Living With Adversity

Last night I watched the Katie Couric interview with Michael J. Fox on the CBS Evening News. I don’t watch CBS by choice. I would rather watch one of the other networks for news, but that is the only major US network news available to me. I still am not a Katie Couric fan and it appears that not many are, since CBS’s rating has dropped like a rock into third place. But I digress. Katie Couric is not the reason for writing this piece.

I have always been a Michael J. Fox fan. He appears to me to be one of those rare people that never let fame and fortune go to his head. When he developed Parkinson’s Disease and became an advocate for finding a cure for this disease my admiration for him continued to increase. When one is faced with adversity, it is very easy to feel that you are a victim and dwell in world of self-pity.

Instead, Michael has thrown himself into the hotly contested battle of legalizing stem cell research. Hitting the campaign trails is hard enough for one in perfect health. When one is battling Parkinson’s Disease, it is much harder. I was taken with his statement that he didn’t consider himself a victim, but he considered himself lucky. He said something to the effect that very few people are ever given the opportunity to make a difference during their life in the life of some one else. There is no question that he is making a difference.

This is not the first time I have been inspired by a person with adversities. I met another person early in my career with EDS that had a tremendous effect on me. This would have been in 1970/1971, I think. We both worked as programmers / analysts when computer technology was not nearly what it is today. Writing a program was done on a coding pad that was laid out for 80 column cards. Here is a PDF image of a Fortran pad. The pad was the same for assembly language for all practical purposes and that was the language Joe and I programmed in.

To write a computer program then required using a pencil to fill in the pad for keypunchers to punch it into cards. It was a laborious task to write programs at that time. First you wrote it carefully, so it could be read, on the pads. Then you turned your work in and waited for your cards to be punched. You would have to wait for hours if not the next day to get your stack of cards. Then you had to submit your cards to get a listing so you could check your program manually before submitting it for compilation. Computer time was a luxury and there was a lot of desk checking.

If you found initial problems you would use a 029 keypunch and correct the cards that were in error. You did this yourself as opposed to having a keypunch operator do it. A 100-line program consisted of 100 of these punched cards. Now my reason for going into the detail of this process is for you to understand the physical difficulty that programming involved at that time.

It was in this environment that I met Joe Rowe. When I first saw Joe, he was shuffling his deck of punched cards to find the card that needed to be corrected. He had to find it so he could remove it from the deck and replace it with the one he had just punched. If you have never seen a punched card, here is a photo.
IBM 80 column card
I was probably very rude, because I could not keep from watching him go through this process. In his programming cubical, he had some paintings that he had done as well as photos he had taken at football games. His cubical was no different from any other cubicle, except for Joe.

So why was I staring? Well, Joe had been one of those unfortunate people that had been afflicted with polio. Joe slept at night in an iron lung and during the day was in a specially build motorized chair that he drive with a joystick. It also contained a breathing apparatus with a hose that he kept in his mouth that assisted him in breathing. He also had no use of his arms. He did everything with his feet. He drove his chair with his feet. He wrote out the program on the pads with his feet. He sorted through cards using his feet. He punched cards with his feet. Here is a photo of a 029-keypunch machine. Now mentally punch a card and remove it from the machine.

029 Keypunch

If you saw his work, you would have had no idea that he was challenged. I have to use the word challenged, because he was not handicapped. He was a most unusual individual. I never saw Joe when he was not in a good mood. I would go home at night feeling better about life because I had been able to spend some time with him. Anytime I felt myself slip into one of those periods of depression that we all get every now and then, I would just think of Joe and my problem would disappear. It was sort of like that old saying, “ I used to worry because I had no shoes, until I met a man that had no feet”.

There was literally nothing that Joe could not do. This was the age of Heathkit products and Joe built his share. If you have never soldered diodes, capacitors and other components on a motherboard, you can’t appreciate what he accomplished with his feet. I worked with Joe from the early 70s until I left EDS in 1999. Joe is one of those rare individuals that you meet that leaves his footprints in your memory.

Adversity is what we make of it. Some people conceive of reasons why they can’t succeed in life and others just find more things in life to succeed in. Joe falls into the later category. Joe, I am better for having met you.

17 thoughts on “Living With Adversity

  1. Good post Don! I also had the honour of working with some amazing people who had severe disabilities. It is truly inspiring to watch them go through life, and enjoy it more then most of us “normal” people.

    And oh the joy of Heathkit! I put together quite a few of their products myself. The last one being a 5-band equalizer 🙂

  2. Don, I remember Joe but never worked closely with him. He was in Dallas when I came to DC in 1983. Amazing individual and as you said there was nothing he could not accomplish. Somehow I want to remember a specially equipped van that he operated himself. In 70 when I joined EDS and went to the “other” division in SouthWest Life there was a programmer named Harold (?) that was blind. He did a lot of programming but had his own special brail machine that he used to produce card input from and the guys in the computer room mounted a special brail print wheel for the production of his listings. After I left, I heard that he got a dog, but while I was there he made it everywhere on his own. I think there was an effort at that time to hire handicapped and I remember being impressed. Good of you to remind us that we need to quit complaining. Hope all is well with you. I don’t think I had seen the beard before. Dick

  3. Yes, Joe had a very well equipped van that he motored about in. I remember him driving to work even when there was snow on the ground.

    I also remember Harold and like you do not remember his last name. I started of working at the Exchange Bank building shortly after I started with EDS and didn’t see Harold any more. I remember being amazed at his ability to do what he did being blind. I didn’t work with him long or I would have added him to the post.

