Jim Brunotte was always a hell-raiser.
it started in Chicago in 1947 when he came out of his mother's womb a blue baby. At the age of 6 he contracted polio and the doctors told him he'd never walk again.
"This," he said, "is ridiculous." He decided to wanted to walk.
So he walked. They told him the resulting curvature of his spine would prevent him from riding horses again. "Forget it," Brunotte said. He politely told them what they could do with their stethoscopes and he sneaked out each weekend to a suburban Chicago riding stable.
Now, at 31, Brunotte has the ribbons and medals on his walls to prove he's a top horseman. Just the other day at his San Luis Obispo Country ranch, Brunotte galloped into the sunset on his Morgan charger, CanCan, leaving his 80 gaping guests in the dust.
If he can do it, they said, so can we.
Brunotte doesn't have any legs. He lost them the same time he lost his left lower arm and his right eye.
In October 1968 Brunotte and an army buddy were making a rountine dispatch run down a mile-long road near Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. Their jeep ran over a culvert fixed with an artillery round equivalent to 35 pounds of dynamite.
Brunotte woke up in the hospital disoriented, but ready to go back to his outpose. The nurse told him what had happened. The expression on his face didn't change. He just shook his head and said, "Charlie (the Viet Cong) sure does a good job."
He told the nurse he want to sit up. She told him he couldn't.
"Don't tell me I can't," he said.
And that was the beginning of a new life for Jim Brunotte. From then on he never used the word can't . It's a word he doesn't allow used on his recreation rach for the handicapped. And if you do say I can't , Brunotte just might swing his body down off his horse and pin you down in the sand until you change your mind.
Saturday, Jim Brunottee parked his wheelchair at the sandpit he'd made for the evening bonfire and talked with the capers, mentally retarded kids, about the ranch rules. The kids, their curiosity unvarnished and faces vacant, thronged around Brunotte and asked about his amputation.They wanted to know if it hurt. He told them it didn't. They asked him if his legs would grow back. He said they wouldn't. "Why?" said one. "'cause' I'm already a grown-up," Brunotte said.
A stooped-over girl with big glasses and a Campers Unlimited T-shirt asked him why he didn't have an arm. "Some people," he said, "wear arms just for looks, you know." They laughed. Brunotte beamed. "Why did you cut off your legs?" asked one. "'Cause I kept tripping over the cuff of my pants," Brunotte said. They want to know why it really happened and he told them he'd had an accident in the wart. The girl in the glasses and T-shirt patted his thights."I hope it doesn't happen again," she said. He told her it probably wouldn't. King of the Slopes
Twenty-one days after the Bien Hoa incident, Brunottee was moved to Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver for rehabilitation. He called his ailing mother and when the mother heard Brunotte's voice, she went into shock, then into a coma. Brunotte went home to visit. He climbed up on her bed and said, "Mon - it's Jim." A tear fell down her cheek, half an hour later, she died.
So Brunotte returned to Denver, and (six weeks) after his accident, he was up on snow skis fastened to artificial limbs."On the second run, I forgot to throw the truck of my body to turn. "Ye-ow! Blam! I sailed right into a pine tree. Just busted those wooden legs apart. Pine trees are not my type."
And that was the beginning of the artificial limbs. "When they started hindering my disability," he says, "that was it."
Brunotte chucked the skis and moved on to the fiberglass bobsled. "They got brakes on them, and you shift your body to the right or the left to turn."
Brunotte soon became the king of the slopes. He and his double-amputee friends careened down the mountains, darting between skiers, shouting "Get-the-hell-out-of-here-we're coming-through!"
"All of a sudden," Brunotte says you'd see these guys climbing up the trees to get out of the way. We had the run of the slopes - we were having a ball." CanCan Could
Jim Brunotte was the first triple amputee at Fitzsimons, and that, along with his uncanny natural exuberance, made him something of a guinea pig at the hospital. "I was totally gungho," he says. "I wanted to get my feet into everything. And they figured if they could get a triple amputee doing all that stuff, the doubles and singles would jump right in."
Besides skiing and bobsledding, Brunotte learned to swim, scubadive, drive - and ride horses again. At the orthopedic brace shop he designed special leather pouches line with sheepskin which he uses as stirrups on his saddle. Attached to the back of the saddle is a car seatbelt which buckles him in. ("Horse couldn't throw me off if it wanted to." He didn't want to patent his saddle designs, he says, "because I didn't want other handicapped people having to pay through the nose for them."
"You should have seen one time," Brunotte says," "when I had two double amputees trying to push me up on the saddle from the arms of my wheelchair - each one thought the other one wasn't going to push. So when they pushed, I went flying, landed flat on the ground, on the other side."
Nine months after he entered Fitzsimons, Brunotte was discharged - "I was the fastest coming and going amputee they ever had - literally.
He took a job as caretaker on a 3,000-acre ranch in Colorado, patrolling the wild grounds on horseback and in his four-wheel drive, checking fences and keeping poachers out. (With a specially rigged saddle and a horse with the patience of a sphinx, Brunotte can handle any problem on horseback that would befall any solo range rider, from cutting his horse free to picking up his hat from the ground to pulling himself up if the saddle slides bellyside.)
