Chapter 3: Barriers and Bridges

Rise Above Chapter 3

We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again. - General Nathaneal Greene

Indianapolis is home to one of the most famous speedways in the world. Though I cain't say for sure how fast my father and mother were driving on the day we left Riley Hospital in Indianapolis with my diagnosis of muscular dystrophy, I can be certain of one thing: their thoughts were racing.

To begin with, they had a nine-year-old daughter to take care of: my sister, Joan. Faced with my dire prognosis, they must have wondered how they were going to take care of both of us at the same time. Things didn’t look good for me, and based on what they'd been told, I would require more and more care as time went on. The last thing they wanted to do was show preferential treatment to one child over another. Even if Joan was mature and understanding for her age—which she was—she was still going to get the short end of the stick sometimes. That was just an unfortunate consequence of the reality my parents were faced with. However, I do know they always tried their hardest to make things equal for us.

My father also had his own bad back to worry about. As my condition got worse, he knew more would be required of him from a physical standpoint. That had never stopped him before, and it wouldn't this time, but he did have to think about it, not just in moving me around but also in figuring out how he could alter our physical environment to accommodate me. Would a wheelchair be needed? Special ramps? Room modifications? A new car? At the time, my parents thought I wouldn’t even make it to the age of 13. They had to wonder how fast all of this was going to happen and how much time they had to prepare.

Another obstacle was society’s attitude toward the disabled, which, at the time, was not exactly enlightened. Even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who could have served as a role model for people with disabilities, missed the opportunity by keeping the fact he was in a wheelchair a secret for 24 years after he was diagnosed with polio. Closer to home, you did not often see people with disabilities, physical or otherwise, out in public. With that as a backdrop, my parents had to wonder: Would kids give me a hard time at school? Would my friends treat me any differently? Would the school administration make the necessary adjustments so I could get the same education as everybody else?

As tenant farmers, they also had to be concerned, not because of their choice of profession but because it produced very little money. Surely, taking care of me would cost a lot of money, but where was it going to come from?

Finally, doctors were another issue. My parents had nothing against the medical profession, but the doctors in Indianapolis gave them no help or hope. Naturally, my mom and dad had to wonder whether something else could be done.

They looked for that something else nearly 500 miles west, in Clear Lake, Iowa.

My mom and dad had heard about a radio wave clinic in Clear Lake that was doing cutting-edge work with patients who were in poor physical shape, and they wanted to see whether the clinic could do anything for me. Today, people see alternative medicine as a common, complementary form of treatment—for example, in Perth, Australia, the Radiowave Therapy Clinic is devoted to treating cancer patients with radio waves—but in 1946, radio wave therapy was way ahead of its time. According to critics of the practice, it still is.

Despite the expense, my parents would not be deterred. They scraped money together, put us into the family car, and drove to Clear Lake. With the big interstate highways, we now have, today that trip would take about eight hours, but in those days, it was quite a journey. About halfway to Clear Lake, we spent the night with some relatives. The next morning we continued the trip, and some of those relatives came with us.

I can recall the experience like it was yesterday.

We got inside the building, and the place was filled with people seeking help with asthma, polio, cancer—you name it. It was packed in there, like a big-city emergency room on a Saturday night.

A woman took me into an inner room with a big box in the middle that was about 10 inches wide, a foot high, and 4 feet long, with protruding electrical tubes that were 8 inches high and 4 inches in diameter. Four metal kitchen chairs were backed up to the box and encircled it. The stations were marked 1, 2, 3, and 4. She told me to sit at station 1, where I was joined by three others. Then she went behind us, adjusted some dials on the box by using a special instrument, and left the room. We sat there for 30 minutes until she came back in and told us to move to station 2. Once there, she again went behind us, adjusted the box, and left the room. We repeated this process for the rest of the stations.

I had no idea what was being done, and it seemed like it was going on forever. I wasn’t really scared because I didn’t feel anything and I knew my parents were nearby, but it was definitely odd and intriguing at the same time. I mean, who experienced anything like that in 1946? Being bombarded with radio waves, all set to different frequencies, for long stretches of time? Day after day, for each visit? This was something H. G. Wells might have dreamed up.

