‘A Clown in Cobwebs’: Where disability lies

Betty BeanKnox Scene

On Monday, Oct, 21, from 5-7 p.m., Gary Harmon’s going to have a book signing at the Casual Pint Northshore. He’ll introduce his memoir, “A Clown in Cobwebs” by Walt Nelson, and then he’ll introduce himself:


“I’ll go up to the microphone and I’ll say, ‘My real name is Walt Nelson.’ Everybody will laugh and we’ll go on.”

Those who attend will doubtless already know him. He came to Knoxville from his hometown of Clarksville to attend the University of Tennessee and has never left. He taught high school English, writing and/or history (plus a little bit of French) at Bearden, Austin-East and Halls high schools and the Knox County Juvenile Detention Center. He retired in February with 34 years of service to Knox County Schools, including four years of frequent school board appearances as president of the Knox County Education Association.

Most have also probably noticed some ways he’s different from most other people, too. He was born with no right hand and only a thumb and pinkie on his left hand. Less obvious is the fact that he was also born with no feet, a condition that’s not immediately visible unless he’s wearing shorts that make his braces visible. These distinctive characteristics are due to a pre-natal condition called amniotic band syndrome, which is not hereditary and may be caused by trauma suffered in the womb.

This is Harmon’s second book. Several years ago, he wrote one for children called “My Daddy Takes His Legs Off” to explain what it’s like to live with physical challenges. His memoir tells the story of his relationship with his brutal U.S. Marine master sergeant father – sort of a what-not-to-do parenting primer as seen through the eyes of a person with physical differences. He is careful and deliberate with the words he chooses.

“I don’t use the word disability unless it’s a mistake, he said. “Sometimes it’ll slip out of my mouth. When I sit down at the piano, I’m a person with a disability. But otherwise, not really.” He cracked the slightest of smiles.

So, who is Walt Nelson?

Because if he’d used his real name, he said, his publisher, AuthorHouse, would have required him to get written releases from every living person mentioned. He has no staff, so he would have had to make each contact himself. And since he started working on the first version of the book when he was 20, this could have involved finding people he hasn’t seen in more than 30 years. Hence the pseudonym.

In the beginning, he set out to write a full autobiography, but once he got started, he came to a realization:

“As I got older, I realized that an autobiography is what Frederick Douglass writes. Some of my life is interesting and some of it is really boring. A memoir focuses on a particular event or theme, and switching to a memoir allowed me to focus on the main issue of my life, which is where does disability lie?

“It wasn’t until then that I understood the purpose of the book – that I was writing about what happened between my dad and me. It took a whole lot of rewriting, and as I used to say when I taught my English class, a good sentence is a rewritten sentence.”

His wish is that parents who are raising differently-abled children will find his book useful.

“I hope they get a better understanding of what growing up with a physical difference is like. And I hope that if somewhere there is a young couple with a baby like me, the dad says, ‘We can’t hit that kid. One day he’s going to grow up and write a book.’”

He gives editor Betsy Pickle high marks, even though she was hard on him.

“She said, ‘What you do to commas is criminal.’ Then she sat down with me and said a lot of friends ask her to read their books, and the hardest thing to do is to tell a friend, ‘You don’t have a book.’

“So, I pulled up my big-boy pants and asked her if I had a book. She said, ‘I loved it.’ If anybody needs an editor, they should hire her.”

Harmon and his wife, Katherine, have been married for 28 years and have two children, C.J., 18, and Nathan, 14. Gary retired earlier this year, he said, because he wants to create a new life for himself as a writer and speaker.

Books are available at AuthorHouse.com, Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.com.

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