Friday, November 30, 2007


Disabled Vet Pays Tribute to 'Quadalajara'

Dennis Wagner
The Arizona Republic
Nov. 11, 2007

Jack Tumidajski rolls his wheelchair up to the desk at his Glendale house and gazes at faded photographs of men in wheelchairs laughing and partying in Mexico.

He lets the images draw him back in time to a place nicknamed "Quadalajara."

"The city was just waiting for us," he recalls dreamily. "A utopia waiting to be discovered. . . . It gave us a second chance at life."

The year was 1972. Tumidajski, a Vietnam vet whose spine was severed in a traffic accident while he was on leave, had languished in his room at his parents' home for months with no hope for the future.

There were thousands like him across the nation. Before World War II, patients with broken necks seldom lived through the initial trauma and nearly always died within a couple of years because of complications. With medical advancements, however, quadriplegics like Tumidajski became survivors, often wasting away in institutions or as shut-ins with family. Decades later, the Iraq war also would produce thousands of casualties with spinal or brain injuries, but soldiers would receive more medical, social and vocational support.

During Vietnam, recalls the 59-year-old Tumidajski, "You had a new segment of society with no place to go. Live in a room, watch TV, have family members take care of you. . . . For so many guys, and a few gals, there were no options."

And then word spread about this place south of the border, Guadalajara, a haven for non-walking wounded veterans. Guys could live cheap, soak up sun and drink tequila. The flat terrain was ideal for wheelchairs. And, as a bonus, Mexican women weren't put off by crippled soldiers.

Tumidajski, then 24, caught a plane and found himself at what the vets referred to as "gimp camps." For most of the next decade, the Rhode Island native lived in Guadalajara along with countless hundreds of other refugees. They played cards together, partied together, relied on one another.

Their lifestyle was sensationalized in the Oliver Stone film Born on the Fourth of July, drawn from just a few pages of Ron Kovic's autobiography by the same name. The movie focused on debauchery in a community of wheelchair jockeys portrayed as philanderers and drunks. Mexican women were depicted as whores.

Tumidajski shakes his head. That is not what he remembers, not what he describes in his own book, Quadalajara: The Utopia That Once Was, released last year. The 394-page volume was written to honor disabled vets who created a haven of hope, Tumidajski says.

It is a personal reflection but also the lone historical record to debunk Hollywood's tawdry myth. "I wanted to preserve that moment in time. The only living record is encapsulated in that movie, and it's a distortion."

Tumidajski, who has limited use of his arms and hands, typed the book using a stick, pecking letters one by one on his computer keyboard.

The story opens with a 19-year-old U.S. Army enlistee contemplating life while on a military flight to South Vietnam in April of 1968. It is not a war story: Tumidajski came under enemy fire only once.

A year later, he was on leave at his home in Pawtucket, R.I., riding in a friend's Volkswagen on a night out. The car fishtailed out of control and struck a utility pole. Tumidajski's vertebrae were crushed, his body numbed from the neck down.

He spent 23 months in hospitals, enduring bed sores, surgeries, complications, therapy, and training on how to use a wheelchair. Then he faced the grim life of a quad, at his parents' home, watching endless soap operas, trying to be upbeat in a world of gloom.

"I just sat there in my bedroom," Tumidajski recalls. "What am I going to do with the rest of my life, try to invent the next board game?"

In the summer of 1971, a hospital buddy named Vinnie talked incessantly about a colony in Guadalajara, established years earlier by a handful of disabled vets from World War II and Korea. Most subsisted on Veterans Administration compensation, Social Security checks or other types of fixed income. Living on $500 a month, Vinnie said, a quad could rent a room, hire an attendant and live la vida dulce south of the border.

"You can go just about anywhere, and if you come across some steps, just say: 'Hey, kid, you want to make a peso?' There's always someone around willing to help you out."

