Three Quarters, Two Dimes, and a Nickel: A Memoir of Becoming Wholeby Steve Fiffer
What would you do if you were seventeen years old and broke your neck? It's tough enough to stand on the verge of adulthood without the extra burden of not being able to stand at all. Steve Fiffer had his whole life ahead of him in December 1967 when he fractured his fifth cervical vertebra in a wrestling accident at school, shattering his dreams. The diagnosis
What would you do if you were seventeen years old and broke your neck? It's tough enough to stand on the verge of adulthood without the extra burden of not being able to stand at all. Steve Fiffer had his whole life ahead of him in December 1967 when he fractured his fifth cervical vertebra in a wrestling accident at school, shattering his dreams. The diagnosis was quadriplegia, and his parents were told that he would never walk again. Steve, however, was not content to accept such a fate. He had always been taught that he was a leader, not a follower, and he was not going to take this news lying down. Within five months he was out of the hospital, within seven he was on crutches, and within nine he was beginning his freshman year at Yale University. And most remarkable of all, he never lost his wisecracking sense of humor or his hunger for all that life has to offer.
Three Quarters, Two Dimes, and a Nickel is Steve Fiffer's story of his coming of age, and of how he created a normal life for himself despite his injury. Steve refused to be consumed or defined by his physical condition; he may not be a dollar bill, he explains, but he's still "three quarters, two dimes, and a nickel." His battle to come back from his injury casts into sharp relief the drama of becoming an adult and wrestling with issues of identity, relationships, and ambition. We join him around the dinner table as he rebuilds his once-distant relationship with his father and gains a new appreciation of their bond; we agonize with him as he tries to find true love (or at least lose his virginity) despite his self-consciousness about his physical awkwardness, and we join him at the Lawson YMCA in downtown Chicago, where he rebuilds his body under the watchful eye of the manic physical-fitness coach Dick Woit, a retired football star who puts Steve through a sort of boot camp to raise his sights even higher and propel him off his crutches for good. Part guru, part drill instructor, Woit helps Steve to develop the mental toughness to put the injury behind him and to embrace adulthood and all its responsibilities.
By turns poignant, darkly comic, and ultimately triumphant, Three Quarters, Two Dimes, and a Nickel is an affirmation of how the ordinary joys of life can win out even in extraordinary circumstances.
The New York Times Book Review
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The room was only twenty-five feet by thirty. Wooden benches, their orange paint peeling, ringed aging rubber wrestling mats cluttered with barbells badly in need of soldering. The yellow brick walls were sweating as much as the occupants.
I had almost forgotten the smell, that singularly vital scent of men pushing their bodies to the limit. It conjured memories of the gyms in which I once played. There existed a kind of magic between those rooms, too, and their inhabitants. The gyms taking on the smell of the athletes (a smell which no amount of airing could destroy) and the athletes adopting the personality of the room -- no-nonsense functional.
Two summers at the Rehabilitation Institute and I had never picked up that smell. The place did wonders for me -- at least that first year. But the environment was so clinical, white, sterile.
The cluster of men in the corner hadn't noticed me standing in the doorway. I recognized some of them as members of the Chicago Bears. They surrounded a man bench-pressing a huge amount of weight. I didn't recognize the lifter, who according to the count of a small red-haired man had pressed his barbell 130 times.
When the count reached 150, the lifter's arms began to shake, the interval between presses became longer, and a look of anguish, up to now only transient, took permanent residence. Everyone was silent except for the counter. "C'mon you motherfucker," he bellowed. "You ain't worth shit if you can't do two hundred."
When the lifter rested the weight on his chest at 175, the counter pulled his hair and barked, "Keep going you sheeny bastard." Transfused by the tirade, the man pumped the weight another 25 times. The room erupted in applause.
"Not bad, Weisman," said the counter. "If you had two lungs you could probably do four hundred."
The men swaggered confidently past me out of the exercise room. Weisman remained on the bench, smiling and gasping.
