Category: Wheelchair + Tennis = Life

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #10 The War Zone

Like Brian and Alan, I came face to face with violence, the violence of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I felt like I was in a war zone, and the other patients in the ICU were my fellow combatants. Although we had different injuries resulting from combat, we were fighting the same enemy: death. As my pacemaker, the dopamine drip, the steroids, the antibiotics, the feeding tube, the ventilator, the cooling bed, and the medical staff kept me alive, I listened as nurses and doctors visited the other wounded soldiers.

Sometime after I was admitted, another soldier came in, a young man who had been in a motorcycle accident. When the nurses happened to angle me just right on my bed, I could see into his room on occasion—my eyesight had returned by then. He was smashed up pretty badly with an apparent head injury, his head almost completely taped up. Like me, he was “tubed up.” I could overhear that he had tubes in his chest to drain blood and fluid from his lungs. Sometimes he would yell out something incomprehensible. I wasn’t sure he even knew he was doing it.

I began to root for him. Whenever I came to, I hoped that I could see him or, if I couldn’t, at least hear staff attending to him. “Stay alive!” I shouted at him from inside myself. I quickly realized that I needed him to make it because if he could do it, I could, too. We could survive the brutal war zone together. “We can do it! Just hang on! Stay with me!”

But one afternoon, I saw nurses and doctors rushing in and out of his room.

No.

It seemed like just moments later his family flooded into his room.

No, no!

They closed the door.

“Fight, goddammit!”

Then he coded.

The shrieks and wails of shock and loss pierced every corner of the ward.

“You fuck, you sorry-ass fuck, why couldn’t you hold on?? Why??”

At that moment, I felt so alone.

And so frightened that I wouldn’t make it out of the war zone.

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #9 Alan Klaus and the “16-trap”

13620001_10154295122579919_5607232858839636359_nIn my previous post, I introduced you to Brian McMillan and the motorcycle accident that left him a paraplegic. That traumatic event triggered a trajectory in his life narrative that would land him in a wheelchair tennis tournament in Kansas City.

Brian’s life narrative can’t exist in isolation. Think about it. His life narrative is a “story.”  Stories happen and are given meaning via inter-connected spaces filled with the narratives of other people. Put another way, you, as a human being, are given meaning by others. So we need other people and spaces to give meaning to Brian, the human being with a life narrative. That’s where Alan Klaus comes in. Here’s the continuation of chapter three of my book:

As Brian was making his way through life and eventually falling in love with motorcycles, one Alan Klaus was on his life’s journey, which took a turn early in his life with the “16-trap.”

Alan’s Narrative

Alan was born in Beatrice (BeAtrice) Nebraska, a town 12,000 people. His dad delivered bread, and his mom was a medical transcriptionist. An all-around athlete, Alan played football, basketball, baseball, and tennis. In high school, his two major sports were the glory sports for a small town: football and basketball. The Orangemen of Beatrice Senior High had a loyal fan base, for football as many as 2000 people at every game. Life was good in the heartland for the young athlete.

Then came a pivotal moment in Alan’s life, only he didn’t know it at the time. It happened in the homecoming football game in his senior year, a Friday night duel in October, 1966. Earlier in the day, the homecoming parade proudly processed through downtown Beatrice, complete with floats and convertibles holding the homecoming king and queen candidates. Alan, the team’s quarterback, was among them.

It was a great night for an epic David v. Goliath football matchup. The sky was clear, and the night air calm and warm. The Orangemen, one of the smallest Class A schools in the state, were set to battle it out with Lincoln’s Northeast High, one of the state’s largest Class A schools and perennial state champions, holding the state’s No. 1 spot that year. Both schools were loaded with talent. But Lincoln’s team was anchored by Wally Winter, an offensive/defensive linesman who would go on to be an All American at Nebraska University. He was a beast.