For subsequent visits, my mother took me out of school, and we traveled together on the train, through Chicago and all the way to Clear Lake. Just the train ride alone was fascinating for a wide-eyed young motorhead kid like me. I loved the sound of the whistle, the clanging of metal, and the chug-chugging of the train as it lurched to a start and then hurtled its way down the tracks.

Once in Clear Lake, we stayed with people whose homes were close by the clinic. Every day, we’d go across the street so I could get my treatments. We continued these treatments up until the time it became terribly difficult for me to walk and then ceased to go any longer.

It cost my parents every cent they had. If you ask my mother, it was invaluable; she believes it saved my life.

She doesn’t care that we later found out—just a few years ago, by a blood test—that I do not have Duchenne, the fatal form of muscular dystrophy that would have indeed killed me by the age of 13. All she knows is I survived past the time the doctor said I would die. What’s more, I never got colds, measles, chickenpox, or any of the things my sister had, despite being in close contact with her at the house when she was infected with all of those illnesses. My mother says that alone was worth it.

Anyway, how could I argue with my 98-year-old mother? If she thinks radio wave treatments were my salvation, so be it. I love her for everything she’s ever done for me, those treatments included.

There’s an interesting side story about Clear Lake that also says something about how our family lived our lives. About 15 years ago, after my father passed away, we flew my mother and a few of her friends to visit the historic stone Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, which is near Clear Lake. My mother and I used to pass it in the days we traveled out there by train.

The grotto appealed to us for several reasons. We were a devout Catholic family who went to church every Sunday and on holy days and abided by the Ten Commandments. For example, my cousin Virginia, who is now 85 years old and was one of my Aun tElizabeth’s daughters, became a nun. For another thing, I spent the first nine years of my schooling getting a Catholic education, which provided me with solid teaching and moral values that have stayed with me my whole life. In times of turmoil and desperation, I’ve always known my faith is available to me. Finally, the grotto was close by where the radio wave clinic used to be, and we wanted to visit the spot where I got my treatments so many years ago. Unfortunately, the building that housed the clinic was no longer there, but the grotto was, and my mother and I enjoyed our visit immensely.

For those unfamiliar with the Grotto of the Redemption, it was the lifelong work of Father Paul Matthias Dobberstein, a German immigrant born in 1872. As a young seminarian, Father Dobberstein, who had pneumonia and was close to death, prayed to the Virgin Mary to save his life. As a token of his faith, he pledged to honor her with a shrine if he lived. He survived, began building the grotto in 1912, and continued working on it until the day he died, in 1954. His idea was to provide the grotto for all who came seeking inspiration, spiritual renewal, and a strengthening of their faith. As Father Dobberstein once said, “If your messages are carved in stone, they are well nigh imperishable.”

That trip was illuminating for several reasons but for one in particular: it was a reminder that my parents and the messages they gave me were solid as a rock.

In the Winamac of 1950, our lives were about to take a pivotal turn.

In the 10 years after I was born, the average cost of a house had gone from $3,920 to $8,450, the price of a gallon of gas from 11 to 18 cents, and the cost of a new car from $850 to $1,500. The average annual income had also improved, from $1,725 to $3,210, but our family was making far less than that. On a global basis, following the end of World War II, the economies of the Western world boomed, which led to the start of a consumer fueled economy that seemed to have no bounds.

On the home front, my parents began looking for a better opportunity.

As a tenant farmer, my dad didn’t feel like he was making the most of his talents or that he was being challenged enough. His age was advancing, and his health was not what he wanted it to be. He had been saving his money over the years, the broader economy was picking up, and he had grown tired of working for someone else’s future instead of his own. The time was right for him to buy his own farm.

