This is the story of a secret organization; a street gang made up almost entirely of people with non-functioning legs. It is the story of the founder and leader of that little society of chair-bound hell-raisers, a man who met and overcame what is probably the ultimate challenge to personal mobility, loss of legs.
The rest of the gang came from all walks of life: computer specialists, writers, researchers, mathematicians. But they thought of themselves as activists; they were determined to show that you didn’t need legs to make great strides.
One guy was a stunt truck driver in an auto show. He used to jump over three busses in an eighteen wheeler. Big rig, full of chrome and glory, going off a ramp at one hundred and ten miles an hour. He had to do wind-up laps around the track to get up to speed. The trick was to stop before you hit the wall on the other side of the convention center. Sometimes he’d roll her over a couple of times just to slow her down quickly. He’d throw the steering wheel around to the right and spin it back to the left and if he hit the levitator ramps just right, he’d flip the great big rumbling drum of a trailer. He’d send it tumbling and rolling in an explosion of dust from the arena, like a thousand kettle drums in a heavy hailstorm. He’d let the crowd stand there with its mouth open for several seconds after everything was finally still again. Then he’d hit the button on the dashboard that blew out the windshield and out he’d pop through the opening in his little high-powered wheelchair, rolling down the hood onto the ground, spinning his wheels, doing a little victory lap,and finally, with a wave, rolling out the back door.
He was part of the gang alright; he drove the get-away truck. It was an ordinary looking truck and trailer rig, except that, eventually, it changed color everyday, sometimes more than once. It carried extensive files of registrations and local city stickers from all over the country. It carried one hundred and seventy license plates, representing all fifty states with heavy concentration on certain states.
Why such an elaborate disguise? Street gangs show their disenchantment with society in various ways. This particular gang began spray painting the handicap parking symbol on every other parking space in town. They’d just go around, wherever they damn well felt like it and sprayed the symbol all over the place. No parking lot was safe: malls, streets, stadium lots, airports, private residences . . . they were thorough. Before long they went national.
Why did they carry on this way? They were very angry. Wouldn’t it bother you not to have access to the real world? To be stuck in a wheelchair at the foot of an escalator or trapped in a subway or barricaded away from a public building? After a while, you might start to feel angry, don’t you think?
My friend, Milo, started the gang. One afternoon he was rolling to a stop at the top of an escalator, searching for the hardware department and the speaker above his head was playing an old Cat Stevens song, “I’m Being Followed By a Moon Shadow”. It had just reached the line, “if I ever lose my legs . . . I won’t have to walk no more!” As he watched the Legged Ones getting sucked under ground by the falling and rising staircases, he suddenly roared a loud voice, “You’re right about that, you know! You won’t have to walk no more all right! But you’ll still have to move!”
He said a few other things, too. And I really think the store over-reacted. Anyway, things deteriorated quickly and the police came and . . . rolled him away. I think it was then that he began to burn with purpose and invention.
He designed and built some amazing chairs. Originally, he had wanted no part of motorized chairs. But shortly after his run in with the escalator he gave up trying to propel himself with his arms and turned his attention to improving the motorchair. Within six months he had a chair that could go from zero to twenty-five miles an hour in three seconds. Of course, there was still no way to go down the escalator.
That afternoon, he had quickly seen how embarrassing all his yelling was to the Legged Ones. He discovered a truth; he enjoyed their discomfort. His yelling and stylized fierceness was breaking out of him like a wave of bitter pent up emotion, a feeling of great relief washing through him, carrying with it scars and the debris of healing so that he felt healthier somehow. Disorderly, sure! But healthier. Of course he still couldn’t walk, but so what? What did that really have to do with how healthy he was?
He decided to start a street gang. There were many people like Milo. These were people who had run into one too many curbs, one too many sections of broken concrete, one too many museum entrances up twenty or thirty worn marble steps. They were tired of waiting around to be noticed, they decided to draw a little attention to themselves. This was a gang with a common bond. They agreed that their greatest common linking characteristic was emotional distortion from suppressed outrage at being excluded from every day life here in America. They were pretty steamed.And so these respectable citizens, these responsible individuals, male and female, began to invade and vandalize parking lots.
