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I stepped into a time machine again the other day.
The funny thing about time machines is that they never really look the same, and you’re never, ever sure where they’ll take you. I have one that looks for all the world like a box of black and white photos. Another that is just a hunk of metal, but it’s magical, and most people would just think of it as a car. The time machine the other day looked a lot like a UH-1 “Huey” Helicopter.
I saw it in the museum of flight in Seattle, I saw the seat I’d sat in, in the side of a Huey, and it took me back to September of 1974.
I’d just gotten a paper route, and my best friend took the time to ride along with me every day, and we chatted and talked about the kinds of things young boys talk about (generally young girls) when they’re riding bicycles and delivering newspapers.
At one point, at a fellow named Mike’s house, we’d just delivered his paper, and the next one was across the two lane state highway that went through town. We had to wait for traffic to clear, and since I’d done this route now for almost three weeks, and my friend had done it with me a good number of those days, we knew this was a hard spot to cross, so I shifted my dad’s old Raleigh three speed bike into first gear and my friend shifted the pedals of his orange sting ray bicycle so he’d be able to accelerate quickly as soon as we found a hole in the traffic..
This next little bit happens in about 5 seconds, but it will take a lot longer to actually read.
I remember looking right, seeing a black car coming north, and looking left and seeing two empty Weyerhaeuser logging trucks coming south heading back up to the mountains from the Port of Tacoma where they’d emptied their logs. I remember looking right again, and then hearing an engine roaring like I’d never heard before coming from the left, the direction of the logging trucks. I followed the sound to see a large blue sedan passing the trucks and heading straight for us. We were sitting at the apex of a gentle curve, so the blue car roaring south would have to follow the curve to the left, but it was still in the left (wrong) lane, and that little black car coming north was just getting to the turn and its driver saw the blue car just as I did.
The driver of the blue car, a fellow by the name of Frank Lane, swerved right, back into his own lane, just as the road swung left. A police officer by the name of Roy was following him. Frank noticed, much too late, that the road was curving left as he was going right, back into his lane, and he over-corrected, badly.
It’s at this point that things go into slow motion for me.
My friend was sitting low in the saddle of his small wheeled stingray bicycle, and hadn’t turned his head yet to see what was going on. (remember, we’re still inside of about 5 seconds here). Frank’s front tires caught, and stayed on the road, but his back ones lost their grip, and his car started to go sideways. The right rear door of the car hit my friend, knocking him and the bike to his right. His left leg got caught under the car, and I saw his head – well, let’s be more accurate – I saw the window hit his head, and shatter. About then Frank hit the gas, and part of my friend’s leg, being under the car at that time, kind of got erased by the spinning right rear tire. The car then shoved my friend into me, he ricocheted off me and went up into the air, while I was spun around. I remember everything going gray, not black, and sound stopped for a moment, while I found myself rather distractedly having the thought, “Well, if I’m going to die, there’s not much I can do about it right now…”
I came to facing Mike’s house, away from the road, on my side, in a rose bush.
The impact had thrown my friend up into the air – one of the logging truck drivers later said he went as high as the telephone wires, came down, landed on me, and rolled through the same rosebush I was in. I remember seeing both trucks stop hard, with the tires shuddering, and then seeing Mike run out of the house toward me. I looked at my watch. It was 5:10. I don’t know why I remember that, I just do.
I looked around for my friend, didn’t see him, and saw Mike tearing out of the house toward me. Then I saw the truck drivers had found my friend and were focused on him. He wouldn’t be riding a bike again for a long time. I saw one of the drivers using a huge knife to slash at the rose branches that had wrapped around my friend’s neck as he came to a stop.
I didn’t know what to do right then, but Mike wanted to make sure I was okay. He couldn’t see my friend, who was hidden behind the truck drivers. I heard sirens, and somehow, saw Frank had gotten his car parked across the street. The right rear window had been obliterated.
I heard talk of getting a helicopter to take us to the hospital. I didn’t think I was hurt badly enough to need a helicopter, much less an ambulance. Nobody said anything about my friend, but it was soon very clear that he was the reason for the helicopter.
I saw medics, saw the logging truck drivers helping some more, then heard and saw the Huey come in, circling low and fast, the pilot landing in a horse pasture across the road, scaring the horses and flattening the grass as he touched down. Traffic was blocked completely off as my friend was carried over there… Fence posts were knocked down and I walked over what remained of the fence with everyone else as my friend was put into the helicopter.