I remember going with my mom and dad to look at prospective farms when I was only nine years old. We went from farm to farm, and although they knew coming up with the money to buy one would be difficult, nothing we saw seemed to satisfy them. They talked it over and finally came to the realization they weren't really going to be making much of a change by buying a farm. They could own a farm, but they would still be farmers. They had nothing against farmers—that’s how they had been making a living—but my dad wanted to stretch beyond what he’d been doing. In addition, my mom felt like she was also not making the most of her talents. With her college education, which was pretty hard to come by in those days, neither of them could envision her bouncing through the fields on a tractor.

Then they discovered an opportunity that would enable them to retain their association with the farming community. It would fully utilize the combined skills of both my father and my mother because to get it, they had to come as part of a packaged deal.

Instead of buying a farm, they bought a 1,000-gallon Marathon Oil and Gas truck and became a bulk distributor. They had what was called a bulk plant, consisting of several large gas, oil, and diesel tanks. My father would fill up his truck, drive it around to farmers and homeowners, and then sell them the fuel and replenish as needed.

What role did my mother play in this operation? Marathon required the person getting the distributorship to have accounting and bookkeeping experience, and my mother had that in abundance. As a teenage boy growing up in the Depression, my father had dropped out of school in the eighth grade to earn money for the family, which was common for many boys. Consequently, he did not have the kind of education needed to fulfill Marathon’s bookkeeping requirements. Combined with my father’s people skills, work ethic, and initiative, my mother’s financial ability sealed the deal.

It was then that we moved off the farm and into a house in town. The backyard had a garage for my father to keep his truck in. Twelve years later, long before Apple Computer started on its path to success in Steve Jobs’s parents’ garage, my father put the truck outside, and that garage became my company’s first building.

As a people person who spent his days with customers, my dad did a lot of listening. He had an intuitive sense of when he needed to talk and when he needed to listen. I can remember him talking with customers on the phone at home, and the only thing you'd hear on his end was, “Yes,” “No,” “Is that so?” “Well, what do you think?” and so on. Then, the person on the other end would thank him for his “advice,” and he would move on to the next call. He was in his element: he enjoyed his work, and he was very good at it. He and my mother, they made a great team, both at work and in life.

One of my father’s philosophies was that life is a ladder that you always want to be climbing—up. He said if you’re not climbing up, you’re not going anywhere. You’ve got to remember that for every rung you climb, some folks probably have a hold on your pant leg and are trying to bring you down. Consequently, you’ve got to be able to shake them loose, get to the next rung, and keep climbing. Never, ever sink to their level.

One of the ways you keep climbing up, he said, is to always surround yourself with good people who aren’t going to try to pull you down. You want people you can trust instead of people who engage in backbiting and petty gossip. You want people who are flexible, who will challenge you, and who are not afraid to fail instead of people who are dishonest, greedy, or cling to power. Whether you’ve known them for a week or 25 years, if they exhibit the qualities that will pull you down, you have to shake them off.

There’s another equally important aspect of his ladder philosophy, one I’ve tried to pass along to my own children: when people are helping you climb and not hindering your progress, it’s also your responsibility to help them.

This is part of what I love about my business. As I’ve been able to have a life of mobility, I’ve also been able to help others have the same. Bearing witness to people’s gratitude for the help you've given them is priceless.

My dad also adhered to a flip side of his philosophy. When Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy was on his famous Communist witch hunt in the 1950s, attempting to drag people through the mud and ruin their lives and reputations, President Dwight Eisenhower was asked to comment on what was being called “McCarthyism.” His response was short and sweet—or pungent, depending on how you look at it: “Never get into a pissing match with a skunk.”

My father liked this homespun wisdom and employed it often. His philosophy was that if you were faced with something negative in life that could smell you up when you could just as easily walk away, you should choose to be nonconfrontational and walk away.

At the same time, my father never backed down from a fight he thought was worthy of his effort. He won some, and he lost some, but when it came to the issue of whether I would be in the mainstream of society, he kept swinging.

One of those fights was with the local school board, which had no interest in making sure I got an education yet was determined to teach my dad a lesson.

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