Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence

Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence

by John Hockenberry


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John Hockenberry's Moving Violations is one of the most entertaining, provocative, unexpected, outspoken, and occasionally outrageous books in recent memory. It is a story of obstacles—physical, emotional, and psychic—overcome again, and again, and again. Whether riding a mule up a hillside in Iraq surrounded by mud-stained Kurdish refugees, navigating his wheelchair through intractable stretches of Middle Eastern sand, or auditioning to be the first journalist in space, John Hockenberry, ace reporter, is determined not only to bring back the story, but also to prove that nothing can hold him back from death-defying exploits.

However, he will never be a poster boy for a Jerry Lewis telethon. A paraplegic since an auto accident at age nineteen, Hockenberry holds nothing back in this achingly honest, often hilarious chronicle that ranges from the Ayatollah's funeral (where his wheelchair is pushed by a friendly Iranian chanting "Death to all Americans"), to the problems of crip sex and the inaccessibility of the New York City subway system.

In this immensely moving chronicle—so filled with marvelous storytelling that it reads like a novel—John Hockenberry finds that the most difficult journey is the one that begins at home, as he confronts the memories of his beloved one-armed grandfather, and finally meets his institutionalized Uncle Peter, whose very existence was long a secret buried in the family history.

Moving Violations is a sometimes harrowing but ultimately joyful ride.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786881628
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 07/11/1996
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.00(d)
Lexile: 1010L (what's this?)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

A two-time Peabody Award winner, John Hockenberry spent more than a decade with National Public Radio as a general assignment reporter, Middle East correspondent, and program host. He is now a correspondent for ABC's news magazine show Day One, for which he received an Emmy. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Walking with
the Kurds

    There were legs below. Stilts of bone and fur picking around mud and easing up the side of a mountain near the Turkish border with Iraq. Two other legs slapped the sides of the donkey at each step like denim-lined saddlebags. They contained my own leg and hip bones, long the passengers of my body's journeys, and for just as long a theme of my mind's wanderings.

    I was on the back of a donkey plodding through the slow, stunned bleed of the Gulf War's grand mal violence. The war was over. It remained only for Desert Storm's aftermath to mop up the historical details wrung out of Iraq. The Kurds were one such detail. It had taken another war, Desert Storm, for the Kurds to unexpectedly emerge from the obscurity they had received as a reward for helping the Allies during the First World War, nearly eight decades before. The Kurds had helped the Allies again this time, but this was just another detail.

    In the calculus of victory and defeat echoing through world capitals and in global headlines, in the first moments of Iraq's surrender there were few details, and fewer human faces. The first pictures of the war were taken by weapons; Baghdad, a city of five million, rendered in fuzzy, gun-camera gray. Snapshots of hangars, bridges, roads, and buildings. No people.

    We had won.

    They had lost.

    The winners were well known: they were the faces on billboards. The smiling, enticing face of the West, its prosperity and its busy president, Bush,were known to the youngest schoolchild in the Middle East. In the West only one Middle Eastern face was as prominent, the face of the demon who became the vanquished, the singular, ever-present Saddam Hussein. The other losers were invisible. As time went on the war began to bleed the faces of its true victims.

    Here on the Turkish border it was an open artery of Kurdish faces, streaming out of Iraq and down mountainsides in Turkey and Iran as the world's latest refugee population. Under cover of surrender and Western backslapping, Saddam Hussein had uprooted the mutinous Kurds and sent them packing under helicopter gunship fire north and east into nations that are neighbors only on the most recent of maps. To the Kurds, the region from northern Iraq to eastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and western Iran is all one land: Kurdistan. It has been this way for more than one thousand years of warfare and map drawing. So for these Kurdish refugees, border checkpoint traffic jams were just old insuits lost in the latest slaughter.

    My fists held tight to the saddle and up we went toward the final ridge on the edge of Iraqi Kurdistan. A village called Uzumlu on the Turkish side was the destination. It lay three or more valleys beyond. There, the horizon contained the spilled wreckage of the refugee exodus from inside northern Iraq. Here it was just mountains against the brisk, gray, clouded sky punched through with brilliant patches of blue. Deep below in the valley roared the Zab River, muddy with the melting snowpack's promise of spring.

