Saturday, February 4, 2023 Feb 4, 2023
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HEROES The Final Flight of Rick Amber

How one man’s struggle to overcome his limitations inspired others to soar to new heights.
By Mark Donald |

TO LOOK AT RICK AMBER, YOU WOULDN’T HAVE THOUGHT HE WAS dying. He sat tall and cocky behind the yoke of his single-engine Cessna, his luminous hazel eyes dancing mischievously in the winter sun. A big teddy bear of a man, he radioed the control tower for clearance. His bushy, formidable brow shot a look of certainty to the faint of heart-to me actually-the most timid of his three passengers. Just then, I was wondering what the hell I was doing, taxiing down a Love Field runway in a plane small enough to fit into the back of a Suburban.

“You want some oxygen?” Rick asked.

“But we’re not even off the ground yet.”

He smiled coyly. “Couldn’t tell by the way you look.”

I looked at my palms-ashen and sweaty-then took a deep breath as the Cessna leaped into the sky. With Rick at the helm, the take-off felt seamless, the plane climbing easily toward downtown Dallas. A patch of unstable air jostled the plane, quickening my heart. I drew closer to Rick and shouted over the engine’s buzz. “I hate turbulence!”

“I love it,” he bounced back. “You feel every move the plane makes. Become one with the machine. It’s kinda spiritual.”

Kinda crazy is what I thought.

“Look at this day. Stick your hand out the window and touch a cloud.”

I declined his offer. We circled downtown, heading west toward Irving, taking the same 20-minute ride that Rick had flown eight times earlier today. My flight was the end of an event for Challenge Air, the Dallas charity that has given thousands of disabled kids the chance to know the miracle of flight. And they learned it from Rick Amber, a former naval lieutenant who had distinguished himself in an unpopular war, a fighter pilot whose near-fatal crash off the coast of Vietnam left him a high-level paraplegic. But flying among the clouds, he felt as whole as any man. and his mere presence at the controls communicated to the kids of Challenge Air its message: The sky’s the limit.

The story erf Rick Amber is more than just a hero’s journey. It’s the story of a man who struggled desperately to fit into an able-bodied world only to come to terms with his own disability. Fighting the limitations of his body, his mind soared as he earned three college degrees. He turned into a fiery activist for disabled rights when discrimination against the handicapped was commonplace. An irrepressible daredevil, he became a downhill skier, a motorcycle rider, a national wheelchair tennis champion. He became a teacher, a commercial pilot, a husband, a lover, a friend. Then last August, after a skydiving accident. Rick was diagnosed with bladder cancer-rare, aggressive and inoperable.

In a time when “death with dignity” has become the clarion call of medical ethicists everywhere. Rick began to orchestrate his own end. Lifelong friends gathered around him as the story of his dying became a lesson for the living.

Even on this pleasant February afternoon, as he dipped a wing toward Texas Stadium, Rick was strong, vital-and having a damn good time at my expense. Only with this loop, my fear abated. My stomach didn’t drop as we pitched downward, acting as if it didn’t have the right. What were my pains compared to this man’s? What right did I have to groan when he lived without complaint? Such was the magic of the man who had spent his life in the inspiration business. He had cheated death once before. Certainly he could do it again.

ALTHOUGH RICK AT 52 WAS SIX YEARS older than me, we were both raised Jewish and came from the same North Dallas neighborhood. Only Rick grew up harder and faster, the son of a brash travel-ing salesman who thought life had done him wrong and was subject to tits of uncontrollable rage.

During the week, things were fine. In true Fifties fashion, his mother, Marjorie, kept house as he and his sister went about the business of being kids. But when his dad came home on the weekends, Rick lived in terror. To escape his father’s wrath. Rick made himself scarce, spending the night at a friend’s whenever possible. Luckily, his friends were many, and by the time he was 12, he had developed a network of close confidants that would last him a lifetime. Rick grew up without much structure and had the run of his Preston Hollow neighborhood at a time when doors remained unlocked and curfews were seldom observed. His next-door neighbor was soon-to-be Congressman Joe Poole, who spent countless hours with his four sons and Rick playing football in his front yard. But Rick was easily distracted if a plane raced overhead or a bird swept gracefully by. “I thought I was a bird.” laughs Rick. “I was fascinated with the freedom and separation of flight.”

