Mike Sulsona entered the Circle Repertory Company’s theater in 1978 like a man on a mission. The actors were waiting; the seats were empty and there was a faint whiff of burning tobacco.
Sulsona came in for a reason and one reason alone. To teach people to walk like he did. Not an easy task for a man without legs.
The group was working on noted playwright, Lanford Wilson’s play, “The Fifth of July,” the story of a gay, paraplegic Vietnam veteran. Michael Vincent Sulsona, 62, who lost his legs during the Vietnam war in January, 1971, and hobbled around on wooden limbs for 14 years after the war, was determined to show the group how to portray the main character realistically. This wasn’t a favor to the playwright; it was part of a healing process for Sulsona, who was still numb from his experience of the war.
“I am not gay, but I definitely didn’t have my legs,” Sulsona said later in his Staten Island home. “I needed to show them how I walked with my legs. It’s different to regular people,”
But the day he lost his legs didn’t change his life as much as the day he followed that smell of tobacco. Lost in the dense fumes of his cigarette was Lanford Wilson, himself. Sitting in a corner wearing a sweater and jeans, he said very little. Future Hollywood stars, William Hurt and Jeff Daniels, however, greeted him.
Even though Wilson barely talked to him that first day on the set, Sulsona found a way to study what he did and how he did it. He watched him closely from a distance. A few words exchanged, but little else. But for Sulsona it was a revelation. He knew he’d found what he wanted to do.
The observation not only paved the way for this future writer, but it also provided him with a way to soothe his war wounds. Theatre, he says, has given him a reason to live.
That day Sulsona’s life went from acting coach to playwright and since then he’s written 23 plays and 15 screenplays to varying degrees of success. He’s among a small number of Vietnam veterans who’ve channeled the effects of war into the arts.
“The first play I ever wrote was called The Greatest Play Ever Written” he chuckles. “Boy, I was so sure it was.”
On the morning of January 15, 1971, a 20-year old Sulsona stood at the front of his platoon in the wild jungle near the Da Nang province in central Vietnam.
“I was walking point (first position in a military formation) in an area I was unfamiliar with. I looked at my watch, it was ten to ten,” he said.
The squad leader barked at him to head towards the trail. Sulsona was reluctant. That’s the way they had come up earlier. He staged a small protest.
“It’s going to be okay,” was the curt reply.
A few steps later, his sturdy combat boots gently squeezed the detonation pin of a landmine. A hot rush of light and heat sliced through his body. Gunshots were fired. An ambush! Sulsona and his men were trapped. Amidst the chaos, he lost consciousness.
A glimmer of flashing light was the first thing he remembers seeing when he opened his eyes. A helicopter hovered above him; its elliptical blades cutting the morning sunlight. A fire burned in the hills, but help was on the way.
“They got me out eventually, but just barely,” he said.
The first day back, Sulsona was greeted warmly at his childhood home on Cobble Hill, Brooklyn by friends and family. It seemed no different from the day he left it. But, for Sulsona, it didn’t feel the same either. He came home with a Purple Heart, but the process of readjusting to life again, he remembers, was worse than the war. The one thing that did help were the women in his life, a mother and a girlfriend.
It was all hunky dory for the first few weeks, but he soon realized that Vietnam soldiers were not welcome any more. Many equated Vietnam veterans to baby killers. Sulsona wasn’t treated as bad as the others, but he knew what it meant.
It took a few years, but meeting the man with the cigarette changed that. Wilson, who played an unconscious role in the shaping of Sulsona’s career, will never know how it healed a man.
Today, in his Staten Island home, life begins at 6 a.m. Sulsona pulls himself out of bed to start his daily ritual. The wooden legs are long gone. He’s got a nice set of wheels instead. He starts his computer in his study surrounded by Underwood typewriters and pictures of Hollywood’s stars like Jeff Bridges, Jack Nicholson and Audrey Hepburn. Their faces stare at Sulsona as he drinks his morning “cawfee.” And then it begins, punching letters on his keyboard.
The habit has not been lost on Sulsona since the day he walked into the Circle Repertory. But Sulsona’s battle doesn’t end with his keyboard or his missing legs. He also suffers from Hepatitis C. After the loss of his legs in the war, Sulsona contracted the viral disease. It was consequence of a blood transfusion during his recovery over 40 years ago. On days like these he is weak. It’s hard to get out of bed. It’s hard to talk. And It’s on these days he needs his wife, Frida.
“He’s self sufficient, but it’s hard to do things when everything isn’t designed for you,” she said.
Sulsona has to trek to the veteran’s hospital in Bay Ridge every week to draw blood. His car is outfitted with newfangled amenities like a gear stick, which accelerates and brakes for him. It gets him around.
Cirrhosis is one of the many offshoots of his problem. He’s in a constant state of deterioration. But he does not let his situation get him down. As he rolls through the pastel walled hospital, it’s only smiles and greetings. It’s infectious. The nurses giggle as they walk past. There is unconditional acceptance for the problems he faces.
Only for a fleeting moment is there a trace of fear. It’s the dreaded needle that draws blood. He jumps in his wheelchair as the nurse gently pushes it through his arm. He’s okay, he says, just a little scared.
But he’s still going. Every morning, the 62-year-old keeps works on his latest play, a venture into the mind of a soldier. The script describes Sergeant Dwight Johnson, a Medal of Honor awardee and a fellow veteran, whose life ended at a Detroit convenience store in 1971, when the owner, who thought he was there to steal, shot him. Much has been debated about the circumstances of his death.
“I wrote it because he had my life. We both came from the war decorated and we were shunned,” he said. “At least, I didn’t get killed.”
He types it up furiously. Each letter is a reminder of a despised war. But it’s also therapeutic.
His manuscript, finished, Sulsona now has to wait. The script is doing its rounds. It’s headed to Detroit for a reading and hopefully by July, someone will be rehearsing his words.
“It ain’t no Broadway,” he says, “but theater has been more generous to me than war.”