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  • Tom Hanlon

How Can We Help?

How can we help? Our conscience prompts us to ask this question when we see someone whom we perceive to be less fortunate than ourselves. It’s a good question to ask and good things can happen as a result of asking this question. I wonder about this approach, though. I think that whenever we look at someone whom we perceive to be less fortunate and we act from that perception, we lose an opportunity.


Let’s say you have responsibility for caring for an invalid, perhaps an elderly parent or a person with a differing ability. Or perhaps it’s an infant or a young child. What would happen if we said, “How can we both help each other in this situation?” If we say this, we open the doors to becoming more interdependent and we teach each other. We help each other to grow, to open up and to move beyond a limited sense of self.


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In a single day of combat at Anzio, the 3rd Infantry Division suffered more than 900 casualties, the most of any American division on one day in World War II.


Robert Tryon Drummond (Bob) was my uncle on my mother’s side of the family. I remember seeing a photo of Bob golfing during his high school years. It was a black and white shot and Bob was in the midst of a picture perfect swing. It was a memorable image. After high school, Bob went to Oberlin College where he studied music and where his dream was to become the conductor of a concert band. This was in the middle of World War II and it wasn’t long before Bob was drafted into the army. He completed basic training and was assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division. He was part of the force that landed in Italy at Anzio.

Robert Tryon Drummond

1920-1990


The landing came under heavy German attack and at one point Bob found himself in a foxhole with artillery shells exploding in terrifying succession all around him. He moved down into a further section of the hole when a shell exploded where he had just been. Shrapnel from t he shell, which would have killed him if he had remained in that position, ripped into his legs. Bob lived, but he had to have one leg amputated. He was shipped to Walter Reed Hospital and he recovered there. Where many would have wilted at the thought of losing a limb, Bob remained positive and grateful that he could still pursue his dream of becoming a conductor. After all, he had the use of both arms. A highlight of his stay at Walter Reed occurred when he was given that opportunity of a lifetime to conduct the U.S. Army band.

Bob went on to become a high school music teacher and band leader. He lived with his family in Indiana and he would come back to New York each year to visit our family. I think it’s a 20 hour car ride to cover that distance. I complain about a 4 hour trip these days. I never once heard him complain in spite of the heavy wooden prosthesis that took the place of one of his legs.


As boys in late elementary school, we were fascinated with Uncle Bob and his wooden leg. We never asked him about it, but we watched him with curiosity trying to see how he was able to walk. We wondered what it would be like to lose a leg and be equipped with a wooden version. Eventually, though, we left thoughts of the leg behind as Uncle Bob engaged us in all matters of conversation and as we listened to our extended family discuss current events in a highly animated manner. Uncle Bob had a deep booming voice and he, along with his brother Greg and my dad, had a great time solving the problems of the world.


Uncle Bob died in 1990 and I remember my mom letting me know. I lived in Minneapolis at the time and hadn’t seen Bob in many years. This morning, I looked him up on Google and I found out that he was a high school music teacher (which I already knew) and that he was also the coach of the school’s golf team. I learned that Bob was the director of numerous musical productions as well as being an active member of his church. He was obviously a man who was determined to contribute to his community. The memorial never mentioned the wooden leg.


Now, as I think about it, the word “contribute” is the telling word. How do we make it possible for people to contribute instead of looking at someone as an inconvenience or a person to feel sorry for? All Uncle Bob wanted was to have opportunity to contribute and to be treated as a regular person. Deep down, that’s what most people want, regardless of their abilities or differing abilities. I think of Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird. He made little sculptures for Scout and sewed up Jem’s pants. He always remained a mysterious figure characterized by being somehow different. In the end, he is the one who saves the children.


In a way, people with differing abilities are the ones who can save us if we let them. They are often the ones who teach us the essentials. They take us away from being preoccupied with ourselves and our view of the world. As I write this, I stand in awe of what Uncle Bob accomplished. Like many in the “Greatest Generation” he showed us what really mattered in life: courage, making contributions, not bemoaning one’s fate, telling stories and taking an active interest in others.


I continually learn from the people with differing abilities that I have the good fortune to work with. I learn about my own limited preconceptions, my impatience and my self-centeredness. I learn about interdependence and I learn about the ability of everyone to contribute, oftentimes in the ways we least expect.



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