Speeches are over. The excitement I feel is fueled by many people who surround me. My anger is heightened, and my determination could not be stronger. Yes… I’m bitter.
I look down seeing my shadow cast from the bright sun on pavement where my right foot once would have been. Below the stub of my thigh the right leg and foot are gone. They were lost in Vietnam. That was twenty-two years ago during the Tet Offensive. So now I sit on this blasted wheelchair, but not for long. I listen to the recently started chant from over a thousand others who have gathered with me. It echoes off of the stone steps in front of me.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
As I lend my voice to the chant, I propel my chair forward toward the base of a cast iron lamp pole located about sixty feet from the Capitol steps. I wrap a chain around the pole and padlock my chair to it. Reaching behind me I retrieve a single crutch I keep strapped to the back of the chair. I use this crutch to negotiate places not accessible to my wheelchair. I will drag this crutch with me to the top of the stairs. Earlier I was informed one hundred steps would need to be negotiated to reach the top.
The chant continues, but the words change, “VOTE NOW… VOTE NOW… VOTE NOW…”
I observe others move their wheelchairs forward to the base of the steps accompanied by additional people on crutches. One-by-one the chairs and crutches are vacated as each lowers him or her-self onto the pavement to start crawling to the top of the Capitol steps. As each chair and set of crutches is left behind, they are collected by others who are non-disabled.
I feel a tap on my shoulder, and look up behind me into the smiling face of an attractive lady who I guess to be in her late twenties or early thirties…. about ten years younger than me. She talks loud enough to be heard over the volume of the continuous chanting, “Are you making the crawl?”
“What’s the crutch for?”
I laugh and reply, “I only plan to crawl up the steps. I’ll have to get back down, and it will be easier with my crutch.”
The lady laughs. “It’ll be easier going up without dragging your crutch with you. Would you mind my carrying it to the top for you?”
“I sure would appreciate it.”
“I’ll be happy to do so. I’m Judy Thomas. I came to lend my support the best I can.” She appears deep in thought for a few seconds prior to her continuing. “My mother is blind, and if the Americans with Disabilities Act is enacted, it would make her life so much better. We really need to make Congress understand the importance of the A.D.A. It has to pass.”
“That’s exactly why I’m here,” I reply.
She moves to my front and reaches over giving me a light kiss on my forehead. She points at my right chest, “Is your name Davis?”
I’m wearing my old Army field jacket which still has a nametag sewn on the chest.
“Yes,” I reply. “Sam Davis.”
She touches my left chest and comments, “You are a hero.”
“Oh…” Earlier in the day I placed two military medals on my jacket. “You know what they are?”
“I do. I work at the Pentagon, and I’m very aware of the significance of both the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.” Judy lightly laughs. “I’m definitely in the presence of a hero.”
“I sure wasn’t treated as one when I returned from Nam,” I state as I chuckle. “I would be called a baby killer or even worse. I no longer lived in the world I grew up in. My childhood friends became adversaries, and one told me I deserved to lose my leg.”
“That’s awful,” The expression on Judy’s face shows her dismay. “It amazes me that someone could be so sadistic.” Her smile returns. “I assume that person is no longer a friend.”
“You could say that.”
“So, why are you wearing your medals today?”
“I figured any congressman who might see them may be swayed to vote for the A.D.A. If they see a vet who’s decorated for valor taking part in the crawl, it might help.”
Judy laughs, touches my shoulder with one hand and points toward the steps with her other, “It’s started.”
I look at the wide expanse of steps seeing thirty to forty who have started up the worn stone treads. I catch a glimpse of a small girl…. maybe only six or seven years old. She just finished negotiating the second step by lifting and dragging her body by use of her forearms and hands on the step. She has some use of her legs to help propel her, but her stomach drags over the nose of the step.
I point to the girl. “She’ll have a very difficult time making it to the top. Her stomach will be badly bruised.”
“She probably will. I met her about an hour ago. Her name’s Jennifer Keelan, and she is quite determined to make it to the top. She has cerebral palsy…. the poor thing.”
I gaze up the steps to the massive building glittering in the sunlight at the top. The dome is silhouetted by the light blue sky interrupted by thin streaks of white cirrus clouds. The sun beats down penetrating heat through the dark olive drab surface of my field jacket. I feel the warmth on my skin and realize I’ll need to remove the jacket prior to starting my crawl. I didn’t expect it to be so warm during the month of March.
