Bones & Blood (a listicle)

Diary entry from near my birthday in January, 2017:

As a toddler, I was startled to learn from my larger, older cousin that a kid (say, for example, a larger, older cousin) could deploy a toy truck made from six pounds of rock maple as an effective, two-armed cudgel. That was the first time I had my nose broken. It’s bled at the drop of a hat ever since, so please don’t touch my hat.

The day Dad broke my jaw with a casual backhand, I was four years old. I didn’t smart off to him because I thought he was evil; I automatically stood up to him any time he wasn’t acting heroically, because I demanded that he be my hero all the time. I don’t remember it specifically. Neither does he. Cheerfully ensconced in a VA nursing home, the only way Dad can recall what he had for lunch is by checking the colors on his shirtfront.

Around age eight, I took a header off the glittery banana seat and over the chopper handlebars of my emerald-green, three-speed Schwinn Stingray, landing on the point of my chin. Scraped down to the mandible, my even then unlovely face received three layers of emergency room stitching. Ever since, my chin dimple has resembled a kind of odd Maltese cross.

A couple of years later, I flipped one of Dad’s brace of Honda ATC 90 trikes (possibly the “Red Rocket,” but more likely my greatly beloved “Blue Bullet”) over onto me, incurring a cut across my left thigh that has since shrunk to a wrinkled, four-inch scar.

Somewhere in there, I slammed brain-on into icy pavement while sledding in the city. My buddy Bill’s dad (also named Bill) was an ambulance driver. He took one look and drove me downtown for stitches over my left eye, nicely counterbalancing the stitches over my right eye from misjudging a twilit softball. Later that year, Bill Sr. would take me to the hospital for more stitches after I laid open my thumb washing dishes at their house. That one came apart during a Goldenball game, smearing blood on the rock and earning me the instant enmity of refs, opponents, and teammates.

Tore my rotator cuff in Little League, like ya do. Back then, we used to call it “throwing your arm out.” It seemed a thing too shameful to report, so I didn’t tell anyone; just changed form and put more oomph into throws. I could hit pretty hard, but I wasn’t much on defense, anyway. Marooned out in right field, nobody can see your eyes squirt when you heave it in.

Skied all day on Mount Hood one Saturday and got tired enough to cross my tips at the end of the last run of the day. Windmilling along in a flapping ball of pain, I snapped my right shinbone at the boot top. Climbing up to the Ski Patrol shack with help from my uncle separated the fracture wide enough to put your thumb in there, and I ended up wearing a full-leg, plaster cast for nine and a half weeks. By the time that cast was sawn off, my knee had seized up pretty good.

The entire shrunken, wasted leg had to be soaked and debrided for a couple of hours to work off the thickened layers of dead skin. It chunked away in itchy, brownish gobbets that oozed blood and pus if I clawed too deep. I was 13, or 12. Hard to remember exactly. Never realized how much I’d rely on those finely honed crutching skills later in life.

Not much later, either.

At 17, I flew a dirt bike off a dirt road and straight into the trees, wrapping my left leg around a sturdy Western hemlock and smashing the tibia and fibula into several pieces each. To prevent bursting the main incision, my my surgeon divided the calf muscle down the outside and spread it like a bug on a butterfly board, patching the resultant trench-shaped opening with a thick graft razored off my left thigh by what I’ve always imagined was a surgical-grade cheese slicer. That speckled patch lies a little north of the wrinkly worm left by my graceless dance with Blue Bullet. The muscle split and accompanying drain prevented incipient compartment syndrome from forcing an amputation below the knee.

Eleven coarsely threaded titanium screws and a beautifully polished plate held the works together for a year before the plate and all but two screws (run through the fibula from the rear, and inconveniently covered by my Achilles tendon) were removed. That put me on crutches for another six weeks, blowing a hole in my summer for the second year in a row, and leaving a funky and permanent ache in the fibula.

Moving like Frankenstein’s monster on that gimpy shank, I failed to duck in gym class and took a hard-driven shuttlecock in my left eye. The contact lens I was wearing die-cut a perfect red ring into my cornea, putting me back in glasses for a few weeks.

