In this week’s edition of “Conversations with Clayton,” I talk with David Davis, the author of a fantastic new work of sports history entitled Wheels of Courage: How Paralyzed Veterans from World War II Invented Wheelchair Sports, Fought for Disability Rights, and Inspired a Nation.
Wheels of Courage belongs on every “best of” 2020 booklist. Not only is this a deeply human and inspiring story. Through the lives of three men who pioneered wheelchair basketball at V.A. hospitals, we see taboos crumble and a social movement in its infancy.
It is also a remarkable sports story. It is a story of how the participants, spectators, and supporters of wheelchair athletics made sports for people with disabilities a part of the American sporting landscape.
In a wide-ranging interview, David talks about the origins of this project, his writing process, and watching Tyson bite Holyfield from a media tent outside the arena.
Clayton Trutor (CT): What drew you to this topic?
David Davis (DD): In general, the topics that most interest me are stories that have never been told before. That was my starting point with Wheels: this was unexplored territory. I’m also drawn to stories with many layers. With Wheels, there’s World War II and military history, there’s disability and rehabilitation medicine, there’s the Olympics and the Paralympics, and more.
Like many writers, I’ve found that some of the best stories revolve around compelling characters. For this project, I was very lucky to have an overabundance of such characters, from the paralyzed veterans to the doctors and medical personnel to the coaches and instructors who helped create wheelchair basketball. That was a huge bonus.
Then I met one of the veterans, Gene Fesenmeyer, in person. I flew to Texas, stayed at a trailer park near his home, and hung out with him for a week. After I came home, we spoke on the phone a couple times a month, until he passed away. I was determined to bring his story – the story of the paralyzed veterans from World War II – to the world.
CT: Can you describe your research and writing process?
DD: Doing research is like jumping into the ocean: it’s a deep dive into an unmapped universe. And then you keep diving, over and over again, until you feel like you know this particular universe and you’re ready to write.
With historical and archival research, I make up a wish-list of the places I want to visit 1) to access the most important information and papers, and 2) to literally smell the air where the action took place. Budget restrictions means I won’t get to every site, unfortunately, but at least this way you can plan your route.
Obviously, the internet has changed things – usually for the better – in terms of accessing information. But that can be deceiving because research centers and libraries are always adding material to their databases. So, you never know what you might find unless and until you step foot inside the place. I walked into the medical library at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and was incredibly stoked to find a full run of an obscure newsletter that I didn’t know was housed there. That ended up being a godsend.
Meanwhile, you’re also making up a wish-list of people you want to interview for the book. This list will keep increasing, by the way, which is a good thing. Some of these interviews you can handle by phone. With others, you hope to meet the people face to face and get to know them.
One topic that I’m curious to talk about with other writers is how the research material you’ve uncovered seems to change the deeper you get into the process. When you’re starting out, everything you find is amazing – because you don’t know anything – and also potentially significant to the project. Then, after you’ve compiled reams of material and have outlined the book and started writing, you realize that information you initially thought was vital is not that important after all. And, maybe a topic or a character that you glossed over in the first or second draft suddenly looms large. You have to be nimble, and adapt, and keep going.
The writing process, for me, is agony. My prose on a good day is best described as “workman like.” My main goal is to get to the end of the sentence and then to the end of the paragraph. So, it’s about re-writing, re-writing, re-writing, honing, honing, honing. I have taped to my computer a list of phrases/clichés that I’ve leaned on as well as overused adverbs (“actually,” “really”) – and then I try like heck to avoid them.
I want to give the person who invented the “find” feature in computer software a medal. You’re typing away, pretty satisfied with your effort, and then you come across a word that seems suspiciously familiar. You do a search of the document and discover, “Whoa, I’ve used the word ‘groundbreaking’ 17 times in 300 pages. That’s not good.” Very humbling.
CT: During your research, what was the most surprising detail that you came across about this subject matter?
DD: There were so many surprising details that I discovered in writing this book primarily because I was so ignorant about the topic initially. But I was amazed to discover how one invention could prove so life-changing to the paralyzed veterans of WW II and, eventually, to many paraplegics. Before the 1930s, wheelchairs were big, clunky affairs with the oversized wheels in the front of the chair. They were so heavy that you needed an attendant to push them; people who said to be “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair bound” because they had little freedom of movement.
