Friday, March 6, 2009

From Elnora to Orlando: Thanks, Lloyd

My wife and I recently returned from an exciting and fun trip to Disney World. It was only my second visit to that vacation Mecca, the first occurring in 1979 when our kids were very young. By the end of the day, I was exhausted from walking around the Magic Kingdom on my leg braces and crutches. Little thought had been given to making the rides handicapped accessible in those days, and I usually waited on a bench in the shade while the rest of the family had all of the fun.

My, how things have changed since that first trip thirty years ago! Although my mobility has declined to the point I must now use a power wheelchair, Disney has modified/designed many of their rides to make them accessible to nearly everyone. Even the Disney bus fleet is 100% accessible with wheelchair lifts on every vehicle. We spent three days in the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom and I was able to ride right along with Carol, our daughter, Kathy, and her two girls. I felt like a kid again, enjoying the attractions and dodging the hundreds of other wheelchairs, scooters, and mobility vehicles zipping around the park.

Things were much different as I grew up with the residual effects of polio in 1950s Elnora. The Americans with Disabilities Act wouldn’t take effect for another four decades. Although I had the advantage of youth on my side and was actually pretty mobile, there were still many things I couldn’t do and many places I couldn’t go.

My biggest problem was with steps and staircases. From schools to business buildings, long staircases with many steps were the rule rather than the exception. Many multi-level buildings didn’t have elevators, and wheelchair cutouts at street curbs were nearly non-existent except maybe near a hospital. I can still remember my mother or father having to carry me up steps in long, narrow stairwells because of the absence of railings for me to be able to help myself.

Even the hallowed halls of learning at Purdue University were anything but accessible. I was extremely fortunate to be mobile enough when I was young not to have to worry too much about such things. However, had I been in a wheelchair in 1961, life would have turned out very differently for me because college would not have been an option.

Fortunately, though, there are dreamers, planners, and people who want to do the right thing to make the world a better place for everyone even if it is just one step at a time. Elnora had a man like that.

Lloyd Hobson lived directly across the street from us on the northeast end of Elnora. He and his wife, LeeAnna, raised three beautiful daughters, Patty, Pam, and Polly. Pam was a year younger than me, Patty a couple of years older, and Polly was about three years younger than Pam. We were all close enough in age that we played together and were all good friends. Before my parents owned a television, I would often go over to the Hobson’s to watch Captain Video and his Video Rangers and other children’s programming.

From as long as I can remember, Lloyd Hobson had a small machine shop in his back yard which later evolved into Basiloid Products. He would sometimes invite me over to see his new tools, once even letting me test out his new wood lathe, patiently showing me how it worked and guiding me through the process of “turning” a shapeless piece of wood into something useful. Once, following his return from a business trip to Los Angeles, he brought me back a genuine Hohner Harmonica which I cherished for years.

Each year, the Daviess County Fair Board gave away a Schwinn bicycle to a lucky boy and girl. Ironically, I won the boy’s bike one summer and since I couldn’t ride it like other kids my age, Lloyd built a stationary stand for it so that I could use it as an exercise bike without fear of toppling over.

However, even with all of these little “random acts of kindness,” the thing I remember most about Lloyd Hobson is the playground equipment he constructed for his girls. He built a huge industrial strength swing set, complete with trapeze. The “slippery-slide” was big enough to be used in a city park. And then there was the tree house.

Built in a big, old mulberry tree in their back yard, the tree house was big enough to hold half the kids in Elnora. As I watched him construct it, I just knew I wouldn’t be able to get up into it and I was very sad at the thought of all the kids up there while I was still down on the ground. However, it’s like Lloyd read my mind, because he asked me if he modified the ladder if I thought I could get up into it.

Because my leg braces locked at the knee and I had to walk “stiff-legged,” Lloyd knew that a regular ladder would be too narrow and the rungs too far apart for me to swing my legs into place. So he built the ladder much wider than normal with rungs close together just for me. When the time came to test it out, I slowly climbed that ladder and made it up into the tree house with very little problem. I think my mom nearly had a heart attack when she saw me.

Unfortunately, I didn’t go up into the tree house as much as I would have liked because although the ladder itself worked perfectly, I had a hard time getting back onto it for the trip down to earth once I was up there. However, in this case, it truly was the thought that counted.

As my family and I waited in the long lines at Disney World a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think how far the nation has come in making life a little easier for those of us unlucky enough to face serious physical challenges. I also pictured that old tree house and how Lloyd Hobson and his extraordinary vision did his best to help me be “one of the gang.”

Patty Whitaker, Pam Sellers, and Polly Hobson Duros have every right to be proud.

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