The Other Hand

Ed Cushman – True friend

Image by Katie McBride

Ed does the unthinkable for a young friend.

Listen on Luminary

Featuring original music and sound design by George Langford of Javelin.

PLAYLIST
(in order of appearance)

Marc Barreca – Music Works For Industry – Music Works For Industry
Richard Horowitz – Bandit Nrah Master of Rajasthan – Eros in Arabia
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani – Closed Circuit – Sunergy
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani – A New Day – Sunergy
Helado Negro – Calienta – Private Energy
Helado Negro – Tartamundo – Private Energy
Michele Mercure – The Intruder – Eye Chant
Helado Negro – Runaround – Private Energy

TRANSCRIPT

The Other Hand
Ed Cushman – True Friend

***

So, a lot of people hearing you talk about this are just absolutely not going to understand. It’s very difficult to relate to. You know?

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

I was wondering, when did the idea come in?

1973, where I lived in De Pere, Wisconsin. That’s a suburb of Green Bay. I met a young man about 16 years old. His name was Pete. He was brought to my house as a visitor. Of course, right away I noticed that he was missing his right hand. The end of his arm was all bandaged up in a ball.

As we talked, he said he lost his hand in Vietnam. I had the feeling that he felt uncomfortable talking about this so I didn’t press the issue. We didn’t know each other very well. Sometime later, I learned through neighborhood teen friends that he didn’t lose his hand in Vietnam but on his dad’s farm. He was making a pipe bomb with gunpowder. It exploded, shredding his right hand and several fingers on his left.

So, he was 15 years old and was telling people he had been to Vietnam?

I believe he was about 15 years old, maybe 16.

And how old were you at the time?

I think I was 32.

Did you have a fatherly sort of relationship with him? What was your relationship like?

Father and also just a good, close, personal friend.

When I first met him, he was very quiet and shy and reclusive, not willing to talk about it or even show his arm to other people. I looked at it and said, “Gee, that’s no problem. It’s sort of a handicap but a person can do anything he wants.” I thought, “Gee, I’m going to try and help him as much as I can.”

He needed all the confidence I could give him. I was quite excited when he came over to my house one evening after dinner. He was wearing his prosthesis.

“Wow, what’s that you got there?” I said excitedly.

I could sense that he was testing me to find out how I felt about it. This was the first time I had ever seen one close up. I could see the reaction on his face. He was glad I liked it.

Over the months, our mutual trust grew. Yeah. One Saturday morning, as we gathered around the living room stove to dress to go out, Pete had his youngest brother tie his boots as usual. I was a bit surprised at this as Pete was quite able to do most everything himself now that he was using his hook every day.

The next morning, I had an idea while putting on my boots. I watched Pete for a minute and then said, “Pete, why don’t you try this?” I used a pair of pliers in my right hand as he would have used his hook. I gripped the laces with the pliers and tied my boots.

It wasn’t long before Pete was tying his own boots faster than anyone else. It was a matter of having self-confidence he needed to attempt these new things.

I felt a warm glow inside for my friend who had made so much progress since that first night when he came to my house with cast on his shortened arm. He was becoming more accepting of himself and his condition. I felt there was no stopping him now. He was gradually regaining the confidence that was blown away last summer.

One crisp, clear Friday afternoon in February, Pete, his brothers, and I went out to a field near my house to launch some of their solid fuel rockets. We had a small square of plywood that served as a launching pad. On top of this was mounted a small support stick which held the rocket and guided it as it was launched. The launcher arm wasn’t sturdy or long enough to properly support the missile on the launchpad so I elected to design a better one the next morning. I told them I’d have it ready when the guys came over later that day.

Here are my simple, do-it-yourself rocket launcher building instructions. Step one, cut the 10 foot two by four down to a piece two feet long. Turn on the saw motor. Step two, pick up the long board to be cut and place it on the table saw. Note, be careful not to step on those dangling nylon bootlaces. One can trip over the planks of wood lying on the floor in front of the table saw.

Well, as luck would have it, I wasn’t careful as my instructions suggested. I did trip and fall right into the whirring 10 inch saw blade. My first thought was, “My face is crashing right down into the saw blade. I must stop myself.” I tried to break my fall with my right arm and in the process, it struck the top of the table and as I continued to fall forward, it slid across the table into the blade. The motor stalled as my arm went through the blade. It was too much of a load, too fast.

