Lifestyles of the Wheeled and Famous

By |2018-07-02T10:31:01+00:00July 2nd, 2018|
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Tim Gilmer is a master at assigning, editing and writing profiles of wheelers worth knowing – from everyday moms and dads to superstars like Teddy Pendergrass.

“First off, interesting is key, more important than well-known because it is more inclusive, and truthfully, there aren’t that many well-known wheelchair users,” says Tim about how he chooses who will be profiled. When there is a famous wheelchair user, “we like to get them in the magazine if they are a good fit with our readers and their needs. But we don’t really consider them as role models per se, because being famous doesn’t automatically translate into that category. Sometimes, though, the famous factor is very alluring because we know our readers would like a kind-of-inside peek into the lives of the rich and famously disabled.”

Tim’s interview with Christopher Reeve is a textbook example of this. “Reeve had just written his second book, and someone at Random House, his publisher, contacted me with an offer we couldn’t refuse. So I flew cross-country from Oregon to New Jersey, rented a regular minivan with hand controls — in 2001 it was easier to do that, believe it or not — drove to his estate three hours north of New York City, and spent the day with him. I was surprised at the unfettered access I was given.”

In addition to his masterful profile of Reeve, Tim wrote or assigned stories spotlighting wheelchair athletes Marty Ball and Randy Snow, Shakespearean actor Regan Linton (penned by Richard Holicky) our own satirist Mike Ervin, jazz singer Lisa Thorson, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan, Christian minister Joni Eareckson Tada and pornographer Larry Flynt (delivered by Allen Rucker).

Following are excerpts from profiles of three famous wheelers written by Tim: Reeve, anti-war activist Ron Kovic and cartoonist-turned-singer John Callahan.

The Missionary Reeve, November 2002

This excerpt takes us with Tim to Christopher Reeve’s house, where he wanders around, speaks with Reeve’s young son Will, and allows readers to peek behind the curtain and see how the great man lived. For the full profile, including a long Q-and-A that hints at what would become the Reeve Foundation’s The Big Idea, see newmobility.com/2002/11/the-missionary-reeve/.

Christopher ReeveChristopher Reeve’s New York home is fairly new — built in 1990 and remodeled for accessibility in 1996 after his return from rehab. At first glance it appears modest but is actually quite large, comfortably secluded in woodsy Pound Ridge opulence. For some reason I expected to be greeted by snarling Rottweilers and gray-suited men with walkie-talkies. Instead, a thirtyish woman with red hair emerged from the house with a warm smile. “You’re welcome to look around to your heart’s content,” she said. “Christopher will be ready shortly.”

My curiosity led me straight to his exercise room, where the magic happens, we are told. I expected to find futuristic equipment spaced around a large indoor swimming pool. What I saw was a modest rumpus room. In the corner near a sliding glass door stood a tilt table much like the one I remembered from my rehab days. On the wall nearest the sliding doors sat a functional electric stimulation bike — the Ergys 2, made by Therapeutic Alliances. On the opposite side of the room sat a similar machine — the StimMaster. Framed freehand calligraphy hung on the walls — “You are Everything You Choose to Be,” and a timeline entitled, “Progression of Recovery.” The timeline ended about a year after his accident, in May 1996.

A doorway led to a hall that gently sloped up to a kitchen area. To the right of the door was a smaller standard exercise bike. I entered the hallway and to my left was an open closet. Sam Maddox’s jacket? Maybe a dusty red cape? No, nothing but sports equipment — soccer balls, basketballs,

hockey sticks, helmets and protective masks, equipment bags, enough stuff for a small team. To my right a shorter hallway was clogged with coats and shoes, maybe a dozen pair. So how many people lived here?

I wheeled up the gentle slope, into the area adjoining the kitchen. “I see you made it OK,” came a familiar voice from my left. There sat Reeve in the kitchen-dining area, tilted back slightly in his power chair, attended by three people, light streaming in from a south-facing window, in the early stages of being made up for the photo shoot. He smiled and reiterated what I had been told earlier — make yourself at home. He would be ready in about 45 minutes. We would shoot first, then he would take off his make-up for the interview.

