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Democrat Profile: Al Gentry, a second from death

by Daniel Lowry

algentrypic1The wire grabbed Al Gentry. It snagged his jacket sleeve and yanked his arm around, pulling him toward the big auger drill, which snapped his bone at the elbow. It happened in split seconds, but as the drill revolved and the wire pulled the rest of his body closer, time seemed to warp. Two seconds were like five minutes in his mind.

“I couldn’t pull away,” says Al. The thought slammed into his mind as his shoulder and head drew closer to the big drill: This is it.

It was a cold January day in 1993. Al was 28 years old.  He was a geologist and was working with a drill operator at a construction site in Louisville. They were using a long drill to go about 15 to 20 feet in the ground to take soil samples. Al was kneeling next to the drill and had picked up a rock he felt like he needed to analyze.

The drill was coming back out of the ground, and somehow a piece of wire, almost the size of an unfolded coat hanger, had gotten hung on the drill. When it came out of the ground, it grabbed him.

Al screamed. His friend, who was operating the drill, was only a couple feet away and immediately shut off the drill. Al’s arm was mangled, but the machine had stopped before crunching his shoulder and head.

Still, Al’s life was on the line. Blood was coming out hard and fast, and Al saw the panic in his friend’s eyes. He looked out in the field and said to himself, I am going to die today.

Following a Legend

As a 10-year-old little boy, Al loved sports. He played basketball, baseball and football. His dad had a second job as a high school sports official, serving as an umpire and a referee. His dad also played golf. He would take Al with him to the course. By 7th grade, Al was in love with the game. He was gifted, and hit the ball straight and long.

Al wasn’t a big kid, so the other boys had an advantage over him in basketball and football. In golf, however, his size didn’t hurt him. He chose golf over the other sports, and as a high school player he began to get recruited to play in college. His dad took all the pressure off, and told him no matter what, just have fun.

Al and his high school friends went to a pro/celebrity golf tournament in Louisville each year at Hurstbourne Country Club. There were pro golfers and big name celebrities, but there was one local golfer who dazzled Al and his friends.

His drives exploded off the tee like rockets. His fairway shots arched liked rainbows high into the sky and onto the greens. His putts slipped up and down the slopes and dropped with an emphatic and musical rattle of the ball into the cup.

What was so amazing to Al and his friends was that this spectacular golfer had only one arm. His name was Don Fightmaster. Time magazine called him the “Arnold Palmer of the one-armed golf world.” He was a world champion of one-armed golf.

“We were enthralled by his ability,” says Al. “Even with all those big name pros and stars, we followed Don around the course.”

The Weirdest Thing

Al had his arm wrapped around the drill, and he knew he was in bad shape. “I’m looking at my buddy, and he’s in shock.” Al knew he had to remain calm, and he even did his best to calm down his friend. Other workers arrived and radioed for help, and a rescue helicopter landed to take Al to a hospital. They had to turn the drill back on and go the other direction to peel him off.

Al didn’t look at his arm. He knew he had to stay calm. Al told the paramedics they had to contact his girlfriend, Rhonda. Al kept asking the paramedics a question: “Am I going to die?” They wouldn’t answer.

The helicopter was taking him to the hospital. This could be it. He was 28 years old. He was in love with a kind, caring and beautiful woman. He had a great job he enjoyed. He had so many wonderful friends and family members.

Then Al overheard something. A paramedic told the hospital over the radio that he was “stable.” That’s when Al felt like he was going to survive. He was going to make it. Right after that — the pain hit.

“It’s the weirdest thing,” he says. “I didn’t have any pain until I felt like I was going to live.”

But Al knew he was going to lose his arm. When he was being wheeled into the emergency room, he made a joke. He said to the medical staff, “Look out, Don Fightmaster, I’m coming after you.”

Word spread around the hospital about the comment that Al had made despite his grave situation. The word got out. After his surgery, Al had a surprise visitor to his hospital bed: Don Fightmaster.

Don had lost his arm in an automobile accident when he was in his late 20s. He told Al something that he would never forget. He said, “Your life is not over. Your new life is just beginning.”

Don explained to Al all the things he had achieved in his life as a one-armed guy. Besides golf, he had been a world champion handball player. He had been on a championship softball team as a pitcher. He told him, “What you need to do now is focus on what you can do, and go do it to the best of your ability.”

Don told him to get better, and when he returned from a trip to Florida, they would play golf together in the spring.

People Would Stare

Al got home and started dealing with his life without his right arm. “Everything you take for granted with two arms takes so much longer to do,” he says. Getting ready for work in the morning now took two hours instead of 30 minutes. Driving was a new challenge. He had a five-speed car, and he learned how to drive it with his left arm.

People would stare. They would look at him and look away quickly. Children would run up to him and ask him what happened to his arm.

The physical aspect of losing his arm was nothing compared to the emotional strain. There was depression. He didn’t feel whole. Life was tough.

But then there was golf. Al knew because of what Don Fightmaster had told him, he could still play golf, even with one arm.

When Don Fightmaster came back from Florida, he called Al. They went to the driving range. “I was so excited to have a lesson from him.” Don taught him about keeping his head still. In golf, like in life, you have to have balance.

As a one-armed golfer, Al found that he didn’t have his natural ability to hit the ball well like he did when he was a kid. But now, he had something else: A passion for the game.

“That is the beauty of disabled golf,” he says. “It gives that second chance at life to people who have become disabled. It gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It carries on to everyday life. You have hope and faith that you can be successful.”

Al proposed to his girlfriend, Rhonda. She had stayed by his side and helped him after he lost his arm. Tears come to Al’s eyes and he has trouble speaking about it. After a minute he laughs. “She didn’t run away.”

Making a Differencealgentrypic2

Now, one of Al’s passions in life is to help others. He founded the Kentucky Amputee Golf Tournament, which has been going strong for more than two decades. He worked with Don Fightmaster to form the North American One-Armed Golfer Association. He helped create the Hand-for-Heroes program that teaches our country’s permanently disabled veterans the game of golf. Al started the U.S. Adaptive Golf Alliance, which allows various organizations that represent people with different types of disabilities to work together to promote disabled golf.

Longtime State Representative Larry Clark knew about Al’s work with disabled golf, and saw his leadership abilities. Rep. Larry Clark was set to retire, and approached Al about taking over his beloved 46th District.

Al’s first response was, “I’m not a politician. Why me?” Rep. Larry Clark convinced Al that he had been working in politics, in a sense, for the last 10 years in the things he had been doing.

“You have been in leadership roles, you have been representing people,” Rep. Larry Clark told Al. “You’ve been fighting for what is right, and you’ve been uniting people on issues. You would be perfect for this.”

Al thought about it a long time.

“After being disabled for more than 20 years, and all my experiences in life, I have found my purpose in life, and that is to help other people and try to inspire other people. That is what has made me the most happy.”

Al said yes. He would run.

Now he’s facing a new challenge: running for office. It’s one he is approaching with the same drive and passion he used to overcome becoming disabled. He thinks back to the tiny fraction of time in his life when a wire had wrapped around his arm and was pulling him into a large, spinning drill. His friend shut off the machine just a second before it would have crushed his shoulder and head.

Al Gentry changed forever on a cold January day in 1993. Yes, he lost his arm. But he gained a new sense of life. He gained a new drive and a new passion. He found a purpose, and he’s determined to make a difference in other lives every single day.

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