Looking Up to the Man in the Wheelchair

I was never privy to the details of how it happened. Someone once told me it was a motorcycle accident. I guess I could have asked him, but, out of fear or politeness or something else altogether, I never did. Knowing Fred, he would have told me as much, or as little, as I wanted to know about how he ended up in the wheelchair. Whatever his personal history, whatever tragedy and loss and pain and anger and frustration and sheer hell he went through, I guess I’ll never know. But when I knew him, if you hadn’t spotted the wheelchair, you’d have supposed Fred Frieling’s life had been a walk in the park. For how else could a man be so happy, so giving, so full of life, except one who’s never suffered?

Tucked away in the back corner of the old campus of Concordia College, Austin, TX, were the maintenance buildings. Inside one of these was the wood shop, where every table saw, every drill press, every hammer and tape measure and box of nails, seemed to have been strategically placed there by a midget. Nothing was convenient for my 6’ 2” frame. But for the man who worked alongside me, the man who taught me what I know of woodwork, it was picture perfect. Though this was where Fred worked, in truth, it was a man-cave for the man on wheels. For two summers we spent our days bathed in sawdust. We repaired and built furniture for the campus. He helped me completely reconstruct a desk for my wife (which, though we’re no longer together, she still uses); put together some book shelves for my rapidly growing library (which I still have); and plan and built a small, stand-alone pantry for my mom (which still sits in her kitchen). Twenty years have passed, but when I pick my kids up, or grab a book off the shelf, or visit my parents, there is Fred’s handiwork, stable, practical, enduring.

But woodworking was only the surface of what Fred taught me. The rest I learned, however, never by a word from him, only by watching him and soaking in what kind of man he was. His legs were of no use to him, but he wasn’t half a man; he was a man to the full, and then some. He drove himself to campus in a van outfitted especially for him. He’d wheel into work, an infectious smile glowing on his face. He could out-laugh and out-joke the best of them. I never heard him utter an excuse about not being able to do something because of his “disability”. In fact, I never thought of him as disabled. He worked my young, scrawny ass into the ground day after day. Those same colossal arms that could hold any piece of wood or work any tool, would also cradle a guitar and make music of the highest caliber. His claim to fame is that one of the albums recorded by George Strait, the king of country music, has a song on it, “Love Comes from the Other Side of Town,” that Fred (aka Jess DeMaine, his stage name) wrote.

I’ve walked through a few dark valleys in my life. And I’m not completely out of their shadow yet. Maybe I never will be. But when I’m tempted to wallow in self-pity, I often think of Fred. I don’t think to myself, “Yes, but look how much worse it could be.” Seeing who’s out-suffered, or currently out-suffering, someone else doesn’t make much sense to me. Rather, I think of how Fred handled his own struggles. Instead of spending the rest of his life mourning over the loss of what he would never get back, he spent every day using to the full what he still had. He worked, he laughed, he played, he sang, and he taught this young kid in college lessons that I wouldn’t truly need for another two decades, but which I will strive to remember, and live, until the day I run with Fred on streets of gold.