Roller skating through Portland with a girl whom I loved intensely even after she went to prison, I went down over a curb (ankle failure) and broke my left wrist. We laughed, wrapped it with an Ace bandage, and went to buy a rabbit fedora crusher. It wasn’t gonna be okay, but neither of us knew that yet.

The next year, I was a private soldier temporarily bunking in at Dad’s house in Oly when I woke up hard, mid-trial, and punched a hole in the drywall that broke my right hand behind the second knuckle, but it took years to wear out that hat.

Letting the army fly me to Korea after high school had slowed my injury rate noticeably , though I did take a couple of glass chips in my right eye during a scuffle with a cav scout on Radar Site 7, a tiny, sandbagged outpost perched on Soi San Mountain, overlooking the Chosin Valley. Most of that poorly tempered Korean spectacle lens got irrigated out at Second Med, but my watery eye dropped rifle qualification from Expert to “barely.” My two glittery little souvenirs remain, ensuring by their unpredictable refractivity that I’ll never have LASIK to correct an embarrassingly profound myopia. Eventually my shooting focus returned.

My forehead was stitched together by a surgeon near Fort Chaffee, Arkansas after a master sergeant left a rock unfortunately perched on top of my five-ton “expando van” mobile tactical ops center. It dropped like a rock (ha-ha), clubbing me directly on the forehead while I folded up the sides. Thick-skulled Neanderthal that I am, I don’t go down easily, but it knocked me to my knees. The female, civilian E.R. doc teased me when I asked for stitches instead of sterile strips (“I didn’t know soldiers were so vain!”), but – although I personally know a couple of exceptions – most of us only get issued one face in this life.

The week after we returned to post, I got pulled over for a DUI when a buddy threw a beer can out of my truck. Although I passed their roadside test (as designated driver, I was stone cold sober), the MPs were alarmed by my pupils. They were different sizes. Stayed that way for years.

Jack's new Ducati
Too pretty to crash.

Still while stationed at Fort Sill, my upper lip curtains got stitched back together after a barracks buddy converted me into a harelip with his canoe paddle, wielded con brio during an inter-canoe water fight on an Oklahoma lake. That swat also broke my nose for the third time and last time that I recall.

My final posting on active duty, at Fort Stewart with the since-demilled 24th Infantry Division, resulted in a fistfight or two but no injuries worth remembering. From there, I pushed along to Washington State University, where the only events to vex my physical well-being were an occasional loosened tooth from intramural football, one small burn through my leathers from the 85 mph demise of a big Kawasaki shafty, and the death of my daughter.

That left a mark that no one could see. Eventually, I got a tattoo. Just one, of jail-level amateurism, that no one can understand; it’s surely the worst scar I’ve ever taken.

Oh, and I also ground a piece off my right ankle when my lithe Yamaha street single got plowed by an exchange student driving a canary yellow, nearly oil-free Chevette. I subsequently dated her a couple of times, changing her oil religiously.

Moving to Idaho’s Valley County, I made it through mountain search and rescue, the volunteer fire department, deer hunting, canoeing, and the occasional death threats bestowed on reporters, with nary but the occasional blister.

Though I did “throw my arm out” a few more times during intramural softball games, grad school added no memorable injuries other than fracturing my lower left transverse process and blowing out the bottom disk of my spine when my resurrected Yammie thumper got t-boned by a poorly insured fellow in a Chevy S10. That was the first time breaking my spine.

Shortly after joining the family telecom business, I bought a Ducati 900SS. It only bit me twice. Once I stuffed it when I tucked the front in a corner near the Rainier Cold Storage in Seattle, moving way too fast for lightly sprinkled conditions, following an argument with a girlfriend who inevitably proved entirely unworthy of that fracture. The other time, having locked the front brake on an oil-based paint slick at parking lot speeds, I didn’t go all the way to the ground only because I slammed my left foot down. Each time Swedish Hospital laid fiberglass over my broken left shank. Each time I finished my workday before going to the emergency room (there was no such thing as “urgent care” then). In the vehement opinions of medical staffers, “walking off” the stiffness incurred by a fracture doesn’t help.

