Life, Death and the Decisions in Between

Part One — Paul Bunyan Land, The World’s Largest Buffalo and Me

The riot, uprising, rebellion — whatever you want to call it, was over, 50 years ago this weekend. Except it wasn’t. The National Guard was still patrolling the city, my grandparents had fled the home on the near West side to live with us, temporarily, until things cooled off. My dad was not happy. My grandmother wasn’t, either. More on that later.

When you are a child, you like to play. I was no different. Except I was different. I had Cerebral Palsy, or to be precise Spastic Diplegia, which affects my legs more than my arms or upper body. When I was born, my mother expected me to be stillborn because I was born so early. But I didn’t die. I almost did die a couple of times before I had my first birthday, but didn’t. Whenever I hear the term “miracle baby,” on the news, I say, where were you guys in 1958–59?

I am the oldest of three. My sister, Lynn, is 18 months younger than me and my brother Chris, is four years younger. My brother and I shared a bunk bed in that little house in Redford. When I got outside, I would be put into a red wagon and the neighbors would ride me around the street. My best friend growing up was a kid named Jimmy Recker, who grew up across the street from my grandparents house in Detroit. Later on, he took to calling my old Everest & Jennings wheelchair “The Ratmobile.” He would push me around and proclaim, “Nothing can stop The Ratmobile!!!”

There was another kid that I grew up with as well. Dana Stevens. The youngest of three daughters of a pharmacist, and a stay-at-home mother, she was born with a much more severe form of Cerebral Palsy than me. Very nice girl, but you struggled to understand her. I did, though. Those of us who have CP aren’t stupid, dumb or retarded. I was thought of as all three until I was about five. We met at the CP Center in the early 1960’s in downtown Detroit.

Her mother, Evelyn, was a very domineering woman. In all the years I knew her I never saw her laugh or compliment anyone. She befriended my mother and dad, but she never liked me. Later on in life I called her “Evelyn,” and she just about tore my head of.

Maybe a year, or two before 1967, Dana started attending the Crippled Children’s School in Jamestown, North Dakota. It opened in 1941 as Good Samaritan Hospital where children with all afflictions could convalesce. Early on, they hired a teacher named Anne Carlsen, an extraordinary woman, who taught the long-care patients. By the early 1950’s, it had become the Crippled Children’s School, replete with dormitories and classrooms.

Ann Carlsen was born in 1914 in Wisconsin. She was born with no legs and only stubs for arms. She was strong willed and determined to make a better life for herself. She attended school and went to the University of Minnesota to receive her Doctorate in Education. In 1941, she was the first teacher hired at the new school. Later, she became principal and by 1952, administrator, a post she held until her retirement in the early 1980’s. She met every President up until Clinton. She knew every Governor of North Dakota from 1940 until the day she died in 2002 at the age of 88.

Dr. Anne Carlsen, circa 1960.

Jamestown is a town of about 15,000 people. It’s not much to look at, but it is the county seat of Stutsman County and home to the World’s Largest Buffalo. Want to see it:

Pretty large, I’d say.

The Long Ride

From Detroit, Michigan, to Jamestown, North Dakota is 1,023 miles. By car. On September 1, 1967, I left my little house in Redford, with my parents. I had no idea why I was going or even where I was going. All I knew is that I was going to a “special” school. I cried. A lot. I remember my grandmother yelling at my dad, “you’re taking him away from me!!!”

My whole world changed that day. Nothing would ever be the same after that. Nothing.

I thought I had done something wrong. It was a feeling that I was being abandoned. That my parents didn’t love me or couldn’t take care of me. Or they just didn’t want me, that I was too much of a burden. Fifty years on, it still lingers.

It was probably the last time, unbeknownst to me, that my mom and dad did anything together. Along the way, somewhere in central Minnesota, we stopped at a place called “Paul Bunyan Land” (don’t ask me why). You enter the place and this big booming voice said “Hi, Kent, welcome to Paul Bunyan Land.” I looked around a my dad finally pointed out this tall statue of Paul and his blue ox, Babe. We stayed for about 10 minutes and left. My awakening awaited.

That night, we stopped for dinner and someone asked me where I was going. To school in North Dakota, “because my dad is too cheap to fly out there.” Forty years later, I laughed. But then, it was the truth.

We arrived in Jamestown that Sunday. I was to start school on that Tuesday. Went to see a movie that night. Monday, we entered the school for the first time. It was Labor Day, but students were arriving and I was a newbie. I met Dr. Carlsen and we spent about an hour in her office. I was amazed at what she was able to do. Which was basically everything. She had the most beautiful signature I have ever seen. In cursive, as well. Her Secretary would lay out pens in front of her desk and she would pick up the pen with her mouth and pinch the stubs of her arms together and sign her name. Amazing woman.