An engineer named Herbert Everest helped change that. He’d been paralyzed in a mining accident and became depressed because he couldn’t find work in his condition. Determined to win his freedom back, he teamed with a non-disabled engineer named Harry Jennings – and together they produced the Everest & Jennings wheelchair. They shifted the big wheels to the rear and used foldable material to create a lightweight wheelchair that freed the paralyzed veterans from the constraints of the hospital ward. With some practice, the vets could wheel themselves to their cars, hoist themselves into the driver’s seat, fold up the E&J and slip it into the back seat, and then drive away. They had freedom and empowerment — and no longer were they “confined” to the behemoth wheelchairs of the past.
Compared to today’s wheelchairs, the old-school E&Js were as technologically advanced as the horse-and-buggy. But they were nimble enough to become the wheelchairs of choice for sports competitions. For years, they provided U.S. wheelchair athletes with a major competitive advantage.
CT: You describe how Marlon Brando’s interest in wheelchair basketball spurred him to become involved in the film The Men (1950). Did you find any references to his involvement in The Men helping to foster his later interest in political and social activism, both on and off the screen?
DD: What attracted Brando to “The Men” was a combination of things. The film’s producer and screenwriter, Stanley Kramer and Carl Foreman, were up-and-coming Hollywood figures with good reputations. The part allowed Brando to play a vulnerable, physically handicapped character who was the opposite of the hulking, macho persona he portrayed as Stanley Kowalski in the Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” And, being a Method actor, Brando could stretch himself in the role because he had to “learn” how to be a paraplegic.
I don’t know if his involvement in The Men fostered his political and social activism. He never addressed that specifically. But I believe that he relished playing a character who was under-valued by society because of his handicap. Few Hollywood stars would attempt such a risky role.
CT: What were Jack Webb’s perceptions of The Men? The character he plays in that film is quite different than his career-defining role as Sgt. Friday in Dragnet.
DD: Jack Webb was pretty terrific in The Men. Like Brando, he plays a paralyzed veteran recovering from his war injury at a veterans’ hospital. It was a meaty role, but Webb probably realized that he was never going to be a leading man in Hollywood films.
When they shot The Men, Webb had just started doing Dragnet – but only on radio. NBC hadn’t shot the TV series yet, and so Webb wasn’t completely identified with the role of Joe Friday. TV was in its infancy still. The role of Joe Friday, and the popularity of TV, changed his fate.
CT: The fantastic personal interviews are one of the most striking features of this book, particularly those with Gene Fesenmeyer. What advice would you give to writers and researchers on conducting personal interviews?
DD: Be prepared. Be curious. Be open to surprises and tangents. Be polite and empathetic. Make them feel comfortable. Don’t hesitate to call the person back and ask follow-up questions.
It’s always a good idea to ask the person who else s/he thinks you should interview on the topic. That way, when you make that next call, you can introduce yourself by saying something like, “So-and-so suggested that I speak with you.” That gives you some instant cred.
Extra credit: think beyond the words. Ask the person if s/he has any photos and/or video pertaining to the topic. Photos and images can help trigger stories from the person you’re interviewing and, perhaps, you can later use the photos to illustrate the book (with their permission, of course).
CT: There are many fascinating details about the experiences of these men during World War II. Did you have to do significant background research on World War II to put these events in context?
DD: Very much so, because the three veterans that I wrote about were involved in different battles at different points during the war. One was captured on Corregidor in the Philippines at the beginning of the war, when Japan was dominating the Pacific theater. Another fought on the island of Okinawa as the U.S. was figuring out the endgame against Japan. The third was involved in the Battle of the Bulge right before Germany surrendered in Europe.
CT: When you think of Cincinnati, you think of _____________.
DD: Sam Lacey & Nate Archibald. Kenny Anderson & Isaac Curtis. The Big Red Machine. Pete Rose & Bud Harrelson. Yes, I’m old.
CT: What are the worst seats you’ve ever had at a sporting event.
DD: My seat in the media tent –- outside the arena –- for Tyson-Holyfield II (the “bite fight”) in Las Vegas. A bunch of us watched the fight on large-sized TVs. At least I didn’t have to shell out for the pay-per-view.
CT: Describe your greatest sports video game victory.
DD: Centipede at Don’s Rok bar in college. Everything clicked that one night. Needless to say, it was all downhill from there.
Follow David Davis on Twitter: @DDavisLA
Go buy Wheels of Courage right now too. Buy several copies of it. It will make a great gift for any occasion.