Whether Leonard Cheshire was once a starry-eyed jackass and whether he is now a saint are questions equally irrelevant to consider, being the speculations of idle men. But here our purpose is to give the plain facts, ma'am, and leave the rest to oblivion or to history or to God.
He was born in 1917, the son of a law professor at Oxford, and he went through the general mill (slow-footed, very likely, and hangdog) of a boy's education, winding up at Merton College, Oxford, and learning whatever he learned, which is not so important either, except that when one deals with one of the proudest names of our century a certain preliminary rattle of unimportant facts is always good.
He enlisted in the Royal Air Force after Hitler invaded Poland. He wondered how he would do under gunfire. He wondered if he would be a coward. He flew a bomber, as fate decreed it, and became one of the youngest group captains in England and did the terrible things required (the bombing of Cologne, for one).
The Germans, who had no idea Mr. Cheshire was going to be a glory of England before he was done, frequently shot at him. In an era of great peace, it is not necessary to do more than allude to that period of Cheshire's life. Here is something he wrote down during the war while it was fresh:
"The shells were still as fierce as ever. I looked up. He was squatting on the step inside the bomber that Cheshire was piloting through the night over Germany . His head down below his knees, his arms covering his face. I leant across and pulled him gently back.
"Pray God I may never see such a sight again. Instead of a face, a black crusted mask streaked with blood. And instead of eyes, two vivid scarlet pools."
But his great work, of course, had not yet begun. He got out of the war intact and a hero. He won the Victoria Cross, comparable to our Medal of Honor.
He was young, vigorous, good-looking (things he cannot be reproached with today) and before he was 30 he was, as a London publisher said in a fit of rare invention, "a legend in his own lifetime."
He was a legend, all right, and he was a certified gray-eyed hero who could coast all his life on the respect his courage had earned. But of course he had nothing to do, once the war was over, and he lacked the common aptitude or appetite for flattery. He somehow felt there was more to life than being a legend in his own time and awing schoolboys.
But a liberal education fits a man for nothing of consequence. One is often a lawyer or some such thing.
Cheshire was weary of writing families their son was killed. He was sure there was something he could do to make the world better. He hit on the bright idea of establishing cooperatives in which veterans would live together, helping each other out by pooling their various talents. In this way, he thought, they would regain the closeness and grasp again the force they had once known in the days and nights of war.
"Of course," he said, on his current visit to Washington, "it was unrealistic. I had some great shining vision but it was not focused, and of course it failed."
He was left with a house of 25 bedrooms out in the country (and 32 cottages with it) and more debts than he knew what to do with.
He learned to fear the phone. It was usually somebody with a reasonable request to be paid what was owed him, but Cheshire had no money to pay. He was busy trying to sell the house and land to meet the debts.
And then, once more the phone rang, presaging, as usual, another woe; and it is here that the pig-man, Arthur, enters the story. Like the goddess appearing to Achilles, somewhat. To forecast the future.
Arthur was dying of cancer at a nearby hospital. Cheshire really didn't know him well, though he knew he had raised pigs in the neighborhood. But Arthur was broke and had no family at all and the hospital needed his bed, since there was nothing medicine or anything else could do for him. All he needed was a place to die in, and a few months to do it. He knew Cheshire's name, so the hospital phoned.
Cheshire, up to his ankles in the debt-ridden mess of his idealistic and ill-fated commune of veterans, and worried about his own future, yet had no choice (for there are, after all, some fruits of a good education) but to go see old Arthur, whoever the hell he was.
The upshot was Arthur came to Cheshire's house to die. Cheshire had never known anybody sick, let alone slowly dying. He knew nothing of medicine, nothing of nursing. Arthur's disease meant he had to be washed often, at a moment's notice, during the day. Cheshire slept on a pallet outside the door at night and was often up. In due time Arthur died.
But not before he taught Cheshire a lesson or two. Cheshire had seen old Arthur in bed at the hospital, and he didn't look so bad. Cheshire imagined he would be rather a nice old fellow of perhaps stunning courage and radiance, etc.
