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How To Ride A River

She had no arms. He had no legs. Both had plenty of spunk and spirit.

Each didn’t know about the other, because they lived on opposite sides of the Mississippi River.

You might say they had transcontinental courage and quiet, long-range acceptance of reality. They shared a river of challenge and flowed downstream, past their misfortunes. If they were bitter, they tried to keep it to themselves. They didn’t cry out or complain.

Bonnie Consolo was born without arms up a holler in Menifee County. Her slender shoulders ended in smooth stumps. She learned to tend the family garden by holding the hoe handle between the stump and the chin. She washed dishes with her feet, wore a watch on her ankle, and learned cursive writing by holding the pen or pencil between her toes. She graduated from college and wrote a book about not having arms.

Once, when she was interviewed in Louisville by Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes, and he was finished, he told his crew to call him a cab.

“Don’t you want me to drive you to the airport?” asked Bonnie.

Mike canceled the cab and went with her, Bonnie driving the car on the Watterson Expressway with her feet on the steering wheel. She always waved goodbye with whichever foot was closest to the person lucky enough to have two hands and 10 fingers.

Mike Wallace has retired, and Bonnie Consolo has gone on to heaven, where she probably plays the harp with her two feet and 10 toes. She always said, “God has given me everything I need.”

We haven’t heard from Willie Jones in years, and he may be walking through the streets and up and down the stairs of heaven on his knee stumps. His arms were always strong and his hands were just fine, and he could thread a fishhook with the best of them at Bachman Lake at the end of the Love Field runway in Dallas.

Willie lost his legs to diabetes, but he didn’t let that interfere with his fishing or his friendship with humanity. He’d drive up in his specially equipped station wagon, put on the brakes, open the door, slide out onto the ground with his leather knee pads firmly in place, gracefully plod to the rear door, and take out his wheelchair. Willie didn’t use a wheelchair the conventional way. He’d load his fishing gear onto it and push it to the edge of the lake, one stump at a time.

“Hello, Willie,” the joggers would call from the running path.

“Good morning,” Willie would answer.

“How are you, Willie?” a runner would greet.

“Just fine,” Willie would reply.

I sat with Willie one day on the piece of carpet where everything was kept in neatest order, including the radio for soft, mellow music beneath the jets roaring off from Love Field on their way to destinations east and west of the Mississippi. I did a story about Willie for CBS News.

“What do you think when the runners come by, and you can’t run with them, Willie?”

“They never seem satisfied even though they have legs. Me? I don’t have legs, and I can’t run, but I’m satisfied.”

“Will you be here tomorrow?”

“Oh, no. If the Lord can give me six days to fish, I can save one for him in church on Sunday.”

Many years later, in my rocking chair, I’m thinking to myself, Bonnie and Willie just might be having a good old holiday party up there. Sure they might. Bonnie, she’ll be waving a welcome, a “come on in here” with her foot, and Willie, he’ll be pushing his wheelchair loaded with fishing gear. The Lord might say to him, “Take any day you want.”

And I say to myself, I hope to be worthy of their company on one of these Decembers, at one of these grand holiday feasts.

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