I felt a little awkward, as if I had walked in on someone in a bathroom. Reeve’s make-up artist would earn $775 for transforming her famous client from a middle-aged man with no eyebrows and alopecia areata, a pre-injury hair loss condition (testosterone supplement therapy is promoting new growth), into a camera-ready face that looked a decade younger. Not bad for an hour’s work. Random House would pick up the tab.

I wheeled back into the exercise room and there was Will, Reeve’s 10-year-old son, exercising on the small bike. He smiled and talked freely, clearly at ease: He liked to work out with his dad, they often biked two miles together, all of the sports equipment and most of the coats and shoes were his, his brother Matthew was in England working on the documentary, his sister Alexandra was away at Yale, he was getting in shape for hockey season, hockey was his favorite sport, he would go to his first practice of the season that night, you can go anyplace you want in the house, really you can. I was beginning to feel a little like a house guest.

The interview took place in the living room, windows looking out on a spacious circular driveway. I waited and snooped: A music stand held a handwritten composition for beginning saxophone entitled, “Not the Prettiest Song in the World” — food for the other side of Will’s brain. In the corner of the living room sat a glossy black piano which held more serious fare — Mozart, I believe. Perhaps Alexandra or Reeve’s wife, Dana, played. Reeve himself used to, of course. And then an absurd notion surfaced, no doubt from watching too many made-for-TV movies:  Maybe no one had dared touch the music, or the piano, since the day of his accident. Maybe Mozart patiently awaited Reeve’s return, as did his sailboat, his airplane, his love of riding horses, his sex life, his career as an A-list actor. It occurred to me that those of us who have had fewer opportunities may have difficulty truly understanding the depth and breadth of what Christopher Reeve has had to give up.

He appeared suddenly in his sip-and-puff-controlled power chair, a changed man from only minutes before, seemingly vulnerable now, cleansed of makeup, ready to face whatever questions I would pose. Unlike other well-known figures I have interviewed, he had not requested questions in advance, nor had he asked for editorial review.

Over the next two-and-a-half hours we talked about many topics related to disability. Reeve is a master at matching the rhythm of his ventilator to his phrasing, squeezing out his last word, or rush of words, just before running out of air. Midway through our conversation he sent out for sandwiches at his favorite deli. We continued talking while Reeve’s aide, Bill Bernhev, stood at his side, offering well-timed bites and sips from a straw.

In all I spent four-and-a-half hours at Reeve’s home. I saw that he treats his staff — nurses and aides — cordially and with respect. An atmosphere of mutual affection and lighthearted banter predominates. Reeve was gracious, hospitable and very generous with his time.
Since that day I have followed his media coverage closely. Several quotes that I thought were spontaneous turned out to be memorized — right down to the exact nuance. But carefully phrased sound bites are to be expected from an actor who could once memorize 15 pages of script in 30 minutes, a public figure who speaks at banquets, fundraisers and congressional hearings, chairman of the board of an influential nonprofit foundation, an experienced political activist, a man who has an agenda, a mission. But what is most evident about Christopher Reeve is his passion for bringing about change, not only for himself, but for others who must cope with paralysis every day of their lives.


Ron Kovic Reborn, June 2003

Although penned 15 years ago, Tim’s profile of anti-war activist Ron Kovic feels more relevant than ever — perhaps because the wars du jour, Iraq and Afghanistan, have not fully ended, or perhaps because many of Kovic’s prophecies have been realized. For the full profile, see newmobility.com/2003/06/ron-kovic-reborn/.

Ron KovicThe day Baghdad fell, Ron Kovic was back in the Veterans Affairs hospital. Not the shameful Bronx VA of Kovic’s 1976 book, Born on the Fourth of July, and later, Oliver Stone’s academy award-winning movie of the same name — which was condemned and torn down — but the Long Beach, California, VA hospital. Kovic, 56, had gone in for a checkup at the spinal cord injury outpatient clinic, only to find his doctor expressing worry over potential cutbacks, a situation reminiscent of spending priorities at the close of the Vietnam War.

“We’re putting all of these millions of dollars into warfare when the disabled of our country, disabled veterans and disabled citizens, are in need. Many of them live below the poverty level,” says the man whose life was portrayed onscreen in 1989 by Tom Cruise. “This policy of aggression, this policy of arrogance, of blindness, of recklessness, I don’t think this is going to help America. I think that this behavior, which I abhor, this policy, which I strongly disagree with, is leading this country in the wrong direction.”