    In March of 1991 the spectacular sky and the brisk air rimmed with intermittent hot alpine sun was a welcome escape from the visa lines and news briefings, SCUD missile attacks and second guessing of Saddam, Bush, and Schwarzkopf that so dominated the business of covering Desert Storm. I watched the sky while everyone else stared at their own feet. Ahead and behind, Kurdish men in black slacks walked with enormous sacks of bread on their backs. Like a line of migrating ants, a parade of white bundles snaked up the mountain on black legs.

    Neither the heroic foot-borne relief efforts, anticipation of the horrors ahead, nor the brilliance of the scenery around me struck home as much as the rhythm of the donkey's forelegs beneath my hips. It was walking, that feeling of groping and climbing and floating on stilts that I had not felt for fifteen years. It was a feeling no wheelchair could convey. I had long ago grown to love my own wheels and their special physical grace, and so this clumsy leg walk was not something I missed until the sensation came rushing back through my body from the shoulders of a donkey. Mehmet, a local Kurd and the owner of the donkey, walked ahead holding a harness. I had rented the donkey for the day. I insisted that Mehmet give me a receipt. He was glad to oblige. I submitted it in my expense report to National Public Radio. The first steps I had taken since February 28, 1976, cost thirty American dollars.

    It was a personal headline lost in the swirl of news and refugees. I had been in such places before. In my wheelchair I have piled onto trucks and jeeps, hauled myself up and down steps and steep hillsides to use good and bad telephones, to observe riots, a volcano, street fighting in Romania, to interview Yasir Arafat, to spend the night in walk-up apartments on every floor from one to five, to wait out curfews with civilian families, to explore New York's subway, to learn about the first temple of the Israelites, to observe the shelling of Kabul Afghanistan, to witness the dying children of Somalia. For more than a decade I have experienced harrowing moments of physical intensity in pursuit of a deadline, always keeping pace with the rest of the press corps despite being unable to walk. It is the rule of this particular game that it be conducted without a word of acknowledgment on my part. To call attention to the wheelchair now by writing about it violates that rule. My mind and soul fight any effort to comment or complain, even now, years after the events I write about.

    This quiet, slow donkey ride was easily the farthest I had gone, out onto a ledge that was never far from my mind during the fifteen years I had used a wheelchair. It was a frightening edge where physical risks loomed like the echoes of loose stones falling into a bottomless canyon, and the place where I discovered how completely I had lost all memory of the sensation, the rhythm, even the possibility of walking. I held onto the saddle or the donkey's neck. The locking of donkey knees and the heavily damped strokes of each donkey leg finding a cushioned foothold in the cold, soft mud of the Iraqi hillside rippled up my hanging limbs and drove into the bones of my arms. My arms were the sentries holding me in place, doing the job of arms and legs once again, as they had for a decade and a half. Though this was the closest to walking that I had felt in all of that time, the job of my arms could not change. First Steps in Fifteen Years. It was a headline composed and discarded, footnote without essay, ridiculous, like the young blond man on the donkey on the mountain. And it was all perfectly true.

    In March 1991 I found myself climbing a hillside where civilization was bulldozing a whole people up onto the mud and snow of a place called "no man's land" on maps. It was the end of a very long journey; I had arrived in a place that I could not have imagined. In this soupy outpost, the trucks seemed to have arrived long before the roads. As I watched out taxi windows, I could see that there would come a point where the wheelchair would have to be left behind if I was to make it to the place where early reports said hundreds of thousands of civilians were fleeing Saddam Hussein's terror. Wheels of any kind were out in this terrain. Saddam Hussein had chased the Kurds to the edge of pavement and well beyond. In the pockets of snow, starvation, rock and mud, only legs could travel.

    The story of the Kurds had drawn me from a hotel room in Ankara, onto a plane to Istanbul, then on a charter flight to Van, an old Kurdish city once part of the Armenian empire, on a long, boring drive to the village of Hakkari and then a plunge through the boulder strewn mountain trails to the border town of Cukurca. I left my wheelchair with the driver from Van beside the road to Cukurca and climbed onto a tawny-colored, medium-size donkey who accepted without a sound what was a more than ample load. Before we began the steep ascent, I had only the time it took to cross a rope and plank bridge in a perilous state of disrepair to figure out how to keep my mostly paralyzed body on the animal's back. We crossed over the raging waters of the Zab River in the first weeks of the spring thaw and began the slow, steep climb toward Uzumlu.