In the first half of the game, Northeast predictably went up by two touchdowns. With only minutes left in the first half, the Orangemen pushed their way down the field. The fans roared, giving Alan and his team a much needed adrenalin rush. To take advantage of the momentum, Alan’s coach sent in a play called the “16-trap,” which called for Alan to fake a hand-off to the half-back on his left side, then pivot to the right and run behind his pulling guard. But guess who was waiting for Alan. The beast. Slam! Crunch! Thud. Silence. . . After his teammates dug Alan out of ground, he managed to take his team forward and score a touchdown. But the Orangemen ultimately succumbed 35-14 to the barbarians from Lincoln.

Alan’s back was killing him after the game. The following Monday he could barely walk. It was time to see the doctors. An x-ray showed a crack in his tailbone, and a back specialist diagnosed Alan with spondylolisthesis, a complication of the vertebra. The docs told him he would need surgery if he wanted to play football again. He went for it, and the surgeon chipped some bone from Alan’s hip and grafted it onto the cracked tailbone, which left Alan in a body cast until the end of July, 1967.

Not exactly a convenient time to be bound up from his hips to his armpits. Alan had been recruited to play football for the Air Force Academy. But because of the body cast, the coaches told him to wait a year, go to their prep school, and then start at the Academy. That plan didn’t sit well with the impatient athlete. So off he went to Valparaiso University on an academic scholarship, with the goal of playing both football and basketball. He wasn’t ready to play football when he got there—he was only a month out of the body cast, but he made the freshman basketball team. He played well in the first game against the junior varsity in October of ‘67, or so he thought.

Alan was at his dorm the next day when the freshman coach called. He said he wanted Alan to come in before practice for a chat. About his good play? Strategy for the next game? Hmmm . . . At the meeting he received what at that time Alan thought was devastating news: The team physician had seen Alan play the night before and concluded that because of the back injury Alan would be prohibited from playing any sports at Valparaiso. “What??” The only reason he had the operation was to play college athletics. He gave them letters from his doctors in Nebraska. Nope. “Before the end of my first college semester, I was put out to pasture.”

A frustrated Alan Klaus talked to Greg, his roommate and best friend at Valparaiso who suffered a career-ending football injury in his freshman year. Greg said he was going to transfer to William Jewell College in Kansas City. “Come with,” he suggested to his friend. Alan talked to the coaches at William Jewell and they said he could play as long as he could provide the approval papers from his doctors, which he did. Alan transferred after his freshman year at Valpo, and the athlete in him set his mind on preparing for basketball. “I’m coming back.”

It happened again. Because of college rules, Alan couldn’t play athletics during the fall semester of ’68, but he could practice with the basketball team. Right before the Christmas break, Alan was playing in an intramural basketball game with his fraternity brothers when he went up for a jump shot. The opposing player cut Alan’s legs out from under him and Alan landed on the court, hands first. Crack. It was over for Alan, if not for the rest of his athletic career, at least for his sophomore year. At that time in his life, sports was front and center. It had been his identity since high school. And yet again he faced a void.

What happens to so many of us when we’re robbed of what we see in the mirror of life—in Alan’s case a kickass athlete? Deep depression? Who would blame us?  Who would blame Alan? He stopped going to classes. As he slid deeper into the pit of depression, he had thoughts of killing himself. He talked to Greg. “If you take this to Jesus, he’ll help you.” Greg gave Alan the book, “Dare to Live” by Bruce Larson. He spent the whole night reading the book alone in his room. That night, Alan met up with Jesus. And that night, peace came to Alan.

Alan went on to letter in basketball and baseball at William Jewell. The tennis coach asked him to play, but Alan couldn’t find the time. Ehhh, it’s just tennis. He graduated from William Jewell in 1971, went on to get his MA in Clinical Psychology, and married Janene, his high school sweetheart. He started playing tennis regularly when he was about thirty-years old. Always the athlete, Alan swung his way into the top echelons of amateur tennis.

