Communication Studies at Edmonds Community College
"He's Here!" he said, meaning to sound like "Here's Johnny!" But it didn't work - again. If only people would listen!
Franklin introduced him around.
"This is my friend, William."
Then came the inevitable "So, you guys knew each other in Viet Nam?" meant to encourage him to tell the story of how he became disabled - as if that story defined him. He longed for someone to ask him what courses he was taking or what he was training for. When people didn't ask him about the present or future, he felt as if they didn't think he had any right to a present or a future. Only his past - and what others saw as the terrible results of the past - was important enough to talk about.
William served one tour of duty in Viet Nam - in and around Da Nang. By his third week there, they still hadn't seen any combat, so he got careless and stopped wearing his helmet. One night, on patrol on the outskirts of the city, their truck hit a mine. With no helmet to guard him, he flew out of the vehicle and landed on his head. TBI - they called it in the hospital. Traumatic Brain Injury.
He didn't much care what they called it. He just cared what it did. It got him out of the Army, and put him in a walker and made him sound like some sideshow freak. His talking bothered him more than his walking. He was used to stares when he stumbled. But he hated the way people looked away when he started to speak. He tried to keep his voice steady, but he couldn't control anything, especially his pronunciation. Before Vietnam, he could handle most any problem with humor.
His sense of humor was one of the few things he had left of his old self. He wanted to be able to put people at ease - to teach them that his disability was only one part of him - and the least interesting part! But people took one look at his legs or one listen to his speech and looked away. No one every asked about his travels around the world, about his hobby photographing nature's landscapes, or about his wicked sense of humor. Instead, people would look away when they saw his legs or he started to speak. They would look panicked and uncomfortable when they couldn't understand his words. The rhythm of the words was all off. And even if they took the time and energy to listen to what he was saying, they wouldn't respond to his jokes.
I'm sure glad you worked on your voice." Franklin would say sarcastically. "Yah, my voice is just lyrical now. Anyone with a tape recorder with automatic playback can understand me - after the third or fourth playback."
In his kinder moments, he thought people didn't want to embarrass him or themselves so they decided to give no response rather than the wrong one. In his more bitter moments he thought that people didn't think it was appropriate for someone with a disability to make light of it by joking around. Once, a counselor even told him he was "in denial" if he felt comfortable joking about such a serious problem.
Franklin was his best friend on campus. Franklin was Black, but that didn't seem to matter in the bars where they hung out most Friday nights. It was a "vets" bar and William was well accepted there. The first night he brought Franklin along was a bit tense. But, as time went on, the other vets accepted him because he was William's friend.
Several years back, at the urging of yet another VA counselor, William had gotten together with several of his Army buddies, some able-bodied, some not. Some of those who were "able-bodied" had their own problems. He saw lots of different lifestyles - lots of different choices. He met guys he remembered from his tour in Vietnam. These had been guys who had had trouble finishing night marches when they were whole; but after losing their legs they started competing in wheelchair marathons. He met guys who had gone to Viet Nam as 18-year-olds, hungry for women and freedom, who came back trapped in a body that would never know either women or freedom. Some of those guys hired female nurse after female nurse to "look after" them, - and feed their lust. Some guys did unreasonably daring feats - hang gliding and mountain climbing - just for a taste of freedom. Many were dead - various kinds of suicide.
Those were ways that William didn't want to end up. He was just a regular guy who wanted whatever regular guys wanted - friends, laughter, and a sense of belonging. He wasn't out to prove anything - except that he was a man - a hu-man. William came away from that meeting knowing that his sense of humor was going to be his saving grace. So when he couldn't use it - when people didn't respond to it - he kept it inside his head. It kept him from going crazy. His humor was his outlet for the craziness that he felt sometimes surrounded him.
Knowing Franklin helped, too. He saw William as just a person. Franklin listened to him, and didn't go away when he started speaking. Franklin even caught his humor and laughed at it. He understood the irony of so many of William's situations. Like being required to take a public speaking class when he couldn't form words correctly, or being asked to write about "his experience" as if the only thing that defined him as a person was being thrown out of a truck in Viet Nam. The worse part - even worse than having people withdraw from him - was being talked about when he was right there. Bartenders would ask Franklin if William could drink. Then William would say to Franklin: Do you think I should? It might slur my speech." William liked the discomfort this caused, but he knew he wouldn't be welcomed back to that place.
William didn't want to embarrass people. He just wanted people to relate to him. He wanted them to listen. He had lots to tell them. He liked being with people. He enjoyed the give-and-take of conversation. But first people had to listen. And they had to appreciate him for what he could give them.