A PERSONAL MT. EVEREST by Walt Schulz The imagery of that day keeps playing over and over in my head like an endless video loop even though it happened almost 20 years ago, however, before I get into it there is a background to this story because everything seems to have some background noise. At the time, I was recovering from vertebra surgery wearing a stiff, plastic neck brace that tortured my neck and lower jaw. Even in pain dulled by drugs I knew I was very, very fortunate to even be riding in a truck that afternoon. A few years before, I had fallen head-first on to concrete from some sixteen-foot high staging we had around the sailboat we were building at the time. I was rushed to the emergency room but the serious damage I had sustained to a couple of vertebra in my neck went almost entirely unnoticed. It was only years later when my right hand and part of my arm shut down that I finally went to an orthopaedic doctor. After the results of the CAT scans and spinal taps came back, a very somber looking doctor told me that he was amazed that I was alive, let alone walking around. Apparently, the passageway in my vertebra was badly damaged, squeezing the nerves that ran down to my hand. He recommended immediate surgery and went on to tell me that the surgery was very tricky and could lead to total paralysis of my entire lower body if not successful. As an incentive to overcome my fear of the surgery he told me that, if I didn’t go through with the procedure, I would have to be prepared that even a slight jar or trip over a curb could lead to total paralysis. I didn’t bother to tell him about a 60 knot offshore storm with eight to ten foot seas I had been in the month before that threw me all over a 39-foot sailboat causing bruises all over my body because I was sure he wouldn’t believe it. Not too long afterwards, I had the neck operation and everything went better than expected. But, if I didn’t say I was truly terrified that I would end up in a wheelchair it would be a gross falsehood. So, that’s the background of my state of mind sitting in the passenger seat of a pickup truck wearing a ridged neck brace 24/7 waiting for a traffic light to change in Quincy, Massachusetts almost two decades ago. I was up there looking at a 45-foot powerboat interior that a customer wanted some features to be incorporated into their new boat. As I looked through the windshield I could see a person coming down the hill on the opposite of the street in a motorized black wheelchair. Naturally based on my recent experience I offered up one of those “thank God that could’ve been me” silent prayers. I watched the person in the wheelchair wait for someone to exit the side door of a fast food restaurant in order to enter. “How about a fast burger? I’m starving here,” my stalwart young driver said, looking longingly at the fast food place. It was well past noon and we had been going since 7 am without a break so I answered affirmatively. “Sure. It’s about an hour and half back to Bristol and I don’t want to sit in this truck for an extra minute. By the way, the next time we do something like this let’s take something that has rubber tires instead of wood wheels. This neck brace is killing me bouncing around in this miserable thing.” “We needed to carry the 10 foot ladder to get upon the boat. Else we could have taken your car,” he replied as we turned into the restaurant parking lot. The inside of the place had the typical fast food layout. I quickly noticed that the person in the wheelchair was right in front of me on the line to the counter. I only got a quick glance but he appeared to be a young man in his twenties. As we moved forward I noticed he was controlling the electric powered wheelchair with his left hand on a joystick device. He was doing a great job of steering through the cattle maze little fences they put in these places to make the line look shorter. When he finally reached the young woman cashier and order taker she immediately turned and took a soda cup out of the rack and placed it on the counter. Then I saw him reach into a fabric pouch that was attached to the side of the wheelchair next to the joystick. With some difficulty he slowly pulled out two one dollar bills and place them on the counter. She took the money and coins came rolling down the silver chute next to the cash register. Using only his left hand he reached up took the cup and recovered his change. At this point I realized that not one word had been exchanged between these two people. He spun his silent wheelchair and moved toward the end of the counter. The inside of the place had the typical fast food layout. I quickly noticed that the person in the wheelchair was right in front of me on the line to the counter. I only got a quick glance at the person who appeared to be a young man in his twenties. As we moved forward I noticed he was controlling the electric powered wheelchair with his left hand on a joystick device. He was doing a great job of steering through the cattle maze little fences they put in these places to make the line