Chapter Five: The First

Continued from Chapter Four: No Accidents

Dear Charlene:

You wanted to know:  What has my life been like?

For a long time I didn’t tell my story, my sense of grief and loss so profound that to put them in words and sentences would be to lessen them. So, now as I try to tell my story, I can’t decide whether to start with the best or the worst. Maybe the first.

Continue reading “Chapter Five: The First”

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Chapter 4: No Accidents

Continued from Chapter Three: The Voice.

That I have a memory of this might be remarkable, but when it was time to tell the story, I was able to sketch in the details of the accident scene from the memory of someone who had been there. It was someone for whom I could scarcely have known to look, never mind know she existed. For all I knew Charlene Norton could have been an angel or a figment of my imagination.

In 1992, through my sister-in-law, and through a twist in fate, I met the woman who had saved my life 20 years before. My brother Bill’s wife Liz was studying under a teacher and nursing mentor – Charlene Norton – in a hospital practicum about chronic pain when they both discovered the connection.  Liz told her teacher. “My sister-in-law has chronic pain.” It wasn’t until sometime later Charlene inquired into the nature of the pain.

“It was phantom limb pain; she lost her leg,” Liz explained. Charlene told me later that at that instant she had the strange feeling that something profound was going to be revealed. Her heart sank, and all became still around her – an epiphany.

“How did she lose it?” was Charlene’s next question.

“In a motorcycle accident,” Liz told her.

After her teacher’s inquiry about where it happened, Liz almost hated to answer for fear of what they both might discover. The line of conversation had one of those eerie paths of twilight-zone revelation, but Liz haltingly told Charlene it had been in Amherst, west of Boston, at UMass.  When Charlene casually, yet carefully, holding a breath, asked if Liz’s sister-in-law was blonde, they both knew this was a synchronous event, discovering that they both knew someone in common – me – and that Charlene would finally meet the person she had expected to one day meet, though she didn’t know how. 

Liz didn’t know Charlene existed in the context of my accident; there were no accounts of her in the family folklore about that disastrous day. But I did have a story. The story of the Voice. I told Liz my memory, and asked Liz to tell me more.

Charlene had once been an emergency room nurse, but in May of 1971 she was working at the University Infirmary while her husband attended school in Amherst.

Liz told me, “She was coming home from work and saw a commotion at the side of the road. She got out of her car, and she saw right away that Mark was dead. His neck was twisted, and his body was torn by the handlebars, but he still had his helmet on.”

“I was the one whose helmet stayed on,” but Liz told me that my helmet had flown off.

“People were standing by – helpless – while you moaned and cried, ‘Someone help me. I can’t get up,'” Liz told me, “and you would ask where Mark was–was he OK? She assured you things were under control, and then she just started giving orders.

‘OK – you – get some ice from that gas station.’ There was a station a half mile away. She ordered another person to call the ambulance, and she told somebody else to go to the nearest house and get towels and sheets to wrap you and stop the bleeding.”  Liz paused, “She saved your life, Cale.”

I knew then that this was The Voice. Liz gave me a piece of paper, and I hung onto the phone number of this person whom I would never have expected to look for, never mind meet.  I wondered what Charlene and I would talk about when we met. I have been a reporter, and I have a habit of asking questions, detached, and/or out of some people’s comfort range. Would it seem inappropriate if I asked her the gory details? Did I want to know the gory details?  Oddly, the first thing to ask her was whether she saw the young man who had hit us. Someone had told me once that he was dazed, and he just walked in a circle around the crowd. She told me she saw nothing but me, and the memory would be imprinted on her mind forever.

“I knew one day we would meet. Accidents don’t happen,” she told me.

I was awed by her serenity on the phone. We decided to make a time and meet the next day just before my plane left, in Revere, on the beach where I grew up.  When we met, I liked her immediately. She was in her late 40’s, I guessed.

Charlene is what anyone would call a beautiful person. Her dark eyes, set into the frame of a soft face, reflect intelligence, wisdom, compassion, and humor.  Yes, this was the kind of person who could save another’s life.  I asked her about her family and learned she had a son who had been handicapped at birth with cerebral palsy; I was impressed that she described him as a normal, competent young man, not emphasizing or minimizing the disability. 

She was a nursing teacher who encouraged journal writing, and I was a writer who taught journaling classes.  On the beach she told me some things about the accident site, and between then and a few years later, when I interviewed her more formally for her recollections, I was given the view from outside my body.

“I think there was initially somebody there directing traffic,” Charlene told me. “I stopped and asked, ‘Do you need any help?’ Somebody said, ‘Yes.’ I went to Mark because there were people crowded around you. I saw that he couldn’t be helped. You were on your left side. I sent someone to get towels to pack you, and we kept you on your left side. If you don’t know what somebody’s injuries are, you don’t want to move them. We didn’t have anything to transport you with; we didn’t have a collar. We continued to go back and forth and get towels and pack as we could to stop the bleeding.

“Was I screaming?” I asked her because I had heard that I was.  Three years after the crash a fellow UMass student on campus who told me cries had haunted him for years.

“No. You weren’t screaming. You couldn’t move your legs, I remember you said you couldn’t feel your legs. And we said, ‘That’s OK, we’re staying with you.’

“Probably as we were waiting [for the ambulance], we started to question, out of natural curiosity, how this could’ve happened? I don’t even know who this other person was, [who helped her do the work] I couldn’t even describe him, but I can describe Mark. I could draw a picture of where he lay and how he looked. I could draw a picture of you and how you lay.”

“Would you?”

“What?”