    The bare facts of what had happened in Iraq and Kuwait in the initial aftermath of Desert Storm read like a random shooting in America: "World outraged as crazed father attacks neighbor then turns guns on family and self." The truth was not as simple. For one thing, Saddam took great pains to make sure that he would not get hurt. Others were neither so lucky, nor did they have much in the way of control over their destiny. The civilians in Baghdad, the Shia of southern Iraq, and the Kurds of the north were all innocent bystanders, caught in the forty day drive-by shooting that was Desert Storm. Unlike the Kurds, I had some control over my destiny, but in pursuit of this slice of Saddam's long, brutal story I took none of his pains to avoid harm. I would get into northern Iraq any way possible. Whatever difficulties I might encounter in being separated from my wheelchair in the open mountainous country across the border, I would deal with then. I had made this calculation many times before in covering the Middle East, or in deciding to do anything out in a world not known for its wheelchair friendly terrain.

    I had often thought of riding a donkey in the mountains of western America as recreation but had never found the time to orchestrate such a break in space and time. As a vacation it had seemed like a lot of bother, but here, for the sake of a story, the impulse to toss my own wheelchair to the wind was as natural as carrying a notebook is to other journalists. Still, that I would find myself here, holding on for dear life, with no sense of what lay ahead and certainly no way to control events from the top of a donkey, was unsettling. Was I supposed to be here, or was I in the way? To Mehmet the donkey man, I was just another paying customer.

    Feeling out of place was an old sensation, almost as old as the paralysis in my legs. It was a feeling I had among friends, among strangers, and just as often when completely alone. I worried when I held up a check-out line at the supermarket. I smiled sheepishly at restaurant patrons as I made my way through the narrow spaces between the tables to my own place. My anonymity torn from me, I interrupted conversations, intruding on peaceful diners. Was it their eyes or mine that said I was in the way until proven otherwise? I could go away or push ahead. Where wheelchairs could not venture, people working together inevitably could. Still, the choice of pushing ahead through the obstacles or just going away was always a matter of selecting the lesser of two evils. Going away was always a defeat. Pushing ahead was never a victory, and asking for help always reduced the score.

    The staring began with the trickle of refugees near the village. They walked slowly, mostly downhill now, toward Turkey. They looked up from their feet at the passenger on the donkey. The incongruity suggested neither disability nor pity. The first refugees we met were the least affected by their week-long trek and a harrowing three days in the mud and snowy cold of the mountainous border region. They carried sacks and misshapen crates of clothing and provisions looted from their own hastily departed neighborhoods in Mosul, Sulaimaniya, Zakho, Kirkuk, and Erbil. Some of the women raised their eyes, wondering why a perfectly good donkey should be wasted on a blond Westerner who seemed to be so well-fed. One man suggested to the guide that the donkey would be better suited to carrying a sack of bread, or perhaps a dead or sick person. In Arabic and Kurdish, Mehmet told them that I was a reporter come to see Uzumlu, and that I was unable to walk.

    I had been anonymous for a moment; now I was unmasked. The faces of these Kurdish refugees became faces of familiar worry and pity, faces that I had spent so much time thanking. Their concern was appreciated, I told them, but misguided in my case. The men and women gathered around and started to warn me of the dangers ahead. "If you cannot walk, why are you here?" they asked. "There is only death here. People are dying everywhere in Uzumlu. Saddam is killing everyone. Why did America not help us?" they asked. "There is no food. You could die."

    I responded just as I did when people wanted to push my chair, or hold a door, or hand me something they thought I was looking at on a supermarket shelf. With a workable, relaxed face of self-assured confidence I could dismiss all of these people politely or rudely, but dismiss them I did. "No need to be concerned." I said. "I've got the door. I am fine. I can make it across the street. No problem. I'm not sick. I don't need a push. I'm not with anyone, no." It was habit, not arrogance that caused me to insist: "I'm just fine here on the donkey in the middle of one hundred and fifty thousand starving, war-terrified refugees."