Tumidajski gave it a try in 1972 and found an enclave of brothers wounded in body and soul yet full of vigor. To this day, he seems unclear whether they left the United States in search of adventure, to escape sympathetic stares or to reinvent themselves.

"It was a second chance at life," he says simply. "I found I could be independent. I was in an environment that was full of opportunity."

Tumidajski does not dispute that women were part of the attraction. Although some men found prostitutes, he says, more fell in love with young ladies who were hired to assist them with daily life.

Tumidajski tells of his own girlfriends, hinting at the difficult and important sexual rediscovery for men traumatized by paralysis.

He says these were genuine relationships with Mexican women who seemed to have an uncommon empathy.

"People who have known suffering - from poverty, for example - they're more accepting of others who have had misfortune," he says. "Down there, you were a gringo first, and you were a guy in wheelchair second."

The vets organized themselves under the Mexico chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, which served as a social and philanthropic club. Tumidajski says he became heavily involved in part because he felt awkward as a non-combatant quad among so many who had been wounded in warfare. Public service, he says, was a way to honor their sacrifice.

Life south of the border was not perfect. American food and other products were hard to come by. Phones didn't work. One of the Paralyzed Veterans events was hit by robbers. But the gringos, emancipated in wheelchairs, proved resourceful.

They might still be there, Tumidajski says, if times hadn't changed.

In Guadalajara, the cost of living escalated. In the United States, laws and social acceptance created new opportunities for the disabled. They could get degrees, find careers, fit in.

One by one, they headed north. Tumidajski followed others in 1981, migrating to Arizona for warmth and accessibility.

Still a bachelor, he lives with retired caregiver Miguel Lopez, who has assisted him for more than two decades. Tumidajski has contact with one old vet from the era who still lives in Mexico.

"Memories were all that remained: memories of getting a second chance in life," Tumidajski wrote in his book. "Memories of a unique place in a unique time - Quadalajara."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

IN THE BEGINNING...GOD Created Paras And Quads

According to the Paralyzed Veterans of America:

Prior to World War II, Americans who suffered a spinal cord injury (SCI) faced a bleak future and a life expectancy averaging about eighteen months. But veterans who sustained a spinal cord injury during the war years received the first ray of hope for a fuller life ahead—the development of antibiotics, modern medicine, and new techniques which added significantly to their life span. Because of this medical progress, for the first time, spinal cord injured veterans could leave the confines of the VA or military hospital, return home to work or rejoin society. Unfortunately, much of society proved to be unwilling, unable, or ill-prepared to accommodate the needs of paralyzed veterans.In 1946, paralyzed veterans from across the country joined together to form an organization to deal with the unique problems and challenges facing them. The organization they formed, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, is an organization of veterans who have served honorably in the armed forces and who have incurred an injury or disease affecting the spinal cord, causing paraplegia or quadriplegia.

(An excellent reference point for a better understanding of the evolution of SCI post-injury life can be found in the 1950 movie, The Men, which just happened to be Marlon Brando's first Hollywood role.)

Paraplegics and quadriplegics who were fortunate enough to leave their institutional environment had a second chance at life, one radically different than before SCI, but they faced a new problem—where to go and what to do? There was no blueprint to follow. A small percentage was able to find employment, and another small percentage was able to pursue educational goals. Some were fortunate to live in, or relocate to, areas of the country where getting out and about in a wheelchair was possible. Many discharged SCI veterans were able to modify their homes and make them reasonably wheelchair accessible, but once home, many never left—unable to overcome architectural barriers, inclement weather, or a fear of leaving home. Many others, out of necessity or unwillingness to face the outside world, simply lived out their lives in institutions.

Steady progress was being made, spearheaded by the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). The clout of the newly formed organization of paralyzed veterans helped secure legislation that enabled members to purchase automobiles with the special equipment necessary for them to drive.

PVA's monthly periodical, the Paraplegic News (PN), went to print in 1946. The publication united paralyzed veterans from chapters initially formed in VA hospitals from New York to California. Information ranging from legislation, adaptive equipment, individual chapter news, and travel tips for those who were able and willing could be read by every PVA member or periodical subscriber who opened its pages.

