The landmine laid in the landing zone where Dave Roberts turned to survey his platoon likely was meant for the helicopter that brought him there. But in Vietnam, where the indiscriminate lottery of fate left many wondering why they were saved while others never made it home, the chopper landed safely and the landmine, instead, awaited Roberts as he stepped off.
“It was surreal, the explosion seemed like it was miles away,” Roberts says of the day he lost his legs in Vietnam. “It never dawned on me that I was losing enough blood to die.”
Whatever might have dawned on Paul Cook the day he, too, stepped on a landmine is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Cook, also a Vietnam vet, says of the war that took both of his legs and an arm.
“Paul is one of the most remarkable individuals I know,” Roberts says of his fellow wheelchair bowler. “He is a triple amputee, but he just maintains a tremendously positive attitude and the best competitive spirit — he exemplifies sportsmanship.”
Nearly 30 years after Roberts and Cook came home with their lives forever altered by war, a man whose own tragedy would soon connect his life with theirs left his office building in Houston and collapsed to the ground when a malfunctioning door slammed into his chest. A victim of polio at 18 months old, Gary Ryan already required the assistance of crutches to get around. Now, even crutches would seem like a luxury.
“I landed on my left shoulder and ripped all the ligaments loose. I needed eight screws in my shoulder and it took a year-and-a-half to rehab,” Ryan says of the injury. “When you lose your arms and you’re on crutches, your arms are your legs. I couldn’t go from one point to another without an attendant who lived in my home for the next seven months.”
But years before polio assigned Ryan to a life on crutches, even before Roberts and Cook boarded a plane for a fateful stint in Vietnam, a man named Richard F. Carlson showed up for the Southern Bowling Congress Tournament in Louisville, Ky. and had a dream that would unite them for good.
Carlson was the only wheelchair bowler to show up for the SBCT that year; but today hundreds of wheelchair bowlers from coast to coast compete regularly thanks to his vision of an American Wheelchair Bowling Association.
Operating under the slogan “Ability Not Disability,” the AWBA was founded by Carlson in 1962 and now boasts about 500 members. The members’ common ground might be rooted in adversity, but the bond they share on the lanes is rooted in a friendship stronger than family ties.
“I am closer to quite a few of them than I am to my own family,” Cook explains of his fellow AWBA members.
For Ryan, that friendship is not just an extended family — it is the thing that saved his life.
“To be honest, after all I had gone through in my life, I wasn’t sure if I was willing to climb one more hill or was I just going to say ‘Hey, life isn’t good, let’s not worry about tomorrow,’ ” Ryan says of the difficult days he spent rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder. “I couldn’t even get into the shower on my own. I couldn’t lift things with one arm, and my other arm was strapped to my chest. My whole life changed.
“But guys like Paul Cook just pump me up. It’s phenomenal the way they live. These guys have had both legs blown off, and you see what they have to go through just to go the restroom, things like that, but you never see them moan or complain about any of it. I actually feel blessed that I had polio, because I never would have met guys like Al Uttecht, Dave Roberts, Walt Roy, Paul Cook — people who have impacted my life.”
Ryan’s story is a narrative that characterizes the life of every AWBA member, a story of life-changing challenges and the courage it takes to overcome them.
It is the story of Al Uttecht, who was left paralyzed when shrapnel from a mortar round struck him in the back as his base in Vietnam was shelled but went on to become the greatest wheelchair bowler of all time.
“He’s been averaging close to 200 for as long as I can remember, and I’ve known him since the ‘70s,” Cook says.
“He started bowling around 1970 and he has won around 100 tournaments in the association, 12 of which have been national championships,” Dave Roberts says. “He probably has another 100 tournaments where he finished second. He is incredible.”
It is the story of Walt Roy, another vet who also found himself paralyzed after a Jeep accident but now serves as chairman of the AWBA as well as a Storm staffer.
“I bowled the USBC Masters and had people come up and congratulate me and glad to see me out there,” Roy says. “It is just a great sport. I have gotten to meet lots of great people. I’ve been to Hong Kong representing ball companies and to Australia just touring bowling centers.”
It is the story of people who refuse to let their disability become an excuse to give up.
“We can get you involved, your life is not over,” Ryan says of the AWBA’s efforts to help more disabled Americans discover wheelchair bowling. “We can get you out of that room where you think those four walls are your life and help you realize that your life is the world and what you make of it.”
The resiliency that Ryan speaks of is no mere sales pitch; it is the reality that the wheelchair bowlers he now considers family live each day — a reality they live both on and off the lanes.
“I cut my own grass,” Cook says. “About 10 years ago I painted the inside of this house. Dave Roberts built his own house, and Al Uttecht helped.”
The first thing that outsiders might notice when AWBA members wheel themselves into the bowling center is that they are missing an arm or a leg; but as far as people like Cook, Roy and Uttecht are concerned, they are not missing a thing.
That is the lesson Roberts had in mind the day he lay in a hospital bed with one foot blown off and the other nearly gone, certain that amputation awaited him, and said something that neither he nor the friend who stood at his bedside would forget for the rest of their lives.
“Well, it will be hard to shoot 72 like this, won’t it?” Roberts, an avid golfer before he lost his legs, joked with his friend.
“I was trying to alleviate the tension, but what I ended up doing was laying a guilt trip on him. From then on whenever he knew he was going to see me he went into a funk; he thought I had been cheated in life somehow.
“We kept in touch over the years and in 2000 I had a tournament coming up and I told him ‘If you come to this tournament, I will win it.’ Well, he got a day off from work and came and I won, and I said to him afterward ‘You have to understand, my life just changed. I am still able to compete with people and live my life.
“I think he understands now that we all experience losses in our lives, whether it is divorce, injury or whatever. Whatever the circumstance is, it may change the course of your life, but it doesn’t have to diminish the quality of your life.”
That is the lesson that members of the AWBA hope to bring to more people who may have allowed their disability to confine them to the prison of those four walls Ryan speaks of — a prison he escaped through bowling. As the physical demands that decades of bowling despite disabilities — some severe — catch up with the organization’s aging demographic, newcomers such as Ryan are looking for ways to bring the AWBA experience to a younger generation.
“Sixty-five percent of our organization is vet-driven, the other 35 percent are people like me,” Ryan explains. “But many of them have, in essence, had two different lives — one as an able-bodied kid and the other as a challenged adult. And that is very similar to many kids coming from Iraq and Afghanistan. We have to get these kids out of their houses and back out into the world. We have plenty of people who will help them realize that life is not over. It just transitions into something else.
“This is not about me,” Ryan adds. “It is about making sure I give back everything that bowling has given me.”
In the meantime, there is that world where Ryan finds his new life. And however difficult it might be for him and his fellow wheelchair bowlers to perform the simple tasks that others take for granted — a trip to the restroom, the opening of a car door to drive to the grocery store or the bowling center — ultimately they live their lives the only way anyone really can: one day at a time.
“I put my socks on every morning, then slip my braces on, my pants and shirt and get in my chair and into my car, and I go to the bowling alley,” Ryan says.