that some goon wasn't going to come over and punish me for my bad manners. I decided to lighten things up.

"Hey, guys," I said to all and sundry, "it's rude to stare. Haven't any of you seen an idiot in a wheelchair before?"


TheWhitePearl said...

hahahaha-I laughed too, I must be evil. But while I was reading I was also wondering if anyone had looked at you like you were crazy.

Clever retort btw

I don't understand why everyone is so tip-toe careful around people wth disabilities. The same way why some people are afraid to discipline kids with minor mental "retardations" (Like children with down syndrome) But that's a different soap box.

Any way yep disability is a state of mind.

Philip1978 said...

Hahahha, that was very funny indeed!

I think it is ok to mock the afflicted in this particular way, they get more out of being treated like a human rather than wrapped up in cotton wool all the time. Its refreshing to know there are mad people like Wheels around to make the point.

Well done!

Mark_W said...


Been catching up with your blog, shamefully late in the day...

Just wanted to say that was hilarious and instructive at the same time; "genius" has become such an overused word, but I'm struggling to think of a different one to describe your talent with a yarn...