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Steven Sharp knows the depth of depression that only people know who have ever reached out with hands they no longer have.
He knows the immensity of the frustration that comes with the knowledge that forever after the simplest task, the task you didn’t think about because it was too routine to think about, will challenge your body and worse yet your very soul.
He knows the agony that can come from limbs even decades after they’re gone.
He knows the stench of blood and diesel.
Sharp knows all these things and many more terrible things besides.
But these are not his lessons, and they do not define, or even much affect, his life.
A quarter century after a hay baler severed both his arms above the elbow while he worked in a field near his home at New Bridge, Sharp, who was 17 on that day, Aug. 22, 1992, volunteers to help teach young people with disabilities what he learned many years ago.
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Which is that a person can lose his hands or his feet without losing even an ounce of his self.
Sharp was never the sort to seek pity, much less to wallow in it. Not even when he was still a teenager with wounds barely healed, still a boy whose life, until that terrible episode in a hay field, revolved around gripping baseballs and squeezing rifle triggers and deftly casting a fishing line into the crystalline waters of Hidden Lake in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Sharp came to understand that even without his hands he could still do almost everything he had done before.
No matter that he fires his rifle by biting a piece of plastic rather than flexing his right index finger, or that he steers his pickup truck with a metal hook clinking against an eye bolt.
He can still bag a buck or drive the gravel roads of Eagle Valley in eastern Baker County.
And what he can do, others can do.
Jay, the 9-year-old from Nampa, Idaho, can harvest his first deer.
Sharp was there when Jay, who had both his feet amputated, tagged the whitetail doe in Wallowa County earlier this year.
Sharp points the hook that caps his prosthetic left arm at the framed photograph on the wall of his home near Richland, one of several pictures that line the hallway.
It’s Jay, grinning as he kneels beside his deer.
The handwritten card he mailed to Sharp is tucked behind the frame.
“You really made a memory for me,” Jay wrote.
That’s what defines Sharp’s life these days — helping children create memories, children who are so much like the boy Sharp was, children who understand the depression and the frustration and the pain.
Sharp, 42, is both a volunteer and a member of the board of directors for Creating Memories For Disabled Children, a nonprofit based in Enterprise that helps children who want to hunt or fish or just to watch wildlife.
It is perhaps the most rewarding work Sharp has ever done.
“It’s so awesome seeing kids do this stuff,” he said.
The way Sharp figures it, the children he helps face even more formidable challenges than he did.
His dad, R.E. “Randy” Sharp, taught him to hunt and fish when he was a young boy.
But many of the kids Sharp works with through Creating Memories have never fired a gun or spun a fishing reel.
“I went from a 17-year-old kid with both hands to the next day not having them,” he said. “These kids, some of them have been in wheelchairs all their life. I tell them that I learned to do this, this can be done, and if this is something you want to do we can make it happen.”
When Sharp recounts his hunting trip with Jay, or when he talks about Ashley, who has cerebral palsy and last year, after three years of trying, finally killed her first buck, a 4-point, he speaks with the palpable pride of a father regaling the listener with his children’s exploits.
(Sharp is single but he hopes that will change some day — “I haven’t run into the correct young lady, I guess,” he says with a laugh.)
The smiles on those children’s faces, their screams of joy the first time they feel a crappie or a catfish tugging their line in Brownlee Reservoir, explain why Sharp is remodeling his home just east of Richland.
This will become a base camp for Creating Memories, a place where the kids and their parents or caregivers can stay for free during their hunting or fishing trips.
Sharp widened the bedroom entrances to accommodate wheelchairs.
Baker City Carpet Express donated $1,000 in hardwood flooring — thick carpet and wheelchairs are a poor combination.
A memory that will never go away
If you stepped onto Sharp’s back porch and looked to the northwest, across the 85 acres of rich Eagle Valley soil where he grows alfalfa and grass and grain, you could almost see where the accident happened.
It was a Saturday, and cool for late August.
The high that day at Halfway, a dozen or so miles to the east, was just 76.
Sharp was working on the Saunders ranch that summer, doing the work that boys and men have done for decades. He moved irrigation pipe and mended fences and, as certain a symbol of Eagle Valley summers as thunderheads building over Lookout Mountain and the sharp scent of sage after a rain, he baled hay.
