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At first Carol and Martin lived in denial. At least Carol did. She refused to believe the sentence the doctors had delivered. Oh, she took him to a local swimming pool for physical therapy. And she acknowledged that, yes, he'd now lost the use of both his legs. Okay. But no more. One of the symptoms, they were told, would be drooling. During a meal at a Thai restaurant with some friends, drool slipped from Martin's lips for the first time.
"Stop that!" Carol barked. Somehow, he did. She tried to believe the whole thing was mental. She liked to think the disease could be overcome.
Martin knew better. He was more realistic. He was stuck in a wheelchair, with his whole world reduced to just the walls of the apartment. Unable to do much more than sit, what could he do with his time? In the past he'd made seemingly random decisions: I'm going to own racehorses. I'm going to sell real estate. I'm going to produce movies and screenplays. Given his health, the decision to write a book seemed like a logical choice.
"He said, 'If I'm going to be stuck in this damn wheelchair then I'm going to make the most of it,'" Carol recalls. "He always used to say to me, 'What kind of person are you? A person who talks about other people, who talks about great events and great ideas? You have to go out there and create those ideas and make it happen.'"
Like his other passions, the book idea had been kicking around his head for years. A novel, historical fiction, with heroic characters and lusty women and a battle for virtue and honor. A story set in the past, grounded in fact.
The plot, as he conceived it, would revolve around a little-remembered military battle. In northern Florida, a few decades before the Civil War, Seminole Indians joined up with more than a thousand escaped slaves to settle a territory they called Freedom Land. When the U.S. Army arrived to reclaim the slaves, the Seminoles and the Maroons, as the mixed races of slaves and Indians came to be called, fought back for seven years. More than 4500 U.S. troops were killed before the leader of the Seminoles, Chief Osceola, was treacherously captured under a white flag of truce.
Writing such a book would be a challenge, no matter the circumstances. Martin's odds were longer than most. In addition to his physical deterioration, he had never written a book. He hadn't studied writing. He didn't have friends in publishing to guide him through the process. Beyond that, he didn't even know much about the Seminoles or their war with America.
Rather than dwell on these obstacles, Martin set about overcoming them. He dove into research, starting with old newspaper articles he had photocopied and sent to him by librarians back in Florida. Over long-distance phone calls, he pestered historians for details. When he was satisfied with his research, he selected his characters, some fictional, some much less so. Zachary Taylor and Andrew Jackson made appearances. A few tight-bodiced women surfaced as love interests. Martin crafted a plot spiced with bullwhips that tore open the shoulders of recalcitrant slaves. Then he set about writing it.
He referred to Freedom Land as his blockbuster novel, but as he ground out his first draft he typed dialogue that can charitably be appraised as wooden. "He was 30 years old and stood five-feet-ten-inches tall," is a typical description. "Jamina climbed into his bed and they made passionate love," is a typical sex scene.
"It's not Dostoyevsky," Carol admits.
When his hands started fading on him, Martin used only his index finger to type out his chapters. Carol soon began typing for him. When he needed to read a book for research, she turned the pages. To pay for therapy and medications and doctor's visits, they liquidated all their investments, even selling Martin's thoroughbred racehorses. Carol took a second job. After two years with the disease, he and Carol decided to move back to Miami so he could be closer to the ALS center at Jackson Hospital.
In Miami, Martin's condition worsened. Carol drove him to therapy almost every day. She took him to doctors' appointments at Jackson, dragging him from his wheelchair into the car, no easy feat. The passing of every month brought further decline. His face started to freeze, making it hard for Carol to read his moods. He had trouble eating the food she liquefied in a blender for him, and his weight began to plummet. He was tired most of the day.
"It was sad seeing my best friend deteriorate in front of me," Carol says. "It was very hard to watch a loved one not only just die, but see him just totally degenerate."
Still they worked on the book. Facing his computer, Carol at his side typing, Martin slid into another dimension, into the Nineteenth Century. For a while at least, he forgot about his body and the doctors and whatever was hurting him. When his energy flagged, Carol put him to bed. When he regained his strength, at whatever hour, they returned together to the computer. Every day they wrote.