Raising a Ruckus: Burning Chair

RuckerthI had a dream last night, one of the best dreams I’ve ever had. I dreamt that tens of thousands of wheelchair users from all across America — otherwise known as Wheelchair Nation — gathered at a remote locale and just fooled around for a few days, reveling in the glory of their own existence. The setting is Lebanon, Kan., the exact geographic center of the United States. Equidistant from everywhere, in the middle of Kansas, flat as a pancake and easy to maneuver, the place is small enough that we can take over the whole town. The local economy, hit hard by the decline in family farming, would find it an economic gold mine, the townspeople proudly erecting a big sign on the edge of town announcing: “Home of the Annual Wheelchair Nation Tribal Conclave!”

There are many existing models for this mass gathering of wheelchairs and their owners. In my dream, I envisioned it as a kind of a Burning Man for gimps. If you are not familiar with this cultural lightning rod, Burning Man is an annual gathering of free spirits and slackers who didn’t get the memo that the ’60s were over and tie-dye T-shirts and patchouli oil were no longer in fashion. Fifty thousand-plus people go to this massive be-in in the desert of northern Nevada every year and do whatever they darn please. They call it “radical self-expression.” People show up to make 50-foot plaster of Paris naked women, drive weird cars that glow in the dark, roll in the mud, and dance like dervishes around open fire pits. It’s Woodstock with outrageous art.

There’s also the legendary Sturgis, S.D., Motorcycle Rally where upwards of a half-million Harley riders gather to cruise up and down the main drag, showing off their ape-hanger handlebars and “Devil’s Hound Dogs” club colors. They have bike races and stunt shows, and do other fun things like drive through the Wall of Death. These events have only one main message: We are here and we don’t care what you think of us.

At the Wheelchair Nation bacchanal, we’d start like Sturgis: wheel up and down Main Street, high-fiving the thousands of our comrades, and admiring each others’ tricked-out wheels. Some people would show up in strange chairs made out of Legos or Lincoln Logs or motorized chairs with DayGlo paint jobs and completely useless giant chrome tailpipes. Some would be inspired to build cast iron wheelchairs in a dragon motif with sawtooth tails and fire coming out of their mouths. Others would do stunts like creating a pyramid of chairs with all the occupants singing, “We Are the Champions.” All of America will look on in wonder, with one collective thought: “Boy, those wheelchair users are some strange but fun-loving dudes and dudettes.”

The sideshow events would include things like wheelchair races while holding a red cup of beer in your teeth or tattoo parlors where you can get a goth image of your chair across your back or maybe a simple slogan on your chest saying “What’s Your Problem?” Of course the kids in chairs who do ridiculous, 360-degree, mid-air skateboard-type maneuvers will be there and pressure everyone over 30 to attempt a backflip and land on their keisters.

Let’s face it: People who use wheelchairs, along with people with disabilities in general, spend way too much time alone and indoors. What better way to get them out and rolling around bonfires at three in the morning — faces painted like rainbows, shouting hypnotic pagan chants — than a mass gathering where any ambulatory person will feel like the outsider and not the other way around.  They would then go home, pimp out their chairs in shocking hot-rod pink and fuzzy hand grips, and proudly wheel down the street in their “I Survived Wheelchair Nation” T-shirts.

Like those hippies at Burning Man or leather-clad bikers at Sturgis, we all would feel, maybe for the first time in our lives, part of a vibrant, active subculture and not just another guy with a disabled placard in the Home Depot parking lot.  And maybe someone will feel the creative urge to make a 50-foot topless goddess in a chair. Even though the event is free to all, I for one would pay to see that.

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