I remove the two medals from my jacket and ask Judy to hold them. I remove a pair of gloves from my jacket pocket. I’ll need to wear them while making the crawl to the top to provide some protection for my hands. I take off my jacket. She helps me pin my medals back onto my shirt, and she takes the jacket, folds it and places it into the knapsack hung from the back of my wheelchair.
“It’s time,” I say as I point to the top of the steps. “If you don’t mind accompanying me to the base of the stairs, I’ll let you have my crutch there.”
We walk… Judy does and I do the best I can by using the crutch in place of a right leg. Once reaching the stairs, I lower myself to the pavement and hand my crutch to Judy as I say, “I’ll see you on the top.”
“Good luck. I’ll be waiting for you up there.”
“Thank you.” I start crawling.
As I mentioned earlier, I am angry and bitter. I negotiate the bottom steps, and I allow myself to reflect on why I’m so disgusted. Ever since I returned from Vietnam my life has been affected by prejudices and discrimination from people I constantly associate with. I just lost my job because my new boss changed my job description. The new description added responsibilities a person with a single leg cannot accomplish. Now that the Senate has passed the A.D.A., it angers me Congress is dragging its feet. Everyone is locked in their own private worlds including each of those representing us in the House of Representatives. An enacted A.D.A. would have protected me from my new boss’s actions.
The stairs are becoming crowded. Along with those of us making the crawl, a large number of supporters are on the steps offering encouragement and drinks of water to those struggling in the heat. One man is lifting and dragging a large disabled man up the steps. This crawler has very little use of his arms or legs, and the strain on his helper has to be severe as he drags the dead weight up the steps.
As I move forward I become focused on the young girl, Jennifer Keelan. She’s about twenty risers above me, and her determination is inspiring. From what I can tell, she is the only non-adult making the crawl. She has also caught the attention of the news media. Many cameras, including television cameras, are focused on her progress. I expect the evening news will be dominated by images of this child wearing a white bandana with red and blue markings tied around her head. I can see how her teal blue short-sleeve shirt is saturated by perspiration.
I hear one of the cameramen ask her, “Are you going to make it?”
She forcefully answers, “I’ll take all night if I have to.”
This is when I know my crawl up the stairs may help to sway Congress, but one young girl will most likely be the reason the A.D.A. will become law.
Throughout the climb chanting continues. Most is generated by the thousand or so supports who remained at the base of the stairs. On occasion I stop my crawl and look back at these supporters who chant, cheer and appear to enjoy themselves. A large number of them are holding signs with different messages including “A.D.A. Now”, “Give us our Civil Rights”, “We shall overcome” and “Civil Rights = A.D.A.”
By the time I reach the top third of the stairs, my knee throbs with pain caused by its constant support of my weight on the stone steps. I need to rest it, so I take a break from the crawl and sit on a tread. I stretch my leg and massage my knee while taking in the breathtaking view of the National Mall. The Lincoln and Washington Monuments might have been mirrored by the reflection pool if not for light rippling of the water surface from a slight breeze. Washington’s famous cherry trees on either side of the pool have just starting to display a few brilliant pink blooms. I imagine the beauty these trees will provide in another week or two.
Perspiration from my forehead has trickled into my eyes causing them to burn. I take off my gloves and retrieve a handkerchief from my pocket to wipe my brow. One of the supporters hands me a bottle of water. The liquid is warm, but I quickly drain the bottle. The very slight breeze does little to cool me as I realize I made the right decision to remove my field jacket. I figure the temperature is near eighty.
Below me, on the stairs, I watch the progress of other crawlers. One lady who is paralyzed below her waist is having a very difficult time negotiating the steps. She sits on the treads and struggles to lift herself, with her arms, backing herself up the steps. She drags her legs. I can only imagine the bruises that are developing on her bottom and the back of her thighs. She reaches one of the landings where she drags her body across the flat surface in the same manner. I realize how lucky I am to have the use of one leg.
As much as I would like to remain seated on this step, I turn around to resume my crawl. I have a climb to complete.
As each person before me makes it to the top, loud cheers erupt. With about a dozen treads to complete, I see the smiling face of Judy standing on the top landing. She calls out to me, “Only a few more Sam. You can do it.”
I laugh and reply, “Just give me a few seconds.”
