Here’s a picture of NEW MOBILITY at 20, as commemorated by the narratives of five NM subjects, each riding a different roller coaster: Other than being about the same age and using wheelchairs, these people are not of a type. They are, however, linked in a unique way: Four were photographed in the early days of the magazine, and again for this issue, by C7 quad Chris Benson. The other is Chris Benson herself. The unifying theme? Survival and transcendence.
The late Barry Corbet showed me the concept of the modern gimp as mythic hero. Joseph Campbell’s book — The Hero With A Thousand Faces — lays out the Hero’s Path: a) Departure (set off by a monumental change); b) Initiation (trials along the way); and c) Atonement (coming to terms with a) and b). And finally, the Return — one’s rebirth and reintegration with the world left behind.
Here’s how Barry put it: “We are the twice born. We represent to humanity its greatest fears of catastrophe and its greatest hopes of transcendence. We have embarked upon the Hero’s Path and we have no choice. …”
Survivors Then and Now
Chris Benson: Listen to Your Body, Follow Your Art
One day Chris showed up at the Spine — as we called NM back then — atop the Walrus bar in Boulder, Colo., looking for work. She had broken her neck at 16 at a Texas water park. She had bad-girl issues and had been sent away from home in Rapid City, S.D. After rehab at Craig Hospital in Denver, she returned home, graduated high school and photography bloomed as the love of her life. After art school in Tucson, Ariz., she wanted to shoot fashion, but dreams of being the cactus country Richard Avedon didn’t add up, so she moved to Denver for better opportunity.
I sent her on a month-long photo shoot to Texas, Arizona and California. Worked out beautifully for all concerned. She probably would have been shooting for the magazine all these years except she moved back to South Dakota in 1993, got a busy studio going and made a lot of dough. All was well until a few things happened. First, she adopted a kid. Second, people close to her started dying. Third, photography lost the life-force it once had. Fourth, she got sick, which may not be possible to unlink from the first three. Waiting for Atonement, no doubt.
Chris explains it: “My 30-some years in a chair have been a ride, lots of good and lots of bad. I’ve always been a realist, not much of a dreamer. I’ve always considered myself an artist first. Photography is simply my tool. That shoot you sent me on was a significant time in my photography. It stayed stylized, but I had to show more of the person than a pretty face.
“I don’t remember spending too much time being depressed. I was always so consumed with my art. That has always made me happy. That’s also why I can’t do it anymore, because it no longer has that power in my life. And that’s why I’m looking for the next thing.” Says it could be movies, could be making chocolate.
The adoption: Chris volunteered to shoot portraits of kids awaiting adoption, the idea being that better images might improve placement. It worked. She fell for one of the kids herself, admits she didn’t think it all the way through, and adopted her. Tatiyanna was 3, Native American, crazy Don King hair, “a little brute,” says Chris. The kid has reactive attachment disorder, she says, characterized by mistrust and lack of bonding. “She went through a stage of throwing things at me and laughing when I would come after her. She’d run to areas my chair couldn’t get to.” Apparently Tatiyanna had been left alone for days in motels with her younger brother. “The mom had numerous chances, way too many, to get it together. Never did and never tried.”
Now she’s 11. A few days before school started, nervous about it, she cut her hair off. “She gravitates towards bad boys and thinks gangs are cool,” says Chris. “Nothing really matters to her. On the other hand, she has huge potential.” Chris admits she’s thought about it many times but she won’t quit on the girl. “I’ve committed to this and will take care of her as long as I can. I have to remember this is a child with a broken soul. I am here to help her find her way.”
Mortal stress: Almost two years ago Chris’s 19-year-old assistant committed suicide. A few months later the fiancé of another assistant killed himself. Soon after, a close friend in Arizona OD’d and died. “It was all too much. I was done.” She closed the studio.
Now, health is everything. A year ago Chris got a blood infection and hasn’t been the same since. She used to brag about having a cast-iron bladder and ignored symptoms of malaise as having the flu. She woke one morning with uncontrollable shaking, wound up in the hospital for five weeks and has not fully recovered. No more wine, no more party girl. She’s a “workout animal” on a total health routine. “It’s a huge change in my life. I always did exactly what I wanted. I can’t do that now. I never paid a lot of attention to my health. Now it takes my full attention. I have been to so many doctors I write ‘professional patient’ when I fill out the new patient forms. I never realized how much work it is to get better.”
Relationships: “I have never had a lot of satisfaction from long relationships. Last year I met my Switzerland boyfriend in Paris for a week. We had a blast, but that was it. I think I protect myself when it’s time to get too close. I have had several boyfriends that like hanging out with me, but don’t see themselves with me forever. So, I just don’t go there. It hurts so much less.”
What about faith? “I don’t know about my faith in God. If he’s putting me through all of this shit, why would I want to go to a place called heaven? Do I believe I have very bad luck in life or does everything happen for a reason or karma? Does God only give you what you can handle? What is too much to handle?
