Riding the Bullitt

by Michael P. Murphy on September 1, 2008 - 2:47pm

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 5

A couple years ago, my folks and I were taking a walk around the block when a neighbor spotted me in my newest wheelchair and said, “Hey, Mike, I like your new black Caddie!”

Caddie? Caddie? It’s a good thing I couldn’t raise a fist, because these were fighting words! I said, “Hey, I’m a Ford man, like my Dad! What we have here is a Mustang, just like the one Steve McQueen drove in ‘Bullitt.’”

I’ve never been able to understand why the able-bodied look upon wheelchairs as symbols of confinement and a loss of dignity when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Every chair I’ve ever had was unique and important to a different phase of my life. Just as some people have fond memories of the cars they’ve owned through the years, for me, each wheelchair was not so much a vehicle as an extension of myself. After all, if it weren’t for wheelchairs, my whole physical existence would probably extend no further than four walls and a ceiling.

I was measured for my first wheelchair when I was around 4 or 5, and was excited finally to be graduating from a stroller. Almost immediately upon my chair’s arrival, my brother, sister and I plastered it with decals of everything from Evel Knievel to the Rolling Stones to Pink Floyd — this was the 1970s, remember. I had a ball in that chair. It was the chair that my brother and I used to tear around the local gravel pit, pretending to be stunt drivers. We barely made it home alive. It was the chair that my sister and I used to hide from “gawkers” — children who openly, rudely stared at me when we’d go to the mall.

Before my tracheostomy, on our last long-range family trip, this chair carried me around Disney World, and my poor mom got stuck guarding it while my dad carried me on all the accessible rides. I was also in this chair when I joined the Boy Scouts, quit the Boy Scouts, went fishing with my mom and dad, saw the original “Star Wars” trilogy for the first time, attended my brother’s wedding, became an uncle (twice), learned to play Dungeons & Dragons, graduated from high school, and attended my first science fiction convention — all from this same seat.

I had a real attachment to that first chair — you never forget your first love — but by my late teens, I required a ventilator 24/7, and my back had become so weak that I was no longer able to sit up. Even though it pained me to have to part with an old friend, I finally accepted the fact that it was time to upgrade to a reclining chair that also could carry a ventilator.

I was most comfortable lying on my side with my legs supported, so that I looked more like I was on a gurney than in a wheelchair. The only problem was that this new model was narrow, in case I ever regained enough strength to sit up. This meant that I felt as if I were strapped to a 2x4-foot board, causing me to nickname it “the Widow Maker.” Just getting in and out of the thing was an adventure in itself, since I always felt as if I was about to roll off the edge at the slightest bump, even though I was buckled in.

Still, there are so many good memories attached to this chair that I can’t quite bring myself to hate it. It served me through the publication of my first four novels, my sister’s wedding, moving to a new house, my first date, and several more science fiction conventions.

All in all, the Widow Maker wasn’t too bad a chair, but after 20 years of balancing on a seat that no longer suited my needs, I decided it was time for another improvement, so it was so long to the Widow Maker! What came next kept me from feeling too sentimental.

My newest chair, the Bullitt, was custom built for my reclined position, with plenty of room to stretch. The first time I ever tried it out with a grateful sigh, I was reminded of the poor British tank crews of World War II who spent the early years of the war crammed inside their tiny Churchill and Crusader tanks, but by the time of the Normandy landings, had been outfitted with the more spacious “Yank” Shermans.

Author Michael Murphy, a second-generation “Ford man,” in his custom-built ride. Inspired by Steve McQueen’s midnight green muscle Mustang and the famous San Francisco car-chase scene from the 1968 film classic, Murphy dubs his wheels the “Bullitt.”

This is also the first powered chair I’ve ever had, and while I’m not able to work the controls myself, it still makes for a smoother ride. Another neat feature is the chair’s ability to raise or lower the seat, something that especially comes in handy at parties. Since I’ve spent the majority of my life sitting down, I’ve only been able to look people straight in the crotch. Now that I can be raised to eye level, I frequently find myself saying, “Oh, so that’s what you look like!”

This feature also comes in handy at movie theatres. Just this past summer, I overheard this exchange a few rows behind me at the multiplex:

Little Kid: “What’s that, Dad?”

Dad: “That’s a wheelchair.”

Little Kid: “Why’s he in there?”

Dad: “Because he can’t walk.”

Dad: “I don’t know, there could be a lot of reasons. Maybe he —”

Little Kid: “What’s it doing?!”

Dad: “They’re raising his seat, see? Now he can see over the chairs. Pretty cool, huh?”

Little Kid: “Yeah, that’s awesome!”

Yeah, kid. It is pretty awesome. Funny isn’t it, that it took what sounded like a 7-year-old to see the truth of the matter, and not be freaked out by a simple piece of hardware?

In the event that they ever discover a cure for MD, I’ll still look back on all my wheelchairs as allies, not prisons. Steve McQueen might be gone, but every time I bounce over a curb, I always picture Frank Bullitt roaring over the hills of Lombard Street, and leaving his pursuers in flames. Our Mustangs never let either one of us down!

Michael P. Murphy, 42, has spinal muscular atrophy and lives in Oconomowoc, Wis., A frequent Quest contributor, he’s the author of two science fiction novels, To Rule In Hell and Data Streets, and a mystery/thriller, Innocence Kills. His novels may be ordered from the publisher at www.authorhouse.com, through Amazon.com or at local bookstores. Murphy welcomes feedback at: mmurphy6158@sbcglobal.net.

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