On a weekday morning in October of 1971 I got creamed at the corner of Buck and Lawndale Roads. The car I was driving, a VW Bug, collided with a van as I drove through the intersection. On three out of four corners, all flat farmland, field corn had reached its maximum height.
I would have crossed that intersection at approximately 35 miles per hour (no stop signs in any direction), my view almost totally obstructed by corn. I would have been listening to Jethro Tull on the 8 track tape player in my car, the music turned up loud. I would have been mildly buzzed. It was my practice at the time to take a few hits on a joint or a pipe on the way to class. I had started my second year of college. I had a career goal in mind. Behind me, on the back seat of the car were notebooks, textbooks: public speaking, sociology, economics, principles of accounting.
I was told weeks later: after my car was struck it rolled (a VW bug would roll like a ball) into a woman’s vegetable garden on the one corner with no field corn.
I have no recollection of the collision, of the moments immediately before or after, no memory of the hours preceding it. And afterward, for all of ten days, all is blank. Weeks, maybe months later, I saw a picture of the car, and wondered, Did it come to rest on its side, upside down, right side up? Did Jethro Tull continue to play on the tape deck? Did Mrs. Metivier, one of my father’s customers, first hear the sound of the crash at the intersection, then the voice and flute of Ian Anderson coming from her garden? How long was I in the car? How did they get me out of it? What route did they take to the hospital in Saginaw?
I could have been killed.
In fifth grade we went through a fainting phase. It was all boys, of course. Girls were not this stupid, or they were stupid in other ways. Some of us boys made each other faint. There was a fainter and a faintee. What the faintee did was take ten deep breaths and hold the last one, while behind you, the fainter, your buddy, wrapped his arms around your chest and gave you this crushing bear hug. It took 10-15 seconds. Your body went limp, you passed out, and the fainter hugging you–Danny Leman or Eddie Mauer or Joe Hrcka–laid you on the floor. The blackout lasted no more than a few seconds. When you came to, there was this buzzing in your head, and a warming, tingling sensation as oxygenated blood flooded back into your brain and you saw, standing over you, a half a dozen knuckleheads looking down at you as if you had fallen into a hole.
There followed a few seconds of confusion, of strangeness. What happened? Where am I? Then you rejoined to living.
It was pretty stupid, possibly even dangerous. Just before things went black, you felt like your head was going to pop like a balloon. We did this in the room. We pushed chairs and desks out of the way to make room for the faintee. For some reason, Mrs. Ault tolerated this nonsense until one day, after being lowered to the floor, Bob Young had some low level convulsions. Maybe, just maybe, we reasoned, this was not such a good idea.
What was perplexing was the state of total absence. It wasn’t like sleep. It was like death, which to boys could seem kind of cool.
Years later, when I became aware of near-death experience accounts, they bore no similarity to what had happened to me that fall in 1971. For me the near-death experience was all black. There was no long dark tunnel with a light at the end of it, nobody waiting for me. Nor was there a sensation of hovering over my body, looking down at myself, and me thinking Well, I can stay or I can go, and right now going seems like an okay thing to do. Not that. Nor no rush of memory, no lifetime passing before my eyes. For days after the crash I was surrounded by people. They talked to me. When I replied, I answered in short sentences, often in gibberish, none of which I remember. It is likely my parents sat beside my bed, my hand in theirs, and murmured prayers. It is likely they cried (a friend later told me that she saw my mother on a hospital elevator one day and she was weeping). In my memory, no murmuring, no prayers. No memory at all. No fade to black.
Just blank. Gone.
Then, gradually: awakening. What just happened?
My first recollection of human death was a relative named Chuck Norman. He was the husband of one of my father’s cousins. A dentist I saw at family reunions once or twice, Chuck was kind of a flashy guy. He dressed better than the rest of us, in slacks and a jacket, in pressed and sporty-looking shirts. He had black, slicked-back hair, a big smile that showed perfect teeth. Word came one summer: Chuck had died in a boating accident.
We went to the funeral home.
