Handicapped Group Needs a Few Tools
The night was May 29, 1958. It was a minute or two after 10 o'clock and I was on the studio lot at KTTV, waiting to go on the air with my 10:15 report.
I don't remember the subject of the scheduled program. I remember only that it never made it.
A kid by the name of Tracy Vercher saw to that. He brushed his way past the guard at the gate and confronted me in my office.
It was a cool night and he was dressed in paper thin clothes. His shoes were falling apart and his shirt was torn and patched and torn again. On his head was a comical, shredded straw hat.
But the comedy in the situation disappeared when he started to talk. He had escaped from Camarillo State Hospital, he explained. He'd hitchhiked into town. Just arrived.
At the same time, the state attorney general's office was investigating complaints concerning mistreatment of patients in the Camarillo mental facility.
"All I want," the dirty and tiered young man pleaded, "is a few minutes to tell my story — why I ran away."
I listened to him until about a minute before I was to go on the air. Then, as politely as a man in a hurry can, I apologized to my scheduled guests and sent them on their way. And put Tracy Vercher on in their place.
Tracy sat down before the cameras and began enumerating the laxity and occasional brutality which was being condoned at Camarillo. He made no wild charges, but he discussed incidents he had witnessed involving narcotics, sale of liquor, negligence, and — among other punishment techniques — one where technicians bribed patients with cigarettes to beat up other patients.
He named names, times and places.
"When I requested to talk to a state investigator," Tracy explained. "I was told that if I opened my mouth I'd be thrown into a confined ward. That's why I left."
After the program — the reverberations of which were felt for months afterwards — Tracy agreed to go back to Camarillo, if we'd do what we could to get him transferred to the Veteran's Hospital at Sawtelle.
He'd spent two years there for epilepsy and severe burn treatments (he fell onto a stove during a seizure in 1956) before being sent to Camarillo.
Since the day he appeared in my office, I've kept in close touch with Tracy. Shortly after being returned to Camarillo, he got his wish and was permitted to go back to the regular VA hospital. There, a series of 37 skin-grafting operations and bone surgery on his hands was completed.
He kept me filled in, after his release, on what he was doing. For half a year or so, he had a job at Hollywood market, working six days a week and spending the seventh as a volunteer worker at the VA's manual arts therapy shop. He helped other hospitalized veterans learn the manual skills which he had been taught to strengthen his hands.
Then we kind of fell out of touch until yesterday, when Tracy dropped by my office, with suit, white shirt and necktie. He brought with him a boxful of his work: finely detailed wooden Conestoga wagons, jewelry boxes, picture stands.
"This is the kind of stuff that we make over at the VA," he told me. "I wanted you to see it to show you what we can do."
A Humble Business
He also brought along a book which has become his Bible. Its title: "Give Us the Tools." By Henry Viscardi Jr. It's a factual account of how Viscardi, born without legs, began a humble business in a bare garage in New York with three other badly handicapped men and, in five years, built it into a million-dollar industry which now employs more than 300 disabled persons.
"That's what I've been trying to do," Tracy said. "Get somebody to give us the tools. We'll pay them back. With a few machines and an old store, we can prove that we're not disabled. We're able.
"I've got 11 men who have learned the skills at the VA," he continued. "Paraplegics, blind people, epileptics like me, who could go to work tomorrow."
For four months, he's been knocking on doors of big people in the sports and entertainment worlds. Tracy isn't shy.
"I tell them it's not charity. It's an investment. A good one.
"But so far," Tracy Vercher added, "I haven't knocked on the right door."