Keeping separate from his dad made Rick fiercely independent. Living with fear made him fearless, a self-assured risk-taker. He loved speed and he loved machines, racing his 55 Olds down Central Expressway at 100 mph when that was still a possibility. Yet even at Hillcrest High School there was a sweetness about Rick, a softness that marked his refusal to be like his dad.

In 1962, when Congressman Joe Poole asked him to accept an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy, his mother was set against it: Nice Jewish boys are supposed to become accountants, not naval officers. His friends thought he was insane: College was a way of avoiding the military, not joining it. But Rick accepted the appointment nonetheless, thrilled by the possibility of adventure.

Rather than rebel against authority, as had been his history. Rick finally found home. The academy offered him the structure he must have been craving since he was a boy. More than anything else, it offered him the chance to fly.

Upon his graduation from Annapolis in 1967, Rick chose to go to flight school in Pensacola, Fla. “I think being Jewish had something to do with it,” he says. “The Six-Day War had just been fought and everyone knew the Israelis were the best fighter pilots in the world.”

Fighter pilots are a breed all their own. They are the guys who have no fear, the ones who aren’t afraid to bend the plane a little, the guys who love a good dogfight almost as much as they love to fly. “In flight school, ’Cocky 1011 was a required course,” says Rick.

In 1969, after getting his wings and more swagger in his gait, Rick was sent to Miramar, Calif.-Fighter Town -where he was cleared to fly the F-8, a single-seat, supersonic jet and the only true gun-fighter in the fleet. Pushing the edge of the envelope, he would point the nose of the plane, kick in the afterburner and climb as high as he could, Flying solo at night, he would turn off his lights, look at the stars and see into forever. “Given the choice between sex and flying, I d take flying…and did.”

Although he considered Miramax his home, Rick maintained his childhood relationships, occasionally returning to Dallas on his way to someplace else. His parents’ marriage didn’t survive; his mother gained the strength to leave after Rick did. After the divorce, his father grew sick and obese, spending his final days in a home for the elderly-alone, destitute, with no one to rage at but himself.

By Christmas 1969, Rick had received his orders. He was assigned to fly F-8s aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hancock, off the coast of Vietnam. Patriotic to the bone, he prepared for his next adventure. Rick Amber was going to war.

The Vietnam War had not been a political issue with Rick. He just wanted to fly. On New Year’s Day 1970, he boarded the U.S.S. Hancock, whose mission was to provide combat air support when Navy bombers dropped their loads over North Vietnam. Rick’s job as a fighter pilot was to protect those bombers from enemy air attacks, mostly MiG warplanes. At home, the unpopularity of the war had grown, putting the politicians rather than the military in charge of calling the shots. “I flew 109 combat missions and never fired my guns once,” says Rick. “The rules of engagement didn’t allow us to pursue MiG’s unless we were fired upon.”

Despite the hostile glare of civilians when he was on shoreleave, Rick remained gung ho about the war. “The Bear,” as he was nicknamed by his squadron mates, had even spoken to his commanding officer about extending his second tour of duty, hoping he would see more action.

March 15, 1971, began as just another routine day of flying for Rick. But then the landing service officer (LSO) radioed all incoming planes that the computerized landing signal was inoperable. The officer stood on the platform of the flight deck, maneuvering by hand the electric ball that guided each pilot’s approach. The deck was pitching from ocean swells, but some pilots had gotten on board. Now it was Rick’s turn.

“I felt like the LSO was bringing me in too close to the ramp [the back of the ship].

Then the ball went to down and he gave me the wave-off signal. I went to 100 percent power, but it was too late.”

Rick clipped the ramp, felt a crunching, metal screeching, the plane exploding. A white-hot flame burst from the underside of the plane, sending a rolling fireball across the deck. From its center shot Rick, who had hit the ejection button just in time. When his parachute opened, he felt a sense of relief, figuring he had cleared the wreckage and would land in the water. But the cockpit had tilted to the right and the ejection pointed him instead toward the ship’s superstructure. As he floated downward, he twisted his head around and saw this huge mass of gray steel coming at him. He braced himself for the impact.

He blacked out for a second and when he came to, he thought he was dying. He could not breathe and began to lose consciousness. He was caught on the mast, swinging from his parachute until help arrived. The medics strapped him into a stretcher and began to lower him down the 10 levels to the flight deck. Just then, one of the ropes snapped and he was hanging in mid-air, upside down. “I remember thinking,” says Rick, “this is not a good day.”

