Crash Dummy

Dana Reeves

Writer’s comment: Since course catalogues were on back order when I showed up for in-person enrollment, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up for English 103A. Luckily, the surprise turned out to be a pleasant one, giving me the opportunity to write for fun rather than a grade. The following story, a retelling of the stupidest moment in my life, resulted from that class. Although I omitted some details, such as “Twenty-eight Attempts to Find a Vein” and “The Beautiful Ward Nurse” (later, “The Beautiful-Yet-Plump Ward Nurse Who Ate All My Candy”), I think the story captures the moment. Hopefully, readers will agree.
—Dana Reeves

Instructor’s comment: Dana's first essay pretty much knocked my socks off, right from the first paragraph. What struck me, especially, was the combination of an excruciating precision in the description (you're going to wince--more than once--as you read this) and a wonderful lightness and playfulness in the style--in the unexpected twists of perspective, for instance, or the use of personification which sometimes gives the events described an almost cartoonlike quality. Everything is alive and animated in this narrative, from the motorcycle "swinging its rear end like an intoxicated tart" to the asphalt with its "broken black teeth" or the hair on the author's feet standing at "permanent attention" to remind him of death's nearness—only a skin's thickness away. I think you will find yourself wincing as you read; I bet you'll find yourself grinning too, as you experience the pain and the absurdity of being a "Crash Dummy."
—Karen Schaafsma, English Department

At fifty miles per hour and only inches from your face, asphalt appears in soft focus, almost fuzzy, as if Motor Trend had commissioned Hugh Hefner to shoot the centerfold for an upcoming feature on Roads of the West. The reality is quite different, of course, and if your eyes are easily taken in by the illusion, your skin will set you straight regarding the texture of pavement. Eyes, whose only function is to interpret light, are artists and can afford the frivolity of Impressionism, but practical skin, the body’s largest organ and first line of defense against a perpetual onslaught of viruses, bacteria and (sometimes) pavement, is no dreamer.

      I made this observation several years ago after being thrown from a motorcycle at high speed. It was a Friday afternoon, and I had just finished another week of blue-collar labor at a factory near Davis, packing plastic bottles into cardboard boxes, eight hours a day, six days a week. When the whistle blew, I scooped up my helmet and sprinted from the plant, motivated by much more than Miller Time: tonight I would have my first date with a woman I had been hopelessly infatuated with since we first met over a dissected frog in high school biology. Little did I know that an event only minutes away would leave me feeling less like Valentino and more like that matchmaking lab specimen than I would have cared to.
      I burst out of the plant parking lot and quickly accelerated to 85 miles per hour. As I shot past the plodding cars of coworkers I gestured derisively, intending to communicate salutations as well as my biker’s disdain for their inferior form of transportation, and before they could respond, I was gone. Approaching the intersection that was to be my undoing, I unwittingly assembled a classic recipe for disaster, mixing equal parts youth and speed with a pinch of adrenaline and a dash of hormones. I set up the bike for the curve, ignoring a posted speed recommendation of twenty miles per hour. As any rider knows, those yellow signs are warnings to people who drive lumbering Buicks, and my eyes told me that the visible sweep of the curve could easily be negotiated at sixty miles per hour or more. Dropping a gear to decelerate the bike and raise the RPMs, I leaned into the curve at sixty-five miles per hour, visions of Grand Prix knee draggers flashing in my brain.

      My first mistake, I later observed, was a common one for novice motorcyclists. This apparently lazy curve was actually what is known as a diminishing radius circle, that is, a curve that tightens as it continues. As more of the curve came into view, my eyes, which had only moments before confidently estimated an easy sweeper, corrected their earlier guess and screamed for my brain to do something, now! Surrounding me was a forest of utility poles and signposts eagerly awaiting a crack at my anatomy. Still, my Superior Primate Brain remained calm, for this was not the first time it had been required to compensate for the recklessness of the machine it travelled in. I leaned harder into the corner, pulled in the clutch lever and punched the gear selector as if I’d planned it this way from the beginning. As the clutch engaged, however, the bike took on a life of its own, swinging its rear end like an intoxicated tart at Mardi Gras. And my brain, as any intelligent creature might do in such a situation, blacked out.
      Actually, only my frontal lobes excused themselves from the action. An older, more primitive part of my brain stayed on to observe the results of my second mistake. In my eagerness to slow down, I had unknowingly downshifted through two gears rather than one. As the clutch reengaged, the rear wheel was forcibly slowed, so much so that it lost traction and began to swing from side to side. In driving, as one might surmise, traction equals control, and that rule is all the more immediate in motorcycling. Noticing that traction had become a fond memory, the rest of my bike took a cue from the rear tire, ignoring my commands in favor of the far greater authority of the laws of physics. I watched helplessly as my vehicle began describing a larger circle than that dictated by the street. Ahead of me I could see only poles, stoically waiting their opportunity to demonstrate the tensile advantages that steel and wood enjoy over flesh and bone.
      Since countersteering strategies and braking technique were out of the question, I was limited to observing the first rule of motorcycling, which, simply stated, is “Don’t Fall Off.” As the Kawasaki went its own way, I assumed the role of passenger, desperately clinging to a machine that now controlled my life. We were not destined to remain together, however, and when the front wheel of the motorcycle hit the curb, I steadfastly abided by Mr. Newton’s first law, continuing in a straight line while my bike followed the curving track created by the curb and rain gutter.

