MONDAY: Look Ma, No Hands

BY MATTHEW DEL PAPA

Copyright is held by the author.

I ONLY ever met one guy like Roddy. Good thing. The world couldn’t handle two of him.

Twelve years old and dripping charisma he quickly became my hero. As summer camp progressed he became my friend too. But the hero-thing came first.

It started with the crowd of parents saying teary-eyed goodbyes.

My folks had been amongst the loudest. I didn’t make it easy for them, tossing about words like “abandoned” and “negligent.” They’d driven away, leaving me staring in disbelief. Eventually I realized they weren’t coming back and went inside. There I climbed on my bunk — determined to wallow in abandoned misery for the next two weeks.

That plan lasted all of five minutes.

I couldn’t help but watch as the only other guy my age struggled valiantly to avoid hugging his older sisters. His mother hissed a stern voiced, “Roddy!” and he looked over to where she sat nursing before giving in to the inevitable — sort of.

Roddy, I would come to learn, never did anything the easy way. It was part of his charm.

Instead of the expected warm fraternal hug he used the opportunity to secretly pinch each of his sisters on their butts while his folks couldn’t see.

That’s not weird like it sounds. For a guy with no arms Roddy got pretty grabby, but in a harmless, goofy kind of way. And judging from the girls’ outraged squeals those prosthetic limbs pinched hard.

I learned an important lesson watching Roddy: some heroes don’t need arms full of rippling muscle — some heroes don’t need arms at all.

***

The rest of summer camp is a bit of a blur except for the time that I died — and Roddy saved me. Looking back the dying part would seem the most important. It wasn’t. I’ve nearly died a bunch of times. Dying is no big deal when you’ve come as close as I have.

Twice I’ve almost drowned. Nearly been hit by a car on three separate occasions. Just barely avoided electrocution. Narrowly missed a messy impalement. Escaped hypothermia and a spectacular car crash unhurt. I think I was even poisoned once. But none stick in my mind like that time at summer camp.

This wasn’t a near death experience. There was nothing near about it. I actually died. Died and came back.

All because of Roddy.

***

The last of the parents had gone, leaving a small crowd of homesick kids waving good-bye. Roddy watched them through the window over my bunk before saying, “All clear.”

We pulled out our comic books and, spreading them on the rock hard mattress, tried to ignore our new cabin-mates as they limped and rolled past us. Most were clearly anxious to get on with the whole summer camp experience. Me? I pretty much wanted to be anywhere else but here.

“So what are you gonna do?” Roddy asked blowing his shaggy hair out of his eyes and ignoring the screaming chaos around us. Twelve kids to a cabin made for a lot of noise, even when those kids were disabled.

“Oh, I don’t know. Arts and crafts maybe?”

“Yeah, that’s always good.” Roddy, who had been to camp three times already, knew all the ins and outs. “Horse riding is cool too.”

“What about archery?” I asked, before remembering his arms.

He looked at my embarrassed face and laughed, “Not much good for me.” He waved his prosthetic arms, plastic with metal hooks at the end of each, and then grabbed another comic. Not even crinkling the cover.

I felt like a goof as I crawled to the side of the bed, legs dragging behind me, and dug through the pack hanging from the back of my wheelchair. “What else?”

“I like the nature hikes. They keep the trails smooth enough for chairs to make it.”

Camp Mossdale ran two camps a year for the physically challenged: one for kids aged seven to 12, and one for those between 13 and 16. Being stuck with what seemed, at the lofty age of 12, a bunch of babies was already annoying.

Wheelchairs rolled around, crutches thumped, the click of one blind kid’s cane provided a constant background noise. Not that I paid attention. I was busy reading one of Roddy’s Spiderman comics (I was more of a Batman guy, but this was camp and I was roughing it).

Actually I was breaking the rules. We both were.

The people running Mossdale had a whole list of rules. They sent a booklet out to all prospective campers. “No Comic Books” was number four after “No Televisions” and “No Radios” and “No Video Games.”

Mossdale was all about physical activities. Preferably outdoor types. The kind of things us “differently abled” campers didn’t get to do back home. It was a healthy, safe, and encouraging environment — or so the brochure said.

I didn’t much like being encouraged. I knew what I could and couldn’t do and didn’t need people pushing me to try new things.

My parents disagreed. Which was why they’d shipped me here.

