AN ARDUOUS JOURNEY TO
JAMES E. TRACY copyright 1968 32 chapters
By All Means
There were two events in my life that made me different from anyone else in the world. One was at the age of twelve when the doctors at the Shriners Crippled Children's Hospital in St. Louis told my parents that of the twelve worst crippled children in the world, I was number one. The experts gave me just a few days to live, a few weeks at the most; beyond that I would make medical history.
The other was a bizarre twist of fate that resulted in my being befriended by the most notorious gangsters in American history. They would teach me the art of surviving in a tough world. In the early 1800s the Scotch-Irish clans from the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky once again began their restless migration westward, crossing over the Ohio River and entering this land of gently rolling hills and fertile valleys.
In the years 1830-1831 the weather was unusually harsh and there followed one crop failure after another. The ensuing famine was so severe and lasted so long that the settlers were forced to appeal to the southern counties for food. It was then that the settlers recalled the Biblical story of a famine in which the people in the north appealed for food from the Pharaoh of Egypt, to the south. To this day the descendants of the pioneers still refer to southern Illinois as "Little Egypt."
My parents lived in southern Illinois, on that section of land which lies in an irregular "V" carved out by the merging of the Mississippi, Ohio, and Wabash Rivers. There I was born, Glendell Gene Bybee (I go by the name of Gene.), on the first day of May 1926, in the little town of Harrisburg, at a time when the state of Illinois was controlled by three notorious gangs: the Charlie Birger gang, the three Shelton brothers, and Al Capone.
Al Capone lived in Chicago and literally ruled that city. The Shelton boys lived in East St. Louis and controlled the rest of the state of Illinois. Charlie Birger was in partnership with the Sheltons and lived in Little Egypt...in Harrisburg. He lived on the other side of town in a home surprisingly modest for a gangster of his stature; but then, everyone in Harrisburg lived in a surprisingly modest home.
Our paths might never have crossed had it not been for an old man who had a sometimes brilliant mind and likable personality. But more often, he was ranting and raving with delusions brought on by years of alcoholism. He was my Grandpa Bybee.
The home that Mom and Dad lived in was given to them by Grandpa with the understanding that he would live with them until he died. Grandpa Bybee was a lawyer by profession--Charlie Birger's lawyer due to circumstances. He needed money for alcohol, alimony, and child support for five kids. His constant need for money forced Grandpa to take clients that any respectable lawyer would refuse. In short, he was Charlie Birger's type of lawyer.
Naturally, Grandpa was free to bring anyone to the house that he wanted. Charlie Birger (pronounced Burger) was Grandpa's biggest client. Considering the kind of work Charlie was in, he was constantly needing legal advice--he needed it right now and not on the next business day. So, Charlie had the habit of dropping by the house whenever he wanted, whether it be during the day or the middle of the night.
It wasn't just Charlie Birger who visited our house at all hours. Strange men came from all over southern Illinois, northern Kentucky, and Missouri. They all came to see my Grandpa Bybee, because he would do things that other lawyers would not do.
It was in this house of questionable ethics that I was born. Doctor Jones delivered me. He was the worst doctor in town. He was also the cheapest, which is why my parents chose him.
As I was growing up, I got to know Dr. Jones very well; and, honestly, I wouldn't let him be the doctor to my chickens. One time I was at another doctor's office when Dr. Jones' nurse came over and told him, "I don't know what to do. Dr. Jones just told a patient to take some medicine, but I know it will kill him." She was right. The patient died that night. Dr. Jones made a lot of mistakes.
That gives you an idea of the competence of the doctor that would deliver me. Mom was almost thirty when I was born. Actually, she hadn't planned on getting married at all. She didn't meet Dad until she was twenty-six. By the customs of the time, she was considered an old maid, past the age of child bearing. Mom never did talk about it, but my birth almost killed her. The doctor said she waited too long to have her first child.
From the start of my birth things went wrong. The doctor gave Mom a shot to speed up the delivery; but she started having a hard time, so he gave her another shot to slow her down. He just kept going back and forth, speeding her up and slowing her down.
When I was finally delivered, it wasn't much relief for her. I was born without life. I wasn't breathing and had no heart beat. The doctor turned me upside down and slapped me on the back. It worked; but when he put me down, my breathing and heart stopped. He held me upside down again and started slapping me around. (Mom said he was really rough with me.) Again, it worked. Then, he put me down and I stopped. Up in the air, slap, slap; down, I died. Up and down, alive and dead, the doctor kept at it for one solid hour.
I think Dr. Jones might have known, in the long run, more than we gave him credit for. He finally turned to Dad and said, "Are you sure you want the baby to live?"
Dad was shocked and shot back, "By all means!" If Dad hadn't said that, I wouldn't be here today.
So, Dr. Jones kept working on me. He had me going up and down for another hour. Finally, I stabilized. He stayed for another two hours just to make sure that I wasn't going to die again. He told Dad that it had been a very close call. He had been afraid that he was going to lose both the mother and the baby. But everything had worked out all right. "Not to worry," he said, as he walked out the door.
I didn't eat for the first few few days. I lived off baby fat. Dr. Jones said that I had a very traumatic birth. My body was so exhausted, I just didn't have enough energy to eat. Mom tried to feed me, but I refused everything. Aunt Urtus, Mom's sister, insisted that I must eat. She took over and force fed me, relentlessly shoving a bottle into my mouth until I started swallowing on my own.
On the day I started to eat, everyone rejoiced. "He should be a normal baby," Dr. Jones said. And everyone believed him...for a while.
It was actually Charlie Birger who first told my mother that there was something wrong with me, but not right away. For a while, no one noticed anything unusual about me.
Charlie Birger was an extraordinarily handsome man who carried himself ramrod straight. His coal black hair and swarthy completion made him look much younger than his forty-five years. Everyone who met Charlie (with some notable exceptions), said that he was the friendliest, most polite, well-mannered man that you would ever want to meet. And that he was, but not all the time. Sometimes Charlie could be awfully mean.
To place Charlie Birger in the proper historical perspective, you need to understand a little history of the area. Harrisburg lies in Saline County. To the west a few miles is the Williamson County line. "Bloody Williamson" it had been called ever since the bloody vendettas of the 1870s. Remember, these people were from the hills of Kentucky. Their violent feuds were carried on from generation to generation. These vendettas lasted for years and scores died. Even now, fifty years later, you still have to talk about them in whispers, because some of the participants are still alive and holding a grudge. Those feuds created the name "Bloody Williamson."
Four years before I was born there was a coal miners' strike in Williamson County. Two dozen men died, literally massacred, and the infamous title "Bloody Williamson" was splashed across the front page of every newspaper in America. Newspaper reporters throughout the country came pouring into Williamson right on the heels of the National Guard. In due time this infamous title would have died of its own accord...if it hadn't been for Charlie Birger. By the time Charlie Birger got through with Williamson County, more than one hundred people would lie dead, the National Guard would wonder if they would have to spend the rest of their military careers putting down insurrections, and the title "Bloody Williamson" would be revived in the minds of the citizenry for another fifty years.
It is not surprising, then, that whenever Charlie walked through the door of our house, it scared Mom and Dad to death. They were always careful around him. He was too unpredictable. You just never knew how he was going to react. Eight weeks after my birth Mom found out just how unpredictable Charlie could be.
Charlie had become infatuated with me and announced to Mom that he wanted to take me with him to work. Mom was appalled! She was afraid to let Charlie take me, but even more afraid to tell him so. She asked Grandpa to talk with him and see if he could change Charlie's mind. Grandpa told Mom, "Don't worry about the baby. He will be safe with Charlie Birger." And then he took another drink from his ever-present bottle.
The next day Charlie came by the house and picked me up. He lovingly cradled me in one arm, while cradling his machine gun in the other, and walked out the door. Mom was near hysteria. Being the good Baptist woman that she was, Mom didn't stop pacing the floor or praying, until Charlie returned me safely.
Sometimes Charlie would drop by two or three days in a row, always without prior notice. Whenever Mom opened the door and saw Charlie standing there, her blood would freeze. With a big grin on his face, Charlie would say, "How are you today, ma'am? I've come to get my little rascal and show him a real good time." She would hand me over and then her ordeal would start all over again. Day by day, Mom was getting closer to having a nervous breakdown.
Dad told Mom that he wasn't going to put up with it any longer. They were both convinced that I was going to get killed, caught in the cross fire of some gangland shootout. They had good reason to fear: Charlie was always getting into gunfights. So Dad went to Grandpa and told him that he was going to tell Charlie that he couldn't take me any more.
"Go ahead and tell Charlie if you want to," Grandpa warned, "but you know Charlie. You never know how he is going to react." They both sat down and had a drink. Dad decided to keep his mouth shut.
While Mom and Dad were enduring a nightmare from which there was no awakening, I was having a ball. I looked forward with excitement to "my day out." Charlie took me everywhere: to his speakeasies and gambling joints, over to see the Sheltons, to the movies and ice cream parlors. He showered me with presents, clothes, toys, money and, of course, lots of toy guns. He didn't like blue, so he bought me a pink blanket. He would only buy colors that he liked.
You may wonder why Charlie Birger became so infatuated with me. There was simply one peculiar thing about me which set me apart from other babies: I never cried. I mean that I never cried. Aunt Urtus told me that she didn't hear me cry until I was seven years old; and, even then it wasn't really a cry, just a kind of whimper. I was the happiest baby that anyone ever saw, always smiling, giggling, laughing. You know how everyone likes a happy baby. So, Charlie had to show off his happy baby to all his friends. And everyone who lived in Little Egypt was either Charlie Birger's friend...or dead.
The Shelton gang took a liking to me. They told Charlie to make sure to bring the baby whenever he came over. I had become the mascot for all the gangsters. You would think that life could not possibly get any worse for my mother. But her little baby was about to bring her even greater challenges. The bell was about to ring for Round Two.
It wasn't long after I was born that Charlie Birger and the Shelton gang broke up and started warring among themselves, knocking off each other's speakeasies and killing each other's men.
The Shelton boys all went to church when they were kids, but there was always some question as to whether the religion took. The issue was finally settled when they blew up a church. They got meaner as they grew up. Even Al Capone's gunmen agreed that the Shelton brothers were the meanest gangsters that they ever saw. High praise indeed!
Not long after the outbreak of the infamous Charlie Birger-Shelton War, Mom heard a firm knock on the door. Opening the door she saw several men on the lawn, none of whom she recognized. "Yes, may I help you?"
One of the men stepped forward and politely asked, "How are you today, ma'am? You don't know us. May I introduce ourselves? We are the Shelton boys."
Mom was taken completely by surprise. She knew who the Shelton boys were--everyone in southern Illinois knew who the Shelton boys were, but why were they knocking on her door?
"The reason we are here is because, well...a...now that Charlie Birger and ourselves are on the outs with one another, well...ah...we would like to take the baby out, too."
Mom was thunderstruck. Would this nightmare ever end? You didn't say no to the Shelton boys. They were as unpredictable as Charlie Birger, perhaps even more so. Her mind started racing desperately as she tried to figure a way out of this dilemma. If she let the Shelton boys have me, how would Charlie Birger react? If she said no, then how would the Sheltons react? Either way I was sure to get killed, caught in the cross fire of the two warring gangs.
Mom needed time to think, so she took a chance and tried to stall. Taking a deep breath, and speaking quite calmly and naturally, she replied, "Well, if you don't mind, I would like to think about it." She took another deep breath and paused to see if it would be her last breath on this earth. It worked. The Sheltons told her, again politely, that they would be back in a few days for her answer.
This turned out to be one of Mom's lucky days. Like Charlie Birger, sometimes the Shelton brothers could be very polite and well mannered. ("...the friendliest, most polite, well-mannered brothers that you ever want to meet.") As fate would have it, Mom met the Shelton boys on one of their polite days.
When she knew they had gone, Mom raced downtown and frantically searched the different bars until she found Grandpa. With a trembling voice she told him what had just happened and begged Grandpa to talk to the Sheltons.
"Don't worry," Grandpa reassured her. "Leave it up to me. I'll take care of everything."
Mom breathed a sigh of relief. She knew Grandpa was respected by the gangsters and they would listen to him.
Now Grandpa was pretty tough himself and intimidated by no one, including gangsters. One time Grandpa borrowed a gun from Charlie Birger and went out and killed a man himself. According to the custom of the time, he claimed self-defense. Nobody ever asked questions.
"I will personally give the baby to the Shelton boys," Grandpa said as an afterthought, "with the understanding that under no circumstances, and I mean no circumstances, is the baby to get killed!" Mom fainted. Grandpa had another drink.
From the bar Mom went directly to the church and talked with the pastor. He told her to pray. And that is exactly what she did, one agonizing hour after another, day after day, until the time drew near for the return of the Shelton boys. It wasn't long before the dreaded knock was heard at the door.
When I was older and could understand, my mother told me the story of what happened that day:
Standing before her was a stranger. She was overcome with an immediate sense of relief, for the Shelton boys were nowhere in sight. The gangsters would not get her baby on this day.
The stranger was so resplendently dressed that the first thought that flashed through her mind was that this man must be of royalty. He wore a suit of the latest fashion, made of the finest material that money could buy. Parked at the curb was the largest automobile she had ever seen in her life.
The smiling stranger tipped his hat and gave a slight bow in the manner of the aristocracy to which he most obviously was born. "How are you today, ma'am?" he asked with the utmost sophistication, gazing warmly and appreciatively into her eyes. Mother was instantly captivated by this strange and charming man. She had never before received such admiring attention from so distinguished a gentleman. She knew he was flattering her, and she loved it.
She allowed her vanity to run wild. Now here is a man, she said to herself, of my caliber and station in life. (After all, Mother was a school teacher.) He must be a high government official, she thought. But what is he doing here? He must have the wrong house.
"I am fine, thank you," she replied with a schoolgirl blush.
"We haven't met before," he continued in his highly sophisticated style of speech. (He was obviously well educated, probably Harvard.) "Please allow me to introduce myself."
Mother blushed even more. Holding herself erect, with all the poise and charm that a woman could acquire growing up in a small, coal-mining town, she smiled graciously and awaited the introduction.
"My name is Al Capone. I am here because..."
Al and I
Let me leave Al Capone standing at the door for a moment while I explain something. Everyone knew who Al Capone was. But if you lived outside southern Illinois, you were probably saying to yourself, I have never heard of Charlie Birger or the Shelton brothers. Al Capone's bloodthirsty killers knew who the Sheltons were...and they trembled.
The Sheltons ruled longer than any gang in American history and struck terror even in the heart of the terrorist. It was all a matter of cultural differences, really. Al Capone and his team were Big City Gangsters. The Big City Gangsters considered themselves to be sophisticated professionals--cultured and living by their own twisted code of honor. The Sheltons were more primitive.
When the Big City Gangsters killed someone, they did so as a matter of business and professional pride. They didn't have to know the person they were killing, nor have a personal grudge against them. It was a job they were sent out to do--nothing personal.
When the Big City Boys had their territorial wars they would kill one another; but when the war was over and the truce made, all was forgiven and everyone was friends again.
That wasn't so with the Shelton boys. The Shelton boys were descendants of the Kentucky hills' pioneers. If they figured you had slighted them (You didn't have to slight them, they only had to feel that you did.), they would follow you to the ends of the earth and never, never give up until they killed you. They took their killing "real personal."
This never-wavering philosophy of vengeance scared Capone's gunmen out of their wits. They always felt uneasy around the Shelton brothers. If you asked their opinion of the Sheltons, they would always give the same answer: "They are just too unpredictable."
The Shelton clan was so big that, if they wanted to, they could have fielded an army made up of just blood relatives. The whole bunch of them were in trouble with the law at one time or another. Eventually most of them learned crime didn't pay and turned to more acceptable professions.
The history and infamy of the Shelton gang would be written in blood by the three brothers who decided to make crime a life-long profession: Carl, Earl, and Bernie. All were big, powerful-looking men. (Mom always described them as being robust.)
Carl, the eldest, was the leader of the gang. Highly educated, sophisticated and sociable, he was the natural choice. (Rumor has it that he finished the seventh grade. To the Kentucky hillbillies that was considered highly educated.) Carl dressed well, yet conservatively. He was always mild mannered and friendly, never boisterous. Everyone who met him liked him instantly. The impression he gave was that of a successful banker. It was Carl who developed and cultivated the necessary contacts with the right people (the politicians and police) and arranged for the bribes.
Carl Shelton's entrepreneurial ability enabled him to develop the gang into a formidable force. Like Charlie Birger, Carl Shelton could charm anyone he wished to use, misuse, abuse, or kill. With just a few gunmen he was able to control all crime in the state of Illinois outside of Al Capone's territory in Chicago. And I mean all crimes. If a little old lady was mugged in some small town, with or without the Sheltons' prior approval, the Sheltons were sure to get their cut.
Bernie was the youngest of the three. He was just plain crude and mean. Bernie would stand around on the street corners of East St. Louis and wait for a fashionably dressed lady and her gentleman escort to walk by. Then Bernie would insult the lady with crude remarks. When her gentleman escort objected, Bernie would beat him up. I think that is all that needs to be said about Bernie Shelton.
The third brother, Earl, was a big oaf who was so dumb that many considered him harmless...except the men he killed.
Like Charlie Birger, when the three Shelton brothers weren't killing people, they could be awfully kind to them.
The legends of the generosities and good deeds of the Shelton brothers are still told to this day throughout Little Egypt. Their parents held split opinions about the boys. After the Shelton brothers became notorious, their father refused to talk to them; whereas, their mother always said they were good boys.
Now don't misunderstand me. Not everyone was scared of the Sheltons. The Shelton gang would vary, depending on who got killed, between twenty and thirty members. Charlie Birger's gang, even counting the dead, had less. Although Al Capone's gunmen got nervous at the sound of the Shelton name, Capone did not. At his peak Al Capone had nearly one thousand gunmen as his right arm. Al Capone was Number One and everyone knew it, including the Sheltons and Charlie Birger. When Al Capone told Charlie Birger or the Sheltons to do something, they did it.
Before the gangland war, Charlie, the Sheltons, and Al Capone were all good friends. It was this friendship which brought Al Capone to our door on this particular day. Now with this background, let's go back to Al Capone standing at the door, introducing himself to my mother.
"I am Al Capone...from Chicago."
"Yes?" Mother said again. She did not comprehend who was standing in front of her, still thinking Al Capone was a high-ranking, government official. (You must realize that the average housewife in Harrisburg did not expect Al Capone to knock on her door.)
Mom tried to make a connection. Quickly her mind searched through all the names of relatives and friends, but none of them lived in Chicago. John Miller lived in Chicago, but he had moved back to Harrisburg. No matter how hard she concentrated, she simply could not remember anyone living in Chicago. Maybe he was there to see Grandpa Bybee, the lawyer.
"Do you have a son?"
"Are you sure you have the right address? My son is just a baby."
"I might have the wrong address. But I don't think so. Are you the one who has an unusual infant son?"
"Yes. We have a son who is unusual, but we have not been able to establish what is wrong with him."
"I have the right house then."
Being a gracious hostess, Mom opened the door and invited the gentleman into her home. Al Capone took the wooden rocker near the door, while Mother sat in the wicker chair directly across from him.
"I did not meet your son down here in Harrisburg. I met him when he was with Charlie Birger in Chicago."
It finally dawned on my mother who was sitting across from her. One thought raced through her mind: When is this ever going to stop? She wished she had never answered the door.
Let me explain, at this point, that Al and I were old friends. Charlie Birger was in the habit of taking me to Chicago for several days at a time. In Chicago we always stayed with Al Capone. Capone liked the other gangsters and entertained them lavishly in his city. Mom knew that Charlie was taking me to stay with Al Capone in Chicago, but she had never met Capone face to face.
Sometimes Charlie would order his business supplies through the mail and have them delivered to Harrisburg, but usually he preferred to drive up to Chicago and take delivery personally. Charlie liked to inspect and test the merchandise before he took delivery. It gave him a chance to see what was new in the killing business.
The first time Charlie took me to Chicago was on one of his trips to buy business equipment: machine guns, ammunition, and a bulletproof vest; and the other normal equipment necessary to run a successful, specialized business. Chicago had the most modern armament in the world at that time. (Bulletproof glass was first invented for use by the Chicago gangsters.) It was certainly the world's most famous battleground. Naturally, Mom was not too excited about Charlie taking me to Chicago and staying with Al Capone; but as I explained before, there was nothing she could do about it.
Two years before I was born, nobody had heard of Al Capone. Now he was at the height of his power and known throughout the world. He was valued at more than one hundred million dollars and making fifty million a year. There wasn't an insurance company in the world that would give him a policy on his life. (Don't laugh, he tried.)
Al Capone was the undisputed ruler of the second largest city in America. He consolidated all of the rival gangs in the Chicago area under his leadership and had enough crooked politicians on his payroll to control the local government. To lock things up, he had half the police force on his payroll to the tune of thirty million dollars per year. And, at this point in time, Al Capone was only twenty-seven years old.
The first time I was introduced to Al Capone, Charlie Birger had me all bundled up in his favorite blanket. Al Capone took one look at the pink blanket and informed Charlie, "Pink blankets are for girls. Blue blankets are for boys." With that enlightenment, Al ordered Charlie and me into his car and told the driver to head for Chicago's largest department store. There he bought me the bluest, blue blanket they had.
From the department store, we went to dinner at Chicago's most lavish restaurant. Al sent the waiter out to the nearest delicatessen to buy my favorite baby food and vitamins. I dined royally that evening, although there was no dessert. That was because in the middle of the dinner Charlie showed Al the toy gun he had bought for me. That is not something that you brag about to another gangster. Al told the waiters to skip dessert and gave them his standard tip (one hundred dollars).
He ordered us into the car for a trip back to the department store. Al bought me a toy cannon that made an even bigger bang than Charlie's toy gun. While we were on the way out the door, Al spotted a little steamboat that ran off candle power. He bought it for me and put it in my bath that night. We both had a grand time watching it fly around the bathtub.
The biggest thrill was when he drove me around in his bulletproof car. He drove us all over Chicago in a car filled with bodyguards in front and another behind. He loved to show off in front of the other gangsters in his city. So we drove through the streets of Chicago for hours. Sometimes Al and Charlie would sing me a nursery rhyme, "This is the way we go to work, go to work, go to work..."
Like Charlie Birger, Al Capone loved kids. He played Santa Claus for the local school every Christmas, always taking along a car filled with presents for everyone.
It was the same when Charlie and I left for home. Al sent along a boxful of baby food and some more vitamins. While we were loading up Charlie's car, Al turned to him and said, "Something is wrong with this kid. Doesn't he ever cry? He has been here for five days and I haven't heard him cry once. All babies cry. This kid just isn't normal."
As Charlie started to drive away, Al yelled after him, "This kid is mine not yours! Make sure that you bring the baby with you whenever you come up to Chicago." That command from Al Capone would assure me many more trips to Chicago.
Charlie could hardly wait to get back to Harrisburg and tell Mom the good news: Her son had found favor in the eyes of the King. You have to realize how excited Charlie was. The other gangsters just worshipped Al Capone.
Charlie gave Mom strict instructions to have my blue blanket ready whenever I was going to Chicago. When we returned, she was ordered to put the blue blanket away and give me the pink blanket again. I just never could stand that pink blanket and I let Charlie know it too. Finally, Charlie told me that if I wanted to ride with him, I had to shut up and accept his pink blanket. The truth was, he didn't like my favoring Al Capone's blanket over his.
There was one side to Al Capone that has never been written about and no one knows. He had a scientific mind, though not in the intellectual sense of an M.I.T. graduate. His scientific mind was more in the area of practical observation, like Thomas Edison's. He would spend hours observing things and trying to figure out what made them work.
Mom told me that he would combine odd colors in his clothing; but somehow, it looked right on him. She didn't know of any other person who had this talent. Clothes with mismatched colors came into vogue only with the depression which is still in the future of this story. Al Capone was ahead of his time.
His car weighed seven tons, with double sheets of bulletproof glass one half inch thick. The rear window was actually a concealed gun turret so he could fire at pursuing enemies. He tried to have his bulletproof car built in such a way that the bullets would hit the armored plating at an angle and bounce away. I don't know if it worked or not, but Capone was never killed in his bulletproof car.
His different headquarters were designed with ingenious escape hatches and hidden chambers. One headquarters was built with twelve-inch thick, reinforced concrete that was bulletproof. They even had bulletproof shutters on the windows.
His plans were usually well organized and well thought out. It is interesting to note that of all the crimes committed by Al Capone, including the murders of hundreds, that when it came time for him to go to prison, all the government could convict him of was income tax evasion.
He had gone to prison once before for the possession of an unregistered weapon. But Capone was cheerful when he was caught. In fact, he had a personal friend, who was a cop, make the actual arrest. He had planned it in advance. There were a lot of people trying to kill him right at that particular time and he figured that prison would be the safest place that he could be. He figured that his enemies would prefer to stay away from prison. He was right.
Al was always telling Charlie Birger to never act on emotion and always think things through before he did anything. It was advice which Charlie would one day wish he had taken.
One photograph of Al Capone that you will never see is one that reveals his handicap. He had a disfigured face. When he was a young man, he got into a fight with another hoodlum who slashed him with a razor. The razor left a vicious scar on the left side of his face. It looked like lightning had struck! For the rest of his life, Al Capone was more than overly sensitive about his disfigurement. When he became Warlord and someone to reckon with, he let it be known that all photographs were to be taken of his right profile only. That is why even today it is rare to see a photograph of Al Capone's disfigurement. Even the newspapers, Al Capone's avowed enemies, were sure to print only photos of his right side. Thus the nickname "Scarface" Al Capone. But the nickname "Scarface" would throw Al Capone into a rage, and no one ever called him "Scarface" to his...ah...scarface and lived.
Capone would have soon lost interest in me if I had not been handicapped. People with handicaps have their own camaraderie, so "Scarface" Al Capone took me under his wing. He told my mother that society would never accept gangsters, nor would society ever accept a severely handicapped child.
Each trip to Chicago found me a little older and Al Capone would try more complicated games. One day Al was dangling a toy in front of my face. Instead of reaching out and grasping the toy, which was the natural reaction for a baby of my age, I did just the opposite and placed my hands behind my head. Al took the toy away for a moment and then moved it back over my face again. My eyes fixed on the toy as I giggled with delight, but again my arms wrapped behind my neck. What had started out as a game for Al Capone, now became a scientific quest.
Al paused for a moment deep in thought. Then he picked up a feather and started to tickle my face to see if my hands would come up and push the feather away. Instantly my head jerked back, but I made no attempt to push the feather away with my hands. Over and over, Al dangled different objects in front of my face to see if I would reach out and try to grasp the object. But each time my reactions were the same.
Then he grabbed me under the arms and stood me up on my legs. Even though babies can't stand, they make an effort to stand by stiffening their legs. But I made no effort to stiffen my legs whatsoever.
During all of this time, Al was experimenting with me, Charlie had been partying with Al's team. (Al always referred to his gang as his team whenever he talked with Mother. He was always trying to impress Mom with sophisticated words. Now team may not seem like a sophisticated word to you, but the gangsters certainly thought it was.)
Finally, Al took Charlie aside and said, "There's something wrong with this kid." Charlie came over and Al went through the same experiments once more so Charlie could see. When Al was through, Charlie said, "I told Mrs. Bybee that something was wrong with the baby. He always lies on one side and never moves onto his back or the other side. That is just not natural. All babies toss around. But this baby never tosses." Charlie then demonstrated this by laying me on my left side. I didn't move a muscle.
Al and Charlie discussed my odd reaction (actually non-reaction) for awhile. Charlie was afraid that I would get brain damage by lying in one position for long periods of time. Al agreed. Al told Charlie to tell my mother of their concern and have her move me into different positions from time to time so that I was not always lying in one position. Charlie carried the message to Mom as he was told, and, of course, Mother did as she was told.
Now Al Capone was sitting directly in front of my mother carrying the message himself. It seems that Charlie had bought some supplies in Chicago. This time Al Capone decided that he would take the war material down to Harrisburg himself. On the way he decided to drop by and talk to my mother personally. That is why he had knocked on our door, unexpectedly, this day.
Al sat across from my terrified mother. She tried to act calm as Al discussed the different experiments that he had run on me and my rather unorthodox reactions.
"The baby's eyes follow things, but his hands won't respond to his wants," Al explained. "The last time I fed him I put the spoon down in front of the baby. He smiled and expected me to feed him. I pointed to the baby's arms and told him that he had hands and he had to feed himself. He understood, then his head went forward and his arms shot behind his back. He hit the bowl of food with his head and knocked it off the table. It destroyed everything.
"It seems like the baby is wired up backwards." Capone went on, "He is not paralyzed. He can make every movement in the world. He just can't make the right movements."
Mom replied that she was aware of my unusual responses, but she didn't know what to do about it. "The doctors always tell me that he is just a big, chubby, lazy baby and he will eventually grow out of it."
Al then asked if she would mind if he took me to a specialist in Chicago to be examined. Mom agreed. On my next trip to Chicago, Al Capone could take me to the doctor of his choice.
Al chatted with Mom for about forty-five minutes, then as he got up to leave, he swooped me up in his arms and told her, "I'm going out to deliver some supplies to Charlie Birger now. I'm going to take the baby with me and give Charlie his favorite treat. Charlie will bring the baby back later."
When Al reached the car, he turned to Mom and said, "Oh, by the way, say hello to Gene's granddad for me. His granddad is a real good lawyer."
Now what I am going to tell you is confidential. I don't want this in the book either. But I think my Granddad Bybee was a bit of a crook.
True to his word, on my next trip to Chicago, Al Capone took me to the best doctor in the city. The specialist diagnosed my problem as mild, spastic paralysis. (Years later the term spastic paralysis was changed to cerebral palsy. We call ourselves CPs.) That was the reason I was reacting in such a peculiar way.
"He is just a big, chubby, lazy baby and will soon grow out of it," the best doctor in Chicago told Mr. Capone. "Not to worry."
There was never any bill for the best doctor's service. It seems that everybody in Chicago was Al Capone's friend, and they just couldn't do enough for him.
When the time came that a baby should learn to crawl, I started to crawl...but, in my own way. I did not crawl on my hands and knees. I still had no control over my arms and hands, anyway. They would just go wherever they wanted. So, the arms would go behind my back and I crawled like a snake in a leapworm style of twisting and squirming forward. It is not unusual for a CP baby to crawl backwards.
Lying on my stomach, I would bring one knee under my body and grip the floor with my toes. Then, I pushed as hard as I could and stretched as far forward as possible with the shoulder on the same side. Then I would repeat the process on the opposite side.
My body would slither across the floor as I twisted and squirmed from side to side, eventually learning to propel myself forward at a literal breakneck speed. I have to admit it was different, but it was effective.
All of Mom's friends were calling their babies by cute names: Cuddles, Darling, Happy, etc. One day Mom realized that all she called me was her Little Leapworm. She decided that it was time to talk with Dr. Andrews, my new doctor in Harrisburg.
Dr. Andrews examined me and then told Mom that I was just a big, chubby, lazy baby who didn't want to crawl right now. When I did, I would come out of it. Whenever Mom expressed her concern to Dr. Andrews, she would always get the same answer, "Not to worry."
Not only did I crawl in a peculiar way, but I also turned over strangely. When I wanted to turn over, I would lie on my back and raise one leg into the air. Then I would push against the floor with my other leg flipping my body over in the direction of the raised leg. That's when my arms would go to work. They would fly out to both sides. One arm would slam against the floor and stop the roll. As this happened, I would have to push extra hard with my foot to put enough pressure on the arm to force it to collapse. Half of my body was working as hard as it could to roll me over, while the other half was working just as hard to stop it.
"Not to worry," the doctor said.
Al Capone and Charlie Birger were the first to realize that there was something wrong with me and that I was not going to "just grow out of it." They did not trust the doctors. In their line of business you could not afford to trust anyone.
They were right.
Charlie and Al decided on a plan of action. The first thing they did, which I have already mentioned, was to tell my mother not to let me lay on my one side for long periods of time. Then, they set me up on a strict program which consisted of a good diet, fresh air, plenty of exercise, and a good social environment.
Every month Al shipped a box of special baby food that he picked out himself. You couldn't buy this brand in Harrisburg and even if you could, Mom couldn't have afforded it. Al sent so much that Mom didn't have to buy any baby food for me at all. In every box he included bottles of vitamins and minerals. He wanted me to have all the odds in my favor. The vitamins and minerals would make me healthy. He reasoned that a healthy baby would have a better chance of overcoming my medical problems.
Opening Al's boxes was like opening a weird Christmas present. They were packed with all sorts of herbs, juices, and dried fruit. Mom told me that the dried fruit was candy. Al even sent down jars of carrot juice, but Mom didn't know what to do with them. Nobody in those days drank carrot juice!
When you look at a photograph of Al Capone you see the stereotyped Italian gangster: 5' 10½", two hundred fifty-five pounds, looking years older than his actual age. The last thing in the world you would ever figure him for was a health nut, but that is exactly what he was. He converted several rooms in his headquarters building into a gymnasium. It was filled with exercise equipment--weights, rowing machines, punching bags, etc. He told me that vitamins were part of his equipment.
He constantly demanded prime physical fitness in his men, requiring them to go on a strict, daily regime of exercise. He even tried to get them to take vitamins. "I want to improve their brain power!"
So the first part of Al and Charlie's program, a good diet, had been accomplished. The second part of the program was to get plenty of fresh air. It was decided that Charlie would take me out on his runs whenever he could. I would wait for Charlie to come by each day, whether he showed up or not. Whenever Charlie's car stopped outside our house, I would start leaping up and down, like leapworms do, and yelled excitedly at Mom, "My day out! My day out!"
I think you can see why my mother dreaded the sound of a knock on the door in those days. Charlie would just drop by, scoop me up and I was gone.
Charlie knew that Mom's greatest fear was that I would get killed while I was with him. So Charlie made a promise to my mother. If he ever got into a situation which might be dangerous, he would immediately take me home. Then, he would go back and kill the person!
Charlie had his own code of honor and kept his word. He only killed one person when I was with him. (Only one that we know of.) You have to understand--to Charlie that was keeping his word. (Remember, Charlie had his own code of honor.)
Charlie had one peculiar thing about him. He always wanted people to agree with him. If they didn't, he would make a believer out of them, or kill them. So every once in a while Charlie would bring me back to the house early and hand me over to Mom. He proudly told her, "I've kept my promise to you, just like I said I would. I've brought the baby back safe. Now I have to go settle an argument." Mom went out of her mind everytime Charlie did that.
Mother had the unresolved problem of the Shelton boys wanting to take me out. Finally she talked to Charlie about her dilemma. Charlie was always sensitive towards my mother's feelings and, in his own way, tried to assure her that there was nothing to worry about.
"If the baby wants to go out with the Sheltons, then that is alright with me," he told her. "I will phone the Sheltons and both sides will agree not to kill anyone while the baby is with one of the gangs."
Mom didn't have that much faith in the phone company. The Sheltons kept their headquarters a tight secret. Even the best newspaper reporters couldn't find it, let alone their avowed enemy who would blow them to pieces whenever and wherever he could find a Shelton.
Mom finally got up enough courage and told the Sheltons, "I have decided to give Charlie Birger first priority on the baby." The Sheltons were real nice about Mom not letting me go out with them. They even let her live.
And so, it fell upon Charlie and not the Shelton brothers to see to it that I got plenty of fresh air.
As for the third part of my program, exercise, Charlie hired a middle aged woman to give me exercise three times a day. (They called it exercise, but it was actually physical therapy.) Actually, they were exercises that Al Capone got from the doctor in Chicago. He passed them on to Charlie, who then told the woman what to do with me.
She tried to re-educate me--reteach me how to crawl and move and do things that normal babies should do. She would say, "This is the way you bend your arms." As she was talking, she would bend my arms at the elbows. Then she would say, "Now you try to bend your arms." And my arms would go behind my back.
She would try to shock my system back into normalcy by dipping me into a tub of warm water and then directly into another tub of cold water. I was shocked, but not into normalcy.
If I did one of the exercises right then, I would get a reward; a little candy sucker or a big candy sucker, depending on whether I did the exercise real good or not so good.
I didn't get many suckers.
My best exercise, the one I always got a big sucker for, was getting a sun tan. I was placed in the sun and told to hold real still. I would lie there as quiet as a mouse until I was all brown.
When I got sick, Charlie told Mom to choose any doctor in town. Then, he called the doctor and sent him over to the house to take care of me. The doctors always did it for free. Nobody ever asked Charlie for money.
Once both Mom and Dad got sick and neither one of them could work. Charlie sent the doctor over to the house and saw to it that we had food. He paid the mortgage and utilities, and gave Mom cash for our other needs. If Mom and Dad couldn't afford to pay for something that Charlie thought that I needed, he would buy it for me.
It wasn't just me that Charlie was always helping. If someone in town got sick and couldn't afford to pay for a doctor, Charlie would send one to their house. If necessary, he would send a nurse and, sometimes, his own men to take care of the person in need.
Charlie would never allow anyone to go hungry. If he found out that anyone was out of food, he called the grocery store and had food delivered immediately. Sometimes Charlie bought groceries, warm clothes, or whatever they needed and delivered them himself. He would place the charitable box on the door steps and leave quietly. He didn't want to embarrass people.
There were some contradictions in the way he did things. If he sent a doctor or lawyer to help someone; the doctor and lawyer served without pay. Charlie figured that they were just providing a service, so they didn't need to be paid. But, if Charlie sent over food or a nurse, he would pay for the groceries and the nurse out of his own pocket. In his mind he thought that these people were poor working folks who needed the money.
But that was just like Charlie, always helping people. When the poor parents of Harrisburg couldn't afford to buy school books, Charlie would buy the books for the kids. One bad winter he rounded up all the coal that he could find and had it delivered to the destitute families. Charlie envisioned himself a modern-day Robin Hood. He loved to help people. He robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, keeping some of the money for himself as a service charge.
There was a contrast to the way he treated people, too. He was really quite kind to them, but he didn't respect human life. When explaining Charlie's personality, Grandpa would always say that people with good points always had weak points, that it was only human.
And so it was that the first three points of my gangster program were taken care of: a good diet, plenty of fresh air, lots of exercise. As for the fourth part of my program, the right social environment, that was easy. Both Al and Charlie wanted me to associate with the best. That meant Al Capone's team in Chicago and Charlie Birger's team...at Shady Rest.
Everyone in Egypt knew where Shady Rest was. They also know what it was--the headquarters for the Charlie Birger gang. The police stayed away from the place.
Shady Rest was located across the county line, over in Williamson County. Charlie's base of operation used to be in Harrisburg. How his headquarters came to be in Williamson County is an interesting story which displays Charlie's quasi honesty and sometimes cavalier personality.
Charlie was born in Russia. His family was all a bunch of Jews. Everybody in Harrisburg hated Jews. Nobody really knew why. It was just the custom, I think. During the depression it seemed that the Jews were the only ones who had money; so they were still hated, but hated to a lesser degree. People figured that it was best to stay on the good side of those who still had some money.
It was the Catholics that we were taught to formally hate. There were a lot of Italians that had immigrated into our part of the country over the years to work in the coal mines. They were all Catholics, every one of them. They brought with them their strange and false Gods, hundreds of them. They called them Saints. This was an affront to the rest of us in Egypt who always have, still do, and always will worship the true God.
All of the Catholics drank wine, which meant they were all bootleggers. They worshipped the Pope in Rome who was the biggest bootlegger of them all. I know this to be true, because I have seen photographs of the Pope drinking wine on Sundays.
In Egypt, we were taught to hate the Catholics from the moment of birth. It was all right, because the Catholics were taught to hate us Protestants just as much.
But the most hated group were the hillbillies. The hillbillies were hated because they were so dumb. They didn't even know that they were supposed to hate the Jews and the Catholics, so those dumb hillbillies didn't hate any one. That made the rest of us furious, because not only did we have to hate the Jews and the Catholics for ourselves, but we also had to hate them for the hillbillies--and the Scotch-Irish hated doing other people's work.
But back to Jew Charlie who was born in Russia. Charlie's family came to the United States when Charlie was still a kid. He couldn't have spent too much of his youth in Russia, because he never spoke with any accent. He had one of those funny Russian names that nobody can pronounce, Shachna Itzik Birger. Not only is it hard to pronounce, but those Russians have a funny way of writing too.
His family moved on to St. Louis and Charlie eventually made his way up into Harrisburg. Somewhere along the line he had dropped the funny Russian name and everybody knew him as Charlie Birger (pronounced Burger).
Charlie really liked living in Harrisburg. You will remember how I told you that Charlie wanted everybody to agree with him. Everyone in Harrisburg (those that were still living) loved, respected, and totally agreed with everything that Charlie Birger said and did. In Harrisburg Charlie found that one thing that all men strive for, but never achieve. He found his Utopia, his one spot on earth where he could live the idyllic life.
Nothing could make Charlie leave Harrisburg. One former resident of Harrisburg had done pretty well for himself. (This was unusual as most people from Harrisburg rarely did well for themselves.) This guy wound up state's attorney for one of the counties across the river in Missouri. He invited Charlie to move to his county and run his business wide open. Not only would the law not interfere, but the state's attorney promised Charlie that the law would help in any way that he wanted.
But Charlie liked Harrisburg, where he, his wife, and children could live in respectability. (That was Charlie's current wife. He had so many that nobody really knew how many he had. I don't think Charlie knew how many he had. Everybody just called them Mrs. Birger and that seemed to take care of the problem of identification.)
Charlie saw to it that his family went to church, however, he didn't go with them. His wives were all gentiles and he was a Jew. Once in a while he would go to the synagogue down in St. Louis, because there were no Jewish synagogues in Harrisburg.
Charlie worked hard, extra hard, to make Harrisburg a fine community where he could raise his family decently. He would not allow any lawlessness in Harrisburg, outside of his own. He assumed the role of public protector for his fellow townsmen. No criminals were allowed to enter Harrisburg without first obtaining Charlie Birger's permission. Once a criminal entered Harrisburg he was not allowed to commit any crimes within the city limits--no robbery, no murder, nor even mayhem--outside of Charlie's, of course. Many times Charlie singlehandedly apprehended those who broke this unwritten code and personally delivered the fool to the sheriff.
Three months after I was born, three men robbed Bill Unsell, a mailman living in Harrisburg. Mom and Dad knew Bill Unsell really well and later bought a home from his son. The ring leader of the gang was afraid of being identified and a few days later went back and murdered the poor, old man. The murderer was arrested the next day.
Charlie was furious. Charlie went right down to the jail and had the sheriff put him into the same cell as the murderer. Then Charlie went to work. He told the murderer that he himself was in jail (a very plausible story) and proceeded to scare the murderer to death by telling him that a mob was gathering outside to lynch him. Charlie convinced the now-trembling murderer that if he would confess he would personally see to it that his life was spared. Actually, Charlie went on to offer a little more than he could deliver. He also convinced the man that he would personally see to it that he went scot-free. The man signed the confession and Charlie saw to it that he was hung.
Charlie even went so far as to refuse to allow any citizen of Harrisburg to patronize his gambling tables. He warned the people that they could not win betting against the professional gamblers and gangsters in the county roadhouses. "The games are fixed," he warned. He should know, he owned them.
Charlie was always strict about who he allowed into his home. Most of the scum of the gangster world was forbidden to enter his house upon penalty of death.
Cecil Knighton was an exception to this rule. He was one of Charlie's bartenders. Cecil was an affable, young man that Charlie liked instantly. Cecil was always welcome at the house on Poplar Street. Naturally, Charlie later killed him. It was a funny killing. Well, I don't mean that the killing itself was funny. It was just a regular, old, run-of-the-mill kind of gunfight; the kind Charlie was always getting into. Cecil fired first and Charlie fired back. Charlie won. It's what happened afterwards that's so funny.
