Monday, November 29, 2010

Hometown

A few weeks ago Gal Friday (and every other day of the week) escorted me to my 50-year high school class reunion back home in Ilion, NY.  This small village is one of four, strung together like links of sausage,  in a fertile lowland area of upstate NY named the Mohawk Valley.  This historical region played pivotal roles in the formation of our nation during revolutionary times, the civil war period and its expansion and industrialization.

What a wonderful time and place to grow up.  In my particular case, please notice I didn't say mature, just grow up.  The 1940's and 50's proved prosperous for the Remington Arms and Remington Typewriter companies, the two major employers in the village.  Employment was high and people were happy.  Patriotism ran rampant and during WWII Ilion sold more war bonds per capita than any other place in the US.  Much of this was due to the fact that the village's young men either served in a branch of service or were employed at either the "Arms" and the ""Typerwriter" as the locals call them,  manufacturing guns and ammunition for the military.  The kids of my age grew up with a strong sense of pride in our country.

Education also topped the list of priorities in Ilion as taxpayers could attest.  My classmates were indeed fortunate to recive their A,B,C's and beyond from such an elite group of educators who ruled the classrooms of our schools.  Of course, like typical waifs of any era, we belittled them, but also truthfully trusted and respected these teachers.

Ilion was not a place of have and have nots; we were all "middle class" with some a little more "middle" than others.  All my friends basically came from the same socio-economic status as me and in retrospect, I think this helped to mold some long-lasting friendships.  And long-lasting friendships are something I'm blessed with.  Through the years it's great to form new friendships and I'm lucky enough to have done so, but  my "old buddies," regardless of gender, will remain my closest compadres.  Until I recently moved from Tennessee, we had 6  close high school chums living within a 5-mile radius and a few more a couple of hours away.  This didn't "just happen;" we all made conscious decisions to come together in later life.  Some others say this is amazing, but not me -  I believe it's simply a result of true friendship.  Many of these people I've known from kindergarten or before and they still talk to me.  Now THAT is amazing.

We all roamed the streets unafraid and enjoyed the freedom of unlocked doors, friendly policemen, and each other's parents watching out for our welfare.  In comparison to today's culture, we "had it made."  At school we didn't deal with student and teacher shootings,  AIDS or  drugs.  Our major concerns were talking in class, chewing gum and running in the halls.  Oh yeah, I forgot, missing the wastepaper basket was a biggie too.

Almost every student graduated and a high percentage continued into higher education.  All my buddies finished at least four years of college and live productive and honorable lives.  I too, earned my college degree, but I hesitate to claim an honorable life.

Although now a bone fide member of what economists call the "Rust Belt," my return to Ilion still brightened my year.  Colorful leaves from the distinguished old hardwoods still filled the streets; the neatly mowed lawns were still as  lush green; and the natives --  still as friendly.  The mighty Mohawk river continues to meander through the rolling hills like a blue ribbon of sparkling contentment and the old statues still remind the citizenery of a revered history  Oh sure, others can see the sores of today's economy, but in my eyes too many terrific memories blind me from these ugly sights.  No, to me Ilion will always remain an idyllic place filled with wonderful people.  Is that so bad?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Part III - The Viet Nam Veterans Memorial

We drove back to DC across the Potomac and stopped to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (the Viet Nam Wall). Unbelievably, we found a parking spot right in front of the path to the wall. I then realized God had forgiven my earlier antics too. I rolled down my van’s ramp, up the path and approached the wall. To my surprise it wasn’t a free-standing edifice, but more like a buttress or a reinforcement wall. There are 58,000 names etched into this memorial - 58,000 grieving families and untold numbers of friends and that’s just Americans. This war lasted from 1959 to 1975. How many deaths total? Who knows? We do know millions of warriors from many countries died, but how many civilians in Laos, Cambodia as well as Viet Nam? And for what? Unification of Viet Nam occurred in 1976 and by 2000, it had established diplomatic relations with most nations. Its economic growth has been among the highest in the world in the past decade. I think now they’re even a member of the UN. Who caused all this pain? Politicians!

We didn’t remain at the wall too long because I was physically and emotionally spent. I asked Gal Friday to get me back in the van and put the nose down toward Delaware. I remained quiet because of so many mixed emotions, confused thoughts and questions never to be answered. Before we arrived home late that night, I reflected on all I had seen the last two days, The White House, Arlington National Cemetery, JFK’s Eternal Flame, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial...not to mention all the components of the glorious Mall extending from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol building. My attempt to put it all in perspective initially failed me. But then I remembered all the other countries I have seen. I wish every American had an opportunity to travel around the world and observe different societies laboring under very different governments. I think then they would better appreciate our wonderful country. The conclusions I finally reached stemmed from my understanding of the men who began this terrific nation - Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Monroe, etc. If you ever desire to perceive the true meaning of anything in this country, there is one simple document that gives you the definitive answer. It’s called the Constitution of the United States of America!

Even enduring all my miscues during this visit to our nation's capitol, Gal Friday still enjoyed the experience. I dare say much more than our next excursion to DC when we toured the National Museum of the American Indian.