Although he experienced great pain from a broken shoulder, he couldn’t feel his legs. Rick was transported by helicopter to the army evacuation hospital in Da Nang where he was heavily, gratefully sedated.

When he woke up. Rick was in a Striker Frame, a frightening apparatus that had him sandwiched between two mattresses so he could be flipped every four hours to avoid bedsores. The neurosurgeon who performed the exploratory surgery gave him the news: Rick had broken his neck, was paralyzed from his chest down. He would have limited use of his hands, but was technically a quadriplegic. He would never walk again.

Rick didn’t believe him, refused to entertain the idea. He would go back home to California and his girlfriend-get better and get back to flying in no time. “It was a classic case of denial,” says Rick.

In mid-April, Rick was sent to the Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, a lush, tropical setting where the care was wonderful and individualized, particularly if you were an officer, Then came the condolence visits from his squadron mates, his mother, his old Dallas friends. “When I saw him in that steel trap my knees went weak,” says Rick Lambert, now a local mortgage banker. “He was smiling and acting like it was just a minor annoyance.” Rick always had a dozen friends around, eating and drinking all night long, his sense of humor returning as his Navy buddies used him as a “buffet table.”

By June 1971, the partying had stopped. He was taken by ambulance to the Long Beach Veterans Hospital for what was meant to be a year of intense rehabilitation. For the first time, he was surrounded by people who had come back from the war in wheelchairs, people like him whose quick evacuation from the battlefield had saved their lives but had left them maimed. And yet, he wanted nothing to do with them. They reminded him too much of himself.

Rehabilitation back then was still in the dark ages. Little was known about the stages of grief and loss. Patients instead were overloaded with Valium and sedatives, anything to quiet the pain. The once-proud warrior, independent to a fault, now found himself totally dependent on others. “It was like being born all over again,” says Rick. At first he couldn’t get out of bed by himself, but by building upper-body strength with weights, he gained enough independence to get in and out of his own wheelchair.

But the darkest day of rehab came when a yeoman showed up at lunch with an envelope from the Department of the Navy. It was his discharge papers. Although the Navy would provide Rick with generous disability benefits for the rest of his life, dashed forever were his dreams of remaining a career officer.

After three months at the veterans hospital, Rick wanted out, told the doctors he just wasn’t enjoying himself anymore. He moved into a San Diego apartment with his girlfriend, hoping for some semblance of normalcy. But it wasn’t just the paralysis that he was dealing with. His body was broken: His bowel and bladder control was limited, his sex life would never be the same. “I felt like I was pulling a dead body around on my shoulders.”

And in 1971, he did it without curb cuts or ramps or wheelchair-friendly parking places, without federal laws which gave civil rights to the disabled. But he mastered the skill of driving a car with hand controls. After that, says Rick, “Drive-through restaurants got most of my business.”

Of all his military buddies, only Chris Clausen kept coming around, ’it hurt him at first,” says Chris, now a Delta pilot living in San Diego. “But to the rest of the squadron. Rick visually represented what could happen to them.” Rick grew his hair long and found himself gravitating toward a subculture of people who weren’t interested in the war. They sat around his dingy, black-lighted, wheelchair-accessible apartment, listening to “Purple Haze” and staying stoned all day.

By August 1972, Rick had hit bottom. It had been 10 years since he had lived in Dallas, and when his thoughts turned to his childhood pais, he remembered when he was the bravest kid on the block. If they pitied him now, he just couldn’t bear it. But with his life going nowhere, he had little choice. Rick Amber was coming home.

When Rick first moved back to Dallas, he lived at his mother’s house, only to find that she, like so many others, focused on his disability rather than his ability. “I could never accept the fact that he was in a wheelchair, and he knew it,” says Margorie. Rick had no tolerance for her pity, hated it when she opened a door for him, mothered him. Grasping for a modicum of independence, he refused to let her or anyone else push his wheelchair.

In public, strangers spoke to him loudly, slowly, thinking he was also mentally disabled. Waiters treated him as if he didn’t exist, turning to his dinner companions and asking, “What will he be having?” Then there were the excessively helpful-forever opening a door, making a place, going needlessly out of their way.