It seems that Cecil and Charlie both had the same taste in clothes. In fact, they both patronized the same clothing store, Rathbone and Brown. Both Charlie and Cecil liked fancy, silk shirts with their initial "C" monogrammed on the pockets. For Rathbone and Brown this meant a special order from Chicago.
It seems that before he was killed, Cecil had ordered a bunch of these special, silk shirts with "C" for Cecil monogrammed on the pocket. (He didn't have time to pick them up before Charlie killed him.) As soon as he hit the dirt, everybody in Harrisburg knew that Cecil Knighton was dead, including Mr. Rathbone and Mr. Brown. They were now stuck with a large custom order of expensive silk shirts, which they could not return to sender or purchaser. So Rathbone looked at Brown. They both realized that they had a supply and demand problem.
About this time, Charlie came walking through the door and told the proprietors that he needed a special order...of you know what! Brown looked at Rathbone and a smile came over the two partners' faces. Brown said to Charlie, "We were expecting you to come in pretty soon and make another order. We didn't want you to have to wait, so we placed it for you ahead of time. There they are all ready for you. Of course, your very own initial 'C' for Charlie, is monogrammed on the pocket." Charlie thanked them for being so thoughtful and bought them all.
And so you see, Charlie Birger was leading an idyllic life in Harrisburg. But that was all about to change. You see, the idyllic life of a gangster in those days (and even in these days) depends upon how well you get along with the law enforcement officials. They could be your friends or they could be your enemies. If they were your enemies, they could cause you an awful lot of trouble.
Now into the picture steps the newly elected sheriff of Saline County, John Small. It was the custom in those times that newly elected government officials in the state of Illinois would hold a meeting with the local gangsters. It was a convention of war, in which the articles of war were drawn up and agreed upon by both sides--the good guys and the bad guys. As soon as Sheriff Small was elected, the Harrisburg Convention of War was held. Charlie offered Sheriff Small a lot of money to stop being a good guy, go on Charlie's payroll, and become a bad buy.
But, unfortunately for Charlie, Sheriff Small was one of the few honest policemen in Illinois at that time. He refused the bribe and immediately made a counter offer. Charlie could continue to operate as he always had, illegally. The sheriff would do everything he could to catch Charlie, but he would stay within the law. Charlie would not have to worry about blackmail or being illegally set up. But if Charlie got caught, fair and square, he would pay the price. Charlie agreed to the sheriff's terms of war.
The manner in which Charlie attempted to bribe Sheriff Small was quite different from the way Charlie operated with the other police. Legend has it that Charlie offered John Small seventy-five thousand dollars to look the other way. That was a staggering amount of money for those days. But for the other cops, Charlie would just hold up a box with money in it and tell them to take what they wanted. They would reach in and take just a few dollars. Charlie would ask them if it was enough and they would reply, "Oh, that's all we need today, Charlie." The funny thing is that when Charlie allowed the police to set the amount of the bribes themselves, they didn't take much. But Sheriff Small, seventy-five thousand dollars! Wow! That was more bribe money than he gave all the other police, combined.
It took Sheriff Small three years, but he finally caught Charlie and put him in jail. He served his jail term right there in Harrisburg.
While Charlie was finishing off his sentence in the Harrisburg jail, one of the disgruntled prisoners set a mattress on fire. Smoke quickly filled the small jail and everyone behind bars, including Citizen Charlie, was about to suffocate.
At the time of this incident Sheriff Small was out of town and the sheriff's wife was left to run the jail all by herself. She didn't know what to do. If she left the prisoners in their cells, they would soon be dead; but if she released them, they would start running and never come back. Charlie told her to release all of the prisoners with his personal guarantee that no one would escape. She let everyone out and, true to his word, Charlie delivered all the prisoners safely back to their cells once the fire was out.
Whenever Charlie was put in jail, it was always with regret. The Harrisburg newspaper usually ran an article by the editor apologizing for Charlie Birger being in jail again. The article explained that they expected things to be cleared up quickly and assured the community that he would be out soon.
No matter whose jail Charlie was in, he was always liked and admired by the guards. There wasn't one of them who did not praise him for his exemplary behavior. The first thing Charlie did when he was temporarily placed in custody (until the misunderstanding could be straightened out) was to donate money to the local charities; and of course, make sure that the families of the jail guards and warden were taken care of. In return, they let Charlie have anything that he wanted while he was in jail: booze, broads, drugs. Oh, and one more thing, they also let him keep his loaded machine gun in his cell.
Charlie never forgot to take care of the poor judges either. Many times the judge and juries would give Charlie a light sentence because he had been so good to everyone. Remember, these were the same liberal juries that found the defendants in the massacre innocent. Charlie just couldn't ask for better juries than in Little Egypt.
Charlie was even gracious to the judge who sentenced him to a year at the federal penitentiary in Danville. With the naive look of a child, Charlie told the judge that he was innocent of all charges. He explained that he had learned his lesson and would never do it again.
While he served his sentence, Danville's warden never bothered to lock him up. He even gave Charlie his own apartment, and...oh...also, "Anything you want, Charlie." When Charlie had business to take care of, they just let him loose for a few days. He always came back. Charlie Birger was a model prisoner indeed!
Charlie Birger was just one of those rare individuals who was a legend in his own time. There was hardly a man, woman, or child in Little Egypt who Charlie Birger had not helped in their time of need. If not helped themselves, they at least knew someone whom Charlie had helped. It was not uncommon for Charlie to be secretly supporting more than a dozen destitute families all at the same time. He certainly helped the police earn extra income.
But back to the story of how Charlie Birger came to move his headquarters to Williamson County. When Charlie finished his jail sentence, he asked for another counsel of war with Sheriff Small. The two men had been locked in combat for three years. The terms of war had been agreed upon ahead of time. Both being honest men, Charlie and Sheriff Small had fought their battles according to the prescribed rules of war. Charlie Birger had lost. Charlie decided to accept defeat gracefully. He now made a magnanimous offer to Sheriff Small. He told the Sheriff that he would commit no more crimes in Saline County. Not only would Charlie commit no more crimes in the county, but he would see to it that none of his men committed crimes there either. He even went so far as to promise that he and his gang would no longer practice their favorite sport in the country. They would not kill any more people in Saline County. (Remember, killing people to Charlie was not a crime. That was sport, or self-defense, depending on what mood Charlie was in that day.)
Saline County would be whistle clean.
Charlie kept his word. He never killed another man in Saline County...well, not very many. Although he continued to live there, as explained before, he would allow no crimes to be committed in Harrisburg--not by his gang, or any other gang, or any individual. And it was this promise which eventually brought about one of the bloodiest chapters in American history.
He then packed up his operations and moved his headquarters to the next county over, to Bloody Williamson ...and built Shady Rest.
Shady Rest was located north of Highway 13, half-way between Marion and Harrisburg on the old Marion-Harrisburg Road. Here Charlie purchased forty acres. Oak and hickory trees abounded in the area giving off welcome shade in the sultry heat of summer, earning the headquarters its name Shady Rest.
When you turned into Shady Rest, the first structure was a barbecue stand which catered to the travelers between Harrisburg and Marion. The stand served sandwiches, snacks, and cold drinks.
More than a hundred yards beyond the stand was a log cabin. The end walls of the cabin were decorated with numerous trophies of the hunt--mostly elk and deer heads with their impressive racks of antlers. (That was all that was left of the poor critters after they got hit with a machine gun blast.)
This log cabin was unlike any you have ever seen. The logs were a foot thick, designed to stop any bullets in use at that time. The inside looked like an armory. The basement was actually a fortified bunker, weapons were everywhere. Case upon case of food and ammunition were stacked as far as the eye could see. Shady Rest had its own electrical generators in case the main electric line was cut. Floodlights were set up to thwart any night attack. Shady Rest had been built for one purpose, to withstand a siege.
Armed men were posted throughout the forty acres and even beyond. Anyone wishing to go from the stand to the cabin had to be escorted by one of Charlie's heavily armed men. Anyone attempting to go to the cabin without an authorized escort would be gunned down immediately, without warning.
Charlie had built an impenetrable fortress. He had not missed a single point in the defense plans. The only way that Shady Rest could be destroyed would be to drop a bomb down its chimney from an airplane.
Now you see why the police never came near the place.
And this is where I spent my days at play.
My Days at Play
Charlie kept several pets at Shady Rest, including an eagle and a monkey. I got to be friends with the monkey and we played together a lot. But the eagle was aloof. He just sat there all day on his perch with a rope tied to his leg. You could tell that he wasn't too happy being a pet. Not only had he been used to a life of freedom, but had been ruler of the skies. He would soar a mile above the ground waiting to pounce on any unsuspecting prey below. Then he would dive with such force that its prey never knew what hit them. Now he just sat there all day, looking defiant and haughty. The two of us were never friends.
He was lucky that Charlie had taken a liking to him and decided to keep him as a pet. He could have just as easily wound up like the other animals whose heads decorated the cabin, only there is even less left when an eagle gets hit by a machine gun blast.
I also got to be friends with one of the dogs, Jack. He was Charlie's favorite dog. He had spent his whole life fighting to the death in the pits. In his last fight Jack was severely wounded. Although beaten, he continued to fight on so bravely that his opponent was unable to kill him. Charlie admired his fighting spirit and kept him as a pet. The fight left Jack severely crippled, his front and rear legs on his right side were almost useless; and, like me, he now spent his days crawling and lunging forward. We were the best of friends.
Every day Jack and I would wiggle and lunge off to a day of adventure in the fields of Shady Rest. I always thought that I was roaming about alone. In truth, I was always within sight of Charlie Birger or one of his men. I never realized that they could always see me and naturally assumed that I was by myself. That mistaken belief helped me develop a great deal of independence.
Let me explain: I did not live in the same world that you live in. If you stand in the middle of a field of tall grass, what do you see? The grass may come as high as your knees, or perhaps your waist; but it does not come so high as to cover your eyes and block your vision.
From your position you see everything: the distant mountains, the surrounding fences, hills, gullies, ponds. But that is not the same world that I saw. Instead of standing, now lie down in that same field, flat on your stomach. Now what do you see? The mountains, fences, hills, gullies, ponds--everything suddenly disappears. All you see now are the grass, ridges, and rocks immediately in front of you. Your vision, which a moment ago allowed you to look into infinity, now is reduced to just a few inches, a few feet at the most. You only see what is directly in front of you. That is the world in which I lived. That is why the guards could look down and see me, but I was unable to look up and see them.
Whenever I wiggled away in search of adventure, nobody ever said 'No.' A great deal of independence for a growing child indeed!
My education and training were a dilemma to my mother. She was an elementary school teacher, a teacher of small children. From her professional training, she knew that a child should not be overly protected from life, that a child can only learn and grow and mature by doing things. He can only find out where his limits in life are by finding out what he can and cannot do successfully. Along the way the child is bound to get hurt, both emotionally and physically. That is what life is all about.
In spite of the fact that the doctors kept telling her "Not to worry," she was beginning to worry. She was beginning to worry that she had a handicapped child. She had the natural instinct of all mothers to protect their young, but she was also beginning to acquire the very strong and irrational instinct of all mothers of handicapped children to overprotect their child.
All parents of handicapped children feel that they are the cause of the child's handicap: If only they hadn't tried to save money by getting the cheapest doctor in town. If only they hadn't done this. If only they hadn't done that. If only....If only....Because the mother is at fault, then the rationale goes, it is the responsibility of the mother to protect, protect, protect. So what was she to do? Listen to her instincts? Listen to her professional training? Or listen to the gangsters? She had no choice in the matter.
My father was a totally different problem. Long before I was born, he said that he hoped he would never have a cripple in his family. It was an opinion that he voiced quite strongly and quite often. Everyone knew it. It was almost as though it was a premonition, because a cripple is exactly what he got--and, oh, so much more.
Whereas Mom had a college education, Dad quit school in the eighth grade and worked on local farms until he was seventeen. Then, he started working in the oil fields and later switched to the coal mines around Harrisburg.
Status was important to my mother. Dad didn't even know what status was. The two of them were totally incompatible. Why they ever got married in the first place, I will never know.
Dad had a hard life as a child. When his father, Grandpa Bybee, got divorced, his mother didn't want him. So he was raised by Grandpa Bybee, the alcoholic. The dwelling he grew up in wasn't much to brag about. It was thrown together with this and that; it even had a dirt floor. In the winter, the snow would blow through the cracks onto Dad's bed. Grandpa Bybee worked late in the evening and didn't come home until midnight, that is if he came home at all. Sometimes he didn't come home for several days at a time. Dad was ignored, semi-abandoned, misused, and abused. He was left to raise himself and survive on his own. Understandably, Dad developed a hatred for the world and everything in it.
Mom had a hard upbringing also. She was five years old the first time she ran away from home. But, instead of turning against the world like Dad, she did just the opposite and dedicated her life to helping people and society. She went to college so she could be a teacher and develop the minds of the children of her community. She became deeply involved in community activities and the Baptist Church.
Dad developed a very eccentric philosophy about life. Because of his hard upbringing, he wanted to be totally independent and self-supporting. He insisted that his family be totally independent also. He would not allow Mom or me to accept favors or help from anyone. My friends could play with me, but they were not allowed to help me in any physical way with my handicap. They could not feed me or assist me in any way. One time a neighbor built some crutches for me, so I could try to stand and walk. Dad made me give them back. Another time I accepted a present of a handkerchief. Dad threw the handkerchief away, then gave me a whipping.
If Mom or I got hurt, he would become furious. In a rage of paranoia he would accuse us of getting hurt on purpose, due to our own stupid fault. Mom dislocated her ankle once and Dad would barely speak to her for four months.
However, if he got injured, or had even the slightest headache, he expected us to feel sorry for him. He wanted us to treat him like a baby and wait on him hand and foot.
Dad could be very sociable. He was kind and friendly to people; until they hurt his feelings. (The hurts were almost always imaginary.) Then he would become violent, dangerously so. The slightest thing could throw him into a rage: If Mom spent too much money on groceries, or if I bumped into the furniture. (Which for me was very easy to do.) He would start screaming and yelling. He threw anything he could get his hands on: tables, chairs, the radio, and, of course, me. He would slam Mom against the wall again and again, trying to knock her out. Sometimes he succeeded. Then he would throw me into the wall. I would hit the floor, and if still conscious I would try to wiggle into the bedroom and get under the bed as quickly as possible. I believed in the old theory, 'out of sight, out of mind.' If I made it, I was safe. If not, I would get slammed into the wall again and again until Dad's rage subsided. Since I was already brain damaged from birth (That the doctors would determine later.), being bounced off the walls certainly didn't help my brain any.
Mom would fight to protect me. Although she was a stocky five foot six, she was no match for Dad who was six feet tall. When she was dating my father, Mom knew that he had a temper. But she had no idea how violent he could be until after they were married.
When he was not in a violent mood, Dad could be awfully friendly. (The friendliest, most polite, well-mannered man that you would ever want to meet.)
He was a hard worker and a good provider. He was strict, but basically a good father. When he wasn't bouncing me off the walls, Dad would do everything possible to make me happy. He just didn't want people to see me wiggling around all day like a snake. He wanted to hide me in the house all of the time. He wanted to keep me away from people and shield me from the world. Somehow in his own mind, he believed that no one would know I existed.
With this type of personality you would think that Charlie Birger would want to hire my dad for his gang. Charlie offered and Dad wanted to accept. The only reason he didn't go with Charlie Birger is because Granddad Bybee threatened to kill him if he did.
You may wonder why my mother didn't just leave Dad, divorce him and be free of all the abuse that both she and I received at his hand. She had a job, so she had an income. But you must remember that these days were not those days. In the 1920s, in southern Illinois, a divorced woman was considered a whore. So she stayed through it all.
So you see, it wasn't just Shady Rest that was my only battleground in life. Mom and Dad fought continuously over how I should be raised, neither having the vaguest idea what to do with a handicapped child. Maybe my parents could have molded me differently, my mother in her way and my father in his. But that was not possible after Shady Rest and Al Capone. He had his own ideas about how I should be raised and Al Capone was used to having his own way.
More than anything--more than their women, fancy clothes and cars, more than the money and power--the gangsters wanted to be accepted by society. Al Capone considered himself to be a respectful businessman, only going into businesses for which there was great popular demand: women, gambling, and booze. He wouldn't touch narcotics. Being a good family man, he would have nothing to do with any business that he felt would harm the children of society.
He became eminently successful at supplying the people of Chicago with what they wanted. When Al Capone walked into the race track or ballpark, the crowds would stand and cheer. They swarmed around him to shake hands.
Sure, Al Capone and the other gangsters wanted the adulation of the crowds and their money, even sometimes their wives and lives. But more than all that, they wanted people to invite them into their homes. But the doors were always locked.
"Why?" they kept asking themselves. The gangsters conducted themselves politely. They had wealth. Big cars. All that money could buy. Why wouldn't the husbands, wives, and children of society open their doors wide. Why wouldn't they welcome the gangsters with opened arms as they walked through their doors with a gorgeous, lavishly dressed, jewelry-bedecked whore on each arm? They were always trying to figure out where they fit in, only to discover that they didn't fit in anywhere.
Al Capone laid out a survival plan for me and insisted that my parents follow it. I was to be allowed to try to do anything I wanted. I was to be allowed as much responsibility as possible. I was not to be over-restricted or overprotected. Capone believed that only through trial and error, success and failure, would I be able to learn how to get through life. If I got injured along the way, then that was just part of my learning process.
Capone's orders were firm: He wanted me to make my own decisions and do as I wished, as long as I didn't bother people. If I crawled over to a neighbor's yard and they accepted me, then let me be. If I had enough energy to go as far as two or three different yards, then let me go. If I tried something that seemed foolish to my parents, then let me try anyway. If I couldn't do things the way other people did them, then let me do things my own way. If I moved along the ground like a leapworm, while the other kids were toddling, then that was just the way I got around.
Al Capone simply accepted me for what I was. (But then, the gangsters were all oddballs themselves.) He would say, "I think the kid knows what he is doing, so let him find his own way." He was trying to prepare me for the real world. But remember, Al Capone's real world was much different from the real world's, real world. He made some predictions about the real world that would come true. He said that the day would come when society would not understand me, know what to do with me, or want me. As he said, "It's a cruel world."
Now you see why Charlie Birger gave me such freedom at Shady Rest; freedom to do what I want, where and when I wanted to do it. He was just following Al Capone's orders.
As I mentioned before, it is the natural instinct of all parents to protect their children. It is also the natural instinct of all parents of crippled children to want to overprotect them. But this is not a natural instinct for gangsters. Parents are constantly watching and protecting their babies from getting hurt. But gangsters are always hurting others and getting hurt themselves. It is no big deal to them. Maybe the gangsters would have treated me differently, protected me more, been more concerned, if I had cried when I got hurt...but I never cried.
My parents tried to overprotect me. The gangsters succeeded in underprotecting me, and I spent more time with the gangsters as a baby than I did with my own parents. Being raised by the gangsters would be the one thing that would make me, my personality, abilities, dreams and ambitions totally different from all other crippled children.
At Shady Rest I learned by the school of hard knocks, by trial and error. If I took a little leap and smashed my head into a rock, I learned to avoid rocks in the future. If I brushed against certain plants that ripped my skin open, I stayed way from those plants in the future. I learned to keep my eyes open for bees and wasps. They have their own territories and will defend that territory to the death; theirs and mine. I stayed away from the fighting roosters. They were trained to fight to the death and as soon as they see you, they will peck you to death. And, most of all, I stayed away from crowds. It is too easy to get stepped on.
Each day I leapwormed off to new adventures, learning about life at a fast clip. I got used to getting hurt and took it in stride. Like a puppy dog, I followed the gang members around as they went about their duties at Shady Rest. If a fence blocked my way, no one picked me up and helped me over. Instead, they said, "You're going to have to learn to get by on your own. We're not going to be here forever to help you." So, I devised a way of getting through, or around the fence on my own. If I got stuck in a hole or tangled in a bush, then Jack was always there to haul me out.
The gangsters would not do anything for me that I could not do for myself. They made me go over rocks, and through fields, streams, and irrigation ditches. Whenever I asked for help, they said, "Life is tough, Gene, and you better learn how to be tough, too. You need to learn to do things for yourself or you will never survive." I took to the independent way of life and never let go. I was free to roam all over the Shady Rest fields, of course, accompanied by an armed guard.
While my parents did nothing and had no game plan for me, the gangsters taught me to do everything and had a plan for my survival. While other babies were growing fat and had soft skin, I was getting tough as nails. My body was being pounded all day as I leaped around Shady Rest. My skin was heavily callused and my muscles, firm with great strength.
There was never a dull moment at Shady Rest. Something was always happening. Charlie had a specially built arena behind the cabin. In the evenings there were cock fights and, sometimes, dog fights. People would pour in from the surrounding states to watch these animals fight to the death.
That was not the only entertainment. Charlie was quite a showman, and like I told you before, he liked to show me off. During the intermission, Charlie would parade me out into the arena, just like the other animals, and show the crowd what tricks he had taught me. Charlie constructed a wooden pole, anchoring it to a base, so that the pole stood straight up into the air. I would wiggle over to the pole, put my head against the base, then inch my way up, until I was finally standing erect. One thing Charlie and Al could never figure out was why I could work my way up that pole and stand erect, yet I could not stand or walk by myself.
After my pole trick, I did my jump-rope trick. Charlie took one end of the rope and one of his men, the other. They would swing the rope while I hopped up and down on my stomach, skipping the rope. Next, Charlie strung a piece of barbed wire six inches above the ground. I would slither up to it then leap over the barbed wire. He used barbed wire instead of rope because it looked more dangerous. However, Charlie always held one end of the barbed wire himself. If I missed, he could jerk it out of the way so; I wouldn't get hurt. He also made a hoop out of barbed wire and I followed the dogs as they jumped through the hoop.
Charlie's favorite trick was one of deception, naturally. He put soda in a beer bottle and beer in a soda bottle. I hated the taste of beer and loved the taste of soda. Naturally, I learned very quickly to go for the beer bottle whenever I wanted a soda. Once Charlie had me properly trained, I was ready to go before the public with his favorite trick.
Charlie would casually stroll out into the middle of the arena with a big smirk on his face. He would place a beer bottle and a soda bottle next to each other. Casually strolling back to where I was, Charlie picked me up and placed me at the edge of the arena. Then he let go. I would wiggle over to the bottles as fast as my legs would propel me, grasp the beer bottle between my feet, roll over on my back, and drink the soda from the beer bottle like a circus bear. The crowd roared their approval as Charlie beamed proudly. Remember, this was during prohibition and Charlie made his living as a bootlegger, and the reason the crowd was at Shady Rest wasn't just because of the pit fights, but because it was also a place to get illegal liquor.
Charlie built a little roller coaster for me. To end the show one of his men put me in the cart and let go. I would roar down the roller coaster laughing and giggling all of the way. At the end of the tracks the cart came to an abrupt halt and I flew out of the cart into Charlie's arms.
Every time I did a trick the crowd would throw coins into the arena. Charlie collected the coins and gave them to my mother for safe keeping. It wasn't a bad business to be in. One night I made a hundred dollars. I was soon the richest baby in Harrisburg, but I wasn't spoiled. I had to work hard for every penny of it.
Sometimes the arena would double for live gladiatorial combat. Once, one of the Shelton brothers, Earl, goaded Charlie into a fight between their respective dogs. Charlie asked Earl how much his dog weighed. Earl kept a poker face and lied, understating his dog's weight by quite a few pounds. Charlie took Earl's word and his bet. The Shelton dog tore Charlie's to pieces. After the fight, Charlie got mighty suspicious and asked that the Shelton dog be weighed. The victorious dog was placed on the scale and Charlie watched as the indicator went quite a ways beyond where it should have. Without saying a word, he sauntered into the middle of the arena, leveled his machine gun at Earl Shelton, and cut loose. Earl returned the fire. It was the gunfight at the O.K. Corral all over again, only this time with machine guns. It all happened so quickly that no one had time to place bets.
Once the spectators entered the pit area, they were packed in like sardines. It was mighty difficult to get out of there in a hurry. Charlie Birger and Earl Shelton took out almost half the population of Illinois, Kentucky, and Missouri that time. At that time the Sheltons and Charlie Birger were still friends and partners. As time went on, the relationship became even more strained.
After that the Sheltons came to visit Shady Rest with their machine guns blazing, morning, noon, and night. Time after time, the Sheltons would roar past the barbecue stand and riddle it with machine gun fire. This became so routine that Charlie fortified the stand with steel sheets. It was the only barbecue stand in the state which could second as a machine gun bunker.
It happened the same way with every visit from the Sheltons. Everything would be peaceful. The tourist would be sipping a soda and munching on a sandwich, when all of a sudden someone would sound the alarm, "The Sheltons! The Sheltons!" Everyone dove for cover. As soon as I heard everyone yelling the names of my friends, the Sheltons, I would stop whatever I was doing and leap down to the barbecue stand as fast as I could. But I was always too late. As quickly as you can empty the canister on a Thompson submachine gun, the Sheltons were gone. My friends, always came and went without having time to stop and play with me. I would get cuts and bruises from my journey over the gravel road, but I didn't care; because I was always rewarded with a soda when I reached the stand. The rest of the day I spent sitting around listening to Charlie's gang talk about my friends the Sheltons in very excited tones.
Charlie now had three goals in life: to keep the Sheltons from blowing up his chain of speakeasies, to keep the Sheltons from blowing up Shady rest, and to keep the Sheltons from blowing up Charlie Birger.
Target practice was now mandatory each afternoon. Charlie marched his men down to the gunnery range while I leaped by his side. When the gang members had finished machine gun practice, one by one they stepped up to me and slammed one more canister into the weapon. They held up the machine gun while I pulled the triggers with my toe. Rat-a-tat-tat, I blasted away until the canister was empty. Then it was the next man's turn. My favorite target was a nude lady that spun around when you blasted her. I got so much practice that it wasn't long before I could hit the target every time. Soon word went throughout the land that I had the fastest toe in Little Egypt.
Charlie didn't like to sit around Shady Rest killing time, when he could be killing people. He took the offensive. Charlie and his men now spent their evenings prowling the dark roads of Egypt looking for Sheltons. He tried to catch Shelton roadhouses by surprise, holding them up and then blowing them up. It now became a war of attrition to see which side could reduce his enemies' resources to nothing the fastest.
But the Sheltons had one advantage, they kept their headquarters moving, letting no one know where they were. This made it impossible for Charlie Birger to hit their headquarters in one bold stroke and wipe out the entire gang once and for all. And that is exactly what Charlie had in mind. Charlie had an elaborate spy network throughout Egypt and he knew that it was just a matter of time before he located the headquarters of the Sheltons. And when he did find out, the Charlie Birger gang was prepared to launch a bold, swift strike.
Time after time the Sheltons tried to penetrate the outer defenses of Shady Rest and get to the main cabin. Each time they failed...until, one day I looked up into the sky and saw an airplane circling overhead. It made a sharp bank and headed straight for the cabin. Then...one...two... three bombs were dropped. They were heading straight for the...chimney.
The eagle continued to sit proudly in his typical invincible manner as the bombs continued their fall. The cabin was not hit, nor were any of the men injured. But the eagle learned that nature has its own pecking order--an airplane soars higher and is mightier than even an eagle. He was killed instantly. The poor eagle never knew what hit him.
A Strange Thing upon the Land
Whereas other babies grew and developed vertically, standing upright and toddling, I continued to grow through life horizontally. I gradually outgrew my wiggleworm way of getting about and developed a new and far more spectacular way of maneuvering.
As my muscles developed and grew more agile, my legs soon became strong enough to raise my body off the ground, just slightly at first, but enough to eliminate the drag of my body against the ground. Instead of wiggling on the ground, I was now taking small, but quick lunges forward, over the ground. These lunges eventually progressed into leaps.
As a leaper, I became quite spectacular, but not at first. When I first started leaping, my movements were awkward and uncoordinated. To observe me hopping up and down, one would think that I was accomplishing nothing; but with daily practice, ever-so-gradually my movements became more refined. As I grew, so did my ability to leap. Eventually, I was better at leaping than a championship bullfrog.
To leap, I snapped both knees under my chest. My toes instinctively dug into the ground as every muscle in my body thrust power downwards into my legs and feet. As the balls of my feet pushed against the ground, I began to rise into the air. At the finish of the thrust, my entire body leaped into the air, both arms flying straight out to my sides. Like a chubby little airplane I was off and flying.
In the beginning stages my leaps covered only a few inches, then my flight was over. Like any weighty object flying through the air losing its power of propulsion, I had to come back to the earth. So I would say good-bye to my bird friends and look for a landing spot. Of course, my arms and hands would have been quite helpful for landing, but they continued to do their own thing and just flapped out to both sides. When I picked out a landing spot, I ducked my head down and hit the ground square on my forehead, Instantly I dropped onto my chest and shoulders to absorb the full shock of the plunge back to the ground. I hit the ground so hard that my body would bounce. (Al Capone insisted that I wear aviation goggles to protect my eyes. I was always breaking the goggles.) I took advantage of the bounce. As my body rebounded upwards, I snapped both knees under my chest thrusting my body once more into the air.
Anyone who saw me bounding over the ground would swear that I was leaping on my head. The truth of the matter is that I was leaping on my chest. I used my head as a stabilizer. The glancing blow of my forehead hitting the ground positioned the rest of my body for proper alignment when it hit. It was like a cat being dropped upside down and spinning in mid-air so it can land on all four feet.
After the glancing blow with my forehead, I would continue the fall. I landed on my chest first, allowing the force of the fall to be absorbed across the entire chest and shoulder areas. You might think that this would hurt, but the chest and shoulders provide a very large area over which to cushion the shock. It's certainly a much larger area than the soles of one's feet.
You might also think that this is a strange way for anyone to get around; but, it is all a matter of perspective. From your point of view it might seem unusual; but from mine, it is quite logical, even normal.
Let me explain. All handicapped children automatically compensate for their disabilities. Since I was unable to use my hands, I instinctively used my feet as if they were hands. I couldn't stand or toddle like other babies, so I automatically started wiggling and from there I graduated to leaping. My first leaps were little hops up and down. I progressed over a period of time to higher and higher, longer and longer leaps. It was just as natural as a normal baby's progression from crawling, to toddling, to walking, to running. Leaping was a normal and natural way of getting around--normal and natural, to me.
My only concern was that I got where I wanted to go. It made no difference that my friends could walk and run, and I could not. I just figured that it was their normal way of getting somewhere. It was just as normal as my leaping. Besides, leaping was obviously a superior way to traveling. My little playmates could not run as fast as I could leap. Even Mom was not as fast a walker as I was a leaper.
Mom started calling me a praying mantis. She worried about my getting hurt and tried everything she could to protect me. She wrapped all kinds of things around my forehead: towels, elastic bandages, sponges, leather bands. She tried to strap on a football helmet, then a strong leather cap, even Dad's steel coal-miner's hat. She tried to protect my chest and shoulders with football shoulder pads...and everything else you can imagine. Nothing worked. They took such a terrific beating that they ripped off after only a few minutes of leaping.
Finally, Mom gave up trying to protect me. My body became one tough callous. I even developed one on my forehead. In the middle of that callous I had a big black spot. That black spot really bothered Mom; because no matter how hard she tried, she could never wash it off.
Every day I would go scooting down the stairs and leap next door to Eddie Smith's house. We were the best of friends. Eddie and I played together all day and night. We did everything together. We would dig mud together; he, with a spoon in his hand and I, with a spoon between my toes. We would play hide-and-seek with the other kids. (The weeping willow tree was the best place to hide.) But tag was my favorite game. I would leap along side the other kids and kick them with my foot to count as a tag.
But leaping was not without its hazards. You know how kids like to imitate. The first time Eddie saw me leaping, he tried to imitate me. He leaped straight up into the air with his arms straight out like a perfect little airplane and smiled. Then he came straight down, still smiling, and busted his head open!
His mother had to take him to the hospital to have his head stitched up. She came over one afternoon and told my mother that she thought I was setting a bad example for the other kids. In fact, I panicked all of the other mothers. But it wasn't as serious as they thought. Even though all the other kids tried to imitate me, they only tried it once. After the first leap, they would use their hands for landing, instead of their heads.
And that is how I now spent my days at play--leaping over the ground, finding a landing spot, tucking my head down, bump with my forehead, thump with my chest, and bounce! The pattern developed a rhythm: thrust, bump, thump, bounce; thrust, bump, thump, bounce. The rhythm continued as I spent hour after hour leaping across the ground.
And this is the way I moved upon the face of the land until I was five years old.
Still a Praying Mantis
As my mother stood at the door and watched me leaping off for a day of play, somehow, I don't think that this is what she had in mind when she wanted to have a baby. She planned on having four sons: one was to be a writer, another a sculptor, a musician, and an artist. She never planned on having a praying mantis. But, really, how many women think about have a praying mantis?
By the time I was two years old, I was still a praying mantis. Mom just didn't know what to do about me, and then, one day she read in the newspaper that the Saline County Fair was having a baby contest. The judge was to be prominent lady pediatrician from the State Department of Health.
If Mom could only get some time alone with the lady judge, she reasoned, it would be a good opportunity to talk to another specialist. She contacted the people who were sponsoring the baby contest and explained to them my problems. She made it clear that she was not interested in entering me in the baby contest, only having the pediatrician from the State Department of Health look at me and give her opinion.
The people on the contest committee told Mom to bring me to the fair and they would arrange for the pediatrician to look at me. Two weeks later I went to the fair and the pediatrician took a look at me during a break in the contest. After the examination, she announced to my mother that I had spastic paralysis; but she did not believe it to be a severe case. "He will grow out of it. Not to worry," the prominent pediatrician said.
The lady doctor then asked Mom to enter me in the baby contest. Mom felt obligated because of the free examination; so without having her heart in it, she filled out the entrance form.
I wiggled and squirmed all over the place like a leapworm. I hopped around on my head like a praying mantis. All the time I was laughing, giggling, and smiling. I won first prize hands down. I even got my picture on the front page of the paper.
Mom came away from the fair happy that day. She had been assured that there was nothing seriously wrong with me and her baby had won the blue ribbon.
Within six months Mother's concern returned. I was not making the progress that the doctors predicted. My parents decided to try a different approach.
Dad was a member of the Masonic Lodge; and because of his membership, he was able to talk to one of the top Shriners in our area about sponsoring me at the Shriners Crippled Children's Hospital in St. Louis. Mom and Dad wanted me to be examined by the best doctors in the world and Shriners had the best. Unfortunately, Dad was turned down, because our family had enough money to pay for a private doctor.
While all of my friends were growing up to be children, I was still growing up to be a praying mantis. I became a three-year-old praying mantis, and then a four-year-old praying mantis. I still had no control over my arms; my legs were good for leaping, but not for walking. Although I could walk if I was supported between two people, I could never walk by myself. Someone always had to get me out of bed, dress, feed, and bathe; then put me to bed again at night. I was growing up, yet still had to be handled like a baby.
One day, when I was four years old, Mom and I were walking past Dr. Andrews' house. Dr. Andrews looked out the window and saw me leaping by and said, "There's something wrong with that kid!"
He decided to do some research and started delving into his medical books, trying to find some ideas for a treatment. Finally, he came up with the diagnosis that my nerves were dead and that they needed to be reactivated. He went to work and built his own electrical machine. It had an electrical wire coming out of one side with wire bristles attached to the end of it. He ran a low current of electricity through the bristles and brushed them over my body. It had the intended effect and activated my nerves. The problem was that I was already hyper and overly sensitive. My nerves were more alive than he could imagine. The electrical treatment only made me more hyper and more sensitive. The treatment only magnified my problem, but the doctor was determined. He continued the treatments for several months before finally giving up.
As you can see, my handicap was quite rare. It certainly had all of the doctors stumped. It was even rarer that my doctor had another patient, a little girl, also my age, who was also diagnosed as having spastic paralysis. To have two people in the same county with the same rare handicap was quite unusual. To have them both going to the same doctor was a million in one chance.
One day I was at Dr. Andrews' office and my mother said, "Gene, I want you to meet this little girl. She has the same thing that you have."
The other mother said, "Teresa, I want you to meet this little boy. He has the same thing that you have."
"I look like that!" I screamed.
At the same moment the little girl shrieked, "I look like that!"
We both spun around and ran away from each other as fast as we could, screaming at the top of our lungs. While Teresa and I were screaming, our parents thought that it was a good opportunity to compare notes.
From that time on, Mom would always try to search out other parents in the surrounding communities who had children with the same condition. The parents would keep in touch with one another to pass on any information they learned about new doctors, medicines, treatments, and so on. Whenever one set of parents went to a new doctor or tried a new medication or treatment, they would immediately inform the other parents.
Each week one family would take care of the other's handicapped child for the day. This allowed the parents some time to themselves and one day's rest every two weeks from the constant strain of taking care of a handicapped child.
That's how I got to know Leah. She was my age, had spastic paralysis, and lived ten miles away in Liberty. Our two families would eventually become good friends.
When I went to Leah's house, her older sister Maggie would usually drive over and pick me up. Maggie would take care of both of us at the same time. For years Maggie was a big sister to me. She took us swimming and drove us to picnics and movies. (I clapped with my feet.) We did all the things kids like to do.
As I explained before, my mother was a devout Baptist. She was an active church goer and participated in all of the church activities. But her strongest interest was in music. She played the piano and was active in the church choir. She was also involved in all of the music festivals in the county. She had the habit of taking me with her when she went to these activities. I was never any bother. Remember, I never cried.
One day, when I was three or four years old, I hooked my toes around the leg of my high chair and wiggled over to the piano, dragging the chair behind me. I told my mother to sit me in the high chair. After I was situated, I told her to adjust my body so that my legs were level to the keyboard and asked her to teach me to play the piano. And she did. I would pound away for hours on the keys with my feet and toes acting as my hands and fingers. Although seeing a child play the piano with his toes may seem strange to you, it was as natural to me as using my hands and fingers.
I managed the basics within six months and had to teach myself from that point on. I found the different cords to be interesting and by the time I was five or six I started to learn how to blend keys. Most of the songs I learned were from church, because those were the ones I heard the most. I also liked to compose my own tunes by blending and combining one tune with another.
The first song I mastered was "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
For five years everyone had been concerned about my crawling on the ground, fearful that I would get contaminated with all of the germs of the earth. Of course, I was always getting cuts and bruises...and a whole lot of other injuries too numerous to describe.
Al Capone was always trying to devise some means of keeping me off the ground. Everytime he came down to visit me he would have some new contraption that he had built. He started off by wrapping my entire body in lamb's wool. It worked really well cushioning the bounce and avoiding scratches and bruises; but it wore out too quickly and besides it was too hot. After a few weeks, the lamb's wool idea was discarded. Next he strapped sponges around my body. Again, it was good protection, but they killed my bounce. Scratch that idea. Then he came up with the idea of gluing a lot of rubber balls together and strapping them to my body. They worked real well and increased my bounce considerably, but the glue wouldn't hold very long. The balls flew apart and bounced every which way.
Al Capone just wouldn't give up. I became his pet project and every time he came down into Egyptland he would drop by the house and take me out for another day of experiments.
When Al Capone took me out for the day, I would find myself surrounded by bodyguards. He never had less than a dozen bodyguards with him, each handpicked by Capone personally. In fact, each was a mirror image of Al Capone. They were Al Capone's alter ego, his perception of the perfect gangster. Each was immaculately dressed. Each had a sophisticated accent. Each was extremely polite, always replying with a "Yes, sir" or "No, sir." I don't need to tell you this, but--they were the friendliest, most polite, well-mannered bodyguards that you would ever want to meet; even more so than Charlie Birger and the Shelton brothers.
Like Al Capone, each bodyguard could gun down a man without flinching. Their job was to surround Al (and me) with a shield of human bodies. The ring they threw around us was never less than two men deep. Each man was willing to die using his body to stop any bullets meant for the king. Like I said before, the gangsters worshipped Al Capone. Whenever I was with him I was better protected than the President of the United States.
Al liked to carry me in his arms, but sometimes I fussed until he let me down. Then I wiggled or hopped by his side. I never liked the bodyguards though, because they were always stepping on me. Shady Rest made me gun shy and I was injured more than once by some drunk stepping on me. When Al Capone stepped on you, it was like being stepped on by an elephant.
Anyway, Al kept coming up with new inventions--one failure after another. Until one day he hit on the idea of using springs. The next time he came down into Egypt he had a car filled with springs. They were all different sizes and anchored to solid leather harnesses with straps. Al strapped one spring to my forehead, like a unicorn. (The smaller base of the spring went against my head and got wider as it went outward.) Two more springs were strapped under each shoulder. Next came a triangular frame made out of copper, which fit across my chest and stomach. One point of the triangle was below each shoulder and the third point under my stomach. Springs were attached all the way around the frame and canvas was glued to the top of the metal frame that made contact with my body. Still more springs were attached to my legs and feet.
Now I could really bounce!
The springs would bounce me high and far, but they were almost impossible to control. For the springs to work right, I would have to land absolutely straight down. If the springs landed at an off angle, then my next bounce would be at an angle. That meant I would land at an ever-greater off angle the next time. It just kept getting worse until I was completely out of control, bouncing every which way but the direction I wanted to go. I had to come to a dead stop to regain control and then start all over again.
Al worked on the stabilizing problem by adding two more springs, one on each hip at an inverted "V" angling outwards. This helped. But as long as I used the springs, instability would always be a problem.
There was one other serious drawback to the springs. It took a tremendous amount of time to put them on properly and make the necessary adjustments. After they were strapped on, I bounced around for a couple of minutes to see if they felt secure. Then I needed someone to make readjustments and I tested the springs again. There were more adjustments and more tests, and so on, and so on. Scratch the springs.
Al kept trying to solve the problem of instability and eventually came up with the idea of using inner tubes instead of springs. The theory was to let the air in the inner tubes cushion the blow. It was a great idea. The spring came off my forehead and in its place Al put a small inner tube that fit around my head like a headband. Another inner tube was attached to the frame (Al had a separate frame built for the inner tubes.) and more tubes for my hips, legs, and feet. It worked great!
I didn't need any springs or tubes for my arms. Since they went out to the sides at an upward angle, like seagull wings, my arms were protected from hitting the ground.
Using the tubes, I easily doubled my leaping speed. They did a fantastic job of absorbing the blows and gave me really good stability. But the tubes had one fatal flaw--blow outs! When I landed with full force on sharp-edged rocks, broken glass, nails, or other sharp objects lying on the ground, the inner tube would burst. This was especially dangerous if the inner tube that exploded was right under my chest. (I had just one large inner tube under my chest. When it burst, it was like a stick of dynamite exploding underneath me.) There was another drawback. When the tube burst, not only was I injured by the tremendous shock, but the shredded rubber would flog me to death. I mean it was vicious! Scratch the inner tubes.
When I was five years old, my aunt Ethel in Kentucky sent me a present that was about to change my life as a praying mantis. She sent me a little wooden chair. It had a straight back with four legs. Dad put a three-inch wheel on each leg, and that was my first wheelchair.
The day I got that little wooden wheelchair everyone rejoiced, figuring that my days of hopping across the ground were over. They were all convinced that the problem of keeping me off the ground had been solved. And besides, a wheelchair was much more socially acceptable than leaping around on one's head all day.
At first, I didn't like the chair. When I tried to move in it, the chair would go every which way. It didn't matter if I tried to push forwards, sideways, or backwards. All four casters would turn wherever they wanted to go. I couldn't control it. So, whenever my parents weren't looking, I would slide out of the chair and go leaping off.
In time that little wooden chair would become a challenge. I trained it to become the little wheelchair that I wanted it to be and eventually it became fun. I made it jump up and down, spin in circles, and go in any direction. I could only leap in a forward direction, but the little chair could go any direction that I commanded.