Driving up to the building, she spotted an available handicap parking spot directly to the side of this beautiful structure. Disbelievingly she wheeled us in and let me out. Now Gal Friday...well, I wouldn't dare call her uptight or compulsive, but prudent or cautious might more aptly describe her nature.
Because the meter was eating our coins without crediting any minutes, Gal Friday whipped out the cell phone to report the malfunction to the DC traffic division. An adjacent pole bore many signs about parking restrictions, but we only read the one at eye level indicating it was okay to park during the time we'd be in the museum.  Truthfully I thought the call quite unnecessary, but kept the ole kisser zipped. The Washington bureaucrat on the other end requested the specific location and said we could park there till the cows came home or longer - this was a kindness shown to the disabled.  Wow, my rather cynical opinion of our government policies eased a few notches.

We toured the museum which contains a comprehensive historical background of our native Americans including drawings, paintings, sculptures and various artifacts. I found it a terrifically interesting place, but one question lingered - how could they try to capture the history of the Indians without one single reference to John Wayne?

We enjoyed our tour and when the museum closing hour was announced, we left the building to encounter the boiling hot sunshine and stifling humidity for which DC is so famous.  As a natural reaction to the blinding light when exiting, I squeezed my eyes closed.  My squeeze softened to a squint and I finally opened my eyes and wheeled around to drive to the van. As I looked up for the van, I saw nothing but an empty parking space. I blinked and looked again, but nothing had changed. I did not panic, but I can't say the same for my wonderful partner.

Gal Friday spun and hit the bricks to the lonely meter so fast, I thought she was replicating some Indian war dance I apparently missed during our tour. Now this woman is quick. she's fast in thought, speech and action. She can play the minute waltz in 57 seconds. Before I could say Chief Running Bear, she was already talking to another Washington traffic bureaucrat who explained, because of rush hour regulations, our van had been towed away. This did not sit well with Gal Friday...no, no, not well at all.

We were given the van's street location and she walked (as I rode) to this address. She was told it was parked on a street off Maryland Ave. Not only couldn't we find the specific address; we couldn't find the street. Things were not getting better. Here Gal Friday geared up into bulldog mode; told me to sit tight and started an earnest search. About 20 minutes later she drove up, lowered the ramp and I wheeled in. With crimson coloring and without saying a word, she waved a $100 parking ticket in my face. I never said a word all the way home. See, I'm getting a little smarter.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Part II – Arlington National Cemetery

The next morning I had to buy a pair of shoes. It seems the pair I wore to the WH now resembled small boats taking on water. However, not deterred, we headed for Arlington National Cemetery - a place I’ve wanted to visit all my adult years. We passed the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, beautiful structures commemorating great men. Traveling up to Arlington Memorial Bridge with the horse and rider on each side of the entrance depicting sacrifice and valor, a serene anticipation overcame me. I remember reading that the span, built in the late 20’s and opened in 1932, memorialized the joining of the North and South - the strength of the Union.

We crossed over, parked and entered the visitor’s center. Gal Friday asked me if I wanted to take the guided bus tour but I declined. I really wanted the time to experience and savor the feeling of this hallowed place. Even though my soul mate’s soles were beginning to dog her, she graciously agreed. Large framed photographs of JFK and events during his funeral hung on the wall. Oh, oh, weenie tears again. We decided to walk up, and I mean up, to the Kennedy gravesite and then to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I dearly wanted to see the changing of the guard. I’ve read about the rigorous life of the guards and what an honor it is to be trained for this esteem duty.

Gal Friday walked upwards, as I rode, to the Kennedy gravesite. It sits below the Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s home, overlooking a beautiful valley and the famous Mall incorporating the monuments and the US Capitol. There it burned- the Eternal Flame. We stared at it for a long time, then looked at each other, but didn’t say a word. I’m not sure you can adequately express certain emotions. Bronze plaques denoted the graves of John, Jacqueline and their two children, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy and the unnamed stillborn daughter. Following a few minutes of personal thoughts, we started climbing to higher altitudes and thinner air toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Now worrying about nosebleeds, we followed the signs and went further up an even steeper hill to the Tomb. However, when we reached what we thought would be the site, another sign pointed down steps to the actual site. Gal Friday descended the stairs, but since I couldn’t navigate steps in my chair, which by the way still drained water, I chose to ride back down the hill and take the lower road back up to the Tomb. Here things got a little dicey.

Being a man of keen observation and cognitive reasoning, I noticed a shortcut. It seemed more efficient if I cut through this section of the cemetery instead of staying on the road down the hill and back up the lower road. The whole cemetery is roped off, but at this particular spot the rope was missing and this gave me access to this area. I thought maybe they ran out of rope by the time they got way up here. Although this section was quite steep, I assumed, since my pathway was all down hill, I should encounter little difficulty. So, ignoring the thousands of signs warning you to stay off the grass, I decided to make my play. My reasoning kept me guilt free. I presumed my feet wouldn’t be touching the turf, only the wheels of my chariot and, ergo, I wouldn’t technically be breaking the rules. If caught and they wanted to arrest my chair…well that was a whole different scenario. Once I came to the hillside curb and peered down, I was reminded of the time I climbed to the top of the ski long jump ramp at Lake Placid. But with derring-do, I started down.

