by Cecilia LaFrance
The aisles of Capital Hill Books hold enough curiosity along their shelves, but as John (J.W.) McClaugherty pulls a wheeled collapsible utility cart into the store, combined with his patriotic hat, Broncos coat, and full beard, he earns a glance. Once McClaugherty finds an an out-of-the way spot to rest the cart, Bee Bee Yoda, McClaugherty’s aged dog and cargo, resettles herself within the cart’s plastic walls.
“She used to be my service dog, but now is my companion dog.” The 15-pound Bulldog, Shih Tzu, and Chihuahua mix looks out from wrinkles of skin that formerly boasted 30 pounds of muscle and girth. “She retired in September and is 70 years old, in dog years.”
McClaugherty mumbles to himself as he reads titles, and then he wheels Bee Bee into the next room, tucking her out of the way as he heads to the nonfiction section of his favorite book store. A slight stiffness alters his gait. He’s walking without his cane, but plans to get it or his leg brace before long. “I don’t want to slip and hurt myself.” Outside the window behind him, specks of snow tease the air, a prelude to a much anticipated snow storm.
McClaugherty has good reason to be cautious. The former quadriplegic spent eight years in a wheelchair after a fall that smashed five of his vertebrae. “I had a motorcycle accident, a car accident, and fell 80 feet while rock climbing. That’s what put me in a wheelchair.” In 1973, the former Southern Colorado native was climbing with a friend on Crestone Needle, an imposing 14,000 foot mountain in the Sangre de Cristo Range, when he slipped. Quick to take accountability, McClaugherty’s head shakes slightly with his own admonishment. “I shouldn’t have been climbing without ropes.” He recalls the route reaching class 4 and 5 moves and falling feet-first to land 10 feet from a woman who happened to catch the whole thing on 8mm film. McClaugherty eventually viewed the footage, but never cares to see it again.
After spending 18 months in traction, McClaugherty was able to move to a wheelchair, an electric model equipped with a mouth controller. With both his arms and legs nonfunctioning, he could navigate using his tongue or by blowing into the device. “The 70s didn’t have technology (for restorative surgery).” He was told any surgery could permanently damage the small section of his spinal cord left un-severed in the impact. “Everyone told me it wouldn’t do any good.”
Hope and “my belief in God” carried him through, and eventually, in 1982, he found surgeons at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, who took his case. “They repaired what was torn up until I could eventually walk again.”
McClaugherty walks back to check on Bee Bee, who is fully at her owner’s mercy now. But in her service years, she helped where needed–opening the strap-equipped refrigerator, bringing out items, opening doors fitted with push buttons. “She had everything else figured out. She’s a pretty smart little dog.”
Now 63-years-old, McClaugherty is opening doors for Bee Bee. He also gives time to a Denver charity that helps the “homeless, addicts, and street ladies” with food, coats, and funding flights home to families where people can get back on their feet.
The stop into the book store is short, just a check for anything unusual that might catch his eye. With Bee Bee in tow, he makes it no further out the door to the sidewalk display where he finds a paperback and comes back to “pay his due.”