Tuesday, August 10, 2010
I once broke someone's leg in a Little League baseball game. I was playing catcher and he slide into home plate. I was in his way and tagged him out with the ball that was in my mitt. Perhaps I should have stepped aside to clear the way for him and his cleats that were aimed at my face. I didn't know any better and stood my ground with a tag that was rather forceful. As I write this, it occurs to me that the slide may have caused the fracture but at the time, and for all the intervening years, I assumed that I had broken his leg. I'd never had so much as a sprain with all the football I played.
On April 12, 1963, my father and I got an early start. We climbed into a recently acquired Cadillac Coupe de Ville that I didn't much care for--it was white like a kitchen appliance with a black fabric interior that sported some white leather trim and I preferred the silver-blue de Ville that it had replaced--and headed south to the Naval base in Long Beach. A friend of my father arranged for us to go out on a Navy mine sweeper to observe a mine sweeping exercise. As we proceeded along the 110 Freeway, a stone hit our windshield leaving a large, star-like crack. Looks like the windshield will need to be replaced, I thought to myself.
It was an interesting day aboard the ship and watching the mine sweeping operation was exciting for me. We ate in the ship's mess and later I began to feel sick to my stomach as a result of the soup I had with lunch. I was shown to a bunk where I could rest and spent the balance of the exercise trying to feel better. I was still a bit wobbly when we docked but we had been invited to dinner with friends, so we stopped off in Westwood where I was given a 7-Up and my father spent the evening eating and talking with our hosts. We took our leave at about 10 pm.
I don't remember much about the ride home. I was tired and slept most of the way. As we neared the Topanga Canyon exit from the 101 Freeway. I opened my eyes to see two headlights swooping down on us like a bird of prey coming in for the kill. I had the impression of the white hood of our car flying up to obscure the view through the windshield. It was a very brief impression followed by total darkness.
"These two are dead," I heard a man say. I wondered if he was talking about me and my father. I was slumped down in the front passenger seat and saw that the windshield was broken and mostly missing. I couldn't move my left leg (later I learned it had been dislocated) and I could only move the top part of my right leg. It had been broken in two. Suddenly, I began bleeding from a large cut on the right side of my forehead. I turned to my father and said, "I think my leg is broken." "That's good," he said, meaning that if that was my only injury...
It wasn't too long before the Fire Department ambulance arrived. They took my father out first. Because the damage to my side of the car was so severe, they had to take me out from the driver's side. As I passed the steering wheel, I noticed that the spokes had broken and the rim was hanging from the steering column. Neither my father nor I had been wearing seat belts. They didn't have them in passenger cars back then.
We were taken to Westpark Community Hospital at the north end of Topanga Canyon Blvd. I kept thinking I was going to fall off the narrow stretcher. The paramedic was trying to stop my bleeding and shoved his knee against me so I wouldn't be thrown from the stretcher as we rounded corners. My father had fared better than I and didn't need the kind of attention I was getting. Weeks later when he came to visit me in the hospital, the paramedic said he felt like he was playing the piccolo trying to stop the bleeding. As soon as he staunched the flow from one area of the cut, it would flow from another.
As they rolled me into an emergency room, I could see that my right leg made a ninety degree turn half way along the femur. Somehow, they got me off of the gurney and onto the operating table. They immediately elevated the foot of the table to promote circulation. Later they told me they couldn't find a pulse. Someone came at me with a huge needle that looked like it was for mending sails and I went unconscious. It was about 10:45 pm on Good Friday.
When I awoke, it was Easter Sunday morning. My private nurse introduced himself and filled me in on a few details. I'd been in a head-on collision. Two people had been traveling on the wrong side of the freeway and were killed instantly. I would later learn that their blood alcohol levels were so high, they shouldn't have been able to walk much less drive. The doctors thought so little of my chances that they ordered a private nurse for that first evening but not for the following morning figuring I would not survive the night.
My father suffered broken ribs, bruises and lacerations but I got the worst of it. We were both lucky as you don't generally survive head-on collisions on the freeway. The wrong-way driver and his companion were in an Opel Kadett which was was no match for the big Cadillac. The insurance photos I saw made the Opel look like an accordion. You could not make out where the doors had been. Our accident made the headline of the Los Angeles Times which reported that traffic had backed up all the way from Woodland Hills to downtown Los Angeles.
I spent weeks in the hospital. It was there that I read my first copy of Road & Track magazine and saw pictures of Ferraris and other exotic cars and discovered the world of Formula 1 and the writings of Henry N. Manney III. It began a whole new chapter in my life.
This is what appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times about the accident: