When the doctors ask me “Have you ever been in an accident?”, the first thing I do is laugh (and laugh and laugh) and ask them if they’ve got an hour to spare, because I gave up counting the number of car wrecks after about the eighteenth one. No, its not that I’m a bad driver – I just pick bad drivers to ride with. I’m good in a wreck, I know what to do. After so many accidents it gets to be old hat, a routine – check the passengers, check the other drivers (and their passengers, if any), go back to the car, get the insurance and registration out, clip it under the windshield wiper and wait for the cops to come. A long time ago I heard a driving instructor tell the class: “On average, everyone will experience one accident in their lifetime.” Somewhere out there are seventeen other drivers who should be thanking me. I’ve had theirs for them.
And then there’s all the other accidents, the ones that between the Marine Corps and myself, I’ve had.
I’ve been cold-cocked by a falling wall one time – my fault. I was building a room in a room, had leaned the new wall against the old, turned around and –
found myself wondering why I was laying on the concrete floor, breathing dust, with my leg jambed in a five gallon bucket – and what in the heck is this heavy weight on top of me? Crawling out from underneath the wall, I extracted my foot from the five gallon bucket. Then shaking off the dust, I got me a drink of water and went back to work. It took me awhile to figure out what in the heck had happened, though I never did figure out how my foot ended up in that bucket.
When I was but a lowly Private, we had to trim some trees for a landing zone (LZ). For some oddball reason, the guy in charge had us climbing up the trees on the edge of the zone and chopping them off at about twelve, fourteen feet or so. Of course, this being the Marines, we had all the finest tools. Our knives and a few dull, stiff machetes. Grabbing one of the machetes, I shinnied up a mediocre sized pine about eight inches wide, and leaning back with one hand, begin chopping. Being soft pine, it didn’t take long to do some damage when all of a sudden – CRACK! – the tree snapped, kicked sideways, and kicked me from its piny boughs like a place kicker doing a punt. It hit me like a cannonball sized fist and the next thing I know, I’m flying backwards through the air like Superman on drugs.
Its a good thing this place was a swamp. I flew about twenty-five feet before going “plomp!” in the thick, gooey mud. I laid there, staring at the sky for what felt like minutes. The sky was a beautiful china blue with white cumulus, like torn cotton balls drifting in a blue bowl. My entire body was numb; I couldn’t feel a thing. My buddies ran over and raised me from of the hole I’d made. Beneath me was the perfect outline of my body.
Personal knowledge – some of that “body history” I mentioned – has taught me: if it don’t hurt when it happens, you’re probably hurt bad. And then you’d better get yourself ready for the pain. Or in my parent’s parlance: If, after an accident, a kid jumps up and runs around screaming and crying, chances are they are just fine. It’s when they just lay there that you’ve gotta be concerned. (shrug! Go figure. That’s just the way my parents were.)
That head butt by that tree didn’t hurt until the following day. It wasn’t even bruised. I had gotten up, and ten minutes later had gotten back to work. But during the following days – over the course of a week – it started turning colors. First light yellow, then green, followed by a deepening, darker blue. Just call me your little rainbow. And ache! Oh yeah. But being the tough fellow I was, I just sort of shrugged it off. Like most of the accidents I’ve been in, I never bothered seeking medical attention. Why compound what I know is bad news with more bad news, right? And it seems doctors all too often are just full of bad news.
I’ll never forget night in the Marine Corps one night, either. It was a night of nights – moonless, and you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, much less the tripwires and booby traps planted between us and our goal. As we crested a hill light machine guns (M16’s) open on the right; and a (huge) .30 caliber started barking on the left, spitting flame and fire. In the Marines you do NOT drop and hide – you immediately “wheel towards your attacker, firing from the hip (and stepping high so you don’t stumble over the dead bodies). You do not pause, you do not wait, you do not run for cover. YOU are in the “killing zone” (that’s the nature of ambushes) – and you’d better get your ass out right now!
