By Darrell Winfrey
I’m one of those people who gains an understanding of abstract concepts and ideas by creating visual versions of them. When they are transformed into objects that I can almost touch, they become more real. Those concepts that are mysterious and scary become more common and mundane, much like pulling back the curtain to reveal the secrets behind a magic trick.
My understanding of life has evolved over the years after a visualization I created as a child who was trying to understand just about everything. As I speak of life in this context, I am not referring to the biological concept. I’m talking more about the progression of life with respect to time. The act of living day to day, if you will. I won’t go into extreme detail about the imagery that formed over time because readers might begin to question my sanity and dismiss my piece of literature outright.
The imagery that I used was of something resembling a train track suspended in darkness. At various points I would visualize events in my life and place them on the track. The track would sometimes contain tunnels and wall-like divisions in between which significant events and people would be placed. Of course, the general rule is that you can only move forward on the track, but you could always look back and pick out events that you have placed at various intervals. As I got older, this image became more elaborate with one notable change. As a young child, I didn’t have a concept of things that happened before I was born, but I would always hear various stories from my elders followed by: “That was before you were born.” I eventually started extending my track beyond the time that I could remember. On it I would start placing events that happened in the lives of my parents, aunts, and uncles. What are most significant are some of the stories about my father that I placed on the “before you were born” part of my track.
I grew up very close to my father, and over the years, he related many stories to me and my brothers about his experiences. Some of these I started to internalize and file away as they were repeated to me. In more recent years, he started telling us about things we didn’t recall him talking about before. Who knew that a life of 70 plus years could be filled with so much richness? It was at this time that I told my father that I would start recording some of his stories and transcribing them. I must say it is one of the best decisions we ever made. Although he may not remember every aspect of his life in vivid detail, he does have a number of those divisions and tunnels on his track where very profound events happened.
While there are probably many seemingly insignificant events that play major roles in the outcomes that follow, we have no way of knowing about the significance or insignificance of them. The best we can do is look at that butterfly and just acknowledge that it flapped its wings. The events that I am speaking of are those that are clearly life-altering events. There is one particular incident that happened to my father when he was a child. Most people who see him quickly see the remnants of this incident in the form of a noticeable limp. As my father reveals in his own words, that limp has always been more than just a limp, but he defied the odds in many ways. Now, let us step into the world of Nelson Hailey.
I was very young when it happened, maybe 12 or 13. My earliest memories of the injury was when I was playing sandlot ball. I can remember getting hit by a fellow much older than me. I was getting up, and the guy threw all of his weight into my back and hip. After that I could hardly walk. I would have to crawl into bed only to be in severe pain. That hit must have knocked that hip joint out of place at that time.
Even though I was constantly in pain, I had to make money to buy my school clothes. Back then, all of us who were still living at home had to put all of our money into the house. My father would take most of my money and use it for rent, food, utilities, or whatever needed to be paid at the time.
One of the first jobs, also one of the worst jobs, I remember was when I started working for Uncle Mac. He wasn’t a blood relative but was married to Aunt Mildred, daddy’s sister. I had to wash 25-30 cars a day at Uncle Mac’s filling station during the summer. On Sunday mornings, I had to go to his house and clean up both Cadillac’s. It didn’t matter much that my injury was getting worse, the more I worked.
Uncle Mac had one of the largest service station businesses in Houston. He mainly sold gas, changed oil, did grease jobs and washed cars. He had as many white customers as black right there in downtown Houston, on Gray and Jackson. I have to point that out because this was in the 1950s, when segregation was still alive and well in the South. He seemed to treat his customers well. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for his employees.
Mac was so hard to work for. He couldn’t keep help around even though he had more business than everybody else. He would insult the employees and work the hell out of them. After a while, he had a hard time getting black employees. Then he started going to the employment office and hiring Mexicans until the word got out about him. He eventually turned to the whites. When that didn’t work out, he turned to family members. Daddy made me and my sister Margaret work for him. One day, Mac made Margaret so mad, she cursed him out and left there running. Daddy didn’t make her go back, but I continued to work there, barely able to walk.
Mac would keep me there on Saturday evenings offering to give me a ride home. He would be talking to his women and I would still be working on cars. When he would get ready to close, he’d call me into his office. There he’d sit with his feet on the counter and say, “Bud, you didn’t work worth a damn this week.” Then he would reach in the register, pull out $20 or $25 and throw them at me. “Get home the best way you can, I ain’t goin’ in right now.” There weren’t any more buses running, so I would have to walk from Gray and Jackson to Adair and Alabama where we lived. That was almost a three mile walk. On some Sundays, Daddy would ask how much Mack was paying me. When I told him about $25, he would ask Mac who would say, “That boy is just a damned lie, Edward.” He once let Mack beat me right there at the garage. That was the way I grew up.
Aunt Mildred, Mac’s wife, was very nice to me. She would come by and say, “Nelson, I know Mac is not halfway paying you.” She would slip extra money to me at times, but she was only there when he had to be away. Mac’s nickname for her was Big Eye. When he had to go somewhere, he would make her come in to run the register. When the World Series came around, he would drive to New York. That was the happiest time for us. He was an impossible fellow to work for and get along with. I would sometimes call myself running away, but I really didn’t run away. I just hid in the house up in the attic or hid behind a sofa until they would go on to work. It would just be me and my dog.
Through all of this, I continued trying to make money any way I could. One very important place was Jefferson Stadium. That stadium was like a livelihood for many of us in the neighborhood. They would always burn the athletic shoes in a huge bonfire at that place. We would go over there and ask them for some of them, but they told us that they couldn’t give them to us. They even made the shoes over there. All we could do was just watch them burn.
At night I would work the stadium selling peanuts and popcorn. In the mornings, before school, I would go over to the Stadium parking lot and search for money. When the dew was still there, I would just start in the west and walk toward the east. As the sun came up, if any coins were there, you would see them glinting. One man I worked for used to make fun of me: “I saw Hailey out there in the middle of the dark with that one-eyed dog of his, finding money.”
My most vivid memory about finding coins happened one day while I was out by myself. This happened before my injury. My parents made me leave my dog King at home while I was out searching. I man with a thick mustache grabbed me and started pulling me into the woods. I thought I was gone until I saw King running across Scott street full stride. He leaped and tore into the man allowing me to get away. I could hear him screaming as I ran. I had many dogs as a child, but King was the one that saved my life.
My parents stopped buying things for me before I was 12. My sister Audrey was the last one who would buy things for me then because she worked at Prince’s, a fast food restaurant. She also had to still put money into the house. It didn’t help that I got more and more crippled every day, making it hard for me to work and earn, or find, money.
One day a lady at school called the house and threatened my daddy and step-mother if they didn’t take me to the hospital. My daddy still wouldn’t do it. His excuse was that my sister Margaret had baby Zachary and he wasn’t about to be charged with all of that stuff. This was one of the other times that I really tried to run away. I was in so much pain, I didn’t know what to do. After football season had ended, I would go over to that stadium in the black dark and just cry. There really was no one to turn to. I couldn’t get back to Longview where grandma was. My other grandma stayed down the street from us and was getting oil money and everything. Nobody gave a damned about me or about what happened to me.
One day a mysterious revelation came to me while I was in that house with my dog. I always believed that house I grew up in was haunted –3601 Adair St. Every day between 1:30PM and 2:00PM, that front door would come all the way open and then close. On the day of the revelation, I was lying on the divan with my dog on the floor near me. After a while, a big old storm came up lightening and thundering as everything went black dark. I had the front door open because I was scared and just a little boy. All of a sudden, a bolt of lightening hit right outside the gate. I was lying there with my head tilted back. I don’t know if I was half awake or still sleep, but I heard this voice telling me what I had to do.
