Rolling Steady

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A reflection on the long, strange trip of Andrew Houghton

By Mark Cromer

 

In the fading beams of sunlight of a late summer afternoon in Southern California, amid a muted warm glow that speaks of the twilight of honey days now slipped away, Andrew Houghton gazes slowly upward toward the mural that dominates the massive wall and ceiling above him.

It is a scene that captures agony and acquittal, redemption and damnation, hope and despair. Man’s eternal struggle with the duality of his own nature.

Houghton lets the magnitude of the hellishly vibrant imagery sink in for a moment.

As he is just days away from turning 40, the paradox offered by Jose Clemente Orozco’s epic work Prometheus, completed at Pomona College’s Frary Hall in 1930, is not lost on Houghton. Orozco’s depiction of the Greek Titan shows a world convulsing in utter chaos for the “fire of knowledge” that the rebel god has delivered them.

“That looks about right,” Houghton finally offers up with a wry smile.

Houghton is neither a student nor ardent admirer of the legendary Mexican social realist, whose murals offered brooding, violent glimpses of humankind’s failings.

But, as the saying goes, he can relate.

In the waning days of 2006, Houghton can look back over a decade that has seen a radical transformation in him, evolving from the party boy and product model for Colours to a wheelchair sports visionary that took is therapeutic message literally into the smoldering war zones of Bosnia and Kosovo, to a filmmaker and in-demand corporate consultant who President George Bush appointed to a federal committee.

From impoverished, violence-ravaged villages to the high tone glitz of inside-the-beltway fundraisers, Houghton has truly seen it all.

As Jerry Garcia might have noted: What a long, strange trip its been.

Now facing the crest of his days in this world that come as he enters midlife, Andy Houghton knows that perhaps the biggest trip of all is that he is even alive and able to contemplate it all.

A child of the sixties that was raised with his generation in the 1970s as a product of divorce and a frequent shuffling around, Houghton and his older brother bounced between mom and dad and cross country tour of various states and schools. Chronic disruption glossed over by classic TV and disco.

Houghton suffered loss early, watching his father die slowly in front of him of chronic heart and lung disease. He describes his old man, politely, as gruff, loud and fond of correcting his boys with a shout of “Goddamn it! I told you…”

“As I got older I guess what my dad taught me was that I didn’t want to be like him, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t love him or that he didn’t love us,” he says. “It was rough watching him die in the [hospice], he was sick for a long time. I was the only one who would go visit him and he was so depressed he would just cry. That’s tough to watch. So I would take him out of there for lunch and he’d indulge. Smokes and big meatball sandwich. Why not?”

The last time Houghton saw his dad, his death hovering, he asked his father for some parting wisdom, some inoculation of truth Andy could keep with him.

“I asked him if he had any last advice that he could leave me with, you know, the secret of life sort of thing,” Houghton says. “He just looked at me for a long time and said one thing: ‘No.’”

The years after his father’s death, Houghton was a 19-year-old hotshot living fast and playing hard in Santa Monica, the coastal crossroads of sand and chic, when he shattered his body by mixing ‘sake bombs’ with a motorcycle ride and a palm tree some two decades ago.

“This is it,” he says now. “I am about to be able to say that I have spent more of my life using a wheelchair than not.”

Houghton appears more road-weary than bitter at the milestone he is about to roll by, a touch surprised perhaps as he mulls over just how much he has accomplished since that fateful afternoon on September 18, 1986.

He couldn’t have known then that he was destined to not only survive the accident, but that its injuries would finally heal in a way that left him unable to walk, but ultimately able to see things much more clearly from his unintended vantage point.

The details surrounding the day of his accident are still rattling around distantly in his skull, like a bad dream that never fully fades away. When asked about it, Houghton offers a series of images, like a slide show, of events that led to his being wheeled into the emergency room at St. John’s Medical Center.

there’s a sushi bar, his buddy, a couple of girls. It’s sake bomb party. Shots of sake dropped into a beer and then slammed. Rounds and rounds, and more. Then Andy’s on the motorcycle, with one of the girl’s on the back of it. His buddy and the other girl are in the car next to them. The speedometer needle swings radically back and forth as he guns the bike down the boulevard…

Houghton could still feel his legs as they wheeled him into the ER. “I was still drunk, of course, pretty belligerent,” he says. “They didn’t think I needed an MRI because I was still moving my legs.”

