Autistic History: My Grandfather’s Story


People ask, “Where are the autistics of ages past?”

I can name one: World War I hero, Purple Heart recipient, and mental hospital veteran—my grandfather, W. B. Mueller.

Grandpa served on the infamous Western Front. He told few horror stories, except to say rain fell interminably, dysentery was widespread, and rats ate the dead and the living with equal zest. He also recalled that the murky trench water emitted a stench so profound it permeated his provisions. Grandpa swore every meal tasted like corpses.

As he crouched in the trenches, shells exploded above him with furious violence, shredding soldiers in the line of fire. One such shell barrage pinned down Grandpa’s squad outside Château-Thierry. Five marines perished beside him. A pinkie-sized shell fragment tore through Grandpa’s leg, lodging at an irretrievable depth.

Western Front

Grandpa would have recuperated quickly and returned to battle in modern times, but without antibiotics, he became gravely ill. Months of infection dragged into years of chronic pain. A decade later, his leg was amputated. The ill-performed surgery left Grandpa with an often painful sometimes itchy phantom limb.

After the war, an intractable terror of roiling, murky water dogged Grandpa. He traversed bridges shaking and white-fisted. My Dad recalls dark flourishes of sweat spreading across Grandpa’s suit as he drove over the nearby Fort Loudon Dam for annual family gatherings.

Following one such trip, Grandpa incinerated his war memorabilia along with piles of neatly raked autumn leaves. No one connected the horror of trench warfare to Grandpa’s phobia of turbid, churning water.

Post-discharge, the American Textile Woolen Company hired Grandpa as a fabric designer and supervisor. Promotions and decades of prosperity followed. He proudly purchased a home and a procession of automobiles which he used to impress my much younger Grandmother.

He also flattered Grandmother with frighteningly sappy poems and letters, a delight to her twenty- year-old heart.  Grandpa continued to write odd verses and jingles throughout their marriage. He entered his creations in five and ten dollar contests. The prizes were a boon during the Depression and allowed my Grandmother to buy a wild assortment of hats and dresses. Grandpa hit the jackpot a several times, winning grand prizes ($50!) and publishing poetry in regional magazines.

Great Grandpa
The family’s affluent life evaporated after the textile plant closed in the 1940s, but not for lack of opportunity.

Grandfather, a valued artist and designer, was given a remarkable chance: a paid relocation to a newer, larger factory in Missouri.

However, this did not motivate Grandpa.

He refused to leave his house or hometown and rebuffed my grandmother’s pleas to accept the offer. She wrote in her journals that she suspected “his scorn for change” and “river jitters” underlay his refusals. In an ill-fated move, he turned his backroom hobby—gun repair—into a profession.

No one realized that the textile plant provided Grandpa with much more than an income. It supplied him stability and structure—a place to be, a job to do, and none of the social schmoozing a small business requires.

The expanse of self-employed free time dazzled and distracted him. Repairing guns and rifles in a timely and consistent fashion proved to be an unattainable challenge.  The Athens Gun Club failed.  Grandpa spent the one year anniversary of his venture at the Central State Hospital for the Insane.

Letters Collection

Unlike my schizophrenic Uncle Leo, who was floridly delusional or my bipolar Uncle Will, who absconded with a school bus to sell pretzels along the East coast, Grandpa did not exhibit psychosis. Nor did he drink, take narcotics, or skip out on debts. He simply succumbed to episodes of “hysterical anxiety” and vanished, reemerging in a mental ward within a few days.

Perplexed doctors had no word for grandpa’s condition other than “mental illness” and his complaints of an aching phantom limb contributed to this assessment. Rest and rejected pain medications were their only recourse. Within a week, Grandpa stabilized and returned home.

“Nervous spells” and hospitalizations followed Grandpa for the remainder of his days. Likewise, stigma shadowed him, causing Doctors to manage him with a disheartening skepticism and restraint.

Death found Grandpa’s several months after a freak accident.  A falling brick glanced off his head, causing a concussion and trigeminal neuralgia. Also known as “the suicide disease” for the agony it elicits, trigeminal neuralgia produced such intense and prolonged facial pain that he insisted on radical experimental surgery for relief.  Grandpa died on the operating table as surgeons severed the affected nerves. It was his 68th birthday.

When we speak of advocacy, we look forward, toward our progeny. Let us also look backward, to our ancestors, who bore grief and heartache without understanding why.

Recognition is a fine memorial wreath.

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