Who knew?

Joining my then-wife’s corporate track team as their discus and shot put guy, I promptly “discus’d out” my throwing shoulder again. Kept competing; didn’t win much. There are some big fellas in those competitions. Had to take a short break after I broke my hand again, punching our steel-wrapped front door when I ran out of words for frustration – and I’m rarely short of words. That left a mark… on the door. Since I can still type and play guitar, that was basically a freebie. I celebrated by taking a course in anger management.

Some people are built for conflict, and others just seem to fall into it. When I flung – yes, with my “thrown-out” arm – a ductile iron holdfast at the garage entry which that particular, uncharmable wife had just slammed, it stuck its blunt head face-high into the solid-core fire door like the throwing axes of my Norse heritage. No one was hurt, thankfully. If she’d whipped that door open for one last word, it might have killed her.

On a more peaceful evening, she opened that same door to announce the imminence of supper. Distracted, I looked up from the hammer handle I was trimming and shoved my 1/2-inch firmer chisel through the superficial palmar arch of the ulnar artery in my left hand. The day I moved out, a vivid fan of blood spots still showed stark across the white garage wall, a few inches to the left of a hole next to the hot water tank where my table saw had previously launched a narrow billet of rock maple through the gypsum board, but missed ventilating my kidney or gut or (perhaps worse) the hot water heater.

The Hood To Coast is a 196-mile relay race, a sweaty t-shirt contest undertaken by holy fools packed into lurching, extended vans between their assigned running sections. The fourth time I ran it, a tight left calf muscle that had been bothering me revealed itself as a stress fracture, discovered when my weirdly loaded, bolted-up fibula snapped crisply in two on the second mile of a 5.8-mile section. Although I finished that leg, once I sat down to rest I couldn’t exfil the van or walk unassisted for the balance of that weekend, so I got demoted from contestant to permanent driver. I chewed ibuprofen with my caffeinated runners’ goo until we made it to Seaside and I could be fitted for yet another boot and crutches.

I only ran one more H2C after that before deployment (mine) split up our team for good. She’d been pretty angry when I raised my hand and joined a reserve army unit, and clearly communicated her dismay by plunging a pencil into my left biceps. She wasn’t there when I got home, but the broken graphite tip still shows. Crisp and forceful, it’s a better tattoo than my real one.

Broke my neck in Iraq when an IED went off under my side of an up-armored HMMWV, but I was too busy to notice. I completed that mission with a sandy noise in my neck, finished my tour and went home, only to have it diagnosed five years later. Ummeaningfully but amusingly, my neck fractured at the C4 vertebra. “C4” is military nomenclature for plastic explosive.

In my late 40s, I finally got my rotator cuff repaired to the point where I’ll never throw out my arm again, because now I throw like a guy whose shoulder is held together with numerous sutures lashed through a sturdy nylon gusset. Which is to say, like a shy little girl of 80.

Answers to “Lucky.”

On a beautiful camping trip to California, sponsored by Triumph of North America, I low-sided a fresh Tiger in the sand and broke my left ankle for the fifth time. Finished up the weekend and flew home before gimping into the VA hospital for a nicely padded boot. They informed me that (surprise!) you’re not supposed to walk it off.

That injury, badly timed, blew up our summer riding plans. By the time we got our youngest daughter to Disneyland in August (approximately as good an idea as it sounds), I was still leaning on a stick. That slowed our progress through the park, but you do go right to the front of the line when you’re visibly gimped up.

Yahtzee!

The week before I turned 50, my canine buddy died. The third and best dog I’ve ever had, Tucker didn’t do me an injury, not exactly, but I shredded my back digging his grave in our backyard and cradling his big, collapsed body out to interment under our Spartan apple tree. That was the last time I’d ever hold him, and I couldn’t bear to farm out that necessary chore.

