I’ve learned through a lifetime that those who have perceived handicaps are not to be pitied. Nearly everyone I’ve met, who is not like me, lives a full life and should be admired, not pitied.
Even the scores of people who lost legs in the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon are telling positive stories. They don’t feel sorry for themselves, but eagerly await each challenge and look forward to bright futures.
I’m not sure I could handle that the same way.
We’ve all known folks whose lives are full despite a handicap that would devastate those of us who don’t live with blindness, hearing loss, loss of limbs, scars or debilitating disease. In many ways their lives are fuller than our own because they appreciate everything life brings their way.
We’ve seen a man with no legs run in the Olympics. We’ve seen unsighted people play baseball. There’s a man in Iowa with no arms who excels in the sport of archery.
This particular tale is the story of Larry Bell, an old friend of mine. Larry has been gone now for more than two decades; he died of natural causes. In the mid-1950s, Larry lost one of his legs in an industrial accident.
Larry never had a prosthetic leg and I can picture him now, scurrying about with two wooden crutches that replaced his missing leg.
He was a unique individual whose passion was racing cars.
The story I am about to tell happened in the mid-1970s during the annual Great Jones County Fair in Monticello.
To set the stage, you first have to realize that during that era of automobile racing, automatic transmissions were not used.
Back then, virtually every race car in America had a standard transmission.
Operating a gas pedal, a clutch and brake is daunting for many. Doing that with one leg, speeding around an oval track was nearly impossible.
In that respect, Larry was ahead of his time.
He had one of the few race cars of the mid-1970s that utilized an automatic transmission. I don’t know if he had tampered with the torque converter or made any other changes. I do know that it wasn’t the type of transmission you could use to race your car up front. Larry was not what is called a "front-runner," but he had fun just being there.
Now, let’s get back to the Great Jones County Fair.
The fair is perhaps the second largest in Iowa (second only to the Clay County Fair in Spencer) and it draws thousands of fair-goers daily. The half-miledirt (well, it’s more sand than dirt) track is used for racing only once a year. That’s during the Jones County Fair.
Few true "race fans" attend because the track is just simply not designed for racing cars. The competition is, for the most part, missing because it’s a narrow track, the surface contains a lot of sand, and it’s almost impossible to pass another car. The joke is that you win the race if you draw "1" when signing in because that means you’ll start up front and nobody will pass you all afternoon.
Still 5,000 fans or more will pack into the grandstand for the afternoon of racing. That’s because fair-goers pay one fee to get into the grounds and all the entertainment is free.
Few among those thousands of people lining the track (drivers’ wives, dads and moms the exceptions) are race fans. They don’t attend races weekly; they don’t know the drivers … and they certainly didn’t know Larry Bell on that hot summer afternoon 40 years ago.
They didn’t see Larry outside his car before the race; he was hidden in the large infield of the track. He remained in his car during driver introductions.
During his first race, Larry’s car turned sideways on the front straight of the track and began a series of tumbles. He rolled two-and-a-half times. The car wound up on its top in front of all those screaming fair-goers who believed they’d just seen someone get seriously injured, or worse.
But, Larry was not hurt, and that’s when a near panic ensued.
Larry undid his safety belts, climbed out of the car and began hopping off the track on one leg.
Most of the people watching, however, believed that Larry’s other leg, somehow, was still in his overturned race car. Mothers began covering the eyes of their children; thousands of people were screaming.
That’s when the announcer, if he could say the wrong thing, did. "Oh, no," he yelled into his microphone. "He’s only got one leg."
That brought even more screams until the announcer realized he’d not chosen his words well. "No," he said. "I mean, he started the race with one leg."
Folks in Eastern Iowa, old-timers at least, still talk about that afternoon when they’re discussing things they’ve seen in their lives.
When I see someone who’s missing a leg, I think of my old friend Larry Bell.
It’s still one of my favorite stories.