Color & Control:

Wishbones and Light Bulbs

How a Small Group of War Vets Helped Me Find a Brighter Future

By Stephen Trumper

At age seven, I received my first bit of career advice.

It was from my neurosurgeon, a Dr. Keith, who, six months earlier, had performed spinal-decompression surgery on me. We were in his office, my dad and I, for a scheduled checkup, and Dr. Keith was looking to see the extent of the paralysis he had valiantly battled to halt. I had been born with something called Arnold-Chiari malformation, a spinal-cord abnormality.

My dad, in the weeks leading up to the surgery, had described it to me like this: “You know those chicken wishbones you like to pull and snap and hope that your wish comes true?

“Well, something like that wishbone has been growing inside the back of your neck: two bones that shouldn’t be joined have been growing in such a way that they are limiting your movement. That’s why you no longer have strength in your left arm and only some in your left leg. Dr. Keith will pull those bones apart.”

The surgery was successful, sparing my right side, but bringing with it no end of worry about my future in a world that back then—the early ’60s—was not exactly rolling out a welcome ramp for folks like me. Or at least didn’t appear to be.

At that six-month checkup Dr. Keith was doing his best, in his gruff way, to offer hope: “Well, son, you’ll never be a watchmaker.” He then went on to say that I seemed to be a smart, young fellow and that my future rested on working with my brain.

But what kind of work? And who would possibly hire a guy who, as my father described it, walked with the lurch of a drunken sailor and tumbled to the ground every so often?

It was during high school that I took my first unsteady step into the job world, at the Toronto Handicap Company, a telemarketing business.

Here, as best as I can remember, was our phone script:

“Hello. I’m phoning from the Toronto Handicap Company. We’re a hard-working group of disabled people doing our best to make a living for ourselves by offering you this opportunity to bring into your home a quality product that hospitals across the city regularly purchase from us:

“Light bulbs guaranteed to last five years. Would you like to order a dozen?”

Now I had no idea if hospitals really bought these lights, or if they really lasted five years. But I quickly learned that my new colleagues really were hard-working people with disabilities who had few other employment options. Which struck me then, and now, as just plain wrong, a monumental waste of human talent and potential.

I lasted three days at the Toronto Handicap Company before I said, “Nuts to this.” And started to look for something better. It took some doing but I eventually found better at, of all places, the Ontario Provincial Police, which, at the time, patrolled Ontario Place on Toronto’s waterfront.

And it was here that I found common cause with the men who first understood what I was trying to do but also had an understanding of what I was up against: guys who had fought or lived through the war and who had buddies with lost limbs or other permanent injury.

Clearly, I wasn’t hired to walk a beat. My role was to be a civilian radio operator for the summer—the communication link between the cops’ office at the main entrance and the guys patrolling the grounds. I was one of three students, another of whom, in this early attempt at an inclusive workplace, stuttered.

What I continue to treasure is the respect, acceptance and encouragement the cops gave us, fuelling my confidence when, after three summers, I readied to jump into the world of journalism, where two more men from the World War II era helped open doors.

First, there was the legendary J.D. MacFarlane, editor of the Toronto Telegram during the famous Tely-Star newspaper wars and, before that, managing editor of The Maple Leaf, the Canadian army newspaper. I met him when he was the chair of Ryerson’s journalism program and I was applying to get in.

During my interview he asked lots of questions, and he concluded with words nobody in our more politically correct era would ever dare utter: “Well, you should come here, but I’d concentrate on the editing. Nobody will ever hire you to be a reporter.”

Next was Jim Vipond, sports editor of The Globe and Mail, who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross during WWII. I was still a student but had been hired part-time on sports rewrite. On my first shift, there to greet me was the oldest, most cumbersome phone headset I have ever seen. And, of course, because it was difficult for me to put on, it kept falling off.

But the grizzled old guys on the desk were patient, and kept trotting over to rescue me.

The next day, I’m sitting at home when the phone rings: “Steve. Jim Vipond here. Heard you had a bit of trouble last night.”

“A bit, sir,” I trembled, bracing for the worst.

“Well, don’t worry. I’m sure we can make a copy editor out of you.”

And they did, leading to a career that has hit heights of which I could not possibly have imagined back in my three shifts of hawking light bulbs that still symbolize to me the dimming of possibility.

Instead, what every person with a disability looking to build a career needs are allies to help shine a light on the uncertain path ahead, illuminating the way—as my war vets did—aiding me in my quest to, as Dr. Keith concluded, create a future that rested on working with my brain. That turned out to be editing and writing, a profession full of intricacies, settings and timing: elements that also happen to be the concerns of a good watchmaker.

Adapted from Mr. Trumper’s thank-you speech at the 2013 National Magazine Awards in June, where he was honoured with the Foundation Award for Outstanding Achievement.

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