Monday, July 04, 2011


Buddy Pinsonnault (from Plattsburg, NY) arrived in Quadalajara circa 1970, Jack Tumidajski (Pawtucket, RI) 1972, Tom Kirch (Kellog, MN) circa 1963, Bill Baily (Baker, OR) 1958 and JoAnn Raway Kirch (Hastings, MN) 1964. Five friends of a group of some twenty Quadalajara residents enjoying un dia de campo at the popular picnic grounds of Chimulco--some 15 miles outside the city.

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 the years following World War II, 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."