I celebrate myself, and sing myself.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
I exist as I am, that is enough.
— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Tim Gilmer has a thing for the poetry of Walt Whitman, and for Christian scripture. He became spinal cord injured in 1965 when a plane his friend was flying crashed; his friend did not survive. Afterward, he spent years dazed, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol to deal with so much loss. Yet in the fullness of time, he reemerged and went about the business of crafting a life.
He married his wife, Sam, whom he loves with all his heart. They were organic farmers in Oregon and for a while had a U-pick tomato field frequented, for some reason, by an awful lot of Russian immigrants. Those organic tomatoes were also featured on a national TV show, PBS’ Chefs A ‘Field because they were that good.
But you probably already know this, as Tim opened his life to all in his monthly “Bully Pulpits.” In the column, he raged at those who discriminate against us — especially medical professionals who think they know best but ought to know better — and mourned the early deaths of so many of us and shared what he learned about longevity and SCI. He’s learned a lot. Heart disease, amputation, pressure wounds and flap surgeries are all part-and-parcel of his own SCI story, and he has been generously vulnerable with the answers he’s unearthed.
Following are three columns that capture some of the depth and breadth of Tim’s “Bully Pulpit” canon.
Peelio and Oochie’s Getaway • June 2001
Remember Oochie? She’s slim, 25, with wavy red hair flowing down below her waist. Mood-sensitive eyes — hazel when smiling, dark when angry. She’s agile, a good dancer, wears tight-fitting bellbottoms, eats fried potato sandwiches and listens to Joni Mitchell (did you guess it’s 1974?). Peelio’s 29, a little thick around the waist, a passionate but flawed lover, likes to wear worn-out blue denim shirts and take his knobby-tired chair into the woods. He eats anything that comes within reach and listens to jazz and regional accents.
Peelio and Oochie’s relationship is built around escape. Oochie has escaped a bad marriage and Peelio has escaped death, but that’s another story. Now they spend time together escaping Bakersfield. At night they escape into music and ice cream. When people stare at them, they do their best to escape stereotypical assumptions.
One day, hearts set on escape, they drive north in Peelio’s ’69 Chevy Malibu, snaking up the Kern River Canyon, flanked by whitewater and granite walls. They stop for lunch at a secluded restaurant overlooking the river. The waitress smiles as if to say, “How special — the young man in the wheelchair has found a lovely companion.” Peelio, attuned to such condescension, stifles an impulse to run over her toe.
They continue driving with no destination in mind. Peelio turns west and they start climbing. Patches of snow appear on the roadside. Soon they have reached the snow-covered summit of Greenhorn Mountain. They start down the other side — snow patches dwindling — and Peelio remembers the cabin that friends of his parents own. Yes — the perfect getaway. No one will be there this time of year.
He turns into the red-earth drive and parks next to the cabin.
“You sure this is a good idea?” asks Oochie, eyes darkening.
“No problem,” says Peelio. “The Three Bears won’t mind. There’s a key hanging above the woodpile next to the window.”
Oochie helps Peelio in his wheelchair up the steps into the musty cabin. In the sleeping porch a huge pine grows through the floor and out through the roof. Peelio starts a fire in the old woodstove.
The old phonograph cabinet stocked with vintage 78s is still there — Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra with his young crooner’s voice. For the next few hours the old music takes them far away, far from Watergate, the tired tale of Vietnam, the energy crisis, discrimination. Nothing matters but pine aroma, crackling fire and timeless lover’s music. For a moment, asleep in each other’s arms on a blanket in front of the woodstove, Peelio and Oochie disappear.
“Oh my,” says Peelio, waking. “Time to go.” Oochie blinks, her eyes the color of bright acorns.
Back in Peelio’s Malibu, retracing their path through the canyon, they approach the secluded restaurant again. “Dinner?” asks Peelio.
They sit at the same table. The same waitress comes to take their order, smiling the same smile, the one that bothered Peelio earlier. But something has changed.
The waitress waits, still smiling. What seemed like condescension now seems generous. Oochie beams from across the table. Their journey to a timeless getaway has tweaked Peelio’s heart. “How special,” he thinks. “The young man in the wheelchair has found a lovely companion.”
The Shadow • October 2007
During the first few minutes of nearly every conversation I have with a new nondisabled acquaintance, the question invariably surfaces: “So, what do you do … I mean, do you work?” Implicit in the question is our ever-present nemesis, The Shadow: What kind of job could he have, being confined to a wheelchair? Not only is he wheelchair-bound, he may even be a shut-in.
