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“The Roads of Life"

Guy Keeler
Fifth Prize - $2,000

Guy Keeler is a feature writer for The Fresno Bee and a graduate of California State University, Fresno.  His story, “No Greater Love” received Fifth Prize in the 2001 Amy Writing Awards and won first place for long-form feature writing in the Best of the West contest.  His series of articles on coming to terms with his wife’s breast cancer was awarded second place in feature writing by the California Newspaper Publishers Association.  Guy teaches an adult Bible school class at Northside Christian Church in Clovis, CA.  He and his wife, Janet, have three children and two grandchildren.


Gilbert Shamshoian knows where he's going, even though it's on a lesser- traveled path.

 

The man in the wheelchair was a fixture at the intersection of Clovis Avenue and old Highway 99 for nearly 40 years. Truck drivers and commuters saw him nearly every day, sitting in the shade of an evergreen tree, until he suddenly disappeared in the late 1970s.

It's impossible to say how many people Gilbert Shamshoian greeted over the years. Many returned his friendly wave and wondered what he was doing out there and what his story might be. But most were too busy to stop. To them, the man in the wheelchair was part of the landscape -- like the vines, the railroad tracks and the highway.

Not until Shamshoian was gone did travelers realize Clovis and 99 never would be the same without him. Even after Fresno County altered the intersection by building an overpass for Clovis Avenue to span the Union Pacific railroad tracks and old 99, it was hard to pass through the area without thinking of him.

"When you move, people wonder what happened," Shamshoian says. " 'Where'd he go? Did he pass away?' "

Judy Woods of Clovis, who passed Shamshoian while commuting from Tulare to Fresno in the 1950s, was surprised to learn he is alive and living about eight miles from his former haunt.

"I assumed he had died," she says. "I remember he would always wave to people. And he'd even be out there in the rain with his umbrella."

Shamshoian, 77, didn't go far at all. In 1976, after his parents sold their 20-acre vineyard on Clovis Avenue south of Freeway 99, he went to live with them in Fowler. Then, in 1988, when they no longer could care for him, he moved into the Bethel Lutheran Home in Selma.

He still has the same wheelchair that was custom-built for him in the 1950s. He still gets outside for several hours every day, and, if you're lucky enough to catch up with him, he'll gladly tell you his story.

 

The hum of distant tires

Shamshoian was a mystery to most people during his years out by the highway. They didn't expect to see a guy in a wheelchair, let alone one who was there morning, noon and evening, day after day. Even though their windshields framed him for just a few fleeting seconds, those glimpses were enough to leave a lasting impression.

"If you mention 'the guy in the wheelchair,' it seems like people today still remember Gilbert," says retired California Highway Patrolman Jim "Trooper" Taylor of Fresno.

Taylor was fresh out of the CHP Academy when he met Shamshoian in the early 1960s. He started checking on him out of concern for his safety and soon struck up a friendship.

"Gilbert loved to sit and watch the cars," Taylor says. "Once in a while, I'd tell him, 'Gilbert, pick me a fast one.' "

Shamshoian had a knack for picking out speeders. He could spot cars moving faster than the flow of traffic and, over the years, learned to judge speed by the sound cars made as they whistled through the air.

One time, at Taylor's invitation to pick out a speeder, Shamshoian pointed to a red car zipping up the freeway. Taylor gave chase but wasn't able to pull the speeder over until crossing the Madera County line, 20 miles north.

"When I saw Gilbert again, I told him, 'Next time, pick me a slower one,' " Taylor recalls with a chuckle.

Shamshoian was in his early 30s when he met Taylor. By that time, he already had been coming out to sit by the highway for more than 20 years.

The highway was a powerful magnet. Its traffic flowed like a river and Shamshoian loved to sit beside it, dreaming about going to faraway places as the vehicles sped by. Unlike most people, who take travel for granted, his freedom of motion always has been limited.

From the day of his birth, it was evident Shamshoian would have trouble getting around. His left arm and leg were paralyzed when his spinal cord was damaged during a forceps delivery. He had surgery a few years later at Shriners Hospital in San Francisco, but the operation failed to enable him to walk with braces and crutches.

Mary Lybeck, 92, of Diamond Springs, Shamshoian's aunt and only living relative, says it was heartbreaking to watch her nephew trying to move when he was little and unable to crawl or walk. She bought him a red wagon and pulled him around to provide a hint of mobility.

But it was not until he got his first wheelchair that Shamshoian experienced the taste of independence that ultimately would lead him to the highway. He started by wheeling himself out to the mailbox every day.

"When I was out at the mailbox, I'd wave at people," he says.

It was while sitting by the mailbox, waiting for more cars to pass his house, that Shamshoian heard the sound of traffic on Highway 99, then a two-lane road about 1,800 feet away. That distant hum filled him with a hunger to see people going places, even if he could not join them.

Shamshoian was 8 the first time he went to the highway by himself. His parents were concerned about the danger but knew their son had few other opportunities to view the world outside their home.

"It was something Gilbert could do to pass the time of day," Lybeck says. "And it was great, later on, how people would pull up and talk to him. It was a blessing to have them stopping by and encouraging him."

 

Waiting and watching

Shamshoian saw three different highways during his time at the side of the road. He watched Highway 99 become a double highway and then a freeway. During the Great Depression, he watched cars from Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas move up and down the road. During World War II, military convoys rumbled past him.

He smiled at familiar faces and wondered about cars and vehicles from other states. Hardly a day went by that he didn't wish he could be riding with them so he could see what the world was like beyond his tiny vantage point in the central San Joaquin Valley.