Within a week of his death I’d crashed my wife’s motorcycle on a big, wet pile of dog poop (a stench from the Beyond?), swelling up my ankle pretty good. The next day, a neighbor punched me in the head and gouged my eye after I disputed his unalienable right to blast up 12th Avenue at freeway speeds, which favor I reciprocated by knocking him down and kicking him until his pants fall off (pro tip: never wear your eatin’ pants to a fistfight).

By the time I greeted the folks at my own 50th birthday party, I was sporting a black eye and leaning on crutches. We are, I think, not friends – the neighbor, that is. Mom and I get along fine. After that scuffle reminded me that I needed more cardio, I trudged to the YMCA for weightlifting and elliptical training.

Thought I was doing okay at the lifting, and then summer came around again. Apparently, my universe does not feel I am due many unbent summers. My sweetie and I went touring on the eastern roads of our state with an electric motorcycle, resulting in a feature story for Motorcyclist (which got spiked) about a bike that also got spiked – it’s out of production.

Maybe a week after we returned, I squired that soon-to-be-obsolete, permanent-magnet roadster across town to investigate puppy kindergarten classes for a tiny Dane we’d picked up three days prior. Stopping for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, I got blasted from behind by a Subaru-driving meth head. Going about 30, he slowed not a single mile per hour before punting the bike across the uncontrolled intersection and launching me straight up into the air.

Levitating skyward, my amygdala swiftly concluded that the street had exploded underneath me (again!), and I felt overpowering shame that I hadn’t spotted any telltale signs of IED emplacement.

What goes up must come down and I am happy to inform you that, despite his minimal insurance and the disappointing fact that our responding Seattle Police Department officer failed to cite the guy even for inattentive driving, at least I gained the satisfaction of totaling his Subaru with the mighty force of my big, white butt. Less satisfactorily, ass-mashing his Outback broke my spine in two more places (L3: spider fracture, and L5: wedged). Was a little tough on the disks, too — my charts depict an unsteady retrogression from 6’1″ to 5’11”.

At Swedish Ballard, E.R. staffers cheerfully joked around with me, right up until the radiologist looked at my neck images. Suddenly a horde of scrubs rushed in, clamoring at me not to move, strapped my head to another board and portentously announced that I might be going home bolted into a halo. Following a further spate of CT scans and MRI images, I was reassured that my cord-intrusive neck fracture was clearly visible, but had healed. Instructing me to go see my VA doctor ASAP, they released me to hobble off into the night. The bill came to thirty-four grand.

I was in no shape to interview Kenny Roberts, but he still gave me the quote of a lifetime: “Always blame the bike.”

“You again?,” my physical therapist said when she saw me on another damned cane. “Prob’ly the last time,” I answered, because I’m a slow learner by personal insistence. For instance, I hadn’t logically connected my loose hinge in the spine, nor my occasionally lost and misdirected feet, with a shorter “safety ruler.”

Last summer, my inconstant spine wobbled again and I threw away another perfectly good motorcycle – actually a devastatingly attractive, powerful, and exclusive machine – and hit the ground hard enough to break nine ribs, my collarbone and my shoulder blade, all on the left side. The clavicle and three of my ribs got plated, which held me together enough to cough my way through the hospital pneumonia that is an automatic consequence of living on a ventilator with a punctured lung. Trauma surgeons also trimmed away, spooned out, and discarded the fragments of my exploded spleen. The splenectomy rope runs around my navel and up to the sternum, looking for all the world like I had an emergency C-section to deliver triplets. Funny thing is, a spleen is about the size of your fist.

While on my back in TBICU I lost 53 lbs. of mostly muscle, the ability to swallow, and mobility in my right knee – turns out its broken glass crunch comes from “mock gout,” which explains it occasionally seizing up over the years. My wife (after a decade, still the hot new girlfriend) measured around 18 inches of new suture scars, raising my total Frankenstein Road mileage above two lineal feet. My 290-lb. bench press dropped to zero; my feet burn with neuralgia; my thoracic spine is immobile and I stand a bit crooked now, but they did pull the feeding tube out of my stomach after only six weeks of stumbling around with a Krazy Straw dangling from my belly.

