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Joe “Pegleg” NelsonJoe Nelson

How many of us have taken an unnecessary risk, suffered loss because of it and then lamented our decision and its consequence? Too many. People have a tendency to blame others for their actions, to point a finger and say, “He should have stopped me! It’s not my fault!”

Most of us point to the other guy, try to pin our mistakes on fate or bad luck; but some folks pony up and choose to live their lives content in the knowledge that they wreaked havoc upon themselves. It’s a rare man who can lose a leg and keep smiling.

Joseph was what his parents called him and for 25 years he kept that name, but in August of 2005 he changed his name to Pegleg.

By self account Joe Nelson was a daredevil. He loved motocross dirt bikes and flying through the air. Much of the allure was the inherent danger of the activity itself. On Wednesday, August 28, 2002 Joe was feeding his adrenaline addiction when his world came tumbling down, or rather, he came tumbling down to earth.

He’d been running his dirt bike for hours on his friend’s course in Urbana, Iowa and had decided to do, “One more run. Get in that last thrill just before the sun goes down,” words that many of us have uttered at the end of a long, tiring, but exhilarating day. This would be Joe’s last run with all his limbs. The crash that followed would eventually cost him his left foot, ankle and lower leg: He was lucky to keep his knee.

Surgeries followed the crash that smashed Joe’s leg. The doctors tried to save the limb but after nearly three years of pain and hardship Joe made the decision to have the worthless limb amputated. There were fireworks the last night Joe had both legs. The USA celebrated her independence and the next day Joe lost the bottom half of his left leg. He celebrated too.

The fact that Joe lost a leg is a sad tale of woe. It’s probably worth buying him a beer over, (Joe doesn’t drink- he doesn’t like the taste.) but if he was just a guy that lost a leg due to taking an unnecessary risk I wouldn’t be writing about him. It is his acceptance of the consequences of his actions that makes him stand out in my mind.

I talk the talk about personal responsibility. Hell, I even walk the walk (Sorry, Joe!) but if I lost a leg through my own fault I think I would accept that, move on with my life, but deep inside forever feel morose about what I did to myself. I would continue, I’d smile and make the most of my life, but deep inside my heart would sit the little tiny pit of self pity. Pegleg ain’t having none of it.

Maturity has more facets than a fine diamond. Understanding the difference between risking one’s own neck and risking the life of another are two very different things. When we were talking about how Joe lost his leg one of the things that struck me was his decision not to be a grief counselor for others who have lost a limb.

“I lost my limb through my own fault. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be as accepting if some other guy had landed his motorcycle on me during a race or how I’d feel if somebody blew through a stop sign and took it off that way. I like to think that I could still accept my fate, but I don’t know. I did this to myself so I move on- no regrets. I couldn’t tell people who lost a leg because of no fault of their own to be okay with it, to be happy. It’s not the same thing.”

Prior to his 2002 crash Joe made several trips to hospital emergency rooms flying through the air under his own power: No CC’s necessary. The world was his playground and sometimes his found areas of recreation proved to be more than he could handle. He and his wife are the proud parents of three children: An infant boy, and two girls aged five and ten.

Both girls are gifted athletes. The ten year old loves to dance and the Nelsons encourage her in her pursuit of excellence, but it is the younger daughter’s activities that excite Joe. Like her father before her she is a BMX racing enthusiast and the Nelsons regularly travel the tri-state area as they satisfy her need to fly through the air under her own power. If a man falls he should get back up and try again. Life should be lived.

A lot of folks in Joe’s position would take their troubles to Jesus, Yahweh, Allah or the like, but not Pegleg. He’s a dyed in the world atheist so he can’t unload to ‘The Man Upstairs.’ Not a sentiment that I agree with but one that makes his acceptance of fate that much more lonely. Looking to a higher power, believing that everything that happens to us is part of a Master Plan brings comfort to many. It’s pretty hard to argue that there’s any sense in trying to find comfort in something that doesn’t exist. For Joe, accept and move on is a better plan.

Our time here is pretty short and there’s no sense wasting any of it wallowing in self-pity. There’s no way Joe’s going to let a stupid mistake ruin his life. He’s raring to go and he’s more man with three and a half limbs than most of us are with four. Keep flying, Joe!