    In Uzumlu, flimsy shelters made of sticks and plastic sheets covered people forced to sleep on crusted mud. A dirty graveyard contained the twenty to fifty people who died each night. The yellow, bloodless, milky-eyed corpse of a child lay next to a partially dug grave. Perhaps two hundred thousand people would pass through here on their way to official Turkish refugee camps. The first had come across minefields, and among the initial group to gather around me and Mehmet and the donkey were a man and the gray-skinned unconscious companion on his back. He had an ugly blackened bandage around his waist, and one of his legs was merely a stump. This man would not make it to the Zab River, let alone the medical facility in Hakkari three hours away by car and already overflowing with casualties. His back and leg had absorbed a mine explosion that had halved his brother. The man carrying him looked at me with authority, pointed at his wounded friend, and said: "There is danger here. He cannot walk ... we have here many who cannot walk. We have enough," he said with muted anger. "Why are you here?"

    I got down off the donkey, sat on the ground, and assembled my tape recorder and microphone. The Kurdish refugees wanted to know why I couldn't walk and if the Iraqis had shot me. Gradually they began to talk.

    "The helicopters came and we had to leave. I am a teacher," said one. "I am an engineer," said another.

    To an outsider, they were only the sick and the well. Otherwise they were differentiated by the time of day they had decided to flee for the border. Those who fled at night were wearing pajamas under overcoats. Those caught during the day had time to don what looked like their entire wardrobes, especially the children, who stood staring and bundled up like overstuffed cloth dolls. Occasionally someone would walk by in just a thin jacket and torn slacks. Such shivering people explained that they were caught away from home running errands when the gunships came.

    Mostly they wanted to talk about "Bush." It was in the bitterest of terms that the leader of Desert Storm was evoked on those cold muddy hills. "Bush is liar. Why he not help us?" "We fight Saddam, but why Bush let Saddam fly helicopters?" They said the word "helicopter" with the accent on the third syllable, and spit it out like an expletive. I sat cross-legged beneath a circle of anger, aiming the microphone to catch the shouting voices.

    At that moment, much of the world I knew was reveling in victory. Two days earlier in a conversation with someone from Washington I had learned of the stellar approval ratings for President Bush. Historic peaks in the nineties, enshrining in statistics the apparently unshakable kingship behind the second sacking of Baghdad in a thousand years. As the Kurds might have said, "The warlord Tamerlane did a better job the first time," in 1253. The wind picked up and rattled the plastic sheeting anchored to stubborn mountain shrubs. The plastic made blurry apparitions of the blank young and very old faces inside. A large man stepped up and grabbed my microphone and began to speak in a hoarse, exhausted voice.

    "Why is Saddam alive and we are dead? What is for America democracy? Bush is speaking of freedom and here we are free? You see us. They send you to us. You, who cannot stand? You are American, what is America now? Why are you here?" His words echoed out from the hill and mixed with the sobs and squeals of the refugees. To him my presence was an unsightly metaphor of America itself: able to arrive but unable to stand. I could not escape his metaphor any more than I could get off that mountain by myself. These were the questions. And so they remain.

    The day was beginning to fade. It was a four-hour ride back down the mountain and at least another hour to file stories to Washington. It was time to go. Mehmet and I hoisted me up onto the donkey and we started our descent. The Turkish army had begun to airlift soldiers by helicopter to the mountaintop to urge the refugees down from Uzumlu and into a camp at a lower elevation. Later the Kurds would discover that this new camp was actually inside Iraq by a couple of hundred yards, a fact Secretary of State James Baker would learn in a photo op visit to the camp three days later. With its own far less headline-grabbing program of Kurdish oppression in southeastern Turkey, the Turkish government made it clear that it did not want the Iraqi Kurds.

    Until the biblical scale of the catastrophe was apparent, the U.S. government was inclined to agree with Turkey. James Baker and George Bush spoke of territorial integrity in regards to the Kurdish issue. There would be no partitioning of Iraq, they said. The Kurds would have to move ... again. The Turkish soldiers on the mountain pass fired their automatic weapons into the air, herding people like cattle. The narrow trail down to a spit of Iraqi border territory near the Turkish town of Cukurca was soon clogged with Kurds.

