My irrepressible friend Greg Winterbottom grew up in a working class neighborhood where drinking and domestic violence were the norm and aspirations were low. He decided early on that he would have a different kind of life. In this interview Greg candidly discusses his childhood, talks about the 1966 accident that abruptly changed his world, and shares his reflections about the path he has taken.
Known affectionately as The Bot, Greg has spent more than three decades in public service and is currently on the board of the Orange County Transportation Authority. People may notice his wheelchair but very few are aware of the continual pain that he endures, and even so, it's hard to keep up with The Bot. He is generous and outrageous, inspiring and opinionated, an indomitable soul who will never be defined by disability. He calls himself a cynic but none of us believes that.
It's been nearly a decade since this interview, but here's the essential Bot, in his own words:
My name is Gregory Thomas Winterbottom, and I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 7, 1947.
My parents were born and raised in Philadelphia - Lansdowne, actually. My mother's family actually had money before the stock market crash, and they lived in a big house, a mansion. My grandfather, known as TJ, was a rumrunner, I think, as well as an alcoholic and a womanizer. They had no class even back then.
On my dad's side, the Winterbottoms, I don't know anything about them except that my grandfather was 58 when my father was born. They used to lock my father in the closet -if claustrophobia can be inherited, I think that's where I got it.
My father out of high school was a very good baseball player. He played catcher and had a lot of potential, but he got caught drinking and was kicked out of school and that ruined his life. He died in 1984 when he was 68, which is basically ten years older than I am now, and he just looked so old. Alcoholic.
I was a year old when we came to California. It was May of 1948. As the story goes, my mother said to my father, "I'm leaving. You can either come with us or not." Her whole family was already out here …Nina, Jimmy, Uncle Tom, Aunt Doll…everybody except for Aunt Sis, who went to Florida. They had all come out during the war. Nina is my mom's sister, and she was married to Jimmy. Jimmy was in the Navy and Tom was at Fort MacArthur.
My father was not present during my growing up. Several times he'd come home after being in a bar fight, and my mom would put him back together. And I remember being sent to his apartment to get money from him. My mother would wait in the car and send me upstairs. But they never divorced. Nana lived with us the whole time.
My Uncle Tom lived up above Fort MacArthur. At one time I thought I'd pattern my life after him. He was a shipping clerk for the government; he wasn't anything, really, but in our family he was held up as the guy who made it. I remember he would whistle to call his wife, and she'd get her coat, and out they'd go.
Anyway, Uncle Tom lived up on a hill and we always had these cars that could barely make it. We never had cars that ran. Our cars had no brakes and they always over-heated. It was just the worst stuff, always somebody's hand-me-down. So I had the idea that if the car stalled, I would hold it while Nana, my mother, and Joanne got out. Eight years old and I thought it was up to me to keep the car from rolling.
We were living in Torrance then. We moved to North Torrance in '56. We moved in with Nina and Jimmy when we first came to town, nine of us living in a two-bedroom house. That was in Old Torrance, which was a real bad area.
Our entertainment was watching the tank farm blow up and looking at the oil derricks. We had grass growing through the pavement in the driveway, and broken screens. Timmy and Teddy Carter lived down at the corner right near the tank farm and they had an old wringer kind of washing machine on the front lawn we'd play in. We were the only family without a man - everybody stayed married then, regardless. And Nana was sort of like the neighborhood midwife. She'd put these women back together whenever they'd been beaten by their drunk husbands.
I didn't like my mother of course. As a matter of fact, I disliked her immensely. When my sister Joanne was first divorced, she didn't make much more money comparatively than my mother had made, but they had a house, and they had nice things. We came to the conclusion that our mother was very self-centered. My sister couldn't go to her "pink ladies" club until Mother's snack was made and dishes were done, stuff like that. I've seen even homeless people with their little kids skipping across the street having fun, whereas we weren't allowed to open the refrigerator. They turned the electricity off.
Joanne and I looked forward to going to the Pike even though it was the vomit and urine haven of the world. Tattoo parlors and prostitutes. I didn't know it. I remember one weekend we were planning to go, and Joanne had turned thirteen and her idea was not to wear lipstick so she'd still look twelve. Of course it was up to me to find my father to get the money, and he said no, so we didn't go to the Pike that day.
Jimmy used to come home and beat Nina. I'd be over there on weekends because they had food. I'd open up the goody cabinet and there were potato chips. To this day, every time I see a Butterfinger and smell Dial soap I am immediately rushed back to Lincoln Avenue.
They had all the food you could eat, but it came with that life. I could not understand it. I would rather kill myself. I would rather not live if that was all that was going to be. And I decided I just would not be like them. In a way, that made me stronger.
High school was the best time of my life. I loved high school. I went to North Torrance High School, class of 1965. We had a four-year high school, grades nine to twelve. I started playing football right away and lettered for all four years. I was really kind of small: 5'10" and 160 pounds, but strong. I played guard and linebacker. As a matter of fact, I came across my clippings the other night. It was so cool to look back.
I worked during high school too, starting at age fifteen. A lot of people did. My reason was actually to get food. I worked at MacDonald's, and you got $1.05 an hour, and they took ten cents out for food, so you got 95 cents an hour, but they lost money on me 'cause I'd eat so much. I even took food home with me.
Nobody even suggested college, and Vietnam was really starting to heat up then. I remember when my cousin Buddy got his draft notice. He was Jimmy and Nina's boy, and he was only six months older than I was. He almost didn't get in because Jimmy had deafened him in one ear by beating him, but he went into the Air Force.
