The Power Chair Pole Vaulter from Paluga County

My name is Ace McConroy. My real name is Dean, but I started using Ace when I was a kid. As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I grew up in a small town and as soon as I was done with high school, I applied for a job as a junior reporter at our paper The Daily Chronicle.

As a junior reporter, I was assigned my share of “gophering” around the office. I also was sent off on assignments covering stories that were for our Sunday magazine in the “inspirational” column.

That’s how I became familiar with the power chair pole vaulter from Paluga County. My editor, Frank Tisman, tossed a letter on my desk one day. The letter was greasy at the sides, the way my Trig notes used to get when I grabbed a burger at the All You Can Eat Diner in town between third and fourth periods.

So I held it out at arm’s length and read it.

“Dear Sir,” the letter said. “I’m proud to live in Paluga, in the heart of Paluga County. In our town we have a living legend, an inspiration to all.”

I’d never seen a letter come into the Daily Chronicle like this before. I watched Frank’s back as he yelled at Marvin, our head reporter, about his spelling again and wondered why I, the lowly junior reporter, was getting this gem of an assignment. You see, that’s how our assignments were done at the paper. Frank just threw assorted pieces of paper at your desk, you took them and then you submitted your story. We never did meetings like you see in movies. I kind of liked the system. It gave me lots of leeway in my approach.

Anyway, back to the letter. The next paragraph began “You should send someone here to interview this exceptional person. He pole vaults from his power chair which is an amazing feat. Make sure you tell them he doesn’t like to have his picture taken.” This last line was circled and Frank had scrawled in “Bring a camera and get a photo.”

I shrugged. Lots of people didn’t like their picture being taken. You’d be surprised how common that is. Other people were handing you photos of themselves in boxes. It’s all human nature.

The letter was signed by a Hattie Thomas who was kind enough to put her phone number and address on it at the bottom. I was all set to go.

I kept a small overnight bag in the trunk of my old Chevy just in case I was ever sent on an assignment that might take two days so I immediately handed in the research I was working on and told Frank I was leaving. He burped which meant he heard me.

Paluga isn’t too far from our office. The drive took an hour. As I pulled into town, however, I could see that it was more rural than our city. There were a few farm trucks parked in front of a grocery store which wasn’t as common a sight any more near us. And the roads weren’t all paved in Paluga.

But people were dressed the same. I saw teenagers with iPods hanging out and women in halters and shorts sipping diet sodas in the town park with baby carriages parked near the benches.

I eyeballed the street signs as I drove through, looking for Hattie’s street and found it easily. Paluga wasn’t a big town. As I pulled up in front of her small yellow ranch house, I saw Hattie, who looked as if she was in her 70’s, in her yard gardening. She was kneeling down, wearing a green smock and a big straw hat and kept troweling as I walked over to her.

“I’m Ace McConroy from the Daily Chronicle,” I announced, standing over her. I could see my shadow showing my six foot wiry frame next to her ample one.

Hattie pushed back a wisp of gray hair, wiped her hands on her smock and stood to shake my hand. “Is Ace your given name?”

“No,” I replied, startled.

“I didn’t think so,” she said. “I was a teacher for forty three years and I can tell when someone’s name doesn’t fit.”

This was disconcerting. It was also the first time someone ever said that to me. “Well, ” I said defensively, “I’m a junior reporter at the Daily Chronicle.”

“They sent a junior reporter? Oh well.”

“About the pole vaulter.” I hesitated. “I’d like his address so I can interview him.”

“He doesn’t like to talk to people.”

“Well, what can you tell me about him?”

“Not much, except that he pole vaults from a power chair.”

“So how can I do the story?”

“You’re the reporter. This town is full of people who like to talk- and they all know about him. Ask around- Ace,” she said, a bit sarcastically.

Nice. My image of Hattie as a benign grandmother who was going to give me iced tea and cookies was fading rapidly. Instead I found myself leaving her yard with nothing more than a loss of self esteem.

I pulled away, looking at the greasy letter she’d sent again for some clues. I found myself back on main street and wandered into the grocery store. The owner was wearing a red shirt with the name Tom on it so as I bought a cold soda I asked him about the pole vaulter.

“Just over at Hattie’s,” I explained, handing him a dollar bill. “And she was telling me about this power chair pole vaulter.”

Tom’s hand stopped mid air as he handed me change. “Don’t know much about that,” he said.

“I hear he’s good.” I paused, looking around the store. A few other people looked away from me. “Okay, I’m here to do a story on him.”

“Won’t be easy. He’s shy. Kind of likes to pole vault and keep to himself,” Tom said.

“Heard tell some of the biggest athletes are like that,” another customer piped up. “He’s a doer, not a talker.”

“What’s his name?” I asked. I was getting desperate for any information. I’d never done a story like this before.

Tom shrugged. “Folks call him Junior. Junior DeLong. They live on a farm six miles west of here and he pole vaults right there near the barn.”

“Barn’s got nicks to prove it!” a teenager piped up.

“You hush,” his mother said, cuffing him. “Junior’s an inspiration to us all.”

I hadn’t stopped to think about exactly how someone would pole vault from a power chair, but at that moment, I started to imagine how it would look. I hustled over to the teen to ask questions, but his mother carried him out of the store by his ear so I followed and wound up back in my car driving west.