One interesting article, complete with travel tips, was penned by active PVA member James E. Seybold (Vaughn Chapter PVA, Hines VA/Chicago area) and appeared in the November 1954 issue of PN. Not content to push his wheelchair through the snow or sit around for another long cold winter, Mr. Seybold drove his hand controlled automobile 2,500 miles from Wisconsin to California by himself.

“It's not such a great problem after all,” he reported. “I would like to enumerate a few of the main difficulties which may arise, and how to face them: Your car should be in A-1 shape. Good tires, and a well-lubricated engine and chassis for a safe comfortable drive. Pack your car so that the things you intend to use while traveling are easily accessible. Recognize your handicap and don't knock yourself out by seeing how far you can drive in one day…Try to plan your trip so you will reach a certain destination for a decent place to eat or sleep at a certain time. Toward the middle of the afternoon start looking for a place to sack out…When you stop, inquire before you get out if the bathroom is large enough to accommodate a wheelchair.” He goes on to mention the necessity of water while crossing the desert and checking brakes before mountain driving. “Never hesitate to ask for help when you need it. You don't have to go into details about your condition…I have found people only too glad to assist in all instances where I needed help.”

Jim Seybold was probably not the first active para, or possibly quad, to make such a trip, but his detailed report in the Paraplegic News appears to be a first. His journey would not end there.

Travel tales appeared regularly in the PN. Group travel, to and from about every European country where SCI survivors lived, was becoming commonplace. A late-40s letter, which gave kudos to the PN magazine editor, came from a PVA member living in Brazil. Our neighbors to the north also made the PN pages. The only conspicuous absence of travel news came from our neighbors to the south. Some adventurous para or quad must have explored Mexico, with the exception of anyone who may only have been shopping or looking for mischief in one of Mexico's infamous border towns.

Hernan Cortes and the Spanish Conquistadores certainly were fascinated by their new find. Cortes and his followers explored practically every inch of this enchanting territory resting on our southern border.

Who were the first to explore Mexico, not on horseback like Cortes, but using an E&J wheelchair to travel and explore a whole new world of adventure? The many unconfirmed reports of a paraplegic or quadriplegic having visited or moved to some city or town in Mexico's interior were just that—rumors.
* * *
Countless PVA members were surely mesmerized while turning their May 1955 issue of the Paraplegia News to page four: “Mexico, a Paradise for Paraplegics,” by James E Seybold.

“Did you have a hard and trying winter?” the article begins. “And you Californians; did the smog and fog drive you to distraction? Your worries are now over, for here, in Mexico City, is the ideal retreat…Until you have actually seen it, it is hard to realize how beautifully modern, and how far ahead in architectural design Mexico, D.F. is.” Seybold touts the “spring-like climate” and states that “the city was once the bottom of a lake” accounting for its wheelchair-friendly level landscape.

His article continues with detailed travel tips for adventurers like himself, who wished to drive down and explore Mexico's capital city. Seybold explains the advantages of services provided by the American Automobile Association, including obtaining Mexican auto insurance, arranging accommodations, and planning scenic routes while driving within Mexico. He cautions about highway conditions and the dangerous mountain stretches absent of guardrails.

Once there, Seybold notes, “Mexican drivers are the worst I've ever seen. Every day is like the Indianapolis '500' to them…The Mexican people are, in general, a happy, carefree race. Their exotic music grows on you and virtually becomes part of you. Speaking of exotic things, I must say a word in behalf of the lovely señoritas—WOW!” Seybold was not the first, and would not be the last, to discover one of Mexico's most beautiful natural resources.

