London Calling – Part 6 of 7

The airport in Liverpool was such a fun experience, as we got to soak up some of the culture of the city while we waited to board our plane to Dublin.  One of the things that made this part of the trip so special was the airport attendant who helped us at our departure gate.  The airport in Liverpool is quite small, so passengers have to walk out onto the tarmac and board the plane by walking up a flight of stairs to the plane. 

Since I was in a wheelchair, Amanda and I were personally escorted out to the plane by a man with a very thick Liverpudlian accent.  We both enjoyed listening to this gentleman speak.  As he walked us out to the plane, he told us briefly about his work.  He then wheeled me to an area where a lift would get me onto the plane.  It was fascinating to get this perspective of an airport. 

After using the lift to get onto the plane, I was wheeled to my seat and we were off to Ireland, a place that I had wanted to see for many years.  When we arrived in Dublin, we were greeted at the gate by two men who would use the lift to get me down out of the airplane.  These gentlemen reminded of some characters from a movie called Waking Ned Devine.  They both were very kind and seemed the type that would buy everyone a pint of Guinness at the local pub after a hard day’s work.  These two men escorted us inside the airport and showed us to customs. 

We were greeted warmly by the customs agent and then it was time to find the rental car agency, which was only a short walk from customs.  Amanda and I were both quite anxious about driving in a foreign country, especially one where we would be driving on the opposite side of the road.  Amanda did a fine job getting us to our hotel, despite that fact that it was dark and the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car.  It is quite difficult to retrain your brain to drive a car that is configured so differently, while also driving on the “wrong” side of the road.  Fortunately, we made it to our hotel where I think we both were relieved to be out of the car.

The next day we were off to the Guinness brewery.  Unfortunately, it was also my turn to drive.  On the way to the brewery I had to keep reminding myself to stay on the left side of the road.  It was almost like a mantra that was running through my head the entire drive – “stay on the left side of the road, stay on the left side of the road!”  I can’t tell you how many curbs I hit, as I was trying to stay as far over in my lane as possible.  This is because the streets are only about as wide as our sidewalks here in the United States.  It was a good thing that not many people were out walking along the street, or I may be in an Irish jail today. 

Thankfully, we reached the brewery before I ran over anyone.  However, as I parked I hit yet another curb!  It is only by the grace of God that we did not total our rental car on this trip, as we both hit plenty of curbs and nearly sideswiped rock walls along the sidewalks that the Irish call roads. 

The highlight of the Guinness tour was the tasting room, which had a 360 degree view of Dublin.  It was such a beautiful, sunny day and you could see for miles.  From here we were able to spot Trinity College, and many other famous landmarks throughout the city.  It was a place where we could have sat and just taken in the view for hours.  However, we had plans to drive across the entire width of Ireland so that we could see the Cliffs of Moher. 

The tasting room at the Guinness Brewery. I could have sat here all day and just looked out over the city.

Amanda started out in the driver’s seat for our three-hour journey across the Irish countryside, however, about an hour into the drive, I was just too anxious as she kept crossing the center lane while on the highway.  So, I asked her to pull over while I took another turn behind the wheel.  I then proceeded to cross the center line as well for the next hour or so until I just grew tired of driving.  Graciously, Amanda agreed to once again do the driving and we continued on our way. 

If you want to test the strength of your relationship just go on a drive through a foreign country where the roads are as narrow as a bike path, the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car, you are forced to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, and everything is marked in kilometers.  It made me wish I had paid more attention in math class as we worked on converting miles to kilometers. 

After stopping in a few small towns along the way, we finally made it to the Cliffs of Moher.  When we got out we realized that our walk up the cliffs was going to be a windy one.  Also, as the word “cliff” suggests, we were in for some rather steep inclines.  Being a person with a rather strong upper body, I thought I’d probably be able to make it up these inclines in my wheelchair.  Sadly, this was not the case, as the grades were just too steep and the winds were just too strong.  At the point I was ready to admit defeat, a group from North Dakota miraculously showed up to help me up the paths to the top.  There were three men in this group that each took turns pushing me up a different section of the path.  I believe that God had a hand in providing these men to help me, as he had provided people all along this trip.  As you can see from the pictures below, the views from the cliffs were breathtaking. 