    A beard is nice to have once in a while. Sometimes I have one and sometimes I don’t. Currently I don’t, but I am too lazy to take a new photo. Thanks for dropping in Dick.

  4. If the US does not allow America’s brightest minds to work in this area…guaranteed you mark my word all our smart people will leave to (possibly rogue country’s) and it will be thrown back in our face when huge break throughs are made in this area, elsewhere!

  5. I believe that our brightest will always have jobs. It is the next level down that is struggling the most. They are the ones that are more likely to lose their jobs to outsourcing countries.

    I am concerned that we are removing the layer that is required for many to achieve greatness.

  6. Great post, Don Ray. I was a Special Education teacher for 15 years, so I can identify with Joe. I had a bumper sticker on my car that read, “Attitude is the real disability.” I found this to be so true. My students were always challenged to be the best that they could be, and more often than not, they accepted the challenge without any complaints or fears of the unknown. Today, I work with students that have been identified as gifted and train student teachers. The majority of their attitudes are disabling them. They feel that everyone owes them something and few work up to their potential. It’s such a shame. They could be a gift to humanity if they would change their attitudes.

  7. Hi Debbie,

    Thanks for the comment. Anyone that has worked as a special education teacher has my highest respect. I sure that your students all benefited from their association with you.

  8. Don,
    I have a couple of technical corrections & amplifications on the first part of your posting & a rant.
    1) Stem cell research is legal in the United States. It is cloning that has a number of legal restrictions in place in the US.
    2) The amendment that Mr Fox is promoting in his Missouri political ad is an amendment for cloning if you actually read what the amendment states. He is also supporting the democrat because democrats “care about curing disease.”
    3) The US government has a legal prohibition on Federal funding embryonic stem cell research only. The primary source of embryonic stem cells is stillborn /or aborted fetuses, which is why embryonic stem cells is so controversial. You or I could fund embryonic stem cell research if we want.
    4) To date the research on embryonic stem cells has been disappointing. However, the research on adult stem cells has been very successful and partial / complete cures have been developed from adult stem cells for over four dozen different diseases and afflictions including a number of cancers and autoimmune diseases.
    5) It is difficult to get funding for embryonic stem cell research due to the source for the harvesting of stem cells (many people has moral issues) and the failures to date to produce anything useful. So the Feds and the state governments are the funding source of last resort.

    / rant on
    Mr. Fox has chosen to enter the political arena with his blatantly political ad. No problem with that but he is now open to criticism. He has admitted that he took more medicine than normal before taping the ad so that he would exhibit symptoms (see your reference). He said that he did the same thing before testifying in front of congress. My respect for Mr. Fox has nosedived. I think it is pathetic for someone who has an autoimmune disease to use it specifically to promote a political agenda. He has become just more background noise to me.
    /rant off


  9. Thanks for dropping in Rick. Actually there is no misinformation in the post. If you want to debate Fox’s issues go to a site that is focusing on that. Debate the issue of stem cell research all you want there not here.

    This post is about people living with adversity which only evokes emotion in people who can have empathy toward others. I don’t know if you are one of those people or not.

  10. Don Ray

    I enjoy your blog and recommend it to everyone who is planning on moving to Panama. I myself will be moving there next year and possible relocating to David. I hope to meet you sometime.
    I was a little taken aback by your response to my 11 word response to Rob Alan. My response was only a thumbs up to his facts. Rob Alan’s 200 words should have disturbed you more than my 11. I am not looking for a site to debate anything. There is no debate about legalizing stem cell research(one of the premises of your post)…….it is already legal!
    You are right about one thing… you know nothing about me or my empathy.
    Rick C. RN

  11. Sorry if my response offended you. I had no intention of doing that. Rob chose to argue the merits or lack of merits of Fox’s crusade, which had nothing to do with my post. Perhaps more of my response that I put in your response, should have been placed in my response to him.

    If anyone feels passionate enough to voice an opinion on Fox’s views, here is the URL for the transcript of his interview with Couric. It has several pages of comments to the interview. You will find people on both sides of the fence as you would expect.

  12. Don,
    I apologize for any consternation that I may have caused with my rant. I too suffer from an autoimmune disease as does my aunt. Watching her is like looking into the future – I have a pretty good idea what is in store for me in the not too distant future. So I take notice to these types of issues as I have a dog in this fight.
    My only point (maybe not well elucidated) was that Mr Fox has chosen to politicize the efforts to find a cure for a disease (basically democrats are for curing disease & republicans are against curing disease). Silly me, I thought looking for cures for disease was bipartisan. I think Mr Fox would be a more effective spokesperson for Parkinson disease if he wasn’t making the typical political ads (lies, distorsions, and innuendos). Anyway, I promise not to comment (or at least try) on anything that could be construed as controversial in the future. Thanks.

  13. I have a son that has Crohn’s (another autoimmune disease) and is currently in the hospital in the US and they haven’t figured out what his current problem is. This is his second time to be admitted to the hospital in two weeks.

    He is 37 and had his entire colon removed about 18 years ago in Washington D.C. by the one of President Reagen’s surgeons. The colon was removed because multiple doctors misdiagnosed his illness as Ulcerative Coitus.

    I will accept responsibility for over reacting partly because of my preoccupation and feeling helpless about my son’s current situation.

    I have seen you post enough to know that you post with conviction and I appreciate that. Good comments are why people read blogs. However, I felt that the subject of this post was on living with adversity. Therefore I would have had no problem if your thrust had been related to his living with adversity.

    I think he is throwing himself into this stem cell controversy when others with money might elect to stay at arms length and just throw money at it. I am not debating whether he is on the right or wrong side of the issues.

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