The Name Game

When I launched this blog two weeks ago, I decided to include a temporary teaser in the description. It promised to reveal what “a hymn, a B-29 bomber, a lightweight wheelchair, and a restored Mustang convertible all have in common.”

The short answer: They share, either literally or metaphorically, the same name as the blog. All are Sweet Chariots. I think you’ll find the common thread interesting, if not amazing.
In my first post (Tuesday, May 3, 2011), I wrote of the independence that a wheelchair provides for people with paralysis. As a paraplegic, able-bodied above the waist, I enjoy almost complete independence with the aid of my custom-fitted wheelchair. To underscore its importance, I referred to it as the foremost of my Sweet Chariots. The very next day, I knew that I had named this blog appropriately. While visiting a local veterinarian’s office, I was stunned when one of the staff paid an unexpected compliment to my vintage Mustang parked outside, calling it “one sweet chariot.”
Coincidence? I think not.
As for the relevance of chariots, let’s just say it’s pretty significant. Chariots were the first cool rides for mankind. Before they existed, the only conveyances on wheels were cumbersome ox carts (which were even slower than walking). But around 2000 BC, someone invented the spoked wheel, which yielded a remarkable weigh reduction. Soon, the carts themselves were cut down to a simple floor with a wraparound shield in front, and pulled by a couple of speedy horses. Voila! Chariots were not only the earliest form of horse carriage, they were the fastest wheels on earth—the first hotrods.
I would hazard a guess that virtually everyone who has seen the epic movie Ben-Hur (MGM, 1959) was hugely impressed by the great chariot race, often hailed as one of the most spectacular action sequences ever filmed. The real stars were the beautifully matched four-horse teams pulling ornate chariots around the dirt oval of the Circus Maximus. Chariot races were a big deal in ancient times, and 2,000 years later we’re still doing it. The Indy 500 and the Daytona 500 are just two of the many racing events held on oval tracks. And get this: a war chariot was known as a car in ancient times. Another word for the chariot, though more obscure, was chair.
Are you starting to get the idea? Even my state-of-the-art wheelchair has spoked wheels. Sure, they feature the latest in lightweight design, with titanium rims and carbon-fiber spokes, but they share much in common with the ancient chariot.
Chariots figure prominently in the Bible, of course, such as the chariot of fire that takes the prophet Elijah to heaven. About 150 years ago, a former African-American slave was inspired by the imagery of that heavenly carriage to write a spiritual about embracing death and preparing for the afterlife. Wallis Willis is credited with writing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” sometime before 1862. Within little more than a decade, the spiritual was popular in the United States and Europe thanks to a traveling African-American chorus, the Jubilee Singers. Recorded for the first time in 1909, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has remained popular for generations. Not only is it found in the hymnals of most church denominations, it has been rerecorded or performed by many contemporary entertainers including Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and Beyoncé.
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was one of the all-time favorite hymns of my father, Hays Gamble. Raised in the Methodist church, he was only fifteen when his father died of pneumonia during a business trip. The tragedy shaped my dad’s entire outlook on life, and I believe he found a great deal of comfort in the lyrics of the hymn. When he went off to war, flying a B-29 heavy bomber over Japan in 1945, he quite literally took that comfort with him. Like almost every combat plane in the US Army Air Force, his bomber was adorned with nose art; but unlike the great majority, which featured some iteration of a half-naked female, his was simply a cloud with the words “Sweet Chariot” in shaded vertical script.
My dad flew fifteen combat missions from the island of Guam in 1945 and never got so much as a scratch, though his plane was hit by a bullet or two. A generation later, Guam was my first duty station as a young navigator in a Navy electronic reconnaissance squadron. Again, borrowing from the title of my second posting here: was my assignment to the same tiny island a matter of coincidence, or providence?

You decide, but whichever way you lean, you can’t ignore the remarkable thread of  the various Sweet Chariots that fill  my life. I am blessed.

Post Script: When my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1995, he had time to arrange portions of his funeral. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was one of the three hymns he requested.

We got Lucky. So did she.

Lucky was laid to rest yesterday beneath a pretty oak tree in our yard. We weren’t prepared for her to go so soon, but our prayers were answered as they were meant to be.