These are the famous “Cliffs of Insanity” featured in the movie The Princess Bride.
Such a windy day, but such a beautiful place to be.

Ireland is a place that Amanda and I would definitely like to visit again.  The people were so friendly, in fact they even had vests with my initials on them as you can see in the picture below.  I wish we would have had more time to spend in this strikingly beautiful country.  When we do go back I need to get myself one of those vests!   

I need one of these “RTB” vests to wear around. it would come in handy for a nighttime bike ride.

London Calling – Part 5 of 7

After a brief stay in London we took the train north to Yorkshire to visit some friends of ours.  Helen and Ian live in a village called Kippax, which is just outside the city of Leeds.  They had invited us to stay with them for a few days so that we could explore their part of England.  I am so glad that we did this. 

Helen and Ian opened their home to us, fed us, and showed us around the country that they love.  I think seeing this part of England was one of our favorite parts of this whole trip.  However, next time we go, we will be sure to take some Dramamine, as the roads in Yorkshire are rather narrow and curvy.  I can safely say that I was holding on for dear life as Helen drove us up to the Yorkshire Dales.  This area, as you can see from the pictures below, is stunningly beautiful.  I had always wanted to see the English countryside and the Dales did not disappoint. 

   

You can see for miles in the Dales.

Getting to meet other friends that live in this part of England, such as Gail and Sue, was also a treat.  It was fun to spend time with all of these people and hear about their lives.  They all treated us with kindness and hospitality.  I can think of no better example of this then Ian and Helen driving us from Kippax to Liverpool, which is a little over 80 miles. 

It was a rainy day, and Amanda and I had just planned to be dropped off in Liverpool.  We would then book a tour that would show us around the city that gave birth to the Beatles.  However,  Ian would not hear of it and he proceeded to drive us all around Liverpool so that I could catch glimpses of Penny Lane, Strawberry Field, John Lennon’s boyhood home, and other parts of the city where Beatles history had been made.  The selflessness of this act is something that will always mean a great deal to me.  Ian also made sure that we were safely escorted to the airport in Liverpool for our flight to Dublin.  There are still good people in the world, and many of them can be found in England.  Oh, and the secret to London’s public restrooms is a “radar” key.  Helen and Ian provided us with one of these.  It is a key that, according to the BBC, “unlocks the doors of more than 9,000 handicapped restrooms across the UK.”  I accidentally brought this key back to the U.S. with us.  Helen if you are reading this, we will mail it back to you!   

Strawberry Fields Forever…

P.S. – If you ever find yourself in the city of York visit Betty’s Tea Room for some tea and a piece of their lemon curd torte. Also, make sure you visit York Minster. It is one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. You will not be disappointed.

Me learning how to drink tea properly at Betty’s in York.

London Calling – Part 4 of 7

By day two in London we had gotten a better feel for our surroundings and found that the transit system in London is quite accessible to those with disabilities.  Many of the train platforms have been constructed in such a way that those in wheelchairs can roll straight from the platform onto the train, which made it very simple to travel from one part of London to the next.  Likewise, just about every curb has a cutout or is level with the street so that rolling along the sidewalks is no problem at all.  I’ve never been in a city quite as accommodating as London, for not only are physical structures accessible, but the people are more than willing to go out of their way to help.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the tube stations and bus stops all across the city. 

Transit workers putting place a portable ramp that allowed me to roll up right onto the train in my wheelchair. I cannot say enough good things about these people.

As noted above, many train platforms are level with the train compartments so that rolling right onto the train in a wheelchair is very simple.  However, there are still some stations that do not have this kind of accessibility.  This was no problem though, as there always seemed to be transit workers there with portable ramps which enabled me to roll right up onto the train, as pictured above.  The kindness displayed by these workers was something I will never forget.  Many times we were asked what station we were headed to next and the attendant would radio the next stop and let them know that we would need a ramp.  I felt as if the whole of London was rolling out the “red carpet” for me wherever I went.  Now if only the queen would have invited us in for tea when we stopped by Buckingham Palace.   