      And so I came to learn first hand of the abrasive efficiency of asphalt. As I touched down from a brief moment of flight, my helmet, left arm and corresponding boot hit first, giving me my first glimpse of the street from a tire’s perspective. I also lost the outer shell and most of the lining of my left sleeve as the asphalt chewed through my jacket with broken black teeth. I didn’t notice the sleeve at first, since my skin had not yet had the opportunity to rub elbows with the ground. Instead, I was oddly fascinated by the vision of blurred asphalt, and I observed that my head was bouncing down the street like a flat stone skipping across the surface of a still, black lake. My reverie ended as my unprotected arm contacted the pavement, and searing pain tore through my arm and detonated in my skull; my skin was coming apart like cheese on a grater. The pain ended as quickly as it began, but had I been given a say in the matter, I might have opted for an uninterrupted session of street bodysurfing.

      Abruptly, my perception of time shattered. First came a snapshot of blurred motion; next, a sudden and absolute cessation of forward motion, and finally time resumed its nomal flow. I was lying on my left side in a fetal position, but with one new addition: my left femur had acquired another joint midway down its length. My newest anatomical feature had been caused by a 4"x4" post supporting a large sign which said “Yield,” a command my leg had obeyed to the letter. My nervous system, having apparently decided that no amount of painful terrorism could prevent what was done, simply threw the circuit breaker that regulates sensation in the legs. I could feel absolutely nothing below my waist.
      While I would shortly come to appreciate the numbness, my initial reaction was one of panic. I tried desperately to move my unbroken leg, but it would not respond. Crippling fear surged up in my throat, and for a moment I was sure that the violent impact had broken my back. I lay still for several moments as horrifying spectres of paralysis and death crowded around me, and again I tried to move my seemingly undamaged right leg. This time I was rewarded with a small movement of my right foot and a large dose of throbbing pain from my left thigh. Jubilant, I lay back on the pavement and struggled out of my helmet. I had only broken my leg!

      As vultures and jackals are drawn to a fresh kill, so spectators are attracted to the scene of a vehicular accident. I quickly drew a pack of horrified/thrilled onlookers, each craning his neck to get a better view without getting too close. Some tried to offer help, but most came simply to gawk. One man, polite to a fault, informed me that my bike was leaking gas and asked if I would like him to stand it upright. Since my day was rather full without the addition of a fiery death, I gave him an affirmative response, and he moved from my line of sight. A woman hopped up to take his place, leaning against the post to get a better look at my injury. The slight pressure of her weight against the post got the attention of my nervous system, and steel needles of pain burrowed into my leg in response. I asked her not to lean against the post, gasping that it hurt my leg, and she apologized and withdrew her weight. Again and again she was drawn to lean over me, each time using the post to balance herself, and each time lurching away when I reminded her of my pain. Finally, I tired of politeness and shouted at her to get away from me. Chastened, she slunk to the back of the pack.
      Next on the scene came the local police, barking orders like agitated hyenas. The pair seemed more interested in giving me a ticket than helping me, and after their questioning of me proved fruitless, they turned to the crowd to sniff out the facts. One by one, the onlookers gave vague, unincriminating descriptions of my stunt, their downcast eyes and mumbled responses reminding me of truant children being questioned by the principal. Just when I had started to breathe easy, the woman who had been so fascinated with my plight flapped forward and squawked, “I saw it all! He was going too fast!”
      Mercifully, the paramedics arrived at just the right moment. They pushed past the cops, who seemed to be irritated by Medicine’s lack of respect for Official Police Business. The technicians quickly evaluated my situation and after checking for brain damage with the usual crash site questions (“What’s your name?” “Stupid Dana.” “Who’s the President?” “Reagan, but I didn’t vote for him.” “Do you know what time it is?” “Time to go to the hospital.”), they began packing me for transport. Naturally, the first step was to cut almost every stitch of clothing from my body, leaving me flat on my back—wearing only my underwear—in the middle of a crowded intersection at rush hour. Surprisingly, I was not at all embarrassed, though I can only attribute my savoir-faire to shock, since I am rather shy under less extraordinary circumstances.
      After isolating my back they turned their attention to my splintered leg. In order to properly immobilize my leg, the paramedics engaged in a bit of deception. One blocked my view of my lower body and began telling me what they would be doing next. In the midst of this monologue, the unseen paramedic, having firmly grasped my ankle, gave a tremendous pull, his goal being to extend my leg to allow the jagged stump of broken bone jutting from the back of my thigh to slip back into its normal location. Unfortunately, the muscles of my leg would have none of it and they contracted almost instantly, grinding the stumps of bone into the meat of my leg, a sensation which elicited a strongly worded critique (consisting mainly of speculation about the paramedics’ relationships with their mothers) from the heretofore cooperative patient. After we loudly concurred on the necessity of teamwork, I concentrated on relaxing my thigh and the paramedics were able to properly align and splint my leg. From there it was onto a backboard and into the meatwagon for the turbulent ride to the hospital.