Life was good again for Alan. For him, the “16-trap” was not a trap at all. At his high school football team’s 40th reunion in 2006—four years after Brian’s violent encounter with a tree, Alan spoke to his former coach, “Coach, I want to thank you for calling the 16-trap in our Homecoming game in October 1966. Little did you know that that play changed my life and has resulted in the wife and children I have, the city in which I live, the job I have, and my eternal destination.”

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #8 The Roulette Wheel of Hideous Misfortune

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The flight to Kansas City was pretty smooth considering the likelihood of a choppy flight in the spring. I was on my way to the First Annual “Wheel It Forward” Tennis Tournament, an indoor tournament at the Northland Racquet Club in Kansas City from April 10 through 12. It was a small tournament with eighteen participants, a radical difference in numbers and “feel” from the Cajun Classic I had played in a month before.

Some wondered why I would spend money to go to a tiny tournament in the Midwest with no history of success. I wasn’t sure why, either. I knew I was crazy about playing wheelchair tennis. I suspected I would have a better chance of winning a game or two at a small competition. And the big draw was meeting the legendary Nick Taylor, a top-ranked quad player who serves the ball with his foot.

But it wasn’t until the end of the tournament, and after I had met and talked to some of the people involved that I realized what I had stumbled upon: a confluence of individual narratives that, while marked with trauma, gave rise to life-affirming possibilities, the kind of possibilities that so many around me in the summer of 1980 clung on to as I battled death.  We begin this story with one Brian McMillan and his motorcycle.

Brian’s Narrative

Raised in Austin, Texas, Brian grew up in a “tennis family.” Everybody played, from his father, who flew planes in WWII, to his two older siblings. Tennis was all the rage in the 70’s, and Brian was caught up in it, playing tennis for his high school. “I was okay, but not great.”

Brian moved to Kansas City in the summer of 1991, where he went to grad school at Kansas State and received a Master’s degree in landscape architecture. After he graduated he worked for architecture and civil engineering firms doing land development.

But work was work. Brian’s passion was motorcycles, from BMWs to beautiful Italian bikes, at one time owning three powerful road machines. He didn’t ride every day, but when he did, he road with a purpose, finding roads with plenty of twists and turns. For Brian, who often road with his brother, Walter, there wasn’t a bad road in Arkansas to do what Brian called “technical riding.” Brian even went to riding schools. And he played it safe—or so he thought–faithfully wearing gloves, a helmet, a protective jacket, and boots.

Brian didn’t give up on tennis. After moving to Kansas City, he joined the Northland Racquet Club to participate in a “hit and run” clinic held every Saturday morning. A handful of people regularly showed up and Jim Pfeiffer, the club’s tennis pro, ran the clinic.

Life was good for Brian. He pitied people in wheelchairs. How could life possibly be good for them? Whenever he saw someone in a wheelchair, he said to himself, “Oh man, dude, your life is over.” He figured “they were barely limping along and just getting through life.” He didn’t know anyone with a disability. He just thought it was bad luck. He called it “the roulette wheel of hideous misfortune. The ball lands on your number and you can’t believe it.”  He, like most of us, thought the ball would never land on his number.

But on May 31, 2002, it did. On that day, a Friday filled with sunshine and scenic beauty, Brian, age 44, came face to face with the hideous misfortune he so loathed.

The road to Brian’s misfortune began when he and Walter, who lives in Austin, Texas, planned a four-day weekend to ride on state highway 125 that runs through the Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri. Brian had ridden the twisty highway before and he wanted to introduce the adventure to Walter. They agreed that Brian and his wife, Donna, would meet Walter and his friend, Pat, at a halfway point, Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

They arrived there Thursday afternoon, May 30th, and had dinner in the Ozark Mountains. After breakfast in the morning, they hopped on their motorcycles and road for several hours. It was a beautiful, sunny day. A gorgeous day to ride. Walter took the lead, Pat the rear, and Brian and Donna the middle.