These guards outside Buckingham Palace weren’t quite as welcoming as everyone else had been. They meant business standing watch with their automatic weapons at the ready.

The busses in London were also very easy to use, as they all are equipped with wheelchair ramps that come sliding out onto the sidewalk.  There is also a designated area just for wheelchairs in each bus.  An added bonus is that disabled individuals can ride the busses for free.  So, if you are thinking about heading to London you might want to get yourself a wheelchair.   

Buildings that are thousands of years old are also very accessible to those with disabilities.  For instance, when we visited Westminster Abbey, the staff from the church brought out portable ramps, which enabled me to roll right up into the cathedral.  This was true for every cathedral that we visited all throughout England.  Why are buildings that are far more new here in the United States not as accessible? 

Westminster Abbey was one of my favorite stops along the way.

With ease we were able to tour the market on Portobello Road, see the place where Jimi Hendrix, one of my musical heroes, died and visit other sites that we had only ever dreamed about seeing.  This was all made possible by those willing to lend a hand to two crazy Americans that jammed a month’s worth of sightseeing into just two weeks! 

The Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill. This place was so colorful and there were so many different things to buy.

London Calling – Part 3 of 7

That infamous wheelchair, which I mentioned in part two of this story would prove quite valuable during our first full day in London, for we were off on a walking tour of some of the sites related to the history of the Beatles.  Our guide for this tour was a man by the name of Richard Porter, who makes his living showing Beatles fans around London.  Richard was an interesting man, to say the least.  He resembled Richard Simmons and had the energy to match.  Were we going to be “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” or merely taking a leisurely stroll through London’s Soho?  Fortunately, it was the latter.  Richard had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Fab Four, so our tour led us to some very interesting places.  

Richard Porter – “The Walking, Talking Beatles Encyclopedia”

Our first stop along the way was Paul McCartney’s office building.  Richard said that Paul can be spotted at times coming and going, but we had no such luck.  We then stopped in front of Trident Studios.  This is the studio where the Beatles recorded much of the White Album, along with one of their last singles, “Hey Jude.”  Many other legendary musicians have recorded here as well, such as David Bowie, Elton John, Queen, The Rolling Stones, and Frank Zappa.  From Trident Studios we headed to Carnaby Street, an area well known for its fashion boutiques that catered to many of the popular bands of the 1960’s.    

Next, we found ourselves in front of the London Palladium, the theatre where “Beatlemania” is said to have begun .  Unfortunately, as you can see from the picture below, the only thing happening this day was a concert by Rick Astley. 

Richard giving me the history of the London Palladium and its place in Beatles lore

From the Palladium we ventured on to a club called the Bag O’ Nails.  This is a club where the Jimi Hendrix Experience played one of its first live shows.  It is also where Paul McCartney met Linda, his first wife.  Loving the music of both the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, it was a thrill for me to see these places that I had only ever read about in books.

Then, as if this day could not get any better, it was time to see one of the places that looms quite large in the legend of the Beatles, Apple Studios at 3 Savile Row.  This is where the band played their legendary rooftop concert on January 30, 1969.  Sadly, this was to be their last live performance as a band.  After spending a few minutes taking pictures and soaking in all of this wonderful history, it was time to move on to our next two stops. 

The brown brick building with the four windows at the very top is 3 Savile Row, site of the Beatles rooftop concert.

The first of these places was the Scotch of St. James, another very important landmark in the history of 60’s rock and roll, as this was a club that saw many legendary performers play.  In the same square where the Scotch of St. James is located also stands the building that once housed the Indica Gallery.  The Indica was an art gallery where John Lennon was first introduced to Yoko Ono.  Oh, if only John had stayed home that night!

To end our day of Beatles sightseeing, Richard, Amanda, and I caught a train that would take us to Abbey Road Studios.  This is a sight that I thought I would never get to see in person.  As you can see below, I was able to roll across the famous crossing where the Beatles were photographed for the cover of Abbey Road, which is my favorite album of theirs. 

The famous crossing just down the street from Abbey Road Studios.

