This is a piece I wrote for a non-fiction anthology regarding phobias and related mental issues. The rights have reverted back to me, and I’m now sharing the story here on my site on the anniversary of the events that changed my life forever. Thirty-one years now separate me from that awful night, but I still have plenty of physical ailments, emotional scars, and mental issues to deal with from something that took less than a minute to transpire.
Without making you wait any longer for the story, I’ll just let what I had published in the anthology stand on its own here…..
In the span of one-thousand, eighty degrees of rotation and less than fifteen seconds, my life changed forever. At the time, I was an invulnerable, worries-to-the-wind fifteen year old. Nothing could touch me. Nothing could destroy me. Like all teenagers, I knew everything and would live forever. The accident in the perfect early morning hours of August 8th, 1988 warped my psyche and destroyed my invulnerability in a way I’ll never forget.
My older step-sister, Big M, “borrowed” her father’s GMC Jimmy for a joy ride into town to visit her boyfriend-of-the-week. With school being out, I was free to roam the countryside in which I lived to all hours of the early morning. The number one rule in my freedom was, “Don’t come crying to Mommy if you get hurt.” I lived by that rule and enjoyed the liberty of walking under the cool West Texas skies staring up at the constellations slowly sliding across in the inky darkness.
My friend, C, and my younger step-sister, Little M, walked the nights with me as we found little ways to get in trouble without causing problems for our neighbors. As we walked along the country road we lived on, the roar of an engine behind us caught our attention. Out of reflex, we dove for the scrub brush in the bar ditch beside the road. Our reactions were too slow this time, and the vehicle screeched to a stop. We weren’t worried about kidnappings or such, but if a police officer caught us out at night, he would be sure to haul us home, wake our parents and ask lots of stupid questions. It was a hassle I didn’t want to repeat.
Big M’s familiar voice called out from the stopped car, “Will you guys get out of the dirt and hop in? Want to go for a ride?”
With relief we stood up and dusted ourselves off. The three of us clambered into the Jimmy and Big M lit the tires up as we roared down the dirt roads of the rural community. Music blared from the stereo as tires slipped back and forth on the caliche roadways. From the sound of Big M’s blabbering, I could tell she wasn’t sober. I’m not sure what she had done at her boyfriend-of-the-week’s house, but the scent of cigarette smoke, sex and booze mingled in the tight cab of the SUV. The only thing I could think of was that Big M was so going to be busted for stinking up her dad’s Jimmy.
We roamed the back roads and country lanes long enough for the excitement of “borrowing” my step-father’s car to turn to boredom and apathy. The midnight hour rolled by and Big M continued her random wanderings through the country. Different roads of asphalt and dirt became lost in the red tail lights and in the darkness of the night. I became thoroughly turned around and lost, but C seemed to know where we were at.
Big M careened around a dirt corner and slid to a stop with the dust swirling in the headlights. Little M cried in fright from the front seat as I was tossed across the back seat into C. Tired of being thrown to and fro, I quickly threw on my seatbelt. C followed suit. Little did we know this minor measure of safety would save our lives.
I called to the front seat over the din of the music, “Slow down a bit! This Jimmy is top heavy. You’re going to flip us!”
Big M ignored my pleas and tore off down the dirt road at an amazing clip. Halfway down the country mile, she began to swerve back and forth on the road. Cries of glee escaped the lips of Big and Little M alike. C glanced at me with a nervous smile, and I’m certain the color had drained from my face.
The next fifteen seconds of my life are permanently ingrained in memory. Every little detail. Every little motion. Every little sensation. It’s all burned into me and will be there, physically and emotionally, until the day I pass from this world.
Big M lost control of the Jimmy. The bar ditch on the left side of the road loomed deep and wide in the headlights. In the blink of an eye, a shuddering thump passed through the vehicle and our bodies as the SUV slammed into the far side of the ditch. We had built up so much speed and momentum that the far wall of the ditch did little to impede our forward progress. The upslope of the ditch’s far side acted as a ramp and launched us into the air.
The world spun about us and we landed upside-down on the front-left corner of the Jimmy. The roof caved in just far enough to ding Little M on the top of her head, but she wouldn’t even need stitches for the cut. After the screeching crunch of metal ceased, we continued to flip and roll. We rolled a total of three times for a total pirouette of one-thousand, eighty degrees.
Just as the gut-wrenching crash started, my motorcycle racing training kicked in. I had been taught that during a wreck, the best thing to do is relax. The energy exerted on the human body during a crash of any magnitude are so great, that fighting physics will result in more grievous injuries. Just as the first roll started, I took a deep breath, held it and willed my limbs to flop about my body under the control of the centrifugal forces of the roll.
My feet careened about the floorboards attached to gummy-like legs, and my arms flung over my head like earthworms dying on a sun-baked sidewalk during triple-digit temperatures.
As the Jimmy thump-thumped its way across the cotton field we ended up in, I distinctly remember Little M calling out Big M’s name. The terrified little girl scream still echoes in my nightmares to this day. Somewhere in the midst of the drawn out howl, I encountered a sensation that is most difficult to describe, but I will do my best to paint the picture of permanent nerve damage.
