In 2007, I met an incredible man with an incredible story. I wrote the book, “Swingman,” and we did a brief book tour before turning to the big screen. Capt. Marshall Allen, the hero of the story and a hero in real life, is a Fort Worth firefighter who became a quadriplegic after a freak bicycle accident.
Oh, but there is so much more to the story. To offer just one teaser, Allen was an orphan and had no known blood relatives but on the day of his accident, a letter arrived at the station from a girl looking for her biological father – a Marshall Allen. If you believe in miracles, in life changing moment, in heroes and in friendship, this book is for you! And so I pitched it to award-winning filmmaker Mark Birnbaum. After a lunch meeting, a wheelchair mishap and an accident that nearly cost Allen his life, Birnbaum was hooked and two years later, Mark Birnbaum Productions released the DVD of Swingman. Today, it has won three international awards and four national awards for outstanding film and story. Currently, it is being translated into Korean for yet another film festival. To say it has been a thrilling ride is an understatement.
When we were invited to a film festival in Utah, of all places, Allen wanted to go. As it happens, he is from Utah and so he decided to make an airplane trip – as a quadriplegic – with me, his daughter, Talaya Allen, a Dallas police officer, and her 10-month old daughter, Madalyn.
I’ve been friends with Captain Allen for more than six years. I know that a quadriplegic cannot regulate body heat and if he gets too warm, he can become very sick very quickly, without any warning. When a wheelchair lift dropped him, he broke his femur. Another time, because able bodied people take up the handicap parking places, he was forced to park in a regular spot and was caught in the lot, unable to open his door. In yet another instance, because there were no handicap spots available, he flipped over his own ramp. A common cold can be fatal for him and a cut to his foot, something he would not even feel, can become a major and life threatening infection. So when he said he wanted to go to Utah, I felt pretty confident that I knew what we were getting into. At over 250 pounds, Allen is a large man. Still, I believed that we, a collective we, could handle whatever came our way. Having a 10-month old along was just another adorable little challenge.
I had no idea what was in store for us.
There were actually two instances of gross negligence on the behalf of our airline, in which Captain Allen would have been allowed to fall to the ground had officer Allen and I not caught him, amid much grunting and perhaps some cussing. There was a 30-minute delay at the St. George, Utah Municipal Airport because the ground crew simply did not know how to handle the large “super” chair. One irate passenger actually complained when Captain Allen was given her seat in the front of the plane. In the final leg of the trip, an extremely unprofessional counter agent ignored us, leaving Captain Allen jammed into a sit that did not fit him or his legs and his feet swelled to almost watermelon proportions.
On the other spectrum, there were moments where we collapsed into fits of giggles. Captain Allen was given a standing ovation at the festival and at one point, a mob overtook the main hall as people awaited his autograph, a photo opportunity or just a hand shake. The St. George Fire Department showed in support of Captain Allen and more than a dozen other filmmakers congratulated the Swingman crew on a great film.
After a fun but exhausting trip, we compiled a list of everyone we wanted to thank, from the volunteers who ran DOCUTAH Film Festival to SunTran, the transportation for Captain Allen and to the medical supply company that provided a battery charger for the “super” chair to the countless people who simply rolled up sleeves and pitched in, holding the baby whenever possible. I, however, am using the Waxahachie Daily Light as my format to publicly thank Captain Allen and officer Allen for reminding me of dignity, gratitude and the wonders of wondrous people.
Many know how challenging it can be to travel with an infant but few understand the courage it takes to board a plane as a quadriplegic, putting faith and trust in the hands of others, hoping strangers will be patient and kind. When officer Allen and I expressed great frustration, Captain Allen was always composed. His is a kind of grace we rarely see today and I am forever indebted to both Captain Allen for the bravery and officer Allen for the love and devotion I was privileged to witness. While my heart grew exponentially, I was also reminded to give thanks for the little things in life. Just the act of walking, using your hands and feet, is a tremendous blessing that should never be forgotten. Or abused. The next time you think about using a handicap parking spot although you are fully mobile, please think again.
For more information about the film, please see www.markbirnbaum.com or check out Amazon.com!
Now residing in “the nicest city in Texas,” Alexandra Allred is the author of numerous books, including White Trash, Damaged Goods and the Allie Lindell series. Visit her website, www.alexandratheauthor, or Twitter @alexandraallred but always check out her column the WDL as she ponders all things Waxahachie and beyond its borders.