The sound of one leg bowling

Things you didn't know about amputees.

Published March 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Here is a reason I don't bowl. I suffer an irrational fear that one of my fingers will become stuck in the hole and the bowling ball will yank it off, and I will stand there watching the ball roll down the lane with my bloodied digit sticking out. Normally, I don't share my fears of accidental amputation with fellow bowlers, but at this particular bowling session it seems to fit right in with the conversation, for it's a pizza-and-bowling party hosted by a Bay Area amputee group called Stumps 'R Us.

"Stump" is not a derogatory term among these amputees. "Residual limb" is the p.c. term, but everyone here today says stump. As in, "Your stump will change size if you gain or lose weight" or "My daughter-in-law's Dalmatian is fascinated by his stump." In case you are wondering what they call us, we're TABs, which stands for totally able-bodied. "Or, less optimistically," quips one amputee, "temporarily able-bodied."

Stumps 'R Us founder Dan Sorkin, who invited me, wants me to meet one of the bowlers, a man named Alan Fisk, who was born with four stumps. I have never been introduced to anyone with arm prosthetics before. Do I shake his hook? Fisk doesn't extend it, so I don't reach for it. As it turns out, I wouldn't have been shaking his hook; I'd have been shaking his bowling attachment, and God only knows what the etiquette is there. (Golf and baseball mitt attachments are also available.)

Fisk steps up to bowl. He jams the plunger at the end of his attachment into one of the bowling ball finger holes. (One of the odd things about being an amputee is that you use words like "plunger" and "coupler" and "piston" to talk about your own anatomy.) By maneuvering his shoulder, Fisk can pull a cable that contracts the plunger and lets the ball go. He hefts the ball up onto his other arm prosthesis, and walks to the line on his leg prostheses and bowls a strike. This man handles himself with more grace and athletic prowess than I do with limbs intact. I am filled with awe and wonder and a fleeting thought that perhaps he doesn't need to use handicapped-parking spaces and will want to give his decals to me.

Acknowledging the cheers, Fisk raises his hook in the air, just as victorious athletes with flesh fists do. Fisk also applauds with his prostheses, uses them to wipe sweat from his brow and wears a watch on one. It's possible to buy arm prostheses with molded plastic hands, but Fisk prefers hooks because they're more functional.

He demonstrates how he can hold things by opening and closing his hook, which is halved like a split end. This too is done by pulling the cable that runs from the hook to the shoulder harness that holds his prostheses in place. "I hate that word," says Fisk. "Pros-theee-seees." The inner surfaces of the opened hook are coated with rubber to make it easier to grasp things. I ask Fisk if he can hold a needle. "Yes," he says patiently. "But I don't know if I could do anything with it."

Fisk excuses himself, goes off to score another strike and returns. To feel better about myself, I hold up my cuff. "See this button? I sewed it on."

Having introduced me to a half-dozen amputees who bowl better than I do, Sorkin wants me to meet an amputee who in-line skates better than I do. James Prial does stunt and marathon skating. Prial claims his artificial leg is an advantage. Skating demands ankle stability, and the most stable ankle joint you can have is no ankle joint at all. Prial is wearing shorts. As discreetly as is possible, I'm trying to figure out how an artificial leg stays on. Eventually I ask.

"Suction and sleeve," volunteers a former heavy equipment operator named Joe Peterman, who lost his right foot after a construction accident at the Pac Bell Park site. Peterman explains that there's an air valve at the top of this type of prosthetic, and when you push down on it with your stump, it presses the air out, creating a suction that holds the thing in place. He peels back a neoprene sleeve, which creates a seal to keep the suction from breaking. Then he goes right ahead and takes his prosthetic off.

"Whoa, you've got a long one, Joe," says Prial. This is the stump that has the Dalmatian entranced.

Before I leave, Prial tells me there's loads of interesting information on the Internet about the history of prosthetics. Back at home, I run a Web search on "prosthetic" and "amputee." It turns up many sites that are interesting, but not in a historical way.

Apparently there's a subset of the population that is sexually aroused by amputees, which is not to be confused with the subset of the population that is sexually aroused by people with leg braces, or the subset that is hot for people in plaster casts. There's even an America Online bulletin board posting requesting "photos, videos or correspondence dealing with gals who have severe bunions on their feet." They would have loved my grandmother.

Most of these "devotees," as they're known, are men, but not all. An article in a 1997 issue of the Journal of Sexuality and Disability describes a leg brace devotee who would drive to shopping malls and loiter near the handicapped-parking spaces in hopes of seeing a disabled man. She eventually married a man with forearm crutches and leg braces, but lost interest in him after his condition worsened and he had to forsake the braces for a wheelchair.

Prial said he's never been approached by female or gay devotees, but wouldn't be unnerved by it. "Hard to distinguish between preference and perversion," he wrote me. "What if they just like amputees the way some men only like blondes?"

And then there are the "wannabes." Compared with wannabes, devotees are as normal as pizza and bowling. Wannabes -- or apotemnophiles -- are sexually aroused by imagining themselves as amputees and often become fixated on becoming real amputees. While most contrive some method of self-amputation (train tracks, say), some wannabes manage to persuade medics to do the deed.

Just this month, a surgeon in England got himself in hot water for amputating the healthy leg of a wannabe who claimed he was an amputee living in an able-bodied body. An article on the site Amputation quoted the man's wife, who had begged the doctor to do the operation: "I wish to God someone could take his leg off and then we can live a normal life." I believe Prial said it best: whoa.

By Mary Roach

Former Salon columnist Mary Roach is the author most recently of "Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal." Her previous books include "Stiff," "Spook" and "Packing for Mars."

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