Late in the evening of May 11, 1994, I awoke in my hospital room after having had surgery that afternoon. While in an anesthetically induced haze, I moved through the TV channels and found the face of my friend, Lew Puller, on the screen; that is, Lewis B. Puller, Jr., the son of the legendary Marine Lieutenant General Lewis “Chesty” Puller. I heard words such as “Pulitzer Prize winning author,” “shot himself,” and “died,” however, my friend’s death did not register with me until the next morning.
Lew Puller, who had lost both legs and most of his two hands in Vietnam, had been one of my best friends since 1984, when I first met him at the Pentagon. Now, he has been dead for 24 years and already his celebrity has faded away, as his Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography has faded from the bookstores. Yet every time I see someone in a wheelchair, I remember him. Often still, having heard an interesting story, I forget he is gone and think, “That is something I ought to talk to Lew about.”
Many of his friends, including me, have asked themselves the reason for which he took his own life at a time when outward appearances suggested such success. I thought I knew the man, but I had no inkling he was so despondent. We had spoken a lot over the years about his family, his wife, his children and the problems he experienced. No problem we discussed seemed to me to be so insurmountable as to lead him to suicide. Early in our friendship, I talked to him daily as he struggled to put on paper that which would become his autobiography. The book did not come to him easily. At most, he wrote only a paragraph each day. Often, he wrote nothing for weeks. Through all this, he never once showed me what he had written. As I look back, I see that, even with those who knew him best, he did not divulge the extent of his internal suffering. This video, recorded about three years before his suicide is ironically telling in retrospect.
I had small windows into his life outside the Pentagon where we both worked. I knew his wife, Toddy, and his two children, Lew and Maggie…and the basset hound, Josephine. My wife and I had been to their Northern Virginia home on several occasions. Lew’s mother, Virginia, was in the mold of a southern lady who spoke well, articulating each word distinctly. When I spoke to her at several of the large, annual Puller family gatherings, she always reminded me that her husband, Chesty Puller, was a “national figure.” My own mother loved Lew’s autobiography and bought extra copies to give to her friends. When Lew visited Cleveland on a book tour, my mother took the bus to downtown where she greeted him as he exited the car in front of the bookstore where he was to speak. She was delighted when Lew instantly recognized her name and told her I was one of his best friends.
I miss his sense of humor. He was always ready with a good joke, knowing just how to tell it. A lot of his jokes came from Bob Kerrey, who, as then-governor of Nebraska and a friend of Lew’s since their hospitalization together, would dine with Lew when he came to Washington, D.C.. I always looked forward to the following day when Lew would repeat a few stories at our daily breakfast meeting. From Lew I also learned the ups and downs in the lives of the handicapped: the patronizing attitude of store clerks, airline personnel and the public. He used to say, “I’m tired of having people stare at my crotch,” referring to the place at which his legs then ended. He did speak about pain in the stumps of his legs but never told me about the pain medication he was using…and abusing. One of the last times I saw him was at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center where he was recovering from a broken pelvis as the result of a fall from his wheelchair while in rehabilitation for his addiction. He was in terrible pain but was unable to get relief for fear of relapsing into dependence on pain medication and alcohol.
The day he killed himself, I was to have called him to invite him to a Sunday brunch, however, with my own hospitalization for surgery planned for that afternoon, I put off the call. In retrospect, I cannot help but wonder whether speaking with him might have prevented him from taking his life. I also ask myself whether or not I had been enough of a friend in the months prior to his death. My calls to him during that period were short, as he usually claimed that it was not a good time to talk. I took him at his word and gave him the space he said he needed – in hindsight, was I only giving him enough latitude to end his life? Some time after Lew’s death I had an exchange of emails with Kerrey, by then the president of the New School in New York City, in which I told him that I was not aware of Lew’s extreme distress.
I remember clearly the time, just a day or so after he won the Pulitzer Prize, that he came to the Pentagon cafeteria and told me about the reporters camped on the lawn of his home as he returned from work. Not having heard the news or known anyone who had won a Pulitzer, I asked him what winning the prize meant. “Do you get some money?” I asked. He replied, “Not sure. But when you die they begin your obituary by saying, ‘Pulitzer Prize winning author…’” We laughed.
Lewis, I hardly knew ye.