That’s what Sharp was doing early on the afternoon of Aug. 22, 1992.
He was driving a 20-year-old Case 970 tractor attached to a Hesston baler. The tractor’s PTO — Power Take Off — unit powered the baler.
Sharp was nearly finished with the field when he noticed a patch of damp hay was piling up in front of the baler, threatening to clog it. He stopped the tractor and disengaged the PTO — a safety procedure comparable to assuming every gun is loaded. If the PTO is engaged and the tractor’s engine is running, the baler continues to operate, and that’s dangerous.
Sharp was clearing hay from the baler’s intake when it suddenly started running. Its rollers snatched his left hand. He tried to use his right hand to free his left. In a few seconds both arms, nearly up to the elbow, had been pulled into the machine.
Sharp yelled for help even though he knew it was all but impossible anybody would hear him. The Saunders home was 400 yards away.
He braced his body against the baler and managed to slow the rate at which the machine was consuming his arms. And although he felt faint from the shock and the loss of blood and the pain, he managed, after what he later figured was 30 to 40 minutes, to free himself from the baler.
Sharp might well have bled to death had the heat from the baler’s rollers not partially cauterized the wounds, slowing the rate of blood loss from the stumps of his arms.
He stumbled to the house, the first steps of a long journey that would, over more than two decades, bring Sharp back to his native valley and, finally, to his work with disabled children.
He pauses for several seconds when asked the question, even though it’s a question he no doubt has answered dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times.
Yes, he remembers that day.
“I don’t think it’ll ever go away,” Sharp said. “I’ll be out on a tractor, or something else will remind me. It’s something you have to deal with over time. It used to be worse. I don’t think you get over it, but I think you get comfortable with it.”
Sharp is comfortable enough talking about his accident that he gives presentations occasionally at Loma Linda University in California. He speaks to students studying physical or occupational therapy, as well as prosthetics design — the very people, he points out, who are likely to end up working with amputees.
But he admits it took him many years to feel that his story was one he cared to think about, much less offer to share with strangers.
In the first few months after his accident, much of which he spent at the Shriners or the OHSU hospitals in Portland, Sharp said his greatest desire was to resume his former life, or at least a reasonable facsimile.
“I wasn’t embarrassed that I’m an amputee, I just wanted to get back to where I wasn’t considered an amputee,” he said.
The lawsuit and trial
But there was another ordeal awaiting Sharp, and this one took place not in a hospital but in a courtroom.
In 1993 Sharp’s lawyer filed a lawsuit against the Case Corporation of Racine, Wisconsin, the company that made the tractor Sharp was driving. The complaint was based on the claim that the lever that operated the tractor’s PTO was poorly designed and that it could turn on spontaneously even when the operator believed, based on the position of the lever, that the unit was disengaged.
Sharp said the suit was filed in Wisconsin rather than in Oregon because Oregon law requires that liability complaints about products, including tractors, be filed within eight years of the product’s sale. Because the tractor Sharp was driving was 20 years old, he couldn’t sue Case in Oregon. The Oregon law also caps punitive damages at $500,000.
More than two decades later, Sharp said the Oregon law still bothers him.
An eight-year threshold might be reasonable for, say, a toaster, he said.
“But tractors last a lot longer than that,” he said.
Sharp later testified before Congress regarding a tort reform bill that would have set a 12-year limit on liability lawsuits for products including tractors.
Sharp’s lawsuit against Case, as lawsuits often do, continued for several years.
Sharp said that just before the civil trial started in Racine County (in effect, Case’s backyard) in February 1996, Case’s attorneys offered to settle the case for $200,000. Sharp declined.
“That was just a poke in the eye,” he said of the offer.
After a six-week trial, a jury found that although Sharp was partially responsible for the accident — 35 percent liability — Case was also liable. The jury awarded Sharp $6.3 million, including $2 million in punitive damages. It was the first time the company had been found liable for punitive damages based on one of its products.
But the jury’s verdict wasn’t the final chapter.
Case appealed the jury’s decision, and three more years passed.
See more in the Nov. 24, 2017, issue of the Baker City Herald.