WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young gripped a wooden cane and slowly made his way onto the House floor Wednesday. An aide was at his side, in a just-in-case kind of way.
Around the Capitol, and back home in Florida, people are starting to wonder. Young, who turned 80 in December, does not look healthy these days. He is thin, stooped and a little unsteady. His legendary white hair is intact but wispier.
"I'm okay, except for the back," the Pinellas County Republican said between votes.
Young had surgery last July to correct problems related to his one real dance with mortality — a 1970 plane crash in Tallahassee — and then was dropped on the hospital floor three days later, complicating his recovery.
He has lost a lot of weight and some height, four inches by his estimate, because of the surgery. "I'm used to looking down at people," Young said with a smile. "Now I'm looking up."
But he insists he is fine.
"It hasn't affected my job. I still get fired up when I need to get fired up."
His back hurts on long days, but some mornings he wakes up feeling as if nothing happened at all. Last week, Young spent three days on the House floor presenting the 2012 defense bill, which he crafted in his role as chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee. One day, the debate went until 11 p.m., another, 10 p.m.
"People get worried about seeing him with a cane," said his former top aide and longtime friend Doug Gregory. "But he's feisty. He is as good as he's ever been."
The cane, like the man who carries it, has a rich political story that begins with that 1970 plane crash and ends with a U.S. president.
Then a state senator from Pinellas County — one of a few Republicans in the Legislature — Young was returning to Tallahassee from a fundraising dinner in St. Petersburg. He was with Tom Slade, who would later lead the state Republican Party, and Slade's wife of four months, Corkey.
A report in the Evening Independent put it this way: "The night was foggy and overcast. Visibility was poor. Young sensed something was wrong. Then the plane plunged into a field of small oak trees, about three miles short of the airport but directly on the approach lane."
A fire broke out in the tail section and Slade kicked open the emergency door, jumping out with his wife. Young dove on top of them. The pilot followed.
Then the plane exploded.
Badly hurt, Young went to his vacation home in the hills of North Carolina to recover. He fashioned the cane out of the root of a dogwood tree.
"I thought, I've got nothing else to do right now," Young recalled.
He used it for a month, then put it away. Young was elected to Congress that November, embarking on a career that has made him the longest serving Republican in either the House or the Senate.
He has served with eight U.S. presidents and has overseen the full House appropriations committee and its defense subcommittee. When Republicans reclaimed the House last year, Speaker John Boehner granted him a waiver from term limits on leadership posts, and he now controls the subcommittee again.
Young on Wednesday showed off his cane, and told a story he has never told before.
"Gerald Ford used it when he had his hip replacement," Young said of the former representative from Michigan. "He was walking with a puny little cane and I said, 'Jerry, use mine.' "
Not long afterward, Ford became president.
Young's back surgery last summer has been long needed. After the plane crash, doctors said, "One day, you're going to have to get it fixed, if you live long enough," Young recalled.
"And I lived long enough."
He had the surgery at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and three days later, while being taken to the bathroom, he was accidentally dropped.
Young spent months in rehabilitation, an arduous experience marked with searing muscle spasms.
It came as his re-election campaign was heating up, and Young was not seen much. Questions about his health started to surface. But Young cruised to his 21st term.
He won't say if he'll run for another term; he never does this early. But from the same hospital where he writhed in pain, he derives a reason to keep going.
Young has long visited wounded Marines and soldiers, who are also taken to nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Young and his wife, Beverly, visit almost weekly, finding ways to comfort the afflicted and help with problems.
They recently took up the cause of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant whose legs had been blown off by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. The young man had been stationed in Okinawa before going to Afghanistan, and he was still being charged for his living quarters there as well as for temporary housing in Maryland.
"We raised a little bit of a fuss," said Young, whose position puts him in contact with the nation's top military leaders.
The overcharges were reversed. Mrs. Young collected some clothes her granddaughters had outgrown and gave them to the sergeant's children.
"Recognizing the sacrifices they are making," Young said, "it's very inspirational to see these kind of young Americans. It motivates me."