After that I went to see my sister Audrey. She had just gotten married to John. I told her I was going to put myself in the charity hospital. I would tell them that my daddy’s whereabouts were unknown and that my mother had been dead since I was a baby. Audrey would be my only living relative and legal guardian despite having six other brothers and sisters. I also told her that I would change my name from Nelson Henry Hailey to Henry White. White was my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. That was the message I had gotten from that revelation. John said to my sister, “Well, Audrey, I don’t know what’s going to happen to your brother if he don’t get into that hospital. I can’t see any harm doing it if they’ll operate on him.” My sister agree to do it.
That was the first time I went to the hospital for my injury. After they took x-rays of my hip and back, they kept me in there for 3 weeks before they could make a determination about what kind of operation to do. I don’t think I was any more than 15 years old. I had never seen so many doctors in all my life. I was rolled out on a gurney into a large auditorium full of white doctors. They said that my hip had long since been knocked out of place or maybe it was a birth defect. They really weren’t sure. Whatever the case, it had taken root and was fused to the base of my spine. That’s why my spinal canal is crooked today. The reason why they couldn’t make a determination about the type of operation because they hadn’t seen anything like that before.
After talking and sending my records to John Hopkins, they finally decided on the kind of operation at the end of that 3 weeks. I never will forget the name. A post-osteotomy is what they called it. They told me they were going to clip the head off my femur bone and put a Smith-Petersen nail in. The nail would keep the joint in place when they put me in traction. One of the doctors said, “Henry, you’re going to have to lie in bed for about 6 or 7 months with your leg in a sling.” My leg was suspended with weights and cables for that period of time.
Those nurses who were over there at old Jefferson Davis Hospital were from Prairie View and some of the other universities. They would be there for me around the clock.
After the operation took place, I remember waking up in the recovery room. One of the doctors said that it had been a week since the operation.
Dr. Roland Knight was the doctor who said, “Welcome back to the world of the living, Henry.”
“Yes, sir?” I replied. Everything is white all around me and I’m lying in the bed in traction.
“Henry, let me tell you about your operation, ” he went on, “We lost you and we worked like we never worked before to bring you back to life. We didn’t know that you were asthmatic and had breathing problems. We used ether in this operation and we lost you. After a couple hours of resuscitation, we managed to get you back. As long as you live and have to have operations, tell them you can’t have ether.”
Afterwards, they took me to my room on the third floor. There were eight of us in there. I’d get visits from different relatives. Daddy visited me about three or four times and it seemed like he couldn’t stand to look at me. Aunt Mildred came to visit me almost every day during visiting hours and would always bring something. When the time came for me to go, I actually cried because I knew what I was going back home to. I had been in the hospital for six and a half months. It had become a home for me. I had gotten used to it and my bed.
“Well, Henry, it’s time for you to go home,” one of the doctors said. I was going back to live with my daddy and Mother Velma, but no one at the hospital knew it. They instructed me to come back every third day to the polio ward for therapy. I would catch the bus there and they would sit me on the table with the weights on that leg. My hip could still move a bit after this first operation. They would hang the weights on my leg with it extended, then after a while I would pull it back.
After that, I was still walking on crutches, and I had nobody to buy any clothes for me. Once I limped over to Margaret’s place, and I’ll never forget that day. While I was there, my brothers Cochise and R.J. came up. Cochise had a pair of shoes that he had while working at Hal’s that he was looking to sell.
Margaret said, “Why don’t you give them to your baby brother?”
Cochise replied, “Hell, naw! If he got some money, he can have them.”
R.J. bought the shoes from him. Margaret pointed out the old tennis shoes I was wearing. The toes were coming apart and I had to put cardboard in them.
“Margaret, they’re not going to do it,” I said, “All of those months I was in the hospital, I never saw Ted (Cochise) one time.”
“There are two places I don’t go. I don’t go to goddamned funerals, and I don’t go to no damned hospitals.” Cochise fired back.
I then said, “One day you gonna go to your own.”
Needless to say, they didn’t give me the shoes. They left after swapping between one another.