If the chair had its burdens, it also had its gifts. Being only four feet off the ground, Rick’s world grew smaller and more intimate. Details took on new meaning: the sunrise, the joy in a child’s laugh, the curve in a woman’s back. Relationships grew in number and intensity. He learned how to listen, to analyze, to mentor a friend’s son or daughter as though they were his own. “Rick was so easy to love,” says Carolyn Friedman, who had known him since the second grade. “When he talked to you, you were his complete focus.”

His stay at his mother’s was short-lived, and he eventually moved into Preston Towers on Northwest Highway. He got a job with National Chemsearch doing product support and went to college at night, eventually getting his master’s degree in environmental science.

With the tenacity of a fighter pilot, he struggled to fit into an able-bodied world. His old friends were mostly married and he grew tired of living alone. He became close friends with his next-door neighbor, Irma, and they soon moved in together. A year later, in May 1977, they were married.

For a time, things were good. He was needy and she felt needed. She was the one person he allowed to push his chair. “The wheelchair was our only child,” explains Rick. “I may have been sitting in it, but both of our lives revolved around it.” Together they built a life and a home in North Dallas that was totally wheelchair accessible: no steps, wider doors, lower cabinets, a roll-in shower.

Irma helped repair his confidence, convincing him he could do anything he wanted. He went to work for the enforcement division of Environmental Protection Agency. He bought a motorcycle, an old Honda 750, and had it adapted with a sidecar for his wheelchair so he could push the envelope once again. His facile mind was also in overdrive, and he returned to school at SMU. In 1984. he received his BFA in communications and upon graduation, went to work for Warner Amex, producing cable access programming.

The more accepting he became of himself, the more interested he grew in learning about the wheelchair world. On several occasions, he addressed the Dallas City Council, speaking eloquently on the needs of the handicapped for accessible parking. He was asked to lead the Dallas County Handicap Advisory Committee. Through its work, all county buildings, courtrooms and voting precincts were made architecturally accessible.

Rick had hoped to have the same success when he was asked to chair the DART Elderly and Handicapped Advisory Panel. DART’s service pian, approved by the voters, called for DART to equip 50 percent of its buses with lifts for wheelchair riders. But in April 1985, when Rick heard that the DART Board was considering eliminating lifts on all new buses and instead providing van service for the disabled, he mobilized his wheelchair friends and stormed a DART Board meeting. “If you fail to install lifts on regular buses, you are denying us equal opportunity,” Rick told the members.

When the board voted for the proposal anyway. Rick resigned his chairmanship and hied a lawsuit with other wheelchair riders, hoping to enjoin DART from implementing its new plan. A federal judge dismissed the case, finding that DART’s new plan complied with an “acceptable level” of special service to the handicapped. But shortly after the dismissal, says Rick, DART voted to equip all new buses with lifts. “They finally realized it was the right thing to do.

” Still working for Warner Amex, Rick was assigned to produce a program about a wheelchair tennis tournament. Before long, he was playing, and he eventually worked his way up the ranks of the wheelchair circuit, winning the U.S. Open National Championship in quad doubles three times in the early Nineties.

Although Rick would bring along his wife on the tennis tour, their marriage had grown sour over the years. “We could feel there was no great love between them,” says longtime Preston Hollow pal Hershel Wilonsky. “They just somehow grew apart.” By pushing him to do more, Irma had unwittingly pushed him out of her life altogether. They had little in common but the wheelchair, and Rick refused to stay together for the sake of “the child.” In December 1990, he filed for divorce and didn’t look back. Instead, he prepared for his next adventure: More than anything else, he wanted to get back into the air.

By 1992, he had updated his licenses, becoming certified as both a commercial pilot and a flight instructor. With hand controls to operate the plane’s rudder pedals, Rick could escape the confinement of his wheelchair and feel as complete as any able-bodied pilot.

Always giving back more than he got. Rick had an idea: For years, he had taught tennis clinics for kids with disabilities. Why not take some of these same kids up flying? What was bom from this idea was Challenge Air. a non-profit charity, and the quintessential Rick Amber.

In 1993, Rick purchased a Cessna 177 Cardinal and began to stage air events around the country, offering recreational therapy to kids with spinal bifida, paralysis, AIDS, cancer-all manner of debilitating and catastrophic conditions. Two thousand feet up, hanging on wings, he became one of them. A kid among kids, laughing, teasing, screaming if everyone wanted to. He showed them there was fun to be had, sneaking into a cloud and letting them feel its cool wetness. “Fora few minutes in their lives,” he says, “there is a sudden dis-awareness that they are disabled.”