I didn't give up leaping entirely, but I gradually started to spend more and more time in the little wooden chair. One thing was for sure, it was a lot easier on my head when I had to go down the concrete sidewalk or cross the road.
My-get-a-around (That's what I called the little wooden wheelchair.) had its drawbacks. I was a boy with a lot of energy and I tore my-get-a-round to pieces! Dad really got upset and told me that I didn't have any respect for my things. I guess I really didn't, but in the child's mind I had a simple answer, "Well, Granddad can build me a new one. So what does it matter?"
I had another Granddad who was a carpenter. That was Mom's father, Granddad Holmes. So every time I busted my-get-a-round, I would go to Granddad Holmes and say, "It's time to build a new wheelchair."
Granddad would ask, "What's wrong, can't the old one be fixed?"
"Well, you can look for yourself. I brought it along."
Granddad would look at the chair and pronounce that it could be fixed one more time. (I was always trying to get him to build me a new one. And, once in a while he would do it.)
Granddad Holmes and I were very close. He actually raised me more than Mom and Dad. Dad worked in the coal mines during the day, then he went straight to the family farm and worked there till late at night. Mom was a school teacher and married. According to the peculiar customs of Egypt at that time, a single woman could teach in the city. Once she became married, she was only allowed to teach in the county and had to give up teaching within the city limits. This meant that Mom had to spend extra time traveling to and from work. When she got home, she was busy for several hours doing her school work assignments, etc. So neither Mom nor Dad had much time for me.
Grandpa Holmes came by the house every day to look after me. He was always there when I had a question. He was the one I turned to for fatherly advice. He read to me from the Bible two or three times each day. I sat entranced as he told stories about the prophets, the Apostles, and other heroes in the Bible. I would ask him questions about the stories and he patiently explained. Later, after Grandpa Bybee, the lawyer, died, Grandpa Holmes moved in and lived with us.
We slept together in the same room. It was Granddad Holmes who got me up in the morning, picked me up out of bed, and put me into my-get-a-round. He was the one who dressed, fed, and bathed me and put me to bed at night. He would let me help with his carpentry work by placing a hammer or saw between my toes. I would hammer away at the nails and saw away on the wood for hours. Sometimes I would work with Granddad on the whole project.
But what I liked most were the long field trips we would take together. Our house was on the edge of town, so all we had to do was cross the road and enter the fields. It must have looked strange to passersby to see an old man walking through the fields with a child leaping by his side. Granddad used these excursions as a learning experience for me. As he walked, he explained God's handiwork--nature. He explained how the grass grew and flowers blossomed, and how the bees gathered nectar from flowers. He taught me that nature worked in cycles: Flowers needed to be pollinated by bees so they could bloom again. Then the bees used the nectar to make honey, and I needed the honey for my corn flakes. He showed me how all things and all people are dependent upon other things and other people. Granddad Holmes showed me the world.
It has now been many years since Granddad Homes died. But I shall always remember and cherish those many long leaps we used to take together.
The year I was born was also the year that the state of Illinois passed a law providing for the education of handicapped children. But it wasn't until I was six years old that Harrisburg implemented its first plan to actually provide schooling for the handicapped.
Harrisburg would have never started a school for handicapped children if it weren't for the fact that I was six years old and my mother was a school teacher. When I turned six, my mother insisted that I go to school like the other children. She went to the school board and insisted that they provide education for handicapped children as required by law.
The school officials were in a bind: they were vaguely aware of the law, but they didn't know how the law operated. Nobody had ever bothered them with it before.
The superintendent took the easy way out. He told Mom to set up the program for educating the handicapped children throughout the entire school district. She was to do everything that had to be done and just give him the necessary papers to sign. That's exactly what she did. And so, when I was six years old, I started the first grade just like all the other kids.
Our class met in the regular school building, but we had our own room. There were eight of us in the first class, ranging in ages from six to twelve. Most of the kids were victims of polio, which was the big crippler of children before the Salk vaccine.
Mom hired a teacher, Judy Wallace. She had no experience in teaching handicapped children. In fact, it was her first year out of college, and her first teaching job. She learned right along with us.
The school district hired a driver to pick up the crippled children and take us to and from school. He used his own car and put the children in the back seat.
On the first day of school when the driver came to pick me up, he asked Mom how he should handle me. Mom replied that she was not going to tell him anything about me.
"Gene can tell you what to do. You will just have to learn on your own from his directions."
I was concerned because he didn't put my wheelchair in the car. Mom told me not to worry, it would be at school when I got there. I just couldn't figure out how it was going to get to school. When I got into class, there it was. I never saw my mother and I never asked her how my-get-a-round got-around to school all by itself. Boy, did that chair ever get around!
My teacher told me later that she would never forget that first day of school. I was the only crippled kid to ride to school with the driver. All of the other mothers brought their kids themselves. As soon as the mothers left, all the kids started to cry. I was the only one who didn't cry. I was really looking forward to going to school, and was all smiles and ready to learn. The poor teacher couldn't even talk to the other kids. Whenever she tried to talk with them, they would say, "I want my Mommie." But I was happy and talkative. "You gave me hope," she told me years later.
Because I could not use my hands, the teacher decided to try to teach me to write with my feet. She placed the pencil between my toes and I took it from there.
Dad didn't like the idea of my writing with my toes. He said that shoes and feet were made to walk on and not for writing. I told him that heads were for thinking and not for walking, but that didn't do me any good. Since I could not write with my hands, Mom tried to convince Dad that it might be helpful for me to write with my feet. He refused and that was final.
However, sometimes when Mom and Dad were both busy, they would allow me to feed myself with a spoon between my toes. But Dad would only do this when nobody was around. He would never allow anyone to see me feeding myself with my feet.
I told my teacher that Dad didn't want me to write with my feet. She was dejected. But, I figured that they were my feet, and not Dad's, so I should be able to do what I wanted with them. Later I would ask her to teach me anyway. And she did. And I did. It took me three years to develop any style. It made me proud to be able to write my own signature. I thought that was a big asset. But, I always had to be careful never to write when Dad was around, for he never knew that his son was a little scribe.
At first, when I went down to the library, everyone thought that my writing with my toes was highly unusual to say the least. Pretty soon they got used to it and would just say, "Oh, that's just Gene."
As I continued my quest for education, so did my parents continue their quest to find a cure for my handicap. I had always resigned myself to the condition. I wasn't being pessimistic, I think I was being realistic. Mom and Dad, on the other hand, would not accept my condition at all and went running about, here, there, and everywhere, trying to find a miracle cure for me. They were willing to try everything, and anything, in hopes that it might help me. They simply could not accept the reality of the way I was.
Dad had a friend who had been to a chiropractor and spoke about what great wonders he had received from his hands. He suggested that I become one of his patients. Dad would try anything. So, off I went to chiropractic treatments, three times each week, two and a half hours each visit. The chiropractor assured my parents that he would cure me within a reasonable period of time. However, he did not specify what he meant by a reasonable period of time.
I was laid face down on a couch. The chiropractor placed his hands in the middle of my back and did his wonders by pushing down, with both hands, as hard as he could. My head and feet remained mostly stationary, while my stomach went through the springs on its journey toward to the floor.
He said he was trying to give my back flexibility. He thought that he could give my muscles control that way. What he gave me was a pain in the back! I always left his office with a sprained ankle and back.
With diligent dedication, this chiropractor labored over me each week, bending me like a willow branch. With each treatment, I was without doubt, getting worse. I kept telling him, "You tell me that I am going to get better, and everytime I come here, I get worse."
"It takes time," he would always say.
Mom remained at her job so that she could earn the extra money to pay for the miracle drug or brilliant doctor who would cure me. And they weren't cheap either.
I kept telling my parents I was getting worse with each treatment and that they were wasting their money. I would have been better off being left alone. But, they kept hoping I would start making progress. After a few months of torture treatment, the chiropractor broke my leg. I had all that I could take, so I quit. Dad was upset and still wanted me to continue.
Dad and I were downtown one day and ran into my chiropractor on the street. He asked Dad why I hadn't been coming for treatments. Dad told him, "Ask Gene. He's the one who quit." So, I told him he wasn't getting any results with me and I thought it was just a waste of time. Besides, he had broken my leg. I gave him the doctor bill for setting my leg. Since he was the one that broke my leg, I told him that I figured he should be the one to pay it. He paid it too, even though he didn't believe in doctors.
Dr. Swan normally treated a broken leg by putting it into a cast for six weeks. But, he didn't want to take any chances with me, so he left the leg in the cast for six months. It cut my leaping speed by at least one-half. The break was right above the ankle, so I was still able to use both knees. Remember, I pulled both knees under me, positioned myself, and then thrust off with my feet. Now I had only one foot to thrust off with, so naturally, I was at half power.
My miracle treatments were not to stop with this chiropractor. There was another chiropractor and two osteopaths. The second chiropractor didn't get any results either, but he wasn't as rough as the first one. He must have gone to the same school as the first one, because his favorite saying was, "It takes time."
Osteopaths, back then, had certain rules and ethics which they had to abide by, so they did even less damage. None of them did any good. They just did less damage than the chiropractors.
As I said before, there was nothing Mom and Dad would not do to find a cure for me and that means nothing! They now tried a new technique. A friend that my father worked with was a Christian Scientist. He talked to Dad about my being healed through the Christian Science method. (They don't even believe that there is anything wrong with you.) Now, since Mom and Dad were Baptist, they didn't believe in the Christian Scientists; but the friend kept at Dad until, finally, they decided to give it a try.
The Christian Scientist would come over to the house, most every day, and give us books and other material to study. I was now in the second grade at school and was able to read a bit. So Mom and I would read the material together. We listened to what he had to say and followed his directions.
I took these Christian Science instructions for two months and then he asked me if I felt that I had the faith to be healed. I replied, "I do have the faith to be healed, but I can't accept this method at all." After a long metaphysical discussion, he said there was no use of going on and left.
A year later there was a faith healing meeting being held in Harrisburg. They put their tent up right across the street from our house. There was a lot of publicity before the faith healers came to town. Everyone in my church told me that I should go and see if they could heal me. Now that is one thing that confused me.
Our church was Baptist, and the people holding the faith healing services were not. In those days the Baptists believed that they were the only ones going to heaven. At that time the Baptists had over twenty different denominational groups that came under the heading of Baptist: There were the First Baptist, Second Baptist, Southern Baptist, and so on. Our family fortunately belonged to the true sect, the Southern Missionary Baptist. Now, among those twenty odd Baptist sects, there was even some question if a person belonging to a different sect could go to heaven.
So, when people at church told me that I should go to the faith healing service held by these non-Baptists I couldn't help asking, "Why are you telling me to go to another denomination's faith healing service when you are all Baptist? The Baptists don't believe that these other people can even go to heaven!" They answered that they thought it was a good opportunity and they didn't want to turn the chance down. I guess the Baptists are like everybody else. Nobody wants to turn a good deal down.
I got so much pressure from everyone that my parents and I decided to go to the tent meeting, just to get everyone off our backs. So, we crossed the street and entered the tent. The word had gotten out that I was going to the faith healing meeting and get myself healed. It seems like the whole town had turned out to watch this great miracle. When I saw everyone from Harrisburg and the surrounding area there, I told Mom, "If you think I am going to go through this ordeal in front of everyone and have all the neighbors gawking at me, you're crazy!"
"You can't back out now," Mom answered.
The preacher knew ahead of time that I was going to be in attendance. He strutted over and picked me up out of the wheelchair and carried me up to the stage. Let me tell you, these people were extreme holy rollers!
He shouted at the audience, "How many of you here tonight believe this boy can be healed?" The crowd roared back (each in their own peculiar way) that indeed they did believe I could be healed.
The preacher then started his ritual. I didn't know what the heck was going on! He grabbed me under my arms and stood me up on my feet. He commanded me to stand by myself. Then he let go of me and I fell flat on my face! "I've had enough of this!" I said to myself, starting to leap off stage. He grabbed me in the middle of my first bound and yelled at me, "You don't have enough faith!" I could tell that this was going to be a very long evening.
I had upset the preacher and, in exasperation, he started getting really mean with me. I was getting a bit upset myself and told him, "Well, I was born this way and I can't help that it happened. And what's more; I'm satisfied with the way I am. I'm not complaining. So don't tell me that I don't have faith in God, because if I didn't have faith, I could really turn against God."
He thought for a moment and then said, "Well, I have to give you credit for that. But, believing and knowing there is a God is one thing. Believing you can be healed is another."
"Answer me just one question." I asked, "If God can heal me, then why did he make me this way in the first place?" (The audience thought that I had a good point on that one.)
The preacher shot back, "Sometimes God wants to show man his power of healing!"
"But, how are you going to prove to me that God does not have a plan for me--a purpose for my being this way. Perhaps his plan requires that I not be healed." I countered. I felt like the young Christ child at the temple, astounding the priests with my wisdom. By this time, he was really getting mad. He started shaking me hard and hurting me. "You are going too far and you are violating my rights," I informed him.
"I am called by God," he shouted at me.
"I don't care," I replied. "I am called by God too, and I can't picture that God would act that way. A preacher is supposed to set an example. Remember one thing, God is the final authority, not you!"
He didn't say another word to me. He carried me down the steps of the stage, back to where my parents were sitting, and dumped me into my wheelchair. He looked fiercely at Mom and Dad and screamed, "You are raising your son with the wrong attitude!" Then he marched straight back to the stage and announced to the audience that I was the only person that he hadn't been able to heal.
The next day the preacher came over to the house and told my parents that I did not have enough faith and asked for a donation. Dad gave him ten dollars. He would have given more if the preacher had healed me.
The next Sunday there was some dissension among the congregation of our church. Some of them believed that I did not have enough faith and did not try hard enough. Others said, "I told you so. They can't heal anybody." You see, Baptists do not say that God can not heal, but they are not foursquare in favor of it either.
Two years later I went to another tent meeting without my parents. This one was out of town. My friends thought the preacher conducting the healing services was great. They wanted to help me so much that I went along with them, so I wouldn't hurt their feelings. But my heart was not in it. After the last time, I told myself that I was never going to another faith healing service as long as I lived. So, I agreed to go to this tent meeting on one condition--I would go only as an observer. I would not submit my body and soul to the healing rite.
As soon as I entered the tent, the preacher came over to me and asked if I was there for the healing service. I told him that I was there only as a spectator. He was very kind to me and made me feel comfortable. Tactfully, he asked if it bothered me to talk about my condition. I told him it did not. After a few minutes of talking about my handicap, he asked me if I would be willing to come forward and submit myself to the healing service. Well, I figured that I was already there and the preacher had been very kind to me, so I decided to give it a try.
He picked me up, chair and all, and carried me onto the stage. He turned to the audience and in a kind, sincere voice said, "We have this nice young man here, who has consented to be healed on a trial basis only." Then he looked at me and asked, "Do you believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?"
"Yes, I do," I replied.
"Do you believe that He has all power and that there is nothing standing in your way that He is not able to do?" he continued.
"Well, may I restate your question?" I replied. "Do you believe that if God the Father wishes, nothing will stand in his way?"
He agreed to my interpretation. Then he said the longest prayer that I have ever heard. At the end of the prayer he asked if I felt any different. I replied, "The only thing I felt was that the prayer was too long. Everything was so quiet, I almost fell asleep."
"Good!" the preacher said, "that means you are getting ready to be healed. Try to move your hand." he commanded. The hand would not move. "Move your foot forward," he commanded.
I told him, "I could move my foot before I came in." He insisted that moving my foot should count as a healing and I insisted that it should not. Finally, we reached a compromise. Moving my feet would not count as a healing, but moving anything else would.
"How can we verify whether or not you are healed?" the preacher asked.
"Oh, that's really easy," I answered. "Stand me up and be ready to catch me when I fall!" And that is exactly what he did. It was quickly verified that I was not healed.
One day I went downtown with my mother so she could do some banking. (I moved my-get-a-round by using my feet to push myself backwards. I would not have a regular wheelchair until I was an adult.)
In the town square, Milo Pruit was sitting on a bench, eating his lunch. He owned the bank and the Buick dealership. He was a friend of Charlie Birger's. (Whenever there was a bank robbery in the state, the next day Charlie Birger would make a large cash deposit in Pruit's bank.)
He was a good storyteller, but he had a strange way of talking. Instead of talking like a human being, he would bark like a dog.
I went over to where he was sitting.
"Hello, Mr. Pruit."
"Tell me a story about Charlie Birger."
"What story do you want me to tell you?"
"Tell me the story about the ring you are wearing."
"I have told you that story before."
"Tell me again."
As the story goes, a few weeks after I was born, some gangsters came into Harrisburg and robbed one of its citizens of an expensive diamond ring. That citizen was Milo Pruit. The expensive diamond ring they stole was on Mr. Pruit's finger as we talked that day. Rings are stolen by criminals every day. Rarely does the rightful owner get it back.
The criminals made a big mistake: They entered Harrisburg, Charlie Birger's Protectorate, and robbed one of its citizens without Charlie Birger's permission. Charlie was furious. He ordered the criminals to give the ring back. The gangsters were equally furious at Charlie's demand. They stole the ring fair and square. According to the laws of the gangster jungle, that ring belonged to the stealer. Charlie was adamant. The ring had to be returned. Finally the robbers returned the ring.
This is an unusual story, but it becomes even more unusual and tragic. These men, who entered Harrisburg that day and robbed one of the towns most prominent citizens, were not just ordinary criminals. They were members of the Shelton gang.
Charlie Birger's rage increased every day with the thought that the Shelton brothers had knowingly allowed their men to commit a crime in Harrisburg. The Shelton brothers were furious at Charlie Birger for making their men give the ring back.
And thus, the infamous Charlie Birger-Shelton War began--not over some momentous happening, but over a ring. Wars, I have been told, have been fought over less. But I have never seen it documented that any war was fought over a ring.
Both sides prepared for war. The members of the two gangs had to make a decision about which gang they were going to side with. There were some defections on both sides. In order to bolster the size of their armies, the two gangs started recruiting campaigns among the tough laborers in the coal mines throughout Egypt. When both sides were at battle strength, they started killing each other's men and destroying each other's speakeasies. The rules of war were simple: Kill each gang's men wherever they could be found.
Both sides had effective public relations campaigns. Each tried to convince the citizens of Egypt that their gang was the protector of the people and the other gang was just a lot of bad people. It was like propaganda in any war.
Charlie Birger issued a statement, a declaration and explanation to the people, explaining why the war had begun. His statement was read over the local Harrisburg radio station and printed in the local paper. He assured everyone that the war was between the gangsters and no innocent citizen would be hurt.
When Mr. Pruit finished telling the story, he asked, "Do you remember Charlie Birger."
"No. I was too little to remember him."
"Do you remember Al Capone."
"I remember him. He had that big heavy duty car. You didn't see cars like that in Harrisburg." (When I was six or seven years of age, Al Capone went to prison. Mom and I corresponded with him until he was moved to another prison, then all correspondence stopped. I would never see him again. However, as you shall see, his influence would remain with me for the rest of my life.)
"The next time I see you, Gene, I will tell you more stories, until I have told you the story of Charlie Birger from beginning to end."
The Wonderful World of Animals
Year by year, my parents began to realize more and more that there was something seriously wrong with me. When I was eight years old, Dad went to another top Shriner, who agreed to sponsor me at the Shriners Children's Hospital in St. Louis. This Shriner had more pull than the previous one and the hospital accepted me this time. At last my parents had the finest doctors in the world.
Dr. Carrol was assigned to be my specialist at Shriners. The first examination took an hour and a half. Dr. Carrol confirmed the diagnosis of my previous doctors, spastic paralysis. He said that my future could not be predicted. I might grow out of it, and then again I might not. He gave me no medications or treatments, but told my parents to bring me back in one year's time. The researchers were hoping that in the next twelve months a breakthrough would be made. Then they could do something for me. I didn't get my hopes built up for a breakthrough. Unfortunately, Mom and Dad were hoping too much.
That was the beginning of the rounds. Once a year it was off to Shriners. In the meantime it was back to the chiropractor where I was bent like a willow bough. Or I would stand at the end of the couch and be thrown face down on the cushions and bounce for hours and hours. And, of course, there were always the faith healers. Then off to the osteopaths, back to the chiropractors, then to the osteopaths again. And there was always hope that next year there would be a medical breakthrough at Shriners. Back and forth I went like a Ping-Pong ball. And all that was accomplished was that the chiropractors and osteopaths were richer, my parents were poorer, and I was in much worse condition than when I started. The doctors won, and Mom and Dad lost. But in the end I was the real loser.
After being treated by all of the experts for several years, I came to the conclusion that I was my own best doctor. I would get better results and hurt less when I made the decision about what treatments should be used. I listened to what the doctors had to say. Sometimes they had good ideas, but some of my ideas were better than theirs. It seems as though I understood myself better than anyone else.
The Shriners' doctors noticed that my legs were scissor-like--they always came together at the knees. Dad reasoned that if I rode a pony, I would have to ride bowlegged. That would force my scissor-like legs apart. So, Dad bought me a pony. We called him Bon Trinket after a famous trick horse in the circus. Of all the pets I had, the pony was the smartest.
Riding the pony did keep my legs apart. But as soon as I got off, my knees came together again.
At first, I never rode alone. Dad led the pony around by the reins. I also had friends who owned horses and they let me ride double with them. The person behind me held the reins and helped me keep my balance. But it wasn't long before I was on my own. (When I was seven years old, my mother allowed me to cross the street and go anywhere I wanted by myself.)
We had a little four-wheel farm wagon that Bons could pull. I piled all my friends into the wagon and we rode all over the place. Sometimes Mom packed us a lunch and we went out to the farm for a picnic in the grove. We went to football games and other sports activities. If there was a fire or something exciting happening, we hitched up Bons and went on our way. My friends and I would make extra money carrying our neighbors' trash out to the dump three miles out of town.
We even used the wagon to go to the county fair. My friends tossed me on the Ferris wheel and all the other rides. They strapped me in and joined me for the thrill of our lives. If Mom and Dad had found out, I really would have gotten into trouble.
Like I said before, Bons was the smartest animal that I ever had. I taught him to roll over and lie down. He even learned to play dead with his eyes closed and all four legs sticking straight up in the air, just like rigor mortis had set in.
It took me a long time to teach him to stand up on his hind legs. But the hardest trick he ever learned was to sit down like a dog. Horses just don't like to sit that way. I can't understand why, because they have the same hip joints as dogs.
I used to sit in front of Bons and talk to him for a long time. He had his own way of talking. We understood each other pretty well. When I wasn't looking, he would lick me in the face. I can't stand to have dogs, cats, or anything lick me in the face and a horse's tongue is a lot bigger than a dog's. He knew that I didn't like to be licked in the face, but he was a big tease.
He would get a hold of my wheelchair with his teeth and lift it in the air like he was going to tip me over. I would start screaming and yelling at him and then he would bounce me around for a few minutes before putting me down. He could give me a real good scare, because I never knew if he was going to tip me over or not. One time he slipped and dumped me right over. He was as surprised as I was. He set the chair upright, picked me up by the collar, and put me back into the chair.
Sometimes Mom would really get mad at Bons. We kept him in the backyard. At that time we had an outhouse. One time Mom went out to use the outhouse and Bons went over and pushed his nose against the door latch. It locked with Mom still inside. She got really mad and started screaming and yelling. Bons just walked off, laughing and shaking all over.
I heard Mom yell and went to the door to see what was happening. She kept yelling, "Let me out of here! Let me out of here!" I asked her what had happened, and she yelled back, "Bons locked me in!" I was in my wheelchair, so I couldn't go down the steps to help her. I saw a neighbor next door and yelled for help. Mom was locked in the outhouse for twenty-five minutes. She was furious!
Even though Bons knew Mom was mad, he went back to his pasture to munch on some grass. It was all a big joke to him, so I had to go out and teach him not to do it again. I showed him what he did with the latch and told him, "This is a no-no, and you are not to do it again!" And he never did.
When Dad gave me the pony, part of the deal was that I had to take care of Bons myself--that is as much as I could in my condition. Dad would put a bail of hay on the ground and break it apart. But it was my job to feed Bons. I would go over to the haystack in my wheelchair and pick up some loose hay between my feet. I moved it up and held the hay between my scissor legs. Then I pushed the wheelchair over to Bons and dropped the hay at his feet.
While he was eating, I would go get a gallon bucket and turn on the water tap with my toes. I filled the bucket on my lap and turned off the tap. Then I pushed the wheelchair over to Bons and gave him his water. As soon as he emptied the bucket, he would start licking his chops and shaking his head back and forth to tell me that it was not enough. He wanted more. He had me running back and forth until he was full. I don't know where he put all that water, but I still think he drank so much just to watch me work.
I had to do everything. That meant cleaning out the stall every two weeks, which took me half the day. When Bons got sick, I stayed with him in the stall all night nursing him. He got brushed twice a week. I would say, "Roll over, Bons." And he would go down onto his knees and roll over on his back. Then I gave him his bath and brushed him all over.
Although Bons was the smartest animal that I ever had, Mutt certainly came in a close second. He was the smartest dog that I ever had. Mutt was a rat terrier; a short, small dog with short hair and pointed ears. He was one dog who was quite independently minded. You could not put a collar on him or take him for a walk with a leash of any kind. If you did, he would not move and refused to eat until the collar was removed.
Mutt also thought that he was too good to be scolded. If I scolded him, he totally ignored me for two or three days. And I mean he totally ignored me! When I called him, he would not answer. When it came feeding time, I took the can of dog food in one foot and used the other to operate the can opener. Then I dumped the food into his dish and called him to dinner. But he refused the food, continuing to ignore me just like I did not exist. So Mom had to hand the dish of food to him. When he was ignoring me, he would answer Mom and Dad, but never me.
He wouldn't even play with me when he was ignoring me. The only exception was when I was in danger. If I started to fall or was in any other danger of hurting myself, he rushed over to catch me. Mutt was my guardian angel and was always looking after me. When Dad left me in the car while he carried the groceries into the house, Mutt always jumped onto the car seat and entertained and played with me, until Dad was finished and ready to take me into the house.
Mutt barked and licked my hands. Sometimes he licked my face. I just can't stand to have anything lick my face! One time Dad was taking the groceries into the house and left the car door open on my side. I started to fall out the open door. My body started leaning more and more. There was nothing I could do to regain my balance. Just as I was about to tumble onto the driveway, Mutt jumped into the car and wedged himself against me so I wouldn't fall.
At Christmas time Mutt always liked to help decorate the Christmas tree. I took the tinsel out of the box and laid it on the floor. Mutt took the tinsel in his mouth by one end and strung it across the branches. For the higher branches he leaped into the air and draped the tinsel on them.
One day Dad took Mutt out to the farm. When he left, Dad forgot Mutt and left him behind. By the time he realized what happened, it was too late. Mutt was lost.
When we looked for Mutt at the farm the next day, he was right there, lying down and waiting for us. Mutt ignored Dad for a month after that. He didn't mind riding in other people's cars, but he never got into Dad's car again.
I had some other pets, but they didn't amount to much. I had a rabbit for one day. When I put it to bed the first night, I tucked a blanket around it so it would stay warm. Somehow, it got trapped underneath the blanket and suffocated. The next morning, when I went to play with him, he was dead. I think his name was Cottontail.
There was a parakeet, a goldfish, a cat, and three other dogs--Bobtail, Knox, and Penny. Penny was the dumbest animal I ever had. He was a male dog. He couldn't learn even the simplest tricks. As hard as I tried, he couldn't learn even one trick, so I finally gave up trying to teach him anything.
To show you how dumb he was, one time I was teaching him to stay away from cars. While I was teaching him, he got run over by a car and was killed. That dog could never understand when you were trying to do something for his own good.
Every Kid Get the Mumps
I got the measles like all kids. The effect on me was much the same as with the other kids. I had a few minor relapses, but that was the worst of it.
In the third grade one of the girls in class had the mumps. She loved school so much that she came back before she was completely recovered. If she had not come back so soon, I would not have caught them from her. I was given the mumps by the same girl who gave me Mutt when he was a puppy.
I expected to get over the mumps with very little problem the same as I had the measles. But the mumps are not the same as measles. Mumps effect the glands and the glands effect the nervous system. And I already had severe and medically unknown problems with my nervous system.
The mumps were, in themselves, no worse than those any other kid would have; but, they triggered side effects in my system. It was those side effects that haunted me.
I was normally very tense and hyper. But, now, the tenseness would be increased. I became overly alert and sensitive. There was no pain at this point, but it was not a pleasant sensation either. The tenseness was an isometric pattern, which means my muscles opposed each other. They pulled and pushed with equal force against one another. The biceps muscle in my arm might pull outward while the triceps muscle pulled inward. This tenseness of counter action was not limited to one part of my body. Every muscle in my body was fighting against every other opposing muscle at the same time.
My muscles were literally fighting with each other. One muscle fights to throw the arm away from the body, another fights to pull it back. Still another wants to bend the elbow, while one tries to keep it straight. The muscles are confused. Each one is desperately trying to do its duty; but with a disorganized and incoherent set of directions from the brain, they don't know what to do.
The eventual result is that the part of my body which is undergoing this battle is thrown into a spasm of uncontrollable jerking and twisting. At the beginning of the spasm, there is no pain. But in the fray of battle, the muscles become sore. The muscles don't realize that they are but a pawn in a suicidal game of fanatical self-destruction. It is as though a telephone switchboard sent out a flood of phone calls, but somehow all of the lines got crossed and calls are going to the wrong places. Everything seems to be backwards. (In fact, it is not unusual for a baby with spastic paralysis to crawl backwards.)
I could control the spasms for awhile, but eventually they took over and did with my body as they wished. At this point the spasms were in complete control and running wild. I was tossed to and fro like a ship in a hurricane. I did have control over my neck however, or I might never have survived the ordeal.
As the spasms grew to an even greater intensity, they released a sharp nerve pain, as if a hole had been drilled in a tooth and cold water poured in. Except the pain was all over my body. The spasms, the pain, and the soreness reached such a magnitude that the natural result would have been to pass out. But just before I entered into the bliss of unconsciousness, my muscles relaxed, and the pain completely stopped. I had complete relaxation for a period of five minutes. Then the spasms started again. They lasted for about two hours, then there was a truce for five minutes before the battle began again with the same ultimate objective--to destroy me. Back and forth it went, all day and all night.
Of course, I could not go to school in that condition. But I was optimistic that my problems would soon be over and that life would be back to normal. After all, the mumps can't last more than a few days and the side effects certainly couldn't last much longer.
At night I slept between Mom and Dad. I couldn't sleep by myself, because the spasms would throw me right out of bed. So my parents were forced to sleep with a bucking bronco wedged between them.
I didn't sleep at all for the first two weeks, or if I did, it was only for a few minutes at a time.
Both of my parents worked days, so Granddad Holmes took care of me while they were gone. He wasn't young anymore nor as strong as he needed to be, so they hired a baby sitter for me. She was literally a baby sitter. She placed me on the edge of the bed and sat on me! That was the only way she could control my spasms. After sitting on me for as long as she could take it, she put me in the middle of the bed where I could bounce and not hurt myself. Then she got up and walked around, trying to pull her body back together. I just tore her apart.
The spasms didn't subside after a few days as I had thought they would. They remained with the same pattern and intensity--five minutes of rest, two hours of torture, day in and day out. When Mom came home from work, she would carry me around on her hip while she did the housework. It hurt her a lot, as I was now eight years old. But she never complained and she was always more concerned about me than herself.
My parents didn't know what to do, but they tried everything they could think of to make me more comfortable. My baby sitter and grandfather became my only playmates. My little friends avoided me and rarely came over to the house. If they did, they would not come back. They didn't like to face the reality of my condition. I was more reality than they could handle. So they stayed away. Their staying away hurt me very much. That was the time when I needed my friends the most and they weren't there. Granddad and the baby sitter must have recognized this, as they invented games and things for me to do. They were effective too, because they took my mind off the pain for a short while--but never for long.
Many years later, I could relate to Evil Knevil. I felt that we had a lot in common. We had both broken just about every bone in our bodies many times over. The funny thing is that nobody knew that I was breaking bones, including myself. The spasms caused my arms to slam into my sides and ribcage with such force that, one by one, all of my ribs were broken. But, to me, it was just another pain. I couldn't distinguish that pain from any of the other pains. Pain was pain as far as I was concerned. The pain of a broken bone was nothing compared to the severity of the pain caused by the spasms.
The spasms eventually dislocated my right shoulder. The dislocation was far more painful than any broken bone. I was constantly aware of it. The dislocation became so regular that it eventually became a permanent feature on my body, raising one shoulder out of proportion to the other. I developed the habit of leaning forward in a desperate attempt to reduce the pain. This caused me to look like a hunchback, although I am not. Today, friends who do not understand the pain that constantly engulfs me, will come up and slap me on the back in a warm, friendly gesture. Their friendliness just about kills me.
During the spasms, my face twisted and contorted and my jaw was pulled downward. In time this would cause a permanent distortion of my facial features. A distortion that would vary according to how I was feeling at the time. If I am perfectly relaxed and free of spasms, then my face falls back into place and I look fairly normal. But when I have spasms in varying degrees, my face distorts in varying degrees. When this happens, the first impression a person has is to ask themselves if I am mentally retarded. They are not quite sure.
On and on it went. The days became weeks and the weeks became months. Time did not pass quickly. I was vividly aware of every second of time. I had always been an optimist. I always enjoyed life immensely and even under the worst circumstances, I was happy and smiling.
This happy attitude toward life did not change, even as I underwent the continuous nightmare of having my body tear itself apart while I was helpless to do anything about it. I held up well for three months. I held up pretty well for six months. After that, I began to waiver. The spasms were as strong as ever. My parents still had to sleep with me between them at night, where I proceeded to tear them apart, as well as myself. Muscles were competing as strongly as ever with each other to see which one could draw-and-quarter me first. During the day and at night, I had only a few minutes of relaxation.
After six months, life was not fun anymore. During the first month, the family doctor would come by three times a week. As time went on, and my spasms went on, he would come by each day and then twice a day. By the sixth month, the doctor gave up. He told my parents that I would not live more than a few days and that the only thing he could think of doing was to give me morphine.
My parents made arrangements with the funeral home for my memorial service. They bought a burial plot at the cemetery. All of my friends, relatives, and cousins visited me. All of the neighbors started dropping by. I was no dummy. I knew what was going on. You get real suspicious when everybody brings you flowers for a present. Nobody brings a kid flower! Really, what is an eight-year-old kid going to do with flowers! I wanted toys! When my visitors left, they always broke down and cried.
One day, in the middle of all this, Mom came in the door with a package. She quickly tried to dart up the stairs without my noticing. I stopped her and asked what she had in the package. She avoided answering me, so I persisted in asking her until she finally said, "I purchased a new suit for a poor little boy in town who needs clothes." I asked her to let me see it. Again she refused. Finally I forced her to open the package to let me see the suit.
"Oh! It's my favorite color!"
The pastor from the church visited me. The local Catholic priest came over and baptized me. As soon as he finished the baptism, he gave me the last rites of the Catholic Church. This I found to be even more interesting than my experience with the members of the Baptist Church who told me to go to the non-Baptist faith healers. You see, we true believers, the Fundamentalists in Little Egypt, just hated the Catholics. As I explained before, there was always some question as to whether the other denominational sects of the Baptist Church could go to heaven. But there was no question about the Catholics. They were all going to hell! But, a lot of the members of the Baptist Church we went to told my mother that it would not do any harm to have me baptized in the Catholic Church also, just in case...
The doctor continued coming by the house to examine me. Each time he ended the examination by telling my parents that I would not live more than a few days.
The spasms continued, but they were never the same. Sometimes they were worse, sometimes they were better than worse, and sometimes they were worse than worse, but never constant. They were also intermittent. Sometimes their severity was lessened to the point that they were strong enough to kill a horse, but still less severe than when they could kill an elephant.
I now made three decisions: First, I refused to take the morphine; second, I decided that I would not die; and third, I decided to go back to life as normal. That is, as normal as possible under the circumstances.
When the spasms died down to the level of killing a horse, I decided that I would just put up with the pain and go back to life as it was before. My doctor became very upset with me when I told him of my plans. The doctor and my parents tried very hard to persuade me not to leave the bed. They were afraid that I would die in the fields, all alone. Instead, they reasoned, it would be better to stay at home where my parents could constantly take care of me and where I could die in bed. Finally I told them, "Either way I am going to die. I would rather die in the middle of the battle than to die in bed. I want to go out in a blaze of glory!" I shouted. They were still not convinced, in fact a long way from being convinced of my arguments. And then I said, "Remember what Al Capone said?"
I was always tumbling. If I sat in my wheelchair, I would tumble out. When I leaped, I might make only an inch and tumble sideways.
Somehow, my body continued living. How, I don't know. There was no way I could keep on living, yet my body would not let me die. The days, the weeks, and the months continued on, and still I lived.
Two months later I told Mom that I wanted to go back to school. She was opposed to my going back to school, and believed it best if I stayed home and rested. I persisted and finally we reached a compromise. Mom would continue my schooling at home.
The reason I insisted on continuing my schooling was because I had noticed that when my mind was occupied with interesting activities, I had better control over the spasms. I could even stretch the time that I relaxed before the spasms started again. Instead of five minutes between attacks, I could push it to ten, fifteen minutes, and sometimes even more. This is why I wanted to continue schooling. I wanted my mind to be occupied.
I read the school books when the pain was not too great. Then Mom would take over and read to me. When I took a test, I would give the answers and she would write them down for me. But I had to do all of the work myself.
I would do my school work during that few minutes that my body was relaxing, between battles. When the spasms took over, I would put the studying aside and go back into combat. When the battle was over, I went back to my studies again.
Concentrating on my schooling had the right effect. When the spasms started up again, I would just ignore them and continue my studies. I only stopped studying when the spasms took over my body completely. It was slow plodding, but it worked.
After going through this condition for about one year, it was time for my annual visit to the Shriners Hospital. The doctors tried everything that they could think of to stop my spasms. I was given every test that they had, every type of treatment the best doctors in the world could think of, from morn till sun and the rest of the night.
They tried every conceivable new medicine. Then, the shock treatments. Shock treatments were the new up-and-coming thing in those days. They were supposed to cure everything. For some reason, all the doctors I went to always wanted to give me shock treatments. But my muscles were jumping all over the place anyway and when the electricity hit them, they jumped even more.
They dumped me into ice water, and from there, straight into hot water. Back and forth I went for hours. It was highly sensational; but I must say, I didn't care much for the sensations. They tried to get a therapist to work on me; but as soon as she grabbed my arm, I had a strong spasm and threw her nearly across the room. They tried everything and accomplished nothing.
The doctors were disappointed. I told Doctor Carrol that I was not worried about myself. I could take the pain. But I was worried about my parents. I didn't know if they could take it any longer.
Dr. Carrol called my parents into his office. He was very blunt. "This will be Gene's last visit here," he informed them. "In my estimation Gene cannot live more than three or four weeks. If he lives more than three months, he will defy all medical science."
Mom and Dad had entertained high hopes for a miracle breakthrough. Now they were shattered. I had entertained few hopes at all. I was the only person who had been able to help me so far and I didn't give the doctors much chance to do better. So you could say that I was not disappointed by the results of this 'final' visit.
A year later it was time once again for my annual Shriners visit. (That was forty-eight weeks after I was supposed to be dead.) Dr. Carrol, like most doctors, never knew who his next patient was going to be until they came through the door. When he looked up from his desk and saw me, he just about fell over and dropped dead! "You mean to tell me that you are still alive!" he gasped.
This visit to the Shriners ended the same as the previous visit. They could do nothing for me. The few things that they could do were certainly not pleasant. They could cut the nerves in my arms to stop some of the pain. But it might be necessary to cut all of the nerves in the arms. If that was done, then it would mean that my arms might have to be amputated. I agreed with Dr. Carrol, we should leave my arms on for the time being. I figured that even if they were useless to me, my arms could at least be used as handles, or something, for someone to get a hold of me and pick me up. I have to admit, that's all my arms were good for anyway. They were otherwise quite useless and caused me a great deal of discomfort. Mom and Dad didn't want my arms cut off either, so that settled the matter.
Dr. Carrol (the great predictor) then informed us that he did not expect me to live more than eight weeks, four months at the most. If I lived beyond that he said, "Gene will defy all medical history. And if he does defy medical history and live, then he will spend the rest of his life a vegetable. The spasms will tear him to pieces and the mind will collapse."
I went back to Harrisburg, a vegetable-to-be.
By this time I was able to talk Mom into letting me go back to the classroom. She had been dead set against it, but as usual I prevailed. I was laid on pillows and surrounded by more pillows. I bounced around in class all day long. This upset some of the other kids in class, but it helped me to some degree. I was able to keep my mind busy.
When I went home, Mom continued to keep me busy by giving me chores to do. She cleaned a spot on the floor and washed my feet, so I could help her with the dishes. She washed the dishes. As I lay on my back, she handed me the dishes to dry. I held each dish between the toes of one foot and dried it with a cloth in the other. When the dish was dry, Mom took it and put another one between my toes.
Through this constant concentration, I was able to reduce the amount of pain and lengthen the relaxation periods. My doctor observed that I was able to reduce the spasms by fifty percent. He started off by telling me ten percent, but with each visit he raised the figure more and more until he hit the fifty-percent mark. I noticed that he was upping the figures each time, but he wasn't fooling me. It was my body. In my book the spasms were reduced twenty-five percent tops.
This had the effect of convincing my parents I was getting better. It also gave me justification to expand my interest and activities. Two years slowly turned into four. I still slept between my parents. I still had a baby sitter to sit on me. I still had the pillows at school and bounced from morn till sun, and then all night. The greatest fun I had during this time was that one day each year I entered Dr. Carrol's office at the Shriners Hospital. Each time he saw me he turned as white as a ghost.
My school superintendent wanted me to go to the Children's Hospital in Springfield, Illinois. It was run by the University of Illinois and was part of their medical school. The whole staff was anxious to experiment on me. After all, shock treatments were new, and you know how medical students love to experiment on a new subject.
I went into the examination room and waited my turn. I was told that Dr. Pearlstein would be my doctor and that I was to wait for him to examine me. I waited about twenty minutes and then the curtains were opened by a man I assumed to be a medical technician. I had been to so many doctors that I knew the routine quite well. I expected the technician to take me off for some lab test. But there was something most unusual about this technician. He was like me. He had spastic paralysis. He wasn't as bad as I was, but I still recognized what he was. He was walking, but very awkward and spastic in his movements.
I started off the conversation by asking him, "Are you a technician here? Or, what is your job?"
"I'm your doctor," he replied.
"You're Dr. Pearlstein!" I said in a somewhat confused state of mind.
"Yes," he replied, "but nobody ever believes that I am a doctor. In fact nobody believes that I am anything."
"I know what you mean," I replied. (It turned out that Dr. Pearlstein was a Jew. That explained it. You see, if anyone else is born crippled, the parents make them vegetate all their lives. But if you are born crippled and a Jew, you still have to be a doctor or lawyer.)
"I see you have cerebral palsy," he said.
"No," I answered, "I don't have cerebral palsy. I have spastic paralysis."
"We don't call it spastic paralysis anymore," he informed me. "Now we call it cerebral palsy. This is because there is no paralysis. We have discovered the condition is caused by brain damage and 'cerebral' refers to the brain."
And that is what I have been ever since, a cerebral palsy.
Because Dr. Pearlstein was a cerebral palsy himself, he knew what treatments were effective and which were not. He reasoned that my spasms were due to my nervous system and that the nervous system is controlled by the vitamin B complexes. He gave me a great big capsule of vitamin B-12. And it worked! Twenty minutes later, I was as quiet as a mouse.
In time I developed an immunity to the vitamin B-12 and it no longer had any effect on me. But, the B-12 did its job and broke the cycle which had gone on for four very long years. The spasms did not go away entirely. I would be plagued by spasms for the rest of my life, but never as severe.