    Donkey riding was a slow business. Without any abdominal muscles, my spine twisted and folded with each step. To sit up straight was to get a brief respite from the sharp back pains, but it could only be sustained for a few moments. I held the entire weight of my upper body in my wrists, rubbery and cramped from hours of gripping. They collapsed with each stumble and downward slide of the donkey, pressing my face helplessly into the mane of my tireless friend.

    I hadn't figured that the trip down the mountain would be so much harder than the trip up. With the donkey angled upward during the ascent, my weight was pulled back, and holding on had been a simple clinging maneuver. With the donkey descending and angled downward in something of a controlled slide, I had to maintain my weight on my hands, balancing my shifting hips with sheer arm and wrist muscle. The alternative was to tumble down onto the rocks or into one of the many ravines. The crush of refugees narrowed the options for my sure-footed companion and had the effect of periodically spooking him. Mehmet had begun to tire of the earlier novel challenge of escorting the paraplegic on the donkey, and was dragging on the harness. He was also aware that the trail was in considerable danger of jamming into a pedestrian gridlock of desperate refugees.

    The sounds of Turkish gunfire caused the donkey to lurch, and me to hold tighter. The rhythm of the donkey's forelegs was intoxicating; it vibrated mechanically up my arms. My whole frame was suspended like a scarecrow on two sticks locked at the elbows. Beneath me walked people clutching their belongings and hurrying to get to shelter before the sun set. Their heads wound along the trail stretching to the horizon.

    All around me children stopped to relieve themselves in an agony of diarrhea. In the very same soil, the muddy foot tracks of people and animals filled with snowmelt and rainwater, and children stooped to drink from the puddles. They stood up, and their lips were ringed with brown mud like the remains of a chocolate milk shake. I had drunk nothing all day and had eaten nothing either.

    If I was different from other reporters it was in the hydrogen peroxide I carried along with microphones, notebooks, audio tapes, cassette recorders, and cash. Peroxide was the most important item, especially here. In this remote area soaked in mud and surrounded by human waste, there were limits to sanitation. While the closest most reporters came to contaminating their own bodies was by eating a piece of local bread with unwashed hands, for me it was quite different. I use a catheter. Every four hours, every day, for the past fifteen years I have had to insert a tube to empty my bladder. It is a detail which can remain fairly discreetly hidden in most situations. While the processes demanding filling and emptying remained just as urgent here, this environment was hardly optimal for maintaining the near-sterile conditions necessary for using a catheter safely. To expose the catheter to the elements for even a few seconds was to risk infection as definitively as using a contaminated hypodermic syringe risked introducing hepatitis, or worse, into the blood.

    After two days my hands had become utterly filthy, and my tattered gloves were soaked through with every local soil. At a certain point one can feel the collective momentum of a human tragedy. With overwhelming power, biological forces penetrate skin, culture, geography, careers, and deadlines. The Kurdish refugees clawed through the mountain foliage, plowing up a rich loam of conquered humanity. I did not want to become fertilizer.

    It was not the first time I had encountered potentially lethal mud in the course of covering a story. To prevent infections in such situations, I adopted a simple if crude strategy of self-denial that had served me well in the past. I would go into something of an emergency-induced body shutdown. Nothing in; nothing out. No food meant no waste. No water meant no parasites and therefore no infection.

    In an environment without anything resembling a toilet, the inability to stand, squat, or balance above the ground meant that the simplest of bodily functions was impossible to perform without making a mess well outside the specifications of a person's normal notions of human dignity. In this place, human dignity was hard to fathom and beside the point.

    But to lose control meant certain contamination. Aside from preventive deprivation, I could ration the peroxide carefully, avoid food and water, and pop vitamin C tablets to keep the acid content and therefore the antibacterial chemistry of my urine high. There was no room for error out here. The weakness that came with intense thirst and having starved for three days, along with being an equal number of travel days from any kind of hospital, would give infection an absolutely lethal head start.

