My father’s wooden legs are the basis of a heroic veteran’s story

November 7, 2011

Downtown Silver Spring is our neighborhood hub, attracting a diverse array of visitors: young moms with their little kids, skateboarding teenagers and shoppers heading to the local Whole Foods. But I never fail to notice one group in particular — the double amputees from area military hospitals. They seem to travel in packs, wearing tennis shoes and, in warm weather, baggy athletic shorts. On a bright day, their metal prostheses glint in the sun.

My eye turns to these young men because my father, 86-year-old Richard Fenichel, is also a double amputee. He lost his legs below the knee as a result of injuries sustained during World War II.

My father’s ordeal began in October of 1944, when he joined the Battle of Hurtgen Forest in Germany. The dropping temperatures were a problem, especially since his winter combat clothing was not expected to arrive for three weeks. By the end of the month, after two weeks in the snow, he had lost all feeling in his feet. Pulling down his socks, he saw that his toes and most of the soles of his feet had turned black.

By the time he was flown to a hospital in Paris, gangrene had destroyed his Achilles tendons. The only way to save his life was to amputate both legs below the knees. He was 19, and life as he had known it was over.

Dad’s rehabilitation took place in the Veterans Administration hospital in Atlantic City, in a ward with three other amputees. Back then, artificial legs were made of wood, leather and steel. Dad’s bulky prostheses were so heavy that the first time he tried to walk, even holding onto wooden parallel rails, he almost passed out from the effort. It took months for the remaining muscles of his thighs to become strong enough to bear the weight. Slowly he learned to walk again, practicing on the long corridors of the hospital and on the seaside boardwalk.

By the time I was born, in the mid-1950s, my father had been living with his disability for more than a decade. Although he’d given up his dream of becoming a doctor — both family members and professionals argued that it would be too rigorous — he had forged a successful career as a pharmaceutical scientist. My parents never talked about his disability, yet I don’t remember a time when my sister and I weren’t aware of it. Subtle accommodations were made: Our new house in the suburbs was a ranch, with all the rooms on one level, and for easy access, a flat, concrete walkway leading to our door was installed.

As a child, I was fascinated by my father’s condition. Sometimes I would peek into his room when he was putting on his legs, which was a long, complicated process. After covering each stump with two heavy woolen socks, he slipped each one into a specially designed leather case. The wooden legs, with shoes at the end, attached to the leather. To make sure his stumps stayed in place, Dad wrapped sturdy laces around a series of metal fasteners. If the legs were too loose, he ran the risk of having them slip out. But if they were too tight, they could chafe against the socks, causing sores.

By the mid-1960s, sleeker, lighter legs were available, and Dad’s prosthetist encouraged him to try an updated pair. I remember watching him practice. Perhaps distracted by other obligations, he didn’t have the same motivation he once had. Perhaps his wooden legs had become so much a part of him that he couldn’t give them up. Whatever the reason, he continues to wear the clunky legs he learned to use in the 1940s.

But he doesn’t walk much: Today my father is old and frail. When I think about his life — his wartime service, the daily putting on of legs and going out into the world for more than 60 years, working and raising a family despite his disability — I am in awe. It can only be described as heroic.

Fenichel is a Silver Spring freelance writer.

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