Just before sunrise, the truck driver would drive in slowly and around in back of a row of stores like he was looking for a loading dock. He’d have a sheaf of papers in his left hand hanging out the open driver’s side window and he’d be puzzling over the address on this paperwork. He’d go all around the mall, staring at his invoices and pausing twice around back out of sight of the guards so that the trailer could disgorge a dozen or so
motorized wheelchairs with stencils and powerful airbrushes. After about five minutes of nothing unusual, except for a continuous hissing sound and the growing smell of paint, the truck would give up and drive away.
After the Rollers (as they called themselves) had stenciled handicap parking symbols on a week’s worth of shopping malls, in different states, often separated by considerable distance, something like a nationwide network of security companies kicked in almost automatically and soon security alerts were taking place and memoranda and little notes all began to flow around and people began to keep their eyes peeled and things got more difficult. In fact, it got to be pretty risky.
I was a witness to one of these raids. It took place on a Sunday afternoon; I was tipped off and sat waiting in my car.
The operation began very suddenly, abruptly, out in the parking lot of the mall. An eighteen wheeler entered the lot, but instead of slowing down as it approaches the core building, it accelerated and skidded sideways, slamming to a stop in front of the main entrance to the mall. But before it had come to a complete stop, just as it was
beginning to slow down, doors pop open on the trailer, the two sides and in back, and steel ramps came sliding out to grate, rasp, and rattle like slithery silver tongues with steely bell-like tones. And down the ramps come about twelve powerful wheelchairs, very fast. The chairs are equipped with a kind of an air brush on a crane, and a sheet metal template of the handicap parking symbol. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It seemed like everything was happening at high speed, like in a speeded-up film
Later I figured that they’d each sprayed about thirty parking spaces in a little over two minutes, so they averaged about one space every four seconds. Then, boom, they were out of there. The big rig took off like a jack rabbit.
People started getting used to seeing that handicap parking symbol every time they turned around. And of course, the trick became to become more and more audacious and bold in choice of targets. Then, suddenly . . . the raids stopped. What had happened?
Milo had begun to take a class in creative dreaming a month or so before. Lucid dreaming was the goal; control over the events of your dreams. These sessions trained the participants in the ability to effect what happened to them in their dreams. Not dream control, really, more like dream management. For example, you could be trained to remove yourself from frightening dream situations by channeling the flow of the events of the dream away from danger. This was exceptionally beneficial, it seemed, for people getting over bad experiences.
Milo was the most skeptical student the instructor had ever met. But, much to his amazement, Milo found that it worked. And he immediately sought to regain what he had lost. He could walk in his dreams. He could do it again. He remembered exactly what it felt like, and it felt like this. The first couple of time he woke up crying.
Milo made great strides in dream management. He began to indulge some fantasies, have some real leg-based fun. Before very long, he was dream-singing “Now I am the ruler of the queen’s navee!” complete with meaningful striding up and down far downstage where the crowd could see the sweat flying off his highly expressive
eyebrows, as he belted out his proud story.
He dreamed he was in the desert and it seemed to hum with vitality. He climbed a great desert column of stone a hundred feet up, and as he stood there, the wind come up suddenly behind him and he was blown off the top. He just spread his wings and flew. Just glided around on some thermals and came in for a landing some time later. Then he dreamed he made some dream wings so he could take off from the ground and sail off and plane around like a real bird.
So when Milo woke up, he began to design a new machine, one that would combine the James Bond style jet-pack with the hang glider.
“What I really need,” said Milo, “Is some way of hovering long enough to operate the airbrush before opening the hang glider and gliding to safety. The jet-pack, powered by a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide is usually only good for about seventy seconds. If I am too high up when the fuel is spent, I may not survive the landing. Its got to be some kind of folding frame version of a hang glider, which allows the arms to play a part, to hold the frame of the wings rigid.”
That was the last time I saw him; he was rolling away humming to himself. That was about six months ago. But, now here’s this incident at Mount Rushmore and another at the Washington Monument.
I guess he’s back.
© Ken Raabe