Voices of the Jazz Era Ballroom

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WWII Veteran Art Schultz, Blinded and Injured After Normandy, Reflects on Dancing as Rehabilitation and What Vets Need

Kelly C. Porter
February 4, 2014

When you meet 90-year-old Art Schultz, you find yourself in the presence of somebody who has 70 years of experience putting people at ease with his physical appearance. Art was severely-wounded at the age of 20 after being drafted into World War II. He is missing an arm, an eye, his sight, and needed years of skin grafts and plastic surgery to reconstruct his face. He can catalog for you all of the ways that people have reacted to his visage, from fright, to pity, ridicule, or sometimes probing and inappropriate questions. People react to Art's body, for better or worse. They wonder about it. It evokes strong emotions as a record of the sacrifice truly demanded from our military, as a contradiction to much of our thinking about what it means to live the "good life"— and Art has lived a good life. He is proof that catastrophic injury often enough can present a clarifying way of looking at the world, but only with substantial support, good medical care, and unwavering encouragement to always be curious about what an injured body can do, rather than what it cannot.

Art describes finding out months after the fact that men he had befriended while recovering from his injuries at Valley Forge General Hospital were black men who he presumed were white. Having been fairly impaired at calibrating ethnicity even before the civil rights struggles of the 1960's, his personal experience as a white man encountering minorities has been fairly unique. Likewise Art has convictions about women that may seem uncharacteristic for a man his age. His wife, Pearl, was a WAC (member of the Women's Army Corps), a nurse who he fell in love with as he recovered from his injuries and later married. Art is a vehement supporter of women in the military, and thought it was absurd that the WACs were disbanded after the war: these were the women who brought him his pills, rubbed his shoulders, taught him how to function with his disability, oversaw his therapy, coaxed him down to dances in the hospital commons. They were clearly indispensable to him. His daughter Sherri is also very aware that her relationship with her dad was different than many young women growing up in the 1960's. She simply would not be critiqued at home about her looks in the ways that so many young women were and are. Art would be the first one to tell you that the way his world was reshaped by his injury was not always for the worse, and while nobody here is suggesting that Art was some sort of futuristic liberal for his time, it is clear that his disability and the way it shapes people around him has yielded a rare vantage point from which to comment upon human history.

Art's story intersects with the mission of the Jazz Era Voices Project at Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, PA: a sprawling military hospital complex that was built to receive the war-wounded during the Second World War. There, one of the ways that Art began to gain confidence in his physical abilities was by learning to dance— jitterbug, foxtrot, whatever he could manage with the classes offered through the Salvation Army at the hospital. He did not dance prior to his injury and in true form says that he wanted to learn primarily because people suggested he could not do it. Art wanted to see what he could do, and it turned out that he could do a lot: raise a child, become an avocado farmer, work in real estate, even get a degree in social work. Art has lead a full life, a life filled with accomplishments that became conquerable with tremendous support, and because he first tackled smaller but meaningful challenges like figuring out how to map out the foods on his plate, getting to the bus stop, learning to quick-quick-slow with the local ladies at USO dances. Art understands and frequently talks about the "great help" that he received from others in all of these challenges, and plenty of volunteers still come to help him weekly with small chores, his gardening, or to read to him. His door is covered in snapshots of his 'helpers' and the many places they volunteer. People who know Art feel something reassuring in his presence. Perhaps it's just the obvious fact that if Art has managed to overcome so much and flourish, and to do so with a sense of gratitude and compassion for those who provide the help that he needs, then we can probably figure out a way to be nicer to our kid, or learn that aggravating new software we have been putting off for months, or . . . pretty much anything.

I have learned many things from Art and his daughter Sherri: how to walk beside a person with a red-striped cane without getting in the way, how to dance with an amputee who cannot see you (you'll be treated to some brief footage of Art and I in the interview), how to say "ok" or "mm-hmm" instead of nodding your head in affirmation to let blind folks know that you are listening and understanding, how to narrate a movie for somebody who can hear it but not see it. These are all small skills which I am glad to know, and it is small skills like these that become more necessary as veterans returning from our current wars become neighbors, clients, members of our houses-of-worship or community college class, new colleagues and friends. Certainly Art's experience of returning home as a U.S. veteran in 1944 is an interesting backdrop against which to read the return of our newest veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. From his interview you can glean a sense of just how implicated the entire Valley Forge community was in Art's recovery. Nearby townspeople routinely invited wounded veterans to soirees in their homes, organized Red Cross canteens, showed up in droves to USO functions, arranged square-dances, hayrides, sports teams, radio clubs and barbeque for recuperating vets and their caregivers. It is clear when you hear Art speak about the people and the experiences of his initial recovery, that there was a tremendous civilian investment in the mission of the hospital and in the wounded soldiers themselves.

Perhaps for the fact that our most recent wars have been deeply unpopular and have not involved a draft, the conditions to which our veterans return home today are somewhat different by comparison. Approximately one in four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan return home with a service-related disability. That is over a million people, and over 50,000 of them are "polytrauma" sufferers like Art. According to the last quarterly report from the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs, over 58% of disability and survivor's claims have been waiting for over 125 days with no response to the claimants, many taking years longer. A recent Pew Research poll showed that 44% of post-9/11 veterans say they had difficulty readjusting to civilian life, as compared to around 25% from previous wars. They return to a public in many ways either ambivalent about the war or very weary of it, and this is the lens through which their needs and suffering are often viewed. Compared to WWII's public ad campaigns telling housewives to save meat-drippings for munitions and reminding people to mind their rations for the sake of their sweetheart abroad, it does seem the public stake in war has shifted and with it the footprint of public empathy for service members. To that end, Art would have me remind you that if anyone reading here feels moved to volunteer time, money or resources towards helping veterans like Art, the man himself suggests investigating The Wounded Warrior Project or The Disabled American Veterans.

The interview above is edited from a series of informal conversations, filmed with minimal equipment in Art's apartment with the assistance of his daughter. There were originally over 4 hours of footage, which have here been edited down with a strong focus on how the culture of dance, music and community at Valley Forge assisted in the recovery of veterans. It also contains some knowledgeable advice that Art has for people who are just returning home from war with injuries ("beginners" as he likes to call them). To the extent that there is an editorial or curatorial eye to this site and for this piece, it is my own, so if you love it or hate it, you may joyfully blame me, Kelly C. Porter. By way of "seeing what you can do if you just try," I have been teaching myself how to use some new pro-editing software for video, and after wrangling with enough footage, the video content of this site will hopefully begin to look a little more Ken Burns and a little less home-movie.