It happened at about noon. Brian powered his bike on a twisty turn and it hit a patch of gravel or sand. The bike flew out from under Brian and Donna. She rolled into a meadow and suffered at most a skinned knee. Brian wasn’t so lucky. He slammed into a tree. Pat raced ahead to bring Walter back while Donna search frantically for Brian. She found his broken body in the bushes near the tree.

Brian woke up in the ICU ward of St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, having been medevacked there minutes after the crash. A morphine drip dulled the pain, the pain of a spinal cord injury that left him a complete paraplegic. Donna was devastated. They had been married only eight months before the crash. She cried herself to sleep and woke up thinking it was all a nightmare. But it wasn’t.

Brian spent seven weeks in hospitals to allow his broken scapula and clavicle to heal. Once the bones mended properly, he began his ride back to daily living by doing the arduous work of physical rehabilitation–learning how to live again without his legs. For four months, first at an outpatient clinic in Kansas City and then at the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute, Brian spent long hours working on his upper body strength, doing all sorts of exercises on mats, navigating parallel bars, lifting weights, getting himself off the floor and into his wheelchair, and using a “transfer board” to move himself off of his wheelchair and onto something else, say, his bed.

Brian returned to his home in Kansas City in September, 2002. He and Donna lived in a 1,200 square foot loft in a converted four-story coat factory. A 1925 Otis elevator serviced the building. Not too much was required to accommodate Brian’s wheelchair. They brought the bed down from the raised platform bedroom area Brian had built and replaced the bathtub with a roll-in shower. Donna, who worked in a hospital, took an extended leave of absence. His mother, Patricia, and Walter came from Texas to be with them.

But then came that inevitable day when Donna went back to work and his mother and brother returned to Texas. That’s when the enormity of it all hit Brian, almost as violently as his impact with the tree: He was alone. In a wheelchair—for the rest of his life.

Brian hit bottom when one day he attempted to use his transfer board and fell to the floor. Three months earlier, had he fallen on the floor, he would’ve hopped back up on his legs and thought nothing of it. Now his legs were dead to him.  And no one was around to help him.

He pissed on himself. “I’m fucked.”

“There’s no second chance,” Brian told me. “You can drop out of school and go back again. You can get divorced and marry again.”

“The roulette wheel of hideous misfortune.”

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 7 A Holocaust Survivor, Torture, and Profanity

Chapter Three

Kansas City’s “Wheel It Forward”

         When you think about it, life is an experience of individual narratives that live and breathe in collective spaces. Sometimes those spaces can be dark, violent, and hopeless. But others offer the light of grace, peace, and human potential. Sometimes we can choose the spaces to inhabit but many times we can’t. The spaces choose us. Some might call that fate, while others see it as pure luck. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Regardless, the critical question is whether you, with the help of others, can push yourself through the dark spaces you might find yourself in and find the door to the spaces that celebrate life.

******

I didn’t choose to inhabit the space of the ICU. I didn’t choose to be part of the ICU’s narrative. Not as a patient, at least. But there I was, the puzzle that had to be solved within a narrative that, as I’ve said, includes a range of characters, each playing their roles, each bringing their own narratives to the ICU.

The minutes turned into days for the puzzle, the days into weeks, and the weeks into months in the ICU. Every day was a ritual of what I’ve called “micro-hope.” Not the grand plans of a life narrative, but the hope of just getting through the day, hoping that on that day there would be some sign of the reversal of my paralysis as the myelin sheath would start to repair itself and allow my brain to communicate with the rest of my body, starting at the top. (GBS starts at the extremities and moves up; when movement returns, it comes back in the opposite direction.) I didn’t ask for much. A barely perceptible movement of a frozen eyelid would’ve made me deliriously happy. But on that day my micro-hopes would be dashed. The ritual would resume the next day, and the next, and the next, and the next.