The redheaded counter took the weight, which looked bigger than he was, and easily carried it to an iron rack near the doorway. I stepped forward.
"What do you want, Crip?" the man asked me.
"I'm here to see Mr. Woit."
"You're looking at him. I'm Dick Woit."
I introduced myself and reminded him that I had spoken with him on the phone the previous day. I hoped my voice did not show my surprise. The newspaper article waiting on my pillow when I returned home after my sophomore year had profiled a hard-nosed former pro football player who now conditioned athletes, businessmen, and a handful of the infirm at the Lawson YMCA on Chicago's Near North Side. Dick Wok was best known for having trained Bears star Gale Sayers after the halfback had suffered what many thought would be a career-ending knee injury. Instead, after an off-season with Woit, Sayers had returned to lead the National Football League in rushing.
Woit's harsh demeanor -- no one had ever called me "Crip" -- fit the profile, but he seemed too tiny to be a retired Detroit Lions running back. He couldn't be more than five feet seven inches tall, couldn't weigh more than 130 pounds. I knew that size wasn't everything. I'd seen wrestlers and weight lifters with those vital statistics whose bulging necks and arms suggested unlimited strength and invincibility. But Woit was not only small, he was gaunt. His pale cheeks looked like they'd been sunk with ballast. I couldn't tell how old he was. Perhaps forty.
"Fiffer? Oh yeah. Jesus, Weisman, will you look at the belly on this son of a bitch." Weisman was still on the bench trying to fill his lungs, or lung. "Kid," Woit said to me, "you got a good twenty pounds to lose. How can you look at yourself in the mirror?" He motioned to my crutches. "Do you really need those things?"
I nodded. I wasn't more than ten pounds overweight, and of course I needed the crutches. I debated whether to give my medical history to this man with the obvious Napoleon complex. No. One of the problems had been that the therapists at Rehab kept congratulating me on how far I'd come. I needed someone to tell me how far I still had to go.
"Can you do a sit-up?"
"I think so."
"Shit, Crip, get down on the floor and try."
I rested my crutches against the wall, sat on a nearby bench, lowered myself to the hardwood floor, and then edged to an adjacent mat.
"Hold it. You don't need the mat. Do it on the floor."
Movements which were once accomplished automatically now required rumination. I had only done sit-ups on a tilted board at Rehab. Gravity had been an ally.
I considered the best approach to doing a real sit-up. Extending my arms behind my head, I tightened my stomach and then jerked-threw all my weight forward. Surprise! I got all the way up. Did Little Napoleon possess some magic that allowed the injured and ill to do the impossible?
I remained in the up position, smiling.
Okay. To achieve even greater thrust, I threw my arms back as I returned to the starting position. This provided additional momentum for the next attempt. Unfortunately, it also propelled my head into the floor.
I managed three more full sit-ups, banging my head each time. On my next try, I only got halfway up, but there was no order to stop. Indeed, there was no order to stop for another two minutes. One hundred twenty seconds punctuated by heavy breathing and frequent cracks of the skull against the floor. When Woit finally instructed me to rest, my stomach felt like Jell-O, my head like a suitable whipped-cream topping. I was woozy, but even if I hadn't been, I still couldn't have read his face.
"Which leg is stronger?"
"The left. I still have a short brace on the right."
"Can you bend the left one while you're on your back?"
"Sure." I pulled it halfway up to my chest.
"How about the right?"
"I don't know." I tried, casually at first. Nothing. I tried again, this time closing my eyes, grimacing, tightening my fists and every other muscle that worked. Still nothing. "I can make it play dead if that's any help," I smiled. I still used the joke.
Woit didn't laugh. He bent down and squeezed my calf. "Christ, there's no fucking tone here. How long since you were hurt?"
"About two and a half years."
"What the hell have you been doing since then? Picking your nose?"
Getting therapy, swimming, going to a college that would never take you, I thought to myself. But strangely, I was not offended by the insults. The attitude of my doctors and therapists was more disturbing. They still pointed to me as the walking miracle man.