In August 1996, after flying over 3,000 kids in more than a dozen states, Rick was honored as the Humanitarian of the Year by the Experimental Aviation Association. Gen. Chuck Yeager, the first human to fly faster than the speed of sound, made the presentation at a Fly-In Convention in Oshkosh, Wis.

After the presentation. Rick was feeling “on top of the world” and a little reckless. He flew to Eugene, Ore., for a Challenge Air event and some skydiving. It’s the closest he could come to being a bird. He jumped in tandem with an instructor, free-falling for 35 seconds before his chute opened. Four men stood on the ground waiting to catch him. Only they didn’t. Rick landed on his right knee, the instructor on top of him. If he had had any feeling in his right leg, he would have realized that he had broken his thigh. Instead, he got in his plane and flew to Portland for another event before his leg began to swell.

Rick returned to Dallas, his leg in a cast. After five weeks of being incredibly angry at himself, the cast came off, but his leg was still swollen. The doctor suspected blood clots and wanted to run some tests. A biopsy revealed a tumor in his bladder as big as a grapefruit. Even after its removal, Rick was told his prognosis was bleak.

LAST MARCH, I WENT TO BAYLOR HOSPItal to visit Rick. His smile still lit up the room, but he had been there all day and was tired. His bladder was leaking copious amounts of blood. He needed a complete transfusion every 10 days to survive. He hated every minute of it, but said he was glad that I came.

From the time of his spinal injury, he had dedicated his entire psyche to regaining independence. Now his greatest fear was his growing dependence on the kindness of others. Earlier chemotherapy treatments had sapped more of his energy than h is cancer and he wanted no more of them. Around Rick’s neck was a message to all paramedics: Do Not Resuscitate.

He had given it great thought, said he had lived the last 26 years of his life in a wheelchair and was ready to leave it behind. Go on to his next adventure. “You know how it is, being a Jewish man, taking care of the world. Now I am ready to relax.”

As I was leaving, I told him I would drop by his home the next night. He told me he wouldn’t be there. He had a date.

He chose to confront his death the way he lived his life-with courage and humor and friends. Unwilling to die the sad, lonely death of his father, he received hundreds of people from all over the country who came to be by his side. But none came with the commitment or the consistency of his old friends from the neighborhood.

Each night they were there for him-the Wilonskys, the Friedmans, the Bells, the Lamberts, the Kalisars-to feed him, to clothe him, to put him to bed, to celebrate his life. It wasn’t a choice for them; they had to be there. Everything else in their lives paled in importance.

Carolyn Friedman made it her personal mission to reconcile Rick with his mother. Finally Rick made the attempt, confronting his mother about the past slights he had suffered by her inability to accept his paralysis. By the time he was done, he invited her to stay with him until the end. She moved in that same night.

Although his body was slowly deteriorating, his desire to see Challenge Air survive kept him alive. He put a strong board of directors in place, found another wheelchair pilot to man his plane and received several foundation grants to help fund operations. After a successful board meeting April 16, Rick made a decision: He would not be taking any more blood.

Because of his paralysis, his cancer had remained relatively painless. He refused all medication so his mind would stay clear. But as the disease crept above his chest and into his shoulder and brain, it began to have its way with him. Besides the blood loss, he had double vision and towering headaches. His breathing had grown labored, his lungs filling with fluid. But for an occasional smile at the sound of a friendly voice, he slept the day away.

On May 3, Rick woke up in great pain and a decision was made to give him morphine. By 5 p.m., he had slipped into a peaceful coma. All [hose he had asked to be there-friends and family-gathered around his bed as death approached. Still comatose at II p.m.. Rick raised himself slightly off the bed. He lifted up his right hand and seemed to wave, then placed his hand over his heart and died. He had summoned his last ounce of strength to say goodbye to those he loved.

The following Tuesday, 400 people attended his funeral at Temple Emanu-el. Rabbi David Stern delivered the stirring eulogy, saying,”We are here because Rick lifted us up, by shedding his limitations and reminding us that we should shed ours….We, the surviving, will mourn his loss, will celebrate his life and will thank God for a man in a chair who lifted people up every day of his life.”

Etched into one side of Rick’s headstone is a pair of Navy wings; on the other side is a Jewish star. Not surprisingly, his gravesite is wheelchair accessible.

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