My odometer hit 5.7 miles before I saw anything at all. The road was planted in the middle of fields and rows of wheat until I saw a few buildings in the horizon that looked like a small farm. Then I saw a small wooden sign that read “DeLong’s Dairy and Farm next right. Homemade pie.”

My stomach grumbled and I realized I hadn’t eaten lunch. I found the small dirt road leading into the farm and my car chugged along, protesting against the dust. I pulled over to the side of the road and parked it as I neared the cluster of buildings – a ramshackle house, a garage and a barn.

It was then that I saw Junior – a lone figure seated in a power chair, his back to me. He was young – late teens – and dressed in a pair of jeans and a white T shirt. He had a role of duct tape in his mouth and appeared to be taping himself to his chair. I got out of my car to watch.

He backed up the chair with a pole in his left hand, then leaning forward, hit the joystick with his right hand. The power chair went up a ramp taking him about eight feet into the air and Junior appeared to yank off the tape as the ramp took a sudden downwards turn. He grabbed the pole as he was sent flying out of the chair and pole vaulted at an impressive height – nearly six feet, landing on an old mattress on the other side. His power chair landed on the ground on its wheels and banged into the barn almost simultaneously.

I ran over to Junior who was shaking his head and looking at me curiously. “Nice job,” I said. “Want me to get your chair.”

He pulled a remote out of his pocket. “Not necessary,” he said and as he hit a button the chair turned around and came to him. He crawled in, pulling his legs, which appeared to be paralyzed, into the chair one by one.

“Doesn’t that break your chair?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I have a lot of insurance claims. But I weighted it down so it lands on the wheels and that helps. “

I introduced myself, leaving out the part about being from the Daily Chronicle. Junior eyed me warily. “You’re here to do an inspirational kind of story, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Well- yes,” I admitted.

He sighed. “I figure out a way to run a power chair off the ground and pole vault at six feet and I haven’t got one sports reporter yet. Okay here’s the drill – no pictures, no personal information. I’m not your poster child, got it? You can watch, but that’s it.” He turned his chair toward the ramp for another run.

He was true to his word. I got no information from him and after a while, as amazing as it was to watch him pole vault, I got tired of it so I went over to the house to see if his mother would talk to me. I needed background information, some good lines to put into the story. You’ve read them – I can’t write an inspirational story just about what Junior does. It doesn’t work that way. I needed tidbits about him, some melodrama, some courageous quotes. Even some information about how he was paralyzed would help. Otherwise I’d have to use vague language and make stuff up as filler.

Mrs. DeLong was in the kitchen baking pies when I knocked on the door. She was a pretty brunette with long arms and legs who must have had Junior when she was fifteen guessing her age. I told her who I was and she shook her head and pointed. “He’s out by the barn but he doesn’t talk much to reporters.”

“I know. I tried. I was hoping to talk to you.”

Mrs. DeLong invited me into the kitchen and served me a piece of blueberry pie. She told me Junior’s legs were paralyzed in a farming accident three years ago. He was the star quarterback for the Paluga Panthers and very athletic so he began looking for sports he could do from a wheelchair. Pole vaulting became his favorite.

“I think it’s the thrill of flying through the air. Expensive though.” She pointed to a stack of papers on the counter. “Insurance claims. Breaks a lot of stuff.”

I nodded. “Wheelchairs.”

“Yeah and his arms, his legs. You know, he doesn’t always land right,” she said rather nonchalantly, putting cool whip on my pie.

“Doesn’t that worry you?”

She shrugged. “Well it’s not like we can talk him out of doing it. So I suppose it doesn’t matter.”

This wasn’t helpful. I couldn’t write that the inspirational pole vaulter kept breaking bones. I needed – fluff. Fantasy even – what the readers wanted.

“So you’d say he’s courageous, brave, fearless?” I asked.

“Oh no he cries like a baby when he gets hurt. But all men do.” Mrs. DeLong sat down and smiled at me. “He’s not a hero, Ace. Just a guy who pole vaults from a power chair.”

“But there’s got to be more to it than that.”

“Not really. I kind of wish he would go back to school, college maybe, get a job. I worry about him hurting himself even worse.”

“Well- it’s an inspirational thing,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“For one thing, no one else has ever done it.”

“We don’t know that,” Mrs. DeLong said. “Honestly, everyone has ramps today and any fool could just run up one and hurl himself over a stick. Well I have pies to make so you just enjoy that and be on your way.” She pushed herself away from the table. The interview was clearly over.

When I handed in my story to Frank, he started to read it right away, walking toward his office like he usually does. However, he stopped and turned and looked at me.

“I can’t print this story, Ace. What kind of crap is this? There’s not one inspirational word in here about this guy. He’s out there pole vaulting his heart out from a wheelchair and you have his mother practically calling him lazy and misdirected.”

I shrugged. “Frank, that’s what she said.”

“And where’s the pictures?”

“He doesn’t like his picture taken.”

“Kill the story then,” Frank said, ripping up the paper. “Ace, do you want to be stuck doing research forever?”

I sighed as he burped and walked away. I cleaned up the pieces of paper from the floor as Marvin smirked at me from his desk. Then I sat down to write this story.

I figured maybe, just maybe, there was a story worth telling here even if it would never manage to get into the Daily Chronicle Sunday magazine edition.

Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan

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