Triceps bulging, Al Biscoe strained on the parallel bars, the veins in his neck turning purple and popping like an Olympic gymnast going for gold.
Inside the fitting room of J. E. Hanger Inc., maker of artificial limbs at 38 Patterson St. NE, Neil Slavkin, the prosthetist in a white coat, maneuvered a metal measuring stand into the space where Biscoe's legs once had been.
Drills whined from out back, and Muzak droned from the walls. Biscoe's knuckles turned white as the linoleum floor as Slavkin slipped a steel collar about the "bilateral AK" (two legs, amputated above the knee) and proceeded to slap wet plaster gauze on the stumps, sculpting casts for his new legs like some merry Michelangelo.
"How tall should we make him, Dr. Frankenstein?" quipped Biscoe, 47, ever the optimist as he lay back on the table and sniffed off the pain. "Only a humor writer would refer to this as the 'casting couch,'" he said.
Slavkin, a 32-year-old high school chemistry teacher turned prosthetist, bent over Biscoe and measured from his wavy gray hair to his hipbone.Subtract that from 6 feet -- Biscoe's height before the freak Sept. 27 accident that cost him both legs when the getaway car of Arlington bank robbers careened into him during his lunchtime stroll at the corner of 19th and E streets NW -- and you have the length of his artificial limbs.
Even after Biscoe straps on the legs, they may require too much work for him to walk. He may opt for life in his wheelchair. But Biscoe is determined to try. "I'd never forgive myself for not trying," said the University of Tennessee financial whiz who is on loan to the National Science Foundation. "I'll give it a good shot. I feel like I can handle it."
In the six months since a U.S. Park Police helicopter plucked him from a crowded sidewalk of broken glass, twisted metal and shattered dreams and delivered him to the surgeons at Washington Hospital Center, Biscoe has learned to cope through humor, candor and positive thinking.
"I just found that if my attitude was good, it seemed to infect the nurses and the patients around me,' he said. "That's reinforcement enough." He winked. "Besides, I'm a ham."
The legal aspects of Biscoe's ordeal have been left in the hands of Joseph Koonz, the attorney who yesterday filed a personal injury lawsuit in U.S. District Court for $25 million in damages.
Defendants in the suit include Arlington County, the Arlington County Police Department, Arlington County Police Officer Michael Kyle who chased the robbers through crowded D.C. streets, the District government (whose officers also joined in the chase) the suspects, and Edward T. Britten III of Fairfax, whose car collided with the getaway car when it ran a red light, knocking it into Biscoe, the suit charges.
Family and friends say Biscoe has taken the loss of his legs philosophically, shrugging it off as one of life's setbacks, nothing to get really down about. "If I had time to waste, I'd ask, Why me?'" said Biscoe right after the accident. "But I haven't permitted it. That's unproductive. My emotional and physical resources are scarce, and I have to allocate them where they're needed most. I've got to learn to walk again and figure out what the future holds. Getting into 'pity poor me' would be absurd."
From his hospital bed, he vowed to return home by Thanksgiving. Doctors scoffed. He left the hospital two weeks early.
Since then, he has relearned how to live, taught himself to drive his sporty, 1980 mustard-colored Volvo, nenwly equipped with hand controls, and with the help of a plastic bridge, figured out how to slide himself onto the front seat, throw his wheelchair in back and roar off.
Last month, for the first time since the accident, Biscoe wheeled himself into work. He found the office decorated with balloons, a sign that said, "Welcome Back" and a staff that crowded around and toasted him with fruit punch.There wasn't a dry eye in the house, he said.
After the accident, news stories sparked hundreds of cards and letters from strangers including a warm note from Chief Justice Warren Burger. Even though Biscoe is a Methodist who attends an Episcopal Church, Catholic masses were offered for him and a Jesuit group made him an honorary member.
While he fought to live and his present wife, Eleanor (she's expecting in June) took up a bedside vigil, parents of first graders in their son's class at Grace Episcopal Day School took turns cooking gourmet meals. For two months, the dinners kept arriving on the doorstep of their two-bedroom, high-rise apartment in Blair House in Silver Spring.
"The outpouring of affection from friends and strangers has been mind boggling," said Biscoe. "I've learned to accept people's love and help gracefully. My world has become more 'people relationships'."
Three times a week, he pushes through the orange door of ward 3A-46 at Washington Hospital Center, past the walkers and wheelchairs, past the braces and Canadian crutches, and heads for the dressing room. There, he swaps coat and tie for green shorts, and from 10 a.m. until noon, perspires alongside stroke victims and fellow amputees. He grunts through 100 push-ups, 60 sit-ups, 60 hip flexors, and 60 leg extensions with a 10-pound weight attached.
Sometimes he is asked to help the physical therapists snatch amputees like Donald French, 42, from the depths of dispair. A District fireman whose right leg was crushed -- and later amputated above the knee -- when his ladder truck collided with another fire engine racing to put out an apartment blaze on Clay Terrace NE, French found himself on an exercise mat next to Biscoe in February.