Kovic was not always this eloquent. His voice has been shaped by war, its destructive aftermath and decades of fearless commitment to protesting governmental policies that support war. To Kovic, war is not an abstraction, not a neatly packaged television graphic —The War with Saddam — not a map bristling with colored pins. It’s blood-and-guts reality, and he owns it. He’s a streetwise activist who speaks like a polished politician — the cadence, the repetition, the dramatic diction, streams of words pouring forth, demanding attention: “I think this policy is so wrong, and so misguided, and I may be one of the few Americans saying that right now, but I believe strongly in what I’m saying, and I’ll say it today, even on this day — [the day Baghdad fell]. This is a terribly misguided policy that will backfire, this will not stand, this will not work, this will work only against us. This will not lead us to peace and this will not lead us to justice, and this will not lead us to a safer world but a more dangerous world, a more dangerous and unstable Middle East. I think this is going to hurt America.”

The Road to Rage

He first spoke out in public against war at Levittown High School on Long Island, New York, in 1969. He was 23 years old, still adjusting to the T4-6 spinal cord injury he had sustained in combat in January 1968, still feeling conspicuous in his wheelchair. It was baptism by fire. For a Vietnam veteran to speak out against the war at this time was tantamount to sacrilege, and dangerous: “All week I had not wanted to go because I had never spoken in public before, I was very hesitant, and Bob Muller, who later became the founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America, had finally convinced me to come down and join him that day, and I went out on the stage and there was this bomb threat. We had to evacuate the auditorium and go out to the grandstands on the football field. That was quite a beginning for me.”

And an even more dramatic turnaround. Kovic had been a gung-ho Marine who had volunteered to serve a second tour of duty in Vietnam, a young man whose parents had both served in World War II, whose uncles had been Marines, who had been deeply disturbed by growing protests against the war and who had not hesitated to volunteer for a dangerous mission the day he was shot. But his experience in the Bronx VA Hospital opened his eyes. “They used to call it the Bronx Zoo. It was there that I began to wonder why I and the others had gone to Vietnam in the first place. And whether we had lost our bodies for nothing. It was in that place going through the sometimes-abusive conditions that I was slowly becoming aware and recognizing what had happened. And I remember seeing all the wounded around me, getting a full picture, which you never saw, for instance, during the recent war coverage on CNN or Fox News. You’ll never see what I saw.”

What he saw was an understaffed, outdated veterans hospital teeming with paralyzed bodies, amputees and head injuries. And why were they being treated like disposable parts of a machine instead of heroes? The questions yielded no satisfactory answers, and anger and bitterness grew in the vacuum. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I felt enraged,” he says. “God, I gave so much.”

Not long after leaving the Bronx VA for the second time, he moved to California, where he was influenced by author/screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. “I remember reading his book — Johnny Got His Gun — a powerful antiwar novel [set in World War I and published in 1939]. I had just become involved with the vets against the war, just hesitantly beginning to oppose the war in 1970-71.” Kovic attended the opening of the movie based on the book, where he met Trumbo and actor Donald Sutherland. “It was an extraordinary evening, and I thanked them that night and it was thrilling to meet Trumbo. He was one of the Hollywood 10, definitely a man of his conviction, someone I respected.” Trumbo, suspected of having communist ties, was imprisoned for nearly a year in 1950 for refusing to testify before a congressional committee, then blacklisted by Hollywood until the late 1960s. “I really think his book influenced the very heart and soul of my writing of Born on the Fourth of July.”

The year prior to the release of the film version of Johnny Got His Gun, National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of Kent State University students protesting the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine. To this day Kovic maintains a close connection with Kent State students. In the late 1970s he was arrested for protesting the desecration of the site of the massacre and has spoken on campus a number of times, primarily on the anniversary of the shootings. “I was deeply affected by what happened on that date,” he says, referring to May 4, 1970 — one of the darkest days of the Vietnam era, on a par with the infamous My Lai massacre.

As if witnessing this kind of government-sanctioned madness wasn’t enough, Kovic had to deal with his own personal My Lai — his platoon had killed innocent villagers. Babies. And then there was the young corporal from Georgia, who Kovic accidentally shot and killed in a chaotic firefight.