It was the most intense pain that I think a person can feel. If you’ve ever bumped your crazy bone in your elbow and you get a very sharp painful feeling, that’s what it felt like. It was heavy, heavy pain in my arm from the nerves that were all cut just right above my wrist. All those nerves in that arm are screaming, screaming at the top of their little voices saying, “Ow, this hurts!”

I had taken a lot of first aid courses. I grabbed a towel and put it around my hand. I knew that I needed to hold my vein in my arm so that I wouldn’t bleed to death in the meantime. I got my phone, put it up to my ear, and dialed … Oh, and then, get back to holding the artery so it wouldn’t bleed.

I told the operator that this was an emergency and I wanted to talk to the hospital. I said I could be there in about 10 minutes and then, I told the operator to ring my friend, Todd, who lived just behind me on the next street.

So, when my friend came over and I grabbed a towel and put it around my hand and got in the truck, put the towel with my hand hanging in it. Darn thing was still attached to me with some skin. My friend drove the truck. I can remember his foot shaking on the gas peddle. He was so nervous. “Oh my gosh, what did you do? What did you do?” I was okay but he was quite shook up.

The hand was beginning to feel mentally more apart from my body as I sat there thinking about it. It was just dead weight attached by some skin to the end of my arm. The emergency staff was waiting for us as we pulled up to the entrance. An elderly nurse took me up to the operating room. Instead of a general anesthetic, they gave me a nerve block. Then, we all waited for them to take effect.

The surgeon began by sawing off a small section of bone from the end of my arm. Then, he neatly filed the ends of the bones to round the edges. I couldn’t see what was being done but I could sure feel it. The best way I can describe the pain is white hot. It’s a good thing they gave me a nerve block or it would have been really bad.

So, this is what it feels like to have one hand missing. I wonder what they did with it. It was perfectly good. I did just cut my fingernails the day before. I guess it could be preserved in a jar of formaldehyde but that would be gross. It feels like my arm is spring loaded. It wants to pop up all by itself.

You can get enough feeling from the muscles that are still there to do things like count by moving your fingers. Right now, I can move the muscles connected to like my thumb and all my fingers individually. One, two, three, four, five. The fingers don’t touch or anything, but they move and I could even tap my fingers on a table but of course, there’s nothing there so the muscles are moving in the arm but they don’t do anything.

A good friend of mine, Bill, who I had known for quite a few years and he came in and he said, “How did you go last night?” And I said, “I spent a very wrist-less night.” That was my joke.

What a big moment when Pete and his family came to see me for the first time. I expected him to laugh his ass off but he was reluctant to joke with me. Pete seemed a bit puzzled by my rather jovial mood. I didn’t press the issue. I understood the conflicting thoughts that he must be feeling. It was good to be able to shift some of Pete’s emotional pain back to me for a change. It had been a long, hard struggle for him. I allowed him every possible opportunity to feel important.

Did you feel closer after you lost your hand?

I think so, yeah, definitely. I’d never forget the night we went down to the newsstand to buy a tin of our favorite pipe tobacco. It came in a flat, round can which was vacuum sealed and had a screw off lid. Pete with one hand and a hook and me with only one hand and we couldn’t get the top off. What a pair!

We got out of the car and put the can down on the paper in the middle of the street. Pete held the can between his feet while we attempted to twist the lid off. And we grunted and strained and swore and broke our fingernails. The cover wouldn’t budge. Finally, in desperation, we returned to the store to ask the man behind the counter if he would open the can for us. As it was dark outside, we couldn’t read the large letters around the edge of the can that read, “To open, insert coin and twist.” The clerk put a penny under the edge of the lid and popped it open instantly.

I felt that I could show Pete how I was living my life with one hand if he was having difficulty with some particular thing that he could see that it could be done that way and help him out in his struggle to be a one-hander. When I had only one hand, we were both equal but I never told Pete that I did it intentionally. I thought that would be too complicated for him to deal with.

Now, here’s the real story. I can’t say exactly when the idea of becoming a one-handed person myself came about to me. I think it just sort of creeped in little by little and thought it would be kind of neat to have just one hand. That would be quite a unique experience and I think that’s basically how I came to the conclusion that I was going to cut off my own hand.