It was not so. The minute Arthur entered Cheshire's house they had a fight. Cheshire wanted to pick him up and haul him up the stairs, since Arthur could not walk on his own.
Arthur, however, had taken one look at the place ("like a man long lost in the wilderness who had now found home and meant to make the most of it") and concluded he had his rights, one of which was to be treated with the dignity due a man. He was having no part of being hauled up and down like a sack of oats or an old hound. He laboriously plodded up the stairs, leaning on Cheshire. It took forever.
It made Cheshire mad. Why, this fellow Arthur was not a sweet old man, beyond a limited extent, but stubborn as all hell.
"I resolved to win the next one," Cheshire recalled. "I never won anything," as it turned out. Arthur led his own life. He was not to be Cheshire's little charity or Cheshire's pet. Cheshire learned almost everything from him.
Before old Arthur died, with Cheshire alone at his deathbed, the word had already spread in the neighborhood that you could unload people like Arthur on him.
"I was annoyed," Cheshire recalls. Here was the great welfare state of England, with health care for all. Why was he supposed to be caring for the helpless, when that was the whole point of the National Health plan?
"Yes," he said, "of course there were people who remembered my veterans project had failed. And plenty who pointed out I was not qualified to care for the sick. My only answer was that God knows I never asked for anybody, quite the contrary, and however inept I was, I was all they had."
Cheshire was blessed with an eminently respectable old aunt in London, who confided in her doorman her fears that Cheshire had (not to split hairs) lost his mind. All the doorman learned from the old lady's forebodings was how to get hold of Cheshire and offer him the chance to take in the doorman's 91-year-old grandmother.
She arrived on a stretcher with a hat with a pheasant feather that shuttled back and forth as the orderlies carried her up the steps. Cheshire had no bed linen (it had all been sold to help settle debts) but he borrowed some for Granny. She lay in some state, and never wearied of informing Cheshire she had once been a District nurse (with the slight implication Cheshire did not know very much, which was true, but hardly tactful).
Everybody pitched in as well as he could, and a bucket of potatoes was sent up to Granny to peel. She was totally deaf, partially deaf, or not deaf at all (Cheshire said), depending on the occasion. She disliked peeling potatoes. If she didn't peel them, they were cooked with their jackets on. Granny disliked potatoes in their jackets even more than she disliked peeling them, so in the end she peeled them.
"This was one of my small victories," Cheshire recalled. When you don't have many, you remember every one.
A Cockney upholsterer with deplorable disabilities arrived. A 14-year-old boy arrived, a boy whose bright freshness had not been totally dimmed by his former stablement among the senile in the back wards of a hospital. Some people with tuberculosis arrived (naturally there had to be special precautions with their linen, their sputum and so on). Cheshire was soon up to his neck. He was not a registered charity, he could not appeal for funds. Anyway, whom would he appeal to?
Every one of these people, with or without pheasant feathers sticking out of their heads, truly had no place to go and nobody to call on for help. They were dumped on Cheshire who, although sane, was not sufficiently experienced and not sufficiently practical and not sufficiently coarsened by the war to say (as everyone else did) no.
Job had comforters, in the Bible, who sympathized and (while they were about it) took the common liberty of good friends to point out he was doing everything wrong. Cheshire sometimes thought maybe he was wrong.
People began to notice that Cheshire was not getting much out of his home for the utterly helpless. He was working like a dog, up at all hours, he was having trouble finding food for everybody. Once people saw he was serious and not on some temporary ego trip, they came up with money and with help.
As he told the Rotary Club here yesterday, he's been at it for 33 years now, and there are 205 Cheshire Homes in 40 countries. Not a single one that has ever been begun has ever closed. Through civil war in Nigeria, the Cheshire Homes there remained intact, funded by their home communities. Through war and through anything else. A couple of gentlemen dozed through his talk -- Cheshire confessed that once he starts talking about the disabled he has trouble ever shutting up -- but when it was over most of them seemed bent on touching him.