Woit hardly seemed ready to anoint me a "miracle." He made me yank a pulley attached to the wall, then lifted me up to the bench and handed me a 25-pound barbell. "Curl this," he snapped. I hadn't used a barbell since I was hurt and could only bring this light weight three-quarters of the way from my waist to my chin. "Pathetic. Stand up."
One of the men from the earlier class had returned to the room. Six feet tall, 185 pounds, all muscle and Afro, he looked familiar. "Hey, Gordon," said Woit (I realized he was talking to Dick Gordon, the Bears' wide receiver), "c'mere and catch this cripple if he starts to fall."
Gordon dutifully joined us. Woit noticed my excitement. "All right, don't pee in your pants." He pushed my back against the wall and instructed me to keep my butt against the surface and lower myself until I was on my tiptoes. He ordered Gordon to catch me on command.
Electriclike shock rifled through my legs as I struggled to avoid collapsing into the arms of the football player. My hamstrings squealed. Five seconds, ten, fifteen, and then all strength drained, I crumbled. "Catch him," yelled Woit. And the sure-handed wide receiver made the grab shortly before my head was reintroduced to the floor.
"Seventeen seconds," Woit shook his head. "Tomorrow you don't get someone to catch you until you hit twenty."
"Okay," I panted.
Woit handed me my crutches.
"Your dad got a lotta money?"
I wasn't sure what to say. "We're comfortable."
"What is he a doctor? Lawyer?"
"Well, his money ain't gonna do you any good here. You're on your own, pal."
"I know that," I said. If Woit thought that was going to scare me, he was wrong. I liked the idea of having to succeed or fail here entirely on my own, was glad my father's influence and affluence would be nonfactors. The time for using clout had passed. This was my test and mine alone.
As I was leaving, I heard Woit tell Gordon, "He seems to have balls. We'll see if he really wants it."
I smiled. My head still throbbed. My legs still ached. But all I could think of was that I'd seen half a dozen of my heroes, that one of the stars of the Chicago Bears had helped me with an exercise, and that a foul-mouthed, anorexic midget was somehow going to push me further than I'd ever been pushed.
During the summer of 1970, I would not have enlisted in the United States Armed Forces even if I had been physically qualified to do so. I did not hate my country as some of my classmates did, but I did not support the war in Vietnam. Nor would I have joined a cult. Barely able to control my bladder and bowels, I was not about to turn my mind over to some bald, blind, or bearded guru. Yet as the summer progressed, I realized I had turned my mind and my body over to a man part maharishi, part Marine.
Friends who came to the YMCA with me to gawk at their football heroes left amazed that I allowed Dick Woit to call me "Crip" or "Sheeny." Thankfully, my mother and father never ventured to the gym. Just as parents don't like to imagine their children having sex, I think they didn't want to know the details of what was happening in the gym. They remained cool and neutral -- the Switzerland of parents -- even when my right arm suddenly swelled to twice its normal size.
"Cellulitis," the doctor said. He guessed that the infection was the result of germs entering the cuts on my elbows -- cuts created by dragging myself across Woit's floor and mats. Moving the arm would exacerbate the situation. I was to stay away from the gym for two weeks.
The timing couldn't have been worse. My recent progress had been almost as dramatic as it had been in the early months after the accident. In just fifteen half-hour sessions with Dick, I had increased the amount of weight I could curl from twenty-five to thirty-five pounds; I could tolerate an additional five pounds on the pulley; I could last a full ten seconds longer against the wall before collapsing; and could now manage eight full sit-ups. I had lost seven pounds; my stomach was beginning to show some tone; and my biceps were noticeably larger. I still couldn't bend my right leg, but Dick said that that would come if I wanted it badly enough, and I, of course, believed him. I was now also doing modified push-ups, and Dick had promised that if I continued to improve, I could do a modified workout alongside the jocks in the normal class. More important, the helplessness I had begun to experience, the tiredness, the feeling of slipping had all disappeared.