…he brings the motorcycle to a stop at a traffic light, and like a scene from the Police Academy movies, the bike simply tips over and they hit the pavement. The girls face is bloodied and she is crying as she gets into the car with her friend and his buddy. Andy tells them he’ll meet them back at the apartment. He pops a wheelie as he tears down Ocean Boulevard…

After the emergency team stabilized him, Houghton complained to one of the docs that he was feeling a growing tingling sensation in his legs. “As soon as I said that, well that sent them running,” he said. “The brought an ortho surgeon down who told me that I may never walk again as they wheeled me into surgery.”

…Andy is back at the apartment, waiting on the stoop for his buddy and the girls to arrive. It’s going to be a party. He waits. And waits more. They don’t arrive. Maybe he should go look for them. He straddles the motorcycle again…and then…black…

Houghton’s friend and the two girls in fact had been pulled over by the police, who were still talking to them when Andy’s bike careened off the road and slammed into a palm tree.

While his spine had not been severed during the accident, a piece of bone had lodged behind it and as the swelling in the area increased, the bone fragment was pushed progressively deeper into the spinal cord.

The surgeon who worked to save Andy’s life and legs told him when he awoke that it was uncertain as to how much damage was prevented, but they would have a better idea within a few days. Ironically, Houghton had met the doctor before the accident, while he had been taking care of his aunt who had been treated at the hospital.

As the days wore by and the extent of the paralysis became apparent, Houghton slipped into a state of casual denial. “I don’t think the gravity of it really hit me until, well, hell, probably two years later,” he says. “I kept telling myself I was going to be up and out of my chair in no time.”

While his acceptance that he was now a T-6 [complete] para was on layaway, Houghton underwent three months of rehabilitation at the Northridge Medical Center that was followed by outpatient rehab that stretched over a year.

Houghton says that it was during his stint in rehab that he had an epiphany. “I realized that I had to take control over my own care,” he says. That hit home when blood clots forming in his legs prompted his doctors to inform him that they were going to insert “an umbrella” in his thoracic cavity, in a bid to prevent him from stroking out.

“I listened to them, and then when they were finished, I said ‘No way!’ Today you want to put an umbrella in me and tomorrow it is going to be the tables and chairs to go with it. The room just fell silent.”

The blood clots and high fevers dissipated and Houghton never suffered a stroke.

He did, however, go back to getting crazy, deciding that jumping into the swing of things would be an integral part of his recovery plan. It was the mid-1980s, the go-go Reagan years had hit fever pitch and the Less Than Zero crowd were still on the make.

Andy came loaded for bear.

“For me it was a matter of getting back in the saddle, back in the clubs. I wanted back in to the party,” he says now. “I had a 32oz leg sack for my catheter. I was ready to roll.”

Houghton quickly rediscovered his old haunts in Ventura, Oxnard, Malibu and watering holes in outposts further east. The Red Onion—a name that to this day evokes a smile from those in the know—was a favorite.

Any trepidation Houghton may have had about his ability to connect with women on a physical level post-accident quickly washed away. “This was the 80’s, but even so I have to admit I was surprised how many of them would want to hook up with me, and they wouldn’t seem to know that I couldn’t feel it, in the sense that I used to anyway. But man, I just put it down.”

When he decided it was time to get back into the workplace—Houghton had previously been working at a tuxedo store at the time of the accident—he mixed business with pleasure and landed a job as a switchboard operator at the Ramada Express casino in Bullhead City. Now he could party and gamble.

But the real jackpot came in 1988, when Houghton came into some serious money, deep into six figures.

“Uh, after that, I pretty much just went crazy,” he says, shaking his head with a smile, ticking off locales that by name alone speak of fine adventures he’ll never forget if he could only remember. “Costa Rica. Hawaii. Bahamas. I took the show on the road.”

But from his perspective now, he understands there was something much more powerful than lots of cold cash fueling his bacchanal. “I realize now that I was masking my pain, trying to maintain the denial of what had happened to me.”

When he finally landed back home, he sunk what was left of his depleted finances into a big house in Oxnard and bought some rental properties in Bullhead City. Far from being the investments he planned, it was the last gasp of his spending spree.

“I always thought I was the king, you know, I didn’t listen to any financial advice the bank was trying to give me, I didn’t have any real sense of control.”

Within a few years, the house was gone and Houghton had moved down to Orange County, where he managed to land a job as a sales rep for Research Medical in 1993, and supplemented that job with a gig with Colours, the edgy wheelchair manufacturer.

It was during this time, his bank account anemic and a sober acceptance of his paralysis setting, Houghton began to embrace wheelchair sports. It was a stunning turn about by a guy who fresh out of rehab vowed that he would never play wheelchair sports.