I was now twelve years old and my life changed drastically. I lost my ability to leap with any degree of expertise. From time to time I would leap, but each year, less and less, until the day came that I lost the ability to leap altogether. At the age of twelve, I spent my time in the wheelchair. It was necessary to strap me in so I wouldn't fall out. I lost my ability to ride the pony, so in fairness to Bons I gave him to two brothers. They let me come over and ride him and visit when I recovered.
Most of my bones had been broken, although it was years later before anyone realized it. My one shoulder was more or less dislocated and remained that way. I continued the habit of bending forward to reduce the pain that remained in varying degrees. By studying at home and going back to class, I was able to make up some schooling, but I was now four years behind.
From this point on, life would not be the same as it was before.
The Tank Wars
As I explained before, my father had a peculiar personality and an equally peculiar philosophy of life. None of it was based on any known logic or thought. Unlike Grandpa Bybee, Grandpa Holmes did not live with us until he died. He lived in our house for awhile and then moved out. He still continued to live in Harrisburg and still came by the house each day to spend time with me.
It was alright with Dad if Granddad Holmes repaired my wheelchair, as long as he lived under the same roof. But once Granddad Holmes moved out, Dad refused to let me have my wheelchair repaired by him. I had to go to Tom Cain's shop on the other side of town. So the first time my wheelchair broke, after Grandpa Holmes moved, I got myself and my wheelchair over to Tom Cain's shop and asked him to fix it for me.
Tom lifted me out of the chair and set me on his table and looked at the wheelchair. "Well, what do you want to talk about while I fix your chair, Gene?" he asked.
"Tell me about the tank wars," I asked enthusiastically.
On October 4, 1926, the Charlie Birger-Shelton War entered a new phase. Charlie Birger's top lieutenant, Art Newman, and his wife were driving in their car west of Harrisburg on their way to Shady Rest. As they rounded a curve, a heavy truck was heading straight for them.
It was a very strange looking truck indeed. The truck bed had been removed and in its place sat a large steel tank which ran the length of the truck frame. On both sides of the steel tank were gun portholes like an old time man-o-war. Inside the tank, packed shoulder to shoulder, were men with machine guns whose barrels protruded through the portholes. The Sheltons had brought tank warfare to Williamson County.
As the tank drew abreast of Art Newman's car, the gunmen let loose with a ferocious broadside. Luckily, Art Newman was not hit and even though his car was riddled with bullets, it could still run. He spun the car around as fast as he could, quickly out-distancing the slow-moving tank. He high tailed it back to Charlie Birger's house in Harrisburg to tell Charlie of this new development.
The Shelton tank ran wild for a few days shooting up Charlie Birger's roadhouses. But Charlie was not one to sit idly by while this Shelton dreadnought rolled over his empire and demolished his dreams bit by bit.
A few days after the attack Charlie Birger got a hold of some news which prompted him to make a phone call. (Both Charlie Birger and the Sheltons had elaborate spy networks throughout Egypt.) He called Joe Adams. Joe was a big man of almost three hundred pounds. He was the Stutz dealer and mayor in West City, a suburb of Marion, over in Franklin County. West City was a wide-open town owned by the Shelton brothers, just as they owned Joe Adams.
The word got back to Charlie that the Sheltons had secreted their tank in Joe Adams' garage. Charlie was direct and to the point when he called Joe Adams. "Turn the Shelton tank over to me or I will kill you." Joe told Charlie, very impolitely, that he would not turn over the tank.
Charlie, always thoughtful Charlie, then called Joe Adams' wife and asked her if she had any life insurance on her husband. She replied that she did not. Charlie suggested that she buy some before he killed her husband. She didn't. Charlie did.
The Sheltons threw a platoon of infantrymen around the garage to protect the tank. Then Charlie thought of Tom Cain.
Tom had a shop in Harrisburg in which he did carpentry, welding, a little bit of everything, You name it and Tom did it. And, oh, one more thing, Tom Cain was an expert at working with all kinds of steel.
Charlie always had the best, most powerful, heavy duty cars that money could buy. He had Tom Cain strip down his Lincoln to the frame and then enclose a gun room with steel sheets and gunports. Both Tom Cain and Charlie Birger were now in the tank business. This wasn't the only tank Tom built. Whenever the war heated up, Charlie dropped by and Tom would be busy twenty-four hours a day getting another tank ready for the ever-looming battles. Charlie was never perfectly happy with his tanks. He was always talking to Tom about improvements--more speed and heavier armaments.
Tom told Charlie that he would have to make a choice. The heavy steel plates slowed the tank down. The only way of increasing the speed was to make the steel sheeting thinner and more vulnerable to Shelton bullets. Charlie thought about this for a moment and finally said, "I'll take the heavier armor. If the Sheltons get close enough to fire at me, then I'll just shoot back."
Charlie Birger and his gang used their tanks to annihilate the defenseless Shelton roadhouses. It was like a turkey shoot throughout all of Egypt. The tanks just pulled up to their opponent's roadhouse and blasted them off the face of the earth. The tanks wreaked havoc wherever they went. They were invincible. Until one day...
The phone rang in Shady Rest. It was the spy network. The Shelton gang headquarters had been located in Marion. This is exactly what Charlie Birger had been waiting for. He had to act quickly. Immediately the word was spread. The Charlie Birger gang, armed to the teeth, piled into the tank, the heavy tank. The heavy tank was based upon the same design of the Shelton heavy tank which shot up Art Newman. It was a steel tank placed on the bed of a heavy duty truck. Charlie only used the heavy tank when he really meant business. And this time Charlie meant business. He was going to drive straight into Marion and pull up in front of the Shelton headquarters, catching everyone by surprise. He intended to destroy the headquarters, including the three Shelton brothers and all of the gang members in one fell swoop. The war would be over and Egypt would belong to Charlie Birger in one bold strike.
But, as the tank was pulling out of the gravel road onto the main highway, the Shelton brothers were just finishing the final touches of a plan of their own. They had decided to pile all of their men, armed to the teeth, into their heavy tank and drive out of Marion straight into Shady Rest. They hoped to catch Charlie Birger and his gang completely by surprise and destroy Shady Rest, Charlie Birger, and his entire gang in one fell swoop. The war would be over and Egypt would belong to the three Shelton brothers in one bold stroke.
As fate would have it, Charlie Birger's tank was pulling out of Shady Rest at the same time the Shelton tank was driving down the main street of Marion. Somewhere, halfway between Marion and Shady Rest, the Shelton tank rolled over a hill and headed down into a meadow land. The driver yelled, "It's Charlie Birger!" At the same instant in the Charlie Birger tank someone yelled, "It's the Sheltons!" All hell broke loose! Frantically men were everywhere, slamming canisters into their Thompson machine guns, shoving and clawing at one another to get to the gunports; all the time screaming, yelling, cursing. In a few seconds the two tanks were abreast of one another.
The machine guns roared. Thousands of bullets bounced off the steel sides. Inside both tanks there was a deafening roar as the lead bullets hit steel armor. The tanks passed and tried to turn around in the narrow road without success.
Both sides had to settle for the one broadside. Although the battle was of short duration, for intensity and ferocity, it was the greatest tank battle ever fought in the continental United States.
Nobody was hurt. but the monkey was scared out of its wits.
There was one more characteristic about me that I haven't told you about yet. This characteristic was the greatest problem that I encountered. Whenever I talked, whenever I said a word, I would go blind. When I said a word, or made a sound, I would see squiggly things in front of my eyes. They were different and distinct patterns in brilliant colors. Each word had its own pattern. I could tell the word from the pattern that I saw.
The word 'was' looked like a swastika. Each arm of the swastika was a different color--one was red, another blue, one green, and the last, yellow. The swastika was inside a diamond. The diamond was deep purple, like the ultra-violet rays of a black light.
Each syllable produced its own light show. Believe it or not the word 'chrysanthemum' was the most beautiful. It was spectacular! It looked like a Fourth of July fireworks display with every color on earth exploding in all directions.
But not all words put on a show of beauty. Some words produce awful sight. I won't even tell you what the word 'dungeon' looked like. Squiggly things, that's what I saw when I said a word, nothing else.
As a small child, I didn't talk very well, mostly gibberish. People could understand me, but with difficulty.
When I talked with people, Mom had to stop the conversation and explain to the other person what I was saying to them. I was always confused about why Mom was doing this. I could understand what the people were saying to me. I was talking back to them the same way they were talking to me. So why was it necessary for my mother to explain what I was saying to them?
What I did not realize, and neither did anyone else at the time, was that I had a frequency loss in my hearing. Some frequencies I could hear, but others I could not. I was simply not hearing what other people were hearing. But, of course, I had no way of knowing this at the time.
When someone asked, "How are you today?" I heard, "Ah wah ouu aah?" So, naturally, when I asked someone "How are you today?" I said, "Ah wah ouu aah?" I was simply repeating what I heard. Mom had to intervene and explain what I meant. Finally understanding my question, the person replied, "Fine." But I did not hear, "Fine." I heard, "Ine." So whenever anyone asked me how I felt, I replied, "Ine." No wonder everyone was confused, including myself.
That was the way I spoke all of the time. Without knowing it, I had created my own language. My parents understood my language and my playmates learned it also. They could converse with me quite easily. But, for everyone else, it was very difficult.
As the years went on, I began to wonder more and more why people could not understand me. I didn't like the idea of my parents having to talk for me, interpreting everything I said so others could understand. I began to realize that there was something wrong. I didn't know what, but I knew something was wrong. There was a communication gap and I wanted to find out what it was.
I decided to discuss the problem with Mom. I told her that I could understand what people were saying, but when I tried to say the same thing back to them, something happened. They could not understand me. I asked her why. She replied that when I said words back to people, I was saying my own words. I could understand these words, but other people could not.
She told me that she hadn't mentioned this me, because she believed that if I had the ability to speak in an understandable way I would be doing it. She also believed that I wouldn't be able to do anything about this inability to communicate, so she decided not to mention this problem to me.
I told her that I felt something was missing, but I did believe that I had enough control over my voice to speak more clearly so that people would be able to understand me.
Mom told me that she thought I was putting out my best effort, as it was. She didn't think I was being lazy, but talking the best I could. So why bother to try to make improvements?
I decided to do some research and started watching the way people moved their mouths when they talked. I told Mom and Dad to sit next to me in front of the mirror. I wanted to watch the way their lips moved when they said words. Then I wanted to repeat the same words and see if there was any difference in the way that I moved my lips.
We worked in front of the mirror for awhile, then I finally told Mom, "Everytime I try to say the word right, those squiggly things get in my way and make it really difficult."
"What squiggly things are you talking about?" Mom asked.
"You know," I answered. "Everytime I talk, those squiggly things cover my eyes with colors and different patterns. I go blind whenever I say a word."
"Why didn't you tell me before that you went blind when you talked?" Mom asked.
I sat there absolutely stunned. It took several minutes before the enormity of what she said sank in. Then I answered back, "I thought everyone went blind when they talked."
I used the mirror technique I developed with my parents to work on my speech. I set up a schedule to work sitting in front of the mirror for at least three hours each day between spasms. I kept to this schedule seven days a week for four years.
I worked mostly on my own and only called my parents to sit beside me when I needed their help. At first it was very confusing. In fact to this day it is still confusing. In a moment you will see why.
I started my program by telling Mom to make a list of the most commonly used, but simple words. The words she included on the list were: the, it, he, she, and, was, etc. I started working on these words first.
I asked Mom to say the word the way other people said it. Then, I asked her to repeat the same words the way I said it. This way I could hear the difference with my ears and see the difference in the lip movements and facial expressions in the mirror. The mirror quickly showed me that I moved my lips differently from Mom when I said the same word. But I couldn't hear any difference. That was confusing.
Let's go back to the word "fine" that I told you about before. Mom included the word "fine" in the list. She sat with me in front of the mirror and pointed to the word "fine" so I knew which word we were now working on. Then she looked in the mirror and said, "Fine." But I only heard "ine." So I watched my mother's lips in the mirror as she kept repeating the word "Fine." "That is the way that other people say the word," she told me. "Now I will repeat the word the way that you say it. Ine." I was hearing the same word, but I could see the difference in the lip movements. Now you can see why it was so confusing.
In order to speak the other people's language, I first had to unlearn and forget my own language. Remember, I already had my own language which worked for me and my playmates very well.
I had been working in front of the mirror for four days before I decided to use this new technique of imitating the lip movements. The first word I decided to work on was "Chevrolet." The reason I chose this word was because the neighbors had just bought a new Chevrolet and it was parked directly across the street. I sat down with my mother and started off by saying "Shhh-lay." Mom worked with me for a few minutes and then I asked her to leave. I worked on the word "Chevrolet" by myself in front of the mirror for two days. I worked on just that one word and kept it a secret from both my parents. When I was satisfied, I went into the kitchen and said to Mom, "How do you like the new Chevrolet across the street?"
I startled her. She asked me, "How did you do that?" I told her that I watched her lips and facial expressions in the mirror and learned to repeat the same movements.
I was now on my way to talking the same way that other people talked. Well, perhaps that is an overstatement. Actually, I was now talking in a way that other people could understand. I didn't say the word "Chevrolet" perfectly, but other people could understand what I meant and that was what counted.
These new sounds I was making didn't seen right. They sounded really strange. I had to listen to people speak to me with words having one sound, but reply with a totally different set of sounds; strange, strange sounds!
If I wished to enter the same world in which other people lived, I had to develop a system of two languages. And that is exactly what I did. I had to force myself to listen, intently, to every word spoken to me. Then I disciplined myself not to repeat the same words I had spoken for twelve years. Instead I erased from my mind my usual vocabulary and replaced it with some rather bazaar sounds that I could not understand.
I learned to carry on a coherent conversation with a stranger. It was like listening to a person speak in English, while my replies had to be in French without ever having had a French lesson in my life.
It didn't take me long to master a word. That was because I was learning only common words that I used many times in normal conversations. I could tell instantly if the person I was talking with could understand the words I was trying to say or not. It didn't take me long to zero in, so that the words could be understood. Through constant repetition, these new words were being imprinted into my brain. The hardest part was having to always be on guard not to slip back into my old way of speaking. At first, this happened all of the time. It was usually quite funny. I would be talking to my friends and then, all of a sudden, I would lapse into my old way of absolute babbling. They couldn't figure out what was happening.
In the beginning of this speech project the greatest barriers were from my parents. They were convinced that I would never be any better. They thought that if I persisted in my methods, I would develop a split personality. They had good cause to be concerned. Doctor Carrol told them that if I kept it up, I was going to become a "Dr. Jekel and Mr. Hyde!" All the doctors tried to get me to stop. The doctors were convinced that by thinking and talking in two weird languages I would develop two different and schizophrenic personalities. That is the doctors, except Dr. Pearlstein. He said, "Go ahead." And that's exactly what I did.
Day after day, I sat at the mirror. Mom started me off by pointing to the words that we were going to work on for that day. She said the words as I watched the movements of her lips, tongue, and facial expressions. Then I repeated the word and tried to imitate the same movements and expressions in the mirror. She let me know when I had the word correct. Once I had the words correct, Mom left me and I continued on alone.
The funny thing is that I had been unconsciously reading people's lips all of my life. This was illustrated one day when Mom said something to me, but I did not answer. She repeated it again, but again I did not answer. She didn't know if I was mad or what. She asked me, "What's the matter with you this morning. I've spoken to you twice and you didn't speak to me at all." I asked her where she was standing when she spoke to me, and she said that she had been in the bedroom. I told her that she was probably behind me. She replied that she was behind me at the time she spoke. "Well," I said, "I've never said anything about it, but I always try to be aware of where people are standing. I try to keep my eyes on them, because I depend on looking at their lips to understand what they are saying." I told her that I had been doing this for a long time, because I didn't want people to know that I was hard of hearing.
Mom talked with the superintendent of schools and the school district agreed to hire a speech therapist for me. I started taking both private and class lessons. These lessons helped to put the finishing touches on my speech and gave me the precision that I needed.
Before, my world was limited to my relatives and friends who could understand me, but now a whole new world was opened to me. Soon I would go out into this world.
All Men Are Created Equal
One day I overheard my mother and Aunt Iva talking. I found it to be an interesting conversation, because they were talking about me. I was in the dining room and they were in the living room. There is a large open doorway between the two rooms. Since I was hidden from view, they not aware that I was listening.
Aunt Iva told Mom that she and her husband had been talking about me. They were concerned about what would happen to me if anything should happen to my parents. Aunt Iva suggested that in the event of my parents' death, I come and live with them. She felt, however, that the decision should be mine. If I wanted to live with another relative, or anyone else, then that would be fine too. But whoever I chose to live with, it was important that those people knew how to take care of my needs.
I sat there for a long time as I listened to them talk about who should take care of me, how I was to be treated, and how I should live.
The more I listened to them talk, the madder I became. I wasn't mad at Aunt Iva. I was angered by the thought of other people planning my life for me. And yet this one conversation, from which I was excluded, was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
For the first time I realized that the subject Mom and Aunt Iva were talking about, the death of my parents, would in fact, some day come to pass. Right then and there I realized that when that day came, I would have to depend upon myself. I hadn't given any thought to this before. I just figured that I would take life one day at a time. As things happened, I would take care of it then.
I decided to give a lot of thought to this new problem that had just arisen. I closeted myself in my room for two days while I tried to figure out what I was to do if my parents did die. Mom kept calling me to ask why I was spending all of my time in my room. I kept replying that I was reading a book. She thought nothing of it because I was an avid reader.
For the first few hours, I was totally confused as to what to do. I knew that something had to be done, but I had absolutely no idea how to go about solving this dilemma. Finally I said to myself, there is a solution to everything, so there has to be a solution to this problem also. I figured that someday I would be on my own and would have to take care of myself. But I was only twelve years old. This meant that I had a lot to learn to prepare for self-sufficiency. I needed experience. I decided that it was best not to wait, but to get started right now on learning on how to become self-sufficient. Better to start now, than to wait until my parents died and then figure out what to do.
Once I made the decision to become self-sufficient, my next job was to figure out the best way to do it. I made a list of what I thought the important problems were, and the least important. And at the top of the list for most important, I wrote the word 'financial.' There were other things on my list, but I always came back to 'financial' as being the most important. Somehow I had to have an income of my own.
I believed that I could rent out the farm. I planned on keeping the house and hiring someone to take care of me.
I made a second list of things that I could do and the things I could not do because of my handicap. I accepted the fact that I was handicapped and was realistic about my limitations.
After deliberating for two days, I decided that I was ready to talk to my parents. I was now prepared for the long, drawn-out battle which I knew lay ahead. I told Mom that I wanted to talk to her and Dad when they had a chance. I told her that it would take about two hours. "Oh, no!" she said. "Did you hear Aunt Iva and me talking?"
"Yes, I did," I replied.
"Oh, I wish you hadn't heard us," she said regretfully. "You probably got mad at her."
"No, I didn't get mad at her at all," I said. "In fact, I thought Aunt Iva brought up some good points. And I believe there are some things we ought to think about. I want to live an independent life. The best way for me to do this is to start now while you and Dad are still alive to help me."
"Oh, you can never live by yourself," she said firmly. The battle had begun. Both sides drew up their battle lines. Mom and Dad sat at one end of the table, while I sat at the opposing end. I fired the first salvo, "From now on we have to change a few things around here," I announced. "The family is going to go on and exist as it always has, but financially, I am going to be more independent than I have been."
My first salvo blasted them more than I had expected. They both went half-berserk, screaming, "Impossible! Impossible!"
Let me tell you something, so that you know what I was up against, in fact what all handicapped people are up against. The fact is that parents of handicaps never want their children to change. The parents are guilt ridden and feel that, somehow, they're responsible for their child being handicapped. Their logic goes, because they're guilty, it's their duty to take care of the handicapped child. They, and only they, are qualified to look after the child. No one else is capable of handling this responsibility. The parents must do everything, which means that the child is to do nothing for himself, including thinking.
When my parents stopped screaming, I told them, "I realize that I cannot buy my food yet, or pay rent. But I would like to buy my own clothes, pay for my entertainment, and all other expenses. So from now on you are not to buy clothes for me or anything else." I informed them that as I came up with more ideas and developed new procedures, I would inform them and put the new plans into effect.
Naturally, they were curious about how I was going to accomplish all of this. They pointed out that I was not financially well off. This I already knew. I had taken the precaution of counting the money I had in my piggy-bank. I had exactly thirty-five dollars.
I countered their argument, "I realize that I do not have money now, but perhaps this will create some problems that have to be solved. I can work out these problems, step by step, and learn to control them one way or another."
The battle went on and on. I insisted that anything besides the house and food I would pay for myself. If I could not afford something, then I would do without. They felt that I was jeopardizing myself and denying myself things that I should have. I answered, "So what! What I hope to do is to have this be a learning process on my part, so that when you both die I can continue to live. I have time in my favor now, and if I do not use this time wisely, I may be caught unprepared when the deadline comes.
"Things will go on as usual," I told them, "but differently than before."
No matter what I said, they were dead set against it. They didn't want me to do anything at all. They wanted things to go on as before. (All parents of handicaps want things to go on as before.) I set my foot down. I was determined to start taking care of myself. Then they put their feet down. This was not acceptable to them. They were really upset. Mom didn't cry, but I could tell that she was really hurt. Throughout it all, I remained calm but firm.
"You're trying to make yourself equal to everyone else," Dad shouted.
"Yes, I am," was my reply.
At the end of the two hours the battle, lines remained unchanged. I was still determined to carry out my plans for increased independence and they were still firm against my doing anything of the sort.
All of this time I had been holding a trump card. Now I decided to play it. "Remember what Al Capone said? I should be allowed to try anything I want, no matter how foolish." The battle was over. I had won.
They decided to let me have my way and let me fail. They figured that I would soon learn the folly of my ways and return to the "way it has always been," which was, of course, their way.
They asked me how I planned to do all of this. Since I had no specific plans at that point, I told them I would play it by ear, but let them know as my plans developed.
Dad told me that he was willing to help me and offered me fifty dollars to get started. I refused the money. I thought it was best to depend entirely upon myself. I had to face the worst, so I might as well get used to it. After all, the day would eventually come when Dad was not going to be there to give me money anymore.
And that is how it all ended. The only plan I had formulated up till now was that I would have to watch my spending very, very carefully and earn money any way that I could. Vague plans indeed!
I sat there, in my wooden dining room wheelchair. I was bent over with a twisted body and needed someone to feed, bathe, dress, and undress me and put me to bed. I was not able to use my arms and people could barely understand me. Yet at twelve years of age, I triumphantly announced to the world that from that point forward I was going to support myself!
My Arms Were Tired, but I Did It
I decided that my first project towards greater independence was to put myself to bed. Mom and Dad liked to go to bed early and I liked to go to bed late. Since they had to put me to bed, this caused a conflict in our lifestyles. So I told them that, from that point on, I wanted to put myself to bed. I had Mom turn back my bed and help me into my pajamas. She tied my arms behind my back so they would not fly all over the place. Then they went to bed and I was on my own.
I was able to turn my bedside radio on and off and tune it with my toes. I used a stick in my mouth to turn off the light switch. When it came time to go to bed, I placed the wheelchair along side the bed and I quickly stood up, I did a pirouette and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Now, remember, I still had some use of my legs. In fact, if two people supported me between them, I could maintain my balance and walk three hundred yards on the strength of my own legs. I looked like a pair of big scissors when I walked. I still had those scissor legs that came together at the knees. That limited me to tiny steps.
To complete the task of getting into bed, next I grabbed the covers with my teeth and pushed my feet under the covers. Then I laid on my stomach and I pulled the covers over my body. I never used a pillow. Now you may think this to be a peculiar way to sleep, but it was not peculiar to me.
For the next two weeks, after the battle of independence, I read classified ads in the local Harrisburg Daily Register. I read ads for all kinds of jobs and businesses. I decided that some jobs were not feasible for me, but other jobs I could handle. One ad was for a salesman for All Occasion Cards. This was a job that I figured I could handle, so I decided to apply for the position. In case I didn't get the card salesman's job, I went ahead and clipped out six more ads for some other jobs I thought I could handle.
I told Mom and Dad that I was going to apply for a job as a salesman for All Occasion Cards. Of course, they were dead set against it. They said things like, "You will be wasting your time even going down to apply." "It is wishful thinking." "Do you think they will even let you in the door?" "You're nuts!" With these encouraging words from my parents ringing in my ears, I started on my way downtown to the card company office, one mile away.
Since I gave up leaping, my standard method of travel was in my wooden chair which had arm rests. I sat with my left arm across my lap, while my right arm dangled down my side until my hand almost touched the ground. My left wrist was tied by a string to the right arm rest. My right wrist was tied to the cross brace at the bottom of the chair.
Mom or Dad took the chair outside for me and set me into it. From that point on I was on my own. I had a great deal of strength in my legs and pushed the chair backwards while looking over my shoulder. I didn't go in an absolutely straight line, but it did get me where I wanted to go. In this rather unorthodox manner, I traversed the one mile to the card company office.
When I arrived at the sales office, I discovered I was in luck. It was located on the ground floor. I had no difficulty getting my chair inside. Now opening the door was something I had no ability for whatsoever. I waited outside for about twenty minutes before a man walked by. He consented to hold the door open for me while I pushed myself inside.
Once inside I introduced myself to the secretary. I told her that I saw their ad in the paper and was there to be interviewed for and accept the job as card salesman.
I was taken into the manger's office. His name was Mr. Long. I repeated that I was there to apply for the job as card salesman. "Do you realize what you have to do to sell cards?" he asked rather incredulously. "You have to carry the cards around with you. You have to take orders. And, you have to deliver the orders yourself."
I replied that I had taken everything into consideration and I believed I could do the job very well. I prepared for the interview ahead of time by constructing a specially designed bag which hung from the back of my wheelchair. I showed the manager the different compartments I designed into my bag; one for the order book, another for my samples, still another for cards to be delivered, and so on.
He interviewed me for thirty skeptical minutes. Dubiously he said, "You understand that you work for the company and you do not work for yourself? And that you work for commission?"
I told him that I understood. He explained that if I sold over my quota, I would get a bonus. He put my sales kit and samples into my bag. While he was doing this, he told me that he never dreamed that a boy in a wheelchair would come in and ask for a job as a salesman. He said, "I have my doubts, but I am going to hire you anyway."
My interview started at one o'clock and now I was off for home hoping to get there just in time for lunch. While going down the sidewalk backwards, I met Jack Warner's father. "Hello, Gene," he said. "What are you doing?"
I replied that I answered an ad in the paper for a card salesman for All Occasion Cards and had taken the job. Now I was a licensed sales representative for the Gibson Card Company and on my way to independence.
"Do you mind if I look at the cards?" he asked. I told him to go right ahead. While he was looking, I told him that I already had authority to sell cards, so all he had to do was let me know which ones he wanted to buy and I would deliver them in a few days. He bought twelve dollars worth of cards and paid for them right on the spot. I had him write up the order, fill out his own receipt, and put the pencil in my mouth so I could sign the order with an "X." When we were finished, he put everything back into my bag.
My journey home was delayed by my first sale, so I had to rush to get back in time for lunch. On my way I saw Mrs. Gold in her yard. "Hello, Gene. What are you doing?" she asked.
"I've been downtown to the Gibson Card Company and have received my license to sell cards for all occasions," I replied.
"Do you mind if I look at them?" she asked.
"No, go right ahead," I told her eagerly.
She looked through the cards as we continued to talk. I guess I was a little over anxious to sell. She asked suspiciously, "Are you trying to work?"
"Yes, I am," I replied.
"Did your parents put you out?" she asked.
"No. That's not the way it is," I explained. They didn't want to put me out. I put myself out."
"Don't you like home?" she asked.
I told her that she misunderstood what I meant. I explained how I overheard Mom and Aunt Iva taking about me and decided to work toward independence.
"Do your parents think you can be independent?" she said.
"No, they don't," I replied.
"You can't be!" she told me sternly.
"That's all right," I answered, "everyone is entitled to their own opinion, so that's all right with me. Each person has their different ideas."
"Do you think you can be independent?" she asked incredulously.
"Yes, I think I can be and I am going to be," I answered confidently. Boy, did she get mad when I said that!
Mrs. Gold was always hard to get along with anyway. She was always high tempered and domineering. She just started screaming at me, telling me how foolish and downright crazy I was.
The funny thing is that all of the time she was screaming at me she kept looking through my card samples. Finally, she screamed that she wasn't going to buy any cards from me, because she didn't like my attitude at all.
I kept calm and told her that if she didn't want to buy any cards at the present time, that was all right. But anytime she wanted to buy cards for holidays or any other special occasion, all she had to do was to drop by my house or catch me on the street. I would be happy to take her order.
Then a funny thing happened. Right in the middle of a piercing scream, she stopped dead in her tracks and said, "Oh, what a beautiful card this one is!" Mother's Day was the next week and she saw a lovely Mother's Day card. "Are you selling this card?" she asked. "These are such good cards, such beautiful cards!" She asked if I could sell the cards individually or if she had to buy the entire package. I told her that I did not know. I had just received my sales kit and hadn't had a chance to get home and study it. "Oh, well, how much is the whole package?" she asked.
"$2.75," I replied.
"Can I have this box here?" she asked.
"Yes, you may have it," I answered, and sold her my sample box.
I hit the sidewalk again and rolled for home. I was afraid that Mom was going to be mad. I was already late for lunch, but I didn't want to lose the sales. So I let my stomach get hungry while I attended to business first. I met another person on the sidewalk, and another, and another. By the time I got home it was five o'clock.
Mom met me in the driveway and asked what had happened. I told her that I got the job, had my sales kit, and already sold thirty-five dollars worth of cards. She was suddenly excited! Remember, this was still in the depression.
"How much commission do you get out of it?" she squealed with excitement.
For some cards I got fifty percent and others, twenty-five percent. Mother rushed me inside, sat down, and started to figure out my commissions. This is the same mother who a few short hours before had informed me that I was nuts. When it was all figured out, I earned twelve dollars in commissions. That was good money in 1938. Mom was so excited she forgot all about being angry with me for missing lunch.
The next morning I arrived at the card company office at seven a.m. to turn in my orders. I had to wait fifteen minutes before the manager arrived to open up for the day. I met him on the sidewalk and said, "I am here to deliver my orders for yesterday."
He looked surprised and said, "You have orders to turn in already?"
"I have thirty-five dollars in total orders and twelve dollars commission for myself," I replied.
"Good Lord!" he exclaimed, "you have already earned your bonus. With that he reached into his wallet and gave me a five dollar bill right on the spot. He replaced my sample boxes, for I sold every sample that I had. I asked for and received four additional sample boxes.
I placed my delivery boxes in the bag with my new samples and headed back to the sidewalk. The sales office was also the warehouse. The procedure was to take the orders and deliver them later. Whenever I turned in my orders, I also picked up the cards and delivered them as soon as possible. So not only did I have a full day of selling ahead of me, but I also had a full day of deliveries. As I pulled out of the door of the Gibson Card Company the manager's words were ringing in my ears, "Sell! Sell! Sell!"
That day I saw thirty people and sold twenty. Since I met all my customer on the sidewalk, I was still a street urchin. That second day I made seventy-five dollars in sales. I sure knew a lot of people! I was so busy selling people on the sidewalk that it was not until the fifth day that I got free for a few minutes to go up to houses and start knocking on doors.
On the seventh day I got quite a surprise. When I came home from work, Mom met me half a block from the house and told me that twenty-five people had come by the house that day and wanted to buy cards. I skipped supper and called back on the people who had come by the house and took their orders.
Now, Mom was a lot like me--we both liked to talk to people. I got an extra sales catalog so she could take orders at home from the people that came to the house. I paid her five dollars a week. She didn't want to take the money, but I believed I should treat my workers fairly.
I started averaging between sixty-five and one hundred fifteen dollars a day in sales. At the end of my first month of selling cards, Dad totaled up what he earned for the month working in the coal mines and what I earned selling cards. I came within five dollars of earning the same amount of money that he did. Dad just about fainted. Then he said, "Do you realize what a hard job you are putting yourself into?"
"Why should I not work?" I chirped. "I like it."
Since I couldn't knock on doors, I developed a rather unique technique to get the customer's attention. I kicked on the steps or made noise any way I could. Finally, someone came out to see what was going on. People sure had a surprise when they opened the door!
After one month, I decided to add the local business establishments to my potential customers. They quickly became my biggest money makers. A lot of businesses had the custom of giving their employees a special birthday or holiday card with money enclosed as a cash bonus. One dress store gave me an order for one hundred eight-five dollars. All of these cards paid a fifty percent commission.
It took me one year to completely work the town of Harrisburg. I would have done it sooner, except I only worked full time during summer vacation. During the school year, I worked part-time.
I sold out the town of Harrisburg. It was no longer good for new customers, although I still made good money from repeat customers. If I was to expand my business and continue to gain new customers, I had to expand my sales territory. This meant leaving Harrisburg and working the surrounding towns. The Gibson Card Company did not limit my territory, so I was free to sell anywhere I wanted to go.
The Demise of Shady Rest
I talked with my mother and explained the situation. Naturally, she didn't want me to leave Harrisburg. As I mentioned before, she never wanted things to change. But I was firm and soon she agreed to let me start selling in other towns.
The next morning I got up at five a.m. and pushed myself the three miles down to Highway 13, arriving by 6:30. I moved onto the shoulder of the highway and faced my wheelchair toward the oncoming traffic. Looking backwards over my shoulder, I waited for the first car to pass by. It was a Hudson. I knew I had the driver's attention when the car slowed down. I looked straight at the driver. I turned my head toward Marion and started nodding up and down. The car went past, but all the time the driver was looking at me. He swerved and almost went off the road.
And that is the way it went for twenty minutes. Every driver and passenger just stared at me in disbelief. Finally a man stopped and asked if I needed help. I replied that I was hitchhiking toward Marion and would appreciate a ride if he was heading that way. Luck was with me, he was heading my way. I gave the driver directions about how to unstrap me and untie my arms. I had him lift me out of the chair and set me in his front seat with the wheelchair in back. Then I yelled, "Come on Mutt." Mutt jumped on my lap and we were on our way.
When we reached the road which turns off to Galatia, I had the driver drop me off. It took another twenty minutes to get a ride toward Galatia. At the cross roads towards Johnson City I got out again. There was not much traffic out there and it took me another hour before I got another ride.
The driver asked me where I was going.
"Shady Rest," was my reply.
"Nobody goes to Shady Rest," he said.
"I have some old friends to see and some old times to recall."
He stopped at the gravel road to Shady Rest, unloaded me, and drove off.
I started pushing backwards the hundred yards toward the cabin. There was a deathly silence about the place. The birds never did sing. When I reached the cabin, I turned around, and Mutt and I just stared.
Before us stood the remains of what was once the most notorious building in southern Illinois. All that was left were two blackened chimneys still standing at each end of the building. The cabin itself was gone and all that remained was the burned-out foundation and rubble.
The Sheltons handiwork stood in front of us. They had finally succeeded in blowing Shady Rest to Kingdom come. Charlie Birger and the Sheltons first met each other in what can only be described as the traditional gangster way. Both Charlie and Carl Shelton had been shot up (in two different gun fights) and were recovering from their wounds. As fate would have it, they both wound up in the same hospital, even in the same room!
The two men had so much in common--fighting, killing, and breaking the law any way they could--that an immediate friendship sprung up. It was a marriage made in gangster heaven. By the time the two men were released from the hospital a partnership had been formed between Charlie Birger and Shelton brothers.
The plan was simple. The two gangs would join their forces and take over all the illegal activities in southern Illinois. Both gangs realized that all it would take was enough machine guns and guts to kill anyone who stood in their way.
At that time southern Illinois was made up of mostly coal mining towns. Each town had its own would-be gangsters on their way up. The locals ran things the way they wanted to and made their own deals on buying liquor and everything else.
The men who worked in coal mines were tough people. But everyone soon found out, Charlie Birger and the Shelton boys were a lot tougher. The combined gangs moved quickly. Soon the word went out to all of the local operators, either join up or blood will run. Quickly everyone fell into line and for awhile everyone was quite happy with the deal.
The newly named Shelton-Birger Gang did not make any drastic changes. Everyone was allowed to continue doing business as usual. They were required to pay protection money to the gang and purchase their liquor through the gang. This had a great number of advantages. There were no longer battles between the local hoods over small territories.
Like a McDonald's franchise, everyone now had their own guaranteed territory which could not be invaded by anyone else. Overnight the local feuding and all of the ensuing problems were eliminated. The police were happy under the new system because now their payoffs were larger and guaranteed by a larger corporation. Soon the Shelton-Birger Gang had complete control over all of Egypt.
The few honest government officials left were now powerless to do anything. The honest were overwhelmed by the dishonest and so the honest merely looked the other way to stay alive.
Little Egypt was divided between the two gangs as areas of predominant influence. In some counties Charlie Birger paid off the local officials and ran things and in other counties it was the Sheltons' job.
New mines started opening in southern Illinois in the 1890s. For more than a decade the Italians came pouring into Egypt to work in the new mines. Most of them came from the regions around Lombardy in Italy. They immigrated by the thousands creating immediate animosity with the well-established Christian communities. The Christians were not at all happy about the heathens entering into their land and taking their jobs.
The Italians also had a custom of drinking wine, sometimes even making their own. They drank wine openly and acted like there was nothing wrong with it. The Italian Catholics were in the minority and we persecuted them. The foreigners were heathens who worshipped false gods and spoke strange languages. They took away jobs from true-blooded Americans and drank wine they made themselves. These foreigners were natural allies of the gangsters.
The partnership between Charlie and the Sheltons soon became very profitable. Shady Rest fit in perfectly with the Sheltons' already-established chain of layover stations which ran from Florida through Georgia, and into Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.
The bootlegged liquor would be smuggled in from the Bahamas and picked up in one of the many hidden inlets that dotted the Florida Coast. The cases of liquor were transferred from the swift rum-runners' boats into the Sheltons' specially designed cars. The cars were driven through the night to appointed layover stations where the drivers could rest and be safe from the police during the day. Big towns were always avoided.
In the areas known to be filled with government agents, the Sheltons picked up armed guards who rode in separate cars, one in front and one in back of the liquor carrier. If the government agents appeared, the guard vehicles threw up a roadblock and stopped the agents until the liquor car made a get away. The guard cars were safe, because they carried no liquor. Within a week's time the liquor was transported from the shore of Florida into Egypt--into the basement of Shady Rest. From there it was distributed throughout the local roadhouses. The profits were fantastic.
While they were laying over at Shady Rest, I met the Shelton boys and that is where we all became friends.
The two gangs didn't make their money in just liquor. Slot machines were just becoming popular in Egypt and Charlie and friends were hitting the jackpot everyday on these one arm bandits. In addition, they racked off money from every illegal activity in Egypt. No one was robbed, no house burglarized, no crime for profit committed in Egypt without Charlie Birger and the Shelton brothers getting a percentage. Their rule was absolute.
Everything went along just fine in Egypt...until Milo Pruit's ring was stolen. Once the bullets started flying between the two gangs, everyone in Egypt started betting on which side would win. The newspapers sent in their top war correspondents and printed the day-by-day combat reports. Throughout the war Charlie's main concern was to protect the people of Harrisburg, his town. He made an offer to the Sheltons for the two gangs to meet on the open highway and settle the issue in one gigantic battle. The battle never took place.
Finally, one night, the Sheltons were able to penetrate the outer defenses of Shady Rest. They snuck in with a truck loaded with two drums of gasoline. They drained the gas drums into a small creek which ran under Shady Rest...and then struck a match, blowing Shady Rest to Kingdom come. The next day the Sheriff found four bodies in the wreckage, all burned beyond recognition. But Charlie Birger was not at Shady Rest that night. He was alive and well...and would have his revenge on all three Shelton brothers.
An Unusual Way to Travel
I settled into my new routine; up at five a.m. and down to the highway by six, nodding my head at each car coming my way. Naturally the driver would stop to see what was going on. I told the drivers I was a salesman for the Gibson Card Company and was on my way to the next town. I showed them how to take me out of the wheelchair, throw me into the front seat, and the wheelchair in back. Mutt always leaped on my lap.
I planned to hit every town in the region, no matter how large or how small. The only way I could get to these towns was to hitchhike.
I really liked hitchhiking. Each summer day I continued my routine with my faithful companion Mutt by my side. I liked pickup trucks best, because they could leave me in the chair and put me on the bed of the pickup. I did the same thing with big commercial trucks.
It wasn't long before everybody knew me on the highway. The drivers just stopped, threw me in, and drove off without saying a word. When we got to my destination, I offered to pay for the ride, but everyone refused. Instead, they bought cards from me.
I enjoyed meeting and talking with the different people I rode with from town to town. They wanted to know why I was traveling. I told them the story. They all bought cards from me. They told their friends about me and their friends started to pick me up on the highway. They bought cards from me too and told their friends. It wasn't long before I knew everyone for miles around.
Whenever a car had kids in it, they talked me to death. They wanted to know who I was, where I was from, what I was doing, what games I played, and where I went to school.
It was always interesting hitchhiking because I never knew who was going to give me a ride. It might be a car with just a driver or a car filled with kids or a pickup or a big truck or any vehicle that used the highways. One time I rode in a truck filled with watermelons. I sat in back with thousands of watermelons and Mutt. I got a free watermelon that day.
As soon as I arrived in a new town, I got hit with all kinds of questions. Everyone wanted to talk my head off! They wanted to know what I was all about. I always used the same approach. I went up to a house and made some kind of noise. Mutt barked until someone came out. When they opened the door, I said, "Hello, my name is Gene Bybee and I am from Harrisburg. I am selling cards for the Gibson Card Company. You're welcome to look at my samples if you like."
"How did you get here from Harrisburg?"
"I hitchhiked liked everyone else."
"Do quite a few people turn you down for rides?"
"Yes, quite a few people turn me down, but most people cooperate. I'm pretty well known on the road."
"Why do you want to work? Did someone put you up to this?"
"No, it's just me, myself. I like earning my own living and this way I don't have anyone telling me how to spend my money."
"Isn't it hard on you? Isn't there another way of earning money?"
"Oh, there are different way of doing things, but I prefer not to do them. I enjoy doing this."
They couldn't comprehend my hitchhiking, because they compared me with a normal person and couldn't understand how I did it. I explained that this was the way I earned a living and I hitchhiked like everyone else does. People just drove me crazy with the same questions all of the time! But, I was polite and patient when I talked with them. Mutt just sat there and wagged his tail.
Sometimes people would get really rough with me. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that I had no business being out there. "People like you should be in institutions. You're taking work from normal people who must support their families. Welfare should take care of you." They were always threatening to call the police.
And they did too. The police came driving up and stopped me. I explained what I was doing, sold the policemen cards, and dropped by the police station on my next trip to make my delivery. After awhile, I learned to stop by the police station as soon as I got to a new town. I told them what I was doing and sold the policemen cards. Then I started working the town with the police's blessing.
While the people were looking over my sample cards, the same tedious conversations continued over and over again. I tried to explain in terms that they could relate to and easily understand. "Well, don't you want to choose what you want to do with your life?" and "Don't you choose who you want to go with and who not to go with?" and "Where to go and not to go in life?" I tried to make them realize that I only wanted to do the same things in life that they wanted to do.
They would usually respond with, "Well, do you think that a handicapped should be out on the road?"
"If I am willing to take the responsibility, I have the right to do anything within reason," was my standard response. I found it best to give examples. "You can look at me as a person who is highly unusual; but if you don't compare me to yourself, you will realize that I have the same desires that you have. It is true that it is dangerous for me to be out on the highway, but it is also dangerous for you to be out on the highway. So one has to make certain choices and I have made those choices."
"What do you do when it rains?"
"I do the same thing that you do. I get wet."
People phoned my mother often and told her that she was irresponsible for letting me be on my own. When I came home from work on those days, Mom was almost in tears.