His homes are autonomous and do not take orders from him, but have their own boards, and residents have a say in their policies.
They are small. Some of them may have five people, some may have 30. The one opening in Arlington next year will have seven. There are already five homes operating in the United States, and perhaps there will be more. Some residents are rich, but many are destitute.
Cheshire is a stickler for dignity, something he learned promptly the first time he tried to haul old Arthur up the steps. The disabled vary just like the abled. Some are terminally ill, some are teen-agers paralyzed by car accidents, with the prospect of a full long life of being set on bedpans, some have leprosy, some are mentally retarded, and all are completely dependent on those who are not disabled.
"Sometimes people say the goal should be independence. Well, we are none of us independent. A word I like better is freedom."
He wanted Granny to be free to be totally, partially, or not at all deaf, and to say to hell with the potatoes. Just like us. It is interesting that people with quite different horrors happening to them manage to get along surprisingly well with others. The lion and ox both feed, as it were. These people understand that if they are human (obnoxious, rude, hostile, ugly, graceless, petty, aggressive, revolting, etc.), well, nobody's flawless, and they will not be dismissed from the community of man for it. They will not be kicked out. Once they are admitted, they have a home, against which the gates of Hell itself will not be allowed to prevail.
As a result, possibly, of this unexpected security, a degree of confidence, grace and humor commonly flower.
Cheshire has discovered that the mere fact you are suddenly paralyzed in a car accident, with all your life still before you, does not convert you into a mature beautiful soul suitable for exhibiting to the heathen, but neither does it mean you are less human than you were two seconds before the accident.
Bitterness is not brushed under the rug. Anybody who is not bitter at first is probably less than human, and anybody who lightly resigns himself to a life of total dependence on others without some sort of lifelong mourning is likely nuts.
Once Cheshire was in India when he saw a young man of 20, and one of those wordless electric exchanges took place. The man was being sent away from the hospital. His bladder had to be emptied by a catheter and the catheter had to be sterilized. Simple enough. But he was going back to his village.
He knew and the doctor knew and Cheshire knew and everybody else knew, who wished to know, there were no sterile techniques in his village. Cheshire was determined to save him and get him into a Cheshire Home in India. The home refused. Under his own rules (as chronicled in his book, "The Hidden World," published by Collins in London), Cheshire could not intervene. Still, it was intolerable to him that a man would die who needed, really, quite simple and minimal care.
The man, with his intense eyes, went back to the village and promptly died. Cheshire learned anew the feeble limits of his power.
"Yes. Of course it set me back. For five solid months."
In Cheshire's trade, you can't hold on to grief. You can't clutch failure to your breast and brood it. You have to get off your duff and get moving.
"You have to be practical as well. You have to have committees. There isn't government funding, you have to have a broad base, you have to count on the different communities. They are the support.
"At first I had this great vision of things, but I didn't really know how to go about anything. I didn't know how to focus on something specific that maybe I could really do.
"It's like that discourse in 'Pilgrim's Progress.' Where they ask the man if he sees yonder shining light and the man says no. And they ask him if he sees low wicket gate, and he says I think I do.
"I don't know much about great shining light. I am beginning to know something about low wicket gates."
Cheshire does not look much like the handsome actor who will doubtless (sometime years from now) play the role of Cheshire in a great movie that will make everybody cry and that will make everyone say what a great guy he was.
"He looks like an old math teacher I once had in high school," a woman said.
"What unusual ears," a man said.
His face has the lines that suggest he has been close to more human hurt than even a fellow of exquisite humor can get away from without some traces around the eyes.
Any sound American mother can see at a glance this lad needs more buttermilk and cornbread and a few collards. He needs fattening up, to be plain, and maybe a little stroking himself, for no man is called on (before his death, even) to be a hero from start to finish.
He is, as it happens, rather a mathematician, as the lady shrewdly guessed. He is clever at sums. One plus one plus one plus one plus one.