Just about every day, Doctor Wisen, my neurologist and a major character in the ICU narrative, came to my bedside to inspect his puzzle, almost like a coroner inspects his corpse. Whether by voice or visage, he showed little emotion, as if doing so would jeopardize his much-prized “I’m-a-genius-neurologist-who-is-dour-by-nature” bedside manner. But what was his subtext, what was beneath that man in the white lab coat? Why was he so inscrutable, so aloof?

Maybe this is why, at least in part: Mark Wisen was born in 1934 in Lublin, Poland. A Jew, born in Poland, in 1934. You know where this is going, right? He and his mother survived the Holocaust and emigrated to South Bend, Indiana in 1950. South Bend? Why there? Because one Frederick Baer, Esq. lived there. He was Mark’s mother’s cousin who became a Nuremberg prosecutor and made it his mission to find relatives who survived the Shoah.

Studies have found that Holocaust survivors are remarkably resilient and lead pretty stable and successful lives. Mark became an accomplished doctor and enjoyed a loving marriage. But the horrific trauma suffered by survivors lurks deep within their psyches. They’re pretty good at keeping it there. But sometimes trauma surfaces violently and causes havoc with devastating consequences. I know this. Dr. Wisen knew this. How do we cope? In many ways. Including being inscrutable, aloof.

And there he was, a Holocaust survivor born Lublin, staring down at a young man born in Chicago, in the ICU of Bloomington Hospital, being tortured day after day. The most he could do was monitor the dosages of steroids, and poke and prod to see if any part of his puzzle would react. Nothing.

That I was being tortured is not an overstatement. Think about it. Counting every second, every moment, every hour, every night, and every day. Being totally paralyzed, I mean totally paralyzed, blind because your eyelids are taped shut to protect the corneas. . . But here’s what made the torture exquisite: I was totally aware of everything and I felt everything. I was aware of the tangle of tubes I was hooked up to. I was aware of the constant beeping of the heart monitor. I was aware of the endless needles being stuck into me to draw blood. The worst was checking my “blood gas,” or the arterial blood gas draw to see, in essence, how well my lungs were functioning in terms of oxygen and carbon dioxide. I dreaded the nurse who came into my room and uttered those words because I knew she would stick a needle deep into my wrist to find the radial artery. It was excruciatingly painful, especially when the nurse couldn’t find the artery and would probe my wrist relentlessly.  To the onlooker, I was a body at peace, the peace of complete paralysis. But inside I was screaming at the top of my lungs.

And, of course, I was aware of the ventilator that unfailingly kept pumping my lifeless lungs with oxygen. It became my friend, in a weird way, the rhythmic sound of the pump assuring me that I would not suffocate. But there were times when, because of fluid buildup in my lungs, I didn’t feel like my friend was giving me enough of what I needed from it. I needed more oxygen, immediately, I felt. Suddenly, my friend had become my executioner, putting me to death as the heart monitor’s beeps ticked away my last moments on this earth. “Please, I want to live! Please! Someone! Help me!” When my eyelids weren’t taped down, my eyes would bulge and move wildly in my sockets. I recall on one occasion a nurse happened to be by my bedside when I was in the throes of suffocation. She said pathetically as she rubbed my arm, “Oh, honey, what’s the matter?” “I’m fucking dying, you idiot! Get your hand off of me and do something!” “Poor thing. . .” “Fuck you!”

But the truth of it is that the nurses worked as a team to keep me alive. They were there 24/7 working in the trenches of the ICU narrative to do everything possible to help me survive, constantly assuring me that survival was worth it. They did everything to preserve my body while I was helpless. To prevent bed sores and fluid buildup in my lungs, every four hours they came into my room and turned my body, from laying on my left side, to on my back, then on my right. They fed me through my g-tube, emptied and measured my urine bag, emptied my bedpan, gave me my medications, and kept me clean: sponge baths, so humiliating—I had no “private parts.” And periodically throughout the day, a nurse would go through a range of motion routine, moving my arms and legs around in various angles to prevent my body from freezing up like rigor mortis. A seemingly dead body, but alive inside. Despite having to cope with trauma in their lives, they clocked in every day, came into my room, and told me I wouldn’t die, not on their watch.

Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives # 6 The tournament idiot

Here’s the last excerpt from chapter two of my book. It’s about the Cajun Classic’s tournament idiot.

My first match in the C division was against Troy Eap, an easy going guy in his 30s who hailed from Upper Darby, PA.  He became a paraplegic in 2009 after a 1,200 pound slab of granite fell on him and crushed his spine. (How long did it take him to become easy going after such a horrendous accident?) I should’ve been nervous as I was taped up and strapped into the wheelchair. Actually I should’ve been throwing up. Prior to that match, I had never played a full set of tennis in a wheelchair. What the hell was I doing playing in one of the biggest, most prestigious tournaments in the country?

I was clueless. And when you’re clueless, you don’t feel fear or embarrassment.

At that point in my tennis career, it took me about half an hour to prepare for a match. A volunteer had to help me with everything. Let me take a moment to tell you about these great folks. They’re men and women and boys and girls who’re critical to running the tournament, especially one the size of the Cajun Classic. You start with the organization that puts the whole thing together. For the Cajun Classic, it’s the Baton Rouge Wheelchair Tennis Association, an all-volunteer, non-profit outfit that evolved from trauma: In 1983, a tennis coach’s godchild became a quad after being in a car accident and tennis became a way to help the kid cope with her transformed body.

Then you have the tournament director who coordinates the whole event and all of the volunteers. Jennifer Edmonson, the Cajun Classic’s director, works with a committee of volunteers who in turn coordinate the work of all the other volunteers. In the big tournaments, there’s also a person who’s a conduit for information between the director and the players, especially relating to logistics such as gathering information from the athletes about flight arrivals—Marilu Major is that person at the Cajun Classic. The volunteers “in the trenches” range from persons who serve food to the athletes to mostly kids who fetch balls during the match. It’s not uncommon to have volunteers who are nursing or physical therapy students. For some, it’s the first time seeing the game and working with wheelchair athletes.

Interestingly, virtually all of the volunteers at the tournaments are able-bodied. Why is that? Hmmm . . . Maybe there’re practical reasons. For example, it might be difficult for a person with a disability to serve food to the athletes. If I were to try that, half of the food would end up on the floor because of the severe weakness in my hands. But would paraplegics have the same problem? I doubt it. When you really think about it, a person with physical challenges could do most of the things an the tournament, including fetching balls.

So what gives? Well, even though most of us could do the stuff, it may take longer for us to do it. I could tape a serving spoon to my hand, but scooping out jumbalaya to a hundred people would take longer than it would for servers without my physical challenges. Those of us with disabilities—I’ll use “disabilities” and “physical challenges” interchangeably—know that doing activities of daily living may take three times longer or more to accomplish than our able-bodied friends. In the morning, an able-bodied person can hop out of bed when the alarm sounds and jump in the shower within a minute. A paraplegic may have to use a “transfer board” to move from her bed to the wheelchair, and use the board again to transfer from the wheelchair to the shower chair. This takes time, much more than a minute. An able-bodied person or a para can button a shirt in seconds. I have to use a “buttoner,” an assistive device that hooks the button and pulls it through the button hole. Sometimes it takes me literally five minutes to deal with one button. All of this is to say that although persons with physical challenges could do most of the things at tournaments, cumulatively the additional time required to do those things would slow the tournament way down, which would be a real problem when you’re trying to pack a tournament into just a few days. But it’s not as if the organizers turn away volunteers with disabilities. Within any possible pool of tournament volunteers, only a very small fraction would be persons with disabilities.