Our cabin’s councillor showed up, late. He was a cadaverous 19-year-old with a ridiculous attempt at a moustache sprouting on his upper lip and an easy smile. Kicking an overstuffed duffle bag ahead of him with one foot while trying to drag a beat-up suitcase behind, he said, “Hey,” to no one in particular.

The younger kids hurried over to make nice.

“My name’s Joey,” he said. “I’m just going to dump my stuff and then we can start getting to know each other.” With that he moved to the only private room in the H-shaped cabin, a cubicle barely big enough to hold a bed, across from the bathroom.

He seemed a decent enough guy, considering that he’d be responsible for my death.

***
Nothing much happened that first day. Our councillor finished introducing himself by saying, “This is my first summer here so I’m learning as we go.”

That reassuring news had Roddy smiling and me worrying. “C’mon,” Roddy said, waving me away from the excited campers crowding Joey. “We need to stake out our seats early.” With that said we headed to the cafeteria.

The food was terrible. No salt. No fat. No sugar. Lots of greens. Dessert was a bran muffin — with no butter.

“Designed to keep us regular,” Roddy said in a conspiratorial whisper. I’d watched him eat out of the corner of my eye. He handled the fork with ease, his hooks dexterous despite their piratical appearance.

Talk about adapting — he didn’t even bother with his arms to drink. Just leaned forward and picked the cup up with his teeth. Tilting his head back to swallow he never spilled a drop. Even managed to keep up his end of the conversation, a running commentary of the camp’s many faults, with only a little slur.

Loud announcements periodically interrupted the meal. The speaker system squealed whenever it tried to amplify a voice, distorting the words beyond recognition.

Joey came around and whispered, “Word from the boss. Be sure to fill out your activities form before lights out.” That news worried me no end.

“It’s all good,” Roddy said back at the cabin as I stressed.

In the other room Joey helped the rest make their picks. He drifted over once to check on us and said, “The canoeing is good.”

Suspicious of unasked advice I said, “Thought you never done this before?”

He looked at me and smiled. “I haven’t. But I did spend all last week up here training. Got to try all the activities.”

“Oh.”

“They assign each councillor an activity. To help,” he explained. “Me, I’m working with the horses.”

“You know a lot about horses?” Roddy asked.

“No. Not a thing. But there’s this girl ….” He didn’t finish. He didn’t have to. Being t12 Roddy and me considered ourselves men of the world. We got it.

It was Joey’s fascination with this “girl” that would eventually lead to my death.

***

The day I died started off on a sour note.

Being male showering didn’t rank real high on my list of favourite things. So learning that Sunday was our cabin’s assigned shower day didn’t have me in the best of moods. Learning I had to be supervised just made it worse.

Everything at Camp Mossdale was supervised — for our safety.

I didn’t feel very safe knowing that someone would be watching me shower. Especially not when I learned it was a girl. Okay, young woman. Maybe 18.

I grumbled all through my shower, unhappy in my swimsuit. We had to bathe in our swimsuits — all of us — another one of the camp’s rules.

The double-stalled communal shower cabin, built extra wide to make room for shower chairs and other assistance devices, echoed. The faded tile walls carried the conversation from the other shower to me clearly.

Where I was shy and embarrassed, Roddy — in the next stall over — gloried in it. He laughed. He joked. He stripped.

It’s unclear who was more shocked, me listening in or the young female councillor assigned to “help” him.

There’d been no warning. He just up and peeled off his swim shorts. Tossing them out of his shower while announcing, “I don’t got nothing to hide.”

How’d he get them off? I don’t know. He didn’t wear his arms into the shower. Used his feet I guess — I didn’t ask how exactly. Not that it surprised me. He could bend his legs in ways that would make a contortionist envious.

All I know for sure was that his helper mumbled something shocked.

Roddy’s answer was, “You know it isn’t really fair you get to see me naked if I don’t get to see you.”

I blushed at my helper. She was just old enough to intimidate me. Seeing my embarrassment she shook her head and pretended to ignore the sounds coming from beside us.

Roddy never let up. His self-assured voice teased and taunted. Cajoling until he had his helper giggling helplessly.

It didn’t work though. She stubbornly stayed clothed. But he refused to give up.

That quality, so annoying in the showers, would later save my life.

***

“Horses?” Disbelief filled my voice.

Roddy looked at me, “Yeah, horses.” Eyes shining as he looked into his own little world, he finished, “Galloping across the plains like cowboys.”

So far I had one friend at camp and I wasn’t about to lose him. “All right,” I answered, not happy.