Add to this the allure of fate: The most important dates in Kovic’s life coincided with two of his country’s most important historic dates. Most people know the significance of his birthdate from his book or Stone’s movie, but many do not know that he was shot and paralyzed, in effect reborn as a paralyzed vet, the same day Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated his last birthday. He would later choose King as his model for nonviolent protest in the streets. …


Callahan’s Long Reach, April 2007

There is renewed interest in the life and works of famed cartoonist John Callahan thanks to Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, a movie based on his life and works starring Joaquin Phoenix that will be released on July 13. Here at NEW MOBILITY, we have a special relationship with Callahan as Tim Gilmer befriended him toward the end of his life, supporting his endeavors and providing him with encouragement. Following is an excerpt of Tim’s story about how Callahan reached beyond his crooked-line cartoons to become a singer. Read the rest at www.newmobility.com/2007/04/callahans-long-reach/.

John Callahan
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The playbill for the January 19 taping of Oregon Public Radio’s Live Wire! — an old-time radio show modeled loosely after National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion — gives John Callahan top billing. For most everyone at Portland’s Aladdin Theater, it is the first time they have seen Callahan’s name paired with the words “singer/songwriter.” The crowd, 650 strong, is standing room only.

When Callahan is introduced, the Aladdin erupts with applause and cheers. He rolls to center stage, dressed grunge/casual. Beneath his worn jacket is a faded T-shirt with one word subtly visible: “Trash.” Callahan’s wheelchair armrests are liberally wrapped with black electrical tape. His accompanist, Chris Hubbard, settles in behind a shiny black grand piano. After an embarrassing moment when he has to ask a stage hand to adjust his microphone for him, Callahan looks around, squinting at the balcony seats, sizing up the crowd. “I thought they were supposed to have a little mark here,” he deadpans, gesturing toward a spot on the stage floor, “where I could throw up.”

Laughter. Tension released. This is the Callahan everyone knows, the cartoonist with the dark wit. “My first song is titled ‘Suicide in the Fall.’” A few people titter, then an uncomfortable silence settles in. “It’s not as uplifting as it sounds,” he says. More laughs.

After a simple medium-tempo piano intro, Callahan launches into the lyrics:

There’s trouble in the steeples
And the crows are set to fly
But there’s apples in the baskets
And a dead moon in the sky.

His voice, innocent, unadorned, creates a mysterious contrast with his often dark lyrics. The effect is suspenseful, as the audience waits for the song to declare itself. Will he make a joke of suicide? Is he serious? You can almost feel a sigh of relief from the audience when the lyrics reveal the artist’s intent:

Well, there’s something about the softness
Of the colors on the wall
That keeps me from committing
Suicide in the fall.

When the song ends, there is generous, respectful applause. The crowd is catching on. They are witnessing the evolution of Callahan the musical artist. His single-frame gags have somehow given way to a CD of songs — “Purple Winos in the Rain” — that at times seems almost uncomfortably honest and melancholy, yet somehow charming, and always melodic.

When the applause dies down, emcee Courtenay Hameister sits next to him for an interview, drawing upon his past cartoons for comic relief, gently probing about his new artistic venture, and making entertaining chit-chat. After the interview, Callahan closes with his signature song, “Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel”:

Life is hard but death is worth it
Nothing’s certain, nothing’s real
Give me something cheap but perfect
Touch me someplace I can feel.

Callahan lives in a Northwest Portland apartment a short power-chair jaunt off NW 23rd — known locally as “trendy-third” — a 19-block run of bustling boutiques, natural foods restaurants, kosher delis, inner-peace-love-tarot-card-reading-artsy-shoppes and anti-Bush signs in sash windows. Callahan, 56, whose eight books of cartoons have established him as a master of political incorrectness, lives smack dab in the middle of liberal Americana, two blocks from the local abortion clinic. There are at least four Starbucks within easy rolling distance.

I drove there on a snowy day in January. Once on busy NW 23rd, I began worrying about finding a parking space, but first I had to find Callahan’s apartment building. Bingo — a perfect set of power chair tracks embedded in the sidewalk snow traveled up Lovejoy from NW 23rd.

After parking and transferring into my manual chair, I aligned my wheels in Callahan’s tracks and followed the trail he had blazed to a side door on an older three-story brick building next to a debris-filled dumpster. I knocked and waited a full four minutes for his attendant to respond. He had been busy getting Callahan ready to meet me at 2 p.m. in the afternoon — one of three attendants who rotate off and on. Callahan lives independently but needs help part of each day, which costs a pretty penny. His income from royalties disqualifies him from assistance of any kind.