In a way, the able-bodied/challenged-bodied dichotomy is useful for another important reason: It gives volunteers an opportunity to do something that’s meaningful for them. Perhaps one person does it because she’s a therapist and profoundly supports, and wants to contribute to, an event that celebrates the human spirit. Another does it for profound religious reasons. Yet another volunteers out of civic duty. And perhaps there are those who think wheelchair tennis rocks and want to see it up close. I say, right on to all of these motivating factors! All the tournament’s participants get something really valuable out of it that can’t be quantified in many cases. And it’s not pity, whether of oneself or others. Besides, if I can get an extra brownie out of a volunteer, awesome!

Getting back to my first match, I needed help with just about everything. Sports wheelchairs don’t have brakes, so someone had to hold the chair while I literally fell into it—once I bend my knees I go into a freefall because of the extreme weakness in my upper legs. After I got the right sitting spot on the chair, someone had to tighten my lumbar brace around my lower trunk. I did this because my trunk muscles are weak—but not paralyzed. Without the brace, back then at least, I would wreck my back after repeatedly trying to turn the chair on a dime and swing the racquet during the match.

After my brace was in place, a volunteer took my Velcro belt and strapped my hips tightly to the chair. Next came my feet. The footplate is underneath me. Because of my paralysis below the knees, a volunteer had to take another Velcro belt and secure my feet tightly to the footplate. Then I put a baseball glove on my right hand with a tacky palm to give me a good grip on my rims. Finally came the racquet and the taping procedure I told you about. Once that was done, I always prayed that I wouldn’t have to use the bathroom. Talk about panic!

When Troy and I were both ready, we rolled to the middle of the net, where the ref explained the format–the best two out of three sets wins–and tossed the coin to determine who would serve and receive. Troy won the toss and he elected to serve. The warm-up before the match should’ve given me a clue that I was facing imminent disaster. I missed almost every ball he hit to me. If I did hit it, it went sailing to Beijing or somewhere close to it. If the ball didn’t come straight to me, I could hardly move my wheelchair to get to it. But I had no fear. I wasn’t embarrassed.

As we warmed up, I kept running the fundamental strategy of wheelchair tennis through my head. If you look at able-bodied tennis, most of the balls are struck at the baseline or a bit further back. If your opponent hits the ball to the right side of the court, you move quickly to the ball, return it, and, in most cases, return quickly along the baseline to the center of the court. If a short ball comes over the net, you get to it, return it, and volley the next one or, depending on where you are on the court, haul ass back to the baseline at the center.

You use the same principles in wheelchair tennis, but now you have to maneuver the chair, not your legs and feet. So the spot at the center-court baseline is called “the hub.” That’s where you want to be most of the time. If the ball comes to your left, you have to push yourself to the ball and, if you’re a lefty, return the ball with a forehand and then spin your chair to the inside of the court and return to the hub. If you’re right-handed, after you return the ball with a backhand, you spin yourself to the outside of the court and return to the hub. Rarely will you see wheelchair players move into the court for a volley. You only do that when you’re absolutely certain you can get to the ball and put it away. It’s simply too easy for your opponent to lob the ball over you—you can’t jump out of your chair to get the height you need to reach the ball. And unless you’re superfast on the court, there’s no way you’ll get to the ball. The strategy of staying back is especially evident in wheelchair tennis doubles. In the able-bodied game, if you’re serving, your partner will position herself close to the net for the volleys. You won’t see that much in wheelchair tennis. Both players, especially the less skilled, will remain at or behind the baseline.

I don’t remember much after Troy’s first serve. My mind went blank and I forgot everything, much like what happened when I was first called on in law school. He had pity on me, I suppose, because the match finished minutes after it started, 6-0, 6-0. Why prolong the torture? People who watched the carnage might have said, “What in God’s name is that fool doing on the court?” I might have proclaimed in my best lawyer-turned-professor-turned-wheelchair-tennis-player full-throated voice of conviction, “I am Superman!” Then I might have rolled to the stands and autographed tennis balls offered to me by stunned fans. “Look what I got, mom, a tennis ball signed by the tournament idiot!” Yeah . . . clueless.