Dick had indicated more than once that the only excuse for missing a workout was death. ("Your own, not a relative's.") I didn't want to tell him in person that a mere infection would keep me away. I phoned when I knew he would be in one of the six classes he led each day and left my message. That night I told my parents I had to go back to the gym the next afternoon; my fear of alienating Dick and halting the momentum of recovery was more frightening than the prospect of further infection. They agreed that if I kept my arm covered and promised not to use it -- worked only on my legs -- I could return.
Arriving early, I sat on the bench and began to lower myself to the floor. The kick to my back that sent me face first into the mat caught me by surprise. "You crippledkikemotherfucker, if you ever miss another day, don't bother to come back." I knew the voice.
Dick was momentarily apologetic when I showed him the infection and told him I had defied doctor's orders to come. He created a makeshift cushion for the elbow and designed a workout that avoided undue movement of the arm. But the warmth was short-lived. "Don't get the impression that I'm going to baby you just because of a little infection. Next week it's back to the routine. Shit, Crip, you can't do anything with your arms, how 'bout bending your fucking leg today."
Lying flat on the floor, I tried bending the rigid right leg up toward my chest. Nothing.
I felt a twitch, but there was no movement.
Dick somehow perceived something was happening.
"That's it. Now bend it."
I held my breath, tightened my stomach, and pulled. And the right leg, dormant for so long, bent. Perhaps only two or three inches, but it bent. Beaming, I relaxed and looked up at Dick for approval.
Booming, he shook me from my reverie. "Higher, Crip!"
"Higher? Dick, this is the first time I've bent it in two and a half years."
"I said 'higher.'"
"But, Dick --"
"Dammit, Crip." Dick kicked my weak right leg with his strong left one. Forcefully.
And before I could scream, I pulled the leg up another four inches.
Dick lived with his parents in a Polish neighborhood on Chicago's Northwest Side. Every Wednesday, he would lend his car to his mother. Among Woit's Warriors -- the name of his cult/drill unit -- it was considered a great honor if "Coach" asked you to pick him up on a Wednesday morning or drive him home that afternoon. The day after I bent my right leg, he so honored me.
I had a real summer job besides working out at the Y. When I had returned from school, Dr. Betts had called. RIC had a grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to assemble a resource library on the architectural barriers confronting the disabled. Was I interested in making $1,000, the doctor asked? I knew the barriers firsthand, faced them every day. Now I had a chance to do something to get rid of them -- and get paid in the process. The Y was less than a mile from the institute. I had taken the job with the under-standing that I could extend my lunch hour to work out with Dick.
After Dick asked for a ride home, I arranged to leave work early and met him at the Y at four o'clock. He was standing in front, looking at his watch when I pulled up in the Malibu. I had never seen him outside his gym kingdom before. He was still wearing his trademark maroon sweats. In the real world, walking across the sidewalk to my car among real people, he suddenly looked mortal, insignificant, tiny. A middle-aged woman in a hurry almost knocked him over, and he didn't say a word.
Once in my car, Dick seemed to grow, to regain stature. I should have anticipated that my messy front seat would bother him. "You can tell a lot about a person by the way he takes care of his car," he said, picking up a hot-dog wrapper and some loose change from the passenger side.
I headed west on Chicago Avenue.
"This is a nice car. You should take better care of it. I clean my car every night. Wax it every Sunday after church. Takes me three hours."
Suddenly, a white Datsun swerved in front of us.
"Look out," Dick screamed.
I hit the brakes, and we slammed to a halt inches behind the offender.
"I'll bet it was a goddamn Jap," Dick said. "They think because they can make cars they don't have to know how to drive them."
I started up again.
"So, Crip, you got a bush?"
"A bush?" I had no idea what he was talking about.
"A bush. Girl. Jesus, Crip, where have you been?"