It seemed fine at first. Joey walked with us to the riding area, gossiping the entire way. “I’ll see if I can get you two a chance on Piney, he’s the best we got.”

“What makes him special?” Roddy asked.

“He’s the youngest. By a long count.” Not wanting to meet our eyes, Joey added, “The rest are, uh, old. Real old. One hoof in the glue factory old.”

Getting my first look at the animals I saw what he meant. Even not knowing didley-squat about horses I could tell they were old. I doubted any of them had been prizes when young either.

It didn’t matter. The campers gathered around the fence all stared impressed. The girls already in love with the big-eyed beasts, the boys whispering and teasing each other. It seemed strange seeing these kids — crippled, blind, deaf — joking and laughing like they didn’t have a care in the world.

Then the first camper got on. A look of total disbelief raced across her face. Replaced a moment later by happiness so complete it was sunshine breaking through a cloudy sky.

Witnessing that miracle I forgave Camp Mossdale its myriad sins — even the food.

So it went, until Roddy’s turn came. He scrambled into the saddle and took the reins in his hooks. A few slow paces and then he dropped them, steering with just his knees. “Look ma!” he shouted, laughing, “No hands!”

My turn came. Joey lifted me up. He paused to see if this feat impressed his lady-friend, then giving her a smile he heaved me the rest of the way.

I went up … and over. Dropping to the ground on the horse’s other side. Headfirst.

***

They tried to tell me I blacked out. Only their pale faces and relieved smiles told me different. I knew what had happened. I had died.

It all seemed a bit blurry at first. But I spotted Roddy leaning over me with his usual confident smile in place, if looking a little crooked.

“Thought you were a goner,” he said.

“What happened?”

“You fell.” It seemed obvious what with me lying on the ground and everything. “Stopped breathing for a while. Lucky I know CPR.”

“Come on,” Joey said lifting me up and putting me in my wheelchair, “Let’s get you to the nurse.”

I didn’t know much about horses, but I remember hearing that when you fall off you’re supposed to get right back on. But not me. Not then. The further from the horses I went the happier I became.

About halfway to the nurse’s office I stopped. “Roddy gave me CPR?”

“Yeah. Soon as you fell he took charge. Not panicking at all. Just kicked off his shoes and started stepping on your chest like it was the most normal thing in the world.”

That night at supper Roddy said, “You coming back to the stables?”

“No. I’m going to try the theatre.”

“Good idea. There you’ll only die on stage.” His eyes followed one of the passing servers. Leaning back as she passed, his prosthetic arm flashed out and goosed her.

This time though he picked the wrong butt. The server twirled and, face red, slapped him. Hard. The gunshot-like sound had heads turning throughout the cafeteria.

Roddy sat there with a big hand print blossoming on his cheek and an even bigger smile on his face.

The woman looked horrified. Slapping a 12-year old cripple will do that.

It didn’t bother Roddy in the least. He just blew the hair out of his eyes, gave her an apologetic little nod and went back to eating. Whispering to me, “I love it when they react without thinking. Like I was normal.”

***

The rest of summer camp proved anti-climactic. What could compare with dying? Being resuscitated by a guy with no arms just made it that much more memorable — as if I needed help remembering.

Roddy’s finally getting the shower girl to strip came close — even if she did have a bathing suit on underneath. His detailed description of her bikini impressed even our love-struck cabin councillor. Joey took to looking at him with the same hero worship as I did.

Me? I avoid horses to this day.

11 comments

  1. Brian Henry

    Wow, Matthew, what a great story. You had me hooked from the start but doubly so with the catalogue of all the times the narrator almost died.

  2. Sandra Lewis

    It reads fast and the subject matter grabbed my attention. The dovetailing of humour into a story about disabled kids/adolescents is reassuring for a non-disabled reader because it lessens that feeling of sadness for those who must adapt more than the average joe in order to function well. It highlights that perception of human normalcy from both sides is vital.

  3. Gloria Jean Hansen

    Hey Capreol — Elliot Lake here. Good job! Enjoyed it beginning to end. Need more!

  4. Mary Steer

    Really enjoyed this — but for the fact that I just couldn’t picture how Roddy was goosing people with “hooks” — not even some kind of pincer? Favourite part: “I love it when they react without thinking. Like I was normal.” Perfection!

  5. Celynne Grewe

    Thanks Matthew! That was a terrific story of feisty, fun-lovin’ boys. Joining the chorus asking for more soon!

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