What It Feels Like...

In their own words, Memphians tell about life-changing experiences.




"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

So wrote the nineteenth-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau back in 1854. Of course, we hate to admit that we -- and the author of Walden -- are completely "desperate." But the truth is that things haven't changed a whole lot since the 1800s. Most of us -- yes, even the happy-go-lucky staff of the magazine you are now reading -- do lead fairly quiet, even ho-hum lives. We wake up, drive to work, come home and flop in front of the TV, then it's back to bed. Sure, maybe we'd like our existence to be just a bit more exciting, but that's just the way life is. Most of us haven't won beauty pageants, or won NBA games, or jumped into the Mississippi River, or really had that many truly unusual, and sometimes life-changing, experiences.

Well, allow us to introduce you to a few Memphians who have, as they tell us -- in their own words -- what the experience was like. Some of their stories, we think, will surprise you.

. . .To Walk With a Prosthesis

Skip Martin

Owner, Precision Prosthetics

I was 17 years old in 1971 when I had a motorcycle accident. Less than a week later, the doctors told me the circulation had failed in my right foot, and there was going to be no healing, that it had to be amputated [just below the knee]. It hurt so bad, that I didn't really care what was done, as long as I could get the pain resolved.

They went ahead and did the amputation and an immediate post-surgical prosthetic fitting, so I actually came out of surgery with a temporary prosthesis. Which was not unique at the time. We still make them now. Right at first, I didn't know what to expect, other than crutches and safety pins holding my pants leg up.

My transition was easy, because I was so young. The accident was in February, I graduated with my senior class in May, then by September I moved to Chicago for prosthetic school. [Walking on the prosthesis] was easier than I expected it to be. The comfort level was variable, simply because of atrophy and change occurring in a new amputation. That's something that has to be updated on a fairly regular basis in the first few months. [In Chicago], the instructors knew how to modify it and help me out when I had trouble. I was learning about it and helping myself at the same time.

It's become a point of interest for people. I wear shorts probably two-thirds of the year. In the beginning I was just doing it for the convenience and comfort, but I found that it helped quite a few people who wouldn't otherwise know I have a prosthesis.

Thank goodness for prosthetics. Not only did I get my life back, but I got the opportunity and the blessing to be able to learn how to do it and give other people their lives back. It's been the most rewarding thing that I think a human can do: replace another person's most valuable belongings. -- as told to Frank Murtaugh.

. . .To Dunk for the First Time in the NBA

Rudy Gay

Memphis Grizzlies Forward

I remember my first dunk like it was yesterday. It was here in Memphis [December 2, 2006] during the first half against the Miami Heat. Antoine Walker was dribbling in front of me, and I kind of poked the ball away to Damon Stoudamire. He passed it up to me in the open court, and I just started thinking, What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?!

[Miami's] Gary Payton was right next to me, so I didn't want to try anything extravagant and miss the dunk. If I missed, I'd probably be sitting in the locker room, Coach would have me so far down the bench. I just got to the rim, and dunked it. The crowd stood up, and I remember my teammates yelling.

Usually when I dunk, I close my eyes, so I really didn't know what I did until after the game. But the guys were telling me I really got high on that one.

It felt different from my dunks in college, because you're on center stage in the NBA. It's really not about trying to look good, to dunk and be on SportsCenter. It's more about making sure the ball goes in the basket, securing those two points.

I've actually missed a lot of dunks, maybe five. Sometimes my timing is off, or I try and dunk the ball too hard. My one piece of advice for a rookie dunker: Don't miss! -- as told to Frank Murtaugh

. . .To Swim Across the Mississippi River

Ward Archer Jr.

Founder, Archer Records

Henry Turley and I had been talking about doing this for some time. So I started training for it, using the pool at the Shrine Building, working my way up to a mile -- the width of the river here.

One Saturday, around Labor Day in 1987, we decided to go for it -- Henry, Kevin Adams, who was head of CB Richard Ellis, and me.

Tony Bologna took us in his boat across to the river's Arkansas side, and we got in north of the new bridge. I know Henry had wanted to just jump in and swim straight across, but I wanted to start upstream. At the time, I had clients, and I didn't want to get arrested in front of the whole city. I don't think it's against the law, but it's not something you see people do every day, either, and I was worried the police would be waiting.

Everyone thinks the Mississippi is nasty, but it's not. Sure, it's muddy, but you can see your feet sinking into the sand. I guess I thought it would be like swimming the English Channel, but it really wasn't hard. It was weird, though, because you couldn't see where you were going. You'd swim maybe 20 yards and have to stop and look up and make sure you were pointed in the right direction.

The whole thing took just 19 minutes. Henry started swimming like a madman. I had planned to pace myself, but he made a race out of it. So we got along at a pretty good clip. Everyone stayed about ten yards apart, and Tony followed in the boat to cheer us along.

We didn't have any trouble with towboats or barges because we looked out for them before we got in. The main thing I was worried about was a big fish coming up and grabbing me -- a giant squid or some kind of carnivorous catfish [laughs].

I thought we might just step out onto the banks at the River Terrace on Mud Island, but we ended up about a hundred yards north of the bridge. So the current only carried us about a quarter mile. It's really not that strong until you get close to this side, because that's where the channel is, so the last hundred yards or so you are really moving. But on the other side, it's like swimming in a lake.

When we got to the Memphis side, one of my concerns was getting snared in old fishing lines, or other debris, but we just climbed out on the riprap -- those concrete mats that line the banks.

