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The Courage to Conquer Another Day

FLYING SOLO: Reimagining Manhood, Courage and Loss. \o7 By Leonard Kriegel Beacon; $22, 208 pages\f7


He was stricken with polio as a boy in 1944, released from the hospital when two years of hot-water immersions and exercise failed to restore the use of his legs, and was confined first to a wheelchair, then for decades to braces and crutches, and now, aging, to a wheelchair once again.

With a passion that both illuminates and darkens moments of hard-won beauty and a wisdom that ripens while wary of ripeness, Leonard Kriegel wrestles us inside the meaning of being crippled. "Crippled," he writes insistently--not the meliorative "handicapped," the vaguer "disabled" nor much less the fumy "differently abled." He doesn't argue the other terms; he takes his for granted, and it expresses the theme that runs through these essays: When life deals you a bullet, bite it.

(As disclaimer: Hit by polio at about the same time, I too feel that the "correct" terms demean not only my condition--though, for now, "lame" would be more exact than "crippled"--but, worse, the strength of an English language that carries me where my legs don't.)

Kriegel writes of himself and his fellows as a kind of jagged tear in the fabric of American life and the expectations it takes for granted. He writes in a variety of voices, as if growing from one into the next. The most conspicuous, though not the finest, is anger.

At 17, after years of imagining that his crippled state would mend, he watched his brother play stickball on their Bronx street and suddenly realized all the things he would never do. He describes a paroxysm of howling and banging on the windowsill; after that, the realization came that anger was not defeat but victory.

"To feel such anger was to dream of justice for oneself, to be accountable for the future one had to live, even as a cripple," he writes. "To be a cripple did not mean that one was relieved of the obligation to be a man." Instead of a victim, he would be a conqueror.

Kriegel needed purposeful rage for the strength to move ahead. Others have found such strength differently: through laughter, for example, or imagination, or perhaps simply the conviction that living is not necessarily overcoming. Perhaps there is a touch of the American success ethic here; in his best writing, Kriegel's vision and sensibility are broader.

The introductory section is a haunting portrait of the rehabilitation hospital where dozens of polio patients lay on boards, waiting to be lowered into steaming water for 20 minutes at a time, six times a day. It alleviated the painful muscle spasms, but it was an exhausting ordeal that drained the energy from the children's bodies, an abduction into a timeless white limbo. "This courage stuff, it's a bitch," murmured Kriegel's 12-year-old neighbor, who would still be in the hospital two years later when he left.

The boy's eyes still haunt him, Kriegel writes. "I remember not their color but how flat and empty they seemed, like glass washed to a smooth dullness by the ocean tides."

He writes of the immense feeling of liberation when his father arrived bringing him a wheelchair. It was like fitting wings to a bird; suddenly the boy could race through the corridors, play PingPong and wheel down the road with 11 other boys in a forbidden nighttime procession to the village.

Later, the wheelchair would be abandoned for decades of strenuous, painful walking on crutches and braces. It was autonomy; it was Kriegel's prideful, manly conquering--until, in his 50s, it no longer seemed worth it, and he resumed the chair. A surrender only in terms of the old combativeness, it was the beginning of a different wisdom, however reluctantly acquiesced to: "My weariness at the prospect of living up to my own idea of who I was."

The finest parts of Kriegel's remarkable book hold a different ideal of manhood: as reflection, not assertiveness. Reversing Freud's barbaric "What do women want?" he asks what men want of women, and luminously answers: "It turns out that what I so need and want is a different view of myself."

He writes of his pleasure in supermarkets. In their abundance and ease (they could have been invented for wheelchairs), they are the "fruited plain" he sang of at school. Then he thinks back to the memory of his father, who prided himself in his skill as a counterman at a delicatessen. Hearing that his son had been stricken with polio at camp, the father rushed to the train station without bathing or changing his clothes. And, suddenly, we are at memory's most profound level:

"He sat alongside my bed in the small hospital in Cold Spring, imploring me to live and feeding me vanilla ice cream. What remains as vivid in memory today as it was more than 50 years ago is the odor that clung to my father's hand as he fed me that ice cream. I could smell the dry-sweat prospect of my death on that hand. Yet beyond that, overwhelming death, was the smell of pickle brine and smoked salmon and chopped herring that mixed with the rich creamy taste of the vanilla ice cream. For whatever incomprehensible reason, the mixing of smells was a father's promise to a son that he would live."

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