How to do it? That was the trick. Well, a lot of people have lost hands in various kinds of machinery, especially farm machinery. That was pretty common in Wisconsin. I didn’t have any farm machinery myself that would gobble up a hand. I thought a table saw seems like the most logical and easiest, quickest, cleanest way to do it. So, I decided to cut my hand off with a table saw.

It was kind of a clear but cold Saturday morning, frosty outside so I had my boots on. I didn’t have a coat on. I think I just had my wool shirt and turned on the saw and stood there. Well, I probably stood there for, I don’t know, a good five minutes. Do I want to do this? How is it going to feel? I just finally said, “Okay, this is it.” And turned on the saw, grabbed my right hand with my left hand, put my arm down on the bed of the table saw and pushed my arm through.

I did it so quickly with so much force, I just wanted to do it and get it done with, that I stalled out the blade. It wasn’t completely cut off and my hand was still attached by a piece of skin. Gee, so okay, I did it again really quick. In my rush to do it and get it over with, I guess I went just a little bit above where I cut last and still had the hand attached by a piece of skin. Okay, that’s good enough.

I remember after doing it, standing at the saw, I thought, “Wow, I finally did it. Whew, it is over. Let me get on with my life and go to the hospital.”

I guess the most natural question is why did you do it?

That’s a good question. Why did I do it? I didn’t know at the time, I just wanted to. Over the years, I’ve thought about it quite a bit and the best answer I can come up with is that being I had so much experience with Pete and his difficulty and accepting his problem, I could look at it and say, “Gee, it’s not really a problem. No big deal. I can do it.” Showing him that somebody that was normal and a happy person could also cut off a hand and not be devastated by it. I wanted him to see that definitely.

When’s the last time you got to see him?

I eventually sold the house in the neighborhood where Pete lived and bought a farm out in the country. I don’t think I saw much of Pete after that because I wasn’t in his neighborhood anymore. Over all the years, I’ve never seen Pete again so I have no idea how he is, how he’s doing, or what he might have thought about what I did.

Because he never found out, right?

No. Uh-uh (negative). I actually wrote him a paper letter in the mail and I think it would be quite an experience for him to know that because of him losing his hand, I decided to do it myself. He just didn’t reply so he was a rather private person. I guess he still is today.

I think it was 2002, I wrote a book about my experience. The book is called Losing a Hand. In that book, I explain how I did it. I did give that book to some friends that I knew later. Everybody seemed to accept it okay. Nobody really was shocked. At least they didn’t let me know that they were shocked.

That’s very surprising to me.

Yeah.

That they wouldn’t be shocked.

I’m thinking is there anyone? Yes, there was one person when I lived down in Oregon. I think when he found out, he sort of disowned me. He didn’t want to be my friend anymore and I thought that was kind of sad because we had been very good friends. He couldn’t accept it. He thought it just was not the thing to do.

I could understand that. It’s perfectly logical. It’s probably not logical to want to cut it off. That’s just not something that sane people would do.

If that’s true, how did you know that you were sane?

That’s a good question. It’s rather difficult to describe. I don’t know.

Is there anything you could say that would convince them?

Some people head out, they want to go mountain climbing or surfing huge waves, that kind of thing. It’s a challenge, having to figure out how to do things as you learn how to live in the world with one hand and one hook. What kind of a device? What kind of a prosthesis? What kind of a technique? I thought it would be a lot of fun.

Were you, at the time that you did it, were you feeling a bit bored with life like you needed to add extra challenges?

It could be. It could be I felt bored with what I was doing. Losing one hand was definitely a big challenge and that’s why I went for it.

What’s that mean for you today?

I’m bored.

Are you bored right now?

Yeah. Yeah.

Will you take off a leg next?

No, no, no. I’m done with that. A lot of people have different wants and desires. A lot of people want to cut off toes and fingers. Some people want to cut off one or two legs. I think as long as what they do doesn’t specifically hurt other people, what’s the problem? It may not be socially acceptable. People think you might be crazy. But while you might think I’m a nut, I’m okay. I know that and so it doesn’t bother me.

***

CREDITS

Featuring
Ed Cushman

Production
Nick van der Kolk, Host and Director
Phil Dmochowski, Managing Producer

Julia DeWitt, Producer
Steven Jackson, Producer

Published on: May 18, 2019

From: Episodes, Season 8

Producers: , ,