Now no one tells you this, but to keep all the lush grass at Arlington picturesque green, water is applied in great amounts and often. As I shoved off, my chair immediately began hydroplaning down the hill and I frantically dodged the white gravestones as they flew by, happy I didn’t have a speedometer to scare me even more. I felt the small amount of hair that remained on my shiny pate flatten out in the wind. I suddenly had a better appreciation for not only those ski jumpers at Lake Placid, but the slalom racers too. With God’s help, I made it safely to the bottom of the hill, but a hell of a lot faster than I anticipated. I looked back to make sure I hadn’t leveled any markers or tore up chunks of this revered sod. After wiping my brow and letting out sighs of relief, I bowed my head in a prayer of thanks and as I did so I glimpsed rope. Hanging rope strung from post to post walled in the section and excluded me from reaching my goal, the lower road.

I sat there in disbelief. Panic tried desperately to take over, but I thought about the brave interred souls surrounding me and I fought the feeling off. A sinking sensation made its way to my brain and I concluded it manifested itself because of my predicament. I was wrong. My chair, with me aboard, was slowly settling southward into the green, green grass of the most treasured resting place this country has to offer. You see water takes the course of least resistance and uphill won’t do. So there I sat at the bottom of, what now looked like Mount Everest, in a reservoir for the southeastern United States. I reckoned at the rate I was sinking, they would be playing Taps over an unknown civilian at sundown.

As people walked by staring - some even stopped to laugh - I quickly decided to retrace my path and head for the high road, which I was crazy to leave in the first place. Dubious about my chance for success, I began my uphill journey.

I set out on a wide zigzag climb between rows of markers and actually had pretty good control of my chair until mid-mountain. I felt as though I made Camp Three on Everest, but I needed the top. The power indicator on my chair let me know my batteries were getting low and I , once again beat down panic. Very slowly my chariot crawled upward. I’d go two yards up then one yard back as ole Mr. Gravity determinedly pulled at me. After inching up, what I now considered the green monster at Fenway Park and barely avoiding gravestones, I reached Camp Five. But the last five yards were the steepest and I planned a long-angled approach hoping to defeat the natural laws of physics. When I looked at the upper road, now so close, yet so far away, I thought I heard my chair groan. Undaunted we began the final climb. We made one, two, almost three yards when slowly the chair started its downward slide. I quickly tried to reverse direction and turned as acutely as possible to stop the downhill thrust. No dice -- Mr. Gravity emerged victorious. I jammed my joystick every way possible, but to no avail. With an embarrassed whack, my chariot and I came to a disrespectful stop against a grave marker. The name on the stone was Walker, which I found somewhat ironic. I tried the old trick of rocking back and forth like I use to do in the snow trying to dislodge a stuck auto. I couldn’t help crack a smile when memories of going parking in the upstate NY. Wintertime with my high school sweetheart often ended up in a similar situation. But all I accomplished was digging a rut into the plush green earth. What could I do? I knew Gal Friday must have thought I was kidnapped. She had often warned me about not carrying my cell phone in case of some dilemma like this. I thought I heard William Bendix utter, “What a revolting predicament this is.” (You have to be a senior citizen to remember the television show “The Life of Riley.”)

Shots from a nearby military funeral echoed through the pastoral hills. I prayed they weren’t leveled at me. After enough time to berate myself properly, I heard a voice call out, “Do you need some help?” I looked up on the road and five soldiers dressed in fatigues stared back. Many people of all races, creed, color and occupations had passed by, but who stopped to rescue me, the US Army. How much more symbolic could this be? This was like a Hollywood script. Here I sat, in trouble, needing to be rescued, surrounded by thousands of brave soldiers who gave their lives rescuing people in trouble. The poetic irony hit my heart with a thud and weenie jumped to the fore. Following a respectful pause, the five came down the hill, pushed me to the top of Mount Everest and carefully carried my chariot and me over the curb and gently placed us on the road. I felt like raising a flag like the Marines did on Mt. Sarabachi on Iwo Jima. I thanked them profusely. Before they started down the road, one soldier turned and said, “Hey, no problem, you were in trouble and we thought we could help.”

For a long time, I sat there looking over the neat rows of white markers on top of real heroes and I swear I heard wafting softly through the pristine hills of Arlington National Cemetery, “Hey, no problem, you were in trouble and we thought we could help.”

Knowing Gal Friday must be worried about my well-being, half of my brain screamed “Get moving, buddy”, but the other two thirds wouldn’t let this moment end. So I sat there for a few more minutes looking out over our Nation’s Capital and wondering how different this magnificent scene might be if not for these men and their comrades. I reflected on, not only the heroes buried here, but also those who never made it to these sacred grounds. I thought about my dad who served in the Navy during WWII and my brother Bob who served in the Army and was nearly killed when he took shrapnel in the back in Italy. My other brother, Bill, was a navigator/bombardier on a B-29 in the Pacific Theater. Stationed on Tinian, the same island the Enola Gay left for Hiroshima, he flew bombing runs over the islands and Japan. Yes, I sat there a few more minutes.

It had been nearly an hour since Gal Friday and I parted. Finally I sped down the road as fast as my chair would go. I’m sure my chariot was ecstatic about the downhill route; in fact I think I heard it smile. We connected with the lower road and began a much less steeper incline to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the expected wrath of one Gal Friday. As we passed the watershed area I previously was sinking into, I turned my head in the opposite direction. Who wants to be reminded of past mistakes, especially colossal blunders like I just pulled?