"I learned a lot sitting by the side of the road," he says.

In the early years, he noticed people were more willing to stop and help strangers with car problems. By the 1970s, however, the Good Samaritans were gone.

"I saw railroad workers lay ties by hand," he says. "Now it's done by machines. I saw people picking cotton by hand."

On the morning of Dec. 6, 1963, he was reminded how quickly life can end when he rolled out to his post and found CHP officers investigating the car-truck collision that had claimed the lives of Fresno Mayor Arthur L. Selland and Fresno City and County Chamber of Commerce President Herbert N. Ferguson the evening before.

But the main thing Shamshoian learned out by the highway was that there are a lot of people in this world who are eager to receive a friendly smile and a wave.

"I used to say, 'My smile made your day and your smile made mine,' " he says.

 

One child, left behind

Shamshoian never went to school. A teacher came to his home for an hour a day, four days a week, but the restless student always was eager to be done with lessons so he could get back out to the highway.

As far as book learning goes, Shamshoian figures he has the equivalent of a sixth-grade education. The highway was his classroom and gave him a reason to get up every morning.

"Going out to the highway gave Gilbert a sense of freedom and mobility," says Curtis Rasmussen of Kingsburg, who waved at him for years without knowing his name and then developed a close friendship when Shamshoian moved to Selma and started attending the First Baptist Church. "Without that freedom, he'd probably be sitting in a wheelchair in a hallway somewhere today."

Shamshoian's parents took him to Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church in Fresno for Easter and other special occasions when he was young, but he did not go to church on a regular basis. The steps were too much for his wheelchair, he says.

He played board games with friends as a boy and enjoyed watching western movies at home once his parents got a television set. But it was the highway that offered opportunities to meet people and see new things.

When he was young, Shamshoian could dress himself and maneuver a traditional wheelchair. In the 1950s, his parents hired the late John White of Fowler to design and build a custom wheelchair that would be easier for their son to operate.

White, owner of a welding shop, designed a three-wheeled chair powered by a hand crank that Shamshoian could turn with his strong right arm. White built a stirrup attached to the lead wheel so Shamshoian could steer the chair with his right foot.

Over the years, three generations of the White family have serviced and reconditioned Shamshoian's wheelchair. Today, with its blue powder-coating paint job and stainless-steel hardware, it looks and runs like brand new.

"Gilbert was such a nice guy," says the designer's son, also named John White. "He had that wheelchair when I was a kid in school. One time I rode my motorcycle out to see him and said, 'Let's go race.' Gilbert also would come out to see us at our shop, which was about three miles from his home."

 

New roads and friends

Barbara Harding of Fowler saw Shamshoian from her automobile many times before she stopped to talk to him. Her daughters would wave at him on trips to Fresno, and he'd wave back.

Harding wondered if Shamshoian went to church or if he was interested in spiritual things.

"I'd see him at the gas station [near Clovis and 99], and one day I approached him and asked if he knew the Lord," Harding says.

The two met for Bible study, and Shamshoian discovered there were other roads he could follow. Shamshoian joined the Fowler Baptist Church and made it his goal to be at services every Sunday. After moving to Selma, he found a new church home at First Baptist Church.

Shamshoian's friendship with Harding has grown deeper over the years.

"He calls me 'Mom,' " Harding says. "I buy his clothes for him and I've taken him for rides to the mountains. I see him every week."

Shamshoian's father, Charles, died in 1994 at age 92, and his mother, Sarah, died at age 97 in March. A younger brother, Donny, died of kidney failure in 1954 at age 6.

Harding says Shamshoian's positive spirit and his steadfast faith in God have helped him rise above the troubles in his life.

"Gilbert's education was limited," she says. "He was never able to work. He was never able to marry and have a family. I've assured him that God will make up for every disappointment he's had on earth. There will be no wheelchairs in heaven."

Shamshoian knows there is no easy formula for dealing with disability.

"I learned to live with it," he says. "I learned to handle it. I accept it. But I wish I could walk."

Shamshoian misses the highway but says his heart is set on following a different road these days. He says some of his favorite verses in the Bible are found in John 14, where Jesus talks about life beyond the grave.

"Do not let your hearts be troubled," Christ tells his followers. "Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am."

"Gilbert's faith is very important to him," says Rasmussen, who teaches an adult Bible school class that Shamshoian attends at First Baptist Church in Selma. "His approach is very simple, but it's very real. It's tied to the church and the functions that happen there."

People at First Baptist are like an extended family for Shamshoian. They offer him more than smiles and waves from passing cars. He can shake their hands and know their names. He can tell jokes and hear

them laugh. Even though his left hand is shriveled and frozen against his chest, he feels whole in their eyes.

"When they see me coming into church they don't see me in a wheelchair," he says.

Every Sunday, three or four friends carry Shamshoian downstairs after the first worship service so he can attend Rasmussen's Bible class, which meets in the basement. That simple act of acceptance fills Shamshoian with hope and reminds others that all people have equal value in God's sight.

"Gilbert gets depressed, but not very frequently," Rasmussen says. "He has something beyond himself in his relationship with Jesus Christ. He sees that his life has purpose."

Shamshoian is as active as ever. He gets out nearly every day to crank his wheelchair around the quiet streets on Selma's east side. He knows the people who live there, and they know him. Sometimes he stops at Selma District Hospital to see if he can brighten someone's day.

It doesn't bother Shamshoian to be remembered as the "man in a wheelchair" who sat by the side of the road. He sleeps well at night knowing that, with his good arm, he waved. And others waved back.

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