I went back to the stadium to work while walking on crutches. That was the only way I could support myself. My leg didn’t get any better and was hurting worse than before my operation. By this time all of my brothers and sisters were grown and the only other one living in the house was my sister Geraldine after her divorce from Clark. I believe by this time, father had run Margaret, my youngest sister, off to live in Longview. There wasn’t anyone left to really look out for me.
One day when I went in for treatment, one of the doctors told me that my leg wasn’t doing me any better at all. “I x-rayed it, and I know you still have pain that is worse as ever,” the doctor said. He was a tall white doctor by the name of Dr. Jack Williams.
“You know what, Henry, during your operation I was nothing but an intern, so they didn’t allow me much input about the type of operation. However, now, I am the top orthopedic specialist here at the county hospital,” Dr. Williams continued, “Within the year I’m going to take up residence in West Virginia, but I’ll promise you this. If you’ll get your sister to come back in to sign for another operation, I’ll fix that leg where you’ll be able to walk on it with no pain and do gainful work.”
I knew what I was in for because he told me, “I’ll tell you it won’t be easy because after the operation, I’m going to put you in a cast that will cover your whole body, but I’m going to make it as comfortable as I possibly can. I have to do that because, at your age, you are growing, and that leg has to mend. Do you remember Mr. Smith who was in the room with you?”
Mr. Smith was an elderly black man who was a carpenter. He fell off the roof and broke both hips. He was in a body cast during my first operation. A body cast literally covers your whole body with holes cut so that you can use a bedpan. The leg where they operated would be bound all the way to my toes while the other leg would only be bandaged to my knee. A stick would be placed between my knees to keep my legs a certain distance apart. This would have to be done because I was still in a growth stage. There were only two ways I could lie; flat on my stomach or flat on my back. I would be like this for 6 months or more.
Before leaving, Dr. Williams then said, “I’m going to leave you a car.” I didn’t know what that meant. He asked the orderlies to bring in a stretcher and asked that no one bother it. This one had large wheels in the front and small ones in the back. This stretcher was placed next to my bed so that I could roll myself onto it and lie on my stomach. I could then cover myself with a sheet and roll all over the hospital. It enabled me to get out of my bed and help prevent bed sores.
The second operation was then scheduled and performed. I believe I woke up during the operation at one point. They said that the stitches busted [sic]. They had to come in and do a massive blood transfusion, and then recast. I remember lying there while they were putting the cold plaster of paris on me. The had to redo it all. I remember after the surgery everyone talking about daddy taking it so hard because he thought I was going to die.
I survived, and the recovery process started. When they put me on that stretcher, every day I would roll myself out of that room and down the hall to the ward with the paralysis patients. One of my best friends was a guy in that ward named Eddie. Eddie had been shot by a distraught lover. His girlfriend had been going with another nigga and he shot Eddie in the back. The bullet lodged right up against his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. He and the others were in Foster frame beds. The Foster frame beds had a very narrow part for your legs and the rest your body you could exercise.
Eddie was built like Tony Atlas from the waist up. His arms were so strong that he would catch hold of the back of my stretcher, and I would wheel me and Eddie all over the hospital. We’d be way up on the fifth or sixth floor sometimes. That made my stay enjoyable in a sense of saying. Everybody at the hospital loved Eddie, especially all the nurses. He was a really dark fella with almost satin skin and long side-burns like Elvis Presley. The hospital staff liked him because he was such a good and model patient. There were other guys in his ward who didn’t adjust as well as Eddie did. They were named Small, Mitchell, and I forgot the name of the other. One of them committed suicide and the other later killed some of his relatives.
Aunt Mildred visited me almost every day. She’d mostly come in the middle of the day and bring a hamburger, barbeque, or some other outside food she knew I loved. There were also seven other beds in my ward. Sometimes they would be full when they brought in the orthopedic patients. We would wake up to a full room on some nights because they would have to put the neuro patients in there. By and large, our room would level off at about three or four. They would sometimes tell me, “Boy that has got to be your mother. She is the nicest woman we have ever seen.”