      The following week was filled with x-rays, traction, transfusions and pain. The doctors finally determined that I was ready for surgery, and after dazzling me with descriptions of the latest in orthopedic reconstruction, they prepped me for surgery and wheeled me to the operating room. I was to be the lucky recipient of a stainless steel rod inserted into my fractured femur through a hole they would drill in the top of the bone. This rod, I was assured, was much preferred to a cast since I would be walking on it almost immediately after surgery. As a child I had been a faithful viewer of T.V.’s The Six Million Dollar Man, and all this talk of precision-crafted stainless steel appliances and more rapid recovery rates sounded very much like the show’s opening monologue, which promised, “We can rebuild you. We can make you better, stronger, faster.” How could anyone refuse? As the anesthetic led me into darkness, I heard the words of my surgeon: “You’ll be back on your feet in no time.” The walls pulled away, and I was gone.

      When the light returned, I knew something was wrong. White coats loomed over the steel rails of my bed, and I could hear my mother’s voice without understanding the words. As her voice moved closer, my eyes focused on her familiar outline and I heard her saying, “There have been some complications.” The surgery had taken far longer than expected, and I had lost four and a half units of blood. Worse, my body was now rejecting all attempts at transfusion with the same contempt for twentieth-century medicine that Dr. McCoy exhibited on Star Trek. These details I learned later, but I could feel their impact in every cell. Unable even to turn my head, I lay helpless.
      The hours that followed are a surreal blur in my memory. I drifted in and out of consciousness several times, but the light, curiously enough, remained constant whether I was awake or not. Toward the end of this ordeal I could see nothing but a bright light directly ahead of me, but if this phenomenon was the same as that described by others who have been near death, it did not fill me with the peaceful feeling so often associated with its presence. Rather, I felt more akin to a deer staring into the headlights of a speeding truck, unable to flee or fight.
      Finally, the meat mechanics decided it was time to reattempt my oil change. Having established its dominance, my body grudgingly allowed four units of hemoglobin into my veins, and with the blood came vision, rational thought, and searing, burning pain. My skin was back on-line, and it had a lot to say about the quality of my treatment. During the twelve-hour wait to retry the transfusion, my injured leg had come to rest against the aluminum splint supporting it; the pressure of the metal against my skin had cut off the blood supply to my calf and foot, and my skin had been unable to penetrate the fog of anesthesia and shock to warn me of the danger. As consciousness returned, however, my skin rushed to inform me of the evening’s physiological events, raising its voice to ensure I heard every detail. Oddly enough, I smiled at the pain, for it is a sensation reserved for only the living. I was happy to be back.

      As the doctors predicted, the sensation of having a hot iron pressed against the sole of my foot would eventually fade away, but for years afterwards the hairs on the top of my foot stood at permanent attention. Perhaps they sensed the presence of death that we often forget is a constant companion of life. They too would eventually relax, but my skin has never completely forgiven me for following the advice of my eyes, or for that matter, my doctor. To this day any unexpected touch to my bare foot will send a shiver through my body, reminding me to slow down, pay attention, and enjoy life as it is. Faster is not always better.