"I just never heard the expression. A girl?" Since getting home, I had gone out a few times with one of my high school classmates who now went to Smith. I guess she qualified. "I'm dating someone, but it's nothing serious," I said.
"Well, be careful. I spend half my time listening to guys complaining about their bushes."
All I could think of was my dad lamenting that the forsythia wasn't coming in like it should this summer.
Dick opened my glove compartment and began looking through it. "Know what I do when I get home?" he said.
I shook my head.
"Well, first I go to mass with my mother. I do that every night. Then I'm on the phone calling all the guys who missed today. Half will tell me it's bush trouble. Like Miller, the lawyer in the one o'clock. He said he'd be in. Wasn't. What good is a man if he don't keep his word. Anyway, he'll tell me his wife is causing trouble, and I'll say, 'What do you expect when you try to run around with some bush on the sly.' I mean, his wife is no bargain, but let him work his fucking rocks off in the gym. You know?"
"Jesus, you're quiet. I've never heard of a quiet Jew. If it weren't for your nose, I wouldn't even know you're Jewish."
I considered making a U-turn and heading for the nearest office of the Anti-Defamation League.
Dick shook his fist at a driver who was moving too slowly in front of us. "Give that jerk the horn, Crip."
Reluctantly I honked.
"So as I was saying, watch the bush. I never married --" Quelle surprise!
"-- Had plenty of bush though, 'til I wised up. Yeah, plenty of bush in those days, but then after I got hurt and started doing this --" He finally shut the glove compartment. "-- Total abstinence. No way I could screw and do six workouts a day. Certainly no way I could be married with my schedule. It's better anyway. Like I say, most bush are trouble." Remarkably, he paused, looked contemplative. "Course, sometimes I think I wouldn't mind having a kid."
I sensed an intimacy developing beneath all this rambling and wasn't sure how to handle it. After an uncomfortable silence, I said, "I think I'd like to have kids someday."
Dick was looking out the window. "It's the next exit," he said.
A few blocks from the highway, he told me to stop. "I'll be just a minute," he said, and he ran into a flower shop. "For my mother," he explained when he came back.
He looked at the clock on my dashboard. "Shit. Running late. We'll barely make mass. I'd have to miss dinner, if I ate it."
I had heard rumors about this. "So it's true that you don't eat?"
He shook his head. "Locker room scuttlebutt. I eat. Half a pint of Cool Whip when I get up, the other half before I go to bed."
"But that's all?"
"That's all. Food's like sex. You can't have it and do as many workouts as I do. But I do love Cool Whip. It's my only vice. I'm getting a hard-on just thinking about it."
"Is that all you ate when you played football?"
"What are you, a lawyer?"
"Not yet," I said.
"They didn't even have Cool Whip when I played football. You think I looked like this when I played. I weighed one seventy. My thighs were as big as that tree trunk over there, and I could bench more than Weisman. I ate anything I wanted in those days, including bush."
We pulled up to a red brick bungalow with a green awning in a neighborhood full of red brick bungalows with green awnings.
"Now keep this car clean, huh, Crip," Dick said as he climbed out. "It's gonna be a long night. Calling the guys." He shut the car door. "I don't know What you all would do without me," he said. And then he sprinted toward the house.
I certainly didn't know what I'd do without him. As determined as I had been to get myself better, I had simply run out of energy to motivate myself. My father had found Dick Woit at the perfect time. I was willing to do anything he told me. I had given him more than my mind and body. I had also turned over my soul to him in this Faustian bargain to regain my legs.
Copyright © 1999 by Steve Fiffer
Meet the Author
Steve Fiffer is the author of seven books, including the award-winning A Season for Justice, written with Morris Dees. He is also the co-editor (with his wife, Sharon Sloan Fiffer) of the literary anthologies Home: American Writers Remember Rooms of Their Own and Family: American Writers Remember Their Own. A graduate of Yale University and the University of Chicago Law School, he is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Chicago Magazine. He lives with his wife and three children in Evanston, Illinois.
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