After working the county for awhile, it seemed like nearly everyone knew me. Sometimes, when I kicked on a door in a strange town, a stranger would answer, and proceed to tell me who I was, what I was doing in town, and why I was doing it!
From the normal person's point of view, I suppose what I was doing looked dangerous. It wasn't very long before my boss started to get worried about me. He called Dad and told him that he was concerned that I might get injured while I was on the job. He did not want the company to be held responsible. "Not to worry!" Dad told him. He made a deal with my boss--I wouldn't hold the company responsible, I'd be responsible for myself.
Actually, my boss had reason to worry. I was involved in more than my share of accidents. I was always tipping over in the wheelchair. Sometimes I went over sideways, other times I'd go over backwards, and sometimes forwards. When I tipped over, Mutt went searching for someone to help me. When he found somebody, he started yapping and running back and forth between me and the rescuer until he got someone to come over and find out what he was yapping about. I asked them to set me back up in my wheelchair and I went on my way again.
One time I was working as usual, pushing myself backwards toward my next sale. I didn't know that the city was doing repair work on the sewer system. Nobody told me that some of the manholes were open. It was a complete surprise to me when all of a sudden my wheelchair flipped upside down and stuck in the lid of an open manhole. I shot down into that pit like a shot from a cannon! I didn't know what happened. It felt like I had fallen at least twenty-five feet. I figured that I was still alive, because I was bruised and hurting; but I still couldn't figure out what happened or where I was. All I knew was that it was dark.
Mutt was hysterical! He was still on the street and I had done a magic disappearing act on him. He kept looking all over the place for me. Mutt knew from experience that whenever I flipped over in the wheelchair, I had to be somewhere close by. He could see the wheelchair tipped upside down, but his dog's mind could not understand that I had gone down a hole.
I drew a big crowd. By this time I could see the wheelchair above me. I just couldn't figure out what I was doing down here and what the wheelchair was doing up there. Now, I'm no dumb kid. In twenty minutes, maybe even less, I figured out that I was in a hole. But I had no idea what kind of hole. I shouted instructions to the people on the street and had them remove the wheelchair. I couldn't figure out how to get out of there and the people up above didn't know what to do either.
An hour and a half later, I was still trying to figure out how to get out of there. Mutt kept running around the opening to the hole, yapping and looking down at me with an unusual expression as if to say, "This is another fine mess you've gotten us into!"
Finally, the sewer crew returned. They asked me how I got down there. I replied, "I was just going along and I was down there before you could say scat!"
The workers cleaned me off the best they could and put me back in my wheelchair. As they were putting everything together, some people started asking me what all of the cards were for--they were scattered all over the place. Naturally, I told them. I sold eighty-five dollars worth of cards, so I didn't hit a dry hole after all. That was my first and last manhole sale. (Although, I did have a telephone pole hole sale once that made me seventy-five dollars.)
After getting out of that manhole, I was a real mess, so I had to turn around and head home to get cleaned up. Of course, Mom and Dad wanted to know what happened. "I fell in a manhole," was all I said.
"Don't you know better than to fall in a manhole?" Dad yelled. "How come you fell in that hole anyway?"
"I really don't know myself," was my honest reply.
As it turned out, I had minor, rather than major hurts. So I cleaned myself and the wheelchair up and headed back to work for the rest of the afternoon. Mom and Dad didn't want me to go back out, but I felt the best way to get over a fright was to immediately go right back out and work just as if nothing had happened.
As I headed down the driveway, Mom yelled at me, "You're likely to fall in another manhole!"
"I'm just as likely to do it again as not," was my reply.
Like most towns in those days, Harrisburg had trains going through all of the time. The vibrations from the rails would tell you a train was coming. I could tell which train was coming, because each one gave off its own distinct vibration from the rails. Most of the trains stopped at each town, so they never had time to build up any great speed. Because these trains were slow, I usually had plenty of time to get off the tracks before the train arrived.
Now, remember, I was traveling all over the countryside by myself (with Mutt, of course), heading in a backwards direction. When I came to a railroad crossing, I had to cross the rails sitting on a dining room chair with little casters in the legs. Those casters had a tendency to pull out or catch in the rails. At times they caught so fast, I stuck to the rails like a magnet.
When this happened, I took the toe of my left shoe and reached behind to the heal of my right shoe and forced it off my foot. Then with the toes of my right foot, I picked up the caster. I raise the front legs of the chair off the ground by using my left leg and replaced the caster with my right foot. This process took several minutes. All of this time I was a sitting duck, smack dab in the middle of the railroad crossing.
I must have been a pretty brave boy in those days. Sometimes I began to feel the rails vibrate as I was crossing the tracks. Usually this was nothing to worry about. If I was already on the tracks and the rails started their first stage of vibrations, I knew the train was still a long distance away. By the feel of the vibrations, I estimated how many minutes I had left before impact.
But sometimes the vibrations were forceful; so forceful you could almost hear it ringing out of the rails. When that happened, my blood seemed to freeze and my heart stopped. Mutt went berserk and started screaming and yelping. In an instant we both knew that it was "The City of Miami!"
The City of Miami was the fastest and meanest train alive. It must have gone two hundred miles an hour and it stopped for no one. It was crammed full of rich people headed for Miami or returning from there to Chicago. It wasn't about to stop for a poor little crippled boy in a dining room chair with a mutt dog for a companion.
Now if I was in the middle of the tracks and they started their first stage of vibration, this meant I had four to six minutes before the City of Miami would run over me. But sometimes I went out onto the tracks before I realized that the tracks were already in the process of vibrating. This meant that the train was right on top of me. I couldn't turn around and retreat, because the casters would get caught everytime. So I frantically started pushing, leaping, jumping, and anything else that I could think of to get off these tracks as fast as I could. Mutt would get behind me and grab the cross bars of the wheelchair with his teeth and pull with all of his might.
What really scared me is when I couldn't see the train coming. The danger was further compounded because I was unwilling to leave a caster on the track to be destroyed by the City of Miami. I stayed on the tracks until I retrieved the caster, even if the train was bearing down on me. I got a lot of strange stares from the passengers when that happened. The City of Miami always blew its whistle at me as if to say, "I missed you this time, but I'll get you on the next run."
The Twelve Worst in the World
During my first year at selling cards, I took a day off to go with my parents to St. Louis. I had a meeting with the doctors at Shriners, although this time it was not for my annual visit. The purpose of this meeting would be quite different than any I had before. Because my medical problems were quite rare, the doctors at the Shriners Hospital wanted to do a scientific study on me. They asked me and my parents if I would volunteer to be part of a research study group. Of course, I volunteered.
That was my purpose for going to the Shriners on this day, to take part in this new research study group. The Shriners had selected twelve children from all over the United States to be part of the study group. Two of the children came from as far away as California. The reason that the Shriners Hospital in St. Louis had been chosen to conduct the research, rather than one of the other Shriners Hospitals, was simply due to geography. St. Louis happened to be in the middle of the country and it provided for equal distance of travel for those children coming from the east coast as well as the west.
All twelve of the children were chosen because we were about the same ages; we all were quadriplegics, although not everyone chosen had cerebral palsy (still called spastic paralysis). Some had birth defects and others had been injured due to accidents. But there were two main reasons why we twelve were selected: First, we all had serpentine spasms; and, second, we were the twelve worst in America. We weren't all patients of the Shriners Hospitals, either. They wanted the twelve worst no matter what hospital they came from.
Although we were classified as "The Twelve Worst in the World," that title was not entirely correct. We were the twelve worst that could be found in the United States in the same age group. (Our ages were eleven, twelve, and one was thirteen.) I am sure there were other children who were as bad off as we were, some younger and older living inside and outside of the United States. But, even considering others, you would have to look far and wide to find anyone, anywhere in the world, as bad as we were. And finding someone older than we were, with the same condition, was almost impossible, because they just don't live that long.
The first thing the doctors did was separate the parents from their children. They put all the parents together in one room and all the children in another. They left both groups by themselves for three hours without any experts in the room. The experts used a two-way mirror to observe how these two groups interacted with one another. And that created the first problem.
In one voice, all of the mothers protested, "Oh, no! I can't leave my child, even for a moment. I'm the only one who can take care of my child!" And on, and on, they went. Remember how my parents went half-berserk when I told them that I was going to support myself? I told you that all parents of handicapped children feel that they're somehow responsible for the child's handicap. They feel obligated and believe they're the only ones qualified to take care of their child. Now you know what I mean when I said all parents of handicapped children feel this way. What the parents were saying, by their protestations, was that no one, including the world's finest doctors, knew how to care for their child. Only the parent had this unique capability.
As soon as the parents started protesting, all of the children became absolutely terrified. And that started the second problem. The children began screaming and yelling, "I can't leave my mommie!" My mother didn't care and neither did I. But the other kids and their mothers were absolutely ridiculous.
Parents of handicapped children, always teach their children, consciously or unconsciously, that they cannot exist without them. So, it was no wonder that all of the kids were terrified at being told that they were going to be separated from their mothers.
It took a lot of persuasion, but finally the doctors were able to tear the parents and children apart and put them in their respective rooms. Begrudgingly, the trembling parents went to the room assigned to them and the terrified children went to theirs. Even the assurance that the children would be under constant observation by the world's best experts didn't calm their fears.
The doors slammed closed and there we were, the twelve worst in the world, all by ourselves. Behind the two-way mirrors were the world's best waiting to see what we were going to do.
And they were the world's experts too. This was not just the staff at Shriners. There were over one hundred fifty specialists attending this special meeting. Not all were doctors. There were technicians, therapists, educators, psychologists, psychiatrists, local politicians, welfare workers, over thirty newspaper and radio reporters, as well as physicians. One doctor had come from as far away as Germany and a newspaper reporter from Paris. All the world's experts were watching to see what we would do...and we did nothing. Absolutely nothing!
Eleven kids just sat there, petrified and motionless, waiting for their mommies to come back. I wasn't just going to sit there for three hours and do nothing. I started going around to the other kids and tried to get some games started. None of the other kids had the ability to speak, but I had no difficulty communicating with them. (The disabled have their own way of communicating among themselves.)
Each conversation was the same. "What's your name and where are you from?" I asked.
"I want my mommie," was the reply.
"What do you want your mommie for?" I went on.
"My mommie never leaves me," they said.
"What do you mean your mommie never leaves you?" You mean you want your mommie all of the time?" I couldn't believe it. Their mommies never left them alone even for a few minutes. I could tell that this was going to be a very long day.
I should have known what I was getting into. We received a letter from Shriners a month before, explaining what was going to be happening at the meeting. I was looking forward to attending this research group, because I thought I was going to meet some new friends, gain some new experiences, and learn new ideas. But, I've been around enough handicaps to know that most are withdrawn. They refuse to participate in life. They talk and listen, but only what they want to talk about and listen to. They never take the initiative and always rely on others to do things for them, and that includes thinking.
As you can see, I am different. I was always outgoing and forward. I was the first handicapped child to arrive for the meeting, which gave me a chance to observe the other parents and children as they filed into the hospital. All the parents looked forward to this meeting; but as they walked through the door, their looks of optimism immediately changed to hopelessness. When they saw the other children, they took on a countenance of gloomy sympathy. They were all optimistically happy while traveling to St. Louis; but once they entered the hospital and saw the other kids, the reality of the situation was too much for them.
My first observation was that the kids were not well adjusted at all. They seemed to have no comprehension of the world as it actually was, but instead lived in their own dream worlds. Their parents waited on them hand and foot. If the child wanted a drink of water, their mother rushed off to get it. Whatever the child asked for was immediately supplied by the parents, without question. It was like a puppet pulling the strings for the puppet master to do the bidding of the blockhead.
The children were never allowed to speak, or even make any attempt at speech. The parents always informed you that no one could understand their child, so they interpreted their actions to let you know what the child meant. My parents never did that for me. They might have to interpret some of the things I said, but at least they let me have the chance to speak and try to be understood. Actually, Mom would never do anything for me, unless I was unable to do it for myself. Needless to say, my mother did very little for me; and as you can see, I became quite independent because of it.
This is what all handicapped children are like. Earlier in this book I told you that being raised by the gangsters was the one thing that made me different from all the other handicapped children in the world. Now do you know what I mean?
So here I was, stuck with eleven terrified mimes for the next three hours. All of the kids wanted to do something, but there was no common ground. The only common ground we had was our handicaps, and that was not enough. None of the kids knew how to put it together. I would try to get a conversation started or a game going, but the kids couldn't agree on what they wanted to do. Well, that is besides wanting their mommies. There was communication, but nothing was really communicated.
I decided to pick out the most extroverted and active kid in the group, see if I could get him into a conversation, and then play some games. As far as I was concerned, I was there to have a good time. One boy looked around once in awhile, so he was the one I picked. I was partially successful.
When I told them that I worked and what I did, they were astounded. They were even more astounded that I could talk. Now, I enjoy a challenge, but at the end of three hours I was most happy to get out of that room and go to lunch. I was right. It had been a very long three hours and the day was not over yet.
They made the cafeteria meal as lively as possible. The food was designed into different shapes and we all had cookies in the shapes of animals. I ate a dinosaur. During lunch we had a live show. We were entertained by magicians and acrobats. For the first time the kids brightened up. They were now laughing and became more talkative. At least their parents could talk more about what the kids wanted to express.
The rest of the afternoon was taken up with testing and evaluations. The evaluations were broken down into two categories; medical and psychological.
We were given tests to match different colors. I was informed that I had a conservative taste in colors. In the taste test, they wanted to know if I could taste salt, sugar, sweet, sour, and bitter. Bitter can be tasted by the tongue. So they blindfolded me, pinched my nose, and gave me apples and onions. They believed that no one could tell the difference between an apple and onion in this type of test. I got it right four out of four times.
The audio test showed that I had problems with certain frequencies. Again no one actually realized that these losses were the cause of my speech problem. We had sight tests and light tests to see how much light we could stand. I was given the third degree. They shined a really bright light in my face, then turned me around into absolute darkness. I had to tell the doctors how quickly my eyes could focus on objects. We continued with symbol tests and alphabet tests, more color and sound tests, and of course the electro-shock test. Boy, the doctors in those days sure loved to experiment with electricity. They reminded me of the Frankenstein movie.
Then came the psychological tests. I got the highest score on the IQ test and received an extremely high score in social adjustment. Then came an ink blot test and a dozen other psychological tests.
They had two categories of analyses; one for the individual and the other for the group as a whole. I was holding the group scores high all of the time. When they took my scores out, the group scores collapsed.
During the entire day, I felt very unusual and uneasy. I didn't like the idea of being observed all of the time. I preferred being my usual self. But, I was sociable, and went along with everyone.
Twelve different specialists had individual interviews with each of us on every imaginable subject. They wanted to know who could count and who knew their ABCs. Of course, I scored the highest on these tests, because I was the only one that was in school. What little education the other kids received was limited to private tutors. They never attended public school with other kids.
The experts announced that they were going to speak very openly and very frankly. They wanted everyone else to do the same. The one thing that surprised (Actually, shocked is the word.) the experts the most was the absolute dependence of the children on the parents. None of the world's experts realized that this problem existed before this meeting. Not only were the children under observation, but the parents were also under constant scrutiny. "Not only were the children in a world of fantasy," the experts observed, "but many of the parents were starting to go into a dream world, also."
All of the doctors agreed that of the twelve worst in the world, I was the worst of the twelve. But they didn't know if they should really classify me the worst or the best. They agreed without a doubt that I as the worst medically; but psychologically, I was the best adjusted in the group.
In their spirit of frankness, the doctors were in agreement that I would be the first of the twelve to die. The consensus of opinion was that I would not live more than a few days, a few weeks at the most. They based this decision upon the fact that I was too ambitious and tried too hard in life. This, they reasoned, created too many hardships and put too much strain on me. They all condemned me to die because I had too much life in me. The other children were more docile, therefore, the experts reasoned they would live longer.
The experts then gave a critique on each child, predicting who would die, in what order, and what their reasoning was. A grim future was predicted for all of us. In fact, the experts did not see any future for any of us. "We would all live out our lives in institutions," we were told. "Because, in order for us to live normal lives it would require the constant assistance of experts." Not only were we not ready for the world, but the world was not quite ready for us.
Even though we were told to speak frankly, up to this time, I was being polite; but seeing how the experts were being so blunt, I decided that I would speak what I honestly felt. I would not buy their grim predictions and I told them so. I told them that I did not believe their diagnosis was valid as far as I was concerned. (As far as the other kids were concerned, whatever anyone told them was okay with them.)
In the debate that now followed, the doctors were willing to give some ground, but not much. They conceded that of all the kids in the research group, I would be the only one that might be successful in enjoying life, as short as it might be. Even though I would try the hardest, they all assured me I would fail.
I challenged the experts even further by volunteering to give my own predictions about who would die first and why. My list differed considerably from that of the learned. I predicted that John would die first, because he had no interests nor ambitions. He expressed no reason for living. I gave him six months.
The experts strongly disagreed and said that he would be the last one to die. They expected him to live to the age of forty-five. As this life and death conversation went on, John was totally uninvolved and uninterested. Whatever anyone decided was alright with him.
I chose Jane to be the second to die because her health seemed to be failing and she was not at all concerned. I gave her nine months. The experts gave her fifteen years. I finished my list one by one as the experts fought with me over each prediction. I finished by telling everyone that I would out live their predictions and be the last of the twelve worst in the world to die. And for good measure added that I would out live all of the experts in the room.
Dr. Carrol decided to change his position to neutral ground. "I am not taking sides," he said, "because I don't know the future. None of the others do either. But I feel that Gene has energy and vitality--the things necessary to do the job. I think he can do it. And I think that he can teach people and change them, even change society's ideas."
I can understand why the doctors felt the way they did about me. By the age of twelve I was tall and skinny, really skinny. There was not an ounce of fat or flesh on me. I was all muscle. I could eat five and six plates of food at one sitting and still not gain any weight. Because I was all muscle, the doctors figured that whenever I went into a spasm the muscles would literally tear me apart. They were right, they did. But, they never killed me as was prophesied.
The experts now divided into two opposing groups; the medical experts who predicted my failure and the educators who predicted that I would survive and succeed. Even though they had this sharp disagreement, they all agreed that my best guide for life was to continue doing what I wanted to do. (They must have all studied the philosophies of Al Capone.)
They also told me that they did not expect to see me at the next meeting of "The Twelve Worst in the World." Remember, I was supposed to be the first to die.
The newsmen took hundreds of pictures of us kids in our wheelchairs. (It was ironic. We all could have had standard wheelchairs; but the other eleven, like me, had wooden dining room chairs with wheels on the legs.) The newspapers did a good job of telling our story to the world. Pictures of the group with our parents standing behind showed up in papers in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I was just one face in a group, but the world got to see me nonetheless.
I became an instant celebrity in Saline County. My card sales almost doubled overnight. I would have done even better, but I had to spend so much time talking to people that it cut down on my productivity. Not many people slammed their doors in my face or yelled at me anymore.
The media attention affected the hospital too. Soon the Shriners Children's Hospital in St. Louis was overwhelmed with letters from all over the world. The response was so great that Shriners decided to write a special reply to answer all of the questions that were submitted by doctors around the world.
You will remember the stories I told you about how my parents went here, there, and everywhere looking for that one great doctor or miracle that would cure my condition. This is the typical reaction of all parents of handicapped children. So you can imagine the response that Shriners got from parents in similar circumstances throughout the world. This forced the Shriners to write still another article to answer the questions of the average man, the parents of the crippled children throughout the world. It was written in simple, easy to understand language. Now when Shriners received letters from parents inquiring about this new research, they responded by sending a copy of this article.
Shriners forwarded letters to me from people who had very specific questions that the hospital felt I could answer better than they could. In my replies I tried to relate first person experiences that applied to their questions. This took up a great deal of my time, plus the time of foreign language teachers at the local high school who had to interpret the letters from foreign countries.
I also wrote letters to all of the kids who took part in the research project at Shriners. None of them ever wrote back.
The doctors at Shriners tried to get all of the parents and children to return one year for a follow-up meeting. Not everyone could work that long trip into their schedule. So, we all agreed to meet again in St. Louis two years later.
The second meeting started promptly. All of the parents, children, and experts went into one room for a preliminary conference. The speaker came quickly to the point. "Our research group of twelve has now been reduced to ten," he told the audience. "John died six months after our last meeting and Jane died three months later."
For the rest of the day, everyone tried to put on an appearance of happiness, but underneath it all, they could not hide the feeling of sadness and depression. I had predicted the death of John and Jane with unbelievable accuracy.
Everyone was present when I made my predictions, not only for the two who died, but for the rest of the children as well. Now, all anyone could do, including the parents, was wait and see if my other prophecies would come true also. No one was surprised or disappointed, as each of my predictions came true with uncanny accuracy. I was right in all eleven predictions.
That was the last meeting of the twelve worst in the world, now reduced to ten. But, those two deaths did not bother me. You see, the severely disabled learn to live with death. It is as if you are a battlefield commander constantly in combat. And in combat you have to expect casualties as a common everyday occurrence. But, a battlefield commander can go home after the war is over. For the severely disabled, the war is never over.
Not a Kid Anymore
The Shriners Children's Hospital is for children. A month after my meeting with the, now, ten worst in the world, I went to the Shriners Hospital for my annual, and final, visit. After this visit, I would be too old to be a patient at Shriners. They would continue to update my records and keep track of the research group, but there would be no more meetings.
In the past few years my parents hopes had changed. They no longer sought out every miracle cure or every quack doctor touting a cure. But they were still clinging to the hope that somewhere, somehow, something could be done to help me. Maybe not a complete cure, but something that would help me, no matter how small.
I was not expecting anything to come of this visit. I don't think that I was being pessimistic. I just felt that I understood the situation better than anyone else; that I was being realistic. But, even now, my parents did not want to face the full reality of my condition.
Dr. Carrol came straight to the point. "I don't want to tell you what I am about say; but I'm going to be quite frank. Shriners Hospital has access to all the specialists in the whole world that can do anything for Gene. No matter what the cost, we can get him here. We have tried. We have tested everything. We have written the case history. We have tried the world's best doctors. It finally comes down to this point--there is nothing that can be done for Gene at this moment. There is nothing any doctor can do. Nothing can be done for him."
"Just as I thought!" I blurted out. And then I didn't say another word for twenty minutes.
Dr. Carrol looked at my parents and told them that the best thing they could do was accept me for what I was. He thought the continuation of my education was the best thing for me. "Go ahead and make the best of it," he advised. "I know my final evaluation has not offered you anything."
For years Mom and Dad trained themselves to control their emotions and not show their true feelings in front of me. Mom especially taught herself not to break down and cry in front of me. I, on the other hand, had taught myself to read their true feelings. I could tell they were torn to pieces. When Dr. Carrol finished speaking, Mom and Dad both broke down. They were in a state of shock. He put a stop to all of their hopes and dreams in one cruel stroke. They didn't cry. They just sat there not fully comprehending what they had heard.
Finally, Dad asked, "Nothing? Not even a small thing can be done? Even a small thing would be better than nothing at all."
"No," was Dr. Carrol's firm reply.
For the next twenty minutes my parents kept asking questions: "Well, can this be done? Or, can that be done?" One vague, hopeful question followed another. Each question was answered with the same firm "No."
"I can accept it," Mom finally said, "but, I cannot accept the idea of Gene having to live this way for the rest of his life."
"My advice to all three of you is this: I don't think that Gene has a problem," Dr. Carrol explained. "It doesn't make any difference to him whether he gets better or not. Oh, I'm sure he would just as soon get better, but he has accepted his situation. He has accepted himself as he is, for what he is. Now you're the ones who have to accept him for what he is. Gene is completely different from any other crippled child I have ever seen. He doesn't have a problem, but his parents have the problem. Usually the children are the ones with the problem. They have hopes. Gene has never shown any hope whatsoever. He accepted life as it came to him. He comes here to the hospital just to be coming. He enjoys coming to St. Louis and seeing the town. He enjoys looking at things, learning and observing. He's not at all concerned about himself. All I can offer you is the suggestion that Gene has the right attitude. Instead of fighting it, go ahead and join the club."
"Are you speaking for the future?" Mom asked.
"No, I am not," he answered. "I am speaking only at this moment. I am telling you only about right now. The world is full of things. Tomorrow, overnight, possibilities could change. So there is still hope, but I wouldn't build my hopes too high. Neither would I give up hope. I would be inclined to accept him as he is and if something does come along in the future, then fine."
After another twenty minutes my parents began to realize what the doctor actually said. It took that long to sink in. They still didn't fully comprehend, but eventually they would. And when they did, they were speechless.
Finally Mom said, "I don't think I can face the spasms and other things he has to endure for the rest of my life. I can't continue taking this year after year."
I quickly spoke up, "Well, we have already survived the worst of it. And it can't get any worse than it's been. If we could survive that, then I don't see any reason why we can't survive the rest of it."
I always knew that Mom and Dad assumed that I would die before they would. This caused them great anguish. But they didn't know that I knew how they felt, so I played on these feeling by saying, "Let me point out something to you. You're talking as if I am going to die before you do. That has not been promised in any way. I may outlive both of you. So it may be that I get the worst end of it after all. I may have to give you up before you give me up. So what kind of problem do we really have?"
Still, for the next thirty minutes, they were incapable of speaking. They looked like they were knocked out of the world. Mom didn't cry, but she did sigh a lot. Finally, I told everyone that as far as I was concerned, I was willing to accept my life for better or worse. If I did get sick and go down, then I would come back up again.
Dr. Carrol looked straight at me and told me that I had made a clear statement of the situation. I had made a good point and that it is the way it should be. Mom agreed.
"Well, I can go along with it," Dad finally said, "but I can't accept it."
"How can you go along with it if you can't accept it?" I asked.
"I will go ahead and carry on, but I can't buy it," he answered. "I don't think I can live with it either. I would commit suicide if I were in your position."
Dad realized that I had been speaking frankly to Dr. Carrol, and he decided to speak frankly too. I told Dad that I could see his point. If he had to change into me overnight, making a transition from being healthy and normal to being like me, I could see why he would want to commit suicide. But, I told him, if he had been raised like me and this was the only life he knew, he'd feel differently.
"I never thought of it that way before," Dr. Carrol said, "but that is true." He picked up a pencil and wrote in his notebook as he continued speaking, "I'm going to use that point with my other patients. It will give them a clearer view of their position."
Then Dr. Carrol told us he was going to close the case one me, but keep it on file. If there were new discoveries in the future, I could still come back to Shriners, no matter what my age, and they would give me the treatments.
My case was now closed. Mom and Dad still hadn't recovered from the shock. As we left the office, Dad began walking the wrong way down the hall. Mom didn't even notice. I stopped them and turn them around the other way. When we got outside, Dad headed us in the wrong direction away from the car. So I told him where the car was parked.
When we got to the car, they tried to put me in on the wrong side. I had to do a lot of fussing to get that straightened out. But after they got me in the car, I was facing the wrong direction. If I hadn't continually told them what to do, they would have both put me in the car upside down and never known it.
We spent half an hour trying to get things done the right way. With a great deal of direction on my part, they finally got me in correctly. I figured he would be okay as soon as he got his mind on driving. Dad had driven this route many times before on his way to Shriners. All he had to do now was drive through town to Highway 13, which would take us to Harrisburg.
I always enjoyed the ride through St. Louis. I looked at all the people, the fancy cars, and tall buildings. The Woolworth building had a sign in the window advertising a big sale. People were packed outside on the sidewalk trying to get in. I was so busy looking at everything I didn't notice that a great deal of time had gone by and we were still on the highway. After twenty minutes, I was still looking at the big fancy cars, the people in their fine dress, and all the tall buildings. My eyes were drawn to a large crowd. As I looked more closely, I saw that they were all trying to get into the same building. I looked up to see what building it was. It was Woolworth's! After twenty minutes, we were right back where we started.
I looked at Dad and said, "This is the second time you hit the Woolworth store." He replied that he had gotten lost. "Well, do you know the way out now?" I asked.
"I think I do," was his vague response as he headed toward the highway. Dad went back to driving and I went back to observing life in St. Louis.
After another twenty minutes, I looked out the opposite window. There was St. Mary's Hospital. Now St. Mary's is in East St. Louis in the exact opposite direction that we should have been going. Instead of getting upset with Dad, I couldn't help chuckling; because one of the comic moments of the Shelton-Birger War took place in this hospital.
As I explained before, both the Shelton and Birger gangs had elaborate spy networks throughout all of Egypt. Nothing could happen anywhere without word quickly getting back to the headquarters of one of the gangs. In those days operators handled the phone calls and half the neighborhood would listen in to the phone conversations. Both gangs developed elaborate cryptic codes to relay their phone messages.
Charlie Birger set up a systematic plan for eliminating the Shelton gang, one by one. The first thing Charlie did was make a priority list--which Sheltons he wanted to kill first and which were to be killed later. At the top of the list was Carl Shelton. He was the one Charlie wanted most. Charlie never used the name Carl Shelton over the telephone. Instead, he referred to him as number one. (Very clever indeed.) Bernie was number two and Earl, number three. In a moment you will understand why Earl was at the bottom with number three.
The method of killing off the Sheltons was based on two plans: First, was the pre-planned attack in which they hoped to catch the Sheltons by surprise. Second, all of Charlie's men had standing orders to kill Sheltons whenever and wherever they found one, if by design or accident.
By accident, two of Charlie's men came upon the information that Earl Shelton had been admitted to St. Mary's Hospital. The very same hospital I was now looking at. They decided to simply walk into his room and gun him down. Now St. Mary's is quite a big hospital and it would be no easy matter to walk in unrecognized and carry out the job. So, they decided to wear disguises. Whether they were drunk, or what, no one knows; but they came up with the idea of dressing like women. They were both rather small men and thought they had a good chance of fooling the nurses. So off came the men's suits and on went the dresses.
The story goes that they really had fun doing it. Like most women, they became quite competitive and jealous over who looked the most beautiful. They took quite a long time and were very picky about how they looked. When they both agreed that they were dressed to kill, they drove up to the front door of the hospital and walked up to the reception nurse.
The Catholic sister at the desk looked up and asked, "Yes?"
In a soft voice, trying to sound feminine, one of the gangsters asked for Earl Shelton's room number. The sister gave them the room number...and the two assassins almost fainted! Not only was the rumor true that Earl Shelton was in St. Mary's, but the idiot had registered in his own name! Earl Shelton had broken the law of the gangster jungle, which says: If you go to the hospital, you always register under a fictitious name so your enemies can't walk up to the registration desk, get your room number, walk into your room, and kill you!
The two women gangsters were ecstatic. All they had to do was walk into Earl Shelton's room, shoot him, and walk back out. It was going to be as easy as taking candy from a baby. At that moment they realized their guns would make a lot of noise. They imagined nurses running into the room, reacting to the sound of gunfire. The nurses would see two women with smoking guns in their hands standing over the dead body of Earl Shelton That would blow their disguises. No, guns wouldn't do. They would have to kill number three silently.
It just so happened that they had a good friend in St. Louis who was really good at slashing people's throats with a knife. They decided to go get Jack-the-Ripper and come back to finish off number three the next evening.
The two impostors laughed all of the way home. Their disguises had fooled everybody in the hospital. The next night, again dressed to kill, they returned to St. Mary's Hospital with the mad slasher. As they stepped out of the car, the police pulled up and arrested them. It had nothing to do with the impending murder. The police just happened to be at the same spot at the same time.
Ironically, they were not arrested for the attempted assassination. One was arrested for parole violation and the other for carrying a concealed weapon.
It took several days for my parents to get over the shock of what Dr. Carrol had told them, but the after effects of that meeting lingered on for many years. They did not give up and continued to send me to different doctors and hospitals. Their reasons had changed, though. They were no longer looking for a miracle cure, but were trying to keep up with any medical progress being made somewhere in the world.
I wasn't a kid anymore, so I had to prepare, even more, to take care of myself in the future. I realized that I could not rely on just my card business to earn the money that I needed. I had to expand my abilities to earn more money by doing different things.
And so, during my teenage years, I took on other jobs in addition to my card business. Dad couldn't understand why I wanted more jobs, especially when I took on jobs that were low class and low paying. My logic was simple. The more jobs I did, no matter how low the pay, the more money I earned. But Dad never saw the obvious. Being handicapped I could not be choosy about what jobs I took. I couldn't turn anything down and I didn't. I had no choice.
I started doing a lot of odd jobs for my neighbors. I took care of their pets and watered their lawns while they were on vacation. I even started my own floor cleaning and waxing business.
One day our neighbor, Mrs. Fuller, was admiring my mother's floor. Mom told her that I cleaned and waxed it for her. Mrs. Fuller hired me to do her floors also.
I put a little car broom between my toes and sweep the floor free of dirt. Next, I put the bucket under the faucet and filled it with soapy water. Then I set the pail of soapy water on the floor next to my wheelchair. With a scrub brush strapped to my foot, I dipped the brush into the water and started scrubbing the floor.
I had another bucket with a colander on the top. When I finished scrubbing one section of the floor, I put a rag between my toes and wiped up the dirty water. I placed the wet rag in the colander and squeezed the rag with my foot, draining the dirty water through the colander into the bucket below. I cleaned the floor section by section that way. When I was finished, I rinsed the floor with clean water and opened the doors for a few minutes to let the floors dry. After the floor was dry, I took another rag and applied Johnson's paste wax and buffed. I got three dollars for my first job. It wasn't long before all of the neighbors were asking me to do their floors. I was the only person in town who could wash a floor without getting dishpan hands.
The floor waxing business grew. I was doing so many floors I decided to modernize. I bought an electric hand buffer. The buffer pad became my scrub brush. I held the buffer with my foot and dipped it into the soapy water. Then I turned the buffer on and scrubbed the floor, letting the buffer do all of the hard work. The buffer increased my speed three times faster than by foot.
Working with the buffer had its problems, however. One time I was trying to squeeze the dirty water out of the buffer pad. I dropped the buffer straight into the pail of dirty water. The buffer was still running on high speed and sprayed dirty water all over the place. It splattered the walls and ceilings, as well as the floor. By the time I got over to the wall plug and pulled it out, the room had become a disaster area. I wound up paying Mom half of my wages for cleaning the damage. From that time on, I treated the buffer with a lot of respect.
I added still another profession to my list. I got the idea from Dad. One day he came home dead tired from working in the mines. As he came up the walk, he noticed that the lawn needed cutting. It was obvious to him that if he waited one more day the grass would be too long to cut. Dad had no choice, tired or not, the lawn had to be cut. In those days you used a hand-powered mower.
"I don't feel like doing it," he told me, "but it has to be done." I had never mowed a lawn before, but I told him that I was willing to give it a try. He was too tired to object.
I decided to practice on the vacant lot next door. It was an empty lot, level, and overgrown with weeds and wild grass. Actually, this lot later became mine.
One day I saw a tax notice in the local newspaper. Due to a ten dollar delinquency in the property taxes, the lot was going to be sold to the highest bidder at the sheriff's auction. Since it was a corner lot on an intersection, I figured it might be valuable someday. All I needed to do was clean it up and make it look good.
I told Dad I was going down to the auction and buy the lot next door. He told me I was nuts. I explained that I knew the lot needed a lot of work, but I believed I could make it look good. I could do the work myself, so I was going to buy it. He wanted to know how I was going to do the work myself. I told him that I didn't know. I was taking things one step at a time and would worry about that after I bought the lot. That was my usual way of getting into a new project.
Dad told me that if I bought the lot, he would go down to the courthouse and sign the papers for me. So, I left home at noon with sixty dollars in my pocket. That may not seem like much money to buy a lot, but at that time the country was still in hard times and land was not very expensive, especially a vacant lot. I checked the price that lots were bringing in the newspaper and talked with people who had recently purchased lots in our neighborhood. I felt that sixty dollars would be a fair price to pay for it. Remember, in those days sixty dollars was a lot of money.
The auction was held on the courthouse lawn that afternoon. There were twenty to thirty people there for the bidding. Of course, I knew most of them. The auctioneer knew me really well. He looked at me somewhat perplexed and asked, "What in the heck are you doing here?" I told him that I was going to buy a certain lot. "Do you have enough money?" was the next question.
"I hope so," I replied.
"Do you realize you are not old enough to buy it?" he asked.
"Dad's going to be here in a few minutes and he will approve it," I assured him. That was alright with him, so he started the auction.
He sold six lots before it came time to start the bidding on the one I wanted. The bidding started at five dollars and was quickly raised to fifteen. It was now time to show the brilliance of a great auction strategist. I exploded, "I bid tweeeeeenty dddddollars!!!" Everyone looked at me, stunned. The auctioneer tried to raise the bid, but everyone just stood there looking at me in disbelief. He let it go once, then tried to raise the bid. Still, everyone just stared at me. The auctioneer let it go twice and tried to find another bidder, but all the other bidders just stood their looking at me with their mouths open. The bid went three times and the lot was mine.
The sheriff came over to me and said, "I understand that your dad is going to sign for this?" I told him that was correct and suggested that while I was waiting for Dad to arrive, we should go ahead and get the paperwork done. I paid him the twenty dollars and filled out the forms. He wanted to know if my Dad had put me up to this so that he could buy the lot cheap. I told him that not only did my Dad not put me up to it, but he thought I was crazy for wanting to buy it in the first place.
It wasn't long before Dad came along. When he found out that I had bought the lot for twenty dollars, he was shocked. He told me that he would have bought it himself if he had known he could have gotten it that cheap.
So that's how I came to own the corner lot that I was going to practice my lawn mowing on. As soon as Dad signed the papers, the sheriff told me that I had to advertise in the local newspaper every week for one year. That way anyone who owned the lot would have the opportunity to buy it back from me. The previous owner would be allowed to reclaim the lot by paying me the twenty dollars plus back taxes and payment for any improvements I made.
So I put an ad in the local paper for one year. That was something I did not know about when I bid on the lot. It cost me forty dollars for the newspaper ads, which was twice what the lot cost. If you take the twenty dollars I paid for the lot and add the forty dollars for newspaper ads, I wound up paying sixty dollars for the lot. Exactly what I thought the lot was worth in the first place.
This lot was without obstacles. There were no buildings or anything else on it and it was perfectly flat. I figured this would be a good place to practice pushing and steering the lawn mower. Once I had enough practice, I would try mowing our lawn.
I moved the lawnmower over to the corner lot and got behind it with my wheelchair. I positioned the pushbars at my back and started pushing the mower backwards. It started moving, but then went off to the side. I readjusted myself and tried again. This time it went in a straight line for a few feet before going off the side again. After a few more attempts, I could anticipate when it was going to veer off to the side and was able to correct it before it happened. After a few minutes, I was able to keep it going in a straight line and turn corners. After thirty minutes of practice, I felt that I was ready for the big job.
It took me two hours to mow the lawn. Boy, did that wear me out. When I finished mowing the lawn, I took the spade between my toes and used it to do the trimming. Mom and Dad thought I did a very good job, but they advised me that it was not worth the effort I had put into it.
I didn't mind the effort, because I was able to add another job to my list. It wasn't long before all the neighbors wanted me to cut their lawns. There were other kids competing for the lawn mowing jobs, but I was the only one that would do trimming. That is why I was in such demand. It wasn't long before strangers were coming up to me and asking if I would mow their lawns. Soon I was doing lawns all over Harrisburg.
Most of my friends had full-time paper routes, but I never did. I substituted a lot for my friends, but I never had a route of my own. When I did substitute, I went to the place where all of the paperboys gathered to receive and fold their papers. I folded the papers with my toes and the other kids helped me tuck in the ends. I put the papers in my carrier bag. Then I was on my own.
I went down the sidewalk with one shoe off and one shoe on. I had to throw the papers barefoot, so my right foot had to be bare. (In the summertime those sidewalks could really get hot.) I kept my left shoe on so I could push myself down the sidewalk.
I carried the paper bag down low on the right side of my wheelchair. That way I could reach down and grab the paper with my toes. After I had a good grip on the paper, I wound up my foot as far back as it would go and then, underhanded, I pitched the paper up onto the porch. I was a good pitcher and always got the paper on the porch or steps.
I was a good paperboy, but I never did like the job. It was hot and I was constantly rushing from one house to the next. They just kept pushing you all of the time. All the paper customers knew me, but they still gave me strange looks. They always asked me where their regular paperboy was and why I wanted to work all of the time. They just couldn't understand why I would go to such effort to get a small job done. And they were right. I only got paid three cents a paper. It was the cheapest paying job I ever had.
The Poet Friend
When I was twelve years old, the local Elks Club began a program to sponsor a special clinic for crippled children. The clinic was free to any crippled child in the county. The Elks Club made arrangements with the Illinois Research Hospital in Chicago to send a specialist to Harrisburg one day each year to examine us.
I was not too excited about attending the clinic; but you know my parents, always looking for that one miracle cure. So once a year I went downtown to the Elks Lodge Building to be examined by the specialist from Chicago. Each year the hospital sent a different doctor and nurse. If the doctor thought that anything could be done, even the slightest thing to improve the child's medical condition, the child would be referred to the main hospital in Chicago. There he was re-examined by a team of specialists who prescribed treatment.
You could not enter the Illinois Research Hospital in any other way. No referral, no admittance. I was not referred to the main hospital...for the first four years. But the fifth year that I was examined in the Harrisburg clinic, the new doctor came up with the idea that I might be helped by rattlesnake venom. His theory was to inject diluted rattlesnake venom (by humans instead of snakes) into my veins, hoping it would cause a calming effect on my nerves. This is what is called experimental medicine.
I figured, what the heck. All it could do was kill me and I had been through a lot worse. The snake doctor was afraid to give me the venom injection at the Harrisburg clinic, because he had no idea how I would react. He wanted me to have the benefit of a hospital with an emergency room available just in case his brilliant theory was wrong and I had side effects. So, he gave me a written referral to the Illinois Research Hospital.
Dad and I took a train to Chicago. From the terminal we went by taxi over to the hospital. As Dad was struggling to lift me out of the taxi, a strange man walked by. And I mean a very strange man. He asked Dad if he could help. Dad responded that he had never been to this hospital before. "It is huge, and I don't know my way around."
"I will be happy to be your guide," replied the strange stranger.
You'll remember that I told you before I could walk on my own strength for a long distance if I was supported by someone. Dad did not bring my wheelchair for this trip. Instead, he helped me walk under my own power by lifting me up and holding me under my arms for balance and support. I took little six-inch steps at a time. It was a long walk.
The good Samaritan held the door open so I could tippie-toe through. "Thank you," Dad said.
"That's alright. I have two crippled children of my own," he replied sympathetically.
He led the way to the admittance desk and helped us through the preliminary paperwork. He knew the hospital routine quite well. You could tell he was an old hand at this sort of business.
The paperwork took forty-five minutes. I had been supporting my own weight all of this time and my knees were starting to buckle. The stranger noticed my problem and quickly asked the nurse at the desk for a number and took us into the hall where we sat down and wait for my number to be called. You know what hospitals are like. When you're waiting your turn you can wait a long time.
Our new-found friend seemed to be suspended in time with nowhere to go and nothing to do but to sit there and talk to us. He was a strange, even odd looking man; quite homely, high cheek bones with extremely rugged features and a deeply wrinkled face. One look at the man and you knew immediately that he was a raw-boned, country boy who had led a hard life. He smiled, but the smile had no function.
He wore a beautiful suit that would have looked perfect on anyone but him. He reminded me of the old photographs you see of the plains' Indians of a hundred years ago where they sit in front of the camera with a stone face wearing a new suit. The new suit just didn't look right with those rugged features. You could take the finest suit in the world, made by the best tailor, and it still would not look right on this man. Nothing would look right on him--not casual clothes nor even a working man's clothes. He was just one of those few poor creatures for which clothes are not complimentary.
As he sat down, he took out the shortest cigar that I have ever seen. He lit it up and started to smoke. With the first puff, he started to tell us the story of his life.
