I have lived 57 years on this little globe (as of July
2007) and I have experienced the best and the worst of life. When I
was three years old I became very sick and for a short time I was completely
paralyzed, was diagnosed with
and I spent about six months at St. Luke's Hospital
in Duluth Minnesota. By the time I got out the paralysis had left but from
then on certain of my muscles and bones didn't develop completely. For the
next seven years I would travel just about every month to Gillette State
Hospital in Phalen Park Minnesota, (a St. Paul suburb) to see Dr. Babb.
Originally called "Minnesota State Hospital for Indigent, Crippled and Deformed
Children" and founded in 1897 it again changed its name to "Gillette
Children's Specialty Healthcare" in 1996.
I guess if you are going to know me you must know about this big chapter of my life. In my youth I wore a brace on my right leg and a three inch build up on my right shoe. I was never treated like one of the other kids because of this. I did have some friends who didn't seem to care or notice but generally I was an outcast. I was called "the gimp", "hop-a-long", "cripple" and all the other cruel names that kids can use and I had a very low self worth.
This is the first time that I have ever written this down and even now it is very very hard to write and I have tears flowing down both sides of my face. How do you tell these kinds of things to someone?
Have you seen "Forest Gump"? I hated that movie though everyone else in the world seems to have loved it. One of the reasons I disliked it was because of the opening. It portrayed a child getting on a school bus with other kids. He had a brace on his leg and was obviously different than the other kids and the contempt they had for him quickly came to the surface. I lived the beginning of that movie. I could hardly watch it because it brought out in me everything of my childhood that I had tried so very hard to forget.
During those early years My Dad would occasionally take me down but most often a couple of us kids would travel alone, or with our mothers, in a police or county car. The police would ferry us down to the hospital for our checkups. One thing memorable about those trips was that we usually stopped half way down, in Hinkley Minnesota at a restaurant called "Tobie's" where they had the best donuts one could imagine and they served hot beef sandwiches. Even now as I am remembering this I can still taste the mashed potatoes, bread, beef smothered with gravy. An incredible treat for a child.
I remember another occasion a few years ago that
affected me greatly. I was reading the Sunday comics when I caught "The
Family Circus". Children and a coach were picking sides for a softball
games. Little Jeffy was standing there, the last to be picked, no one
wanted him on their team. I don't even remember what the punch line was
but that was me standing there. When a child I was never wanted as part of
any team. When sides were picked I was always left standing there while they
argued over who had to take me. When I saw that cartoon floods of feelings
rushed over me. I hurt the hurt of my youth. I cried out to God to let me
forget that hurt. But I know that I can never forget it, nor do I really
want to. That hurt is part of what made me what I am now. It was the
beginnings of my passionate defense of the underdog. My reason for caring
about the poor. The first stirring motion of the compassion and empathy
that have served me so well in life.
When I was ten years old the surgeries started. My right leg was three inches shorter than my left and the doctors decided to try an experimental surgery on me. They put sixteen huge staples into the growth centers of the bones in my left knee. My left leg was my "good" leg and these staples stopped the growth of that leg for two years while my right leg caught up to it in length. (check them out here) Right now I am almost five foot ten inches and if that hadn't been done I would now be nearly six foot one inch tall. When I sit down I still appear as a six footer and I like to tell people that I am much "taller than I really am". They never quite understand and look at me like I am not quite with the program but I have to chuckle to myself because though sounding impossible it is really true. I feel that I am an six footer and I dare anyone to convince me that I am only five foot nine something...
That surgery went quite well but I was in a leg cast for almost two years. From ten to twelve years old I couldn't do much. I was in the hospital for almost six months when they did the surgery and about three months when they took the pins out. A few months after their removal I was back in for another surgery. My right foot had no control at all as there were no muscles going to it so it is what we called a "drop & flop". They had atrophied from the polio so the doctors took some bone out of my upper leg and blocked the bones in my ankle in place. They also inserted pins to keep the foot from flopping from side to side. I was supposed to be in the hospital for only three months but because of a wheelchair race in the hall of the hospital, that ended in a wild wheelstand with a flip as a finale, I ended up in traction for six additional months. A few months after I was release from the hospital I fell and broke that ankle while running on crutches and being ahead of a "normal" child. I loved to race them as I was faster on crutches than almost anyone running. But I ended up back in the hospital for several more months.
I spent a cumulative six years of my life at Gillette State Hospital for Crippled Children. Even the name of the hospital proclaimed that I was a "cripple". It was very very hard living there while my family went on vacations without me. While school went on without me. While my friends went on without me. The hospital was in St Paul, one hundred fifty miles away from home and my family was poor and really couldn't afford to come and see me often. Dad and my uncle Joe owned a service station called "Frenchy's" so it was hard for him to get away. Times when I was gone for six or nine months I would have maybe one visitor a month. It was hard to lay in a hospital bed, in a ward with thirty other kids who had visitors when you had no one there. I prayed that anyone would come see me. My Grandfather used to come once in a while and I think that was the most important visitor I ever had. He was my mothers father. I don't remember every getting even one visitor from my father's side of the family and considering there were ten aunts and uncles and lots of kids on that side it always amazed me that no one cared enough to come see me. I felt that I was a "cast off" human being.
