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Jim Mayo's Wheelchair Rolls Up a Message of Hope

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Jim Mayo’s wheelchair attracts attention, of course. It is hand-propelled—at 5 mph—and looks trail and dangerous among the whizzing cars on California’s hilly Pacific Coast Highway. But it is the man himself who really catches the eye. Mayo is a strapping, 6’2″, 26-year-old Vietnam veteran with one leg missing, who recently hooked a small trailer onto his wheelchair, then confidently set out on a 130-mile journey from the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach to San Diego. Everywhere he stopped he was greeted like a celebrity. But applause was not his purpose. He believes his trip helped him to prove something—not to himself, but to others: “A lot of so-called disabled people just sit around feeling sorry for themselves. I figure if I can do it, so can they.”

Before starting, Mayo practiced for 40 days on hills and open road until he felt strong enough. He estimated that his trip would take 10 days. Dodging traffic, camping in public parks overnight, he made it in eight.

For Mayo, a onetime juvenile delinquent who dropped out of high school at 19 to join the army, his trip in the wheelchair really began one rain-drenched August night in 1967, less than two months after he landed in Vietnam. A land mine severed his right leg below the knee, blasted two toes off his left foot and permanently lodged shrapnel in his right wrist. “I could see my leg just lying there beside me,” he recalls. “My sergeant had to knock me over just to keep me from looking at it. From that point on, I concentrated on staying alive.” That meant seven years in and out of hospitals. Further complicating Mayo’s case were severe “phantom pains” that have made an artificial limb unusable.

Like many other disabled vets, Mayo is harshly critical of the VA’s limited psychiatric and counseling services. “It always seemed the doctors wanted you to break down and cry,” he says. “But I just told them that I’m not a crybaby, and I’m not going to sit in a hospital and whine.” When his closest friend, another amputee at Long Beach, committed suicide last year, Mayo started planning his trip.

“All I wanted,” shrugs Mayo, “was to show that a disabled person can do anything if he puts his mind to it.” For Mayo, that means touring the U.S. next. This time he plans to use a motorcycle—and the same kind of tough attitude. “I’ve already painted a sign for the sidecar,” Mayo boasts. “It says ‘No help required.’ ”