I was surprised to find his twin bed just inside the door in what I assumed was his living room, with almost no furniture other than an upright piano. The one-bedroom apartment was small, dark, stripped to essentials. Sitting in his older power chair next to a too-tall breakfast bar, Callahan told me he no longer owns a computer — he had thrown it away — “but I’m getting a lot of pressure to get one again, since the CD came out.” His mammoth fluffball of a cat, Biggie, eyed me from the comfort of Callahan’s bed.

John Callahan

The Callahan Biopic

Will director Gus Van Sant and nondisabled actor Joaquin Phoenix pull off a worthy version of Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot? Tim Gilmer will weigh in with his review of the film this month on newmobility.com, where he plans to be a regular contributor to the NM Blog.

I tell Callahan that people are surprised when they hear of his CD, but I’ve recently re-read his autobiography, where just before his accident, at age 21, he describes himself as having a “creative artist, poet, and songwriter hidden within.”

“It’s something that’s always been growing in me,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter. The points just never connected back then. I was playing guitar very well at 18, 19, 20, and I’d try to write songs but I was such a little alcoholic, and I could never get the words together right. Took me until I was older, in my 30s and 40s, to start writing songs, and then I had to learn how, with my fingers, to play the piano a little bit again, and play sort of open tuning on the guitar. I could always play harmonica. I didn’t have to learn that, it was just natural.”

Does this mean he’s de-emphasizing cartooning now?

“No, no,” he says. “Just doing music and stuff in addition. But I wouldn’t mind developing my music and becoming more of a performer and traveling around. But in an easier way than a plane. I don’t like planes because they can wreck your wheelchair. Every time I ride in a plane they smash it, they always somehow damage the wheelchair or send it to the wrong place. I don’t feel like dealing with that stress. And a train I don’t know about. Maybe having one of those big rock-and-roll buses or something would be cool. I could just stay in bed. Each town I could just sing out the window of the bus and go to the next town.”

And then I ask the question that’s been nagging at me. I’ve read elsewhere that he lives off his royalties, but his apartment is, well, basic.

“How are you doing economically?”

“Oh, doing OK. It’s sometimes big, sometimes not. It varies so much with me. I don’t even pay much attention to money. I just do what I want to do creatively, and the money always follows. I’ve always been lucky that way. I just never look down from the high wire and I’m OK.”

Where His Songs Come From

There’s a hint of “Purple Winos in the Rain” in his autobiography as well. In the concluding pages, after he has faced down his alcoholism six years following his accident, he describes what he sees while rolling past St. Mary’s Cathedral one evening: “It looms high above me in the night with its sculpted saints and the peaceful face of the Blessed Virgin above the ten broad doors. … I can hear the bell sounds, broken by the wind, and the rain is stinging my face. … The winos are crouching in the little shelters that the doors and buttresses of the church provide …”

References to street life are sprinkled throughout Callahan’s songs. In his daily rounds in his power chair, especially whenever he ventures as far as “Old Town,” where Portland’s homeless people, drunks, addicts and prostitutes hang out, Callahan must literally swerve to avoid running over people sprawled on sidewalks. The rest of us roll up our windows as we drive by, safely insulated.

Callahan’s focus on street people seems part of a deeper connection. “Yeah, I think that’s true,” he says. “I don’t have any lines of delineation between classes and people. I feel it internally. It’s an illusion to think there are lines. It’s all one thing.”

Callahan’s egalitarian worldview may come from an awareness that he might have been a homeless drunk himself, had he not hit bottom, wrestled and reconciled with his Higher Power, and stopped drinking. “It was a touchstone,” he says. “I had a bottoming out experience, a dramatic reckoning with God, but then years later I had another experience, nine or 10 years ago, more of a self-realization kind of thing.  Long story short, they messed up a surgery and I got a staph infection. It almost killed me and I had to be put under, kept down on machines and alive for about a week, it was terrible. But a couple months after that I woke up in my home and I just sort of moved into this space where there was just nothingness and bliss, maybe just for a few minutes. I mean, once you have an experience like that, it’s almost like having what they call ‘free samples.’ And you just have a very easy time believing.”