Ray Dudley remembers clearly the time he underwent a medical assessment to see if he was eligible to get an electric wheelchair.

They asked him lots of questions and when they were done, Dudley told them they never ask the right ones, to which they inquired what that meant.

“Why don’t you ask me to stand up?” he told them.

It was sort of a moot issue, as Dudley has no legs, but he was trying to make a point.

“Medicare and MaineCare won’t pay for an electric wheelchair for me because I don’t qualify,” he said. “I’m not on oxygen and I still have a lot of upper body strength, so technically they say I could push a regular wheelchair.”

Then, displaying a wry sense of humor, he added: “I just don’t have a leg to stand on.”

I met Dudley in downtown Waterville Wednesday where he was scooting along Elm and Appleton streets in an electric chair a man loaned him about four weeks ago. The man’s wife had used the chair before she died.

“He’s 82 and I promised it will be returned to him when I die,” he said.

Electric wheelchairs are pretty pricey for people who don’t have a lot of money, so they must share when they can, according to Dudley.

We sat in a small, shaded park at the center of The Concourse where he explained that his borrowed electric wheelchair runs on a battery, has about 14 hours of running time and goes 8 to 10 mph.

He lives at Elm Towers nearby and uses a regular push wheelchair at home for exercise. The electric chair is good for getting around town, but if he needs to go to the grocery store or Wal-Mart, he takes the Kennebec Explorer bus.

“I like to watch people, so I hang out in front of Family Dollar or I may be down at the Two-Cent Bridge. I’ve met some homeless people and I try to help them out. I’ve brought them to my place and fed them a couple of breakfasts. I had a prosthetic leg and I gave it to a man who still works and he wears his prostheses out. He really can’t afford to buy new ones, so he fixes what he’s got. I gifted it to him. Those things are expensive.”

Dudley explained that the man lost his leg after being struck by a train when he was a teenager. He is now 50 and has five children.

“I met him in the Big Apple one night and we got to chatting and he knew the guy who made my leg and I said, ‘I got a prosthesis you can have.’ He about started crying.”

Dudley grew up in Windsor, graduated from Erskine Academy in 1972 and went right to work in a steel fabrication shop.

He worked construction jobs after that, became a certified welder and traveled the country working at power plants in places like Florida and Maryland, but mostly in Connecticut. Then for several years he was a meat cutter at Hussey’s General Store in Windsor and later went back to work in a steel company running a band-saw. He is twice divorced and has three grown boys, two of whom he sees frequently. Four years ago he moved to Waterville. He developed serious vascular disease and became disabled three years ago.

Two years ago, his left leg was amputated, and in December last year, he underwent surgery to remove his right leg.

“I’m doing great now,” he said. “I didn’t realize I was in pain constantly. After a while, you get accustomed to certain things. When the vein clogs up, it gets excruciating. There is a lot less pain now.”

Dudley has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and smokes cigarettes, but is planning to quit. He has tried to quit before, but it’s difficult, he said.

He has a lot of friends at Elm Towers, where there are 50 apartments on seven floors. He and his friends play beano and poker, share lunches and barbecue a lot, he said. Some tenants also are amputees in wheelchairs, and they talk about how difficult it is to get around in certain areas downtown, particularly when sidewalks just sort of drop off. When that happens, they must turn around and find places where there is a gradual grade onto the street.

“Anything with a pretty steep incline is scary,” he said.

Also, sometimes drivers have a difficult time seeing people in wheelchairs, he said. When a car stops for a wheelchair to cross the street, often another car tries to pull around and pass it, and that’s when the situation becomes precarious, he said.

Otherwise, Dudley has no gripes. He does his own cooking, cleaning and laundry, is happy and independent and plans to stay that way.

Meanwhile, he is enjoying the unusually warm September air, as when winter comes, he is pretty much confined to being indoors.

“I’m going to be out as long as I can,” he said.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 27 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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