Making Tracks While the Sun Shines

by Carol Clark

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    When Arlene Carter goes to a school dance, the question posed by admiring boys tends to be, “May I sit this one out?” It’s not that Arlene doesn’t like dancing or music—she’s usually within ear range of her eight-track tape system at home—and she’s not worried about guys stepping on her toes. But three years ago Arlene, her mother, and two others were in a car that plunged off an overpass onto a railroad track below. Arlene’s back was broken in more than 20 places; her mother was killed.

    After the accident Arlene really got the chance to test her lifelong philosophy—change what you can; learn to live happily with what you can’t. She spent the next 16 weeks in a Salt Lake City hospital. For the first four she was strapped in a Stryker frame. (“They’re like ironing boards. They’d turn me over every two hours. I couldn’t see anything but the ceiling or the floor. I used to hate vacuuming, but while I was between those boards, I’d have done anything to be able to vacuum.”) Rehabilitation took another 12 weeks.

    She wondered if she would ever see her old friends and the familiar countryside of her hometown, Nephi, Utah. She also had some serious doubts.

    “After the accident I felt I hadn’t deserved it. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I felt that if Heavenly Father loved me, he wouldn’t let something like this happen. It wasn’t fair.”

    Arlene told her father she was paralyzed before the doctors told her. When the doctors finally told her she would never walk again, she just lay there and cried.

    “Finally there was nothing I could do but turn to my Heavenly Father the way I’d been taught since I was in Primary. I prayed and knew that He did love me and I would receive blessings if I’d heed his counsel.”

    Arlene is in a wheelchair now, and, of course, it’s natural that she misses the dancing, running, and mobility she had before her accident. But now she can “pop wheelies.” She didn’t learn this from a finishing school, but Arlene can rear up “hi-ho Silver” style, spin her wheelchair around, and rock back and forth. “I can sit like this for hours, and I’ve never fallen over yet!”

    Everyone who knows or meets Arlene realizes that she’s a girl who keeps her wheels turning—literally. Last year she was student body president of Juab High School, and she didn’t believe in sitting down on the job.

    After serving as vice-president of the school, she launched a campaign for the presidency with posters that read, “Vote for Arlene. She’ll get things rolling” and “Arlene will ‘wheelie’ be a great president.”

    Before the accident, stairs were the only way into the school, but a special ramp was built for her. “Just coming down the ramp was exciting because of the brick wall at the end. You could always tell where I’d been; I was the only one who left tracks.” She could get around to most places except her English class because it was upstairs. Instead, she and Chaucer had to do it alone.

    Arlene was also the yearbook editor, and the Nebonian met each of its deadlines—no easy task for anyone in publishing. She wrote features for the school paper and was voted Best Citizen by the faculty. She was the second attendant to Miss Juab, the school’s queen. Arlene didn’t believe in just spinning her wheels—she really got things rolling at Juab.

    With all her extra-curricular activities and despite having missed so much school, she kept up with her classes and graduated with a 3.94 gpa. When she missed a month of school for further training with leg braces, Arlene came bouncing back to get the highest grade in her algebra class. She took a physics class and couldn’t help but note, “The ratio was great—5 1/2 boys to each girl.”

    Being in a wheelchair doesn’t hold Arlene back. She dates a lot of different boys and enjoys parties and long talks with her friends. And they let her know she’s something pretty special too.

    On her birthday her friends decorated her wheelchair with crepe paper and a big “Happy Birthday” sign on the back. Once she drove a group of fellow student body officers to a district workshop in a car with hand controls. While in Moab, Utah, for the meetings, she and others also went on a river run.

    Arlene makes her own clothes on her sewing machine and even creates her own patterns. To sew, she puts the foot pedal behind her back and presses on it. She cuts fabric on the family’s round kitchen table. By wheeling around it, she is able to reach all sections of the material. When the corduroy comes off the table, Arlene is likely to replace it with a double batch of chocolate chip cookies. She’s been known to come home, sneak in a baking session, and rush off to a basketball game before her dad reaches home and the chock-full cookie jar.