As a young man he spent several years bumming around the country, sometimes doing odd jobs and sometimes just being a hobo. Somewhere along the way he decided that he wanted to be a writer. He had attended high school, but never graduated. He went to two different colleges, but never received a diploma. He wanted to be a poet and so he decided to write poems about where he had been and what he had seen. He also wrote about the people he met and things he saw during his many travels. Like all young starving poets, he could only get his poems published privately for the first few years.
He was thirty-eight years old before his poems were published by a commercial publishing house. And that was only because he was a good friend with the publisher's top book salesman. The salesman browbeat his editor into publishing the poems even though the publisher thought the poet and his poetry were both nuts. When the book was finally printed and reviewed by the literary critics, the publisher was proved correct. The critics all agreed with the publisher. The poet and his poetry were both nuts.
"Yet, some people bought my poems," he said.
He lived (Struggled is the most accurate word.) and worked in Chicago for a number of years. To earn a living while he was trying to make it as a poet, he worked as a writer for different Chicago newspapers. In fact, at that time he was currently working for one of the Chicago newspapers, writing an article whenever they asked him for one.
As he continued his story, the cigar burned dangerously near the end of the butt. The stranger casually took a pocket knife out of his pocket and pushed the tip into the butt and continued smoking while holding the butt with the tip of the knife. He continued smoking this way until the butt burnt his lips. Then he reached for another cigar. As he picked up the next cigar, I realized why they were so small. He took regular sized cigars and cut them in half. As he talked, he leaned his broad shoulders forward. His awkward appearance was magnified when he leaned forward; because he wore a coat that was buttoned up to the chin, although it was a warm summer day.
His way of speaking was even stranger than his looks. He spoke in a rhythmic pattern, poetic even. The poetic pattern could be fast or slow, low or loud, depending on what mood he was in. Sometimes when he was speaking slow, his slowness stretched into a silence where he was only mouthing the words. At other times when his thoughts were slow, he pronounced each syllable as if each was a word by itself. He could change instantly and roar like an Indian brave about to scalp you. But always, in all of his varying speech patterns, there was poetry; every sentence and word had a poetic meaning. I really enjoyed it and found it absolutely fascinating. It was so unusual that I am sure he is the only one who ever spoke that way.
I found this speech pattern so intriguing that I started to copy it to see if I could do it. I couldn't do as well as the stranger, but I was catching on. Dad was not used to someone speaking like this and after a couple of hours, he started to come unglued. Dad was a simple man who lived with simple people. He just couldn't understand why this guy just didn't speak like other people. I tried to explain to Dad that this is the way he always spoke. This was his natural way of speaking. That is the way God made him.
Reading and reciting poetry was one thing, but continually carrying on a conversation with a person who spoke poetically was just plain weird. The speech pattern by itself was actually quite beautiful and interesting. What made it so odd was that this beautiful speech pattern just did not sound right coming from him. But after listening to his speech pattern for awhile, I could understand why he wanted to be a poet.
Then he asked if we wanted to hear him recite some of his poems. The guy was so weird (fascinatingly so) and his speech was so weird, that I just couldn't wait to hear what his poems were like. Eagerly, I said yes.
He recited some poems that were short and some that were long. When he finished, there was dead silence. Dad just sat there dumbfounded. Then the expression on his face changed to one of incredulity. When Dad was able to regain his composure, he said, "I don't understand. Nothing makes sense. Nothing rhymes."
In a matter-of-fact way the poet replied, quite honestly, "I don't understand some of the things I write either. Ideas and words just come into my head and I write them down. I don't like to have my ideas limited by making them rhyme. So if the words rhyme then fine. If not, then I don't worry about it."
"That's the same way I feel, Dad."
"I must admit," the poet continued, "it is hard getting poems published when the rhymes don't rhyme. But some people buy them."
I just loved his poems. (But keep in mind that I have massive brain damage.)
He admitted frankly that he was not a very literary person. But he had been able to get jobs over the years with the local Chicago newspapers and made a living. Getting his first book of poems published, although be it by devious means, opened the door for other books. Over the years; more poetry books, children's books, and even "two books on the life of Abraham Lincoln." All of a sudden Dad got excited. Dad idolized Abraham Lincoln and tried to study everything about Lincoln's life. Personally I wasn't impressed when he said he had written about the life of Lincoln. You see, in those days writing about the life of Abraham Lincoln was the thing to do. Every other person you bumped into in Illinois was either writing about Lincoln or thinking about writing a book about Lincoln.
About this time my number was called and it was time for me to see the doctors and be entertained by their snake medicine show. I was transferred to a wheelchair and a nurse pushed me to the examination room while Dad and the poet continued talking.
As the nurse pushed me towards the examination room, she angrily told me, "That man is nothing but a hobo who has everyone conned into believing that he is a great poet and writer. Why his poetry doesn't even rhyme! His poetry is awful. I can't understand why anyone would buy his books. Sometimes one of the local civic organizations will ask him to give a speech. He will accept and then get drunk and not even show up. Sometimes we will find him outside wandering around drunk and bring him into the hospital until he sobers up."
She wasn't the only one in the hospital with that low opinion of the poet. The rest of the staff felt the same way and didn't hesitate to let me know. I don't care what they said (although it be true), I liked the man.
As the nurse pushed me down the hall, I glanced back for a moment and noticed that my Dad and the poet were talking--in hushed tones. (Parents of crippled children always talk in hushed tones.) This meant only one thing; they were now talking about me. They commenced talking about what all parents of crippled children talk about when they get together...their crippled children. Our poet friend had one daughter with epilepsy and another daughter who had been in a car accident and never fully recovered. That is why he was so familiar with the hospital routine. Like Mom and Dad, the poet and his wife had spent their whole lives going from one doctor to another. And like Mom and Dad, our poet friend lived frugally and had only one goal in life, to provide for his two crippled children. (Parents of crippled children all come from the same mold.)
It is the feeling of all parents of crippled children that the parents must provide for their children as long as they live and even beyond their own lives (by setting up trust funds) into eternity. They cannot comprehend that the child might someday, somehow be able to provide for themselves. And so, the parents' sole quest in life is to work themselves to death to earn enough money to save for the future care of the child, all the time living frugally themselves.
The poet's only concern in life was to write as much as he could: poetry, children's books, newspaper articles, etc....anything that would make money. He preferred writing books for a practical reason. Newspaper articles only earned him money once. But books would bring in royalties as long as they were published. He hoped, wistfully, that if he could become a great writer, his books would be in print long after his death and his children could continue to live off the royalties. But, he confided, he didn't just want to be a great writer. He had something that he wanted to prove to the world and felt that the only way to accomplish this was to become the greatest writer in the world. High ambitions, indeed, for a man who in truth was nothing more than a well-dressed, successful hobo! But then, every writer wants to be the greatest writer in the world. And so he constantly, demoniacally wrote, and wrote, and wrote...
Keep in mind that those days were different than today. In those days poetry was quite popular. Today it is next to impossible for any poet, including some very good ones, to get their poems published. The public just isn't into buying poetry. But in those days it seemed that everybody was buying poetry books. So it wasn't too difficult for a poet to get their book published and make some money off their rhythmic efforts.
When the poet had finished telling Dad about his crippled children, it was then Dad's turn to tell about me. The poet wanted to know about my background, what disability I had, etc....
When I was finished with the two-hour examination, I returned to where my father was still sitting. I was surprised to see the poet still there after all this time.
The poet explained that he had waited to find out the results of my test. I told him that the snake medicine, like everything else the doctors had given me throughout my life, had done no good. Then we took up our conversation where we had left off before I was called to be examined by the doctors.
We continued discussing his daughters' handicaps and my handicap. Then my poet friend changed the subject...to his handicap. He was not happy with life. Like me, he felt an outcast from the rest of society. As a child he had no friends. None of the other kids would play with him because he was so ugly. He grew up an introvert in a world of his own, a man who preferred to be off by himself, shunning the finer things of life. He knew he was an outcast because of his homely looks, strange voice, and peculiar manners. He never felt comfortable around crowds. Feeling inadequate, he could not accept himself and felt that others could not accept him either. In order to give a speech before an audience, he always prepared by taking a drink, and then another, and another...
He wrote not because he was a great writer; he knew that he did not have a mastery of the English language as other writers did. He was convinced that people bought his books only because of the subject matter and cared not at all about the writer. It could have been any writer's name on the book as far as the reader was concerned. In short, he was lacking. He wrote not because he was skilled, he explained, but only because he loved to write in his own oddball way. I felt that he would have been happier as an everyday laborer, rather than a writer; but he loved to write and he did make a living at it, so why not?
The poet looked at my dad and said, "My handicap is as severe to me as your son's is to him. My brother-in-law is the most famous photographer in the world. He name is Steichen. He is the one who is called to take the photographs of the most famous and powerful people in the world. Ever since I married Steichen's sister, thirty years ago, the two of us have become the best of friends. Over those years, Steichen has taken thousands of photographs of me. And yet, the best photographer in the world, with the best equipment that money can buy, still cannot hide my ugliness. Not one photo in all of those thousands can fool the world. My ugliness photographs just like Abraham Lincoln's. Lincoln and I are made from the same mold. I know the man, what he thought and what trials he had to go through in life. That is why I have spent my life studying the man and writing about him. No one on this earth understands Abraham Lincoln better than I."
Then he turned to me, pain etched the furrows of his face and tears came to his eyes as he said, "Ours is an arduous journey through life...an arduous journey to nowhere."
"That's the same way I feel, Dad."
In sympathy I told the poet, quite truthfully, "No one accepts me either. So don't think you are all alone."
"That's not true," Dad objected. "You are loved and popular with everyone in town."
"I know," I explained, "but they don't want to look at me or be around me. That is what I am trying to explain. I don't fit into life either."
Now the poet friend turned the tables on me. He had told me the story of his life, now he wanted me to tell the story of my life. I told him the story of my life, the same story that I have told you up to this point in the book. He knew a lot about Al Capone because he had lived in Chicago for quite a long time. But he didn't know much about Charlie Birger and the Shelton brothers. This interested him and he asked a lot of questions on this subject.
He asked me how I saw my future. I told him that I realized that my handicap prevented me from entering some professions, but I felt that there were some jobs I could do. I wanted to do something where I could use more of my brain and less of my body. I figured I could sell things like cars, furniture, insurance, and things like that. As the poet and I discussed different possible professions, I could see my father noticeably wincing. For it is the feeling of all parents of crippled children that their children are absolutely helpless and hopeless. It hurts parents deeply to see their children building up their hopes for what will never happen.
He felt Dad's sorrow. The poet also noticed my father's painful reaction to our now uncomfortable conversation and told him, "We dream until our dreams become reality." (You see what I mean about his pattern of speech? It doesn't rhyme, but if you think about it, in its own way it is poetic and quite beautiful.)
"Why don't you try writing?"
"I never thought about it. I don't know how to write," I answered unenthusiastically.
"I don't know how to write either," was his frank reply.
The nurse at the desk was eavesdropping on our conversation and at this point she raised her head, looked straight at me, and nodded in agreement with the poet's last statement.
"Well, what would I write about?" I asked.
"Why don't you write about Charlie Birger and the Shelton brothers?"
"Nobody in southern Illinois wants to hear about them anymore. In fact, they all want to forget about them."
"Why don't you write about your own life then? What you told me sounds very interesting."
"All I've done all my life was hop around on my head. That doesn't sound very interesting to me." (Remember, hopping around on my head to me was natural, common, therefore, uninteresting.)
In as much as the poet brought the subject up, I figured that I might as well pursue it a little further.
"How long does it take to write a book? How long did it take you to write your books on Abraham Lincoln?"
"I was forty-eight years old when I wrote my first book on Lincoln. I spent most of my life researching and writing it."
I gasped. Once I caught my breath, I continued, "Well, how long did it take to write your other books?"
A glaze came over his eyes as he looked straight ahead, as if into eternity, as he mouthed the words, "Fourteen years."
"Fourteen years!" I blurted out. "I'm sixteen years old. I'm not going to spend my whole life writing a book."
"Who knows. Maybe you will take longer," he said, still gazing off into eternity.
I decided that I was not going to be a writer.
We first met this strange man at eleven o'clock in the morning. It was now late into the evening and we had to catch the last train to Harrisburg. He walked with us to our taxi and helped Dad put me into the back seat.
As the taxi drove away from the curb, I looked back once more at my poet friend. As he stood there on the sidewalk, I couldn't help thinking to myself how happy I was that I was I and he was he. I would not have traded places with him for a million dollars.
He was a pathetic figure standing there completely disjointed from the rest of the world. He spent his entire life trying to fit into a world in which he simply did not fit.
He spent all of his time writing, writing, writing to prove to the world that there was a place for him, that he did fit in: hoping if they would not accept him, then perhaps they would accept his writing.
As we drove away, I could not help noticing that he couldn't even comb his hair right.
The First War
Shortly after returning from my trip to the Illinois Research Hospital in Chicago, I was invited by one of my friends to attend church with him. He was a member of the First Christian Church of Marion. I did not agree with the doctrine of this church, but I had never been inside of the First Christian Church of Marion before, and I had a special reason for wanting to go. I eagerly accepted my friend's invitation and attended the following Sunday's service.
Being in a wheelchair, I just parked myself in the aisle and sat there patiently waiting for the sermon to begin. As I sat, my mind wandered back in history as I recalled the story of the first war. It was on this every spot that the first war had begun.
There were actually two wars in Egypt. In the first, Charlie Birger and the Shelton brothers fought shoulder to shoulder. In the second, they fought face to face.
On the evening of May 20, 1923, three years before I was born, an evangelist was giving a sermon from this pulpit. In the middle of the sermon more than a dozen men dressed in the white robes and hoods of the Ku Klux Klan walked silently down this same aisle and stood before the preacher. The leader of the group handed an envelope to the evangelist, then, saying not a word, they all marched out as silently as they had entered. For the first time in the history of Williamson County the Ku Klux Klan had shown its strength.
The evangelist opened the envelope. Inside were a note and a thirty-dollar cash offering. The surprised and perplexed preacher read the note aloud to the equally surprised and perplexed members of the congregation. In essence it was an open letter to all of the ministers in Egypt telling them that the Ku Klux Klan was on their side: Standing for God, righteousness, mother, country...and law and order. The Klan had publicly thrown down the gauntlet at the feet of the gangsters.
Between the time that the Charlie Birger-Shelton gang took over Little Egypt and the day that the Ku Klux Klan appeared at the First Christian Church in Marion, there was peace throughout all of the land of Egypt. True, during this interval, the gangsters ran the state of Illinois instead of the citizens; but that was only a technicality, a minor point. In truth, the gangsters could not have ruled without the consent of the citizens. But on the twentieth day of May 1923, that consent was about to be withdrawn.
Word soon spread throughout Egypt that God had raised up the Klan to do his work. To wit: rid Egypt of the gangsters and all of their sin and debauchery, close down the roadhouses and gambling joints, reject all foreigners and Catholics, and split open the heads of the Jews and Niggers. With a platform like that, reasoned the fundamentalist majority in Egypt, the Klan had to be sent by God!
Within days nearly every Protestant preacher in Egypt was publicly praising the Ku Klux Klan from their pulpits and urging their church members to join the Exalted Cyclops to do the above mentioned chores for God. Within one week's time this small group of Klansmen that had walked silently down the aisle of the First Christian Church of Marion found their ranks swollen to more than two thousand members. In two month's time the Klan had grown to more than five thousand men with its membership spilling over to include recruits from the surrounding counties.
Every Klansman armed himself to the teeth and prepared to do open battle with the gangsters. The goal of the Klan and ministers was clear to everyone: They were going to run the gangsters out of Egypt; close all the illegal gambling joints and taverns; destroy all of the liquor and stills; and while they were at it, eliminate all sin in Egypt. Big ambitions indeed! But with five thousand armed men they figured that they had a pretty good chance of accomplishing these lofty goals.
Against this army that was continually growing faster than rabbits, the gangsters were only able to muster about fifty gunmen. The Birger-Shelton Gang had hundreds, perhaps thousands of men under the shelter of their organization. It consisted of what we would think of today as a franchise chain, consisting of hundreds of taverns and gambling joints spread throughout Egypt. But these businesses were run by professional businessmen who were only technically working illegally because the law had merely been changed. But basically most of them were respectable businessmen who paid a percentage to the gangsters just as a franchise pays royalties to their headquarters. But the proprietors of these businesses were not professional gunmen.
So now you can understand the significance of fifty Birger-Shelton gunmen suddenly being confronted by more than five thousand Klansmen. Needless to say, the idyllic life of Charlie Birger was about to come crashing down. There was one big equalizer, however. Against the Klansmen's rifles, the gangsters had machine guns and one other thing: Whereas the Klan killed only for God, the gangsters were utterly ruthless and killed...just for the fun of it (as previously described).
The gangsters were not about to give up Williamson County without a fight. They immediately started a new recruiting campaign among the coal mining towns. Their sales pitch was that anyone who wanted to leave the mines could make a killing with the gangsters, if they would turn in their picks and shovels for Thompson machine guns.
The gangsters started their own organization (army) to counter the Ku Klux Klan army. The Italian Catholics came pouring into the gangsters' anti-Klan army. Naturally, the gangsters wanted a sophisticated name for their new army. So they called themselves 'The Knights of the Flaming Circle.'
There was no neutral ground. You had to favor one side or the other. You were either a Klucker or an anti-Klucker. It was not just an impending war that was shaping up in Egypt, it was an impending civil war that would split families apart as they chose opposite sides.
Every train that pulled into Williamson County now unloaded reporters from virtually every major newspaper in the nation. The Herrin Massacre, the infamous coal miners' massacre, had taken place only a few months before. The story of the massacre was front page news in every newspaper in the country at the time. The news reporters could smell another big story in the making. They all knew the media potential from the infamous and bloody Williamson County. All of the reporters came early, before the first major battle, so they could get background material from both armies.
The gangsters' army was soon equal in numbers to the Klan's. But, as explained before, the army of The Knights of the Flaming Circle was essentially non-combatants. The gangsters' allies could give strong logistical support: an extensive spy network, hideouts, and money, but no trigger men. When it came to blood and bullets, it was still fifty against five thousand. The smart money was being bet on the Ku Klux Klan.
Sunday after Sunday the ministers of Egypt bellowed the same sermons from their pulpits: "Law and order! Law and order!" (Those words were just hated by the gangsters!) The Klan in conjunction with the ministers held huge rallies, putting unbearable pressure upon the politicians to do something about cleaning up Egypt. This really put the politicians in a bind as most of them were on the gangsters' payroll.
The Klan and ministers gave the politicians an ultimatum: "Clean up Egypt or we will do the job alone." The politicians didn't. The Klan decided they would.
The Klan was now ready to act. The newspaper reporters readied for the big story. The printing presses of nearly every newspaper in America were alerted to be put on hold at a moment's notice for news from Williamson county.
The Klan was now ready to move. But just then, the Klan realized that they didn't have anybody to move them. Most of the law enforcement officers were on the gangsters' payroll. They had been thrown together and grew so fast that no one realized there wasn't one among them who could lead an army of five thousand men into battle.
So the Klan had to hold its massive, restless army at ease, while they cast about for a leader. Their eyes quickly fell upon Seth Glenn Young. One look at Mr. Young's impeccable credentials would convince anyone that he was the man to lead the Klan against the gangsters. He had spent a little time in college and a little more time in medical school, then went to work for the F.B.I. All accounts showed he was a fearless crusader for justice.
For years, newspapers and magazines had followed his daring exploits. He was a rising star in the world of good guys and bad guys. When his fame was at its peak as an F.B.I. agent, he quit the federal government to take on the job of a prestigious, and of course, fearless Texas Ranger. At the time the Ku Klux Klan of Williamson County approached Mr. Young with the offer to lead them, this remarkable man had single-handedly made more than three thousand arrests and killed in hand-to-hand combat almost thirty men. Hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and periodicals across the country carried stories of the amazing exploits of Seth Glenn Young; yet through all of this publicity, he remained quite modest and soft spoken, shunning the limelight and publicity. This was quite a formidable enemy for the gangsters indeed: brave, fearless, cool in a face-to-face gunfight, willing to die for the cause of righteousness.
There was one thing, however, about Mr. Young. He was strange. In short, the pretty normal person you found in Williamson County in those days...except stranger. Let me give you an example. You remember all of the stories about his daring exploits in all the newspapers, magazines, and periodicals? None of the stories were true. It seems that Mr. Young, like the gangsters, believed very strongly in public relations. He planted the false stories with scores of reporters who were only too anxious and gullible to have them published.
The truth is that Mr. Young's first wife divorced him because he was always beating her up. The government had to fire him because he had a talent for planting evidence on innocent people, then arresting them, usually beating them up, sometimes killing an innocent soul or two in the process. What the Ku Klux Klan thought they were getting for a leader and what they actually got were two different things.
Mr. Young was in Washington, D.C., at the time the leadership of the Klan army was offered to him. He quickly accepted and headed west. When the train crossed the Williamson County line, Little Egypt would never be the same and blood would run as never before.
In every town Seth (the anointed one) Glenn Young entered he was greeted as a savior. He was hailed as the man of the hour sent by God to deliver the people from the gangsters.
The anointed one quickly took action. On the evening of December 22, 1923, by invitation only, five hundred men arrived for a special meeting at the Odd Fellow's Hall in Carbondale, forty miles west of Harrisburg and, just a little ways on the other side of the Williamson County line.
The invitation was issued by Seth Glenn Young to the most trustworthy members of the Klan only. Of course, this included most of the ministers in Williamson County.
Young stood before the five hundred most loyal with jaws set and a look of firm determination on his face. He wore his military puttees. (Puttees were those pants you have seen officers of the First World War wear that flared at the thighs.) Strapped to both legs were two forty-fives. In his arms he cradled a machine gun. Everyone became mighty suspicious real quick that something big was up.
Young had all five hundred men raise their right hands and be sworn in as federal deputies. Every man was checked to make sure he had a loaded rifle. Then, in a well-organized, military-type operation, the five hundred were broken down into smaller groups, loaded into cars and ordered to raid every roadhouse they could find.
At seven the next morning, the raid started. It was an unbelievable success. More than one hundred roadhouses were raided, smashed up, etc. Incredibly, the gangsters were taken completely by surprise. No word leaked ahead of time. That is amazing when you consider the size of the raid and the fact that practically half of Egypt was on the gangsters' payroll and that doesn't include the elaborate spy network.
That evening the raiders' cars poured into the streets of Benton, the county seat of Williamson. They unloaded their prisoners onto the main street and marched them to the U.S. Commissioner for arraignment. It was a Saturday night and the Christmas shoppers were crowding Benton. Thousands of citizens lined the street to watch this unusual spectacle. The commissioner spent all night working, filling the jail at Benton and sending the rest to Herrin to be locked up.
It wasn't just the roadhouses that were raided. Under the guise of federal warrants, the Klan broke into the homes of their enemies, Jews, Catholics, blacks, old enemies, or just whomever they felt like terrorizing. They slapped people around, smashed up furniture, etc....
Two weeks later the Klan struck again. Once more they caught the gangsters completely by surprise, taking more than one hundred prisoners and filling the jails of Benton and Herrin.
Two days later, again with federal warrants, there was another raid.
The gangsters were reeling from the shock not knowing what to do with wave after wave of unexpected raids.
The raids did have one positive effect for the gangsters, however. They got more recruits from those innocent victims of the Klan's violence. The Italian and French governments filed strong complaints about the abuse of their citizens living in Williamson County, U.S.A.
Williamson County was now a powder keg waiting to be ignited. The sheriff called the governor for help. The governor immediately dispatched three companies of state militia.
On January 9 armed militia guarded the streets of Marion. The Klan was winning the war against the gangsters and they bitterly resented the militia placing themselves between the two antagonists. The Klan requested that the governor withdraw the troops. The sheriff countered that he had called for the militia because the Klan refused to recognize the law of the land. The Klan denied the charge. When asked why they set up a field machine gun in the courtroom, Glen Young responded that they did not want to leave it outside where it might be stolen. The militia stayed.
The sheriff refused to call for the removal of the troops until Williamson County was restored to order. The roadhouse operators were asked if they would voluntarily close down for awhile until all the tension had time to blow over. The roadhouse operators refused. The decision about who could run Williamson County would be decided by the gun and bullet. The newspaper reporters were now working overtime phoning in their stories to their headquarters.
Finally terms were agreed upon for a truce. The mayor of Herrin fired his anti-Klucker deputies and hired Klucker deputies. The sheriff agreed to conduct raids on the roadhouses with his own men for the first time. By January 15, the county had calmed down enough that the militia felt safe to leave a few officers as forward observers and the rest of the troops went home.
The mayor was under the impression that the Klan would now leave the job of law enforcement to duly elected and authorized (easily bribable) government officials. In this belief he was wrong. On January 20 the Klan made another raid bringing the county to the boiling point.
Young declared that the raids would continue until the county was free of all vice, one hundred percent. Also Young was now going to make his home in Williamson County. On January 31 the Klan conducted a raid so massive and far sweeping that they made arrangements to charter a train ahead of time for the purpose of transporting the prisoners to jail. The prisoners were placed in columns. Young was at the head and armed as usual. The prisoners were flanked by thousands of Klansmen (and thousands more spectators) and marched to jail.
The gangsters had enough. They fought back and Williamson County exploded into civil war. The men behind the machine guns quickly went to work. In less than twelve months the sheriff of Williamson County would have more than one hundred fifty unsolved murders on his hands. This number did not include the run-of-the-mill murders that Williamson was so famous for, nor did it include the bodies that were never found. Against odds of more than one hundred to one, the gangsters achieved a kill ratio greater than that at the Alamo.
The Klan fought back. On February 8, open warfare broke out between the Klan and gangsters in the streets of Herrin. When the smoke cleared, the Klan had the upper hand, an upper hand displayed in such a manner that has never been equaled in American history.
Young simply took over Herrin. He sealed off the city with thousands of armed Klansmen. The highways and streets were under complete control of the Klan. No one could pass in or out of Herrin unless they gave a secret password to the guards. All cars were stopped. The city looked like a war zone.
At three a.m. the first militia arrived. Young refused to turn over the city to the militia. The militia was not strong enough to take the city from Young. They fixed bayonets and loaded rifles. Young sat in the judge's chair and ran the city, arresting the mayor and a score of other local government officers and placed them in jail. Captives were brought before Young who found them guilty of criminal charges and sentenced them to jail.
Young, the national celebrity that he had become, held news conferences with the reporters. Seth Glenn Young now had his own private army which set him up as the dictator of a county, where ironically, he was not even registered to vote.
The militia did nothing to interfere with the Klan or Young. Young still outnumbered the government troops. The militia general just bided his time until sufficient reinforcements were sent to Herrin.
Three days later, Monday, February 11, militia were still arriving in Herrin. One thousand seven hundred troops had arrived. Young continued to rule until February 12. The militia general stationed his armed troops at the corners and patrolled streets. He notified Young that he was removed from office. Militia troops released the mayor and twenty-three others from jail.
The general asked the citizens to resolve their differences and return to peaceful life. The Lions Club promised to help all they could.
The war lasted nearly three years. The Klan raided. The gangsters fought back. The governor sent in the militia.
Finally, the governor threatened to declare martial law. This was no idle threat. No one would buy property in an area under martial law. This meant that the homes and farms of the Klansmen would have no value.
The threat worked. The Klan gave in and the war was over. The gangsters won. It was back to business as usual.
Ten weeks before the war ended I was born. So now you know who my friends and neighbors were and the life and times into which I was born.
In Pursuit of Higher Education
When I was eighteen, I was ready to enter high school. Remember, I was four years behind in school because of the bout with the spasms. The high school had never had a student in a wheelchair before, and they didn't want one either! Regular students who had been in accidents and were temporarily in wheelchairs while they were recovering, would continue in school. But the school had never had a permanently or severely handicapped student in a wheelchair before. None of the students in my crippled children's class in grammar school had gone on to high school.
There was even some question as to whether I was legally entitled to go to high school. The law did provide for my grammar school education, but it was not definite about high school.
The regular students only had to go to the school and enroll. If they didn't, then the school sent the truant officer out to check on why they were not enrolled. That was not the case with me. I had to convince the authorities to let me in.
I talked to the state rehabilitation officer in Harrisburg about my problem. He checked into it for me and reported back that as far as he could determine, I was entitled to funding for a high school education. Furthermore, the state would pay a higher amount for my tuition than for a regular student. After further research, I felt that the law was on my side. I was entitled to a high school education. If it came to a showdown, I believed that the school board would rule in my favor.
But, there was one major hurdle to overcome. One man, Mr. Fisher, had been the school's only principal in the last fifty years. He ruled the school and the school board with an iron hand. He was a dictator and what he said was the law. Even the school board was afraid of him and never went against his decisions.
He never hired school teachers who lived locally. The teachers were hired from most every state in the union and moved to Harrisburg. This way, none of the teachers were known in the community, so nobody could complain or object to Mr. Fisher hiring them. He could hire exactly whom he wanted without even one voice of opposition.
Once the new teachers relocated to Harrisburg, Mr. Fisher warned them not to participate in any community affairs. He wished to keep the teachers aloof and at a distance from the community which they served. Mr. Fisher still lived in the world of a class system. He and his teachers were educated and scholastic professionals, placing them in the upper class of society. Since Harrisburg was a typical poor coal mining town, its citizens were laborers. Mr. Fisher felt the coal miners were in the lower class of society and saw to it that the two classes did not mix socially.
The high school was not run like a school, but like a military academy. It was considered to be the best high school in Illinois academically. The reputation of the high school was so renowned that parents from all over the state would send their children to Harrisburg to live just so they could attend this school.
Firm discipline was always maintained. Shoes always had to be polished. Clothes did not have to be fancy or in style, but they had to be clean and neat. The students had to act like mature adults at all times.
There were certain student-teacher formalities which had to be observed. A student could never ask an instructor, "Would you please repeat the question." Instead, you were required to say, "Would you please give me more information."
The slightest infraction of any rule or formality, hair not being combed right or the slightest inattention in class, called for an immediate trip to the principal's office. Five trips to the principal's office and you were out of school. Once you were kicked out of school, there was no appeal. You never got back in.
The teachers were allowed to look pleasantly at the students but were forbidden to smile. Once in awhile they would slip and smile at a student. If Mr. Fisher caught a teacher smiling, he would immediately give them a forewarning tap on the shoulder. I never knew what the number was; but after a certain number of taps on the shoulder, the teacher was kicked out of school.
The cafeteria was large enough for all of the students to have lunch at the same time. But Mr. Fisher assigned numbers to all of the students and had the odd-numbered students eat lunch at one time and the even-numbered students eat lunch at yet another time.
Students were not allowed to talk inside the school building, except when it directly related to their school work.
At the beginning of each school year, the principal gave his opening speech to the student body. He ended his speech by telling the students that it was their responsibility to change Harrisburg from a low social class town to a high social class town. And Mr. Fisher was there to provide the best education in the state so that they could accomplish this goal.
Unfortunately, his ambitious plan backfired. His students graduated so well trained and educated that there was no place for them in a hick town like Harrisburg, so they all moved to larger cities to find employment. The hick town was left with the hicks.
Mr. Taylor also believed in total self-reliance. Obviously, he would not look upon me as a totally self-reliant person. His policy was to give the average student a try; but if they did not succeed, if they did not get good enough grades, or measure up to his standards, then he just kicked them out of school.
This was the nature of the man I had to convince to accept me into his school. My prospects looked pretty grim. I only had one thing in my favor. Against Mr. Fisher's many faults and idiosyncrasies, he did have one virtue. He was willing to listen to another person's point of view, even though he may disagree wholeheartedly. It was upon this willingness to listen to what I had to say, that I put my only hope for getting into his school.
I made an appointment to talk with him. When I entered Mr. Fisher's office and saw the look on his face, I knew that I was in for a long hard battle. I opened the battle by saying, "I have finished my elementary school education and I wish to continue on to high school."
He looked at me sternly and said, "Do you realize that this school is not equipped to take hospital cases? We've never had a wheelchair student here before."
"I'm not a hospital patient," I answered. "I live at home like you and the other students. But let's forget about the wheelchair for a minute. Even though I am in a wheelchair, I am still an individual just like you. So let's look at me as an individual. I have equal rights. I am mentally competent. So, let me ask you a question. If you had your choice, which would you prefer: a perfect physical body with no mental capacity or a crippled body with a competent mind? What do you value the most?"
He paused for a moment and told me that I had a point. If he had his preference, he would just as soon have a perfect body and a competent mind. But he did agree that the mind came first.
He went on to tell me that the school was not equipped to handle wheelchairs. They didn't have anyone to assist me or push the wheelchair. The school could provide no help whatsoever.
I told him that the reason I was there was to show him how it could be done without pushers or any special equipment. I outlined how I planned to go to school. I pushed myself back and forth to show him that I had mobility and did not need a pusher. As far as reading books, once someone set up a book for me, I could turn the pages with my lips or with a stick in my mouth. One of the students could make a copy of his notes by placing a piece of carbon paper between two sheets of notebook paper. He could take his notes as usual and give me the copy. I turned a school desk sideways to show him how I could use the regular school desk without any problem.
As for homework I had an electric typewriter and hit the keys with a stick in my mouth. I ended my demonstration by stating, "So there's no problem. I may need some help, but that is not your problem, it's mine. And when I encounter these problems, I will figure out what to do then. Because I have a crippled body and a competent mind, it is important that I develop my mind as fully as possible."
He was not convinced. He told me that there were different ways of doing things and that I could be just as successful without going to high school. He stressed that I had the basics in education--I knew how to read and write. He suggested that I further my education on my own by reading books and doing other things which did not require a formal education. Now remember, this principal was from an older and much different generation. In his generation a third grade education was considered adequate and he was viewing me as a person who had already completed the eighth grade.
I countered his arguments by saying, "The learning experience of being around and associating with other people is of extreme importance to education. One gains experience about people by living among people."
"Do you think you will be around that many people?" he said philosophically. "Or, do you think that other people will be around you?" In effect he was telling me, "Your world is a different world, so you are going to have to stay in your own world."
I answered that there was only one world, and that the world was like a diamond. A diamond has many facets, but it is still one diamond.
"That's true," he mumbled.
Our conversation had become a chess game. I now had him in check. So, he changed his strategy to keep me from putting him into checkmate. He raised the legal problem of tuition. I told him that tuition would be no problem and informed him that the state had a special fund for educating the handicapped. I assured him that the school would even receive more money for me than a regular student. He replied that he wasn't sure that was true, but he would check into it.
I assured him that it had been true for me in grade school, explaining that the government had special money to pay for my high school education as well. He had never heard of this before. He had known that I was going to grammar school, but never thought that I would apply to go on to high school. It had just never been done before.
I figured it was time to pull out all of the stops. "I don't believe that you can keep me out of school. The law says that the handicapped have a right to an education."
Mr. Fisher was becoming impatient with me. He thought he was going to get me in and out of his office in a few minutes. At first he enjoyed the game, because he thought he was going to win. Instead, he had become involved in an intellectual discussion which he could see he was loosing.
"I have one more statement to make and then this conversation is at an end," he said. "If the state does pay your tuition with special funds, then I want you to think about the possibility of using a private tutor at home."
Now the law said that the handicapped had a right to be educated, but it did not specify how the education was to be carried out. Mr. Fisher was an advocate of separate but equal education, with the emphasis on separate. He had changed the concept of the law to his own advantage and I realized that he just might win on this point. All I had on my side now was stealth and cunning.
Quickly, I shot back, "If I study with a tutor at home, then I'm not only a handicapped, but a shut-in as well. It puts me in the world of the shut-in and the law is designed to make the handicapped useful members of society. That can't be accomplished by removing me from society in order to educate me."
With a confused look on his face he said, "I've never thought of that."
The meeting was at an end. It had lasted for more than an hour. The principal had not committed himself one way or the other. He said that he would look into the matter and see me again later. My fate was now in his hands. No matter what the law of the land said, he had his own set of laws. In those days there was no such thing as civil rights.
Three days later I was called back into the principal's office. "Well, I will have to take you," he said. "But, I would like you to agree to a compromise. I would like you to take three courses instead of four. I think that will be better for you. You will have more time for your schoolwork."
I quickly agreed to his terms. It was easy...too easy.
Now Mr. Fisher was not necessarily a good man, nor a kind man. Nor was he a man of great human compassion. He probably could have forced me to have a tutor at home and thereby keep me out of his school. But, he chose not to do that. And I knew why. He figured that it was impossible for me to attend a regular high school. In a short time I would not be able to keep up with my school work and would fail the examinations. I would be forced to see the folly of my ways and drop out of school of my own choice. Like so many people who believed that I would fail, he was willing to give me enough rope to hang myself, but wanted to appear to have helped me as much as possible to succeed. I didn't care what his motives were. All I cared about was that I was in high school. I would start school in September.
There was one other thing I had to agree to. All of my class records had to show that I took my courses in the crippled children's room. The principal did not wish to set a precedent by allowing severely handicapped children into their school.
I readily agreed.
Not the Same School
Until I entered high school, I had never really thought that I was different from anyone else. Now, that may be hard to believe, but that is the way I felt. Oh, I knew that I was in a wheelchair. I knew that I was different that way and I knew that everyone else stood upright and walked on their legs, while I pushed myself backwards. I realized that I was different in some ways, but I never really thought that I was that much different from everyone else in the world.
I had a mother and father like the other kids. Dad gave me a licking, whether I deserved it or not, just like the other kids. I lived in a house and did what all the other kids did. I had a job, hitchhiked, delivered papers, cut the lawn, and helped with the chores. I did everything that everyone else did in life. Sure, I did things differently, but I still did them. And just because I did the same things differently did not mean that I was different. It was only my approach to things that was different.
Before starting my first day of school, I talked to my friends and they agreed to help me. I needed the boys to carry me up the steps into the building. And because the school had two stories, I needed them to carry me up to the second floor for my classes up there.
The first three days of school were set aside for orientation and signing up for classes. All of a sudden I found myself in the middle of hundreds of students all rushing about me madly. The crippled children's class I had come from had only eight students. The high school had six hundred.
I had to find the class schedule room. But I had no idea where it was or how to get there. I tried to ask the other students, but they were running around in a frenzy, trying to solve their own problems. All the kids wanted the best teachers and the best classes. They had to rush to accomplish this or a faster student would get the class of first choice.
When I did get to the scheduling room, all of the schedules were up too high. In fact, they were directly at eye level for a person standing up. But I could not stand up. I had to ask the other students to tell me what classes were available and who the teachers were.
All of my life I had been self-reliant. I always did everything for myself. At least I thought that I had been self-reliant. I had thought that I had done everything for myself. Now, in order to find out a simple thing, like the name of a class and the teacher, I had to rely upon someone else to do it for me.
Once I had chosen my classes and instructors, I had to write this information down on the enrollment slips and take them to be processed. But I could not write. My arms were tied behind me! I had to get someone to fill out the forms for me. I had to find the room for processing the enrollment slips. By the time I finished all of this, it was too late. The classes and teacher I had chosen were already filled. Then I had to go back to the scheduling room and start all over again.
It was virtually a madhouse with people running everywhere constantly making split-second decisions and instantaneous changes. I was stuck to a wheelchair, not knowing where I to go or what to do. I wasn't able to do the simplest things without asking for help.
When I got home from my first day in high school, I was stunned. I could not believe the world that I had just been in. I had never known that such a world existed.
Orientation and scheduling continued for the next two days. Classes were assigned and books and materials issued. If I dropped a book, then it just stayed on the floor. Something as simple as picking up a book was beyond my ability. I had to stop other students and ask them to pick up my book or papers or pen or whatever, no matter how small or trivial it was. When I had to find my classes upstairs, I looked at the stairs and knew that there was no way I could ascend the steps by myself.
As I stood there at the bottom of the stairs looking up, the second floor appeared to me as Mount Everest must appear to the mountain climber. It loomed as an insurmountable obstacle. It was then that I started noticing things that I had never noticed before. I became aware of the ease with which the other students climbed and descended stairs, while I stayed at the bottom only watching.
Classes started on the fourth day. I had to ask other students to open my books for me, to place the books in front of me, and for any other adjustments I needed.
There were only a few minutes allowed to go from one class to the next. The other students just barely made it through the hall, up the stairs, down the other hall, and into their next class before the bell would ring. They barely made it going forward and high schools are not designed for students going backwards.
I had assumed that high school would be pretty much the same as grammar school had been. There, the teacher was kind, thoughtful and took care of all the technical things for me. The teacher did the registration for me. If a book was dropped, it was quickly picked up and handed back with a smile. Nothing was ever rushed. Everything was done in whatever time it took to do it. We were in one room all day long and did not have to go from class to class each time the bell rang. When papers were to be filled out, all I had to do was tell the teacher and she wrote everything down for me. The teacher literally became my hands and feet as I indicated what those hands and feet were to do. However, without realizing it, I had been protected all of my life. I was different. Really different.
After my first week of high school, the world as I had always known it, ceased to exist. I was now in a world that I did not comprehend. The world I had always known was gone. It was gone forever and would never return. It was lost in the middle of a gigantic crowd, even though everyone in that crowd was my friend.
At first, I was shocked and overwhelmed by this transformation. Each day the difference between me and the others became more apparent. Each time I dropped a book, each time I had to get a book out to read, each time notes were taken in class, each time a string of calculations had to be run out on a piece of paper for math, each time the slightest thing had to be done, I knew that I was different. Day by day the differences became painfully obvious to me.
For the second time in my life, life was not fun anymore. Through all the years, ever since I had been a small child with all my pain, I had trained myself to smile no matter how bad I had felt or how bad life was. I had been smiling to fool life and life had fooled me. It had smiled back just as deceitfully, hiding its true feelings. My heart was broken.
The first semester I enrolled in Spanish, English, and algebra. The Spanish teacher was very kind and went out of his way to help. He spent extra time with me outside of the class and paid special attention to me in class, always seeing that my needs were taken care of.
The English teacher was not so kind. It wasn't that she was unkind, it's just that she was always in a daze and I did not know what to do with me. She was continually perplexed and did not know how to teach me or how to give me a test. I told her that she could send the test home with me, because Mother was a school teacher and she could give it to me. Or she could have one of the advanced English students give me the test outside of class. Or, perhaps she could give me the test herself, orally, after class. She had a difficult time making the decision and seemed to always be confused on the matter. Finally, mumbling, she agreed to have my test administered by one of the advanced students.
The algebra teacher did not like me. He didn't say anything or do anything out of the usual. He just bided his time waiting for me to fail so he could kick me out of his class. But, as the days passed, it became more and more apparent that I was not failing. I could see the storm brewing, and I knew that he would soon do something. I didn't know what he was going to do, but I knew that this was just the calm before the storm.
One day he told me that he was going to give me a different test than the one he was giving the rest of the class. I told him that I refused to take any special test. I was not different in my abilities to learn or understand, only in my abilities to do physical things. There was a twinkle in his eye and I knew that the storm was now upon me.
He told me that he knew more than I did and he had made the decision. The special test would take place. If I wasn't there for the test, I would fail. I told him that I would take the test, but considered it to be invalid. He only smiled.
I was given a test of twenty-five math questions. I got them all correct. When the test was finished the teacher looked at me and said, "I told you that I was going to give you an algebra test, but I gave you a math test instead. You were not able to recognize that it was a math test and not an algebra test. Because you do not know the difference between math and algebra, you have failed the test and have flunked out of my class."
I repeated that I considered the test invalid, and marched, or rather rolled right off to the principal's office to talk the matter over. I explained what had happened, but he was not easy to convince. After forty-five minutes, I prevailed and he agreed to invalidate the test. I was back in class.