    So whatever my face conveyed to the concerned refugees coming down the mountain, I was no more fine than they were, and I was about as confused as to why I was here in this barely inhabitable edge of two warring nations. The accumulated delirium of the war, the Kurdish refugees, and my own deprivation made a dirgelike dream of the donkey ride. From this perch I was again as tall as I used to be. I could see the tops of heads and the shoulders all around me laden with leather straps tied to overstuffed suitcases. In this position my knees seemed farther away from my face. My feet were fully out of view. I had to strain to see them below the flanks of Mehmet's donkey. My abdomen was stretched by my extended and hanging leg bones. It gave me the impression that my lungs had grown larger. None of these details would have mattered to anyone else sitting on a donkey. To me they were a richly hued garment of memory and sensation long lost. In this wondrous garment I was invisible.

    The joy of these sensations stood out in surroundings overrun with terror and death. I was unknown and unseen here. There were no presumptions about my body. All that people could tell, unless they were told otherwise, was that I was well-fed and blond. Beyond this, nothing was given away. As time went on I ceased even to look like an American journalist. Anonymity intensified the feeling of who I was, where I had come from, and how my own body worked, or didn't. As an American I had no right to be afraid here, I thought. I was safe and distinct from this horror. As a human being I had no way to separate myself from the river of Kurdish flesh making its way toward the valley. In my own invisible way, I was as close to death as they were. As a paraplegic, I was inside a membrane of unspoken physical adversity. There was no reason to expect bodies to function in such conditions, and each additional moment of life required a precise physical calculation. Durability of flesh pitted against the external elements. Each transaction final. The limits fully real. There was no room for mistakes.

    I was not alone in contemplating those limits. Each dying person knew who he or she was. Each struggling refugee could see how much they had left to wager. The chill of circumstance made the crowd and myself quiet. Energy was conserved. The well-fed Turkish conscripts ahead and behind swaggered and fired their weapons, breaking the collective silence of one hundred thousand people.

    Why was I there? It is an imperative of journalists to get the story. It was an imperative of those civilians to make their way off the mountain. There were others. The global imperatives of America to confront Saddam. The imperative of America to go home and beat the drum or lick its wounds. In victory, the United States lifted off from Iraq just as it did from the embassy roof in Saigon in 1975 following defeat in Vietnam. Some Vietnamese clung to the chopper back then. They imagined that despite the circumstances of defeat, the promises of America might be honored elsewhere.

    In 1991 those promises seemed hollow and frozen, archived for unborn historians. The Kurds wondered why in victory the Americans would leave them to the wolves more swiftly and surely than the Cambodians and South Vietnamese were abandoned following America's humiliating defeat in Indochina. Aside from the few colorless platitudes thrown their way from Washington, the Kurds had little to do with the business at hand for a triumphant president and his new world. In the anger of the Kurds there was no expectation that America would find their cause worthy, no expectation that their cries would be heard. They had given up on this America without a message and no interest in moving hearts and minds in Iraq. This time when the American chopper lifted off, no one would bother to hold on. Walking in the mud seemed the surer course now.

    Fifteen years after lying in an intensive care unit in Pennsylvania I was near the summit of a mountain on the Iraqi border. If this was another event in the struggle for independence and triumph over physical adversity, what about the people who were dying all around me? Was I here to do something for them, or was it for me?

    On a donkey among the Kurds at the end of a dreadful back-lot surgical abortion of a war, the paths of truth and physical independence seemed to diverge. I had no good answer for the Kurdish man who insisted that there were already too many people who could not walk in Uzumlu. Why I had gone to Kurdistan was as complicated a question as why George Bush's army did not in the first weeks after the war. What seemed an unquestionable virtue had become an excuse for doing something in my case, nothing in the president's.

    During the Gulf War, President Bush spoke a lot about how America could regain its sense of mission, its confidence as a world leader, and declare independence from a burden of history. But in a war against historical burdens, the wider battlefield is blocked from view. There is no place for the identity of the people who are simply fighting to save their own miserable lives, the lives that never made it onto the American gun-camera videos, the lives of those we called the enemy, or the Kurdish friends in Iraq we never even knew we had until many thousands of them were dead.

    I was fighting my own burdens. Holding on to the flimsy saddle and feeling each donkey step in my back and in my cramped and throbbing fingers, I could see that my entire existence had become a mission of never saying no to the physical challenges the world presented to a wheelchair. It was this that had gotten me through a fiery accident and would provide me with a mission upon which I could hang the rest of my life. I had made the decision to get on that donkey when I had gotten out of a hospital bed years before and vowed never to allow the world to push me. I would pull it instead. In Kurdistan I discovered that the world is a much larger place than can be filled by the mission of one man and his wheelchair.

