Walk his way

Oct 7, 1998 at 12:00 am

At 41, Ron Bachman has conquered his demons. He's a single dad whose only child started college this fall. He's a gifted speaker who sometimes does three engagements a day. He hobnobs with the likes of Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. And earlier this year, an Emmy Award-winning producer completed a short documentary about the Northville resident's life. Bachman has everything.

Except legs, the lower three vertebrae of his spinal column, and hip bones.

"When the doctors handed him to us in the hospital, it was a shock," says Robert Bachman, Ron's 68-year-old father. "That was before the days of ultrasounds. We weren't prepared."

Ron Bachman was born with his legs twisted like chicken wings beneath his abdomen. Having already given birth to one healthy child, the Bachmans searched for answers.

"My wife never even took aspirin," says Robert. "She didn't take thalidomide, a drug that was causing so many birth defects in the '50s and '60s. The doctors just told us that a clock starts ticking during pregnancy. Ron's clock stopped while his skeleton was developing. He should have died, but he didn't. Instead, it clicked back on, and our son was born with deformed legs."

Despite this, Bachman was a happy child, at least in his own home. With a broad smile, handsome face and dark hair, he could have been in a Norman Rockwell painting. He quickly learned to walk on his hands, sometimes dragging his pretzeled legs, sometimes lifting them high off the ground as he traveled.

"I rode a Hot Wheels, I played ball, I climbed stairs," remembers Bachman. "I did anything that I wanted to on my hands."

His life changed in the 1960s when his parents took him to the Mary Freebed Center in Grand Rapids, then the only amputee center in the United States. Doctors there confirmed that Bachman's legs could not be saved.

"I had to make the decision about cutting off my own son's legs," Robert stammers, still upset. "I kept thinking, what if in the future they invent something that will enable him to walk?"

At 4 years old, Bachman had fewer reservations. After the first amputation, he awoke, pulled back the covers and said: "Look dad! It's gone!"

But the joy was short-lived. After the amputations, the Center began a 14-year rehabilitation effort. Doctors devised a prosthesis for Bachman -- a pair of legs extending from a bucket-like cradle. He would rest his body in the bucket and attach the contraption with suspenders. He hated the way it made him feel.

"I felt like I was just waiting to get blown over. Those legs made me look 'normal,' but I felt handicapped every time I put them on."

Rehabilitation required several long stays at the Grand Rapids hospital. Bachman's parents would drive him there from their Detroit home and leave him.

"Part of me wondered whether I was just too much of a burden and they'd just never return," says Bachman, his voice cracking. For an instant, he's a kid again, sobbing as his parents drive away.

"When the day would come for me to go home, I'd pack, sit on the steps and wait. I can still hear my dad's footsteps, the way he jiggled change in his pocket as he walked. He always came back for me."

Desertion is not the only fear Bachman has struggled to overcome. The other is the cruelty of children.

"Even today, when I see a child, I think, oh no, here it goes. They're going to ask a stupid question or say something insensitive. I still brace myself."

He had to face that fear head-on in 1979 when he married and fathered a baby girl. Alicia was only 4 when the couple divorced, and Bachman gained custody. "Given what I experienced in life, the thing I dreaded the most was Alicia's friends. Then I realized that the way to change things was not to protect myself from them, but to talk to children so that they can understand the power of their words to hurt or heal."

Bachman began speaking at schools, civic organizations and businesses about living with a disability. A publisher is now considering mass marketing his motivational tapes.

"So often, I would tell Ron to just ignore people," says Scott Santos, Bachman's long-time friend and owner of the Novi-based Overture Records label. "But recently I went with him to Los Angeles. You start noticing how people stare, gawk and laugh. It's incredible what he has to endure. That's why the school thing is so interesting. If kids are educated, they won't do it. It turns out that his biggest fear -- kids -- is his greatest niche."

At a recent workshop at a Livonia public school, Bachman talks to troubled teens, sharing a message he hopes will help transform their lives:

"Just stop, look in the mirror and say, 'This is what's great about me.' Let those things weave a path through your lives, and there's nothing that you can not accomplish. I promise."

As they gather to hug him afterwards, it's clear that they believe him.