Standing by the casket, I looked away, then glanced at my first real dead person. He was dressed up. Jacket, pressed shirt, tie, hands folded over his waist. I stood near my father while he talked to his Uncle Dick, whom I was named for. In a boat at night, approaching port in the fog, they had collided with something, the boat had lurched, Chuck with it, slamming him into the sharp edge of a table. Uncle Dick told the story. Hold me, Denny, Chuck had said to his friend, lying on the floor of the boat. It hurts here. Hold me, Denny, hold me. And he died there or shortly after of internal bleeding. Uncle Dick turned to the casket, reached over, and patted Chuck’s hands that were folded together on his stomach.
Chuckie, the only child, his mom said had been to the cemetery already, had seen his father’s grave, had wanted to jump down into the hole.
When I gradually came back ten days or so after the accident, finding myself in traction, stretched out on a hospital bed, the real trauma was behind me.
I was told: “Your legs are broken,”
I was told: “You had a bad bump on the head.”
At the foot of the bed I could see my feet, which, because of the traction, I could not move. From my knees to my crotch, each leg had dressings, wraps, drains.
I was told: Surgery. Femur fractures. Concussion. Dr. Sulfridge, a local orthopedic doc who had gone to Vietnam to provide medical help to wounded American ground troops, whose youngest daughter Martha was my age, had fixed me up.
The hospital bed, a contraption used then called a circle bed, enabled nurses to move me. They placed a board on top of me, head to toe, strapped me to that, and flipped the switch. An electric motor buzzed, the metal frames rattled slightly. A semi-circle later I lay on my belly.
“How’s that?” a pretty nurse would ask.
“Your own Ferris wheel,” she said. She changed bedding. She washed my back. “Another week we’ll get you out of here.”
Nice clean breaks, Dr Sulfridge said. Metal plates and screws. Range of motion would return. I would be in a wheelchair for 3-4 months.
I felt like I had come back from death, which, if asked, I could now describe. Just blank. Gone.
As kids, we had rehearsed our deaths regularly. Some days, four or five times we play-died, usually from gunshot wounds, usually in the old West or on a battlefield in World War II. We impersonated guys we saw on tv who took a bullet in the gut (always the gut), a mortal wound we covered with both hands as we fell to the ground down by the river. A pal stood over you. You spoke your last words in soft tones, then closed your eyes and exhaled one last time.
There was real death going on around us. Every so often, I came downstairs in the morning and my parents announced someone in town had died. Kevin Sanford, one of the Sanford kids our age, had died. Mrs. Wampler, a few blocks from our house, Debbie Wampler’s mom had died. Gunther Kamrath, husband of Mrs. K, the elegant study hall teacher, had dropped dead of a heart attack. You knew it happened, but it made no sense.
“I have a ball,” Mrs. Gaul, our next door neighbor, explained to me one day, “the size of a grapefruit in my throat.”
I was sitting with her and my friend Dean in their breakfast room. Sunlight streamed through the window. Her name was Marion. She was thin. She wore a flowery housecoat that morning. Her lank, dark hair fell over her shoulders. What little I knew about cancer I knew from Forrest Whitman, who had told me at school if you picked at a mole on your arm you would get cancer.
“I don’t want to go down in that dark place,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears.
“The grave,” my mother quietly explained later. “Marion’s going to be buried above ground, at the mausoleum in Saginaw.”
She died shortly after that. I looked out into the backyard one morning and saw Dean swinging on the rope my dad had hung from a tree for us. I remember thinking: Should he be doing that, playing when his mother has just died? What would I do if my mother died?
My parents must have gone to a visitation, maybe to the funeral as well. They didn’t take my brother and me.
Every day after that car crash, my parents came to the hospital and talked to me. Talk, they were told, would help clear the cobwebs, would bring me back to myself. My friends started to come. A farm kid from our town, Rodney Dill, was also in the hospital at the time. It was October, harvest time. He had reached into a corn picker and had three fingers cut off. Once or twice, lying on my circle bed, I’d turn and see him standing next to my bed, his arm wrapped up to his elbow, two remaining fingers sticking out.
“Well,” he said once, “at least we’re not dead.”
“There is always one moment in childhood,” Graham Greene wrote in The Power and the Glory, “when a door swings open and lets the future in.” This car crash was that, a door that swung open, letting in a different future than I had imagined. Everything that happens next, I now sensed, is going to be different.
And in many ways, it was.