Sunday, October 25, 2009
The human spirit.
Whenever I get to feeling sorry for myself, I have an automatic newsreel that plays in my head. It mercilessly shows me people I have known or heard about, who overcame great crippling handicaps to live fruitful lives. I have a lot of these reminders anyway, as some members of my family always feel compelled to send me those calendars made by artists that have to paint with their toes. Life is full of everyday heroes like that, but we too often take them for granted. Certainly my Grandmother Cushman heads that list. I have written a song on this blog dedicated to her named Gulf Coast Queen, but there is another side to her even more inspiring. She suffered a paralyzing stroke before I was born, and was not supposed live long enough to see me. But she did and lived many years more, always exercising, pushing her body to adjust, fighting back several times after devastating strokes took their toll. She taught us all what reserves of strength and endurance are within the human spirit.
But it is Sammy Sauls, the father of a friend of mine, whom I want to tell you about. His may be one of the most inspiring stories I know.
Sammy Sauls was born on Navasota in 1919, and grew up like most Black kids in Texas. His was a life of Segregation, persecution and limited ambition. Navasota was a rough and tumble town, where gamblers, prostitutes and petty criminals were more at home downtown than proper folks. There were few desirable jobs, and most Blacks worked in the cotton fields, or in town at the cotton gin or the cotton seed oil mill. Sammy had his fill of these things, and when a few of his buddies, cousins and his brother decided to hop a train and ride to Arizona, he agreed to go along with them. There was a war on, and the word on the street was that Blacks were more easily recruited there than in Texas. Joining the Army sounded like a glorious alternative to life in Navasota.
When the train came barreling by, the boys all did what they had done many times before. But this time would be very different for Sammy. As he leaped for the blurring grips on the train, he slipped, and fell underneath its mammoth steel wheels. Both of his legs were lost in an instant. Ready to give his life for his Country, Sammy Sauls gave up his limbs on the railroad track just outside of town, probably the first casualty of the war.
His companions bound his legless stumps with tourniquets made of bailing wire, to keep him from bleeding to death, and headed for the hospital. In those days, at a humble local clinic, surgery was almost barbaric compared to today’s standards and Blacks sometimes had trouble getting treatment. But Praise God, on this occasion, Sammy was taken in to the emergency room and miraculously saved. He had lost a great amount of blood, but the Great Physician was not through with him.
Eventually artificial legs were made and attached to his stumps, one at the knee, the other at mid thigh. He worked with them until he could walk anywhere. He learned to drive, work, and make whatever adjustments necessary to prosper during a wartime Depression.
Sammy got married, lived a full and fruitful life, and became known around Navasota as the best tailor in town. He became a master with the electric sewing machine. People knew him as “Uncle Sam,” and he was known to be a mighty man from the waist up. He fathered ten children. He raised every one of them to have a ready smile, fierce independence and to never offer excuses. He provided for them well, in tough circumstances, and brought them up to be survivors and providers as well.
When the family played baseball, he would pitch. He could not field bunts or grounders, but he did not need to. He had such strong arms, from lifting his own body weight around constantly, that his arm muscles looked like huge thighs. Few people could bat against him. Of course, there is no telling which was more unnerving, batting against a legless man, menacingly jerking and scowling, or the dangerous speed at which his pitches came at you.
Sammy taught his children the kind of determination that it takes to have success. He had no legs, but that never seemed to really matter. His sons saw him lift, hurl and throw with amazing power and accuracy, always an unsurpassed testimony to the human spirit. He never wanted sympathy, and rarely gave out any. The only thing he could not do was run. But he was fast, and was known to nab a child in need of correction with lightning speed. He maintained the uncanny personal power to effectively summons his children, even if they knew punishment awaited. They knew if they ran, they better just keep on running. He feared no man. He was respected by everyone. As powerful as he was, he always had a sense of humor, and was known as a clever story teller, and loved a good joke.
Sammy Sauls raised a football dynasty. Many of his sons were talented football players. Each measured strength and power and endurance and victory by their own father, not by some abstract idea in a coach’s mind. But no matter how big and strong they got, they never could take him while arm wrestling. They never saw him back away from a challenge. They never saw him lose. Whenever there was work to be done, Sammy outworked his whole brood. He passed away in 1996, but they still speak of him today as a sort of Black Paul Bunyan. Whatever it was, he had taught himself how to overcome and achieve, and he left that spirit in his children.
Someone once carved the little crutch you see at the top for him. Made of bois d’arc, or something very hard, it was once painted red, and that has just about all worn off. Today it is a most cherished possession of one of his sons, who proudly brings it out as if it were the family crest. And in a way it is much better, much more meaningful than that. It is a daily reminder to keep on trying, to never give up, and to never make excuses for yourself. And no matter how tough it gets, never lose your joy for living, the ability to play some baseball, or go fishing, or just have a few laughs with your friends and family.
A special thanks to Johnny Sauls for sharing his memories with me about his father Sammy Sauls over the past twenty years. I feel like I almost know him. If you’re like me, you wish you had.