Part Two: Crying, Falling and Getting Up.

The next day, I started school. I probably spent the night in my dorm. Vi, once of my dorm supervisors, was just starting there as well. She was a kind woman and told my mother not to worry, she would look after me. She tried.

I think every day, I cried. My teacher, for the first three-and-a-half years, Miss Austin, was a mean woman. Right up until I left the school for good seven years later, she barely held her contempt for me. She held me back a year just to spite me. She would make me stay after school for no other reason than to punish me. She took away my toys and took my mail. The day before I left, she told me I had lice in my hair, which was a lie, just to humiliate me (or attempt to) one last time and shave my head. She also handed me a bagful of toys and mail that she had taken or kept from me over the years, some dating back to 1967. As I said, mean woman.

That first Christmas, I flew home. It was the old “mail route” that started in Jamestown and then Fargo, Minneapolis, Chicago and then Detroit. I recall one year we got jammed up at O’Hare on a night flight and didn’t land until 6 am. You haven’t lived until you’ve been carried off a plane with wheelchairs being flung all over the place in sub-zero weather. Might as well of been Siberia.

Which is what it felt like to me that first year. I felt like I was in a prison. A thousand miles from home and nine years old. One time I was in the bathroom and fell transferring in my full leg braces. I tried to get up and couldn’t. I started yelling for help. None came. I tried several times. I finally was able to get back on the toilet and into my chair.

My full-length braces, late summer 1968.

In June of ’68, I came home. Except my dad wasn’t there. Sometime in between Christmas and summer, my parents got divorced. So, we flew home and then I went to camp. It was at camp that summer when I had an unexpected mishap.

Camp Grace Bentley is a camp for disabled kids on Lake Huron. For 25 of those years, a man named James Tatlock ran the camp. Back in the early 60’s, with the baby boom in full bloom, every cabin would be filled to the gills. I remember having to eat in shifts at meals when I first started going there. It wasn’t uncommon to have 90–100 campers there each two-week session. That summer, at 9, I was still a part of “junior group” so I would do stuff like put together puzzles and make birdhouses. But in the afternoon, on a hot day, I would go swimming, even though all I would do most of the time was sit on the shore unless there was an inner-tube available.

So, one particularly hot day I went down to the lake and, in my too-big-for-me wheelchair, my locks failed and the chair rolled backwards off the pier and I had a splash down into the rocky waters of Lake Huron. My camp counselor pulled me out. I tried telling people the pier wasn’t level, but no one would listen to me. I think the pier is still uneven and when I went back there a few years ago, I was told that only counselors go in the lake, the campers go in a pool. I just laughed.

Part Three: Death and Becoming Aware (and an improbable comeback).

When I came home from Camp, my grandmother was not feeling well. By this time, my grandparents had moved into the small house on MacArthur full time. My mother brought a car and got a job in Garden City. But grandma was sick. She had cancer. She went to the hospital and came home. A couple of times. The last memory I have of her was at grandpa’s camper. She looked gaunt and weak. But I didn’t know at the time that less than a month later, she would die. On my brother’s sixth birthday. I had, of course, returned to North Dakota by then for year two of seven in purgatory. Which I hated, but in the end, made me the independent, strong-willed person who never gives up the fight that I’ve become.

Three weeks after my grandmother’s death, a miracle happened. Fifteen months earlier, Detroit had been witness to its downfall. Now, the city’s pride and joy, the Tigers, pulled off a miraculous comeback against St. Louis in the World Series. Down three games to one, and facing the indomitable Bob Gibson in Game 7, the Tigers won the World Series. It was a four-days-early 10th birthday president for me and the fact the whole school was rooting for the Cardinals, (something to do with a guy named Maris being from North Dakota) I was a happy boy. It was one of the few times in my seven-year stint out there that I was happy.

Tigers win!!!

Epilogue: The Tigers winning the Series didn’t save the city. Twelfth Street (now Rosa Parks Blvd.) never recovered. Barry Gordy took Motown to Los Angeles a few years later. Mayor Cavanaugh left office in disgrace and divorce. He drank himself to death in 1978. Detroit elected Coleman Young in 1973 and he stayed in office for 20 years, becoming not only the longest tenured mayor in Detroit’s 316-year history, but the longest tenured African-American mayor in American history. Between 1960 and 2010, the city lost two-thirds of its population. A trend which seems unlikely to reverse itself anytime soon.

12th (Rosa Parks) and Clairmount

Dedicated to my grandmother, Marion Franks, 1910–1968.

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