They are zooming toward us like cannon balls, screaming past the black diamonds, on plastic seats attached to a single ski. They are butt-slaloming. Meantime, my co-worker is being a butt. He’s complaining. He’s rude to guests. He’s yelling at me. He is miserable, but I am thrilled as I watch my new friend, Lt. Colonel Greg Gadson shush past. He is followed by a tall guy in a red jacket on real legs, on two skis. This, I learn, is Lt. Colonel Chuck Schretzman. My insides are warm, but my hands, face and ass are freezing. The cold shoulder from the videographer who is apparently suffering from some sort of altitude dementia, does not help. We are on the side of a mountain in Breckenridge, Colorado shooting a story about wounded warriors learning to ski.
Schretzman and Gadson met on what they call the “friendly field of strife,” in the early ‘80’s at West Point. They were both defensive ends, vying for time on the turf. From that competition, grew a life-long friendship. Weddings, kids, many deployments and one downhill run later, they ended up here, with me, at the bottom of the mountain.
Schretzman is tall, broad, blue- eyed and blonde- the opposite of Greg. Pretty stunning, actually. I chat with him, while trying to mask my colleague’s impatience. It’s like trying to casually shake a lobster off my hand. We’re chatting when Schretzman leans closer and says,
“Do you need me to talk to that guy?”
I’m embarrassed and say no, and wish I had a 2×4. But I’m also impressed by his observation and kindness.
Then it’s Casino night at the lodge and Chuck buys me a beer which I nurse for hours. The next day we’re back outside and he yells from the lift.
“Hey are you still drinking that beer?”
Mr. Grumpy and I finish shooting that afternoon and go inside. I see Greg and Chuck sitting alone at a table. I grab beers and sit down. It’s only then I notice the tears streaming down Greg’s face. They are looking at photos of the blown-up Humvee. I don’t want to intrude, but I don’t want to chicken out. So I sit. I give Greg a hug, which seems stupid and futile. Like that’s going to fix things.
But I learn about staying.
I’m sitting at my desk at the Pentagon Channel and Chuck calls to tell me that Greg is going to the Super Bowl and will be talking to the New York Giants before they head out onto the field. It takes me a few weeks to get the whole story. Greg had been speaking to the team all season, about teamwork, about thinking of nothing but the guy next to you, about the reason he is alive was the guy next to him. He talks to them the night before the playoffs at Green Bay. And they win. And then, the New York Giants, against big odds, win the Super Bowl. Because they had this lucky charm. It’s just this freaking great story.
I know very little about the military, and nothing about football, so I figure I’m the perfect person to write this story. And I ask Greg if he minds being the subject of a book. It takes him a while to say yes.
I spend the next couple of years interviewing his mom, his dad, his daughter, his friends, his doctors, therapists and teammates. I even get to talk to Michael Strahan and Coach Tom Coughlin. It takes me months to find soldiers who blew up in that Humvee. Kim, his wife, does not want to talk but emails wonderful excerpts from her personal journal. I learn about battlefield medicine, the golden hour and how to annoy Army public relations folks. I become exceptionally good at annoying public relations folks.
I talk with Chuck about the moment he heard Greg had been hurt- how he’d just picked up his keys and got in his car. Chuck told me about meeting Greg’s wife, Kim at Walter Reed, and watching Greg be wheeled, unconscious, on a stretcher, to the ICU. He told me what Greg’s legs looked like, before they were amputated. Best of all, he told me the story of Greg coming to, a few days after arriving at the hospital, as Chuck stood over him reading letters from West Point teammates. Greg had simply opened his eyes and said the words, “Golden Rule.” Chuck was baffled, so then Greg blurted, “Be on time!” It was their West Point football coach’s golden rule – to be on time.
Eventually I feel like the book is done. It ends with the Super Bowl victory. I am an okay writer, but terrible at marketing and as time passes, so much more happens. Greg’s in a movie called “Battleship,” he goes to the Olympics in Beijing, he becomes a model for Ossur, which makes prosthetic legs so he makes a lot of Zoolander jokes. He admits to having suicidal thoughts, in his early days of recovery. And I feel like I need to re-write.
So I keep talking to Greg about things, because by now he is my good friend. And he calls one day to say something is wrong with Chuck. Then he calls weeks later to say Chuck is fine. Then he calls after that to say Chuck has ALS.
It is now Greg’s turn to be the rock. For Chuck and for his wife, Stacey.
I know nothing about ALS. Except that so far, no one has survived it.
So, I am the perfect person to write this book.
At least I’m going to try.
Talking with Chuck. Photo by Greg.