When I was ten, I was very ill with life-threatening complications of appendicitis. I had to go back into hospital later that same year to have the appendix removed, but this time I was fit and healthy before the operation and could plan what to take in with me to read afterwards (I had to stay in quite a while). I don't know how I'd come across it, but I took Reach for the Sky (1954), a thick biography of Douglas Bader, an ace fighter pilot in WW2 who spent time in Colditz Castle after several attempts to escape from previous holding places. What fascinated me, though, was the fact that he'd lost both his legs (one above and one below the knee) in a flying accident a few years before the war.
Reach for the Sky is also the name of the 1956 film about Bader which stars Kenneth More as the eponymous hero, but it's nothing like as good, exciting and detailed as the book which enthralled me. The descriptions of the pain of learning to walk again on tin legs put my post-operation pain into proportion, and I enjoyed imagining knotting my bed sheets together to escape from Stockport Infirmary in the same way that Bader tried to escape from a German hospital. (The Germans had enormous respect for Bader. When his plane was shot down over France and he had to bail out, he was forced to leave behind one of his legs which was trapped in the cockpit, but the RAF were given safe passage to parachute in a replacement leg for him.)
So when I see my very tall sunflowers growing upwards, the phrase 'reach for the sky' always comes to mind and makes me think of Douglas Bader who didn't let the loss of two legs prevent him from flying. Apparently, he was an intense, competitive, and difficult man (even before the accident) and nothing like the mild-mannered and terribly polite Kenneth More film version. But the real Douglas Bader was an inspiration to me as a ten year old; I can still recall reading the descriptions of his stumps rubbing against the first horrible pair of tin legs as he learned to walk again (he got better prosthetic legs later), and I was astounded by his sheer determination to fly after the accident. So although I left hospital minus an appendix (but I did take it home with me in a jar), I gained a new hero.
(Until a couple of years ago, there was a beautiful pale pink tulip called 'Douglas Bader' and I used to grow it for the connection and because it was lovely. Ironically, it wasn't very tall. Unfortunately, it's no longer available.)