The hospital became my "home" and the staff became my "family". I have always had a hard time relating to my real family but for much of my youth my home and family were at Gillette where I learned to read, learned to sew, crochet, knit, weave, paint and so many other things. When I say "I learned to read", I mean that I learned to be reading something every waking moment when there was nothing else that required my immediate attention and even to this day I read constantly.
I had my last surgery when I was eighteen years old as that is when the state cuts you free. I remember my exit interview with the doctor. He told me that I would have to go out into society but I wouldn't be able to do the things that others will be doing. He mentioned specifically dancing, skiing, waterskiing and other things. He gave me a litany of things that I should never try to do along with a new brace that was to be the last state-supplied one. When he was done telling me all the things that I shouldn't do I handed the brace to him. He took it but then said, "this is for you." I told him, "no, you seem to need it much more than I do." I didn't take it when he offered it back to me and I've never worn a brace since that day. I learned to ski, water ski, rode and raced motorcycles, snowmobiles and cars. I've been able to do as much or more than any of the "normal" people that I have known. I even did a ten day "solo" canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. Traveled almost 50 miles by canoe over hard portages and heavy waves alone and didn't see another human being in the time I was there. I think I have lived a life that holds up to scorn the notion that a handicapped person is any less of a person.
The hurt of my youth was always there though, and is still today. But one day in my life made much of it worthwhile...
When I was twenty two years old I went to work for a trucking company in Minneapolis owned by a forty year old paraplegic named Fred Wines. He was (and probably still is, although I lost track of him long ago) an incredible man who drove a Maserati and boats that were faster than even the fastest cars. All with hand controls. The trucking company, Advance United Expressways, owned a boat racing team also and we held the world's record for seven litre hydroplanes at 157mph on a closed course and were very competitive. Because of our racing we were involved in the Aquatennial in Minneapolis. The Aquatennial is the largest civic festival in the country with over 250 events scattered over two weeks in the summer. Everything from canoe races to triathlons, sand castle building contests to marathons, two of the ten largest parades in the U.S. and one of the premier boat races. In 1972, in conjunction with the hydroplane races at Lake Calhoun our company sponsored a "Crippled Children's Picnic" with children from local hospitals. It was a disaster. Children wondered off, one child almost drowned and the liability issue reared its ugly head. Fred Wines decided to cancel this event for the next year.
When I heard about his decision I went to him and told him that he "couldn't NOT do this." I told him that when I was growing up in the hospital the best times I ever had were when people came and did something for us. I related the time the archery club had come and rolled us outside to shoot bows. And when Dan Blocker, Loren Green, Derwood Kirby, Gary Moore, and Carol Burnett had made their visits it was the high point of a bleak miserable existence. I told him how important this is to the children and they really needed events like this.
He listened then told me that he would only do it under one condition. I said, "what is that" and he told me that he would only do it if I "would head it up." I stammered and told him that I had never been involved in anything like that and I wouldn't know where to start. But he insisted so I said I would do it. Well, I got the Powder Puff Clown Club, the Police Water Rescue and Canine divisions and the Fire department involved. When I was done there was no way that anything could go wrong as I had over one adult for each child. It was a great success and I believe that to this day it is still a part of the Aquatennial. Officials of the Aquatennial took notice and for the next year they made the event an official event and asked if I'd take over another event they had been having trouble with. I then rose up through the ranks within the Aquatennial until ten years later I headed up all sports and lakes events. I had over 800 volunteers working for me and I got to travel the Midwest with the queens and princesses representing Minneapolis at other festivals.
My old home, Gillette, was always invited to the picnic and one year, I believe 1978, they didn't show up on time. I used to stop by the picnic each year even after I had moved up and was no longer handling it. When they finally showed they were in the rattiest pickup trucks you had ever seen. They had broken down along the freeway and had to fix the truck on the spot and had five kids piled in the cab of each truck and the wheelchairs and beds piled in the back. They told me that they had been trying to buy a handicapped equipped bus, which at that time cost about $13,000, but they had come up seven thousand dollars short. I knew that they had a real need for that bus.
On the following Monday I went into Fred's office and asked him if there was anything we could do to help them. He told me that all of our donations were already doled out and there was nothing that could be done. A few hours later the comptroller of the company came up to me and gave me an envelope. I asked what it was but he only told me to "take it into Fred". When I went into Fred's office he told me to open it. There was a check for seven thousand dollars, enough to pay off the bus.... As tears rolled down my face he told me to take it over to the hospital and give it to them myself. The next day I went to my old home and presented the check to the hospital administrator who happened to be the same one who was there when I was in the hospital. I had come home and I had come to help. All of a sudden I knew that the suffering I had gone through was worth it. It had made me, me.
Why I'm a "Mopar Man".
I remember as a kid Dad brought home a brochure for the 1960 Plymouths and I stared and stared at that cross ram manifold. He ended up buying a used '57 Chevy, and didn't buy a Plymouth till '65 and then it was a slant-six Belvedere. Finally got my first Mopar in 1970, a '69 Super Bee, but I always wanted a cross-ram and I think I've been a "MoPar guy" ever since that day in 1960 when I saw my first "real" engine.
Copyright © 1980-2012, Sheldon T. Aubut, all rights reserved
revised October 03, 2012