Sunday, February 3, 2013

Broken Bones

All right. There is no STEM or even any A or D in this note. I’m in pure memoir mode thinking back to broken bones and scuffed up elbows. Here comes some motorcycle  and emergency room stories.

In the Navy, in order to indicate that a story was the gospel truth and contained no exaggerations, we had a code phase: “This is no shit.” So, trust me, this is no shit.

We’ll start with my first motorcycle, if that diminutive little, under powered, and poorly geared machine can be called a motorcycle. It was actually called a “motor-bike,” but that didn’t mean putting a motor on a bicycle. No Sir Ree … it was a real motorcycle frame, with tube shocks in front and spring shocks in back and a real gas tank located somewhere between those two suspension features. Now the little weak-kneed 50cc engine and simple two-speed transmission limited speed to a maximum of about 35 mph. Still that was plenty of velocity to get a young kid in trouble.

Once I was chasing my friend John Barr across a field West of town … at least I think it was John. Now back in the early 60’s, that field was just a field. The area between the truck bypass and US 87 was little but farmer’s domain. These days, it is filled in with commercial and residential buildings, but back then it was open field beckoning for the roar of motorbikes speeding across the freshly harvested ground.

I was zipping across the field at my top speed when I went right through a pile of barbed wire on the ground; possible the remnant of an old fence. I turned to look behind me to acknowledge the close call. When my head swiveled back around, there, in front of me, just a few short feet away, was some kind of hole. It was about three feet deep and six or eight feet across. The bike and I flew into the hole, but upon contact with the wall on the other side of the hole, we separated company.

I did a swan dive over the handlebars landing on my right shoulder. As I looked back, I was treated to the view of my MoPed standing straight up on the front tire. It then settled ungraciously to the ground. As I got up to inspect the damage, I found the handlebar bent and the front fork at a new angle. I hopped back on and it started right up, but I noticed I had problems with operation beyond what a bent handlebar would invoke. I had some sort of problem with my right shoulder.

With the help of my friend, John, somehow, we got me and the bike back home. My dad decided to call our family doctor rather than visit the hospital. The doc was home and said to bring me on over. He escorted us into his front room and quickly diagnosed the problem as a broken collarbone; all that without the aid of X-rays, nurses, or any form of health insurance.

He dug up some brace, which was sort of like a backpack without the pack. It pulled my shoulder back and he said it would heal up fine, but no Nazi salutes until that was healed. He charged my dad $20, and I headed back home. That’s one reason we called it the good old days back then. To this day I have a bump on my right collarbone where the two ends joined back together, but not exactly in a straight line. It doesn’t matter. The collarbone is really just there to anchor shoulder muscles, or so the doc explained.

I eventually healed, bent the handle bar back with a piece of pipe and – realizing the hydraulic front shock was no longer hydraulic due to the obvious leakage of fluid, but still worked as a spring – I was back on my stead and soon zooming around the neighborhood none the worse for wear.

Fast-forward about five years. I’m in the Navy and living in a small house about five miles from the ship. My roommates all had bikes and we would commute to the ship like a nine-to-five job. There was this street/road we would take that had three lanes. The middle lane went into the base in the morning, and they turned it around and it went off the base in the evening. If you visit Norfolk now, all that is gone, replaced by interstate like highways. But that made them good old days too.

So my buddy, Mike, and I were headed home from “work” one late afternoon in the heavy traffic when the cars in front of us suddenly slammed on their brakes. I immediately made a plan in my head. I was going to grab all the brake my old Triumph would provide and, as I approached the car in front, at the last moment, I’d let off on the front brake and steer for the space between the two lanes. One upon a bike must be cautious of turning with strong braking force on the front wheel. Otherwise, one might end up eating the dirt … literally.

I was a very experienced motorcycle rider. At that time I was about 23 years old and had been riding for nearly ten years. I knew the front brake was, by far, the most effective at stopping the bike, but it did present a danger to stability, especially on water, rock, or ice. So it had to be used with the utmost of caution.

Of course, a motorcycle can stop quicker than a car, so I didn’t need the second half of the maneuver. Unfortunately, my buddy riding right beside me, tried a similar maneuver in a combined format. In other words, he hit the brakes hard AND tried to turn out of the lane. Sadly the result was he and his bike sliding on the ground. He didn’t hit the car either and, as he got up, he said his leg was really hurting and possibly broken. At that point we were closer to home than the ship, so we continued on and got him and his bike safely home. As I recall, another buddy arrived and we manhandled the bike into the trunk of his car. It was an old Ford and had a very big trunk. Upon arrival at home and parking the bikes, I loaded him into my car, and we headed back to the base to visit the dispensary.

They took X-Rays and diagnosed him with a fractured leg … more like a crack, but painful and in need of attention. The Navy Hospital was about twenty miles away in Portsmouth, Virginia, and they said they would request an ambulance. Rather than wait, I got permission to drive him over. About half way to Portsmouth, Mike started to complain about pain and asked me to stop at a liquor store and buy him a bottle of painkiller. So I purchased a 100 proof medication and he took a liberal dose.