My arm went cold and numb. Forever.
A wave of frigid terror extended from just below my shoulder to my fingertips in my nerves’ one final gasp at life before being severed forever from the lump of gray mass that resides between my ears. Glass exploded inward from a shattered pane as the SUV rolled one last time.
A gently rocking motion, like a mother cradling a newborn babe, ended Little M’s caterwaul of panic. The Jimmy had somehow ended up on its wheels and the momentum from the horrific crash caused it to rock back and forth on its springs. Somewhere in the crash, the electronics to the dome light had shorted and the light shed its yellow glare down on the cab of the car.
I immediately saw all of the blood.
I thought it was someone else’s. There’s no way I could be the one hurt. I was invulnerable after all. Right?
I asked everyone to sound off and tell me where they were hurt. Big M, Little M and C all sounded off that they were okay. I didn’t believe them for an instant. With a shaky voice, I called out, “There’s blood in the car and it came from someone.” I tried to motion with both of my arms, but only the left one responded. I don’t know what I was about to say next because the words caught in my throat. I realized I was the one hurt.
I was the one pouring my lifeblood out into the battered GMC Jimmy.
Since we had “borrowed” my step-father’s car, we knew we were in deep trouble. Big M worried the keys like a rabid dog in an effort to get them to dislodge from the ignition switch. All the while, she cried, “I’m so going to get grounded.”
I growled at her. “Leave the damn keys. I’m bleeding and I don’t know how badly I’m hurt. We have to get back to the house and see what I can do to sew this up.” Even though bloodied and broken, I still thought myself immortal. I figured a few cheap stitches using my mom’s sewing kit would close me up and we could maybe hide the fact that all of us were in the car.
After the four of us clambered from the ruins of the car, I reached back to see how badly my arm was wounded. When the second knuckle of my fingers entered the gaping wound in my arm, I knew it was bad. Real bad. Something in my brain snapped at that moment. I stood at death’s door and he welcomed me in. Not ready to cross that threshold just yet, I somehow managed to tear off my t-shirt and use it as a makeshift tourniquet where my arm merged with my shoulder. The resulting knot of cloth from tying off the t-shirt as tightly as I could went inside my arm as crude compress to try to staunch the flow of blood. I can thank the Boy Scouts for these skills and training. Without them, I may very well have crossed the doorway into death’s realm never to return again.
The march back to our rural home began. I didn’t think. I just acted. One foot in front of the other. About half a mile down the road, we reached one of the main roads that was paved. It would lead us straight to our house a little over a mile away.
That’s when we spotted the police officer turning the corner. Someone living in the remote area must have heard the crash and called 911. Out of reflex, we all dove for cover. How the cop didn’t see us, I’m not sure. It must have been the abject darkness of the new moon and lack of city lights that saved us from being spotted. As he rolled past our hiding spots, he saw the Jimmy and drove toward it. When he exited his cruiser to march the forty yards to the wreckage, we made a run for it.
After crossing the paved country road, we made our way deep into the soft dirt of the plowed cotton fields. Running in the darkness, Big M and Little M stayed together. Somehow C stayed at my side. Once we were sufficiently deep into the field to not be seen from the road, we called for one another. The Ms made their way back to us, and I had my first experience with body control.
I knew that if I kept my heart rate up at a high pace, it would do nothing more than pump my life out of my gaping wound and kill me. I willed my heart to slow. I commanded my breathing to return to a normal depth. Through sheer force of mind over body, I calmed myself. I had no other choice.
Once we regrouped, we started trudging eastward through the thick soil of the farmers’ lands. Things went well for about half a mile, and then we ran into the security fence dividing one piece of property from another. The six-foot tall chain link fence was topped by another foot of barbed wire. I never did understand why someone would build such a contraption in the middle of a cotton field, but the reasonings didn’t matter to me at the moment. All I knew is that I had to climb the seven-foot tall barrier with a single arm.
I urged C to climb over first to catch the Ms as they came over the top. Next went Big M and then Little M. Why I didn’t go over in the middle of the pack where I could have some help on both sides is beyond me. I guess chivalry isn’t dead. Not yet, at least. I managed to climb the fence with my two good feet, and my one good arm. Rough is hardly a harsh enough word to describe the difficulty of the situation, but it comes close.
Once on the other side, we made good time back to our house. When we reached the place, I told C to head home, get in his bed and play dumb. I didn’t want him getting in trouble like the rest of us were surely going to. We made our way inside, and I went straight to the bathroom. Turning the back of my damaged arm to the mirror, so I could see my wound, I gently unpacked the cloth knot from the innards of my arm and released the tourniquet.
The sight of the bloody gash, white bone and torn flesh of my arm almost made me pass out on the spot. Again, I willed myself to stay standing, so that I wouldn’t die on the spot. Death couldn’t have me. Yet.