    If the Kurds had truly left me alone and gone about the business of only saving themselves, I would just have died right there, holding my tape recorder. They did not. "I'm fine," I said. There on the mountains between Turkey and Iraq, I had lost my way. It was up to Mehmet, the donkey, and me to find my way back.

    In the last valley before the river, the steep trail was teeming with refugees. Just eight hours before it had been deserted and tinged with early spring grass; now each bend had been churned into slippery mud. The donkey was having trouble keeping its footing; Mehmet pulled on the harness as the beast locked knees next to a family pushing a wheelbarrow piled with clothes, utensils, a cassette player, and some toys. The animal would not budge, and Mehmet angrily shoved it and yanked on its tail. The donkey made a spitting noise, moaned, and bolted down a steep slope toward the grass. I held on and twisted as the animal half-tumbled off the trail.

    Trail was a generous description for the steep, narrow switchback that folded three times along the gravelly slope. With tens of thousands of refugees clogging the trail, the hillside began to look like a rickety shelf of old books shaking in a earthquake. Every few minutes rocks from the upper trail would be dislodged by someone's feet and tumble down on people one and two tiers below. Shouts and screams would greet the stones. A shower of debris was kicked up by the feet of my fleeing donkey. He landed in a hillock of grass at the river's bank and began to munch and graze with a resolve that suggested that his paraplegic reporter carrying duties had ended.

    I had slipped off the donkey's back farther up the hill. With an exhausted smile, I rolled onto my back, clutched my bag of equipment, and stared up at the sky. The refugees made a moving silhouette against the fiery dusk sky, and the rope bridge over the river was now in darkness. The only sounds were the roar of the river and the shouts of refugees who argued with Turkish soldiers attempting to control access to the bridge.

    The crowd was trying to storm a flimsy bridge that could withstand perhaps twenty people at a time without collapsing. The sound of Turkish weapons fired into the air peppered the din. My arms and cramped fingers ached. It felt good to lie down in the cold, wet grass. But I needed to cross that bridge to have any chance at all of filing a story. Without a donkey there seemed to be no way to even approach it from my repose on the river's bank. I turned my head and saw the muddy water raging in frosty darkness. There was no chance of swimming the Zab. The water churned its way around the canyon toward the Tigris, Baghdad, and the Persian Gulf hundreds of miles away. The opposite bank was a traffic jam of relief trucks and makeshift camps, as flimsy shelters from Uzumlu were erected once again along the road to Cukurca. Flickering fires and headlights made shadows on the rocks. Prone and unable to walk on the bank of an unswimmable river with a runaway donkey lost in a crowd of one hundred thousand refugees seemed to be as good an excuse as any for missing a deadline.

    Mehmet was taking my predicament much more seriously than I was. He had brought back three men, and insisted on carrying me up to the bridge on a blanket. On the boggy riverbank the blanket quickly became saturated, making it difficult to hold with a body inside. They dropped me half a dozen times and eventually gave up. I laughed. Mehmet's crew went back to attend to their own places in the line to cross the bridge.

    I lay there reveling in being invisible. My sore arms were stiff. There was a certain joy in just lying quietly in the grass while the river and the people swirled around me. For two years, more or less, I had been a correspondent in the Middle East. For all that time I had stood out as an American or as a journalist with a microphone; for fifteen years I had been scrutinized continuously because of my wheelchair. But for that moment in Kurdistan surrounded by thousands of refugees, covered with mud, without a chair, and lying in the grass, I was utterly, completely anonymous.

    Mehmet's attempts to move me had brought us closer to the bridge, and the confusion of the mob was almost overhead. Sheep grazed near my head in the growing darkness. Up on the bridge some members of the international press corps had arrived and were shooting pictures. I recognized two faces, though I couldn't remember which newspaper they worked for. But they looked at the man with the backpack and after a moment recognized me. They must have recalled that I used a wheelchair. They looked around with some alarm. No wheelchair to be seen. I shrugged my shoulders at them. I mouthed the words "I'm fine." I chuckled out loud, and said, "I could use a donkey right about now." Like the slow movement of the moon over the sun during an eclipse, my moment of anonymity was passing.

