It was Dec. 12, 1970. Then-24-year-old patrolman Gilbert Smith responded to a call of a man lying in the street.
Smith had been a Charleston County police officer for three months. His wife was home wrapping presents. His daughters were ages 4 and 1, and the Smith family was gearing up for a big Christmas. Moments after the dispatcher talked to Smith, his life changed forever.
As Smith attempted to transport an apparently drunk man to the county jail, the man reached over the back seat, grabbed Smith's revolver and shot him in the back. The bullet struck Smith's spinal cord.
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In the early '70s, county police cruisers did not have grilles to separate the front seat from the back. Soon after Smith was shot, they did.
The police wives' auxiliary raised money to renovate Smith's house to make it wheelchair-accessible. Money was also donated to buy Smith an electric cart so that a proud father could play with his little girls. After extensive therapy in Warm Springs, Ga., Smith returned to work as a dispatcher nine months after the shooting. He would tell The Post and Courier he had no interest in saying "10-4 on the radio the rest of my life," and a few years later, he took on new responsibilities as the duty officer.
Anniversaries can bring about good memories as well as bad. None of us would blame the Smith family if their Christmas season has its share of bittersweet moments. There's no room for that, though. No room because that space has been filled with love. Love from a wife who spent more than 14 hours a day in the hospital with her husband, wondering about their uncertain future. Love from two little girls who didn't know if their daddy would walk them down the aisle. Love from fellow officers who took to work every day until they raised enough money to retrofit a confiscated drug van into a vehicle Smith could drive by himself.
It's been quite a ride on this road the Smith family has traveled. There are five grandchildren and two great-grands who have never known their grandpa any other way. Smith's still going. He's worn out eight wheelchairs and is now driving his seventh different modified vehicle.
Big wheels keep on turnin'
Does he think back to that December day in 1970? Not much. At the time of the accident, he never once asked, "Why me?" His biggest question was, "What's next?"
Some wheelchairs have a rearview mirror attached. Not Gilbert's.
In retirement, his biggest hobby these days is shooting pool. He drives himself to Players Place three nights a week for league games. Only a few of the other players know much about what put Gilbert in that wheelchair. Most know that if you don't mind your P's and Q's, he'll quickly send you back to your own stool with his deliberate, unassuming approach to the multicolored balls that roll across the green felt.
Gilbert once told the newspaper he was "proud to be a PIG in Charleston County." That was a reference to a police acronym at the time representing pride, integrity and guts. Smith still embodies those qualities as he proudly rolls along in his wheelchair.
It's much easier to do that when the wheels are rolling forward and very little time is spent looking to the past.
I'm just sayin'…