After a very long, but exciting day, at least for me, we rode the train back to the heart of Westminster.  This is where Big Ben and the Houses or Parliament are located.  I had waited years to visit Big Ben, and to my dismay it was obscured by layers of scaffolding!  However, that wasn’t the biggest problem I’d encounter this night. 

One thing that became more clear as the night wore on, is that public restrooms are few and far between in London.  Having grown up in the United States, where you can stop at almost any fast food restaurant or gas station and use the restroom, I was shocked to discover that this was not the case in London.  This realization almost became a disaster as I spent nearly an hour looking for a place to use the restroom.  Then when we found one, we had to find a person to unlock it for us.  I’m not sure if they were worried someone was going to steal the toilet paper or run off with the commode, but as we found out later there is a secret to these restrooms! After the restroom saga came to an end, we looked for a place to eat.  We settled for an interesting pub across the street from Big Ben.  

Big Ben hiding behind all of the scaffolding.

As we were eating we began to speak with the couple seated next to us and found out they were from Chicago, which made for some enjoyable dinner conversation.  It was fun to share stories with them and just soak in the culture that surrounded us.        

After a very eventful day, we took the train back to our hotel and settled in for the night excited to see what the next day would bring.  Oh, and that wheelchair, it made it through the day as well, but it too was weary.  I wonder if it has ever been found, but more about that in the next post.

London Calling – Part 2 of 7

After winding our way through some shady looking parts of London, we finally made it to our hotel.  As it turns out our cab driver was not a murderer after all. In fact, he turned out to be a rather nice gentleman.  After retrieving our bags from the trunk of his car, in which there were no dead bodies, we walked inside the hotel.  Check in was quick and we set off for our room.  Once inside, neither one of us could figure out how to turn the lights on until Amanda discovered that we needed to put our key card into a slot, which enabled the lights to operate.  By this time both of us had been awake for several hours. However, due to the change in time it was not easy to get to sleep, as we both were still on Illinois time and were excited about our adventure.  Despite this we each climbed into our single bed and drifted off to sleep.  We had finally made it to London and now we were in a 1950’s sitcom, each of us snuggled in our own single bed. 

Waking up the next day feeling not so refreshed, Amanda and I caught a bus that would take us back to the airport so that we could catch our train into Chelsea, which is the part of London where we would be staying for the next few nights. Not realizing that we needed bus fare for the ride, we both climbed aboard where the driver explained that this was not a free shuttle service to the airport. However, being very kind, he let us both ride for free back to the airport.  This act of kindness was the first of many that we’d experience in England and Ireland.          

On our way back to the airport we finally saw the area by the light of day. It actually did not appear as menacing as it had the night before.  In fact, you could say parts of it were rather idyllic as there were sheep grazing in a pasture along the way.  This was certainly no place for a gangland style murder.

After about 30 minutes we arrived back at the airport where we thanked our driver for the free ride, exchanged some currency, and made our way to the tube station at Heathrow. Getting to Chelsea required a few transfers from one train line to another, however, things were well marked and we had lots of friendly people helping to direct us to the correct platforms and stops. We finally made it to Chelsea and found that our hotel was approximately 200 yards or so from where we got off of the train, which was great because we both were pretty exhausted at this point. Upon checking in, we found that the wheelchair that we had rented for our trip had arrived. This wheelchair would play such an important role while were we traveling, and to this day it is a mystery as to whether or not it made its way back to its rightful owner. However, that is a story for another section of this series.

London Calling – Part 1 of 7

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty the ocean does not become dirty. – Mahatma Gandhi

A view of the River Thames from one of our first nights in London

The older I get the more appreciation I have for others that are able to show compassion. I believe there is still a lot of good in humanity. Despite what you might read in the newspapers or see on the television news, there are still many honorable people that are willing to help others in need. Perhaps, the best demonstration of this for me was on a recent trip that my wife Amanda and I took to England and Ireland.

Amanda and I departed for England on September 1 from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. As we got to the airport we checked in with the airline and then went straight to security. The TSA agents were polite and professional. However, getting through security at an airport has always been a particular “treat” for me. This time was no different.