    In the end, Mehmet himself, a cigarette in his mouth, carried me on his back up the slope to the bridge. After a screaming argument with the Turkish officer, he carried me across and put me down next to a family with their belongings spread out by the road.

    "I am American," I said when asked by a young Kurdish boy.

    "Do you know Chicago?" he asked. "I have a brother in Chicago."

    I nodded and tried out some broken Arabic on him to pass the time. As darkness fell, the Kurdish taxi driver from Van who had been taking care of my chair for twelve hours found me in the crowd and joyfully hugged me. He had watched the exodus of his Kurdish compatriots with tears in his eyes, and with alarm had watched all day for me to appear in the crowd. He brought my wheelchair over and I hoisted myself into it: it felt so good to move and to feel its support beneath my sore shoulders. There were my feet, just below my knees and my lap, right there below my face. Creased since 1976, my six-foot frame folded itself back into a sitting position once again. After only a day I had forgotten what it felt and looked like.

    I took a breath and paused for a moment before I rolled toward where the driver had parked his cab. I looked around. There around me, the noise of the refugees quieted. I saw all eyes watching. In their staring gazes I was home. I waved good-bye. I made the deadline.

Table of Contents

6 * 'BYE, BIKE70
9 * CRIP JOB115
11 * ROLL MODEL135
13 * REAL JOB160
14 * LIVE AT FIVE171
19 * CHEATING245
21 * RADWAN275
26 * SOMALIA354

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Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs and Declarations of Independence 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
MDockerty More than 1 year ago
John Hockenberry’s autobiography Moving Violations is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. With Hockenberry’s devilish sense of humor and pure bluntness about his situation it made the book a breeze to read. Now granted, I did have certain reservations going in because diving in to an autobiography wasn’t the ideal way for a teenager to spend his summer, but as I said earlier his candidness lent itself for an enjoyable read. I also found it interesting how a transformation took place from being relatively disdainful of the stares and hushed comments, to simply ignoring them and treating it almost as a joke. Also, I think that this is a perfect embodiment of how the human spirit can overcome some pretty severe obstacles. The book begins with a description of the accident and what happens, continues with his recovery, and eventually follows his life from that point forward. This includes his trip to Israel where he spent a lot of time during some of the conflict, reporting. One of my favorite instances is in chapter 3 when he is going into details about his antics in the recovery hospital where he spent a great deal of time after his accident. While the vast majority of what I have to say about this piece is good, the only detractor seems to be his long-windedness at points that don’t seem to hold much significance to me. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes to laugh and enjoys brutal honesty about many aspects of life, and I would give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars simply because Hockenberry kept me in stitches, but also contrasted it beautifully with sobering reality. As a side note if you enjoyed this you would also like The Takeaway on NPR.
Katya0133 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An interesting biography.
rivkat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Hockenberry begins the book with the story of going out among refugee Kurds during the first Iraq war, unable to take his wheelchair because of the terrain. So he¿s riding a donkey, except for when he falls off and is nearly left to die in the mud, and the people around him variously save his life; answer his questions; and wonder what an American is doing there, why America isn¿t helping them, and why another man who can¿t walk has joined them when they have troubles enough of their own. From the start, the book is about privilege, specifically Hockenberry¿s privilege as a white American man and his lack of privilege as a paraplegic, and how those intersect.While Hockenberry mostly refuses to analogize, he does say that the people who¿ve treated him as a person rather than as a problem have usually been outside America or, in the US, African-American; at one point, he suggests that the default American (white male) position is to assume that things are going to work¿work for him, work in his favor, just operate--and that in the countries where he¿s been a foreign correspondent, that¿s often not an assumption people can afford, just as it¿s not for him even when he¿s in the US. Hockenberry¿s a jerk¿one story about him hiding under an ex-girlfriend¿s bed makes that supremely clear¿but he¿s also a good reporter, and I found the book really engaging reading. There¿s a great bit, for example, about the relationship between disability, insurance, and cars, and the American insistence on getting people into cars no matter the cost. The stories are roughly half about America and half about other countries: Israel, Iraq, Somalia, Iran. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
great book