As I turned up yet another path, I found Gal Friday resting on a park bench. Trying not to notice the steam blasting out of her ears like an erupting volcano, I described my plight as quickly as possible in hopes she wouldn’t recognize my total stupidity. Somewhat placated, she joined me for the short walk (uphill) to the Tomb. We arrived just as the changing of the guards was being performed.

I mentioned before about my respect for these men. They are the elite, the crème de la crème of the 3d US Infantry (The Old Guard). Guarding the Tomb began in 1926, but the 3d Infantry became the sole group of sentinels in 1948. In 1920 during WWI, Great Britain honored their soldiers killed or missing in battle with a tomb in Westminster Abbey and we built and interred our first unknown soldier in 1921. You should read about that initial ceremony, it’s really something. There have been four burials - unknowns from WWI, WWII, Korean and Viet Nam. The Viet Nam soldier was later identified by DNA testing and exhumed. His body now rests in the cemetery.

The changing of the guard goes like this and I quote from an official website: “An impeccably uniformed relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard. Soon the new sentinel leaves the Quarters and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle to signal to the relief commander to start the ceremony. The relief commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the spectators and asks them to stand and stay silent during the ceremony.

The relief commander conducts a detailed white-glove inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once. Then, the relief commander and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the Tomb. All three salute the Unknowns who have been symbolically given the Medal of Honor. Then the relief commander orders the relieved sentinel, "Pass on your orders." The current sentinel commands, "Post and orders, remain as directed." The newly posted sentinel replies, "Orders acknowledged," and steps into position on the black mat. When the relief commander passes by, the new sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.

The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp "shoulder-arms" movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat. Twenty-one was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed -- the 21-gun salute.”

As we left the Tomb, I asked Gal Friday, who has nerve problems with her feet, if her dogs were hurting. I didn’t have to be in the National Honor Society to guess the answer since I saw her now limping. At that point I did the smartest thing I did all day; I asked her if she would like to ride with me back to the van. She sat on my lap. I don’t think my Chariot was too happy about taking on a second passenger but off we flew down the roads of Arlington National Cemetery. Because she appreciated the relief so much, she graciously forgave my earlier faux pas.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mr Smith - I mean Conte - goes to Washington

In June of last year my Gal Friday (and every other day of the week) strapped me to my red chariot, tied me down in the blue van and chauffeured me to DC.  I wrote an account of what transpired and a reader asked me to post it.  Because my telling of the story is so long, I'm breaking it up into three parts that I'll post in sequence on future days.  The first involves our personal tour of The White House.  The second will tell our tale of Arlington Cemetery and the third the Viet Nam Wall.  I hope you enjoy my recollections.

Part 1 - June, 2009
This was the night - the night of our personal tour of the White House. Great expectations abounded as we pulled out of our driveway at 1 p.m. for the 3-hour drive to Arlington, VA where we booked a room for the night. The tour was scheduled for 8:30 PM.  As part of my birthday “package,” Gal Friday had asked Pauline,  her friend since graduate school and a powerful force inside and outside the Beltway, to arrange the tour. Pauline had alerted her White House contact that my confinement to a wheelchair might require some accommodations. His reply was “Not to worry.”

Because of the killing of a Holocaust Museum guard by an 88-year-old Nazi sympathizer earlier that afternoon, Gal Friday and I arrived into DC grid-locked on New York Avenue. Since I used to have an office in DC, I knew how much time could be consumed with traffic tie-ups, but I kept reminding myself not to worry; we had plenty of time. Unfortunately my nerves stopped listening to my brain. The longer we sat there, my anxiety level kept building and I became sick of British Karen, our GPS girl, correcting directions or telling us to turn around. By the time we reached our “destination,” I thought British Karen had given us directions via London, England. In no uncertain terms, I gave her a piece of my mind, but apparently she wasn’t listening, because for the first time since hitting the city, she fell silent. Then again maybe she was listening and had no retort to my verbal diatribe.

After this dizzying excursion, we arrived at the motel. Gal Friday headed for the room to unpack, but I detoured to the bar to regain equilibrium. Pauline had planned on meeting us for dinner and drinks, but because we were late arriving and had to meet the guide at 8:30 p.m., we cancelled out. At 7:30, we again placed our faith in Karen (by this time I felt so familiar with our GPS gal, I could be a little more casual so I dropped her regal title} and took off for The White House (WH).

Our tour guide, Michael, a member of the WH staff and President Obama’s transition team but not an official tour guide, was slated to take a new position in the Dept. of Energy on June 22. Mike is a lawyer with great credentials and a young lion in the political jungle of Beltway politics. He had meetings in the WH a couple days a week and was familiar with the West Wing, which we toured. The East Wing includes the President’s residence, staterooms, bedrooms, etc. Mr. President obviously didn’t realize we were visiting or I’m sure he would have invited us to stay over. I packed a toothbrush just in case. Mike had suggested a parking garage two blocks from the WH and we pulled in forty minutes early. Now things really got interesting.

