One of my first trips after becoming a paraplegic was to visit my brother who lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. My flight from Washington had a connection in Charlotte, North Carolina. Now, the airport in Charlotte at that time, 2003, was attractive, neat, and mostly convenient for travelers. All concourses were flat and smooth; however, each concourse began to sharply rise and was carpeted as it led to the central area of the airport. This central area was a large, glassed-in space filled with shops, stores, live plants, and white rocking chairs. From here a traveler could rest, eat, exit the airport, or continue onto another concourse for a connecting flight. The latter was my task going to see my brother, and all went well. The return flight proved to be different.
Passengers in wheelchairs are the first on for a flight, and the last off of a flight. Most times this is no problem, but if there is a tight schedule for a connecting flight, being last off could present a problem. And, as seems to often happen, the connecting flight will seldom be in the same concourse. In fact, if you land in, say, concourse A, your connector will likely be across the airport in concourse F. This was my situation on the return flight from Myrtle Beach.
In the book of Proverbs, seven sins are listed, and the Seven Deadly Sins have culturally derived from this listing. Theologians and others may argue the deadliest of the Deadly, but for me the deadliest of them all is the last-pride. Now, as a newly injured person who was suddenly a paraplegic, I wanted to prove to myself and anyone else that I was capable of managing. After all, I had managed for the first fifty-five years of my life before my accident, so why not now? I was not rude to offers for help, but I truly wanted to do things for myself, to prove to all, that I was capable of living life from a wheelchair. Had I not run a 2:42 marathon, hiked on the Appalachian Trail, coached several sports in school, and worked at Pembroke College in Oxford? Thus, just into my second year of life in the wheelchair, I was all about doing things myself. And, since this was my first flight in the wheelchair, it carried additional significance and meaning for me.
The return flight from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte is short, but I knew I would have to hustle to make my connecting flight. Being last off for such a small flight was not a factor, but I was told that my connecting flight to Washington was on a concourse across the rather large airport. As I waited for the last passenger to de-plane I grew nervous which made me more determined. When my wheelchair was brought to me from the plane hole, I quickly transferred to it, threw my rather large gym bag across my knees, thanked the flight attendant, and took off for the gate across the airport.
On the flat, smooth concourse I made good time. The airport was crowded, but I moved with the flow of humanity and pushed along. However, as I approached the carpeted ramp, I bent over to hold my bag between my chest and knees, and to get extra push up the carpeted ramp. At first all went well, I was uncomfortable and working, but looking from my turtle-like posture, I could just see the flat area of white rockers. Then, my bag began to slide to my left, catching on the wheel. I tried to push more with my right hand to over-compensate, but it did not work. I was stuck sideways in a sea of travelling and rushing humanity. Before I could lock my brakes and straighten out the mess, two strong hands grabbed my wheelchair and their voice said, “I got cha.” I sailed up the ramp through all that humanity and at the top, on the level of shops and white rockers, the same voice said from behind me, “You got it now?” Turning to thank him, all I saw was a white shirt blending into the sea of travelers.
All this happened over twelve years ago, and I have traveled many miles by plane, car, and wheelchair since. Fellow travelers have I met, but few equal that traveler in the white shirt who taught me that pride, like the other six, must be kept close. Especially on the carpeted ramps of life.
Barbee is a retired educator living on Lake Norman with his wife, five cats, and two hounds. All the animals and he are rescues. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Birmingham Arts Journal, Page and Spine, and other print and internet publications. He is entering his 20th year as a T-5,6 para.