    “There’s never a dull moment with her around,” says her grandmother who lives with Arlene and her father. And you’d know that if you walked into Arlene’s room. “No Minors” warns a sign—but Arlene is just kidding. The posters, mini-garden of plants, and knick-knacks, including campaign memorabilia, are gifts from friends. The room is a four-wall collage of important people, places, ideas, and goals in her life. It also reflects Arlene and her I’m-ready-and-willing-if-you-are out-look on about everything.

    But there is also another side of Arlene—she has a deeply sincere and reverent attitude for the gospel and the gift of life itself.

    “I went to a Laurel standards night recently, and some of the girls wouldn’t even sit by their mothers. It made me feel so bad; I would have given anything to have had my mother there so I could talk to her. But I really do know that problems make us grow and become better people. I try to be happy with what I have instead of being unhappy about what I don’t have.”

    Being asked to speak before Church and civic groups has made her somewhat of an orator. Arlene has spoken everywhere from a girls’ camp in the mountains to the Utah State Prison. She’s modest about it, but everyone knows that she draws big crowds and has given as many as four or five talks in a day. Some wards have had to put up every chair in the building when she comes.

    “I often tell people to appreciate simple things. What most people think are their rights, I think are privileges—like sitting up, taking baths, or walking.” She always shares her testimony of the gospel with others and considers this “one of the greatest things in my life.

    “Everyone should gain a testimony. People who don’t have one don’t know what they’re missing. I’d like to lend mine out for test drives.”

    In her ward Arlene taught a Sunday School class of four-year-olds, which was an exercise in itself. “They were lots of fun. Sometimes I taught the three-year-olds too. The only thing I worried about was when they would push me down the hall. They were not tall enough to see around the wheelchair.” But she never crashed.

    When she is home many of Nephi’s missionaries stop to visit her just before they enter the Missionary Home. Her faith reminds them of what is most meaningful in life. They may be looking down at Arlene in her chair, but in their hearts and esteem they look up to her.

    This fall Arlene entered college. She was offered several scholarships and decided to study at BYU. She’d like to become a rehabilitation counselor. “A lot of people come into a hospital and tell patients to cheer up, but they don’t know what it’s like. I’ve been there. I think I can help others in the same circumstances or people with other problems.”

    Even with her physics studies and understanding Newton’s laws of gravity, Arlene knows life in a wheelchair doesn’t need to be an uphill battle—especially with a loving family, stick-with-you friends, and a deep faith in a caring Father in heaven. Knowing her own limitations she says, “I don’t think people have any reason to feel sorry for me.” She realizes she’s not the only one confronted by obstacles. Recently she wrote this poem:


    We are all in a prison,

    Some for a lifetime, some for a day.

    Some are there for what they do—

    Some for what they say.

    Some prisons have bars and locks,

    But in comparison, just a few.

    The ones most common aren’t tangible.

    Think, what imprisons you?

    Yet there is one I know quite well

    Who is captive to a chair with wheels

    But she holds her prison keys in hand,

    Because freedom is the way one feels.

    After all, it takes a special kind of courage to attend a high school dance in a wheelchair the first night after you’ve been released from the hospital.

    Photos by Richard Stum

    A. Arlene can “pop wheelies” in her wheelchair—it’s just one of her new-found talents

    B. Arlene keeps things rolling as the editor of the Nebonian, the high school yearbook

    C. Cooking is one of those little pleasures Arlene enjoys—the cookie jar is usually brimming with her baking

    D. Arlene’s English class is upstairs, so she learns about Chaucer on her own

    E. Arlene’s bright smile and bright spirit attracts everyone and assisted her in winning the Miss Utah Wheelchair contest

    F. Friends like Arlene; she is always positive and encouraging

    G. Arlene’s high school principal appreciates her dependability and industrious attitude

    H. Every morning Arlene makes the official school announcement

    I. She wheels around the large kitchen dining table when she wants to cut out some fabric

    J. Arlene’s grandmother is always there when help or counsel is needed

    K. Special ramps were built for Arlene at the high school—there are not very many places she can’t go now

    L. Driving isn’t off-limits for Arlene—she uses hand controls and some clever maneuvers

    M. Arlene is a popular speaker for youth and adult groups all around Nephi