A few days after I had my special test, the algebra teacher told me that he had no time to give me individual tests, so he was dropping me from the class. Quickly, I asked him why he didn't take one of his students from an advanced algebra class and have him give me the test. (I caught him by surprise.) He didn't know what to say, so he agreed to my suggestion before he realized what had happened. I wound up with an advanced algebra student giving me the test. I was still in class and the teacher was madder than a wet hen.
I made it through the first semester and was totally miserable. Mother noticed how depressed I was and asked how I could be so depressed, yet keep smiling outside. She didn't know how I could get up in the morning and go back to school each day feeling the way I did. I didn't know either.
In my second semester, I took economics and Latin, which were taught by the Brown sisters. My tests were given in the teachers' offices with just the teacher and me present. One day on a Latin test, the teacher asked me what one word meant. I knew the word was an economics term meaning salary. But I also knew that the word had not been given in any lectures in the Latin class, nor was it in the text book.
I had forced myself to have a good memory, because that was one way I had of taking notes. Whenever I started a new class, I sat and watched the other students take notes for a few days. Then I picked the student who took the best notes and asked that student to put a piece of carbon paper under the notes and make a copy for me. But I still had to remember what was being said in class, because the notes did not include everything. Having developed this memory, I knew the word had not been given in class.
All of the teachers were aware of the school's high scholastic standards. Like other teachers I ran into later, my Latin teacher figured that if I failed a test, I would not attain the scholastic level required by the principal and my high school days would be over. A student was allowed to fail two tests per semester. Three failed tests and you were out. But, with their special tests, some of the teachers had decided to speed up this process.
I decided to wait to see if my suspicions were correct. Three weeks later my Latin teacher gave me the next test. The new pattern continued--Latin questions on economic terms. I was asked questions that were in chapters that the class had not studied yet. (I had the habit of reading ahead a few chapters.) There were words, again, which sounded almost the same in two different languages. Even with these curves thrown at me, I passed the test.
I checked with the other students in my Latin class. None of them had received the same test I had been given. It was time to take evasive action.
I learned everything I could about the Brown sisters. I wanted to know what subjects they were qualified to teach, what courses they had taken in college, and what their hobbies and special interests were. That way I could anticipate what areas of their education and background their questions would be coming from in the future. I had to take one big chance; that they would continue to give me the special tests from what they already knew and that they were too lazy to go out of their way to learn anything new to make me fail.
I started having a lot of friendly chats with the sisters. And from these friendly chats, I learned a lot about their interests. They were both interested in music and qualified to teach that subject. I quickly made a mental note not to enroll for any music courses taught by the Brown sisters. They were also interested in sports, biology, and math. I figured that my next test would come from those outside areas.
I started taking quick lunches. I rushed home, gulped down the food, rushed back to school, and then went directly to the school library. I read every book in the library on the subjects of music, sports, biology, and math. After school I went to the city library to study. I read everything I could get my hands or feet on. All of this preventive research was done in addition to my regular school work. I was getting an education. It was called survival.
I learned what text books had been used in the college where the Brown sisters studied and got copies to read. I left nothing to chance. I couldn't afford to, and it paid off. I had guessed correctly. All of a sudden, my economics and Latin tests were flooded with questions on these outside subjects.
You may ask yourself how a Latin teacher could give a Latin test by asking questions on music, sports, biology, and math or how an economics teacher could do the same thing. If you want to stretch your imagination far enough, then all subjects are interrelated.
The economics teacher asked me if one could make a living in music and if so, how? Making a living is earning money, isn't it? And earning money is economics. And you can't deal with money without being familiar with math. Biology could have economics involved (How much does a biology teacher get paid?) as all subjects have to have some economic value. It was the same thing with the Latin teacher. There was always some connection with an outside subject.
I had jumped one step ahead of the Brown sisters and beaten them at their own game. I answered their questions and then I said, "However, that question has nothing to do with the test. Therefore, I do not believe it should be weighed as a grade."
Then I told the teacher that the test she had given me was not the same test given to the class. I refused to be graded on any test that was different from what the other students had to take. Furthermore, I told them that some of the questions they were giving me were from chapters in the text that the class had not been assigned to read yet. I followed up this accusation by telling them what chapters the questions came from. I even told them what outside books they had taken the questions from. The sisters were furious!
Even if I got the questions right and received a high score on the test, I still went to the principal's office and made a complaint. Each time I was given a special test, I asked that the test be invalidated.
I was learning defensive education. I figured that it would not be long before I was right. As each semester ended and I enrolled in new classes with new teachers, it was amazing how the same bazaar tests were repeated. I got to the point where I knew every subject that every teacher had an interest in. The teachers always thought that I was just a friendly kid who liked to chat on every subject under the sun. None of them realized that I was actually interrogating them.
I even studied all of the subjects that the friendly teachers were interested in, because a teacher who might be a friend today could be an enemy tomorrow. I was reading twenty to thirty additional books each month, on every subject imaginable. I could have read twice that many books, but I had to read slowly and thoroughly since I would have to quote from these books on the special test. I must admit that high school sure gave me an education. And today I can converse on almost any subject, because I have studied it. I had to.
Each teacher who wanted me out of their class had a different approach to testing me. Some would start off slowly, with a few trick questions on each test, then increase the number of trick questions, trying to catch me. Some tests had as high as fifty percent trick questions. One teacher gave me a test with one hundred percent trick questions!
Many times I got the same questions as my friends in class, but with a different twist. The class would be asked a question like "What year did the United States go on the gold standard?" I got the same question, but there were sub-questions, and sub-sub-questions, and sub-sub-sub-questions. I was asked, "When did the United States go on the gold standard?" then, "Why did we go on the gold standard? Did the gold standard work?" Or my favorite, "What do you think of the gold standard?" Actually, I would prefer not to think of it, but no matter how I would answer, it was wrong.
I would be flooded with ambiguous questions. "How do you think economics works in our modern society?" You guessed it, in twenty-five words or less, I had failed again. There was another favorite question, "What time did you start this test?" Guess where the clock was. Right again. It was behind me! I was graded on questions like, "How much time did you spend studying this subject?" Or, "What do you feel about this course?"
I always stuck to the same pattern. I objected that I was not given the same test as the other students. I objected to all questions that were not relevant to the subject. I objected when the questions were taken from chapters not yet covered in class or from outside textbooks. After each special test, I reported to the principal's office and asked that the test be invalidated. I went to the principal's office two and three times each week complaining about the same improper testing procedures.
I didn't fit in. Everyone told me I didn't fit in, even my friends. They didn't intend to hurt me; but when I went down the hall, I heard them talking about me as an object of pity. I heard them saying that they wondered how I felt not being able to do the same things they could do. These conversations reinforced the hurt that I had and the feeling that I really was different and did not fit in. The other kids tried to protect me and pointed out the things I could not do.
In grammar school, I participated in all of the games. I was always the leader, leaping far ahead of the pack. But now, I did not participate in any of the school sports. I couldn't play football, basketball, baseball, or any of the other high school sports. I could only watch.
In class I could not even raise my hand to ask a question. I would have to ask another student to raise their hand for me. When the teachers responded, they were always confused. They never understood why one person raised their hand and I asked the question. This, with all of the other things, made me even more aware of what I could not do and how different I was.
I chose my English teacher because I thought she would be on my side. She knew my mother quite well. But she called my mother in for a conference and told her that she was too old to stand up to new ideas and felt I would be nerve racking to have in her class. I changed English teachers.
I guess that I could be nerve racking at that. I did not just sit quietly in a classroom. A person who is permanently confined to a wheelchair is forced to be very uncomfortable all day long. The normal person can get up and walk around, stretch, run, or sit in a soft chair anytime they feel like it. But for the handicapped, your muscles are forced to stay in one position all of the time. In order to get some comfort, I would constantly shift back and forth, squirming my body as I constantly moved my muscles from one position to another, searching out a position that would be more comfortable and never succeeding. It was impossible to get comfortable, so I would just keep shifting and squirming, bobbing and weaving. This did not bother me as much as it bothered the teachers. I never had any problems with the rest of the students. They were my friends and always went out of their way to help me. I only had trouble with the teachers.
Mr. Tally was my sociology teacher. He allowed me to stay in his class for three weeks. Then, one day, in front of the whole class, he told me that I was fighting a lost cause; there was no sense in my going to high school. I was only extra trouble. I was causing him extra work. Since I was not going to be a sociologist, it was all a waste of time. Then he informed me that I would not be allowed inside his classroom again. If I wished to continue in his class, I would have to sit outside the door in the hall.
He had calculated that I would be too embarrassed and humiliated to sit out in the hall and I would drop out of school. And he was right. I was humiliated and did not stand for it. I went straight to the principal's office and reported what had happened.
I talked to the principal. The principal replied that the teacher had no right to do that. He took me back to the class and told the teacher that I was enrolled in the class and was going to stay in there. I was still a sociology student.
A few days later the teacher decided that it was either him or me. He informed the principal that either I went into the hall or he would quite and get a job teaching elsewhere. The principal did not want to lose the teacher. He agreed to keep the teacher on the job.
Now this placed me in a real predicament. I was afraid that if one teacher got away with putting me in the hall, the others would do the same thing. It was the same as kicking me out of high school.
I talked to the principal about my concern. The principal just plain wanted me out of school. But again I was saved by his sense of fairness. He assured me that he would not allow any other teacher to use the same tactics with me. He made it known to all of the teachers, that one way or another, I would take the sociology class and get credit for it. This was to put all of the teachers on notice that no matter what happened, I would still take my classes and get credit. I would not be kicked out of school.
I was in a predicament. If I did not get a higher education, I would be stuck peddling All Occasion Cards for the rest of my life. So I moved slowly and quietly down the hall until I reached the classroom. The door was slightly ajar. I placed my foot on the door and moved six inches, then peeked through the crack. And that is how I studied sociology.
The principal was true to his word. None of the other teachers tried the same trick.
I caused such consternation among the teachers that the principal was forced to announce that he would not accept any more complaints from the teachers about me. But there is a difference between being in a class because the teacher is forced to accept you and because you are wanted. A teacher could make it really tough on me if they wanted to. They would ask, "Why do you want to be educated? You will never be able to use it. There aren't any successful handicapped people in the world." I always responded by telling them that I might be the one who was successful.
One of the teachers who did not like me was going to buy some hay from Dad's farm. He didn't know that the person he was buying the hay from was my father. When he found out, he canceled the order. Boy, was Dad mad! I cost him seventy-five dollars on the deal.
Teachers told me that I was not an average person. I answered that I was aware that I was not an average person, but that fact did not affect my ability to learn.
My math teacher called me to the front of the class one day and announced that he was going to give me a test while the whole class watched. The day before he had asked me to leave class while he gave the same test to the other students. This was a proper procedure, as I would be given the same test and he didn't want me to know the answers beforehand.
But that day he decided to surprise everyone, including me. I was given the same test while everyone watched. I knew what he was trying to do, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. I was given each math problem. The teacher wrote my calculations on the blackboard, for everyone to see, while I dictated the figures to him. Each time I made a mistake, he embarrassed me in front of the class. He was going to use this test to humiliate me right out of his class and out of school.
The test started. The instructor was in complete control. He could ask me anything he wanted about my calculations. The first problem was given and I told him what figures to put on the blackboard. Line by line I went through my calculations while he wrote each figure on the blackboard. It became a game of wits. But the game was on my side. Math tests are objective and there can be no trick questions. All I had to do was run out my string of calculations to the correct conclusion.
And, so, the teacher and I each performed, as the class watched on. Calculation after calculation, line by line, question after question, as one problem followed the other. The test took the entire class hour. The teacher assumed that because I could not use my hands, I could not write down or carry a string of calculations. In a sense he was right. But, he didn't realize, I could carry the calculations in my head.
I was the only student to receive one hundred points on the test. The teacher was so embarrassed that he never gave me another test in front of the class.
When I enrolled in the advanced math course with a different instructor, the teacher informed me that I would not be allowed into his class. I told him that I was enrolled and would be there the day class started. And I was there. The teacher exploded, "I told you to stay out of here!"
I calmly informed him that I was enrolled and that I was staying.
"You will have to leave!" he shouted.
"I am not leaving," I replied in my usual calm, controlled, stutter. "I know my rights and I am not moving." I felt triumphant. I had insisted on my rights and I had been firm in my resolve. I was proud of how I handled myself in this confrontation between righteous and injustice. And those were the thoughts that were going through my head as the teacher pushed my wheelchair out of the classroom and into the hall.
I politely asked him if he would be good enough to point me in the direction of the principal's office. He felt that he had the last dig as he turned my wheelchair to face in the opposite direction. He didn't realize that I pushed myself backwards. I was in the principal's office in a flash.
The principal was out, so I informed the secretary that I had an emergency situation. She asked me what the problem was and when I told her, she said, "Listen here, I can be about as outspoken as the principal. So let me check the records so I can show the teacher that you are enrolled in the class."
She got the records and then pushed me back into the classroom. She looked the teacher straight in the eye and said," I understand that you have some kind of classroom problem here."
"I'm not going to have a wheelchair student in this class," he sternly told the secretary.
She informed him that I was enrolled in his class and that there was nothing he could do about it. If he didn't want me in his class, he would have to state his reasons in writing and get the principal's approval. She was triumphant. I was back in class.
After she left the room, the teacher asked me what I was going to do with math once I learned it. I told him that I was going to do the same thing other students were going to do with it. He didn't like my attitude at all and told me that he was going to kick me out of his class again. I reminded him that he would have to get permission from the principal first. With that he grabbed the back of my wheelchair and started to push me into the hall again.
This time I told him that I was not going to leave and I braced my feet against the floor so he could not move me. As this happened, four of the larger boys in class got up and grabbed my wheelchair. One of them looked straight at the teacher and said, "One more push and you get knocked over." That settled it. I was back in class.
I have to hand it to that teacher. Even though he didn't like me, he never gave me an unfair grade and he never held that incident against any of the boys. Maybe he was too scared.
When the freshman class graduated and enrolled for their second year of high, I was with them. I survived the first year of high school by the skin of my teeth, if even by that much.
I had some outside help. My poet friend asked me to send him my writing assignments so he could critique them.
I was a reporter on the school newspaper so I had at least one article each week to send to him.
Sometimes the family would take the train to Chicago. We were picked up by my poet friend and driven to his farm sixty miles east of Chicago. The visit always included a writing lesson for me.
I was always trying to get him to write the story of my life. But he always gave the same reply, "I am from the old crop of writers. You are from the new. Don't imitate my style of writing. Instead, create your own style and write it like no book has ever been written about the handicapped before."
My poet friend was no ordinary writer. He achieved what every writer dreams of. He became the greatest writer in the world, twice receiving the Pulitzer Prize and being awarded the Nobel Prize in a most unusual way. (In 1954 the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Ernest Hemingway. When the award was announced, Hemingway said a mistake had been made. The award should have gone to the poet who writes poems that do not rhyme. Ever since, whenever my poet friend was asked why he never received the Nobel Prize, he always gave the same answer, "I did. It was given to me in 1954 by Ernest Hemingway.")
My poet friend was Carl Sandburg.
A Conversation with Eleanor
My poet friend advised me that if I wanted to be a writer then I should try writing for the high school paper and also the local Harrisburg paper.
Shortly after starting the journalism class I was promoted to editor of the sports page. I covered home games and traveled on the team bus for the out-of-town games.
One day I took samples of my sports writing and rolled down to the local Harrisburg paper, The Daily Register, to apply for a job as a reporter.
The editor was Mr. Turner. I knew Mr. Turner real well. He had a son, Roy, who had polio. Roy and I spent many years together in the crippled children's room.
For several years I had roamed all over the county selling all occasion cards. I knew just about everyone and everything that was going on in the county and surrounding counties.
I was always ahead of the Register reporters on what was happening. So I had the habit of dropping by the newspaper quite often and tipping off the editor as to what stories the reporters should cover.
The editor liked my writing and gave me a job writing short articles for the gossip column "About Town." I was paid twenty-five cents for each article. Even in those days it wasn't much. But at least I got experience.
I had a dual reason for taking the job. It afforded me the opportunity to meet new people. I would be covering conventions, social events, political happenings, and anything and everything going on in the county. By meeting more people I would create more customers for my card business.
For my first article I witnessed a woman who was in the middle of the street waving her arms trying to prevent an accident. She almost got run over for her efforts. I made it sound humorous.
I was still tipping off the editor to breaking stories and he was still sending out the experienced reporters to do the writing. I finally convinced the editor to let me write my own stories. I got paid one-half of what the regular reporters received.
It wasn't long before I was used as a substitute reporter. If the regular reporters were busy or working out of town, then I would fill in.
It was a big assignment, or one which would take a long time (I covered a mine disaster in West Frankfort which took six days), I would receive full pay, plus expenses. The only thing I didn't like about the job is that I never knew when the phone was going to ring calling me out on an assignment. I would get phone calls from the editor at all hours of the night to cover some story that just broke.
I would call my school friend, Jack Baker, to come over and get me up, dress and feed me, and then off we went to get the story.
I might be called out to cover a PTA meeting or it might be a story of the union shooting it out with the mining officials. And I mean shooting it out!
One day I covered the story of a bridge dedication and the next day it was a criminal case out of town which took three days. I can't remember what it was all about, but it was sensational enough to bring J. Edgar Hoover to the town. I sat in on the news conference and even got to ask Hoover a question.
I spent two days covering the story of a bridge collapsing. These were the types of stories that took me out of town. The other stories were mostly county affairs.
One day I got an assignment from my editor in the routine manner. The president's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, had announced, a week before, plans to visit Harrisburg. Give a speech. Then motorcade forty miles to Carbondale where she would give a speech at the university.
I got a phone call from the editor telling me that he wanted to discuss the details of a new assignment with me and wanted me to come down to his office right away. All I knew was that I had another assignment, but I had no idea what the assignment was.
I was expecting to be called out on a disaster story as that was the type of story that usually brought this type of urgent phone call. I never expected to cover Eleanor Roosevelt's arrival because I knew a story this big would be handled by the paper's top reporter. Also, I didn't even know that the president's wife was coming to Harrisburg.
The editor told me that the other reporters were busy. I would have to cover Eleanor Roosevelt's trip.
The editor briefed me on the upcoming story. The White House press would be covering this event, so I would have to conduct myself accordingly. I would be taking the newspaper staff car, which had the newspaper name painted on the sides. I had to wear a press badge. And most of all I had to conduct myself according to journalistic custom and respect all tradition and protocol.
Protocol would create one problem. The editor told me that it was the custom for every member of the press corps to stand when Mrs. Roosevelt entered and left the speaker stand. Because I was in a wheelchair, this would cause a problem. He asked me if I had any ideas how to overcome this breach of protocol.
The only idea that I could come up with was that I would sit at attention when everyone else stood.
I told the editor that I had not handled a big story with a celebrity before. The editor advised me, "Handle this just like a baseball game, only act more dignified. Look for the press corps when you get to the airport and stick with the press corps." This would be the biggest story of my life and I was confident that I could handle it. I looked the editor straight in the eye and assured him, "D-d-d-dn't you wo-wo-wo-worree, sir, I-I-I c-c-caaan handle it!"
Jack Baker quickly volunteered to be my chauffeur and attendant. Like everyone in town he wanted to get a look at Eleanor Roosevelt. He knew that if he was with me, he would be getting real close to her.
Mrs. Roosevelt's plane was scheduled to arrive at 1:30 the next afternoon. Jack and I drove out to the airport early. Harrisburg had a small airport and it was packed with people. It looked like all of Southern Illinois was there to greet the First Lady.
I put the press badge on my shirt and we started looking for the White House press corps. I couldn't find any people wearing press badges, but I did see a man carrying a microphone. I decided that my best bet was to follow the microphone. The microphone that I was following finally wound up with a bunch of other microphones.
I asked the microphone man if he was a member of the press. He told me that he was with the radio news. As I looked around I could tell that I was in the right spot. I was sitting right in the middle of the White House press corps.
Because everyone was wearing their press badge, I was instantly recognized as being a member of the local press.
Because I was a member of the press and I was in a wheelchair, the reporters confided in me that the president's health was in much worse shape than the public realized. For years the press had covered up the truth about the president's handicap.
So effective was the cover-up that today there are only two known photographs showing the president in his wheelchair. And what was his choice in a wheelchair? He used a wooden dining room chair with standard wheelchair wheels.
There are a lot of customs and a great deal of protocol within the press corps itself. One point of protocol is for the national press to allow the local press certain courtesies.
There was a speaker's platform where Mrs. Roosevelt would give a short welcoming speech before motorcading into Harrisburg. When her plane stopped, she would come down the ramp, through a corridor of people, mostly reporters, and then enter the steps to the speaker's platform. Because I was a member of the local press, I was invited to join the press corps in their corridor line, which the First Lady would pass through. I thanked the press corps for their courtesy but told them, "I would rather go over to the spot on the field where the plane is going to stop and Mrs. Roosevelt is going to get out." My statement caught all of the press corps by surprise. They assumed that they had set up their microphones in the right spot. All of a sudden they realized that none of them were familiar with this airport.
Because I was local, they then asked me where the plane was going to stop and where Mrs. Roosevelt would be disembarking. I had covered stories at the airport before and knew where the plane would stop, so I showed them where to move their equipment to.
After we were all relocated, we stood around and talked while we waited for the plane to arrive.
Because I had saved the press corps from the embarrassment of covering the First Lady's arrival at the wrong end of the airport, I was given the honored position of being at the head of the greeting line.
The plane arrived on time, and the press made their corridor for Mrs. Roosevelt to pass through. And there I was at the head of the line. I would have the opportunity to ask the first question of the First Lady.
The airplane door swung open, out came the secret service agents and the First Lady's attendants. It seems that the famous can't get through life without attendants either, just like the handicapped. We would both be helpless without them. We waited for the First Lady, and we waited, and we waited. We must have waited for twenty minutes. I can't understand what took her so long. All she had to do was walk down the steps.
She stood at the door of the plane directing everybody. She felt that there should be a certain procedure for everybody to follow; checking baggage, documents, etc. She told all of the attendants where to stand and who should be in what positions.
Then she looked all around, making a complete survey of the airport, looking at everyone in the crowd, and when she was finished scanning the airport, announced, "All right, now we will proceed."
This extra twenty minutes gave me time to formulate my first question. This would be the most important question of my life. As she came near me, I spoke up, "Welcome back to Southern Illinois. Is there anything you know, or you could give me, or have you anything, or know anything typically about Southern Illinois?" That got her attention. She stopped dead in her tracks, looked at me somewhat confused, and said, "May I ask you for your question again?"
Actually, I didn't understand the question myself! "Yes," I replied, "I would be happy to repeat my question. Is there anything that you particularly like about Southern Illinois?"
"Yes," she answered, "I love the people in Southern Illinois, and I like the rocks and rills (small streams)."
I had my big story! It was straight from the mouth of the wife of the President of the United States. I could see the headline now "President's Wife Likes the People of Southern Illinois!" I had had a personal conversation with the nation's First Lady.
She then walked to the speaker's platform and gave a short welcoming speech and then we all joined the motorcade to the courthouse in Harrisburg where she was to give her main speech.
The speech would be given on the courthouse lawn. While everyone was waiting around for her speech to begin, I ran into George Hanson. He was the local Democratic Chairman and we had been friends for years.
"What are you doing here, Gene?" he asked me kiddingly. My family was strong Republicans and George started kidding me about my being there because I was thinking of defecting and joining the Democratic Party. I told him that I was still a strong Republican and was there covering the speech for the newspaper. He told me that he had called the newspaper to make sure that they had a correspondent to cover Mrs. Roosevelt's visit, but he was expecting to see the regular correspondent. I took him by surprise.
Now it was Hanson's turn to surprise me. He then told me that after Mrs. Roosevelt's speech, she would then be giving a news conference inside the courthouse. Somehow the word had not been passed on to me. This was my lucky day. I had covered Mrs. Roosevelt's arrival and welcoming speech. Next I would be covering her main speech. And now I had the opportunity to cover her press conference as well. Seeing how luck was with me, I decided to press even further. I asked George Hanson, "Would it be possible for you to arrange a private interview for me with Mrs. Roosevelt?"
He said he would try.
After her speech, the members of the press went inside for the news conference. Mrs. Roosevelt was as confused by my questions at the news conference as she had been by my question at the airport. It wasn't so much my questions that confused her as the manner in which I asked them.
As in high school, whenever I wanted to ask a question, I would have a student next to me raise their hand then I would ask the question. This never failed to confuse the teachers.
As usual for me, I asked the reporter next to me to raise his hand. She told me that it was the first time in a news conference that one reporter raised his hand and then another asked the question.
I explained to Mrs. Roosevelt that I had to do normal things differently, and then I proceeded with my question. "I understand that the federal government is planning on putting in new projects and industries in Southern Illinois. And knowing that your husband is a handicapped, I would like to know if he has given any thought to putting in a center for the rehabilitation of the handicapped?"
"Doesn't Illinois have one?" she asked.
I told her that the closest one was two hundred fifty miles away.
"That's a very good question," she replied, "and I promise you that you can tell Southern Illinois that this administration will give high priority to this matter. By the way, I would like to ask you if you have any estimate as to the number of handicapped people living in Southern Illinois?"
"Approximately three hundred thousand, if you want to count all types of handicaps," I replied.
The reporter next to me nudged me and whispered in my ear, "Are you right on that three hundred thousand figure?" I whispered back, "No, but the way the government counts, I don't think their figures are correct either."
After the news conference was over, I waited around to take in everything. I had learned from experience that not all of the news was given during the speeches. A lot of the best news could be picked up by just sticking around after the event and overhearing conversations.
After waiting around for a few minutes, Mr. Hanson came over and told me that he wanted me to come over to a room with him. "Eleanor Roosevelt would like to see you," he said.
Jack pushed me into the room and stood next to the wheelchair, keeping his mouth shut and acting like he was supposed to be there.
Eleanor Roosevelt immediately entered the room and said, "I understand that you are substituting for a correspondent who is out of town?" I replied that I was.
"Really, your wheelchair attracted me. You know my husband is in a wheelchair a lot?"
"Yes, I understand that."
"Is your problem the same as his?" she asked. I explained that I had cerebral palsy whereas her husband had polio. Like most people she was not familiar with cerebral palsy, so I spent a few minutes explaining it to her. Then we went on to talk about the needs of the handicapped in Southern Illinois. She was surprised to see that I was so well informed on the subject.
I told her of the specific problems of the handicapped, and how the government was not properly addressing and meeting the needs of this group of people.
"That's true," she agreed, "but the problem is that the taxpayers are in the majority and the handicapped are in the minority. The public is not ready to accept the handicapped yet. So the handicaps are forced by society to live lives of shut-ins and that is why you never see the handicaps in public. Because the public never sees you, the average taxpayer really doesn't even know that you exist."
I was surprised to see that she understood the problem so well. As we talked, she let me know that my thoughts were in accord with her husband's. "You have many of the same ideas that I have heard him discuss over the years," she told me.
I explained to her that what was needed were rehabilitation centers for the handicapped. And I was not referring to centers for medical research and treatment. I told her that, medically, I felt we were doing as much as was humanly possible. What I wanted to see was the establishment of educational and vocational training centers so that the handicapped could learn the necessary skills so that they could then take their rightful place right along side of everyone else in our society.
"We have many federal projects," she replied. "But the problem is that, even though appropriations are being made, the handicapped are not taking advantage of these programs." We talked for a few more minutes.
Then came the tough question. I asked why the president never allowed the truth of his polio to be known. If the truth be known, the president was in about as bad a shape as I.
She replied that the people wanted a strong president. So for years the press said nothing about the severity of his handicap. And I said nothing either.
Ironically, when I was six years old, Al Capone went to prison. The government confiscated his limousine and put it in storage. When it was decided that the president needed a backup car, they took Al Capone's car out of storage and gave it to the president. So now the person sitting in front of me was driving around in my car!
Hanging in There
As I began my sophomore year, I asked Dad, "When was I born and the doctor asked you if you were sure you wanted me to live, why did you tell him, 'By all means'? Why didn't you just let me die?" Dad had no answer.
Each day that I went to school, I never knew if it would be my last day of higher education. But I was already at the end of my rope. I functioned now entirely upon determination, and nothing else.
But my second year in high school would not be like the first year. After fifty years as principal, and fifty years of trying to turn Harrisburg into a socially high-class town, the principal was retiring. During my battles, the principal had remained neutral, which means that he was more on the side of my enemies, the teachers, than on my side.
The principal was being replaced by Mr. Wagner. Mr. Wagner would be strongly on my side. He had a nephew with cerebral palsy.
But, Mr. Wagner had his limitations, and he could not be at all places at once, nor could he spend the entire school day sitting at my side protecting me against the forces of human nature.
The teachers were careful what they said to me and how they acted toward me when Mr. Wagner was around. But as soon as he was out of sight, they would let me have it with both barrels.
And so, each day was a renewed battle. I had to constantly stay one step ahead of the teachers. Each week I would have my tests. The teachers would start off the tests with the most difficult questions, and then even more difficult questions, and finally the absurd. Not only was I working hard to keep ahead of the teachers, but the teachers were working even harder to keep ahead of me, and the second year the questions were even more absurd than the first year.
Each teacher that did not like me let me know in their own individual way that I was not wanted in school. A new teacher let me know that I was taking up her valuable time. She thought that giving one whole hour to just one student was not justifiable because all students should have the same rights. Therefore, she thought that I should have no rights at all.
Another one of my new teachers wanted to know what I planned to do for a profession. I told her that I had some ideas, but that I hadn't figured out where they all fit in yet. She replied, "You will find out that you don't fit in any place!" She really knew how to encourage a student.
Another time I went to a teacher's office to take a test. As I started to go in the door, the teacher slammed the door right in my face! I knocked on the door. No one answered.
Following my standard procedure, I went to the principal's office. Mr. Wagner pushed me back to the teacher's office, and this time he knocked on the door. When he opened the door, she started screaming her head off. She really let me have it! She yelled that she was not going to give me any tests anymore, and that I had no right being in high school, among other things.
In the middle of this tirade the principal turned to me and said, "Well, I know what it is all about now, Gene." From that time on, everytime I had a test with a teacher that hated me, the principal would sit in to make sure that I was being treated fairly.
But the principal was not always free to sit in on each and every one of my tests. When he was not there, out came the absurd questions.
I would head right down to the principal's office and report what had happened. The principal would make an investigation. He asked the teachers if the questions I had been asked were the same questions the regular students were asked on their tests. "Oh, yes," the teachers always replied.
Now Mr. Wagner was not dumb. He would then take a copy of my test questions to the other students and ask if this was the same test that they had been given. Of course, the other students had never seen the questions before. He would invalidate the test and make the teacher give me the same test the other students took.
Even the janitor hated me.
Dad would take me to school. Sometimes he had to go to work early and would leave me off in front of the school building before school opened. The janitor knew that I was waiting outside, but he would not let me in until it was time for all of the other kids to be let in also. I never complained, because I didn't want any special treatment. But in Illinois it can get fifty degrees below zero in the winter. I would have to wait outside anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes. I would jump up and down in my wheelchair and roll back and forth on the sidewalk to keep from freezing to death. The principal found out what was happening. He ordered the janitor to let me in the building as soon as I arrived. I accepted this act of kindness. Wanting no special favors is one thing, but freezing to death is another thing altogether.
With the help of Mr. Wagner, it looked like I was going to make it through my second year, and then, I started having a reoccurring pain in my right side. Actually, it was a pain which I had for years. But, I just categorized it with my many other pains and never gave it any second thought. But now, all of a sudden, it became severe.
The pain would start in my back and then slide around to my side. It would hit me instantly, without any warning. I would be sitting in class, or going down the hallway, and then it was just as if somebody jumped out at me and plunged a knife into my side.
This pain started occurring every two weeks, then once a week, each attack more severe than the one before. Soon I was being stabbed two and three times a week. The pain would just fold me up. Fortunately I was strapped to my wheelchair, otherwise I would have fallen out.
As the attacks became more frequent and more severe, I began to worry that the pains, and not the teachers, might knock me out of school. The only thing that had saved me so far was that the attacks only lasted five minutes. Then they would vanish as quickly and as mysteriously as they had come.
I knew that if the unfriendly teachers found out about the severity of these pains then this would be the excuse they were looking for, handed to them on a silver platter, to get me out of high school. So I tried as hard as I could to hide the pain.
I usually sat at the back of the class, so no one noticed when I bent over. I used all of my strength and sheer will power to try to show no indication of pain on my face. When the pain hit, I would try to bend just halfway down which would not draw suspicion, as I usually bent over a lot anyway.
People would ask me if I was all right. I just told them that I wasn't feeling good, but it was nothing serious and that I would be all right in a minute.
After several months of these attacks, it looked as if my high school days would soon be coming to an end. Everybody was starting to become suspicious that there was something seriously wrong with me.
It was now to the point that everytime I had an attack the school would call my dad. He would come over to the school and rush me to the doctor. But the attacks were always of a short duration.
By the time Dad got me to the doctor, the attacks were over. So the doctor was never able to diagnose my problem.
One day I had gone home for lunch and Dad placed me on the couch with pillows all around me while he fixed lunch. While sitting on the couch, I was seized by another attack. It followed the usual pattern of being more severe than any previous attack. I felt as if my body was falling apart. Five minutes later I opened my eyes and saw Dad at the telephone. I heard him calling for a doctor. I yelled and Dad came running over to me. "Hang up the phone," I told him. "Everything is OK." Dad was pale and trembling. He thought that I had died. I never had that pain again.
Not all of my experiences during my high school years were bad. There were some good times, too. I was elected treasurer of the sophomore class and vice president of the junior class.
I belonged to the debate club in my junior and senior years. In my junior year I would win the State Debate Championship, and the following year, the Tri-State Championship. The funny thing about debate is that I would get so involved in the arguments that I didn't stutter.
I was always intrigued by the science classes. In biology I realized that there were reasons and patterns to all things, yet, somehow, I did not fit into these patterns.
I belonged to the cheerleading club, but I never was a cheerleader. I sat in the cheering section and yelled at the fans to cheer louder.
I enrolled in the drama class, but soon dropped out. They wouldn't let me do anything. They wouldn't even let me be a tree. I shook too much.
I had learned a lot from that school. I learned that Latin was the language of the ancient Romans. And each day that I went into my Latin class, I told myself that I knew what it was like to be a Jew living under Roman rule.
I learned from my economics class that people should understand how economics effected their lives, but that I should not know economics in order to take care of my own life.
The math teacher always said that every student had the right to know that two and two equals four, but that I should not have the right to know that two and two equals four.
In English I studied the great writers: Milton, Wordsworth, Tennison, Longfellow, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Kipling, Oliver Wendell Holmes; in drama, Shakespeare, Eugene O'Neill, and others. As I studied these works, I would say to myself, "If only I could write as well as these people, then I would fit in." For to be a writer the only thing that matters is your mind. It matters not at all if you are crippled, in a wheelchair, unable to use your hands or feet. The only thing that matters is what comes out of your mind. And as history would later reveal, Eugene O'Neill would write his greatest plays while in constant pain and fighting to control a writing hand that constantly trembled. When he wrote his last Pulitzer prize winning play, "Long Day's Journey into Night," he was unable to use a pencil, nor was he able to use a typewriter; for his hands and body trembled so severely from a lifetime ailment of a rare and unknown form of palsy. And yet, with all those handicaps he would win four Pulitzer prizes and one Nobel prize.
If I could only write, I told myself, then I would at last fit into the world. If I could only write.
In my second year of high school my poet friend moved to a little-known place in North Carolina where he lived to a ripe old age.
He returned to visit Illinois quite often. Our paths would cross twice more in Egypt. The first time I was traveling with my parents and we both wound up at the same restaurant. We both looked for restaurants that were out of the way and had very little business.
I choose these types of restaurants so I could maneuver my wheelchair without running into people. He choose the same restaurants so he wouldn't be bothered while eating.
The second time we met was when I went to Springfield to see the historical sites with my school friends. We both wound up staying at the same hotel.
They were having an historical celebration and my poet friend was a guest speaker. We had an early supper then we retired to my poet friend's room for a long writing lesson.
Although my poet friend had a reputation for drinking, he never drank when he was around me.
I would graduate in five years instead of the customary four. I was twenty-three years old. All of my friends my age had already finished college and had jobs.
At the graduation ceremony I would receive my high school diploma, but not like the other students. The diplomas were handed out in alphabetical order, but my name was not called. The speaker then told the audience, "We have gone through the roll call but we are not finished yet. There is a gentleman here who graduated from high school in a wheelchair. And he is the first student to graduate from this high school in a wheelchair. There was some doubt, not with him, but with us, as to whether he could make it through high school or not. And he proved to us that a person in a wheelchair can go through high school. He is a pioneer in this field in his own rights. I think that we should give him something special and different for his graduation. I'm going to call Glendell Gene Bybee to the platform please."
The next thing I knew I was being rushed up the stairs to the platform. The speaker then told the audience a short story of my high school career. (She made it sound grand and glorious as she explained how all the teachers failed to help me.) Then she said, "I think we should have a reward of some kind. And the best reward I can think of is for everyone to give him a standing ovation." It embarrassed me to death! My parents were embarrassed, too. I didn't know what to think.
After the ovation, I decided to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity and asked for permission to speak. I had a reason for doing this. I spoke for less than five minutes. I praised everyone for helping me and said all of the things a person says in a speech of that sort. But, that was not my purpose for asking to speak. My purpose was to strategically place in my speech a few sentences that would determine my future. Toward the end of my speech, I told the audience, "I did want a high school education, and if it be possible, I hope that I can continue on to college."
I wanted the entire community to know of my desire to go to college. For community attitudes have a very strong influence on the local colleges. And the main speaker at the graduation ceremonies that evening, sitting right next to me, was the president of Southern Illinois University (SIU) at Carbondale.
When I finished my speech, several of the teachers asked for permission to speak. These teachers told how they were opposed to my going to high school, but now they realized that I was right, and that they were wrong. I had proved that it could be done.
In time, all of the teachers who had been against me would tell me that they had been wrong. All, that is, except the sociology teacher, he remained unrepentant for the rest of his life.
After the ceremonies were over and everyone was mingling, I took the opportunity to talk to the college president. I asked him what the chances were of my attending college.
He advised me that SIU was not equipped or designed for wheelchair students. "You will find that a college campus is different than a high school," he told me. "The buildings are spread out over a larger area and there are steps everywhere. In high school you are in one building, and you go from room to room in that one building. In college that is not the case. The distances are far too great and the obstacles to a wheelchair much too difficult to overcome." Not only would I not be able to attend SIU, he informed me, but there was not a college in the country that would accept me as a student.
I was legally entitled to a grammar school education. And I was legally entitled to attend high school. I had looked into the laws regarding a college education for the handicapped. And, as before, I discovered that the law was on my side. The handicapped had the legal right to a college education.
After I graduated, wheelchair students were allowed into high school routinely on an equal basis with the regular students, no questions asked.
It was not a situation of anyone hating me. It was a situation of people hating new ideas. People do not like to change tradition. But after my pounding away at tradition for five years, nobody really cared any more.
On My Own
I discussed going to college with my rehabilitation counselor. He did some research also confirming my legal rights to attend college. But, he pointed out, "The colleges are not able to provide a college education for the severely handicapped as yourself." Even though I was legally entitled to a college education, the colleges could not teach me. All I had was a law on a piece of paper and I was out of college before I even got in.
My friends would go on to college, but I was forced to be realistic; there would be no college for me. I had no plans on what to do with my future. As usual I continued with my philosophy of waiting to see what would happen and then figure out what to do when the time came. I figured that I could continue with my card business and the other odd jobs I had been doing. But my heart was not in it. I really wanted to go to college.
One day I was downtown and ran into one of my high school friends who graduated with me. I asked Wally what was happening and he told me that he was thinking of going to St. Louis and looking for a job. You could get a job in Harrisburg, but the big cities had better jobs and higher wages.
I was thinking out loud and said, "Well, I never thought about that. If I decide to go to St. Louis, what about letting me split half the expenses with you and we'll go together?" Waldo thought that it was a good idea and when we parted he told me, "Just let me know if you are interested and we'll get together and plan the details."
I talked to Mom and Dad about the idea, and naturally they didn't like it. They tried to point out to me all of the problems I would have living in St. Louis. Dad asked me, "Do you think that you can get a job in St. Lois?" "I don't know," I answered. "I just want to look things over and see if I can get a job. I want to see if I do fit in somewhere."
Dad advised me that I would be better off staying in Harrisburg and continuing with my card business. Of course he was right. In Harrisburg I knew everyone. I would not know anyone in St. Louis. I had relatives in St. Louis, but that wouldn't help me as far as getting a job.
Dad pointed out that in Harrisburg I had no expenses, whereas in St. Louis I would have to pay for all living expenses myself. Both my parents acted quite calm about my idea of moving to St. Louis, but I could tell that they were quite surprised. They had just never thought that I would leave home and travel to St. Louis to get work. Of course, neither did I.
Finally, I made my decision and announced, "I figure that I am always a person to go against the odds anyway, so I would like to go to St. Louis and find out for myself." They did not oppose me. Mom just said that she didn't want me to go because she would worry about me. "The time will have to come when we are going to part," I told her.
The decision was made and I used a few days to wrap up things in Harrisburg. I turned my card business over to Mom and Dad, bought new clothes, and got everything in order. Then Wally started getting cold feet. He couldn't make up his mind if he wanted to go or not. He kept saying, "Maybe our parents are right. By the time we get to St. Louis we are both going to be homesick." I kept answering, "Well, homesick or not, it doesn't bother me."
It took Wally three weeks to make up his mind. We drove to St. Louis in Wally's Chevy. I took fifty dollars with me and still had fifteen hundred dollars in the bank. Waldo took all he had, all twenty-five dollars.
We spent our first day driving around St. Louis looking for a place to live. There were a lot of places available, but they had too many steps. We finally found a boarding house that only had half a step.
All of the other boarders were very curious about me. The boarding house was close to a well-known research hospital, so they naturally assumed that I was in St. Louis to attend the hospital. When I told them that I was in St. Louis looking for work, they just couldn't believe it. They all talked my head off. They wanted to know where I was from, what I was doing in St. Louis, and etc. It was the "etc." that they were really interested in. They had never seen anything like me before and what they really wanted to know was what was wrong with me. But, they didn't know how to talk to me about it directly, so they just beat around the bush instead of asking direct questions.
It is important that I explain something to you at this point. Historically, severely disabled people like myself have never been a visible part of society. In the ancient days, most societies would simply kill babies that were born deformed. That seemed to solve their handicap problem. In the last few centuries, in the Western societies, the attitudes toward the severely disabled changed. The deformed and handicapped were not killed. Instead, society allowed them to live, but demanded that they be kept out of sight and away from the rest of society. This was because the handicapped were considered to be cursed of God. The curse was not on the crippled, so the logic went, but it was upon the family. For the sins of the fathers were believed to be passed on to the children.
And so for a family to have a child who had the misfortune to be crippled, then that family was stigmatized by the rest of society in which they lived. The child was never taken out in public and kept locked away in a room whenever anyone visited the house.
The point I am trying to make, you understand, is that the severely disabled, like myself, did not go out into the world as you do every day of your life. Thus, people never, and I mean never, saw anything like me. And that is why the other people in the boarding home were so curious. It was as if a man from outer space had just taken up residency in the boarding house.
Today, the parents of handicapped children are very kind to their child. (That is kind from their point of view.) They provide their child with everything: their own room, their own television set, and wonderful toys. The child is given everything that money can buy. But the child is still forced to stay in his own room most of the time. And so, the child grows up in a world of dreams and illusions; and delusions. He is never allowed to see the real world, and the real world never sees him.
Because I refused to live the life of a shut-in, I tried to act like everyone else. I roamed about my hometown, in my own way, just like I was a normal child. The people of Harrisburg were used to me. They grew up with me and I grew up with them. Even the people who weren't used to me, got used to me. I was just "Gene" and "that is just the way Gene does things."
