Disabilities no impediment to lasting college memories

By Mike Petrovsky

An Associated Press story taken from the Post-Register recently about male students at Bringham Young University-Idaho caring for a disabled roommate caused me to think back to my college days more than 30 years prior.

The BYU-Idaho story, referring to a small group of 22- to 24-year-old students, states, “Love, devotion and selflessness … there are no better words to describe the monumental task they have undertaken for their roommate dealing with disabilities, Cesar Ibanez.”

Ibanez has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic abnormality the U.S. National Library of Medicine says attacks nerve cells in the spinal cord. The cells, or motor neurons as they are called, control the muscles that allow people to walk, breathe, swallow and control their arms, neck and head.

Ibanez, who was born in Mexico and whose family now lives Kennewick, Wash., is confined to a wheelchair, and his college roommates in Rexburg have to help him dress, go to the bathroom, shower and get out of bed.

I’ll let AP tell the rest of the story.

“College hasn’t been easy. Ibanez stayed in an assisted-living home during his first semester. He was taken to classes in a bus provided by the university. But that was a temporary arrangement meant to help him find an apartment close to campus. He was unable to do so. The university cannot continue to offer the shuttle in the long term because it is beyond the scope of its disability services, spokesman Marc Stevens said.”

Now Ibanez leaves for classes 7 a.m. to drive his wheelchair four blocks to campus. His only comforts on the trips are layered clothing and his college roommates who walk alongside him each day.

Now those roommates are looking for someone to donate, or help them raise money for, a wheelchair-accessible van they can drive, so Ibanez, to whom a mere cold or flew can be fatal, doesn’t have to trudge to classes in frigid temperatures and through the snow.

The story I’m about to tell can in no way compare with the tale of selfless devotion and friendship exhibited by Ibanez’s college roommates, who first met Ibanez in a Mormon church. My story is nowhere near as inspiring, but it’s the only one I got.

I had one goal in mind at the time I met my college housemate: get out of the all-male college dorm I was living in and live off campus, away from the noise and the temptation of the numerous wild parties on my floor in Sproul (pronounced “sprawl” by many of us who were assigned to live there) Hall, part of Penn State’s East Halls high-rise dormitories.

My parents could not afford to pay for my tuition and many of my other college expenses, so I realized that I would have to perform well to land a decent job after I graduated. I would need to pay off my federal and state loan debts. In short, no parties.

I responded to an ad in The Daily Collegian, Penn State’s college newspaper, for a room off campus renting at $100 a month.

When I called the number in the ad, the guy who answered told me to meet him in the pool hall at the student union building, called the “Hub,” late Friday afternoon.

Up until that point, I didn’t know the Hub had a pool hall. The campus was big, and at the time, my world was the buildings my classes were in, the university’s libraries, my Sproul Hall and the cafeteria serving it, oh, and it would be impossible to ignore the nearby Erector Set on steroids known as Beaver Stadium.

As for the Hub, I didn’t have time for the social opportunities it offered or money to spend at its numerous fast-food kiosks.

I got into the pool hall with my student ID about 10 minutes before I was supposed to meet my potential landlord, and seeing no one except a guy in a wheelchair who I thought was assigned to watch the place, began practicing my game on one of the pool hall’s numerous 9-foot, regulation-sized tables – no quarters required. The guy in the wheelchair approached me and asked if I wanted to play a game of eight ball. We played more than a game, for about an hour, in fact, and he cleaned my clock. At one point, he asked if I wanted to go out and have a beer with him.

I told him I was waiting for a guy who had a room for rent, and that the guy was about an hour late.

“Well,” the paraplegic said, “it looks like he’s a no show. Let’s go and have a beer. I’ll buy.”

I thought for the better part of a millisecond, and said yes.

The guy in the wheelchair introduced himself as Dave.

We went to a basement bar just off College Avenue called the Rathskeller, and Dave ordered a case of Rolling Rock — for each of us.

The best way to describe the Rathskeller in State College back in the early ’80s is a blue-color bar in a white-collar town, which just so happened to be the school colors. Patrons, once they finished their bottles of Rolling Rock, were all but expected to slam their empties on the floor resulting in the sound of a glass breaking about every minute. Luckily, I was wearing thick-soled hiking boots, the style at the time.

Somehow we managed to carry on a conversation.

I told him about how badly I wanted to get away from the many distractions I encountered while living in the dorm. I also asked him how he became …

“A sped?” Dave interrupted.

Dave used the word “sped” in much the same way a black person uses the “n” word. “Sped” was Dave’s derogatory slang for “special education.”

Dave was studying to become a medical doctor at the time: a sped in pre-med, go figure.

Dave told me that, when he was about age 7, he was running across the road to retrieve a ball when a woman, who turned out to be a relative, hit him with her car.

“I must have flown 30 feet straight in the air. I felt like Superman,” Dave recounted between swigs from his beer bottle.

He then told me about his parents — both high school teachers. His mom taught English, and his dad, art.

He added that his dad sold model trains and had a big, detailed display in their basement. His dad served in World War II; he played saxophone in the Army band.

I told him about my parents. Mom worked in a dress factory, and dad, who went to a trade school after he left the Marines, inspected M-1 Abrams guns and turrets for Chrysler’s tank division, which was later sold to General Dynamics.

After that, Dave asked me how I intended to get out of my dorm contract. I told him, if I found a place off campus, I was going to go to the campus clinic and tell the doctor I was allergic to dust. The vague, lame excuse worked for a former dorm-mate and, eventually, it would work for me too. Penn State had a severe shortage of dorm space at the time.

Dave said he had a room available in a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath townhouse he was renting just north of downtown, but within walking distance of the campus. And it just so happened, he was asking $100 a month.

“Let’s go. I’ll show you the place,” Dave said. We walked — well, I sort of staggered and Dave, always ahead of me, hopped wildly in a zigzag pattern on crutches while in a full-body brace — back to the Hub, where he retrieved his wheelchair, and then to his car parked on the street in a handicapped space.

Now, it might seem foolhardy to ride in a car driven by a drunk-out-of-his-mind paraplegic, but I was also three sheets to the wind and, for some reason, that made it OK.

When we got to the townhouse, Dave got out of the car on his crutches, opened the hatch of his blue Datsun B210, pulled out his wheelchair, and we went inside.

All the bedrooms in the newly built townhouse, which of course included Dave’s, were upstairs. Dave got out of the wheelchair, and propelled himself up the stairs using his crutches and upper-body strength. I followed. At the top of the stairs, he pointed to the door of the spare bedroom with his crutch.

“That’ll be yours,” he said.

I opened the door, fell face first on the freshly made bed and passed out.

The next day, Dave and I drove to an ATM, I withdrew $100 from my account and paid him the first month’s rent. That night we went to a trendy English-themed eatery and pub, each had a steak dinner and drank yards of ale until the place closed. Dave’s treat — spending just about all the money I had paid him for rent.

When I told my parents I moved out of the dorm and was living in a townhouse, they made it a point to visit me to meet my new roommates. I didn’t tell them about Dave’s condition, not because I wanted to keep it from them. It just never occurred to me. Sure, Dave got around in a body brace, crutches and wheelchair, but he wasn’t, in any sense of the word, “disabled.” He maintained his car, could dismantle, clean and re-assemble each gun in his collection, and seldom was without a girlfriend. No, with Dave there seemed to be more to envy than pity.

Yet after my parents met him, my mom pulled me aside and asked if I realized the responsibility I took on living with Dave given the circumstances, and she was concerned that, if something bad were to happen, it would interfere with my studies.

I promised her we would cut back on our drinking.

Mike Petrovsky is the Journal’s news editor.