X-rays and blood tests on Wednesday afternoon revealed something amiss in her abdominal region, and she had an uncomfortable night. After some consulting and weighing of options we decided to go ahead with exploratory surgery on Thursday morning. Lucky was anemic and had been refusing food for a few days, so the surgery was a calculated risk—but it quickly proved to be the right choice. The doctor discovered almost immediately that Lucky had advanced cancer of the liver, with indications that it had already spread to other organs. There was no point in trying to save her. The vet sutured her abdomen and kept her under anesthesia while we called the family together. We were all with her and shed copious tears as she passed.

Lucky was much more than a special dog. She found us in the spring of 2003 as much as we found her. A stray, evidently abandoned, she was a homeless two-year-old living under a footbridge not far our home in Hendersonville, NC. My 8-year-old son had already been asking for a dog, specifically a Golden Retriever, and one day there she was. Dirty, malnourished, skittish. She’d obviously borne a litter recently but there were no pups to be found (their fate remains a mystery). And she had apparently experienced some bad storms, for she never got over her fear of thunder. Before deciding to take her in, we dropped her off with our vet, Dr. Don Zehr, for an examination. He called as soon as he was done. “She’s a great dog,” he told me. “You got lucky.” So naming her was a no-brainer. She quickly assimilated with our family and became one of us. We had a joyous eight years together.

 Lucky took her last ride with me in the convertible yesterday. This morning, I discovered some of her blonde hairs on the passenger seat. I put them in an envelope that will always remain in the car, so she will be part of my future journeys, wherever they may take me.

Coincidence or Synchronicity?

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I have seen enough examples of providence in my lifetime to believe that certain events transcend mere coincidence.  Just today, less than a full day after launching “Sweet Chariot,” I had an experience that raised goose bumps.
Our beloved family dog, a Golden Retriever named Lucky, is suffering from a yet-undetermined ailment, so I made an appointment with our veterinarian to have her examined. As a “wheeler,” I’m not usually the one to take our pets to the vet, but on this occasion everyone else in the household was either at work or in school.
 On the spur of the moment, I decided to drive Lucky in my classic Mustang (which I haven’t even introduced to readers yet) for the simple reason that the dog weighs 70 pounds and has claws that could easily mar the leather seats of my other car, a pristine Lincoln coupe. The vintage Mustang, modernized for long trips, has been retrofitted with reclining bucket seats upholstered in heavy black tweed—impervious to dog damage.
Lucky was cooperative and climbed into the passenger seat, then waited patiently while I dismantled my wheelchair and stowed it in the backseat. Arriving at North Bay Animal Hospital in Lynn Haven, I reversed the procedure and transferred into my chair, then grabbed Lucky’s leash and led her into the waiting room. Soon it was our turn to be ushered to an exam room, whereupon Lucky was escorted away for some x-rays.
I had been waiting for just a few minutes when technician Kaylen Biggins popped into the doorway and asked, “Is that your Mustang in the parking lot?” When I answered in the affirmative, she heaped on the praise: “What a beautiful car!”
It turns out that Kaylen is very fond of Golden Retrievers as well as vintage cars. Her “other half” (as she called him) still drives the AMC Gremlin that he owned in high school, though it’s now upgraded with a V-8 and is totally restored. So she was understandably enthusiastic about my Candyapple Red 1967 convertible, which really does look sweet, if I say so myself. While we were chatting, Lucky was brought back from her x-rays and sat at my side. So here’s where we get to the good part.
Kaylen, being a dog person and especially a Golden Retriever person, talked to Lucky like she’s just another human in the room. Her face beaming, Kaylen gave the dog her full attention and said, “Boy, Lucky, that’s some ride you got out there. That’s one sweet chariot!”
You could have knocked me over with a feather. Who says “sweet chariot” in casual conversation? It’s an unusual expression, to say the least. Unable to help myself I asked, “Did you just say ‘sweet chariot’? She laughed and said yes, at which point I blurted out, “Just yesterday, I started a new blog by that name! This is unbelievable!”
Next the vet came in. I first met Dr. Bo Bergloff at a charity banquet a couple of years ago, and we’ve seen each other once or twice at a Lynn Haven church. He hasn’t even told me about Lucky yet, but he’s heard the staff talking about the Mustang and has taken a peek outside for himself. We shake hands, and he pulls out a photo album with—get this—pictures of a 1969 Mach 1 he has owned for twenty years (and is still in the process of restoring). So the vet’s not only a car guy, he’s a classic Mustang guy, too.
Just  coincidence, or is there something more like guidance at work here?
Either way, I made some new friends today. And I know that Lucky will be in good hands. I can’t finish this post without mentioning that she is about ten years old, quite long in the tooth for a Golden Retriever, and we still don’t know yet what’s wrong with her. Your thoughts and prayers for a beloved pet will be greatly appreciated.