We were to meet Mike on a corner so he could escort us to the WH - a very gracious offer. After being extremely diligent about remembering to bring the exact corner site when we left the house, we weren’t as careful about bringing the same information from our motel room. Accordingly I rode in my power chair up and down G Street looking on each corner for a guy I’d never seen before. I spotted a very attractive girl on a corner. She happened to be with a man dressed in a suit, so I rode up to her…er, excuse me, them.  Before I could speak, the gentleman asked if I was Ed Conte.  Because I recognized the name I nodded “yes.” I figured this guy must be clairvoyant or something and asked him how he knew I was me. He smiled at me with the look a teacher gives to an idiot student who asks the dumbest question possible and explained I was the only guy he could see riding in a red power chair. To save face, I started looking around for Gal Friday who by now was standing next to me. Gal Friday tried her best to politely excuse my stupidity, but he wasn’t buying. Breaking an embarrassing silence, Mike introduced us to his very attractive (oh, I think I mentioned that before) fiancée, Anna-Lisa. Now you have to understand, Gal Friday can somehow get a complete stranger to tell her their life story in under three minutes.  Consequently, six minutes later we began our trek to The WH.

We arrived at the security checkpoint outside the southwest entrance and I began to sweat. I knew they did a background check and I could envision, not only barred entrance, but one of those obscene body searches we see in the movies and possible jail time followed by deportment to some small desert country in Africa. Gal Friday was quickly allowed to pass through, but when I wheeled up in my red chariot, time, as well as my breathing, stood still. The guard, who acted like an amiable old grade school first love to Gal Friday, suddenly morphed into a testosterone-sated, pissed off military sentinel guarding the gates to Hades. As he looked at my name on his clipboard, his smile turned upside down and deep furrows gouged his forehead. He looked at me and back to his clipboard four times. Each time it appeared his facial reaction became angrier and my imagination began conjuring up various torture devices awaiting my arrival. Images of Mr. Poe’s pendulum and Wong’s Chinese water rick, er, I mean trick, came to mind. Then for the first time, I noticed a lot more of these military types hovering around me. Why was the riot squad here? I became very happy I wore plastic diapers.

After what seemed two months, they checked my little pouch on the back of my chair and waved me through. I set my chair speed as high as possible and scurried away from the frightening guard gate - only to run into the second security checkpoint. The only difference between the two was the guards. These were bigger and meaner and made the first group look like little 5-year-old girls dressed in pink tutus breathlessly awaiting their dancing debut. Denying I had any affiliation with Rush Limbaugh, they allowed me entrance to the world’s most famous residence.

Mike reached for the door, but I asked him to wait. This was the moment of truth and I wanted to savor every second. Looking at the Presidential Seal above the door, my whole sensory system transformed from panic to wonder. My parents embodied patriotic spirit and I grew up assimilating their feelings for our nation. Now here I sat, ready to enter the most cherished and revered house in our country - the home of the President of the United States of America. Some may say I’m a minor league history buff and to a degree, they are correct. Let me say I have the utmost respect for our national history and the men who stood to the challenges and molded our country into this wonderful place for us to live freely and pursue our right to be independent. I have traveled around the world and seen the alternatives. I understand and deeply appreciate what we have. After a moment’s reflection, I nodded to Mike; he opened the door, and in we went.

A security station! A guard checked our passes and we started down a long hallway. My first impression - the ceilings were low. Reflecting on this, I remembered construction of this residential house started in the late 1700’s so, of course, the ceilings were low.

We passed yet another checkpoint and Mike showed us the FDR room directly across from the Oval Office. A large oil portrait of the famous man dominated the room which is used for various meetings. I have read a great deal about FDR and consider him one of our finest leaders. He served longer than any president - over12 years. His leadership of our nation through dire times was only matched by his personal courage.

While Mike pointed out the Situation Room, I took note of all the security guards. They were uniformed, carried side weapons and always-in alert mode. Times have changed in the WH from the old smiling, accommodating guards.

Next came the Cabinet Room. It sat adjacent to the Oval Office. A very impressive room with a long polished mahogany or cherry conference table fronting beautiful flags with wooden staffs secured in gold stands. The history of this room smacks you in the face. You can’t help but be daunted by the significance of what it represents. Decisions, which changed the course of world events, were made here. This room was American History 101.

Now the big enchilada - “the” room - the Oval Office. First of all, it is beige in color. The desk is backed by an expansive view of the south lawn and lighting above a lower tray ledge completely circling the room uplights the high-domed ceiling. Various chairs are situated around, but one conversation pit area has a sofa, coffee table and two chairs. The furniture was eclectic, but each piece of historical significance. Many of the oil paintings in this area as well as the hallways, depicted Native Americans. Some portraits of previous Presidents also graced the walls. I noticed a Remington bronze sculpture of a cowboy on horseback sat atop a sidewall credenza. This credenza sat adjacent to the infamous alcove of a side room where Monica lit up Bill’s cigar. I tried not to think about that.

We were told Michelle Obama selected the Indian motif. I felt proud of her. If the Cabinet Room smacked you in the face, the Oval Office knocked you on your butt like an uppercut from Ali. I found myself whispering like I was attending a funeral and soon realized it came from total respect of what the room connoted. I sat there staring at the most important room in the world, thinking of the men who once occupied this office and important events enacted here. Gal Friday asked me a question, but I was speechless. Yes, me speechless. I bowed my head thanking God and Pauline for this wonderful privilege. I stared at the American flag and the Presidential flag standing like two proud sentries behind the desk ready to ward off enemies, foreign or domestic. Emotion overcame me as tears welled up and I lowered my head to avoid questioning glances. Wow, what a place to display my “weenieism.” But sometimes a man, even a weenie, has to do what he has to do. Sitting there, my sense of pride for being an American flourished and in some significant way, my appreciation of the true meaning of being President of the United States of America clarified and took on a greater respect than ever.