I went through my period of time with it. It lasted about 6 months or more like the doctor said. At the end the doctor came to me and said, “Well Henry, it’s time to get you up.” “Sir?” I replied
I had grown so used to it. As hard as it is, just picture yourself lying between two pieces of cement all this time. Mentally I had just grown accustomed to it. I don’t know now if I could ever do that again. Now I just think about being so closed in. At that age my mind was just on running and playing around. In that hospital they treated my so nice. I was happy and God knows I was happy.
After I was discharged, my therapy was for me to go three days a week to the polio ward on the other side of Houston. They would sit me on a table and hook a cable around my left ankle, and I had to pull these big weights to strengthen that knee.
When I went back home, I had to go back to working that stadium. This time I noticed I could kind of walk with a stick and a limp. After a while, I even went out to the park and started playing basketball limping and everything else.
A few months after I was released, I came back to visit Eddie’s ward. He was gone, so I asked, “Where’s Eddie?”
“Well, Henry, you’re not going to believe this. Eddie walked out of here,” one of the nurses said.
They said that they had made him some kind of prosthetic legs or braces and gave him a set of forearm crutches. Yes, they said he was able to walk out of there.
After about four years, I was out playing basketball at Yates High School not far from Mother Velma’s house one day. It was a normal Saturday afternoon and your average pick up game. During the game, somebody bumped me. When I looked down, my trousers were bloody all over the leg. I pulled the left side down and you could see that big steel nail working its way out, so I knew I had to make it to the hospital.
I ended up at Ben Taub, which was new at that time. When I arrived, the doctors said, “Oh, there you are! We’ve been looking for you for the past four or five years so that we could take that thing out.” This would be a superficial operation that wouldn’t take long. The biggest problem I had was a bout with asthma while I was there. They had to put me on ephedrine for about a week to calm that asthma attack down. Afterwards, they removed that Smith-Petersen nail, and I have been limping on that thing ever since. I went back to working the stadiums and any other jobs I could find.
I’m not sure if I still have a piece of that nail in my hip. I do know that I have been through many metal detectors and haven’t had them go off once keys and belt buckles are gone. All I know is that I haven’t had any problems with that hip since. My hip was permanently fused, but I could still walk on it without any pain directly from it. The constant pain in my back is an entirely different story.
Growing up, I never viewed my father as handicapped. Although he couldn’t get around as easily as most people, he was still up and walking. I don’t recall him ever using handicap decals while growing up. Even for the brief time he did have one, he rarely used it. Considering that he managed to beat my older brother in a foot race when we were still kids, I could understand why he didn’t want to place certain labels on himself.
Years later, another diagnosis would have life-changing ramifications. The damage to his back as a result of his hip being fused to it ended in a diagnosis of degenerative disc disease and severe spinal stenosis. The doctors expected him to experience a decade or two of constant pain before paralysis finally set in. There was no real treatment or cure for his condition, which could only deteriorate over time.
The track his life would take had many twists and turns, but although his handicap affected many things he did throughout his life, he didn’t let it define him. He would go on to become one of the most accomplished fishermen of his time walking the jetties of Galveston, Texas and fishing many of the lakes and streams in East Texas.
The sales skills he developed while working the stadiums would eventually turn into a job as debit life insurance agent. He earned the honor of becoming one of the top agents at American National while working one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Houston. The honor was rewarded with a trip to Europe, where he and my mother had experiences and sights that they never thought they would enjoy. This level of success abruptly came to an end when the back troubles intensified tenfold. He eventually had to leave work on total disability because of the deteriorating condition of his back. He couldn’t sit or stand for long periods of time, and the pain was almost unbearable. We would still go on to raise four children from young boys to men, instilling in us values and tools to overcome most obstacles.
The doctors were right about one thing, he would experience pain in his back for the rest of his life. He did end up beating the odds on the paralysis. It’s been over 50 years since the hip operation and he is still walking around. Doctors who review his medical records usually expect to see someone in a wheel chair. The level of strength and determination that has kept him upright all these years is a rarity. I don’t think that strength will be going anywhere any time soon.