Chapter 5: Moon Shots

Rise Above Chapter 5

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard. - John F. Kennedy

In 1961, one year before I graduated from high school, President John F. Kennedy said the United States would land a man on the moon.

Speaking before a joint session of Congress, he said, “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him back safely to Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

When Kennedy said this, only one Soviet, Yuri Gagarin, had ever gone into orbit, and just one American, Alan Shepard, had flown in space—for 15 minutes and 28 seconds, only one month earlier. To people of all ages, this was a time of excitement and possibility. If even the sky itself was not the limit, what did the future hold for us? Put simply, you didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know this was an ambitious goal.

Did Kennedy’s moon shot inspire me to great things? Did it propel me to launch my company? It did other members of my generation, so the convenient or politically correct answer would be yes. I could say the combination of scientific discovery and human potential filled me with a romantic notion that anything was possible if I put my mind to it. While that’s partly true, the authentic answer is really no, Kennedy’s moon shot did not inspire me in that way. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t proud of my country; I was, and I am. After all, in those days, we were in a race with the Soviet Union, and I was happy to have a leg up on them.

My thoughts were more down to Earth.

When Kennedy gave his speech in 1961, most people my age were concerned with what they were going to be when they grew up. My concern was that I wanted to grow up, period. Their concern was what they were going to do, whether they were going to be farmers like their dads or drive fire trucks. I never thought about those things. I thought about being alive. That was my total focus. Consequently, I never really considered how bad it was or how bad it could get some day. It never crossed my mind that I may not survive. I just wanted to live every day as much as I possibly could.

Staying alive was my moon shot.

I can recall when I was 12 years old and still able to walk. I would go to the altar of my church and pray to God that he would perform a miracle that I would no longer be disabled. I have to say that miracle did happen—he blessed me with the ability to take care of myself and help others. My prayers were answered.

However, in those days, I wasn’t above getting a little extra heavenly insurance.

For instance, when I was still in Catholic school, I’d get up and walk to church on Saturday mornings in the spring. Why would I do that when getting around was so hard for me? Was I that much of a fervent believer? Well, I did have a strong faith, but I also knew you got big brownie points with the nuns if you went to church on Saturday mornings. I mean, I wasn’t the best student in the world, and I figured I needed every bit of help I could get. A few other brownnosed kids were there, but to me, going to church on Saturday was like spiritual rocket fuel with the nuns.

It was hard work—an ordeal. As spring became summer, I began to notice I couldn’t make it all the way to church and back without stopping to rest about three-quarters of the way home. After a short rest, I’d finish the trip. As the year wore on, I stopped more frequently, making it halfway and then a quarter of the way. After a while, I seemed to be doing more resting than walking. I’d leave the church, go down the stairway, cross the street, and sit on a stone wall. At the courthouse, I’d sit on the steps. In between stops, people would pull up next to me in their cars and ask whether I wanted a ride home. I always said no, that I was OK. One day, when I couldn’t take another step, I had to ask someone to call my mother. I knew, and my parents knew, that the inevitable was going to happen and I wasn’t going to be able to walk anymore, and not just to church.

Unbeknownst to me, my aunt and my cousin, who had multiple sclerosis, asked the Multiple Sclerosis Society in Fort Wayne whether they would give me a wheelchair and deliver it to my house. They did, and I was not happy. I figured that once I gave in to what I called “The Iron Monster”, I’d never get out. I thought I was finished.

The chair sat in the house for quite some time before I would even acknowledge its presence. One day when we were going to go somewhere as a family, my father finally said, “Well, I think we better fold this thing up and stick it in the trunk so you can get around when we get there.” I said, “If nobody that I know sees me, I’ll do it.” I knew inside that if I didn’t accept my situation, it was going to be really tough on my parents and everybody around me. It wasn’t that I thought the wheelchair had a stigma; to me, the jig was up, and it was a sign of the end.

Reluctantly, I gave in to the wheelchair.

Inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes, and I drew some of it, indirectly, from a local man named Virgil Reinbarger, who was the only person I’d seen at that time who could be called “disabled.” Virgil had a mild case of polio and used to work for nearby farmers by dragging himself from place to place on his crutches. I remember watching him and thinking, “Hey, he’s 40 years old, and he’s making it through life OK. Why can’t it be OK for me? There’s no reason I can’t do what he does.”

If that wasn’t enough to impress me, Virgil then upped the ante: he started riding around in a motorcycle with a sidecar. Let me tell you, I thought that was the coolest thing. A disabled James Dean right there in Winamac. I watched him do this for years, and then one day I remember thinking, “Maybe I could make something I could ride around on, just like Virgil.”

In the world of inventors and entrepreneurs, this is the moment of inspiration, the flash of an idea that, if properly executed, can change the world. For me, however, changing the world would have to wait just a little while longer.

In the spring of 1962, I graduated from high school and prepared to get on with life. I could not—would not—sit at home and wait for others to take care of me, no matter what society thought I would or should do. My mother went to college, so I thought I would do the same. Over the next six months, I applied to several schools in Indiana and was met with the same wall of resistance: no one wanted a guy in a wheelchair who was trying to get an education.

Linda Keys, my girlfriend, who would later become my wife, was going to Indiana State University in Terre Haute. During some of my visits to see her, I wondered whether I could also attend the school—I was concerned not about the academics but about campus access for someone in a wheelchair. It seemed within my reach, so I applied and was accepted for the first semester of 1963. I’d be going to the school where the legendary John Wooden had once coached basketball before going to UCLA and where Larry Bird would later become an All-American before starting his Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics.