We took a small, casket-sized elevator down one floor and still enthralled with what I witnessed and felt in the Oval Office, I remained in a dazed state and banged my chair against the beautiful wooden walls. The harder I tried freeing my chair, the more I seemed to wedge myself in. My brain screamed, “Oh, God, please don’t let me get stuck in the White House elevator. I’ll do anything. I’ll even tithe again.” I had to concentrate on piloting my chair and not damaging anything, or worse case scenario, killing someone. I figured I’d get a bill if I marred the elevator wall and I forced myself not to think about its cost. Would this involve the IRS? IRS!!! - Panic mode rushed in as icy tentacles started collapsing my chest cavity and my brain shot out a red alert. Let’s face it - even thinking about the IRS can easily cause all kind of cardiovascular conditions.

Willing myself back to some semblance of sanity, I wheeled out of the elevator and Mike escorted us to the Press Room. On TV, this area looks rather large. Surprise, I’ve seen bigger bathrooms. The rows of chairs, which are like seats in a cinema, are about seven or eight wide and maybe eight to ten deep. They are squashed into an area of approximately 40 by 60 and the front platform could fit into the back of my van. I noticed each front row seat was designated with nametags for the major news networks. Front row center was saved for Helen Thomas, a woman who has covered the WH beat for 22 centuries. The Presidential Seal is hung from a blue backdrop behind the podium. There is camera equipment covering each sidewall and another area behind this room is for correspondents’ use.

Mike then took us past another checkpoint and out to the Rose Garden. Being I can’t see very well in daylight, much less night, I’m unable to report on its beauty. However Gal Friday has stood in a reception line there to meet President Nixon and she can fill you in. I did note the brick ramp from the door down to the garden and recalled reading in a Roosevelt biography how they built it so FDR could be wheeled to this area. It was the first ramp constructed in DC. Those WH guys beat the ADA by 50 years. As Mike took a picture of us in front of the Rose Garden entrance, I felt a few drops of rain, but in my surreal state, didn’t consider their implications.

Back through the checkpoint, I dreaded dealing with the wheelchair-eating elevator. But this time I readied myself for the challenge and made the ride without incident. The time had flown by and we were in danger of not getting back to the parking garage before closing, so we left. Remember the sprinkles I mentioned while in the Rose Garden? They had turned into hurricane-force sheets of water coming not down at you, but at an angle dangerously close to 90 degrees. Even before I reached the first outside security gate, I stopped to slide a plastic sleeve our newspaper comes in over the electronic controls on my chair. I’ve learned the hard way. I also fastened my seatbelt on my chair. Yes, power chairs do have seat belts. Considering the strength of these winds, I didn’t want to end up atop Mr. Washington’s obelisk flagging planes into Reagan International. I could see the Washington Post headlines the next day - “Man Apes King Kong on Washington Monument.”

By the time I reached the first guard gate, I was soaked. By the time I rolled up to the second one, I seriously considered asking if they had oars for rent. Mike, being the kindly host that he was, inquired about umbrellas. The security guard looked at all three of us drenched souls and responded, “What’s the use now?” He made his point and it’s the only time I saw a security man smile.

We tucked our heads in and started for the garage. Mike took the lead and looked like a mother duck with little ducklings waddling behind. I followed Gal Friday, who looked like someone pushed her into the pool at a wet T-shirt contest. When we turned the corner at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB), a frigid Arctic blast hit us directly in the face. At that point I questioned my recall of American history. I remembered the site of the nation’s capitol was a victory for the South in Revolutionary negotiations, but now wondered if I missed the news story about the move to Nome, Alaska. If this was the South, I’m tall, dark and handsome.

We made the parking garage as it was closing. The attendant, who knew we were going to The WH, looked askew at us. I figured he was thinking we got into some kind of trouble and they hosed us down with high-powered water jet sprays trying to elicit information. He calmly, but firmly asked us to hurry our exit.
We dropped Mike off and as he slid out of the van, rivulets of water cascaded off his suit. I instinctively knew he was already plotting the wickedest revenge possible. Still the dignified and charming host, he thanked us for the ride. (This guy needs to work in the Diplomatic Corps.) We cancelled all future plans for the night, sloshed back to the motel to warm up and dry off. I flippantly say dry off and warm up. This was no easy task. After major league toweling, Gal Friday turned the heat to high, stood me under the heat lamp in the bathroom and defrosted me with her hair dryer. She then dismantled my chair (I never knew there were so many parts) and wiped it down. By the time she got to bed, I was dreaming about George Washington, in a driving rain, crossing the Delaware. But my rendition had him striking the famous pose painted by Emanuel Leutze not in the bow of a boat, but instead atop my van with everyone below bailing to beat the band. Then it turned into a nightmare because I couldn’t get the wipers to operate. Wow, what a night.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Medical Offices

Last week I had 9 medical related appointments. By Friday I noticed a common thread among most of the medical offices. Now one would think with all the baby boomer generation now senior citizens,  medical personnel would figure out many more patients will be hiking with walkers or riding in wheelchairs and offices should be configured to accommodate them.  Guess again folks. I'm not even asking for automatic doors like at Wally World or the grocery stores, but how about a handicap accessible front door that automatically opens when a wheelchair operator gives a button a push?  Not to be. In fact the front doors, which weigh about the same as  6-ton dump trucks, open into ante-room cubicles approximately 4 by 4. They're so small I have to put my foot pedals up on my faithful chariot to maneuver through another door to my favorite area, the waiting room.