I was escorted to a chair and asked to remove my belt and my shoes. Then once the security agents realized I was also wearing leg braces, I was asked to remove them as well. Next, my crutches were confiscated so they could be rubbed down and x-rayed to see if they were carrying any illegal substances. I guess my idea of becoming an international drug smuggler will never come to fruition, as my crutches are not the perfect hiding place as I once imagined.

So, there I sat with my pants half way off, no shoes, and no crutches. It really was a helpless feeling. After sitting there a while I began to wonder if they had forgotten that I was there waiting. Would I just be left there to spend the rest of my days in the airport? Fortunately, this did not happen and everything was eventually returned to me. Then the arduous task of putting everything back on began before I could leave the security checkpoint.

After passing through security we realized that our gate was at least a 10 mile walk, or so it seemed. I had already been violated by the TSA and now I was required to walk what felt like a marathon. However, the goal was worth it so I pressed on and we finally made it to our departure gate. Then, after a relatively uneventful 45 minutes we were told that it was time to board. Thankfully, since I have crutches, Amanda I were given priority boarding, which basically means only Amanda and the flight crew got to see me walk clumsily through the gauntlet of tightly packed rows of airplane seats.

Once we reached our seats, the flight attendants were very accommodating and helped us get our carry-ons in the overhead bins. This is the part of any flight that makes me a little anxious, as my crutches are usually taken away from me and stowed away in an overhead bin that is packed to the gills with baggage. What happens if I need to get up and use the bathroom during the flight? Digging through an overpacked bin to get a pair of crutches out is not an easy task. However, I figured I’d deal with it if and when the time came. Luckily, that time did not come until we touched down at Heathrow at about 11 p.m. London time.

When we disembarked there was an airport attendant waiting for me with a cart. I asked her to take me to the nearest restroom, which was just a short ride from the gate. After 8 hours I was finally able to find relief!

We then made our way to customs, which consisted of two grouchy agents asking us what we were in England for and where we’d be staying. Upon the conclusion of our brief interrogation our escort asked us where we needed to go. She then called a cab for us, which was a black Mercedes Benz. We knew that our hotel for our first night in London was just a few miles from the airport, however, our cab driver took us through an industrial area, which by night, looked like a perfect place for a murder to be committed. Where were we going and why did it seem like we were being driven to the ghetto?

Put the Crippled Kid up Front…

Thanks for joining me!

“Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine.” — Lord Byron

Me at 6 years old looking quite dapper for my debut in a medical journal. The eyes were blacked out to provide anonymity. However, the leisure suit was screaming “I’m loud and I am proud!”

Writing a blog is an idea that I have had for quite some time. However, I have always hesitated because I was not sure anyone would be interested in anything that I have to say. Then, it occurred to me that writing is something that can be very therapeutic. If people enjoy what I have to say then that is just a bonus.

Since I was in high school I have always enjoyed writing. Being a life-long introvert, writing gave me a way to express myself. It also helped me to unlock some of the thoughts I had kept bottled up inside of me for many years.

When I was born my parents were told to take me home and love me and to treat me as they would any other child. The problem with that is I was not like any other child. I was born with a birth defect called spina bifida, which would require frequent trips to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

Children’s was like a home away from home for much of my adolescence. Despite what you might think, I have fond memories of Children’s. The nurses and doctors there provided a level of care that was second to none. This was also a place, where as a young boy, I began to see the absurdity in life.

Self-deprecating humor got me through many days and nights in the hospital. If I was not able to laugh at situations it would just lead to frustration. Having a disability is frustrating!

Living in a world that was not made for someone like me forces one to overcome. Thank goodness for my stubborness and for my sense of humor. They are two assets that I have used in my life to climb over obstacles.

This leads me to why I chose “Put the Crippled Kid up Front” as the name for this blog. This comes from an incident when my family and I were at a local restaurant. The wait for a table was quite long, so my mom whispered, “put the crippled kid up front.” I then walked to where the owner of the restaurant could see me. He took one look at me and we had a table.

Since this time “put the crippled kid up front” has become an inside joke for my family. It is a way that I have used humor to overcome obstacles. It has also led to some surprises along the way.

In this blog I will share some of those surprises and will explore how living life with a disability can be both challenging and rewarding. I hope you will stick around and see where life has taken me.