look shorter. When he finally reached the young woman cashier and order taker she immediately turned and took a soda cup out of the rack and placed it on the counter. Then I saw him reach into a fabric pouch that was attached to the side of the wheelchair next to the joystick. With some difficulty he slowly pulled out two one dollar bills and place them on the counter. She took the money and coins came rolling down the silver chute next to the cash register. Using only his left hand he reached up took the cup and recovered his change. At this point I realized that not one word had been exchanged between these two people. He spun his silent wheelchair and moved toward the end of the counter. Maybe it’s my grouchy looking face or maybe because I was staring at the previous transaction too intently because the young girl behind the counter felt obligated to say: “He comes in everyday about the same time and only orders a small Pepsi…never any food.” I shrugged, smiled and gave her our order. My change also came down the register chute. Instinctively, I also reached for the coins with my left hand because just two months earlier I couldn’t hold a cup of coffee in my numb, nerved damaged right hand, let alone pick up coins out of the tray. I turned and moved down the counter to wait for our order. The young man in the wheelchair was at the end of the counter in front of one of those soda machines that have multiple choice flavor nozzles. I could see that the height and placement of the machine made it difficult to operate from a wheelchair. Being a concerned citizen, especially since I now had two hands working, I walked over to him and said: “Hi, do you want some help with this thing?” He looked up at me with gentle eyes and shook his head side to side. I could see that his right hand was curled up into a ball and forced against his chest. He was older than I had thought originally, maybe in his mid-thirties or older. I stepped back and tried not to stare as he struggled with pushing the cup against the lever to fill it. Finally, he succeeded and moved over to a table with his Pepsi riding in a holder on the chair. At this point I was curious for some unknown reason about this young man in the wheelchair. I positioned our table so I could continuing watching him without being obvious. He sat there looking around at the people taking an occasional sip out of a straw. Perhaps I just wanted to see it, but I think I could make out a faint smile on his face. Then it hit me. It was his moment, his triumph, his successful assault of his own personal Mt. Everest. He could go into a restaurant order whatever he pleased and sit at the same level off the floor as everyone else. Most of all he could do this without any help just like other people in the place. He was no longer defined by a disability or a wheelchair, he was just a customer. I was transfixed as I watched him finish his drink, go over to the trash container and leave from the side door and go back up the hill. I just sat there in awe of his achievement. About five years later, I was aboard a Shannon 35-foot Shoalsailer at the Annapolis Boat Show. A man in his mid-sixties came into the cockpit and asked to talk to me since I was the designer of the boat. He wanted to know if there was some way I could modify the design to accommodate a person in a wheelchair. He told me that he had been sailing for over forty years with his wife and it was the happiest times of their lives together. Unfortunately, his wife had been stricken with MS a few years before which ended their sailing and they sold their boat. He went on to tell me they had been on our Web site watching our videos and his wife was in love with the Shoalsailer design. She desperately missed sailing and was holding out hope for a solution. While the concept was definitely feasible, it did require a massive overhaul of a design and new molds and tooling, and I was embroiled in far too many things to give it my full attention and it ultimately fizzled. Looking back on it now, it’s quite clear to me that the project was incredibly valuable but I just never gave it the hope it deserved. It has taken me far too long to respond to that young man in the restaurant, the woman in South Carolina and so many others in similar situations I have seen over the years. Finally the time is now- there are no more excuses. The Shannon River Marine Heritage Foundation is the vehicle that will enable us to provide an exciting, outdoor boating experience with sun, wind and maybe even a little gentle rain for those that are mostly trapped indoors between roofs and walls on crutches and in wheelchairs. Then too, there are those loving care givers who also deserve a pleasurable outdoor experience. Finally, we can repay those young men and women who in the service of their country paid a very high price and have received so little in proportional gratitude for their sacrifices. Let us help others to find and scale their own personal Mt. Everest at sea. Walt Schulz

 

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