“Activities are numerous; from bullfights to Jai-Lai and soccer to visiting such nearby places as Maxmillian's Castle in Chapultepec Park, the Shrine of Guadalupe and the Aztec pyramids. As Mexico City is centrally located it can be used as a base of operations from which these side trips can be made. Some of these points of interest are Vera-Cruz, Acapulco, Puebla, Cuernavaca, Guadalajara, and Taxco.”

This interesting and informative article must certainly have served to pique the interest of a number of institutionalized SCI veterans and discharged shut-ins. The question is—how many curious adventurers, if any, were motivated to act?

James Seybold returned to Mexico City in the winter of 1956 and again sent his “Report from Mexico City (The El Dorado of the Western Hemisphere),” which appeared in the February 1957 issue of the PN:

“Did you just pick up your Paraplegia News after pushing your cold-rimmed wheelchair through a snow bank? Why not get away from it all? Visit Sunny Mexico!”

The article is a basic follow-up of his previous visit, with updates on the Mexican peso, highway conditions/improvements, new traffic lights in parts of the city, and a reiteration of “the magnificent architecture of Mexico, both the modern “hotels of Mexico City and Acapulco,” and the ancient “beautiful cathedrals, like the one I visited yesterday in Taxco.”

Seybold concludes his article, “All in all, I'm delighted to be away from the cold and the winter. The only Spanish I know, to some up how I feel about Mexico is Pura Vida, which literally translated means, This is the Life.”

While James Seybold was marveling at the magnificent architecture, climate, accessibility, and lovely señoritas in and around Mexico City, another PVA member was crisscrossing the same terrain. Harold E. Doolittle “has been roaming around Mexico for the past several years looking for the most likely spot to live. He has settled on Cuernavaca because of its climate and its location. Doolittle speaks fluent Spanish,” according to an article in the April 1960 PN.

Mr. Doolittle had indeed been exploring Mexico himself since the mid-50s, something that would be verified in a future magazine article from another source in the August 1961 PN. His plan was to “arrange a set-up in Mexico where U.S. paras and quads can vacation or live on a permanent basis.” Cuernavaca was where Doolittle envisioned renting a place that would become a co-op to house men and women with any type of disability, as well as their children. The city is “50 miles south of Mexico City” and has schools for children of all ages. “This is because of the large American colony in Cuernavaca…There are many, many things to see and do in Mexico.”

Doolittle's article, which was intended to ascertain the number of paras and quads interested in his venture, concludes with a mailing address for Harold Doolittle at the VA hospital in Coral Gables, Florida. Apparently his dream did not become a reality.
* * *
At approximately the same time as Seybold and Doolittle were exploring areas in and around the hub of Mexico City, there was talk of a "Señor Roberto", an American para named Bob, who was renting rooms to fellow paras and quads in his four bedroom home up the road a ways—in Quadalajara.

(From QUADALAJARA - The Utopia That Once Was, pages 132-136)


Book Offer: QUADALAJARA $19.95 (Plus S&H) for the remainder of 2007!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

TOM KIRCH And JoANN RAWAY - A Uniquely Interesting Story

My best friend passed away twenty years ago, today. Thomas H. Kirch (on right) was my best friend. He was every body's best friend...(Taken from one of my early BLOG posts, November 17, 2006, which can be viewed here.) Read on. I'll let another of Tom's friends tell you a uniquely interesting story:

JoAnn Raway (on left, with Jimmy Lietz in middle) first experienced Quadalajara in November 1964. “I went on a three week vacation to Las Fuentes with my sister Luella and our friend, Roselyn Mahowald.” While Charlie Newbold and Bronx VA buddy Joe Cicero were discovering their newfound freedoms at George Ray's Place, the three women from Minnesota simultaneously vacationed in Las Fuentes. “Paul Patino and Larry Kegan ran the place,” JoAnn recalled. That was where JoAnn initially met fellow Minnesotan Tom Kirch, along with Joe Darichuk and Señores Patino and Kegan. “We were ready to return home when we saw the living conditions at Las Fuentes—and the dining room. I can still remember the plastic plates with cigarette burns.” Apparently, guys (especially those who escaped institutional living) tended to overlook such minor details.