The term waiting room is appropiate because wait is what I do and not usually for a short period.  Even slow readers often start and finish tomes in the waiting room.  I don't quite understand why the receptionists always warn you to be on time - the docs never are. A guy can't even chat with the the front desk girls anymore cause they're so busy and they sit behind sliding glass, which I suspect is bullet proof. (Probably an insurance requirement in case Abdu-bin Abdu busts through the doors with TNT strapped to his body. I think that qualifies for cherry pink alert.)  And why are these rooms so small, especially if you're at a multi-doctor practice?

Finally my name is called and I start down a hall to see my wonderful PCP or specialist, whose ex-wives' alimony I'm probably paying. The places are like  mazes with narrow hallways and tiny offices. I think they were built for tests on big white mice. Even though I carry a reputation for adeptness at driving my power chair, I know I scrape a few walls and dent some doorways. 
 Next I sit in a real close imitation of a nun's cell, as I wait still longer. My Gal Friday normally bathes and shaves me bedore medical appointments, but by the time I actually lay eyes on a doctor, my face simulates 3 days' growth. After what seems like half my projected life span, the cold gets to me and I usually start shivering. The room temperatures qualify for hanging Angus beef. By the time the doc arrives they have to thaw me out with an old Bunsen burner someone finds in the storage room.

Since I've moved around trying to stay low and keep one step ahead of the law, I've had many family doctors...oops, I mean PCPs. I feel sorry for these guys. They shouldn't need to waste so much money on 4-year educations,  3 years of medical school and residency when needed. They shouldn't be required to have medical board certification anymore, just a general contractor's license. All these guys do is sub you out. You got a tummy ache - you are sent to the tummy ache specialist. If you suffer a bunion, off you limp to the bunion specialist. Got a wart on your derriere-well, let's not go there.

The clincher is this--after 8 previous appointments last week, when I arrived in the last waiting room, to kill time I watched a program on the T and V about how bad our American medical system actually is. Some celebrated doctor was telling the audience the cost per patient to receive medical services in our country doubled the cost of any other of the top 5 civilized nations. He followed that tidy bit of info with explaining that life expectancy in the good ole US of A was the lowest of the 5 countries.

Hmm, sure made me feel warm and fuzzy all over.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Arm Support

My arms and hands don't function too well anymore and my Gal Friday (and every other day of the week) finally became sick of seeing me struggle with eating, brushing my teeth, etc.  When I try feeding my face, there is more flak in the air than a WWII bombing run over Berlin.  Cleaning up after my futile efforts consumed more time than meal preparation.  Consequently she did her favorite thing-searched the Internet for a proper solution.  After looking at all kinds of contraptions, we settled on an arm support mechanism to be installed on my power chair.

After 4 months of filling out medical forms and enduring shipments with missing parts, the completed arm support kit arrived via a smiling technician from a local rehab equipment company.  He wasn't smiling when he left.  I discovered this was his first attempt at installing this particular contrivance.  The bewildered guy read the instructions and immediately recognized they didn't apply to my particular power chair.  Trying to figure out a way to adapt this equipment, he fell back on good ole Yankee ingenuity and attached the mounting bracket to the back of my chair. (Note: The back of a chair is no longer called the back of a chair;  it is now referred to as the reverse side of a back support system.  Why do we rename things to the point of not being sure of what the hell we're describing?  I'm no longer disabled; I'm physically challenged.  My problem is I'm mentally challenged too.)

Okay, so this guy adds the 2 flexible steel arms and the metal arm support sleeve and we're ready for lift off.  This gadget looks like either a welded modern art sculpture or a discarded piece from some old International Harvester farm equipment.  Still undaunted, I'm bubbly with enthusiasm.  I shall now eat like a human being...not like an animal lapping away at morsels of yesterday's fare. I insert my arm and give it a go and voila, guess what?  This thing is super...if I want to feed my ear or pluck my eyebrow.  Not to worry though cause the next day I'm taking it to occupational therapy and I have complete confidence my OT girl will resolve everything.

Twice a week Gal Friday drags me to a dark, foreboding place which is the hospital's therapy clinic.  I refer to it as the Palace of Pain (POP).  I undergo two sessions each time.  I've beaten the system though - I take OT first where my therapist I call the Mistress of Darkness (MOD) does her best to inflict as much pain as my body will bear and  then I ride over to physical therapy (PT) where they massage me enough to bring my aching muscles back to their normal range.  So I figure it's a wash.  But still I have nightmares of MOD.  I see her dressed in black leather boots, pants, bra and mask brandishing a whip...wait a second...that's somebody else's dream, not my nightmare.  Whatever the medium, I know she loves to administer pain.

Did you ever feel sorry for your worst enemy?  There comes a time when something so bad besets your foe, your anger and fear directed toward your opponent melts to caring sympathy.  Seeing MOD doing her utmost to derive a logical grasp of my brand new arm support system was something to witness.  She battled with this thing for an hour trying to make it serve its function, but to no avail.  I have to admit; it brought tears to my eyes...tears of laughter.  Finally it was payback time.  Life is good.

