A Paraplegic's Legacy

By Howard A. Rusk, MD

Years ago I received a letter from a young veteran that was profound and deeply moving. The writer was only nineteen years old. He had broken his back in the Pacific and was one of the first paraplegics to be treated in the veterans hospital program. He weighed only seventy pounds because he ate practically nothing, remarking, "Why should I?"

There was a Red Cross Gray Lady in the hospital who used to visit him every day, and she always asked him the same question, "John, is there anything you want today?" and the reply was always the same, "Yes, I want to die." This went on for weeks, and one day she said, "John, isn't there something you would like to say before you die?" and after a long pause, he said, "Yes, I think there is." There was a creative writing workshop at the hospital, which included such distinguished writers as John Hersey, Hervey Allen, John Mason Brown, and Meyer Berger. They all helped him.

At the first week's seminar expression was so painful that he only wrote his name. When he began to write, he began to eat. He gained weight and finally was able to leave the hospital. He went to his home in Staten Island where he had a special room with bookcases all around the bed that he could reach at any time of day or night. He said one day on a visit to his home, "You know, I didn't even get to finish high school before I went to war, but now I can read any time I want to. It is almost worth being paralyzed."

His legacy to the world was a letter, an example of courage and a philosophy of life which, in these troubled and uncertain days, plead even more eloquently for the necessity of understanding than the day on which his letter was written. This is his letter:

"My name is John Crown. I am a paraplegic at Halloran General Hospital. My physical wounds are very small in comparison with my spiritual wounds. I have come back from death to a world that I no longer care for. I, who have been engaged in the great struggle to save the world from tyranny and having seen my comrades die for this cause, can now find no peace in the world or in my country.

"Having lived close to death for two years, the reasons why there is no peace seem infinitesimally flimsy. Russia wants the Dardanelles, Yugoslavia wants Trieste, the Moslems want India, labor wants more wages, capital wants more profit, Smith wants to pass the car in front of him, Junior wants more spending money. To these I say, is it necessary to kill and cripple human beings for these petty gains?

"Anyone who thinks a human body is so cheap that it can be traded for a tract of land, a piece of silver, or a few minutes of time should be forced to listen to the moans of the dying night and day for the rest of his life.

"All the troubles of the world originate in the common man. The selfish and greedy ways of nations are just the ways of each individual man multiplied a hundredfold. When the morals of the common man drop, so do the morals of the nation and of the world.

"As long as our individual morals remain at a low ebb, so will be the world. Until each of us stops 'hogging the road' with his car, stops fighting over the seat on the bus, stops arguing over who is going to cut the grass, there will be no peace in the world. If man wishes peace again, he must return to the great Commandment, 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' for the love of God."

(Reprinted from The New York Times, Dec. 27, 1970, by permission; from Sunrise magazine, February/March 2000)

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