I surged from the bathroom, snatched the phone from Little M’s hands. I didn’t know who was on the other line, but I practically screamed into the phone, “She’s okay! I’m the only one hurt.” Then I hung up the phone and called 911. Somehow I was extremely calm throughout the process of requesting help from an ambulance. It felt as if I were ordering pizza, not saving my life. It was just something that had to be done to guarantee my continued survival, so I did it without fuss or muss.
Somewhere during all of this, my step-father and mother woke up to the chaos created by two scared teenager and a crying adolescent.
By this time, about thirty minutes had passed. I waited for another fifteen for the ambulance to show up. During this entire time, Little M did nothing more than cry and babble incoherently. Big M and her father screamed at each other about the events of the night. My mother and I sat in the bathroom while she cried, “There’s a hunk of your arm missing!” She wasn’t quite right. The gap in my arm wasn’t missing tissue, but just a huge slice in my arm. The human body is wound so tight, that if you cut it deep enough, the wound will naturally pull open from the pull of surrounding tissue. It makes for a ghastly sight, that’s for sure.
The ambulance driver and his paramedic team showed up and I almost got into a fist fight with the paramedic. He took one look at my arm, damn near lost his lunch all over me and then started repeating his mantra, “You should be dead by now!”
I had to keep repeating my saying, “But I’m not. Let’s go to the hospital.”
Eventually, we went to the hospital just like I wanted to.
By the time the emergency medical teams at the hospital were finished with me, I had more than twenty stitches in my right ear, a little less then twenty stitches in my head behind my ear and around twenty-five stitches in my right hand. The explosion of glass from the untempered right-rear window had shredded my extremities.
A day or so later (morphine will mess with your space-time continuum in a serious way) I was wheeled into the operating suite with three doctors at my side. One orthopedic surgeon was going to put me back together with the help of a vascular surgeon and a neurosurgeon. Five hours after they started, I was put back together as I ever will be.
It turns out the cut on the back of my arm cut entirely through my triceps, humerus (upper arm bone) and nicked the inside layers of my biceps. Somehow the vital parts of my upper arm were left mostly intact. The brachial artery and ulnar vein had been left intact by the slicing action of the shards of glass that maimed me. The brachial plexus, which is a large bundle of nerves traveling alongside the ulnar vein had been slightly damaged, but had been repaired to the best of the neurosurgeon’s abilities.
To this day, I suffer from near constant nerve pain in my arm, and there are times where scar tissue will shift to the point that my arm “falls dead.” During these hours-long episodes, I cannot move the arm, feel the arm or get good circulation to and from the limb. When this happens in my sleep, I suffer from terrible nightmares triggered by the physical sensations of my arm “falling dead” on me as I slumber.
Earlier I mentioned mental scars. It may sound like the physical price I paid for that joy ride was enough to punish me for my youthful stupidity.
For some people the sight of something is enough to invoke terror. For others it may be a smell, though or touch. For me, it’s a sensory situation. When I’m in a car that suddenly swerves left-to-right or right-to-left, I panic. When I’m in a car that suddenly drifts a slight bit (such as on ice or dirt roads,) I panic. When a car that I’m in takes a turn too fast and lurches to one side or even gets on two wheels, I panic.
This panic for me is a full emotional breakdown as I flash back to the early morning hours of the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighty-eighth year of the twentieth century of the year of our Lord. I fully experience every second of sound, sight, motion, pain, feeling, lack of feeling and emotion that I felt during those fifteen seconds of chaos and terror. I breakdown into a babbling, incoherent fifteen year old screaming about horrors in the night and blood in my arm. There’s no pulling me out of the visions of terror until they run their course. I have no idea how long this takes, but I’ve had friends tell me that I was “out of it” for “a few minutes” each time this has happened.
I have one upside to these flashbacks. If I know beforehand that the vehicle is about to drift, slide, swerve or tilt, then I can prepare my mind and force it to not freak out. Only with this split-second of mental preparation can I keep from flashing back to that horrible night of blood, pain and darkness.
I come from a line of race car drivers on my mother’s side, and somehow have inherited the gene that allows me to be able to feel my car through my feet and hands on the controls and my butt in the seat. Through these feelings, I know what my car is about to do next, even if I’m not in full control. It’s through these sensations and my predictions that allow me to control any panic-inducing thoughts before they strike. This is a blessing because I can’t imagine what might happen to me, and those around me, if I were to lose control of my mind while attempting to drive a car. I’m certain a new wreck, with new nightmares to follow, would ensue.
I’m not sure what kind of phobia a psychologist would call this, or if they would classify this as PTSD or something similar. All I know is that if there is even a hint that a car I’m in might flip or lose control, I suffer a traumatic flashback that causes me to relive one of the worst nights of my life.
One physical thing that I carry with me every time I move is the t-shirt I wore that night. It’s the t-shirt that saved my life. I’m never getting rid of it even though it doesn’t fit anymore. I pull it out on August 8th each year and look at the holes in the fabric, trace my fingers along the lines of the bloodstains and close my eyes to remember. I have to do this, so that I don’t forget one very important fact of my life.
I’m not invulnerable.