I’m calling it a win, but I noticed something the other day. It emerged out of the hard winter sun, on a January day well above freezing. It was the sound of a motorcycle, six blocks over, tiptoeing through the cold with some diehard lunatic at the controls.

There came a tiny prickle, deep in my abdomen; the kind of feeling you get when you spot the sashay of a potential partner and the unbidden thought that you might be in love again flits between the shadows in the background of your mind like a roadie caught in the Kliegs. I’ve no idea what generates that feeling, but I can tell you one thing about it.

It doesn’t come from your spleen.

Only the luckiest get to decide the things worth dying for.
Next Post

Comments

  1. Frank Looper says

    You’re lucky to be alive, Jack! Remind me not to get in the fight with you. Or ride behind you on a motorcycle.

  2. Dan Jacobs says

    As someone I worked with would say, “That’s totally metal!”

  3. Ooooh… I feel your pain

    I so many ways…

  4. Mr. William M Treadway says

    I get it. The shrapnel and bullet fragments have long since worked their way out and there are several subsystems that don’t function as they did but the kids are raised so my only remaining mission is taking good care of my wife. That said, my highest and best use from a personal standpoint is riding. I’ll keep on until I just cannot do it any more. Never say die.

  5. Carl Lincoln says

    Shutting up about my gout now. Thanks, as ever.

  6. Dan Souliere says

    Once again Jack thanks for a couple of good chuckles but the pain and suffering you went through must nothing but suck! Reminds me of the old adage “that pain has no memory and you will do it again” as I have knowledge through experience. I’m close enough to 66 years of age ( in a month) now and constantly question throwing a leg over my Victory and acting my age. The only stitches I want now are the ones that make me laugh. Love your writing, Thanks, Dan

  7. John Stockman says

    Another survivor here Jack! Reading all of your challenges makes me realize I have great kinship with others, nor lived through the worst of what human experiences have to offer. I endured a ridiculous amount of hardships just so I could ride again. An unknown-when-I-was-young genetic collagen defect (and undiagnosed until I turned 40 in 1997) destroyed every usable amount of joint cartilage I had. Plus an abnormality in my muscle tissue that wouldn’t allow strength build-up. I did ride when I was a kid, junior motocross, trail riding with family members and friends and on my parents property. After my immune system had its way with my joint cartilage, no one ever thought that I’d be able to ride again. When I figured out it could be possible, I was met with much resistance and negativity. Not only from surgeons, but friends and family. Only when I kept my mouth shut about what I considered a worthy goal, did I find a surgeon who eventually performed all my joint replacement procedures from 1980 to 1993. I was able to finally open my legs enough to straddle a motorcycle seat in 1983 and I rode my scrawny ass off. I’d have to stop countless times over the last 30+ years out on the long & short rides I’d take to wipe the tears of joy from my eyes. It would hit me at odd times, the overwhelming emotional upheaval of what I was actually doing and what I had accomplished. At one point I had no hope of ever riding again. Sometimes I think I’m the most fortunate individual alive, as no one with this rare “orphan” condition had ever done what I have done, nor lived as long as I. I have so much empathy for those that also endured their own personal tragedies and triumphs, for without knowing either, you cannot truly appreciate the other. And makes me realize I am not really alone.

    • John, you’re a man I’d really like to talk with in person sometime.

      • John A. Stockman says

        Jack, I’d be honored. This condition gets progressively worse, sapping my energy just doing simple everyday tasks. At this point, driving even to Tacoma or Seattle is not possible. I’m restricted to Olympia, as my strength and stamina has suffered also, enough to keep me close to home. Getting to a monthly doctor appt. has become tedious. Even getting out to the grocery store. It would be a highlight to be able to talk with you. Maybe getting down this way could be an option? I’m on Facebutt, so a PM is possible. Let me know, it would be amazing to share some of my experiences in person and experience some of yours. The difference is mine don’t seem to be worthy of print or recognition. Not that I went through all that I did for applause, adulation or being recognized for accomplishment. I simply wanted to ride a,motorcycle again.

Speak Your Mind

*