Oh, oh, Gal Friday just read this and insisted I tell the truth about MOD.  I try to never let the truth interfere with a good story, but if you read my post about Gal Friday, you know what she does to me when I screw up.  So here's the truth - MOD is terrific.  I've had many OTs through the years and they don't compare to this one.  MOD is a caring therapist who knows her stuff.  She truly listens to her clients and sets reasonable goals from what they tell her.  She follows through until those goals are attained and in many cases exceeded. Unbelievably, she is able to do this while making you laugh.  Now folks, making someone laugh while forcing them to tolerate pain is amazing.  I always feel better leaving her office than when I first entered.  Quite some trick, I'd say.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Gal Friday

Most of us are familiar with the term gal Friday.  According to various sources I referenced,  it seems the best overall description is a female who is an efficient and faithful assistant.  My gal Friday is definitely much more than that, but we won't go there.  Benay is my gal Friday and every other day of the week.  She is also the driving force behind just about everything I do.  Being bound to a wheelchair, regardless how powerful or multi-gadgeted, is no picnic and it's easy to become depressed or at least unmotivated.  My gal Friday refuses to allow me to become lethargic concerning mental activities or complacent about my physical condition.  However, my gal Friday has a drug problem.  Last week she "drug" me to occupational therapy; she "drug" me to physical therapy; she "drug" me to a Grand Prix equestrian event as well as to about 50 restaurants.  I'm not saying we eat out too much, but I'm getting offers to become a food critic.

With the exception of my two fantastic daughters, my gal Friday is my biggest fan.  Now this can be a good or bad thing.  The good part is pretty obvious, but the opposite is not so evident to the unknowing onlooker.  Believing I can accomplish amazing feats, my gal Friday urges my involvement in things in which I have no reason to become involved.  Many times the reasons are characteristics I'm lacking in like talent, bravery, knowledge and brains, but onward and upward she pushes.  I have to admit, because of her overrated confidence in me and her persistence, I have achieved a few things I didn't think possible, but not doing her bidding is not a pleasant thing to witness.  You see if I don't comply with her wishes, she buckles me to my power chair, ties it to the back of my ramp van and drives around the neighborhood honking the horn.  This actually isn't so bad because the neighborhood speed limit is only 20 mph.  The only time I get nervous is when my chair swings into the oncoming lane.  The speed bumps are a little hard to take too.  However, when I really screw up, she leaves the neighborhood and drives onto a main road at about 65 mph.  That's when things get a little dicey.  Bugs in my teeth are my least problem.

My gal Friday insisted I take up writing.  Now you can understand why my rigid digits hit the keyboard with a vengeance.  I soon learned more than I ever wanted to know about the publishing business.  Good writing is still the top priority to becoming a published author, but good luck ranks a close second.  Literary agents won't touch any genre they don't have an editor interested in.  Selling an editor is how they make a living.  It's pure luck to catch an agent who's looking for your type manuscript at the particular time you plead your case and if so, he has hundreds to choose from.  Scared not to, I hunt and peck on.  Who knows with my gal Friday's not so delicate prompting, maybe someday I'll find that agent.  I figure I've got about the same odds as hitting the lottery.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Maddie

Attitude is everything. My six-year-old granddaughter was born prematurely and remained in neo-natal intensive care for many months struggling for survival. Because of cerebral palsy, Maddie still suffers through operations, therapy and other battles of the disabled. The daily rigors of her world consume so much time and energy, I'm always amazed how well she copes. This beautiful little girl is smart; she thinks I'm crazy.


Considering all she has been through and all she faces, this child maintains a sense of humor second to none and we have tons of fun teasing each other. One day after telling her a totally inane story, she accused me of being silly. Pretending to be shocked at her observation, I said I certainly was not, but she was the silly one. After a contemplative pause, she replied, "No grandpa, I'm not silly. but I always have a smile in my mind."


What the world could learn from this six-year-old girl.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Why I'm Blogging

You may wonder why I chose the name “Rigid Digits” for this blog. In my recent article in the Fall 2010  Quest, an international quarterly of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, I mentioned the difficulty I encountered typing my first novel with fingers that don’t bend. Many times my extended rigid digits hit the keys above those intended and the result is gibberish. Unfortunately even when I manage to land on the correct keys, much of my writing is still gibberish. The astute and very capable magazine editor, Miriam Davidson, originally entitled the article “Rigid Digits and Other Difficulties of Writing with MD” so I’m using this very accurate description as my moniker.

For the last two years I’ve been writing suspense thrillers. I’ve completed two and am half way through the third. The first, which is edited by Benay, my very capable gal Friday and every other day of the week, and survived the savage scrutiny of my panel of readers, is Blue Chariot. The second, entitled Mistake, is completed but yet to be edited. I know what you’re thinking; however, it is NOT a critique of Blue Chariot, but instead, another suspense thriller. The third, which I'm calling The Governor's Wife, is a work in progress.

Since so many people have shown interest in my writing, I initiated this blog. A New York agent asked for a partial of  the Blue Chariot manuscript, but it’s been so long waiting for a response to the material, I figure he's counting daisies from the wrong side of the turf. I sure can pick 'em.

As they say in Holland, adios…er, or is that South Africa? Antarctica? Japan? Boy, this is going to be tougher than I thought.