The remainder of the twenty-minute ride he partook of the soothing nectar, finishing off the quart bottle, and he was three sheets to the wind upon arrival at the hospital. Now references to the number of sheets and wind is an old nautical comment about sails and sailing ships. In landlubber terms he was intoxicated, feeling no pain (which was the point of the exercise), besotted, blasted, blitzed, bombed, blotto, canned, crocked, boiled-as-an-owl, dipso, drunk-as-a-lord, fried, giddy, groggy, hammered, high, in-one’s-cups, juiced, loaded, looped, pickled, pie-eyed, plowed, plotzed and polluted, plastered, ripped, shit-faced, sloshed, soused, slozzeled, sauced, and stewed, stinking, and stoned, tanked, tight, tipsy, and toasted, under-the-influence, wasted, wiped-out and woozy, zoned and zonked, and actually quite inebriated. You get the idea.

I went into the hospital and explained I had a patient in the car with a broken leg, and I’d need a wheel chair and two strong attendants as he had broken out in sea shanties and was threatening to keelhaul any sailor that got too close. The big corpsmen were able to corral the exuberant drunk and he was soon resting peacefully in a hospital bed with no need for any anesthesia. That’s the end of that story and everyone lived happily ever after.

That brings me to Colorado for another chapter of the tale. Another Navy buddy by the name of Woody had moved out to Longmont, and we were seeking fame and fortune here in Colorado. Woody brought some bikes with him, including a two-stroke Japanese rice burner that he would take on the motocross tracks in Florida. My futures brother-in-law, Chuck, had a very nice Honda 250cc Thumper, and we were out at a raceway North of here. It had both a motocross track and a TT track.

For those not familiar with all the sorts of motorcycle racetracks, a TT track is more rugged than a flat track with both left and right turns and at least one jump, but it was like a city street compared to a motocross track which is similar to riding up and down the grand canyon.

We were enjoying ourselves one fine day racing around the TT track, and I borrowed Chuck’s Honda. It was a finely tuned Japanese motorcycle, and I quickly copied Chuck’s method of braking hard before the very sharp turns and then letting go of the brake at the last second before executing the slide into the turn. Now remember from my last story that it is important not to use the front brake in the turns as that can be disastrous. On Woody’s bike, in true motocross or flat track style, you just threw the bike into the turns and slid around using the motor and spinning back tire as a brake. I was able to beat a lot of the other bikes by accelerating on the straight-a-way and then braking very hard on the Honda just before the turn.

Later in the day, I tried the same maneuver on Woody’s bike. Recall that it had been on the motocross tracks in Florida, and the front brake was full of sand. Oh, it grabbed all right, but it wouldn’t let go. So into the turn I flew with the front wheeled heavily braked. Although I released the lever on the handlebar, the brake kept a tight clamp down and I was soon duplicating the swan dive I described earlier in this essay. As before I hit the ground on my right shoulder, but the bike was fine, and I thought I was too.

I sat out the rest of that race and was noticing that my shoulder was getting more and more sore. So I told Woody.

We had driven my van to the track with the motorcycle secured in the back with bungees and tie downs. But, sensing an emergency, Woody just rolled the bike into the back, put it on its kickstand, navigated me into the passenger seat, jumped into the driver's seat, and proceeded back to town and hospital at a high rate of speed.

We were soon cruising down main street at about warp 3 when, suddenly, the stop light in front of us turned red. Not wishing to put more people in the hospital, Woody slammed on the brakes. I heard a sound from back of the van … it was a long van: a Dodge Maxi Van. As I turned to look back, I saw one of Newton’s laws in action as the object continued its velocity even though the truck had stopped. The bike flew toward the front, hit the engine mount, rose up into the air, hit the roof of the van, and settled back down, upright, on its kickstand. Woody and I exchanged puzzled looks being at a loss for words. Then we both remembered my busted shoulder, and the light turned green, and off we went.

Upon arrival at the emergency room, it was slightly crowded, and I succeeded at seeing a doctor in less than four hours. “No broken bones. Take this for pain.” So we were soon looking for the pharmacy and exchanging stories about the bike crashing to the front of the truck and noting that we were now getting hungry and where was a good burger joint?

Now as a parent, I’m very familiar with emergency rooms. My oldest, Mike, was a frequent visitor. We took him to the hospital so many times that we had a punch card, and our tenth visit would be free.

It’s not that he was accident-prone. No, accidents didn’t have to seek him out. He actively sought perilous positions providing predictable problems and cuts and contusions and broken bones. It always seemed to occur during the late evening hours while mom and dad were anticipating a good night’s sleep when the phone would ring. Mike would explain his latest predicament and ask if we’d bring the insurance card down to the local hospital. He’d been wrestling with a friend and fell on the sidewalk, or he had to slam on his brakes to miss a cat in the road and jammed his foot under the pedal or he was walking out the front door when he was distracted by a plane flying overhead and, as he looked up, he fell over a kid's bicycle. Oh, he had a hundred stories, and I didn’t believe a one of them.