Getting Out There: The Difference between Dependence and Independence

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Greetings! If you’re a first-time visitor, you might be wondering what this blog is all about.  I promise to clue you in, but it will take some time. You see, we’re going on a journey together—one that could span weeks, months, or maybe years. It’s my sincere hope that you’ll learn something useful along the way. A little about the important things in life; about the call of the open road and the things we can discover in this beautiful country of ours. And I especially hope you’ll discover something about independence, about accepting what we’re given in life and making the most of it.
I’m an eternal optimist. Life is pretty good, even though I haven’t walked in more than twenty-two years. Not one step. Yep, I’m a paraplegic—and I’m lucky.
On the 27th of December, 1988, I spent 14 hours on an operating table in Bethesda Naval Hospital while a team of neurosurgeons tried to eradicate a malignant tumor that had been growing for months inside my spinal cord. They did a wonderful job, but there was no possibility of removing such an insidious growth without harming the ultra-delicate nerves inside that narrow space. Between the surgery and follow-up radiation treatments, many root nerves were irreparably damaged, leaving me permanently paralyzed below the T-10 level. To those well-versed in the language of spinal cord injuries, I’m a “para.” Many people in the general population think of me as confined to a wheelchair, and I’ve even been described that way by the press.  It’s a blunt and outdated expression, but it’s also partially true. I sleep in a bed just like most folks, and I can get in or out of my wheelchair whenever I want, but I must perpetually accept an important fact: without the assisted mobility of a wheelchair or some other conveyance, I am going nowhere. Strictly on my own, I could crawl or drag myself for a matter of yards, at most.
I would guess that a great majority of you reading this blog have rarely, if ever, given a second thought to your ability to walk. Let’s say you are sitting in your favorite recliner and you want something in another room—a snack from the kitchen, perhaps. You just get up and fetch it. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, you’re back in your easy chair. But for people who have lost the ability to walk due to paralysis, such a simple activity is either a major challenge or downright impossible. In my case, I would first transfer from said recliner into my wheelchair, then maneuver the wheelchair into the kitchen and fix a snack while sitting down. To carry my treat back into the living room, I’d have to put it on a tray and balance it on my lap while wheeling to the recliner. After setting down the tray, I’d transfer back into the recliner and enjoy the fruits of my effort.  Such effort, especially the transfers, requires considerable upper body strength. Jake Sully, the paraplegic Marine in the movie Avatar (played by Sam Worthington), made transferring look easy—but for many people with paralysis, it’s not.
Which brings me to the reason why I’m fortunate to be a paraplegic. During the months I spent in a VA hospital while undergoing rehabilitation, I was on a spinal cord injury ward with numerous quadriplegics, or “quads.” Their paralysis began at the cervical level, and although some with low-level quadriplegia had limited mobility in their shoulders and arms, they were still dependent on some form of human assistance to conduct the majority of their daily activities. Those with high cervical injuries—think Christopher Reeve—could only move their head.  It’s all relative. Without the use of your legs, you can still be independent—a factor that allows one to enjoy a most rewarding quality of life. Lose the use of your arms as well, and you are at least partially dependent on other people for virtually all of your daily needs and activities.
Now you can understand why I feel lucky: in a very selfish way, I’m grateful that I’m not a quad.
And so, good readers, perhaps you can appreciate the importance of my lightweight, specially-fitted wheelchair. It’s much more than a tool. It enables me to enjoy an essential element of life that many of us take for granted: independence.  I don’t think of it as a thing of confinement, like a punishment or a prison cell. To the contrary, it represents my freedom to come and go as I please.  It’s the foremost of my Sweet Chariots.
Coming soon: The Essence of Independence—Rubber on the Road