I was born October 15, 1953. I was due to be born mid-January 1954, but more about that later. Being born three months premature created some problems. Perhaps the biggest problem of being born early was that I almost wasn't. A few years ago, an episode of Dateline NBC claimed that babies that were born three or more months premature during the early fifties had about a twenty percent survival rate. The fact that I weighed two pounds eleven ounces didn't help. I was told that I was small enough to fit into a shoe box, which explains my unnatural fear of shoe boxes to this day.
Having survived the odds of a premature birth, I now had to survive the prevailing medical knowledge of the day. In the early fifties, it was believed that premature babies needed to be in an environment of enriched oxygen during their first months. It was determined that I should be placed in an incubator with an elevated oxygen level for six months. That treatment came to an abrupt end when my mother came in and saw that, as a result, the glass in the incubator had frosted over. Mother's intuition overruled medical advice. It was later determined that dozens of premature babies had suffered optic nerve damage as a result of this treatment. Once again, I had beaten the odds. But luck has a strange way of running out and the next of life's challenges would follow me for the rest of mine.
I was a happy-go-lucky baby for about a year. But about the time it was determined that I should be able to take my first steps, I couldn't. My premature birth had left me with a condition known as Cerebral Palsy. The doctors told my parents that I could crawl, be carried or pushed in a wheelchair, but I would never walk.
An optimist sees the glass half full of water and a pessimist sees the glass half empty. A realist sees the glass, liquid and unlimited possibilities. I have had an incredible journey over the past fifty years. Many people have expressed their feelings of how unfortunate it must have been to have never walked or run. I can see their point, but I can't agree with them. I have acquired an insight and philosophy of life that I don't think I would have had if I had been physically normal. Still, there are times when I wonder what my life might have been like if I had waited out the clock another ninety days.
I entered this world on a Thursday. According to the old Mother Goose nursery rhyme, “Thursday's child has far to go." Another ninety days would have been January 11, 1954, a Monday. That same nursery rhyme states that, “Monday's child is fair of face.” Okay, in this case both descriptions are true. I also know that I would have been born under the astrological sign of Capricorn instead of Libra. I've read that people born under the sign of Capricorn are practical, prudent, ambitious, disciplined, patient, careful, humorous, and reserved. On the other hand, those born under the sign of Libra are diplomatic, urbane, romantic, charming, easy-going, sociable, idealistic and peaceable. I can state without the slightest sense of bias that I am the latter four of the Capricorn traits, but I'm all of the Libra traits. Although this is not a scientific study, I'm pretty satisfied with the traits that I drew. Chalk one up for the early bird.
This brings up an interesting point. Many of us like to believe that our behaviors, likes and dislikes and perhaps our entire lives are preordained. Religious teachings tell us that there is a plan for each of us. Whatever your belief, I believe that each moment in our lives defines every subsequent moment in our lives.
When it was determined that I wouldn't be able walk, my life was, for the most part, relegated to a wheelchair. The wheelchair really wasn't all that bad on a daily basis. I lived in a middle-class suburban community that, despite the fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act was years away from being enacted, was pretty much handicapped accessible. Most buildings were no more than two stories with most stores and building entrances at street level. Life was good. I had a lot of friends who made sure that I was a part of most of the moments that make growing up so enjoyable. I couldn't run or jump, but since I had never been able to, I really didn't know what I was missing. While my friends played baseball, I played mascot. Maybe it was my personality, the fact that I wasn't angry or maybe it was just that it was a different time, but I was always accepted by the other children. As I said, life was good and I was happy until one incident that would change my life forever.
I was in junior high school when I wanted to take a speed-reading course. The course was being given in an office building not far from my home. It was raining pretty heavily as we arrived at the building. That was not a problem, but the fact that the class was being given on the second floor and there was no elevator was a very big problem. The course rules had stated that you couldn't miss any of the first three lessons. It would have been too physically demanding to ask my folks to carry me and the wheelchair up the flight of stairs. For the first time in my life, I would not be able to do something that I wanted to do because I was handicapped. My tears rivaled the rain on the windshield as we headed home. It was then that I decided that I would never again be put in the position of not being able to do something because of my disability.
From that moment on I did everything I could to get out of the wheelchair. The long-legged braces, a superstructure of steel with leather belts and pads that I had only worn occasionally became a permanent fixture. The braces locked my legs rigidly straight for hours at a time. My father was a resourceful man who had an answer for just about any problem. In an attempt to lessen the pain of muscles stretched beyond their limits, he removed our dining room table and replaced it with a pool table. I often reminisce on my misspent youth spent shooting pool but the truth was that while I was lining up a shot I would forget about the pain of the braces and that, the doctors said, would go a long way toward correcting the condition that my premature birth had created.
When I reflect back to those days, I'm reminded of a passage from the novel “You Can’t Go Home Again." by Thomas Wolfe. George Webber is looking out his apartment window at a drunken beggar on horseback. He compares the beggar with the trials and tribulations of his own life saying, "It mattered not that the beggar was drunk and reeling. What was important was that he was mounted on his horse and, however unsteadily, was going somewhere." In essence, we are all drunken beggars on horseback looking for ways to survive and move forward through the trials and tribulations of our own lives. Although the braces did little to strengthen my legs, they did strengthen my endurance and my resolve that I could still overcome my handicap.
My disability has also taught me invaluable lessons about people. Spending most of my first two decades in a wheelchair meant always being in need of assistance. I became colorblind at an early age because a helping hand of any color or creed could not be ignored. I became an observer of life, which was something that would help me later on as a reporter and interviewer. More importantly, I learned that we all have disabilities. My disability is out there for all to see and for me to accept and deal with. But there are so many disabilities that are unseen and much more devastating. Prejudice, ignorance and pettiness create more limitations than my physical disability ever will.
After graduation from the University Arizona I was offered a job if I chose to stay in Tucson. I had bigger plans as I set out for Los Angeles. It was one of those defining moments that brought me to where I am today. I could write a book about what happened between then and now and someday I might do just that and become a rich, successful author. There's an old saying that no one becomes a writer to become rich and I can tell you that having personally tested that theory, it seems to be true. But any success that I find as an author will never equal the success that I have already found in my life.
Success, it turns out, has nothing to do with big bank accounts or fancy cars. I've known powerful people who couldn't control their own lives and I've known rich and famous people who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on psychiatrists trying to determine why they're not happy. Being happy appears to be the Holy Grail that we are all so desperately searching for but never seem to find.
From a wheelchair to crutches, I have moved through life at a slow, steady pace while most of humanity ran past me. To those people who remarked how unfortunate it was that I was never able to walk or run, I answer that I've always considered myself fortunate because I was forced to slow down and savor the moment. When nondisabled people attempt to slow down, they are looked upon as experiencing a lack of ambition or drive. They are seen as having derailed off the fast-track to success. I have found the success that they're looking for so desperately. I am happy and, believe it or not, I owe it all to those ninety days.