JoAnn first heard about Quadalajara from Bob Peters, a fellow member of Minnesota's social club for the handicapped.

“He first went to Quadalajara in '63 or '64 and stayed for a few months.” Larry Kegan, who was also from the Twin Cities area, “went to different local places, including the VA, telling people about the ideal climate and reasonable cost of living for winter visitors there.” Asked about accommodations for disabled women there, JoAnn Raway indicated that other women had visited Las Fuentes earlier. “I first met Eileen Van Albert in 1964. She was already established with her own home in Colonia Chapalita by then. There were two women from New York who also stayed there.”

With all that Quadalajara had to offer, the three vacationing women from Minnesota wanted to make the most of their precious three week visit.

“When we first got there, we presented Kegan with a list of places in and around Quadalajara that we wished to visit.”

Although Kegan's ads had mentioned local tourist attractions, the surprised landlord responded, “No one's ever done that to me before. He was so floored,” added JoAnn.

The three visiting women got their wish. Larry Kegan proved to be a worthy host and tour guide. According to their hometown newspaper, “They got to see such sights as Jalisco's Lake Chapala with its resorts and fishing villages, the town of Tequila and the factory where the famous drink was distilled, Tlaquepaque with its popular Mariachi Plaza and glass and silver factories, bull fights at Entrada a la Plaza, the city's huge Mercado Libertad, and fiestas in mountain villages. Additionally, the women were impressed with Quadalajara's flower-filled parks and plazas, colonial architecture, palm trees, and fountains. Other points of interest included the Cathedral de Guadalajara, the seventeenth century Basilica de Zapopan, and the Hospicio Cabañas Orphanage which housed the famous paintings of Orozco.” (José Clemente Orozco was one of the 20th Century's most famous painters. Known for his mural paintings, he decorated many public buildings both in Mexico and in the United States. His work frequently embraced the themes of the Mexican Revolution.)

JoAnn's secretarial job in cold country was still easily manageable, despite living with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (a type of Muscular Dystrophy, simply referred to as MD). It wasn't the climate, cost of living, or beauty of the city that caught JoAnn Raway's eye. It was the handsome skinny quad, Tom Kirch. JoAnn and Tom began a friendship that would continue by mail and occasional phone calls (calling the U.S. from Mexico and vice versa could easily set one's pocketbook back to the tune of a dollar per minute). Finally, they had a reunion of sorts in 1967. “Tom was in the Minneapolis VA from spring until November,” JoAnn continued. “That's when things really heated up.”

While JoAnn continued her work and long distance relationship with Tom Kirch, Roselyn Mahowald would return to Quadalajara with another friend, Mary Margaret Sommers, in 1965. “Roselyn passed away sometime later and Mary Margaret stayed for a few more years.”

JoAnn Raway and Tom Kirch picked up their friendship-turned-romance by mail and occasional phone calls after Tom returned to Quadalajara, until 1970—decision time.

“I went down to Las Fuentes for ten days,” JoAnn recalled.

“To deliver an ultimatum?” she was quizzed.

“We had a lot to talk about,” JoAnn responded. “About quitting my job, applying for Social Security, which took six months, and getting the documents we needed to get married in Mexico.”

JoAnn returned in early September 1971. “Tom wanted to get married that week. He had to check into the VA hospital in Long Beach in a week and wanted to get married before he left. We could take care of the legal stuff more easily that way.” JoAnn Raway was visiting Tom at the Jardines Alcalde house he rented along with Jim Adkisson, Bill Kahler, and Ray Clifford, when Bill and Maria Elena Bailey stopped by.

“Tom asked Bailey if he could help make arrangements for our civil marriage before Tom left for Long Beach. Maria Elena said, 'How about tonight?' and went to find a judge to perform the ceremony. We all piled into one car and went to Bob and Teresa Beilsmith's house. They weren't expecting us.”