"When I first started therapy, I had my good days and my bad days -- still do," said French, wincing through the painkillers. "Somedays, I'd get morbid, didn't want to be bothered with anybody. The phantom pain was unbearable. Even now, the arch of my right foot is aching so bad, I want to get up and walk it off. But you've just got to bear it."
From his mat, he eyed Biscoe, ever stoic, the ward cheerleader. "There I was feeling sorry for myself for losing one leg and here was Al, who'd lost two, gone through hell, an innocent bystander minding his own business when the car hit him, and he doesn't seem depressed at all. He's got a great disposition and was really striving, putting his heart into therapy.
"So I figured, if he can make it without two, I can make it with one. And said to myself, 'Hey, man, get on with it!'"
"Al's different," said Lynn Hickey, his physical therapist, who, nonetheless, is keeping a vigilant eye for any hints of depression. "He seemed to accept the loss of his legs right from the start. But coping varies for every patient. Some will get angry at us, or clam up. Others will refuse to do their exercises. Some are very cautious with their stump. They're afraid to look at it, or exercise it. Some don't want to touch it.
"But through rehabilitation, we try to get them over their fears, show them that they can reach an independent, functioning level. Life may be in a wheelchair, but at least they'll be independent.
James Taylor, a retired Department of Housing and Urban Development supervisor, sat on the exercise mat next to Biscoe and half-heartedly pushed up on his blocks. He's just lost his second leg to circulatory problems, the most common cause of amputations. "The second time around, the toughest thing to deal with is that you had made all your plans around having one leg," he sighed.
Biscoe had planned to reach for the sky when he took temporary leave from his $41,000-a-year job as an assistant vice president of the University of Tennessee and came to Washington 18 months ago to work for the national Science Foundation. A business consultant with a Ph.D. in economics, he helped pioneer the Tennessee Institute for Public Service, which helps prepare elected officials for their jobs.
His wife, Eleanor, works as a staff researcher at Catholic University. Both previously divorced, they were married at Christ Church in Georgetown in January a year ago. She had just moved up from Tennessee with her six-year-old son, Jack. (Biscoe's two sons live with their mother in Knoxville.) In the move, three pieces of her 12-piece set of Val St. Lambert crystal were smashed. For six months, she roamed from store to store, trying to replace them.
The accident jolted her reality, she says. She hasn't thought about the broken crystal since. "After something like this, trivial things fall into perspective," explained Eleanor Biscoe who learned that she was six weeks pregnant on the morning of the accident. She tried in vain to call her husband. "You look at the things that are important. It clarifies your values."
As a young man fresh out of the University of Georgia (he graduated at 16), Biscoe once questioned the existence of God. Surviving the accident -- and the "Christian outpouring" of prayers, cards and letters -- reaffirmed his faith, he said. "People compliment me about my attitude. But I'm alive. That improves your attitude a lot."
He continues to draw his salary, and insurance has so far absorbed medical costs that have passed the $100,000 mark. He guesses that tuning up his artificial legs, along with outpatient therapy, could run $7,500 a year. He faces a life of financial uncertainty at this point, thus the lawsuit.
Biscoe, a former handyman around the house, will never be able to hang a curtain, much less paint a wall, he said. "We'll have to pay someone to do all those things." As for clothes, the exercises have pumped his neck size beyond the normal 17 1/2. New shirts are on his shopping list.
When doctors told Eleanor Biscoe that her husband could go home, she burst into tears. "I was really scared," she recalled. "I wondered if we were going to have any kind of normal family life. Now we may not have a 'normal' family life, but it's real. You can just give up or say, 'We're going to make the best of it and move on. And we have.
"We talk everything out. We talk our way through the depressing times. We both know how to cry and we're not afraid of emotions.People who have problems [with tragedy] are those who are afraid to feel."
One night, they caught Jack praying that his stepfather's legs would grow back. "We explained to him the difference between frogs and people," said Eleanor Biscoe.
On their way to a party, the other evening, Biscoe had just swiveled himself into the wheelchair when the heavens opened up and down came the rain. His wool suit was drenched. "Let's go home," said his wife, ready to give up.
"No," said Biscoe, "we're going in." He dried off in the host's living room.
In matters of that sort, Biscoe operates without hesitation. But of his career choice, he is less certain. Soon he must decide whether to return to Tennessee and take up his university post in a town with limited resources for amputees, or cast about Washington -- a city of 10,000 to 20,000 amputees, six prosthetic supply companies like J. E. Hanger and endless groups and organizations for the handicapped -- in search of a job. He's got six months to decide.
The Biscoes are constantly entertaining friends. And as visitors come and go -- moving about their apartment, past the souvenirs from the Far East, the Japanese prints, the potted plants, the piano, they pass the three-foot-tall beer stein in the hall where the family stores three tennis racquets. "Relics from the past," said Eleanor Biscoe, who suggested perhaps giving them away.
"We better not give them away!" interrupted Jack. "At least you and I can play, Mom. And Dad can coach."