Afterwards, we got dressed and went to the Four Way Grill and had pork chops, turnip greens, and beer. We just wanted to see if we could do it, and we did. Later, I remember telling my parents about it much the same way I told them when I first bought a motorcycle: It's over, you don't have to worry about anything, but I've just swum across the Mississippi River. -- as told to Michael Finger

. . .To Embalm a Body

G. David Keller

President, High Point Funeral Chapel and Crematory

My interest in the funeral business was started at the age of 9 when my grandmother died. I remember looking at her in the casket and noticing that the nail polish on her fingernails had gotten on her dress. And no one had bothered to clean it up or change her clothes. I knew that shouldn't have happened. I knew I could do better.

Years later, while on leave in the Air Force in Pennsylvania, I visited a local funeral home, met the owners, and asked if I could observe an embalming. I needed to find out if I could handle it. But when the embalmer started to make the incision, I thought I would pass out. It was all more than I anticipated. Yet the deceased turned out looking better than he probably had in years and had magnificent color. That was important to the family, to remember him healthy.

Eventually I received a degree from Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Atlanta, and became an apprentice to a funeral home in Knoxville. For awhile, I simply observed, learning all I could. It took a good month of watching the procedures, along with some mental therapy, before I could do an embalming on my own.

I felt the pressure, because I really looked up to the man who trained me. When it came time for me to go solo, it was kind of like picking up a little boy, throwing him in the water, and hoping he'll swim. The owners put me in the room, gave me an extension to call if I had trouble, and left me alone.

It took me three hours, probably the longest embalming in history -- but it was successful. The deceased was the wife of a prominent pastor and had died of cancer. Besides embalming, I paid attention to cosmetics. The mouth looked good, not stretched out. The earlobes were lifted so the family could have her wear earrings. All the details that make a person look natural in the casket, I took care of them.

Now, I embalm 98 percent of the bodies at High Point. I don't wait on families or cremate bodies or conduct funerals. My calling is embalming. If I didn't do it, I'd be like a duck out of water. -- as told to Marilyn Sadler

. . .To Win the Miss America Pageant

Lynda Mead Shea

1960 Miss America

A lot of little girls grow up dreaming about becoming Miss America, but I was not one of those. It was a ball that just started rolling with almost no forethought on my part.

I had never been in a contest in my life. It was just not part of the culture where I grew up. I'm from Natchez, kind of a nineteenth-century town, and whereas pageants are important in other areas of the South, they were never part of the Mississippi where I came from.

But when I was a freshman at Ole Miss, my sorority Chi Omega asked me to be their representative in the Miss University contest. I said, Absolutely not, there's not a chance I'm going to do that -- no, no, NO. So they asked, will you do it next year, and I said yes -- anything to get them to stop talking about it.

Well, my sophomore year came around, and I represented the Chi Os and I became Miss University. I was not sure that Miss University went on to the Miss Mississippi pageant -- maybe I was, but I never focused on it because I never thought I had a chance of becoming Miss University. But then I became Miss Mississippi, and one of her duties is to participate in the Miss America pageant, so off I went to Atlantic City.

During the elimination process, the host, Bert Parks, named the fourth runner-up, then the third, the second, and then the first runner-up, and there I was left standing there, and that's when I knew it was me.

I was definitely surprised. I thought the chances of my winning were very remote. I was concentrating on doing the best I could and to not embarrass myself and just get through it.

It was an amazing year, a wonderful year. I traveled around America and the world. I used the scholarship money to finish college.

I stay in touch with other Miss Americas, and a small group of us gets together about every two years. People ask me, would you want your daughter to compete? If they run it the way they did when I was involved with it, I certainly would. It was a wonderful experience. -- as told to Michael Finger

. . .To Become a U.S. Citizen

Lucy Cantu

Supervisor, Visa and Immigration Services

I'm a native of Mexico and lived with my family in Monterrey City, where I worked in a government office and my husband, Roberto, owned a laundry service. But in the early 1990s, he had to close the business and no one else would hire him. Once you reach a certain age in Mexico -- say, 35 or 40 -- opportunities dwindle. Companies prefer to give jobs to younger people. So in 1995 we set out to find new opportunity in America.

For three years, we lived in Texas. But when my husband found work at the FedEx hub, we moved to Memphis. Because his mother was born in the United States, Roberto was already a U.S. citizen. But I needed to take the necessary steps for citizenship. I found assistance at VISA (Visa and Immigration Services), owned by Rosalva King. I landed a job there as well.

I eventually became a supervisor, helping people complete immigration applications. It was a great challenge for me, but I worked hard. Though I couldn't speak English well, I was better at reading, writing, and comprehending it. And those skills enabled me to help others.

Meanwhile I was helping myself reach the goal of citizenship. After living here three years, I had met my first requirement:establishing residency. I was also studying to take the written test. Among the questions: What were the original 13 colonies? What are our rights under the Constitution? What is the purpose of the United Nations? I studied very hard, and my husband and children quizzed me. Then I took the test -- and passed!

Early on a freezing cold morning -- December 12, 2005 -- my husband and I went to the courthouse for my oath-of-allegiance ceremony. I felt a little nervous but mainly excited and happy. About 60 people -- including Asians, Africans, and Indians -- were being sworn in. A couple of hours later, we were declared citizens. I shed a few tears. And I felt very important. Afterwards, my husband and I celebrated by going to IHOP for breakfast. I was very hungry and ate a stack of pancakes.

When my son Gerardo graduated from the University of Memphis, I sang the national anthem for the first time. I smiled with pride, both for my son and for being a citizen. I feel very good in this country.  -- as told to Marilyn Sadler (with help from interpreter Gerardo Cantu)

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