Tom's roommates and friends soon followed them to the Beilsmith's home. “Maria Elena came back with a judge and we were married that night.” What began as a three week winter vacation to sunny Quadalajara in November 1964 would alter the course of JoAnn Raway's life.

On September 12, 1971 Josephine “JoAnnRaway from Hastings, Minnesota became JoAnn Kirch. The seven-year Quadalajara-to-Minnesota courtship with Tom Kirch of Kellogg, Minnesota culminated with the impromptu wedding at the home of Bob and Teresa Beilsmith. A church wedding would follow after Tom returned. On March 11, 1972 JoAnn and Tom Kirch were “officially” wed at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Colonia Chapalita.

(Taken from Chapter 14, "Cold Weather and Cold Warriors", QUADALAJARA - The Utopia That Once Was, pages 162-164.)

*Incidentally, my dear friend JoAnn called me on Veterans Day! She now lives "back home" in Minnesota.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

BOB DYLAN'S Friend Was A "Mere Mortal"

life and death of a mere mortal

"On nine one one, while the whole of America froze in fear and shock from the final acts of those true believers, Larry Kegan wasn't able to get his tracheotomy suctioned; he couldn't breathe. The lack of oxygen caused him to have a heart attack and he was gone before José came out of the Seven Eleven with the batteries. Not one news report announced that nine one one was the day Kegan returned to his God." --- Mouth Magazine (The entire article can be accessed from the link below.)

One of the better known characters from the Quadalajara Era was Larry Kegan. Injured in a diving accident while still in his teens, Kegan made his way down to Mexico from Minnesota circa 1960 and soon after founded the popular "Gimp camp" (as the guys affectionately referred to them), Hacienda Las Fuentes.

I had heard the name Larry Kegan a number of times from friends of mine who had been friends of his. At that time, Kegan was sort of famous because he knew someone famous. Kegan was close friends with singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. They had been friends since their early teens (and remained lifelong friends til the end). In fact, Dylan made at least one trip to Quadalajara to visit his quadriplegic buddy.

Kegan had married and left Mexico in favor of Florida five years before I arrived. I still have a letter from Hacienda Las Fuentes, dated February 1971, signed by Paul Patino. Since Patino helped Kegan run the Hacienda Las Fuentes operation, and took over after Kegan departed for the States, Hacienda Las Fuentes was simply known as "Patino's Place" for years after. My letter was the standard response to the countless inquires from VA hospital patients and shut-ins from all over the US and beyond.

I met Larry Kegan in 1974. He stopped by Joe Anderson's house in the first wheelchair adapted van I remember seeing in Mexico. I happened to be house-sitting while Anderson, well known in his own right for being a magnet for pretty senoritas, just happened to be in the States with his latest teen-aged girlfriend. Kegan was looking for a girl. Who wasn't? I introduced him to a friend who had stopped by for a visit. After they briefly chatted in his van, Alicia came back into the house. No chemistry, I guess, and Larry Kegan drove off into the sunset. (OK, not exactly into the sunset, and Kegan's attendant did the driving.)

While researching my book, I learned more about Larry Kegan from both people who knew him well, and old newsletter and magazine articles. Although I lived in Quadalajara for a number of years, I had never heard of the Alliance For Compassion (a group of some 30 American quadriplegics and paraplegics, of which Kegan was a member, who donated time and funds to help children at the Hospicio Cabanas Orphanage). And I doubt that many people remember/know that Larry Kegan once taught English to the Instituto Cabanas girls' choir and once accompanied them on a stateside trip with stops at Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm and the Long Beach VA Hospital. QUADALAJARA --- The Utopia That Once Was (Page 323).

This colorful character from the early Quadalajara Era, who accomplished much and contributed much to the community that embraced him, went on to have a most interesting life post-Quadalajara.

And, if any of you happen to know Bob Dylan or how to contact him, there's a book on my desk with "his name on it"!


Wednesday, November 07, 2007