“I learned so many things in rehab right after the accident that I didn’t apply until years later,” he says. “I was so embarrassed early on that I was afraid to go to the mall in my town for fear of running into someone I knew and having to explain what happened to me. There was no way I was going to play sports.”

By 1995, Houghton wasn’t just playing hockey and tennis and reveling in water skiing, jet skiing and whatever else that caught his fancy, he was actively plotting how to bring the joy of wheelchair sports and adventure to more people than the elite athletic circles that had previously claimed it as their domain.

Houghton decided to bridge the gap between land and sea and amateur and pro with his Land Meets Sea Camp, the first one being held in the Long Beach marina that year. Sponsored by Research Medical, the camp showed Houghton his vision for what wheelchair sports could be was valid.

A growing friendship with wheelchair basketball legend David Kiley led to Houghton’s appointment as Director of Wheelchair Sports at Casa Colina Centers for Rehabilitation, a program that Kiley, and the Casa Colina Condors basketball team, had built into a nationally renowned institution.

Houghton quickly shifted the focus away from one or two select sports and teams and worked to make the program more accessible and more diverse. His 1996 Land Meets Sea Camp, this time run under the auspices, of Casa Colina, was a success that continues to this day.

As his profile in the wheelchair sports world grew, the exposure prompted a phone call one day to Houghton by a woman who was planning a trip to Bosnia to deliver wheelchairs to the wounded.

She wondered if Andy would go with her and talk to the amputees, paras and quads, many of them freshly injured. The Dayton Accords that supposedly ended the fighting was still fresh and cordite in the air was fresher still, as Houghton would discover, but he didn’t blink.

The trip proved a pivotal event in his life, confirming what he had been learning about rehab and its vital, life-affirming message.

The former party favor of the Red Onion was now in downtown Sarajevo, looking at a soccer field that had been hastily converted to a cemetery that was filled with the dead.

“I wasn’t sure of what to expect, but the trip exposed me to the plight of those who suffer from a post-conflict environment,” he says. “I was hearing stories from people who survived Sebrencia, where more than 7,000 people were massacred. The stories were intense and the rehab quality, compared to the United States, is poor. But what the experience taught me was that if you have even just the makings of a framework and a will to make it happen, then a little can go such a very long way. I did leave feeling we made a difference.”

Enough of a difference that Houghton returned to the war torn region a couple more times, once with Kiley in tow.

Today, as he pushes his chair across the wide plaza of Pomona College, Houghton seems ready for his second act.

For a man heading into his 40s, he looks good. “I gotta keep the weight off, that’s the key thing now,” he says, acknowledging that his sporting injuries sustained through the years kick up now and again.

The party days may bring a wistful if brief smile to his face, but he survived those too and is happily married now, planning a family and looking to get back on his boat in Florida, where he and his wife own their home.

Then there’s the whole Republican thing, with Houghton a poster boy for a kinder, more inclusive GOP. The committee he chairs is a mouthful, officially rolling off the tongue as the ‘Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled.’

Could that name have been crafted anywhere but D.C.? And only after debate.

But behind the name is an operational committee that oversees the federal administration of the Javitts, Wagner, O’Day Act, which Congress passed in 1938 and reauthorized in 1971. With a staff of 30 in Washington and an operating budget of nearly $5 million annually, Houghton heads a committee that figures large in the lives of 47,000 Americans who are employed under the act.

“In a nutshell, we ensure the integrity of the intent of the act.”

Houghton pulls his chair in front of the ‘free speech wall’ at the college, which is adorned with many messages of ridicule and scorn for the President who appointed him. But Houghton comes to a rest in front of a decidedly more benevolent, more Californian, scrawl of graffiti that reads simply ‘Everything is beautiful.’

Pondering it for a moment, Houghton seems to let it sink in like a sweet Zen mantra.

“I don’t know Cromer, my life is all fucked up, in that I have so many things going I sometimes wonder how I am going to keep it all together. I am flying all over the country, so many projects, so many issues to deal with,” he says. “But on the other hand, my life has never been better. I have a great wife, a great job and am in a position as never before to positively impact people who are living with disabilities. Real impacts, to improve their jobs, their day-to-day opportunities. I have worked a long time as a wheelchair-user to grease these skids and that’s what I want to do.”

He almost sounds a bit like a candidate. Is he running for something?

“Well, there has been some talk,” he says, flashing that grin again. “But I am not sure if I want to go there yet. I have a lot on my plate.”

True. And there may be some photos from the Bahamas a couple decades back that he needs to track down and burn.

This feature article was first published in New Mobility.