Gliding

By Stan Stalla | Apr 28, 2010

A while back, I was walking down an aisle of the chain discount store Target. While my friend pushed the shopping cart, dodging oncoming "traffic" and taking corners with aplomb, I strove to keep up. With my long-legged, semi-stumbling gait, I must have been a comic sight next to my perky companion.

"Stan, why don't you just glide along beside me?" was her suggestion. "You don't have to lumber along, leaning first to one side, then the other. Stay balanced; walk tall and straight; keep yourself contained." Those were the sentiments, if not the precise words, of her good-natured advice.

Not long afterward, we found ourselves in a shoe store in another town. Deservedly disgusted, she had forewarned me that the time had come for me to ditch the shoes that had walked countless miles on at least four different continents. I guess the proverbial straw had been my complaints about getting my feet soaked from the hosed-down sidewalks, walking to work with my holes-in-the-bottoms shoes. There was no way she was going to allow me to take off for a six-week stint in Haiti with thin-soled shoes and painful feet.

Twenty minutes later, and we walked back onto Dupont Circle, a new pair of shoes on my feet. These weren't ordinary shoes. No, these were the MBT "anti-shoe," supposedly mimicking the balance of a Masai warrior walking across the sand. Up until that shoe store, I hadn't even pictured the Masai walking in sand, but I'm a sucker for Africa, and the sense of balance of the "anti-shoe" was like nothing I had experienced before. And so I began to glide. Galaaayd..... Galaaayd..... Galaaayd....

Truth be told, walking has never been an easy feat (feet?) for me. When I was 12, my parents used to shake their heads in disbelief at the way their son managed to bang into both sides of a door jamb, when walking from one room to the next. Gangly, tall, clumsy, in a hurry, the concept of a saunter, a stroll, a perambulation, a promenade, a galaaayd — it seemed beyond my grasp. Lurching here and there, righting myself self-consciously, only to feel off-balance, teetering on the precipice, such was my locomotion through the years.

And then Nature stepped in with a blessed curse. In my mid-30s, I discovered that I had arthritis. It first manifested itself with tremendous hip pain, halfway through the Paris Marathon. Too far from the finish line, I realized that my personal wall could not be scaled that drizzly day. Eventually, when it came to the point of calculating how much pain was to be endured for a meeting a half-block away, I got on a plane, flew from Sri Lanka to Florida, and got rid of the source of what had become years of agony with a total right hip replacement. Though classified as "major surgery," in fact, the procedure had become commonplace and not a big deal.

No more running, not on an artificial joint. But a scaled-down version of sports was OK, and so I added a successful walk marathon to my coups of locomotive deeds. But that gait! I still tottered, subconsciously favoring my artificial side. It took me six months before a day went by without my being aware of my limp. From that point forward, it always felt that I was dragging my right leg along.

More years passed, and another surgery on the same hip loomed. Thanks to a wonderful orthopedist, this time in Maine, I got a third chance to learn how to walk. With barely six weeks under my belt, I was off to Baghdad, where mobility was affected by 18-pound "battle armor" and a wobbly helmet that did not like the contours of my head.

Baghdad's Green Zone provided a unique outlook on the world. An oasis of relative safety in an otherwise hostile environment, it was a strange place to train for a marathon. But, hey, we all need exercise, the next New York Marathon was still months away, and what better reason to get up at dawn, beating the desert's blazing heat in a daily routine of left, right, left, right, left....

Coming to the end of my sixth decade, I wonder when my mind will catch up to my chronological age. Just at the time when some people think about 18 holes of golf, and the decision to carry, pull, or ride, I'm still in that gangly hurry. This year, it's the earthquake in Haiti and a race against the rains of April and the hurricane season starting in June. Last year, it was getting more than 200,000 people out from between a ferocious end to the 25-year war between Sri Lanka's Army and the tenacious LTTE insurgents. There's little time for perambulation, when lives are at stake.

But what has given me pause, stopped me in my tracks, so to speak, have been the amputees. Hundreds from landmines and battle injuries in Sri Lanka. And, just the other day, two young women —- barely out of their teens — quietly lying on beds in a ward in a town on Haiti's southern coast, waiting for foreign technicians to fly to their country, to measure their earthquake-snapped limbs for a prosthesis, for a chance to walk again. Galaaayd..... Galaaayd..... Galaaayd....

I understand, in Haiti, that there are no local workshops for manufacturing prostheses for amputees. If there were one thing that I could do in my life, it would be to encourage, facilitate, support local organizations that manufacture simple prostheses. I think of the baby, dressed in pink and carried by her daddy in an IDP camp ringed by barbed wire in Sri Lanka. Not more than a year old, she looked at me with bewildered, beautiful, deep brown eyes. As he chucked her lovingly under the chin, she turned and I saw an arm, ending in a pointed stump where her wrist should have been: a victim of shrapnel in the last days of the war, no doubt.

Galaaayd..... Galaaayd..... Galaaayd..... I can't wait to get back to the States, where I left my Masai warrior shoes (at the last moment, I opted for tennis shoes, to scramble over and around earthquake rubble and down muddy hillsides here in Haiti). I've been practicing my glide, though, as I pack up my cot each morning and head to the communal shower in the pool house behind the embassy. To walk upright, tall, on balance: it's not a bad goal for a fellow who's spent much of his life, bouncing between door jambs.

And for those amputees, it's not a bad goal, either.

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