Confined, bound, shut-in. These words, like shadows cast across our lives, obscure the truth of who we are. Even a figure as well-known as John Callahan must tolerate them. On a Dutch website describing a recent documentary about Callahan, the translation came across this way: “Callahan, a quadriplegic chained to a wheelchair …”
The assumption that disability has the power to imprison us knows no boundaries. But disability’s power to diminish our lives is nothing compared to these entrenched stereotypes themselves. For myself, I decided to attack the persistent mindset long ago.
“I’m a professional tightrope walker,” I used to tell questioners with a straight face. “And you?”
Back then, my pat answer was absurd and mildly amusing, but today I couldn’t get away with it. You can bet that right now someone somewhere is rigging up a wheelchair that will balance and roll on taut cables.
These days, when I tell someone I’m an editor, I see feigned interest: “Oh, really, exactly what do you do?” When I try to explain, I see they don’t quite get it. They need an easy image. So I change the topic: “I also own and operate a small organic vegetable farm.” Then comes a barrage of pre-packaged questions:
“What do you grow? How many acres? Do you actually sell what you grow? How do you, well, get around?”
So I’m back to square one, stalked by The Shadow again: “How can a wheelchair-bound person actually farm?”
Once I establish that I ride an all-terrain vehicle and have tractors outfitted with hand controls and toss in a few hints on how to get rid of harmful bugs without chemical poisons, I take another run at explaining what New Mobility is all about: “The magazine I edit is about active lifestyle wheelchair users. It’s based in Pennsylvania, but I work from my home office in Oregon on my computer. I’m connected with other editorial staff members and freelancers all over the nation — even in Mexico, Canada and other nations.”
Somehow it takes breaking through the farm’s physical barriers before they are able to envision the virtual world of the magazine. When they finally tune in, the stereotype busting kicks in to high gear. “You wouldn’t believe the amazing things that active wheelchair users are doing these days,” I say. “Did you know that some quadriplegics can scuba dive or fly airplanes? Other wheelchair users are practicing law, teaching, running their own businesses, farming, working for nonprofit organizations, doing sit-down comedy. One of our freelancers rode an all-terrain handcycle to the bottom of the Grand Canyon lying prone. We ran a story from a woman wheelchair user who celebrated her 60th birthday by skydiving for the first time.”
Now they are listening. Still, buried in the polite nods and the incredulous stares, I see the image of The Shadow reviving: “But how can they jump out of the plane while they’re chained to their wheelchairs?”
Day of Rebirth • August 2017
This month’s cover story is about the out-of-the-box practice of commemorating the onset of paralysis — 10 stories of readers who celebrate the day that changed their lives forever. It has helped me appreciate, once again, the power that our individual stories hold.
But soon after I finished writing the stories, I realized my own date, July 11, was upon me, and I had no plan for celebrating the 52nd anniversary of my plane crash.
In my early post-injury days, I would party, even if alone, a kind of private rebirth day, feeling fortunate to be alive. Later I would invite friends, who were always happy to have an excuse to celebrate anything. In time, the celebrations became a symbolic ritual involving launching and crashing various flying objects — paper airplanes; rubber-band propelled models; larger, more aerodynamic hand-thrown replicas.
This year, due to a time crunch, it would have to be paper airplanes again. At the last moment I invited my daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons to join my wife and me on the deck for guacamole and chips, margaritas, and barbecued burgers. But first I had some deck repairs to do.
My faithful worker-friend, José — who comes each growing season from Mexico to our farm in Oregon to live and help — 28 years and counting — assisted me with the deck repair. When we were half done, I explained to José in my best Spanish that we needed to hurry to finish for the celebration. He looked up, puzzled. “Today’s the day of my accident,” I said. He looked blank. “I’ve told you, right? About the plane crash in California? My friend, the pilot, died?”
“Noooh,” he said. “California? I thought you were in a war.”
Twenty-eight years and I had never told him. Out of respect for employer-employee personal space, he had never asked. So for the first time I told the full story in a foreign language. José listened, rapt, his eyes large. When I reached the part where the pilot, my friend Jim, dies in the plane wreckage, I detached, looked away and stared at a rough spot in the deck.
We completed the repairs and the party began.
The grandboys played in the yard with their dad while I sat with my wife and daughter, now 30, on the deck. My daughter asked if there was an article about my plane crash. “Article?” I said. “Haven’t I … have I ever told you the full story of that day?”
“Not with any details, just that you crashed,” she said.
I had told the full story countless times, but never to my own daughter. So I began the detailed, unadulterated version in English. This time, when I got to the part where I heard Jim take his last breath, I stopped, hearing it again, as if for the first time. Then came real tears. Fifty-two years and the emotion still surprises me.
Later, amid laughter, my wife broke out the rocket-copters she had secretly bought for the occasion. We took turns launching them, especially the boys, watching as they catapulted into the sky, then floated safely to the grass.