I was similarly clueless in my consolation match, losing 6-0, 6-0 to my opponent, who constantly asked me if I was alright. But I didn’t stop there. I also lost my doubles match, 6-0, 6-1. I was matched up with Frank Johnson, a Desert Storm veteran from Philly. A single-leg amputee, he was massive, with a commanding height from his wheelchair. That guy could move. I told him to go for the balls I couldn’t get to, which meant virtually all of them. I could’ve eaten a pizza during the match.

But I was having the time of my life. The best on-court experience was my Seniors B/C Doubles match with my partner—the tournament paired me up–Pat Mulvihill, a sixty-five-year-old Vietnam vet from Natchez, Mississippi. Throughout the tournament, I frequently heard people mention him with great fondness. When I finally met him, I could see why.  Just hours before the match, I wheeled up to him and introduced myself. He shook my outstretched hand with a big, welcoming grin. “So you’re the one!” he said in a thick southern drawl. I didn’t know whether he meant that I was his doubles partner or that he had heard I was the tournament idiot. Probably both. Pat lost both of his legs in 1970 when he stepped on a booby-trap during his second tour of duty in Vietnam. A number of years later, when wheelchair tennis came on the scene, he picked up a racquet and fell in love with the game. He told me proudly that he had played in every Cajun Classic—twenty-six years of the tournament. Wow.

We played our match in the evening. It was my first ever wheelchair tennis doubles match. And I had no clue what to do. What little training I had was playing singles. When it was my turn to serve—at that time I used an underhanded serve, I rolled to the middle of the baseline. “Hold it,” Pat blurted out. “You’ve never played doubles, have you?” “Uh . . . no, Pat,” I said in my best tournament idiot voice. With a twinkle in his eye, he showed me how in doubles you have to serve from a wider angle to get the best coverage of the court. “Got it! Thanks, Pat!” “No problem, my friend! Noooo problem! Let’s get ‘em, partner!” Of course, playing out wider made no difference. I continued to flail. But Pat kept encouraging me to stay in the game. We lost. After the match I said, “Pat, this was so much fun. Thanks for putting up with me. I would be honored to play with you again!” “Absolutely, my friend! Just keep at it. Your game will get better!” What a guy.

That was the only time the tournament paired me up with him. Hmmm . . That reminds me of a recent tournament where I was paired up with a French Canadian. That itself spelled trouble. I first saw him at the Cajun Classic. And I’m sure he saw or heard of the tournament idiot. When I saw this fellow at the recent tournament, I approached him and, in my best idiot voice, introduced myself and said I looked forward to playing with him. The first thing he said to me was, “Are you any better?” Like I said, he’s a French Canadian. And I’m the tournament idiot.

The Bayou Boys, my two youngest brothers, Pat and Carlos, came to my matches. Lana, Pat’s partner, made it to a couple as well. I warned them about my game, but they jokingly said they came to the tournament for the good food—and it was really good Cajun stuff according to them. Carlos spent most of the time taking photos of me with his expensive camera—he’s become a great photographer. With his skills, some of the photos of me in action looked like I actually knew what I was doing. Meanwhile, Pat, who inherited my father’s humor, supplied me with a stream of funny one-liners to help me keep my spirits up as I was getting pummeled. Both bro’s are mind-bogglingly good cooks. During a long break in the tournament, we went to Pat’s place and feasted on smoked salmon, boudin sausage, and bottles of red wine while we talked fondly of the glory days.

The days when I played football, ran track, and played tennis for my high school. The days when I took for granted how exquisitely the human body is wired to do so many things for you, from taking a simple step forward to swinging a tennis racquet. The days when I was invincible. . . and not the tournament idiot.