“I remember listening to a wheeler telling a classroom full of people: ‘There isn’t anything different about me and you, except I do things sitting down.’ Everyone starts clapping and smiling. I almost burst out laughing. What a bunch of crap that is … they don’t deal with getting around everyday, people gawking at you, rejection getting a job, health issues, insurance issues, relationships, butt sores … right?”
John Bevins: Just Bob and Weave
John Bevins was paralyzed at 20 in a 1982 snow-tubing accident in Montana. “I was riding on an inner tube towed behind a Jeep, almost everybody’s done this. The driver hit the brakes, whipped me at about 70 miles per hour into a parked car. Turns out it was my own red ’69 Pontiac Bonneville ragtop.”
Right off the bat John tapped in to an instinct that has carried him along since: “Bob and weave. That’s what I tell people. Don’t take things too seriously. There’s too much going on around the planet to worry. I still remember the moment in the inner tube when I got hurt. I knew instantly what happened; I knew my back was broken. But as my friends and others gathered around me, they were all freaking out. I was the one keeping them calm.”
Says John, “I’ve reinvented myself many times over, using the same core to rebuild what I needed to, to adapt and even thrive.
“At the time I got hurt I was a roughneck working on oil rigs,” he says. “There’s no way to tell what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been injured. The spinal cord injury probably saved my life. It slowed me down so I wouldn’t do something to kill myself — something stupid like riding behind a car on an inner tube. Work on the derricks was the most dangerous job on the rig. I loved it and I could have been killed every day. But I just loved it.”
After a few weeks of Demerol and morphine, John landed in Craig Hospital. “If not for those people, I don’t know where my life would have gone. I still remember my doctor there. ‘You want sympathy?’ he asked. ‘Look it up in the dictionary, it’s between shit and syphilis.'”
Less than a year later, John was back to work doing the low-danger job of assembly for IBM. “I got stuck in that rut for 10 or 11 years, went back to school, got an almost useless drafting degree. But it did get me to a company in Boulder called Exabyte. I started as an assembler and left with a career. Got my foot in the door with the engineers; I’ve always been one with a lot of irons in the fire. Jack of all trades sort of guy.”
He taught himself to fix computers, so people at the company started bringing them to him. “I learned repair, technical illustration, 3-D modeling, design work, got my hand into a lot of things. Put in almost 11 years there. A great place to work but the company got into bankruptcy and I got laid off.” It was a bob, or maybe a weave, but between losing a job on Friday and the following Monday, John got another job, same sort of work. But three and a half years later, it was the same story: “Wrong guy in charge, he killed the company.”
John prefers rural living — lone wolf-style. “It’s been that way almost my whole life. When it gets to the point of a girlfriend moving in, it’s either her or me, but it doesn’t happen.” He was married from 1985-88. She had kids, he didn’t. “One morning she said to me, I still remember her exact words: ‘Good morning. Happy birthday. I love you. I’m pregnant. I want a divorce.'” It wasn’t his baby.
When we last visited John, he was living in a place called Hygiene making a cool device for Harley motorcycles that allowed a paralyzed rider to move the gear shift on a foot pedal. “I had come into some money, not much but enough to buy a Harley. People said you can’t ride that. Well, once I’m told I can’t do something, I do it anyway.” He patented a device for a hand-control foot shift. “I made 28 or 29 units. But I abandoned the patent. Had to. The insurance companies wanted me to carry liability insurance that would have raised the price from about $4,000 to eight grand. No way I was going to charge that much.” (Note: if you want one, you can see how John did it; look up the Bevins design at the U.S. Patent office, number 5299652.)
John is a gearhead, a car guy, a wrench. He’s been restoring old cars since he was 13. Always a project car. Well, this time the serendipitous weave really played to his strong suit. A neighbor had an old Amphicar that needed some work. You’ve seen them — half boat, half sports car, drive ’em right into the lake. Fewer than 4,000 made in Germany, all for the American market. Never caught on here. John says it was a problem with marketing. “They should have positioned these as a toy, not as a sports car that is also a boat.” Only 600 are seaworthy and about 2,000 are still rolling. So, the guy brought it to John to fix, he did a commendable job, and others in the boat-car community heard about him. Pretty soon he’s got a four-year waiting list to restore Amphicars as one of only four people in the world who know how to work on them. “I get cars from all over the U.S. I remove every single nut and bolt, take apart all 6,830 parts. I make them better than new.”
John buys every Amphicar he can get his hands on, brings them back to glory and sometimes makes some money. He sold one last year, when the collector car market was a bit more robust, for $64,000. He owns an unrestored car — in the car-guy world this is reverently called a “survivor” — in the Forney car museum in Denver. “They wanted it for 90 days, it’s been there three years.”
John loves to give people rides. He says you can’t believe what a thrill it is to drive right off the road into the water. “Sometimes I get a standing ovation. One time someone on the shore called for emergency equipment.”
Why Amphicars? “They have character. They’re weird and unusual and rare. Everything in my life is like that.