As with the others, once I reach the landing, a loud cheer rings out. Judy helps me to my foot and hands over my crutch. Once I’m properly balanced, she throws her arms around my neck and kisses my cheek prior to saying, “You should be proud of yourself. Thank you.”
“I’m the one who should be thanking you. I’m a total stranger, and you have treated me with more respect than I deserve.”
“Oh… you deserve respect.” She pauses and stares into my eyes. “Now that this is done, what are your plans?”
“I’ve been thinking about going to the Vietnam Memorial. I want to pay my respect to the man who saved my life.”
Judy smiles and asks, “Mind if I tag along?”
Once I became coherent following the amputation of my leg, I asked the medical staff about Paul Morse. I saw him go down, and I feared he had been killed. A nurse in the field hospital confirmed my fear. She stated, “There wasn’t a soldier by that name admitted.” For many years I would awaken in a cold sweat, screaming, as my dreams vividly reenacted that awful day. To this day events from the past in Vietnam still haunt me.
According to Doc Reed, a shrink at the Veterans Hospital, I suffered from shell shock. Later I was informed there was a new terminology for it, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Whatever it’s called, I became a different person than I was before. At work I was given the nickname of Psycho. Most didn’t use it when I could hear them, but I know I was commonly referenced by that name.
I married my high school sweetheart, but the marriage didn’t last. I would quickly erupt into fits of rage. I never struck her, but I cannot fault her for divorcing me. I made her life a living hell.
Now I’m standing here, face-to-face, with an attractive young lady who has opened her heart to me. She simply has asked if she could tag along, but the smile… the way she asked… her demeanor is telling me she has an interest in a friendship or possibly more.
“I’m sure you have better things to do than walking all the way to the Wall with this cripple,” I finally answer.
Judy softly touches my forearm. “Not with a cripple. I watched you climb the steps. You’re not a cripple. You’re more complete than many men I know with two healthy legs, and I’d be honored if you let me join you. I believe you need a friend.”
She’s right about that. I haven’t had what I can call a true friend in years.
“Yes… I do need a friend,” I know I’m smiling. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
“I’m a big girl.” She offers her hand for me to shake while questioning me, “Friends?”
“Friends,” I reply as I shake her thin hand feeling the softness of her skin.
Before I can release my hand, Judy places her left hand on the back of my hand and gives it a squeeze. “Good.”
We remain on the Capitol veranda with others who made the crawl along with a multitude of supporters until the last crawler reaches the top. We are two caught up in a party atmosphere of celebration.
Many wheelchairs and power scooters have been brought to the veranda by supporters during the crawl. Crawlers now sit in them, and one person who brought a chair up informs me about the difficulty he had getting the chair through the entrance door to the Capitol. Before he could give details, he is drowned out by a renewed chant. “VOTE NOW… VOTE NOW… VOTE NOW…”
Everyone enters the Capitol, and we precede to the building exit doors. The deafening sound of chanting reverberates off of the marble, granite and sandstone walls and floors.
We reach the exit from the Capitol Building, but exiting through the doors poses a challenge. Rather than standard doors on hinges, we have to pass through revolving doors. For those on wheelchairs the process is very slow…. even slower for the power chairs. Even for me, using my single crutch, negotiation through a glass enclosed obstacle is a challenge. We take the slow progress in stride. We have all been faced with barriers of this kind for years, but today we have hope such barriers will be eliminated once Congress passes the A.D.A.
A few Senators and other staff of the building who wish to exit are showing their frustration. They are being held up by our slow progress. One man is downright rude as he demands to be next to pass through the revolving door. Based on the insignia he wears on his lapel, I assume he’s a Senator.
I take it upon myself to call him out. “Are you a Senator?” I ask.
“I am,” he gruffly replies.
“What’s your name?”
The man stares at me but doesn’t answer.
“I do hope you realize, sir…” I state with a raised voice “…this building belongs to the people. We are the people, and you work for us. Let us know your name so we can inform your constituents of your childish behavior.”
The wheelchair that had been in the revolving door has just cleared the enclosure, and the Senator barges through. As he reaches the outside he uses his hand and arm to try to spin the door as a means to show his discuss.
Judy looks at me displaying concern on her face, and she comments, “We need their support to pass the bill.”
I laugh and reply, “We need the members of the House to pass it. The Senate already has, and I’d give odds that jackass is probably one of the Senators who voted against it.”