Brunotte's faher, Tom, came to Colorado to visit, and brought with him a 19-year-old cerebral palsy victim and the boy's mother.
The boy had started walking at 14 and he still couldn't shave or dress himself. His rehabilitation activities at a prominent Minnesota hospital consisted of stuffing Ping Pong balls into plastic bags and sealing the bags shut. Brunotte says," "when I had two double gate on his horse CanCan, then raced the car back to the cabin. From the car window they boy watched the horse scaling sprinkler lines and shooting across the fields, Brunotte in command. When they reached the cabin (CanCan beat the ccar by five minutes) the boy was ready to ride. Before she left the boy's mother had told Brunotte that the boy wasn't to get on a horse. The mother gone, Brunotte told the boy that if he wanted to ride, he's have to learn to clean out the stalls, clean the horse's hooves, and move a 75-pound bale of hay from the barn to the corral.
The boy hustled. "First time in his life he ever got a chance to do anything for himself," Brunotte says.
Brunotte had spent the previous couple of weeks teaching CanCan special rein-neck signals so the boy could ride, letting the horse do most of the work. At the end of his five weeks' stay, the boy was shaving and dressing himself, maneuvering obstacle courses on homeback and riding in the plains by himself. That was in 1971 and Jim Brunotte had discovered his life's work: He wanted to run a recreation ranch for people who's been told all their lives they couldn't do things. Mr. Handicap
Bruntte went on the road promoting causes of the handicapped, riding in horseshows and parades all over the western United States. He and CanCan covered 85,000 miles and Chevy Blazer in 1972 alone.
Brunotte was Mr. Handicap Denver in 1971, Mr. Handicap Colorado in 1972, and was nominated for the Colorado award in 1973. "That would have given me Mr. Handicap America," he says, "because nobody has ever received it two years in a row."
In April, 1973, on a visit with friends in Arizona, Brunotte got an emergency phone call saying there'd been a slight fire and that his father had been slightly burned. Brunotte flew back to Denver. The fire, which leveled the cabin and melted to nothing hundreds of Brunotte's horse show medals ("Only thing left was a teaspoon") broke out when a gas compnay worker alledgedly overfilled the propane gas tank. Brunotte's father recuperated.
And after receiving $60,000 of a $90,000 lawsuit brought against the gas company, Brunotte dad in tow, drove out to San Luis Obispo County, Calif., to visit friends. They happened on the padlocked gate to the 350-acre Creston spread. Two days later they signed the papers.
Jim Brunotte took on a 1 1/2-year fight to turn his ranch into a non-profit corporation. ("The state couldn't understand why we wanted to give our land away and donate our time.") He brought handicapped people out for a special CAPH (California Association of the Physically Handicapped) day. "Nobody realized how many handicapped there were in the county," says Brunotte. He discovered that his next door neighbors were both double amputees.
He met his wife, Jeryll, when both took part in a San Luis Obispo County parade, Brunotte on CanCan, Jeryll as a Brownie troop leader. Jeryll went to the Brunotte ranch to interview for a post as volunteer swim instructor. Brunotte told her it would be a while before she could start working because he didn't have a swimming pool. He asked her if she rode. She said no. He taught her. "Then," Jeryll Brunotte says, "I guess one thing led to another."
He got support for the ranch from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and other organizations (the ranch runs solely on contributions). He got exposure through a television documentary, a segment of which was shown on NBC Nightly News. Private citizens donated more horses - many of which Brunotte had to refuse because they failed the ranch's no-kick requirement. He opened his gates to occasional groups of handicapped visitors, mostly groups of two and three, and he started planning for the day he could keep the ranch open as a year-round facility with doctors and physical therapists and a full-time staff. (Campers, about 10 small groups a year, visit the ranch by appointment only.)
Brunotte won the Outstanding Disable American Veteran of California award in 1976, he was Mr. Handicap California 1977, and he got the swimming pool in good working order just minutes before the weekend busloads came for the "unofficial christening" of the ranch. The group of 80 mentally retarded children and their counselors is the largest group Brunotte has ever had, and, he hopes, the first of many more that size or larger.
Brunotte was nervous before the retarded children arrived. He kept worrying about all the things that could go wrong: kids catching cold; someone sneaking off to explore and getting lost; climbing over the pool fence in the middle of the night. He and his 16-year-old godson were planning for their all-night patrol watch.
Brunotte, Jeryll, and CanCan are living happily ever after because they specialize in stories with happy endings. A cerebral palsy victim named Wayne came to the ranch last year and fascintal with the CB radio in Brunotte's truck. Brunotte taught him how to use it. At first, the local CBers had a hard time understanding Wayne's slurred speech, but they treated him like a crew member and christened him "Chatterbox." Now, Brunotte says, Chatterbox has his own CB radio and he talks almost as clearly as any CBer around.
A 15-year-old congenital paralytic learned to ride CanCan, and with her newfound confidence, moved from a private school for the handicapped into the local public high school where she scoots around in a motorized golf cart.
Brunotte's favorite ranch activity is taking a group of trial riders down a hideous and prickly deer trial flanked on one side by a 400-foot drop. "It even scares the hair off nonhandicapped people," Brunotte says. "But whoever it is, they think they've got the world by the tail when they get to the bottom in one piece."
And Brunotte was the first to get there.