Books with Weathered Covers

I was talking to someone a few years back who mentioned in passing that she was a runner. The main subject we had been talking about was business intelligence software so I didn’t really think twice about the running remark. I guess I assumed she was the occasional Monument Ave 10K-type runner that I am.

We became friends on Facebook and I saw some weeks later that she was planning to do something called the Dopey Challenge. Having no context, I assumed it was something, I don’t know, maybe a little silly.

I soon found out it was a yearly challenge held at Disney World where runners run a 5K, 10K, Half Marathon and then a Marathon on succeeding days. That’s nearly 50 miles of running over 4 days. That wouldn’t be dopey to me; it’d be downright debilitating.

My point is: just knowing a label, e.g., “runner,” doesn’t actually give you much insight into the experience behind it.

Emily Stilson, the main character in the musical WINGS that opens at Firehouse this week, had a career as a “wing walker.” It’s hard to know what that even means out of context.

I did some digging into what was actually involved in being a wing walker as part of teaching a class through VCU’s Commonwealth Society (new spring classes just opened up for registration -- check them out!) It’s a fascinating history. Here’s a link to a story about a wing walker named Gladys Ingles. The story includes a video where she is shown carrying a wheel from one plane to another and affixing it in place so the second plane can land. The apparent nonchalance with which she completes this task -- given the height, the constant wind of more than 60 mph, the climbing

around on unstable surfaces without being secured in any way, etc. -- is just amazing.

Aerobats like Ingles regularly did stunts like swinging from a wire, dropping themselves from a wing on a tether, or hanging under a plane by their teeth. They would climb up into planes from moving cars or speeding trains or even from water-skis. They’d dance in flight, play music or tennis, or just hold-on while the pilot would do loop-the-loops, the g-forces pummeling their bodies.

Not infrequently, they’d be hurt or killed in a crash or accident. Just a few years ago, one of the country’s few remaining wing walkers, Jane Wicker, died in a very widely broadcast crash in Ohio. Her tragic death, even given her focus on safety, was a reminder of just how crazy the activities of the old-time performers were in the unfettered days of the 1920s and 30s.

In WINGS, Emily has a stroke. Every year, almost 800,000 people in the US have strokes. Somewhere between 15% and 30% of those who survive a stroke are left with some kind of permanent impairment. They gain a new label: “stroke victim.”

Like with all labels, this one comes with its own set of assumptions and reductions. Several years ago, Richmond actor Jason Campbell suffered a stroke on stage. Afterwards, his communication capabilities were impaired and he was given a dire prognosis about his prospects. But thanks to his hard work and the amazing support of his husband and many friends in the local theater community, he has recovered a great deal of his speaking abilities. He has fought hard against the presumed limitations of being a “stroke victim.”

Emily’s story makes me think of the people you may see if you visit a residential retirement facility, where you might see older folks wandering slowly down the halls or lounging in wheelchairs. Some of them may be stroke victims and may have trouble communicating or be unable to speak at all, seemingly lost in their own worlds. That might seem sad.

But one should not judge the book by its cover, regardless of how weathered, tattered and torn it may appear. Because that person may have had a vigorous life filled with adventures and their thoughts are now lost among the dark jungles of the Amazon, the windswept mountainsides of Tibet or possibly even the wood, wire and canvas framework of a Stearson biplane soaring through a cloudless sky.

A short coda: the danger of reductionist labeling is relevant in consideration of many shows now on stages in Richmond. Cadence’s THE CHRISTIANS seems to tackle the subject head-on. I’M GONNA PRAY FOR YOU SO HARD is about a “father” and a “daughter” but the characters in that show don’t act like any example of those archetypes I’ve seen before. And CORPUS CHRISTI made me wonder what can be encompassed in the term “messiah.” If you go into that show certain of what it should mean, you may be surprised by the end.

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