I think he broke every one of his appendages, at least once, and some twice. We ended up just buying crutches so we would always have them ready. We kept a wrist brace in the bathroom and bandages in our car. Several pints of plasma were in the refrigerator and we kept the car running in the garage and the ambulance on speed dial. We were always prepared.

So soon we arrived at the hospital. Now if you’ve ever been to the emergency room on a Saturday night, it is sort of like a war zone. There are guys … always guys … sitting around with bloody towels wrapped around arms, legs, and heads. The whole extended family is with them including the babies crying and the toddlers playing with the toys; teenagers plugged into music boxes and worried adults ... worried about the injury and the hospital bill. People moaning and people trying to watch the little twelve inch TV as they await their turn with the doctors and people sleeping on three chairs across. It's a scene burned into my memory. No wonder they call it "trauma."

It is a form of triage, and not exactly first-come, first-serve. So as the knife wounds and gunshot victims move to the front of the line, it was often a long night’s stay. I used to read the magazines. I learned from the Popular Science that the United States expected to land a man on the moon … soon. The news magazines trumpeted the end of the Korean War. That was before iPhones and Kindle Apps, so I would just sit around and stare at the victims with a sense of worry for Mike while I planned his punishment as soon as he was well enough to be horse whipped.

Things weren’t so bad with  our second son, Mark, but there was one spectacular exception to that rule. Do you remember the “Capri Sun” juice package? They were all the rage and little kids loved them. It was a metal envelope filled with juice. You would access the drink using a straw that was plunged through the side of the bag. Well, Mark enjoyed those little drinks and one night, when no one was watching, he climbed up on a chair and found a pottery jar with a cork in it that served as an oil lamp. It had a plastic tube through the cork and a wick in the tube. It had never been burned and was full of some kind of lamp oil.

Well little Mark, he was two or three at the time, thought it looked like a Capri Sun, so he pulled the wick out of the tube and proceeded to take a big drink. We found him coughing on the floor in the kitchen and, from the evidence at hand, realized what he had done. I immediately followed poison emergency procedures. 1) Administer Ipecac to the patient. 2) Call Poison Control. They told me: 1) Don’t give him Ipecac and 2) My emergency procedure was in the wrong order. Well, what’s done is done, so we grabbed a bucket (the medicine was having the intended affect) and headed for the hospital.

I don’t mean to make light of things. It was a serious incident and our son could have died. It did all turn out well, so I can laugh about it now. The medicine made Mark throw up most of the poison. The danger is that he’d get it into his lungs while puking. He spend a day in intensive care with oxygen as the doctors and parents worried he would have lung damage as the volatile gasses came out of the bloodstream via the lungs. If his lungs filled with the vapor from the lamp oil, he could suffocate. I think it may have been good that I gave him the medicine since it got rid of some of the lamp oil via mouth rather than lung, and he did fully recover with no permanent damage.

So with all this emergency room experience, I’ll tell one more tale. We were out visiting my dad who was 82 years old at that time. We were helping him with chores around his house and it was time to clean out the gutters. Now Oregon is well known for big trees and so his oversized gutters were brim full with Fall’s blessing. Linda and I were both up on ladders scooping the fallen plant matter out when my dad got a third ladder and joined us. You have to know my dad. He is not one to watch others labor. He’s a hard worker since he plowed cotton fields behind a mule at the age of eight, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is “no shit.” He’s worked hard all his life and so he joined us despite our protests to the contrary. We just couldn't stop him.

No one fell off the ladder, if that was what you expected, but later in the evening my dad began to complain of chest pains. Now a man at his age, a heart attack is a common occurrence, so we gave him a hand full of Bayer Aspirins and piled him into the car for a trip to the emergency room. I pulled up at the local hospital, and Linda rushed inside to get help. Soon two attendants were helping him into a wheel chair. Linda accompanied him inside as I drove off to park the car.

I soon returned and went to the waiting room. (I had dropped him off at the nearby ambulance entrance.) As I waited for someone to direct me to his room … or curtain … or whatever, there was a discussion going on in the crowded emergency room waiting area. Seems it was a busy night … aren’t they always? Folks who had been waiting for … likely … hours and had observed my dad get rushed into the treatment area immediately. They were commenting that they thought they should announce they were having chest pains to speed their service. I completely understood the sentiments.

Now for the happy ending: My dad did not have a heart attack. He was in a bad car accident back in the 1980’s, which has left him with a lot of scar tissue on his diaphragm from chest and stomach injuries. So he had simply aggravated the scar tissue in his insistence to participate with the ladder work on the leafy gutters, and he was sent home … after a night’s precautionary stay … with simple pain meds.

Now, almost four years later, he’s still trying to straighten out the hospital bill from that visit. They charged him for a night’s stay in intensive care, but he was in an ordinary hospital room. He said he got no rest since they woke him every hour and apparently his room was next to the airport waiting room and bus loads of people could be heard boarding the planes all night.

As we story tellers like to state, “All’s well that ends well.” And that is no shit.

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