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On Buggies and "Body Thumps"


 Thomas a Kempis and buggy, RSW in wheelchair at Redgate, his first studio which burned in 1922.
Thomas Kempis and buggy, RSW at Redgate, his first studio, burned in 1922.
When Robert Strong Woodward returned to his home town, Buckland, Massachusetts, after recovery from his paralyzing accident in California he was 21 years old. He spent the first few years working in his studio, which was converted from a farm milk house, making illuminations and bookplates. He began to paint, first the views outside the windows of his studio. Then he started driving a buggy drawn by his beloved horse, Thomas Kempis, along the country roads to find interesting and beautiful barns and country scenes to paint.
Thomas  Kempis pulling RSW in a sleigh
Thomas Kempis pulling RSW in an Albany Cutter sleigh
In those years he was young and very strong despite not being able to walk or stand on his shriveled legs. Despite his disability he was able to harness up his horse to a buggy, load the buggy with needed painting supplies, carry along a lunch for both him and Thomas Kempis, and head out into the surrounding countryside to spend the day painting. When he had located the right spot he would climb out of the buggy, unhitch the horse and tie him to a nearby tree, then climb back into the buggy to make a painting or a chalk drawing. All this he did by dragging himself, sitting on the ground, from one location to another. At the end of the day he would hitch up the horse to the buggy and travel home usually arriving before dark. Such perseverance is rarely seen today.

 RSW painting in a buggy
RSW painting in a buggy
RSW painting while Thomas  Kempis is tied to a tree behind buggy
RSW painting while Thomas Kempis is tied to a tree behind buggy

Handwritten comments on the back of the above photograph

Nelson took this, one very happy Sunday in May, away off in Hawley, expressly to send to you. I wanted you to see the buggy, but I have it all coamouflaged with coats, canvases, etc. Even Thomas Kempis looks poor, and gaunt, where as he is a large and beautiful thorobred, the best horse (professionals say) in the country. None seem to especially care for the picture of me, but altho I look German! I rather like it. Anyway you can see I am strong and husky this spring and far from an invalid. I always paint. I never sit without working. Nelson this noon had cooked our dinner of hamburg steak over a fire of birch bark. It was a great day!
Photo of RSW's buggy after an accident.  RSW was unhurt.
Photo of RSW's buggy after an accident. RSW was unhurt.
Several photographs of RSW are shown in his buggy, one with Thomas Kempis tied to a tree behind, one of him in Albany Cutter sleigh and one which shows a miserable buggy wreck. The details of this accident are not known today but it is recorded that Woodward was not injured.

By the early 1930s, he had obtained an automobile (a Nash) and by then had a "hired man", Fabian Stone. Most of his outdoor paintings from this time on were made from the rear seat of the open automobile. There are several photographs showing Woodward at the wheel but to our knowledge he never actually drove the vehicle. This was done by Fabian who now went with him on his daily painting "treks", helped him in and out of the automobile, set up his easel and paint supply shelf. Fabian would spend his day perusing the surrounding countryside, looking for just the proper rocks to bring back home for the construction of walks and walls in and around the Hiram Woodward studio. This studio burned after being struck by lightning in 1933.

  RSW painting from the rear seat  of his Packard
RSW painting from the rear seat of his Packard
In 1936 Woodward was given a Packard 12 cylinder touring car phaeton, by a wealthy patron, which had an enormous rear seat which would hold his easel and painting equipment easily.

Although most of his paintings and chalk drawings were thereafter made from the rear seat of this automobile he would occasionally take Thomas Kempis out for a day of painting. By this time he was not as healthy and did not have the strength to harness the horse, hook up the buggy etc., so Fabian would travel along behind in an automobile and help him set up to paint. When Thomas Kempis died, his replacement, Trigger, took over and apparently was as knowledgeable and agreeable as was Thomas Kempis. Trigger's born name was actually Nigger, but, even in those not-so-politically-correct days, it was changed to Trigger and he never seemed to notice the difference. After the second studio burned from a lightning strike, Trigger came up to the new barn in Buckland Center where he remained for the rest of his life. Even then, up to the early 1940s RSW would occasionally go out for a buggy ride, usually with Fabian keeping a close eye on the route. The last buggy and the Packard (see the provenance essay on The Packard) were still in the barn when RSW died in 1957. The Packard was sold for $50 to a Packard Museum by his executrix in the settling of the estate, and a few years later the rubber-wheeled buggy was sold because space was needed in the barn.

That's about it on buggies. Now about "body thumps." I am a physician.

My first experience with hearing a "body thump" was when Mr. Woodward fell out of his wheel chair trying to get into bed. (I was a high school student at this time, long before my knowledge about medicine.) More about this later.

After medical school, as a hospital resident, I several times would be sitting at a nursing station reading the nurses notes and run across the written statement that "I heard a 'body thump' and hurried down the hall to find Mrs. ... on the floor." Then one night later on I heard a "body thump" myself while making midnight rounds. Once heard, it is a sound one can never forget. It is sort of like the sound of a sack of grain being dropped onto the floor from about 10 feet above. It has a hollowness to it. This is the sound made when so many elderly people fall and fracture their hips or some other fragile body bone.

It is especially the night shift nurses who are familiar with this sound and know immediately of the danger and consequences. After entering private practice I heard it again in a local nursing home while making a late evening house call. But, back now to my first "body thump" experience.

During my high school days I had a Ford Model-A Roadster (with a rumble seat). I was a dance band musician in those days and mostly used the car at least twice a week to travel to one of the nearby towns to play the piano for round and square dances. There was one evening when something was wrong with my little car and I had to get to a dance to play with the orchestra (the "Vagabonds" we were called.) Mr. Woodward offered to let me use his Chevrolet Beech Wagon which he used for doing general errands etc. The Packard touring car was for painting or entertaining friends or guests. I was requested to come into the house and let him know when I had the car back, which I did. As I was coming down the hallway toward his bedroom I heard the sound which I have described above, along with some clinking of wheelchair wheels. Entering the RSW bedroom I found him naked on the floor beside his bed with the wheelchair halfway across the room.

RSW's wheelchair in front of studio fireplace.
RSW's wheelchair in front of studio fireplace.
Apparently he had failed to put on the brake and it had slipped away from the bedside in his attempt to climb into bed. By this time Lena Putnam, his regular nurse at the time, had hurried downstairs from her bedroom, having heard the "body thump" noise and knowing immediately, from her nursing experience, what had happened. By this time, from my working for Mr. Woodward for many years, I was used to lifting him but not up from the floor, only from the wheelchair into the car seat. But I did what I needed to do. I lifted him up from the floor and put him into bed. The nurse checked him over and pronounced that he seemed to be OK, with no broken bones or anything. But he was quivering uncontrollably. Fully dressed I laid down beside him on the bed and cuddled him. This was my first and only life experience in cuddling a man. (I now cuddle my dear wife every night!) In a few minutes he began to relax. His frail spindly legs were the last to stop shaking. Lena put more blankets over him and I got up and left for home.

From then on, he wanted me to call him "Uncle Rob."

January 2007