My goal was not nearly as high. To me, going to college was merely the next thing to do if you were going to be a success in the world.

A classmate and I worked out a deal where he could stay in my dorm room for free if he helped me around campus. While that arrangement was good in theory, in practice it ended up not being feasible. For one thing, our class schedules were different and required us to be in different places at different times. For another, whether he was with me or not, accessibility was an ongoing issue.

Like high school, the university was not set up to accommodate someone in a wheelchair, except now it was even worse. There were multiple sets of stairs in buildings set far apart. The few elevators they had were not in spots where I needed them. As a consequence, I had to use service elevators that required a special key. Getting in and out of buildings was hard because there were no curb cuts or ramps. I had to use alleys and back entrances. The narrow walkways between buildings, if they were paved, were also not well cared for and were certainly not suited for wheelchairs.

Trying to get around the grounds of the college was mentally and physically exhausting. If I made it to class at all, I was usually late, which didn’t go over too well with professors. Once I got there, it was no easy task to find a place to park myself where I could adequately see and hear without disrupting the class. 

The decision to leave school after one semester was easy. I wish it didn’t have to be so, but continuing any further was virtually impossible for me. By the summer of 1963, I was done. So was Linda, who had also decided she wasn’t going to go back to Indiana State. At home in Winamac, with a marriage on the horizon, it was time to start making a living.

With the knowledge of bookkeeping and numbers I’d gained from working with my mother on my little craft-making business, I got a job running a Burrows posting machine on the third shift at Logansport Hospital. From 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., my job was to post daily charges to patients for rooms and other expenses. Because I worked next to the emergency room entrance, I had another duty. Every time an ambulance pulled up to the entrance of the hospital, the emergency room bell rang. This meant that I had to go from my bookkeeping machine to the door in my manual wheelchair and let the emergency medical technicians and the patients inside. Once they were in the waiting room, I then had to admit them, which meant filling out forms on a typewriter, with their names, addresses, next of kin, Social Security numbers, and so on. It was pretty hectic, and I could tell that trying to get around in a manual wheelchair was not going to be a long-term solution for me. I began thinking in earnest about how I could make a motorized wheelchair.

After saving a bit of money, I started venturing out to look for parts to build a scooter. I’d get out of work at 7 a.m., have someone load my manual wheelchair in my Chevrolet, and drive to my buddy Gerald Kersey’s house in Winamac. Then we would drive to places like Elkhart and Galveston, in Indiana; White Pigeon, in Michigan; and Chicago, where I would buy parts—designing and building the scooter in my head—and then bring the stuff back to Winamac.

Because most of these parts suppliers were at least two hours away and I didn’t exactly know what I was looking for until I found it, this search for and purchase of parts took most of the day. As Gerald drove back to Winamac, I tried to sleep in the car. Once I was home, I’d get a little more rest, clean up, and go back to work at the hospital. I did this every day for two straight months and worked on my days off to put the pieces together. The routine was grueling, but I was fueled by the idea that one day I would have a motorized scooter that would make my life a lot easier.

I badly needed the money I got from my job, but I was getting run down. Finally, one Saturday night at the hospital helped me make the decision to leave. Because of a serious car accident, in which two sisters had just been killed on a highway, the emergency room was filled with a family in complete despair. The family members were hysterical and needed to be admitted quickly so a doctor could prescribe sedatives for them. Seeing people in such distress was gut-wrenching. The next morning, when my supervisor came in, I told him that I was burned out and couldn't do it anymore.

In the two months I worked at Logansport Hospital, after driving to and from parts suppliers during the day and working in a garage during my spare hours, I had somehow cobbled together my first scooter. In today’s parlance, it would be called something like Release 1.0 or the iChair. I didn’t care what it was called because I knew that life—at least my life—would never again be the same.

To put that in perspective, let’s go back to President Kennedy and outer space.

To land a man on the moon and bring him back safely in the years between 1961 and 1969 took immediate technological creativity and $25 billion in resources, which equates to $150 billion today—a lot to ask of a nation in peacetime. At its apex, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people and 20,000 industrial firms and universities. It required no less than a national mobilization.

Though I didn’t think of it this way at the time, in retrospect, building my first motorized wheelchair in the summer of 1963 was no less of a moon shot.

If you think this is hyperbole, consider the following: I was 22 years old, I worked alone and got little sleep, I used money I’d saved from working at the hospital and making and selling crafts, and my work space consisted of my mother’s kitchen and the garage in our backyard. I had no connections, no economics degree from Harvard or Yale, and no fancy business plan. I was confined to a wheelchair at a time when society looked at people like me with everything from pity to scorn—if they looked at us at all.

Do I think my life would have been better if I hadn’t been afflicted with spinal muscular atrophy? No, I don’t at all. I was frustrated then—and sometimes now I am, too—because of certain things I couldn’t do for myself. I’d rather I didn’t need help going to the restroom, taking a shower, or eating. It would be easier to pick up my own drill than to try to tell somebody to drill a 3/8 hole instead of a 5/16 hole. But I have learned to handle those frustrations and deal with them because that’s the way it is. I know I have more to offer to society than just sitting around and worrying about a few frustrations and my own discomfort. To do otherwise seems self-indulgent and wrong.

No, dealing with my disability was the easy part. Building that first motorized wheelchair? Now, that’s where the story gets interesting.

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