So I figured, "I'm next." I went down, signed up and sold everything I owned, and then they wouldn't take me for six weeks because I had appendicitis. But on February 14, 1966, Valentines' Day, I went off to the war. I was supposed to go to Fort Bliss, Texas. My job was going to be helicopter mechanic, and I figured, "I'll get a good job with Hughes when I get out."
But actually, I was planning on getting killed. I didn't really think I was gonna come back. And they didn't take us to Bliss; they took us to Fort Polk, Louisiana, which, according to the rumor mill, was the stop before Vietnam. And the rumor was true: it was tiger land. It was raining and miserable when we got there. I would be nineteen in May.
I was given an opportunity to take the Officer Candidate School test and I did. I got a very good grade, the highest in the brigade. So I went straight through from basic to advanced training at Fort Knox, and I was an armor OCS. It was funny because I do have claustrophobia, but I was a tank commander, so I was either up top or driving around, and either way you can still see out.
Now I was a senior candidate. People had to salute me. I already had my orders cut for Rucker. I was gonna be a helicopter pilot, a co-pilot; first lieutenants were co-pilots. I went straight through and I would have graduated in January.
I was hurt on December 19, 1966. The accident certainly changed my life; maybe it saved my life. But I don't know if I wouldn't have come out the same way had I served. It's difficult to say.
Tina and I had been married since July 26, 1966. When I was a senior candidate I could get off post a little more, and we rented a basement in Elizabethtown, Kentucky with no running water and a walk-through bedroom. We'd gotten married in the courthouse in L.A. and spent our honeymoon at a hotel in Santa Barbara; our honeymoon dinner was Jack-in-the-Box. Looking back on it, it was funny. We got one of those vibrating beds and I had set down my root beer and it bounced off and was all over and soaked us. We had two nights 'cause her parents were gone. They didn't know we were married for about three months. One of our friends invited us over and took off so we could have time together. And I saw her I think three times before my accident. That was really the only time we had. We weren't allowed to live together, and she was not allowed to come back until the twelfth week.
So we were driving home for Christmas leave, from Fort Knox to California. I was real sick, extremely sick. I drove as much as I could, but I was running a very high fever and I just didn't feel well. It was December 19 and we were between Gila Bend and Yuma on Highway 8 in a little '66 Bug- the wind blew in from down the road and the Volkswagen overturned. I remember rolling and stopping. One leg stuck on the door and the other across the roof. We were actually up side down. Tina was kneeling on the roof. She hurt her shoulder blade or something -- that was all.
I wound up out through the passenger window. Somehow I'd cut my head and the blood was coming out through my ears. I thought I was gonna bleed to death. We were in the middle of nowhere and I was in excruciating pain. I lay there for about two hours before the ambulance came. Some truckers called, and they sent a '57 panel wagon.
My injury is not exactly level - I'm higher on one side than the other. I describe it as the sash that Miss America wears. I remember when they picked me up, they lay me on my back and I was just screaming, so they turned me on my stomach. That's all I remember until after the first of the year, so for almost two weeks I was in and out of consciousness.
Poor Tina. I was in Yuma at the Presbyterian Hospital, so they sent a little plane to pick me up, a Piper Cub, and I didn't fit in it, so they had to place the litter sticking out of the door, and Tina, who's scared to fly anyway, had to fly with the door open and me hanging out. She was 18 years old. Then she lived in this rat hole in San Diego that the Red Cross got for her. My mother went down and lived with her for a little while.
I feel so badly when I think about what that time was like for Tina.
I never really faced it until 1984, when we split up. I always had Tina or my son Steven to be my legs. Anything I wanted done, they did it exactly as I wanted it. I was just the worst. I was a jerk. There's no reason that she had to face the brunt of it, and I will always give her credit.
The way my mother raised me was that we were victims. If we were going somewhere and it rained, it was "Of course it has to rain; we're going somewhere." I don't accept that anymore; it's not my lifestyle.
People need to accept personal responsibility. I will not allow myself to blame anything on anyone else for which I should take responsibility. Personal victory. That's the key - it's about the individual battle. You define your own limits. This is still the best country in the world, and anyone can do anything he or she wants. That's what bothers me about the "woe is me" attitude; get over it. People from all over the world are coming here by choice. We do live in best place on earth.
I've been taking stock of my life lately and I feel good about my accomplishments. I am the only college graduate in this end of my family. I refuse to wear sweats and I won't wear a t-shirt. I became sort of an advocate/activist for the handicapped, which is ironic because I don't like cripples anymore than I like old people, but some people get lost; they just disappear. I founded the Dayle MacIntosh Center to help foster independent living, and in 1977 I was involved in bringing the first 16(b)2 vehicles into Orange County. There was no transportation for elderly and handicapped people before then. When I worked for State Senator Paul Carpenter's office, we were like low-paid psychologists; people would call with the most inane problems, but we helped everybody.
I was on the Board of OCTA a year before becoming Vice Chairman; I was Chairman in 2004, and I'm still the public member. I felt especially good about my chairmanship and accomplished a lot of what I wanted to do, such as keeping Measure M in the forefront.
I guess what I value most are my relationships with people. I'm proud to have an incredible group of long-time friends, and the social discourse in which I can engage is just marvelous. There's Daly and Greg Sanders, and Lyle and Stan … brilliant, educated people. Our friendship is a constant; I'm like the hub, and the spokes go out from there; my friends recognize how much I value them. I have also experienced a great romance in my life, and I know it's better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.
I guess you have to be realistic and brave enough to face hopelessness.
But I won't allow the dark side to win out.