Sammy Smith was on a mission in which I was to play a bit part: driving him and his sister from the Grand Isle ferry dock to catch a plane at Burlington Airport. It is a rare trip that qualifies as a "mission," but I'd say the journey he had described when he booked my taxi — transporting his late mother's ashes from Plattsburgh to Albuquerque — rose to that level.
Most of his mother's family, he had shared with me, lived in and around that southwestern city where she had grown up, and the family members had collectively expressed a desire to gather and celebrate her life and spirit. So Sammy, along with Sasha, his kid sister, packed up the sacred urn to fly west. But first, they would board an eastbound ferry at dawn that would convey them from Plattsburgh to Vermont. That's where I came into the picture.
The sky was a swirl of pale pink and rapidly fading stars when I pulled up to the dock at 5:30 a.m. and saw the ferry approaching. Sammy told me he had a wheelchair, which meant he'd disembark before the cars.
As the boat came to a stop, my first sight of my customer took me aback. Sammy was a barrel-chested man with lustrous, brushed-back black hair. He was sitting in a compact, sleek wheelchair that appeared custom-made for his condition, as if designed for a Paralympic athlete. He was wearing a tank top that exposed his massive and powerful arms — what weight lifters dub "pythons." He was also entirely legless, with no hint of a stump on either side.
By dint of those mighty arms, Sammy propelled himself down the gangplank and up to my van. By his side, Sasha carted two small valises. "You must be Jernigan," he said, offering his hand.
"That'd be me," I said, accepting his firm handshake. "Good to meet you, Sammy. You too, Sasha. Hey, do you need any help getting into the vehicle?"
"Nope, I should be fine," he replied, and the next thing happened so quickly, I nearly missed it.
With his right hand, Sammy took hold of the top of the front passenger door, which I had opened for him. With his left, he grasped an interior handle mounted just above the doorframe. In one fluid motion, he swung his body onto the front seat. His execution of this maneuver was marked by leopard-like grace and efficiency, evocative of a world-class gymnast on a pommel horse.
"Nice," I said, unable to contain myself. I was relieved when he responded with a nod and a smile. When you go through life with a body as unusual as Sammy's, I'll bet you spend a fair amount of time making others feel comfortable. In any event, his graciousness touched me.
I took the two pieces of luggage from Sasha and stashed them in the back, along with the wheelchair, as she took the rear seat behind her brother. I climbed back in, fired up the Toyota and we were off to the races.
"So, Sammy," I began, "what do you do to keep busy in Plattsburgh?"
From the back, Sasha chuckled. "What doesn't he do?" she asked.
"I have a couple jobs," Sammy responded, ignoring his sister's friendly gibe. "My main work is as an electrician. But on weekends, I often take security jobs. I also volunteer at the Red Cross, and I'm an officer in the Knights of Columbus."
"I guess you keep busy," I said with a laugh. "What kind of security jobs do you get?"
"You know — I'll work the front door at bars or events of one kind or another."
"In your chair? Gosh, how does that work?"
"Believe me," he replied with a smile, "people do not fuck with me."
Glancing over at his pythons, I said, "Sammy, I believe you."
As we cruised along Route 2, across the causeway and past Sand Bar State Park, I considered the remarkable man sitting beside me. To say he hadn't let his physical challenges curtail his life would be an epic understatement. No, he was right in the thick of it — forthright, active in his community and with his humor intact.
But what impressed me most of all was what I didn't see: not even a shred of self-pity. As a guy who feels beleaguered when I sprain an ankle, I prayed I'd remember this profound lesson the next time I began feeling sorry for myself.
"Hey, with all your activities, how do you get around town?" I asked. "Do you have friends or family who drive you?"
"No, I'm able to drive myself. There's this great device that essentially converts any car to hand operation. I remember shortly after I acquired it about six years ago, I rented a car and drove with my girlfriend to a B&B in New Hampshire. That turned out to be one of the best weekends of my life, now that I think about it."
"That's sweet, man. And now your mom is returning to her Albuquerque hometown. Does the family have some ritual planned for the ashes?"
"Not that we know of," Sasha said, fielding my question and shifting forward in her seat to get in on the conversation. "But, knowing the Albuquerque crew, I'm sure they'll have something wild planned."
"True that," Sammy seconded his sister, chuckling. He reached back over his shoulder with his left hand, palm up, which Sasha clasped with her right. For some reason, the tenderness of that gesture moved me deeply.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.