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voices of columbine

RICHARD CASTALDO

Columbine student left paralyzed by the shootings

By Kevin Simpson
Denver Post Staff Writer

Apr. 16- "The hardest thing," Richard Castaldo says, "is to keep your balance around curves." He sits in a brown Chevy van plastered with Led Zeppelin and Doors bumper stickers. Fuzzy dice dangle from the rearview mirror and the odometer reads 1,375 - barely broken in, rarin' to go.

Richard turned 18 in September, five months after a barrage of bullets changed his life as he ate lunch on the lawn of Columbine High School. He already had his driver's license.

Now he needs a different one.

The van, equipped with hand controls and a mechanized lift for his wheelchair, rests slightly off-kilter in a handicapped parking space at a strip mall in Parker. Richard leans his left arm, scarred and nerve-damaged by gunfire, nonchalantly out the driver's-side window.

"Richard, I assume?" says Carol, the smiling, middle-aged woman who appears at his door to administer his driving test on March 1.

Richard makes the van rumble to life, and backs carefully out of the parking space. He drives with the measured, careful movements of the novice under scrutiny - flashing his signal lights, coming to complete stops, turning corners slowly.

Paralysis below his chest means he no longer can rely on his trunk muscles for stability in the driver's seat.

"I just have to lean into it a little bit," he says. "It's not too bad." On the return approach to the parking lot, Richard's turn signal blinks to life several hundred feet before the intersection. He maneuvers into a parking spot - no parallel parking on this test, though - and begins the process of shifting to his wheelchair, opening the side doors, operating the lift.

Carol says he's one of the best handicapped drivers she's ever tested. The rest is just paperwork. Does he want to be an organ donor?

"Sure." Richard pays his money, smiles for a photo. The braces he wore for three years are gone. His dark hair, once all wild curls, has been parted down the middle and brushed back.

He looks ...- older.

He'll graduate in May with his Columbine class, then take a year off to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. Maybe he'll own a restaurant.

At the moment, he wants to pick up his girlfriend, then his dad and visiting grandfather, and go eat dinner, freely exercising the sacred teen rite of mobility.

"If I want to go somewhere," he says triumphantly, "I get in the van and leave." Richard insists he's dealt with Columbine:

"It's still kind of hard to believe someone could be stupid enough, or angry enough, to do that. I didn't even meet them." And he remains optimistic about the future in general, spinal cord research in particular.

He embraces independence the way his van hugs the road. Solid, stable, moving forward.

Balance around curves.

"I always thought it was going to get better," Richard says. "I couldn't imagine it getting much worse."

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