After the fourth attempt to charge and displace (reduce) the .30 caliber machine gun, I told my men to create a diversion by a frontal attack while I swung wide to the left (flanking the ‘enemy’) – but how was I to know that they’d planted that machine gun nest across a ravine? (Just goes to show: don’t ever underestimate the enemy – nor their cleverness!) It was an eight foot fall (I know, because I could barely just reach up and touch the top of the cliff) – and I made a perfect three point landing – on my two hands and forehead. It was like taking a dive head first into an empty swimming pool. I landed so hard … so damned hard … it literally ended up crippling me for life. (Yah, I’m disabled, but can still walk.) But I was a good Marine: I never lost my grip on my rifle, I came back up immediately, and completed my mission. But the effects from the concussion were still there a year later. There’s a whole big story about this one, which is why I won’t write more here on it. But I will say that while seeking medical attention, I got none, not from the Navy doc we had. He hated Marines, and the most he ever gave us was “take two Tylenol and we’ll see how you are in the morning” (meaning dead or alive). We had one guy run around for two weeks with a broken arm (untreated) because of him. And as for me … well, crushed nerves, my right shoulder blade ‘ripped’ from my back (among other things) – and lots and lots of what the doctors have since said is ‘unrecoverable’ (meaning irrepairable) tissue damage. I have been in pain every day since. (One of the reasons I took up ‘self-medication’ with marijuana – while it may not ‘ease’ the pain, it certainly makes it easier to ignore.) That ended up getting me busted during my last year with the Corps when the “pee tests” came out. I never forgave them that; nor that doctor – nor the fact that I lost most of my best men. (We were a Star outfit of misfits – because I was the only one who could understand what being a misfit felt like, and therefore was able to motivate my Marines. And when it came to getting a particulary tough mission done – you know who they came to. Yeah. Us. Sargent Scrounges Band of Misfits. Because we were GOOD and we were tight, and we were willing to die for each other – and the Mission.)
Oh, and there was that fall off of a speeding truck in the desert (not the Middle Eastern one, but the grown home one right here in the United States, out near 29 Palms.) We were “bugging out” from one place to another, being overrun by our enemies (our fellow Marines). As Sargent my job demanded that I see to the safety and welfare of my men first, so we loaded them all up onto one truck and took off. It was so crowded that I ended up riding on the driver’s side running board. Holding onto the batwing mirror with one hand and the door’s window sill with the other, we went tearing across the desert. That’s when I felt the running board begin to bend. The next thing I know, it’s collapsing beneath me, and I have two choices: either fall and get run over by my own truck – or get froggy and jump.
I jump. Playing Superman once again, I go flying parallel to the desert ground. I can still see that coarse sand flowing past beneath me, growing nearer and nearer.
I learned something I already knew from trying to dig a ditch in the desert. (Only the Marine Corps would have you dig a ditch in the desert, ya know!) The desert sand can be as hard as a rock after being baked like a brick for a few thousand years.
As I lay there, gasping alongside the road like a beached fish, the truck stops, backs up, stops again, and a couple guys jump out of the rear.
“Hey Sarge! You okay?” they ask, ambling up through the dust. I’ve managed to push myself up. Without even asking they each hooked a hand under my armpit and dragged me to my feet; then, half dragging, half walking me, they get me in the back. From somewhere amidst the men and gear an arm appears holding an illicit gallon bottle of wine.
“Here, Sarge, drink some of this. Maybe it’ll help ya feel better.”
It took about a half bottle, but it did. I don’t even remember arriving at our destination.
And then there’s the time I got towed around a lake late one night, hanging onto the side of a speedboat that was racing around, trying to shake me off. Or the time I almost drowned swimming – breathing through a reed underwater – from one island to another. At least I’m not still picking rocks out of my skin from a shell that landed a little bit too close. That sand is still working its way out of my face and arms (albeit here, thirty some odd years later, only upon occasion).
Or we could talk about the time I was trimming a candle during an ice storm. Using a razor knife to trim back the thick wax walls, I slipped and cut my wrist – just a little cut, a nick, mind you! – no more than a half inch long. But don’t you know it, according to my karma, it just happened to be in just the right spot to slice through an artery and cut the nerve running to my thumb. A surgeon couldn’t have planned it better. Walking towards the kitchen sink, I found I could make like spiderman – bend my wrist and gouts of blood would spurt halfway across the room. Running some water over the wound, I debated whether or not to whip out the superglue and bandaids and attempt a home repair. My wife talked me out of it. I ended up spending a week in the burn ward at just the right time – that same night a hotel burnt down, and they were swamped with about thirty burn cases, just to keep things interesting for the overwhelmed hospital staff and me.
I won’t go into all the other assorted accidents I’ve been in; all the nicks and cuts, burns and bruises. It’s kind of amazing to me – I can still remember my child’s body, all new and unmarked – smooth hands, smooth skin. But I miss that body, the body of yesterday, the one I had when I was young. Joints that didn’t ache and muscles that didn’t sag or droop. I miss not having nerve spasms due to pinched nerves; I miss the spine that didn’t have discs that look like squashed cupcakes. I miss the sharper sense of hearing that I had, and having all of my own teeth in my mouth. (Only being able to chew on one side sucks – and the dentist is threatening the other. Too many cracked teeth; too many hard ‘swats’ across the face.) I miss being able to run and jump and play all day and not even beginning to get tired.
I miss seeing things with brand new eyes, and none of the body’s history that comes with a lifetime of work and age – the scars, the blown out knee, the varicose ankles. I miss the days when my hip didn’t ache and my shoulder didn’t remind of that fall I took in ’83, or that fight with a brier head in ’96. I had an old man who used to tell me “getting old sucks”.
But at least that’s better than the alternative. Or so I have been told.
Sometimes I wonder, though.