The people of St. Louis had never seen such a sight. I was ready for St. Louis, but St. Louis was not yet ready for me.
I would appear to the citizens of St. Louis in a new professional wheelchair, but I still had the physical characteristics that I have described to you before; my left shoulder was still noticeably higher than my right, still giving the appearance of a hunchback; the facial distortions made me appear to be mentally retarded; my arms were tied behind my back; when not pushing myself backwards, I would sit hunched over in varying positions constantly trying to reduce the ever-constant pain.
If I was able to stand erect, I would measure six feet two inches in height. But I could not stand erect, nor could I even sit in a wheelchair like a normal person. My hips were constantly being pulled forward by spasms. This forced me to sit in the wheelchair at an angle. This angle was even more exaggerated as I pushed myself backwards. In order to gain leverage I would lean backwards with my shoulders and force my legs straight as I pushed against the ground.
And this is how I presented myself to the people of St. Louis. The best way to describe what others saw would be for you to envision a gigantic, mentally retarded, six-foot-two-inch crooked letter "S" going down the sidewalk, backwards, at a forty-five degree angle.
Today, it is not unusual to see the severely handicapped in public. But, you just did not see them in my days.
I had made arrangements with Wally to pay him eight dollars a week to be my attendant. This arrangement would last until Waldo got a job. We bought a paper and started looking through the classified ads for work. I saw an ad for a magazine representative and decided to apply.
Wally drove me down to the magazine office.
The receptionist asked me what I wanted. I replied that I had seen their ad and that I was applying for the job as a magazine representative. She was curious as to how I planned to get around. I told her that I was new to St. Louis and didn't know the town yet, but once I learned the city I would figure out how to get around in it.
"Well," she said somewhat skeptically, "I guess that anyone has a right a apply for the job." She filled out the application form for me, folded the form, and put it into my shirt pocket. She then pointed to a man standing on the other side of the room and said, "He is the one you want to talk to."
The boss had not seen me yet as he had been talking to another man with his back to me all of this time. I rolled over to him and introduced myself. Then I asked him to take the application out of my pocket.
He looked at me somewhat perplexed and said, "Don't you know that there is a welfare system in this country?"
"I don't want to be on welfare," I told him firmly. "I want to get a job!"
"Just what can you do?" he asked, still perplexed. "That's what I am here to find out," I told him.
"Tell me what you have to offer and I will tell you if I can do it or not."
"The job requires that you visit all of the magazine stands in downtown St. Louis," he explained. "And your job is to get these stands to agree to sell our magazines. We are the wholesalers and you have to sell the retailers. We pay a wage plus an override commission."
"How much is the salary?" I asked.
"It depends on how many hours you work," he answered evasively.
"Well then, what's the beginning salary?" I asked.
"Oh, you may make around seven to eight dollars a week," he said.
"Just a minute!" I shot back. "Those sound like wages they paid in the depression days!"
"Will you take twelve dollars a week?" he said as he started to bargain.
"OK, if you want me, I will work for you for fifteen to twenty dollars a week."
He came back with, "I will compromise with you and give you eighteen dollars a week, plus the override."
I started work the next day.
As soon as I accepted the magazine representative job, I decided that I would stay with it only until I could find a better job.
So far I had been pretty lucky. The first job I applied for, I got hired. I was hoping that I would be just as successful getting my next job.
Because my sales territory was downtown, I would have no trouble getting around. I could just push myself from one magazine stand to the next. The first stand I hit was in the corner of a bank building. The owner thought that I was crazy. I sold him and went on to the next stand.
My first day on the job was starting off really good. I was confident that my luck would hold and that by the end of the day I would have a better job and much better pay. I was beginning to like St. Louis.
I was in no hurry to get to the next magazine stand. My main concern was not selling magazines, but in getting a better job. I had decided to use the shotgun approach. I was going to go in every business that I passed as I went from one magazine stand to the next. It made no difference to me what the business was. If the door was open, I was going to go inside and ask for a job.
The first door that I went in, the owner offered me twenty dollars charity. "I'm not looking for charity," I told him, "I'm looking for a job."
The next place I hit, the receptionist broke down and cried. "You mean to tell me that you have been forced out of your home?"
"No," I told her. "It's the other way around. I have a fine home and fine parents. And they don't want me to work. So I am the one who is crazy!"
At the next store the owner asked me, "How badly do you need the money?"
"I'm not looking for charity, I'm looking for a job!" I answered for the second time that day. This would be an answer that I would give many more times as the days wore on.
My prospects for getting any job, let alone a better job, were beginning to look bleaker with each business I went into. The same pattern continued door after door. No one could believe what they were seeing. They just couldn't believe that I was actually looking for work.
At the end of the day I had sold four magazine stands and still did not have another job.
The next day I sold eight stands. Still no new job. The third day I sold fifteen stands and still no new job.
It was beginning to look like I was going to be a magazine representative for the rest of my life. Every business that I went into thought that I was crazy. In fact, all of the magazine stands that I visited thought that I was crazy, including the ones that I sold.
I tried for every job imaginable. I always got the same reaction. Everyone thought that I was something from outer space.
All of the insurance companies told me that I was crazy. They said that there was no way that I could sell insurance. I told them that all a person had to do was to take one look at me and that would be reason enough to buy insurance. "I can sell everybody that way!" I told them with confidence.
They all responded with the same look of disbelief on their faces, they just had different ways of expressing their disbelief. Some were utterly speechless and thus had no words with which to express themselves. Whenever that happened, I would simply say, "I can see that you are not ready to accept people like me for employment yet." They would respond by saying, "You're right." Or they would just mumble something incoherent; or they would say nothing at all. When that happened, I would just leave without any further conversation. There was no use in trying to talk to someone who had been struck dumb.
Undismayed, I stuck to my game plan. I took the attitude that if I was persistent enough, if I knocked on enough doors, someone would give me a job. It now became a numbers game. Somewhere in all of St. Louis there had to be someone that would hire me.
Day after day, I would go out and roll the streets of St. Louis, going from stand to stand, hitting every business in between. At night Wally and I would go through the classified ads looking for jobs. We went out in the evenings to apply for jobs at those companies that were working night shifts.
Still no luck.
Everytime that I applied for work at a bank, I was given the same advice. "The best thing for you to do is to put your money into a bank and just hope that you can live off the interest."
The restaurants asked me what I thought I could do. I told them that I cold push the food carts around to the customers. I offered to do anything; wash dishes, sweep the floors, and even bus dishes and wipe off the tables if it didn't bother anyone. No job offers were forthcoming from the restaurant industry.
When I tried to get a job in a dairy products store, the manager told me that he would give me a gallon of ice cream if I would leave. I told him that I was sure that his ice cream tasted just fine, but that I would rather have a job. I could see that I wasn't going to get the job and figured that something was better than nothing, so I took the ice cream and left. It was really good ice cream too. Once in a while I would go back and get more ice cream. We struck a deal; he would charge me for half a gallon of ice cream and give me the other half-gallon for free if I would leave.
I went to all the churches looking for work. I even went to the Catholic church and the Jewish synagogues. And being a strong Baptist, you can imagine what I thought of the Catholics and Jews. But by this time I was getting desperate and would try anything.
All of the churches advised me to go back home and go on welfare and give up the idea of being like everyone else.
One minister told me that he needed some research help for his sermons. I told him that I was a good researcher. Then he asked, "How badly do you need the money?" It was charity again. I turned the offer down.
I went into the wheelchair repair shop, figuring that this would be a good place for a person in a wheelchair to apply for a job. Once I entered the store, my spirits were lifted even more. The owner was a handicapped himself and was in a wheelchair. I rolled over to him as he rolled over to me, both of us with the mutual understanding that all handicaps have for one another. I told him that I was there looking for a job. He told me that I was crazy! He then explained that no handicapped could get a job in St. Louis. He had spent three years trying to get a job himself. That is why he opened his own business. It was the only way that he could get a job. He further pointed out that I was much worse off than he was. He could at least use his hands. I told him that I knew what he was talking about. The job market for handicaps was not booming.
Undaunted, I kept to my game plan. I still believed that time and numbers were on my side. My greatest problem was getting people to talk to me. Sometimes I would be asked, "Are you a customer or are you looking for work?" When I replied that I was there looking for work, they would tell me, "There is no job. Not for your kind, anyway!" And with that, I was back out on the street. Some of them were very helpful and would push me out of their store and onto the sidewalk, usually without my even saying a word. I guess you could say that I have been thrown out of some of the best places in St. Louis.
I disregarded what people said to me and how they treated me and did not let it bother me. I would just go on to the next door, only to get thrown out again; or, if they were speechless, then to throw myself out.
I would be asked, "Are you in the work force?"
One man suggested that I go to Chicago. When I asked him why, he told me, "Because they will hire anyone there."
People would ask me, "What do you expect to get out of life?" To which I responded, "What does that have to do with getting a job?" "It doesn't have anything to do with it," they would explain. "What I mean is, what do you need a job for?" "For the same reason that you need a job." I would reply.
Not only did I have a hard time getting people to talk to me, but once they would talk to me, then I had a hard time getting them to understand the simple fact that I wanted a job.
I kept at it, doggedly. But it was not all work and no play. Wally and I would take a break once in a while and go out for dinner or a movie.
There was little time for entertainment. Each morning Wally and I would hit the streets. He would go his way trying to find a job, and I would go my way, selling magazine stands and looking for a new job along the way.
After a few days, I had hit most of the businesses in my sales territory. I still did not have that new and better job. I was still a magazine representative.
I decided to leave downtown and try my luck a little farther out. Wally and I went over to the river and tried to get a job on a paddle wheeler that plied the Mississippi. I told them that I would do anything. They told me that I was just not cut out to be a sailor.
I tried getting a job everywhere. We went out to the Boeing airplane plant and tried to get jobs building airplanes. The man at Boeing told me that I was crazy, that there was no place for a person like me in the aircraft industry. "What!" I shot back indignantly. "You mean to tell me that all of my life I've been training and preparing for a career in the aircraft industry, and now you tell me that the aircraft industry is not ready for me?" Wally just sat there and laughed his head off. I figured that I might as well get some fun out of this job-hunting business.
As we were leaving Boeing, Wally told me, "This is getting to be hilarious. I would have gone home a long time ago if it wasn't so much fun being around you."
As each day passed I was getting more desperate. I started asking everyone that I met if they knew of any place that I could get a job. Usually they would refer me to the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or some other charitable organization.
The Black Light
I was not the only odd person in the community in which I worked. Downtown St. Louis had an odd assortment of characters. Several times, as I went about my rounds, I would pass a woman who appeared to be in her fifties. She always wore the same clothes, which looked like they had been thrown out by the Salvation Army. Not only did she look odd, but she acted odd. The only word I can think of to describe her is that she looked just like a "witch."
Now this day, instead of passing her by, she stopped me on the sidewalk to have a chat. "Hello," she said, "I'm a witch." "Boy," I muttered to myself, "I sure hit that one square on the head." She then explained that there are two types of witches: good witches and bad witches. She told me not to worry because she was a good witch. That immediately put me at ease.
She told me that she would like to talk with me a few minutes, if I had the time, because she felt that she could do something for me. I replied that I had some spare time now and could talk to her. She explained that she, being a good witch, wanted to do something good for me. She then explained that my infirmity was caused by my being possessed by evil spirits. It was my lucky day, she had the power to drive the evil spirits from me.
She went on to tell me about astrology and how the position of the planets affects our lives, and how she had the power to interfere with the planets and alter their course to my advantage. She went on for a long time explaining about astrology, but I really didn't understand what she was talking about.
After a twenty-minute lesson in witchology, the good witch of downtown asked if she could use her powers to heal me. "Lady," I answered, "I have gone to every type of faith healer on the face of the earth. I've even been to a chiropractor, and nobody has healed me yet. So I hope you can see why I don't have much confidence in anything like this."
She asked if she might have the opportunity to try to heal me anyway. "Well," I replied hesitantly, "how long is this going to take?" "Just a few minutes," she assured me.
She explained that it would take a few minutes for her to change the system of the planets so that I would then be altered back into a normal human being.
Now I wasn't about to make a fool of myself in front of everyone in St. Louis, so I told her that we should go into the alley where she could then go through her rituals. This was fine with her and with that we went into the alley.
She then started her rituals, putting sacred oils on her fingers and then drawing symbols on different parts of my head, while all of the time singing strange chants. I really can't tell you what she was saying because I couldn't understand what she was saying or doing. In fact I don't think that she knew what she was doing either.
She did arouse my curiosity because her techniques were entirely different than any of the faith healers I had ever been to before; and, as you know, I am a very curious and observant fellow.
After five minutes she asked me if I was starting to feel anything change. The only difference I felt was that it was cooler in the alley than out on the sidewalk. After ten minutes she started getting worried. She started chanting faster and dabbing oil all over me. At the end of twenty minutes, she panicked, beads of sweat broke out on her forehead. She started chanting as fast as she could, took the entire bottle of her precious, magical oil and dumped it on top of my head. But all to no avail. I was still the same old thing that I always was.
"It takes time," she then told me. "I will be successful the next time."
"All right, I will come back one more time, but let's agree that if you aren't successful next them, then that is it."
Two days later we met in the alley again. As before she was unsuccessful. She was simply a good witch trying to do good in the world. Incompetent, but a good witch.
Now you may think that this is a very unusual thing to happen to someone who is going down the sidewalk. Well, it's not unusual for me. I have it happen all of the time. I have had people try to heal me on busses, trains, elevators (You don't have much time in elevators because you reach the next floor before you are healed), in taxis, boats, in the middle of a bridge, swimming pools, while roasting marshmallows, libraries were very popular for the intellectual ones.
I have had the best and the worst, every conceivable philosophy and anti-philosophy, religion and anti-religion, performed in every conceivable place on earth, all without success.
And some of these people were quite confident that they could heal me. I had a Greek Orthodox priest guarantee me, and I mean absolutely guarantee me, that he could heal me, if I would do exactly what he said. So I did exactly what he told me. It took a whole hour. It was only supposed to take five minutes, but he had to run overtime because I was such a hard case.
He had me stare at a gold cross while he chanted. At the end of the hour, the priest looked at me completely confused and said, "I don't know what to do or what to say. This is the first time that I have ever failed." I told him not to feel bad about it as a lot of people had told me the same thing.
And so, unhealed, I continued to pound the streets of St. Louis looking for another job. The local radio station had an opening for a radio announcer for a dance program. I applied. Don't laugh. It's not as crazy as it sounds and I almost got the job.
In the early days of radio the stations were not necessarily located in large cities. They were located in places that could beam to the largest geographical areas.
It seems that Harrisburg, geographically, covered all of Southern Illinois, including St. Louis.
So that is how a small town like Harrisburg wound up with a radio station.
Being in a small town, the radio station was desperate for any kind of talent that it could get.
So this is how I and a local lady, Helen Horn, wound up with our own music program. We were on for half an hour every Sunday night. I played the piano with a stick in my mouth, while Helen played the organ and sang.
When television started in that part of the country, we simply changed from radio to television. So as you can see, I already had a background in radio and TV.
So with that background, I went to KSD in St. Louis and applied for the job of M.C. of their dance program. All the job required was for me to roll around the dance floor while the teenagers were dancing and I would talk to them and ask them questions.
I went through three days of interviews with the station. I passed the first three interviews, but it was the fourth interview that put me back onto the streets. I was really disappointed. It was a darned good job with good pay.
I applied at all of the other radio stations. They didn't want me either.
I had now been in St. Louis for one full week, had gone in two hundred forty-three doors asking for work, and I had gone out of two hundred forty-three doors, not always under my own power. I still had the magazine job, and not the better job that I had expected.
Wally tried to cheer me up by telling me, "Everybody thinks you are crazy, but you are better off than I am. At least you have a job. I don't even have a job yet."
Waldo was starting to get discouraged, homesickness was starting to set in, and he kept talking about how much easier it would be for us to go back to Harrisburg. But I wasn't beaten yet.
I decided to change my tactics and look for a job where I could use my mind in an intellectual field. I clipped out an ad for a job as a receptionist in a psychiatrist's office. That looked like an intellectual challenge, so I went to apply for the job. I told the receptionist that I was there to apply for the job of receptionist. She was glad to see me and told me that she was quitting to become a full-time housewife.
The psychiatrist was busy in another room talking with a patient so I just sat there for a while chatting with the receptionist. When the psychiatrist came out of his office, he glanced at me, assumed that I was a patient, then asked the secretary if the job applicant had shown up yet. She pointed to me and said, "There is the applicant." He looked at me somewhat confused and then developed a very peculiar look on his face, said not another word, and went back into his office.
"I didn't like that look on his face," I told the receptionist. "From the way he looked at me, I don't know if I will get the job or not." The receptionist laughed and told me, "He looks at everybody that way."
When the doctor finished with his patient, he asked me to come into his office. He was a strange-looking man, even for a psychiatrist. He was an albino with white and pink blotches all over, and pink eyes with dwarf characteristics, standing less than five feet tall. He wore the psychiatrist-style mustache which all good psychiatrists must wear in those days. The hair was slicked down and parted on the wrong side, and he wore one of the strangest outfits I had ever seen. His business suit was made up of a purple shirt with black trousers and white shoes. He immediately told me that this was the only outfit he ever wore. He did it because he wanted his patients to take their minds off their problems. He always wore this outfit so he would look like a black light. (He was referring to a black light that is ultra violet and gives off an eerie glow.) "My patients are so shocked by the black light that they forget about their problems," as he confided to me the secrets of psychiatry.
He was American born, had studied in Italy and France and spoke with a French accent. His name was Dr. Bernstein and, of course, he was Jewish.
He would never look at me when we talked, but his eyes wandered all over the place. He would drag his words out sloooowly, and he rambled semi-coherently.
He asked me if I had ever been to a psychiatrist. "Plenty," I replied. "Oh! Then you know something about psychiatrists!" he said gleefully.
"It is one of the fields that I have been thinking of going into," I answered.
In the middle of the interview he stopped short and said, "I haven't been outside lately. How's the weather?" He caught me off guard, but I quickly caught hold of myself and said, "It's a bit nippy, but clear." "Fine," he said, "that's just fine." And then he continued with the interview.
Finally he asked me if I could handle the job. I told him that I would have to adapt a few things, make changes to the telephone and typewriter, but I could handle the job.
"People will think that I am crazy for hiring you," he then said, "but that's all right, I like to do things different!"
I had the job.
For one week I had gone from one business to another looking for work, two hundred forty-four places in all. Everywhere I went I was told that I was crazy, or else the people were too polite to tell me that I was crazy, even though they thought it. Even the man who hired me to sell magazines thought I was crazy. Even the most humanistic ministers at the Baptist churches thought I was crazy.
I never could understand why all of these people thought that way about me, but now I was starting to see things from their viewpoint. I was starting to understand their attitudes more clearly, because, as I sat there talking to this psychiatrist, I said to myself, "This guy is crazy!"
Out of the two hundred forty-four people, he was the only one who did not think that I was crazy. I liked this man.
I got paid thirty dollars a week. I gave my magazine representative job to Wally. All of a sudden things were looking much brighter.
I didn't have any problems with the patients. They were not in the least bit taken aback by my unusual appearance. In fact, none of them even noticed that there was anything in the least bit different about me. They talked to me just as they did anyone else. Even on the telephone, when I would stutter or become difficult to understand, nobody seemed to care. They treated me just as normally as could be. Of course, they were all crazy. That's why they were seeing a psychiatrist.
I got along with the patients just fine. I knew the minds of the patients very well. A person with cerebral palsy can remember conversations: conversations which never took place. They can remember events: events which never happened. I knew the mind of the insane.
Dr. Bernstein's wife was a bit peculiar too. She would call the office at 10 A.M. every morning and ask, "Is my husband there?" "Yes he is," I would answer. "Do you want to talk to him?" "No," she would say, and then hang up. She would do the same thing at noon, again at two, and again at four. I guess she was just checking up on him.
All of his patients thought that he was the greatest psychiatrist in the world. I didn't really think he was doing that much good. I could have gotten better results with the patients myself. But he was my boss so I always agreed when the patients told me what a genius Dr. Bernstein was. And a lot of people believed it. He had more patients than he could handle.
After living in St. Louis for three weeks, the boarding house raised our rates. I was willing to pay the higher rate but Wally wasn't making too much at the magazine job, and he felt that he couldn't afford the raise in rent.
I was dependent on Wally to be my attendant, so I had to go along with what he wanted to do. It wasn't possible for us to split up. We were like Siamese twins. Wherever Wally lived that is where I must live.
Wally wanted to find a cheaper place to live. We looked at a lot of places but, as before, they all had too many steps. So we couldn't go to a new boarding house for the same reason I couldn't go to college. The boarding houses just weren't designed for wheelchairs.
After spending four days looking for another boarding house, Wally turned to me and said, "I don't know about you but as far as I am concerned I can sleep in the car." "Well, if it comes to that then I can sleep in the car too," I replied.
Wally had a big Chevy, and I have to admit, it was one of the best cars that you could live in.
We found a twenty-four-hour parking lot two blocks from the stadium that charged sixty cents a day. I asked the manager if we could get a reduced rate if we lived there. When he found out that we would be living there on a permanent basis, he dropped the rate to forty cents a day.
Wally slept in the front seat and I lived in the back seat. Winter was coming so we bought plenty of blankets. Every morning I woke up all cramped up from being squished in the back seat all night. But being all cramped up was normal for me anyway.
All night long the police would come by every half hour and shine their spotlights in the windows. We finally had to put some cardboard in the windows to get some privacy.
The manager let us use the parking lot office for our mailing address. We found a barber shop that had baths in the back for ten cents and located a greasy spoon restaurant where we could get cheap food.
I told Wally that this wasn't going to last very long. I knew that our parents were going to get suspicious once they saw we were using a parking lot as our return address on the letters we were sending home.
I was right, my parents wrote back immediately wanting to know why we had such a peculiar change of address. We wrote back and simply told them that we had moved to a cheaper place to live. But, I didn't tell them what I meant by cheaper.
Then it happened, Wally got a letter from his dad telling him that he and his mother were driving down to St. Louis to see us. My parents were coming down with them. Wally's father told him that he figured he had enough time to earn enough money to buy his own car, so while he was in St. Louis he was going to take the car back. It seems that the car was Wally's dad's and not Wally's.
So there we were living in a house that would soon be driving back to Harrisburg. Our parents still did not know that we were living in the car.
I told Wally that we had better get the car cleaned up before our parents arrived. The car was a real mess. It looked like somebody had been living in it.
I could hold out against my parents, but I knew that Waldo could not. And my parents knew that I could control them as long as we were alone. That is exactly why they chose to come down with Wally's parents. I immediately wrote back and told Mom and Dad not to drive down with Wally's parents but that I wanted them to drive down by themselves. They knew what I was doing, so they came down with Wally's parents.
We met them at the parking lot office. The car was all cleaned up and you couldn't tell that anyone had been living in it.
The first question they asked was, "Where do you stay?" I said, "Oh, well, might as well let the cat out of the bag." And then I told them where we were living. Wally's mother started crying. My mother had always been able to control herself, but when she saw Wally's mother starting to cry, then she started to cry. It almost killed her.
Then, Wally's mother just went wild and Wally threw his arms around her neck and surrendered immediately. With Wally gone I was a dead duck. I had been out voted by two men, two hysterical women, and one blubbering attendant.
I told my parents that I would have to give a couple of days notice that I was quitting my job. I took them over to meet my boss, the black light. After my mother had met my boss, she told me, "How in the world can you stand that man? I can't stand him for even one day!" Mom just wasn't used to being around unusual people.
I learned the magazine business in St. Louis. When I got back to Harrisburg, I added magazine subscriptions to my card business and doubled my income.
When I returned from St. Louis, I started looking around for a job. I decided against working for the Daily Register. Their top man was making less money than I had been making as a psychiatric receptionist in St. Louis. So I didn't see much future with the Daily Register. However, I would continue to write articles for the paper on a part-time basis.
Everywhere a Suicide
Time went on with one day following the next with nothing unusual happening in my life; nothing to write a book about.
And then one day a man entered the tallest building in town, the bank building, climbed to the top floor, the twelfth floor, climbed out on the ledge and threatened to jump.
It wasn't long before they drew a big crowd, including the police. The police entered the building and tried to grab the man. But every time they came close, he would threaten to jump.
So a stalemate ensued. The police couldn't grab him and he wouldn't come down. All they could do was talk. After forty-five minutes of talking, the police began to realize that they weren't getting anywhere.
While all of this was happening, unbeknownst to me, I was out front on the lawn.
Being a small town, news spread quickly. A neighbor lady came over and told me that she had just heard on the radio that a man was threatening to jump off the top of the bank building.
Just as she told me, the police chief came driving up. He got out of the car and walked straight toward me.
"Gene, have you heard the news about the man who wants to jump off the bank building?"
"Yes, I just heard."
"We have been talking with him for forty-five minutes and we're not getting anywhere. I know that you are good at handling people and I was wondering if you could come down and try to talk him out of jumping."
I had been taken completely by surprise and didn't know what to say. "Well, I don't know if I can talk him out of it or not, but I'm available if you insist."
"I would like to try and see what you can do with it," the chief said.
He threw me (literally) into his police car and we took off with sirens wailing and red light flashing. I must have presented a most peculiar sight to the man who was about to end it all way up there on the twelfth story. All that he wanted to do was to jump and end it all right then and there. But while his confused mind was trying to carry out his bazaar plan, he looked down and saw a police car drive up, then a policeman pulled a wheelchair out of the car and set it up, and then he watched as the policeman wrestled me out of the car and threw me into the wheelchair.
During all of the time that this was going on, I kept looking up at the man on the ledge wondering, What in the world am I going to do? At the same time the man on the ledge was looking down, and I am sure that he was wondering, What in the world is he doing?
After the chief had me in the wheelchair, he then held a megaphone to my mouth. I tried to think of something to say, but my mind went blank. I just sat there with no idea what to do or what to say. I turned to the chief and said, "I don't know what to do."
I looked up again and spoke as firmly and clearly as I could, "It seems to me that you have a problem. And may I ask what that problem is, and what is your concern? Because nobody wants to jump from the top of a twelve-story building for the thrill or fun of it, just for nothing. I think there is a problem. Is there, or is there not?"
"Yes," he said loud enough for me to hear. If he had said "no," then I don't know what I would have done. I was scared to death that my first statement would cause him to jump.
I continued, fully aware that if he were to jump or not to jump, live or die, would depend entirely on each word that I said. I was just hoping that I would pick the right words to say rather than the wrong ones. And of course, I had never tried to talk a person out of suicide before.
"Would you prefer to tell me the problem from where we are now, or would you prefer for me to come up and we will talk personally?" were the next words I gambled on. He replied that he preferred for everyone to stay where they were. I was in luck. I had chosen the right words again.
He then started to tell me his problems; he had lost his job, was about to have his home repossessed, and his wife and children had left him.
It was not an easy conversation. I had to gauge when to probe with questions and when to keep my mouth shut.
After talking for fifteen minutes (which is hard to do when you stutter!), I asked, "Do you feel that you are facing your problems in a realistic way?"
He paused for a moment and then said, "I have to say no, I am not. But I am in a very critical situation and I do not wish to continue life which has no meaning for me."
"Is this a spur-of-the-moment decision, or have you been thinking about this for a long time?"
"I have been thinking about this for a long time, but what I am doing now came on as a spur-of-the-moment."
"Do you realize that a spur-of-the-moment decision is not a valid decision and is not a good decision at all? If you have time to think, you may see things differently than you do now."
As I kept speaking, I noticed that he was beginning to become interested in what I was saying. After thirty minutes, this gave me my first sign of hope.
Then he said, "May I ask you a question?"
"Yes," I answered, not having any idea what was going to happen next.
"Why did they rush a crippled person in a wheelchair here?"
"They felt that they weren't getting anywhere with you," I answered, "and they wanted to get someone here who was familiar with these problems. And that is why I am here. And it is my feeling that, inasmuch as I am crippled, as you say I am, then I believe that I am more justified in committing suicide than you are."
"You are more justified!" he screamed loud enough for everyone in Harrisburg to hear.
"I feel the same way you do," I continued. "I am more justified in committing suicide, but I am not doing it, and I am not going to do it. I feel that I am an odd person, and I do not fit into this world. And I have my problems. But you can find the answer to your problems easier than I can to mine. And I don't think that suicide is the answer to your problems."
With that explanation he allowed me to come up and talk with him personally. It had taken me half an hour to get closer than twelve stories. But he was still on the ledge. A policeman wheeled me into the building, up the elevator and into the room where the window was open onto the ledge. The policeman left me in the room alone.
The man remained on the ledge while we talked through the open window. The first thirty minutes seemed like a lifetime to me. If I said the wrong word, he could jump.
After a couple of minutes I said, "If you want to make it personal, why don't you come inside and sit down. My arms are tied behind me so I can't do anything. So come on in and sit down and feel free to talk it out."
He came in, sat down, and we talked. I breathed a sigh of relief. After another fifteen minutes, he started crying.
"What are you crying about?" I asked. "Are you reconsidering your situation, or what?"
"How do you know my thoughts?" he said, somewhat surprised.
"I can see a change," I answered.
It took me another fifteen minutes, and then I had him wheel me out of the building.
We had a conference with the police. I explained to the police that this was a desperation act, that I believed he had enough control over himself now that he would not attempt to try suicide again.
The police took him into custody. After several days of psychiatric observation, he was released.
A few days later he came over to my house to talk. He came the next day and the next. I continued to see him on a regular basis for a year.
His wife didn't want to have anything to do with him or ever see him again. I talked with his wife several times and, after two months of efforts, got the two of them back together.
I talked with the different churches, community organizations, and anyone else that could help, and with everyone's cooperation we were able to save his house from being repossessed.
Although the community pitched in to help out, it was always with the attitude, many times verbalized, "Why are you helping this man? He is a hopeless case, so why are you wasting your time?"
I always answered. "Everyone is entitled to a second chance."
He is about my age, still alive today, still married to the same woman, and has stayed with his new job.
He never attempted suicide again.
I went back to selling my magazines and cards, and life as usual. This incident received a lot of attention and my reputation grew even greater throughout the land. I was interviewed on the local radio and television stations, and the local newspapers printed the story.
I got a lot of phone calls. I received invitations to speak before different community organizations, which I accepted whenever possible.
Three months after this incident, I received a phone call from the chief of police at Carmi, Illinois. This was not at all unexpected as I had already been asked by other chiefs of police to talk to their staffs about how to handle attempted cases of suicide. So I was expecting more police departments to call me extending an invitation to speak to their departments as well.
"Are you the Gene Bybee who saved the life of a man who wanted to commit suicide at the bank building?" the chief of Carmi asked.
"Yes, I am," I answered as I sat back and waited for the usual invitation to be a guest speaker.
"We have the same thing here," the chief said, "and we would like to know if you can be rushed here?"
The first thing I thought was, What the heck is going on here? "Well, why are you calling me?"
"We have a suicidal case here in Carmi and we are not getting anywhere with it. So I called the chief of police in Harrisburg and he suggested that you handle it."
"Well, I was going to work today, but I guess if it is necessary, I can go," I answered still somewhat confused. "But just a minute, you said you wanted me to go up to Carmi. How am I supposed to get up there?"
"Stay where you are and we will pick you up." Click!
Seven minutes later the chief of police of Harrisburg drove up, threw me into his car, and we took off for Carmi thirty miles away with sirens wailing and red lights flashing. We stopped at the county line and I was transferred, like a sandbag, to the sheriff's car and on we raced toward Carmi.
I had no information on the case whatsoever. So I asked the sheriff to fill me in on the details while we were driving. The sheriff told me that he didn't know any more than I did. All he knew was that there was a suicide attempt and he was supposed to rush me there as soon as possible to save the case.
The Carmi police met us on the edge of town and escorted us to the scene. The chief briefed me on what had happened. A man was in a restaurant when he decided to commit suicide. Everyone fled the restaurant, but just then, a pedestrian walked by the door, was grabbed by the man intent on killing himself, pulled into the restaurant and held him as a hostage. There was one main difference between this case and the last one at the bank building. The man in the restaurant, intent on killing himself, had no need to jump twelve stories. He had a gun.
After learning what I was up against, the sheriff turned to me and said, "Gene, this is more serious than I thought. Guns are involved in this one. You have a choice. You can go in or refuse." The sheriff and chief had succeeded in scaring the daylights out of me! I just didn't know what to do.
After thinking for a moment, I asked, "How much safety do we have here?"
"The state patrol is here, the sheriff's deputies, all of the city police. We have the restaurant surrounded by thirty-five men," said the chief.
Now I popped the big question that had been going around inside my head, "With everyone standing around like that, I'm not afraid to go in. But, because there are so many police, I'm afraid that I will be accidentally shot by the police. If I do decide to go in, what is the probability of my accidentally getting shot by the police?"
"You won't get shot by the police," the chief assured me. "You will get shot by the suspect."
"I know," I relied, "but this is my first time on the scene, and I don't know everything that is happening. So what I am trying to find out is this; if he decides to move, one way or the other, and the police decide to fire, how am I going to stay in the clear? I can get shot very easily that way."
The chief now tried to allay my fears. "I can guarantee you that everything is to the maximum that is possible. But, as far as saying that you will not be shot by the police, I cannot guarantee it. But, we will try our best not to shoot you."
With such sound assurance, how could I refuse?
I decided to go in. Now, if there are a lot of things at this point that you don't understand, then you know how I felt. There were a lot of things that I did not understand either. All I knew was that I arrived at the scene, a man was in a restaurant with a hostage, armed with a gun, and threatening to commit suicide. Why he was in the restaurant, and why he grabbed a hostage, I didn't know either.
The police set up communications with the suspect and it took them thirty minutes before he agreed to talk with me. During this time, we were all hidden behind another building because of the danger involving the gun.
I pushed myself around the corner of the building and was now in direct view of the suspect and his gun. Now it was just me and my faithful wheelchair. I crossed the street, backwards, of course, and headed for the door of the restaurant. The suspect opened the door so that I could enter. The gun in his hand looked gigantic! It scared me to death.
The hostage was in a corner, scared to death. I was just as scared as the hostage, but controlled myself so as not to show my fear.
"I don't have any gun on me," I told the gunman. "My hands are tied behind me and all I have is this wheelchair."
"Why in the world would they rush a helpless cripple all this way to talk to me?" was the first thing he asked, incredulously. I gave him the same answer that I gave the man on the bank building.
After my reply he said very politely, "Well, come on over here and we'll sit down and be comfortable and talk." Before I moved I asked, "May I make a suggestion? You have this hostage here, and I think I know why you have a hostage, so that you can keep everyone away from you while you make up your mind what you are going to do. May I make a suggestion that as long as I stay here, the police will not come in. So why don't we release the hostage and have a more personal talk?"
"Can you guarantee the police won't come in?" he asked.
"I can guarantee it."
"Now remember," he said, "if I release the hostage as you ask me to, which I would like to do, because I would like to talk with you personally, if anything happens, then I am going to hold you responsible, and you are my hostage."
Gulp! "I agree."
The police couldn't believe what they were seeing. The police had been working with this gunman for three hours with no success and, as soon as I walked in, the hostage walked out. The hostage was free. Now I was the hostage.
We now had our private talk. He had recently been in a car accident in which his wife, two children, his mother and father were all killed. He was the only one to survive. He was about to take his life two or three times before, but each time someone caught him and he was stopped from carrying out his plans.
"I am not going to give up until I kill myself!" he told me resolutely.
And I mean resolutely.
That man was really determined, and I mean absolutely determined, to commit suicide!
It took me six hours, then I had him put the gun in my wheelchair bag, and I left the restaurant, alone, to give the surrender terms to the chief of police. Term number one: He would not commit suicide now, but he reserved the right to commit suicide in three months if he wanted to. Term number two: Because his car was destroyed in the accident, he wanted to be provided with transportation so that he could travel to Harrisburg to see me and continue our talk.
Of course the police agreed to his terms, and I went back into the restaurant and brought him out. I went to the police station with him and we talked some more.
While all of this was happening, unbeknownst to me, Mom was listening to what was happening on the radio. She was just scared to death. Now that I look back on my life and the things that I did, I do believe that I gave my mother more concern for alarm than the average child.
Two weeks later this man was placed on probation. He came down to visit me at Harrisburg for a long time. He is still alive, remarried, has two children, is well adjusted and very happy.
And the legend grew even greater throughout the land of the poor, helpless, crippled young man in a wheelchair who went from place to place, backwards, talking people out of committing suicide.
I went back to selling my magazines and cards.
Six months later I received a phone call.
"This is the chief of police of Morganfield, Kentucky. We have a suicide case and want you rushed down here. You don't have to tell me anything about yourself because we know all about your background."
"Well...ah...how far is that?"
"It is thirty-five miles."
"Do I have to come right now?"
"Yes, the sooner the better."
And so, once more, with sirens wailing and red lights flashing, I was rushed to some distant town..."to save the case." The Illinois State Patrol took me to the Kentucky border, and then I was transferred into a Kentucky State Patrol car and off we went again.
This time it was a dual suicide pact between a man and wife. They were in their home when the neighbors noticed something suspicious and called the police.
They both agreed to talk to me as soon as I arrived, for they already knew who I was from my reputation which had spread throughout the land, including Kentucky.
They were very kind to me. They were both in their fifties. He had held a supervisor's job in a local factory all of his life. The factory had closed down and he had been unable to find work for several months. Their home was about to be repossessed, as was their car. They had no income whatsoever. His wife had always been a housewife and although she had tried to get work, she did not have the necessary skills to get employment. They had lost their ability to live by their own abilities.
They had always been kind and helpful and most generous to anyone in need, but they themselves were too proud to accept help from others. They had lost their social status. Although they would give their neighbors the shirts off their backs, their pride would not allow them to accept help or charity from these same neighbors. They had decided that the only solution was for both of them to commit suicide.
I sized up the situation and decided that my best approach was to use humor. "Well," I told them, "if you think that life has been hard on you, then would you like to change places with me? You take my place in life and I will take your place. I would be happy to change places with you."
They both just about had heart attacks when I said that. "No!" they screamed. "I feel sorry for the way that you are, and I don't see how you can stand life the way it is for you."
Now I would like to stop this story for a moment to make a point. Those of you who are reading this book do not know me personally. You have never met me, or seen me, or talked with me. Through this book I am sure that you are forming a picture of me in your mind. So as to better help you develop the negative that will give you a more accurate picture of me, it is important for you to fully comprehend that when I talked with all of these people who were about to commit suicide (and these were all people who were totally defeated by life, their minds were completely disoriented, they had nothing in life to live for, and their lives were useless and meaningless), I would always ask them if they would be willing to trade places with me. Their answers were always an immediate, and firm, "No!"
Even a person who was about to leave this world, imminently, by his own hands, was not willing to trade places with me for even one minute!
Now you can use this information to continue forming your picture of me.
But, now back to the story of the husband and wife who want to die, and the police outside, and me. To my suggestion the husband replied, "You can't commit suicide even if you want to, can you?"
I have to admit that it would be a challenge to the entire engineering class at M.I.T. to figure out how a man in a wheelchair, with both hands tied behind his back, could commit suicide. I will let you think about that for a minute before I give you the answer.
I answered, "Why not?"
"How could you?" he asked.
"I could duck my head under water and drown myself!" I explained triumphantly.
Now what I have just said might make the reader feel uneasy and rather queasy. But at the time I was not thinking about writing a book. My main concern at this moment was to talk this couple out of the idea of killing themselves. And it worked. They both really got a big kick out of my sense of humor.
"A gun is quicker than drowning," he kidded me.
"Yes, but a gun hurts more!" I joked back.
It took me three hours and then I went out to explain the situation to the chief and give the surrender terms, which were: They would wait another four months and if conditions did not improve by then, then they absolutely, positively, and I mean they were adamant, would commit suicide.
Of course the chief accepted their terms.
The next day the chief got the man a job in the same industry that he had been working in all of his life. As I had done before, I worked with the community organizations to save his house and car from being repossessed.
They lived another ten years and both died a natural death. Both became even more involved, through the churches and community organizations, in helping others who were in need. And many times they were instrumental in saving the lives of others who attempted suicide.
I went back to Harrisburg and back to selling my magazines and cards.
I received even more publicity and phone calls. I was now receiving even more phone calls than before. The difference was that I was not receiving a lot of phone calls from people who told me that what they had read and heard about me prevented them from committing suicide. I had finally found a place in the world where I fit in.
I must admit that I found it much easier on my nerves to save people by my reputation, rather than in person.
Four months later I got a phone call from the chief of police in St. Joseph, Missouri. A woman in her late thirties desperately wanted to have children. She had had eight miscarriages in her life and had just been released from the hospital after her last miscarriage. As soon as she was released from the hospital, she went into the building next door, locked herself in a room with a knife and threatened to kill herself if anyone came in.
It was the hardest case I ever had. It took me twenty-four hours to talk her out of killing herself and adopting children. She would later adopt five children and was very happy.
I returned to Harrisburg and went back to selling magazines and cards.
From time to time I would receive a phone call and be rushed off to some little-heard-of place, with sirens wailing and red lights flashing, "to save the case."
I never lost a man or a woman.
The Death of Charlie Birger
The Sheltons killed a lot of people and were never caught. Al Capone killed a lot of people and was never caught. (He went to prison for income tax evasion.) Charlie Birger killed a lot of people and was caught. He was sentenced to hang.
Charlie Birger would spend a year in jail at Benton while awaiting execution. Mom and Dad would take me to visit him in jail. Such was his notoriety that the famed evangelist Billy Sunday visited him in jail and tried to save his soul, without any luck.
And then, when I was two years old, Charlie Birger was hanged. Three thousand people showed up for the hanging. Both Dad and Granddad went. Charlie Birger was the last person hanged in Illinois. After Charlie Birger, everyone else got the electric chair.
Charlie Birger would raise me to be independent (to put things in their proper perspective, I grew, both physically and mentally, at twice the rate as the average child).
After Charlie Birger, it would then become the Sheltons' turn to raise me. Whenever they were in Harrisburg, they would drop by and see me. As I grew older, our paths would cross many times as I hitchhiked on the roads of Egypt. They would take me to their houses for barbecues. They were always taking me to restaurants. They took me to the junkiest restaurants I ever saw. The reason they did this is because they owned the restaurants.
The Sheltons would leave the scene during my high school years. Carl Shelton would be gunned down while driving a jeep in Egypt. He went down with his gun blazing.
Bernie Shelton was gunned down while standing outside his tavern.
It is rumored that Earl Shelton moved to Florida and became a successful land developer. But it is only a rumor.
Al Capone would see me whenever he was in Southern Illinois, which was two or three times a year. As I told you before, Al Capone went to prison when I was six years old. Mom and I would correspond with him until he was moved to another prison, at which time all correspondence stopped.
When I was in high school, Al Capone died. I wanted to go to his funeral but I couldn't get any of my friends to go along. So I sent flowers.
Al Capone would have the greatest influence on my life. By telling my parents that I should be allowed to do anything I wanted, no matter how foolish it might seem. This not only made me independent, but extremely independent.
My Book, At Last!
Over the years many people have told me that I should write the story of my life. But how am I going to remember everything that has happened in my life? How am I going to remember conversations which took place ages ago? How am I going to remember events which took place decades ago?
Yet, as I sit here, with a stick in my mouth, hammering away at the keys of my electric typewriter, the past comes flooding back faster than I can type. Conversations of long ago are crystal clear. Events which took place decades past are as if they happened yesterday.
Of course, no two people will remember long-ago conversations the same. Nor will any two people remember decades-past events the same.
So this may not be the story of my life the way others remember it. But it is the story of my life...the way I remember it.
Gene Bybee would die in his sleep in October, 1987 at the age of sixty-one. A remarkably long life for someone with severe cerebral palsy.