Wheels

“My legs went one direction, my life another.” – Bob Wieland
Have you ever chugged beer out of a friend’s prosthetic leg? No? Well, I have and I can tell you it’s an experience like no other.
I recall that first day we saw our friend after he returned from Vietnam. He drove up in a brand-new Cadillac and parked in front of the Popcorn Bar, one of our favorite bars in college because of the owner, Fitzpatrick, known to us as Fitz. He provided free popcorn to his patrons which many evenings was our dinner. Fitzpatrick was a good-natured old Irishman who actually liked college students and we made him our honorary father. He would be part of our group of guys while we would sit at his bar drinking beer.
Our friend got out of his car with two canes, one attached to each forearm and he dragged his legs as he walked in the Popcorn to a raucous cheer and no one cheered louder than Fitz did, welcoming home one of his “boys.”
“Welcome home, Bob,” we all cheered. Bob Wieland, Wheels, was finally home.
Fitz had his bartender set a fresh bottle of Chivas Regal in front of Bob that was his for as long as he came in the bar. Fitz told Wheels, “As long as I’m alive, this bottle will never be empty,” and it never was.
To show his appreciation, Wheels removed one of his legs and had the bartender fill it with Old Style beer and he passed it around to all his friends to share. The beer was on Fitz that night too.
No one in our group of friends was free from friendly ridicule and it was no different for Bob upon his return. We called him Wheels because most of the time he would get around in a wheelchair, but today he’s called “Mr. Inspiration.” His real name is Bob Wieland. You can google him to find out more about this amazing man, www.bobwieland.net. He has accomplished more than most people ever will.
When I first knew him he was in high demand. He was a very good baseball player and the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team was interested in having him join their farm system but so was Uncle Sam and Uncle Sam won out, sending him to Vietnam where a member of his unit stepped on a mine. Wheels, a medic, rushed to give first aid but he too stepped on a buried mortar round, designed to destroy tanks. It severely damaged his legs; they had to be amputated above the knee.
Wheels is best known for his walk across America on his arms. In 1986, he completed a 3000-mile walk across America on his arms to pay tribute to his fallen comrade. That journey took him 3 years, 8 months and 6 days. He had wooden blocks with a strap going across the back to put on his hands and he wore leather pants. I forget how many blocks and leather pants he wore out on that journey, but it was a lot.
How he accomplished this feat in itself is quite a feat. He started with some friends in California who would jog along with him and drive his car. But eventually, they tired out and could no longer stay with him. By the time he reached Nevada, he was on his own.
He would drive his car to the point he wanted to get to by the end of a particular day. Here he would drop off his wheelchair. Then he would drive back to his starting point and begin his journey. When he arrived at where he had left his wheelchair, he would get in and roll it back to his car and then drive back to where he had stopped walking that day. Amazing.
Since that time, he has traveled across America using his arm-pedaled bicycle.
A few years ago, a mutual friend of ours who was also living in Atlanta at the time, told me “Wheels” was going to be in town. He was scheduled to give a motivational speech to local high school football teams at Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta Georgia. He wanted to know if I wanted to join him in surprising Wheels.
“Hell yeah,” I said.
Well, when Wheels came out to speak, his entrance was like none I had seen before, He came running into the auditorium from the back, on his hands and literally jumped on the stage.
His speech was pretty inspiring but he knew he had to do something special to really make an impression on a group of testosterone laden teenage boys.
He put a set of weights and a weight bench on the stage and put out a challenge to all the young men in the audience to come up and do as many bench presses as they could and when they finished he would match them and do one more rep than they did. You see, Wheels had just set a world record in the bench press but was disqualified because he didn’t keep his feet planted on the floor. It didn’t matter that his feet were lying in some rice paddy in Vietnam.
Bob did beat everyone who took his challenge and there were a lot of conversations going on by the audience as they left the auditorium that day.
We visited with Wheels for awhile after his speech, talking about Fitz and the guys, before he had to leave for another engagement in another city.
What an honor it is for me to be one of the few guys to know such a great American and get to drink out of his prosthetic leg so many years before.