There were medics in flight gear and helmets and visors. I was ushered into the seat just behind the ammo box for the machine gun in the picture below – a seat I hadn’t seen in a Huey since 1974… My friend was strapped in across the fuselage of the helicopter and the medics sat in webbed seats like you see below.
I remember peeking around and seeing the pilot with his helmet looking back to be sure my friend and the medics were ready to go. I kept thinking I should be excited because I loved anything having to do with flying, and this was my first helicopter ride – and yet somehow I knew my friend was fighting for his life just a few feet away.
It was clear that someone realized that if we didn’t get my friend to the hospital, and get him there soon, he might not make it – so Roy, the police officer, had called Madigan, the Army Hospital – and they had sent that Huey. That pilot must have had more flying hours in Viet Nam than he had in the states – he had flown in like there was no tomorrow.
The nurse saw me peeking around trying to see what was happening to my friend, and she handed me a roll of gauze and said, “I need you to hold this for me, can you do that?”
I nodded, and was the best gauze holder on the planet for the next 10 minutes or so.
The door slid closed and latched shut, and I looked out to see people were backing away from the helicopter, and up to this point, no one had really told me what was happening, I was literally along for the ride. I peeked right again, couldn’t see much, but heard the engine spin faster, and the rotor spun faster as well.
Suddenly the pitch got deeper, and the grass flattened out as if squashed by an invisible hand. The ground fell away from us – and the pilot pulled on the collective, shoved the stick forward, and stomped on the right pedal, corkscrewing us into the air as if he were checking for enemy gunners – or, in the case of the field we were in, stray and curious livestock.
He straightened out and headed northwest, over town, and I remember trying to see my house from the air, and couldn’t find it because I’d never seen the town that way before.
I remember wondering what was going to happen to my dad’s bicycle that he’d let me borrow to do the paper route.
I remember having flown before, and being used to seeing huge wings holding me up, not what seemed to be an occasional thwip thwip thwip of rotor blades going by overhead. I didn’t understand how we could be flying, but we were.
In short order, we were landing at Madigan, and were escorted past everyone in the emergency room. We were most definitely first in line. My friend went ahead of me, and went immediately into surgery. I didn’t see him for days. I found out later that his mom had gone over to our house and asked if my mom knew we’d been in an accident. No one had told my mom yet, but somehow she and my friend’s mom made it to the hospital shortly after the helicopter dropped us off there.
My friend spent about six months there, slowly healing enough to get out of the hospital. In the end, it took about a thousand stitches, and many skin grafts, among other things to put my friend back together again.
For better or worse, we each have scars from that September afternoon to this day. Some healed quickly, some healed slowly, some are visible, some are not, and some will never completely heal for either of us.
Frank was arraigned for driving under the influence, and I remember a few years later, this time I had my driver’s license – being behind a familiar looking car driving a few miles up the same highway. It was swerving literally from shoulder to shoulder. I stayed back and wished there had been cell phones back then so I could get a police officer out there, but there weren’t, and I couldn’t.
I’ve done some research, and it looks like Frank lived about a year after that incident, and died in Tacoma somewhere.
My only hope is that he didn’t take anyone with him when he went.
I blinked – and stepped out of the time machine, back from 1974 into yesterday, standing next to a Huey Helicopter in the Museum of Flight, and was astonished that the memory was not only still there, but was there so vividly.
I’d spent years being angry at Frank, for changing our lives forever in what wasn’t a moment, but a lifetime of drinking himself stupid. I remember he claimed, in his defense, that he’d been painting (he was a painter), and the paint fumes got to him. He didn’t mention that he’d been sitting at a bar getting plastered into oblivion for the better part of the afternoon.
Like I said, we each have our scars. My friend’s were outside with a lot inside. Mine, you couldn’t tell from the outside, and I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment changed the direction my life forever as most of my scars are inside. There is anger there, but anger won’t heal the scars, and anger won’t undo what he did. He’s gone now, to whatever eternal reward he’s earned.
I haven’t been in touch with my friend in a long time. For years after the accident, I felt guilty because I thought in some way that his injuries were my fault. I mean, if I hadn’t asked my friend to come with me that day, he wouldn’t have been hurt.
Then again, if Frank hadn’t been getting drunk, we wouldn’t have gotten hurt.
To my friend from decades ago, who’s out there, somewhere.
I hope you’re well.
I hope the years have been kind to you.
I hope the scars have healed.
I wish you a level of success you can be proud of, and a level of happiness that will bring you joy.