I reached for my pen across the table. “Would you draw a diagram for me?” I asked, intending to slow things down so I could take it all in. Charlene did not disappoint me, as she replied readily.

“We said, ‘What caused this kind of damage?’ thinking to ourselves what would have happened. And the only thing we could think of was you must have been propelled through the air. “Then we thought what caused the injuries to Mark. The handle bars . . .uh. . . cutting into his abdomen. . .uh…

I asked her, “Is that what killed him?”

“As I recall. . . .” she said. “ It was one of those difficult things where you would look, but you didn’t want to see, but you know you needed to know whether you needed to help him, and we made a choice, there was nothing [I] could do.”

I asked really hard questions, because I had to. “Did it appear if his leg was there or ripped off?”

“I don’t remember. He was face first, head all twisted around. I knew it was a cervical injury that was severe and probably on impact he was dead. Helmet still on. If his head was bent and twisted, it was probably a cervical injury high up and would sever the spinal cord, and unless he had immediate treatment, he wouldn’t have survived spinal shock.

I asked her to explain how that works.

“Shock would have caused all kinds of physiological changes, the heart would’ve stopped. . .”

I interrupt her: “His brain wouldn’t have been able to get the messages down to the rest of his body?”

“Yes,” she nods, “and then we knew he had an abdominal wound that was severe. If he was conscious and alive we would’ve done what we did with you, pack him. We tried to . . . But there was no life.”

“How did you know that he had an abdominal wound? Was there a lot of blood?” I asked her.

“I can’t remember seeing the blood. I’m sure there was.”

Though at this point in the interview I had to leave—to get sick in the restroom—I was determined to follow through; I might never see her again. I returned, and setting down a napkin, I handed her a pen. “What I’d like you to do now is draw … “

“Sure. I’m not an artist … ” she said hesitantly.

“Just a graphic,” I said.

She began her map, with stick figures and straight lines for roads. “Mark was in the center of the pavement.”

“Were we both in the road?”

“No. You were on the side [of the road] facing Sunderland, going that way. He was here with his head in that direction. You were off … ” She drew me in on the right side.

““We were on same side of road as the gas station, so that’s why something happened, so that . . . something in the air – this telephone pole was on the right-hand side of the street, you got flung toward this side of the street, and you went toward the pole, and then you bounced back.”

I was awed by her straightforward delivery, her memory, and by her understated courage and accomplishment.

“Amazing you had the presence of mind to think of all these things. That you weren’t even in shock yourself. . . ” I said.

“Not until afterwards. Your adrenaline surges through the whole thing, but you try to keep a clear head, even though you know that at some point you’re going to crash later,” she said matter-of-factly.

I persisted in attempts to unlock the key to what seems like my luck to survive – her skill. “It seems you were unusual. I’ve heard that many nurses don’t even have knowledge of first aid. You obviously had field experience, or you were very savvy.”

She told me she was just 24, a few years out of nursing school. “I had worked at Beth Israel on a surgical floor, so I’d had lots of post-op patients and rehab patients, so they had nephrectomies and such, and lots of dressings. And then I’d been working at the University Health Services. The college students would come in with all kinds of crazy things. One fellow was in a fight and a guy had bit his nose. Lots of human bites, different unusual gashes. I worked the night shift (11-7 a. m.) in the emergency room.

“I think if I were doing it now, after having different experiences, I might react differently,” she said, to my surprise. And by way of explanation told me: “I was young and felt I could handle everything and anything myself. I had a sense of immortality. My philosophy was if I saw a situation in which I knew I could help, I’d stop.

“If there were two ambulances, . . . maybe not. If it was a situation like this one . . . It was closer to 5 o’clock, I remember people standing at the scene, looking, but not doing. They probably stopped to help, but they saw that [they couldn’t] and they didn’t know what to do.

“I don’t know who this other person was, but we worked together. I didn’t go get the towels, but when he did, or someone else ran over to get them, we just started packing and talking with you.”

I asked what she said to me, wanting to hear her say what I remembered.

“The kind of questions I would ask, ‘Are you breathing? How are you doing? Hang in there. The ambulance is coming. We’ll stay with you.’ Those were the words I remember.”

“Did I respond?” I wanted to know, and she tells me that I asked, “Where’s Mark? How’s Mark?”

She goes on. “Our concern was to stop the bleeding. The biggest risk was a hemorrhage to death. With multiple fractures of the pelvis you would sever the major arteries: the femoral arteries going down both legs, the iliac and renal arteries, the mesenteric arteries.” By way of explanation, she adds: “When someone is traumatized, you stop the bleeding, slow it up to the point the ambulance could come, get some i.v.’s in you. We knew that the fractures were bad, but we had no thought for what came next because we didn’t know if there was going to be a next.”

“Did you think I would make it?” To have this time, 20 years later, to reflect and ask questions is a gift, I was thinking to myself.

“Well, the benefit of thought was that you kept talking with us. You were in and out. Most of what I was concerned with was the bleeding and breathing. We tried to give you as much as we could to keep your head turned. In retrospect, your head was already turned, with your face down in the dirt.

I don’t say anything, and she picks up the story, remembering what was important to her, and soon ending this report which I had so much difficulty responding to now.

“This would have been a tough decision to make, and we wouldn’t have wanted to turn it; that could kill you immediately, so it was one of those things where we said, “Leave her alone, she can breathe, she can keep talking.” There were no restrictions, so you could keep breathing. After that I don’t have recall. I don’t remember the ambulance people, just a policeman asking my name and address and thanking me for helping; I have no image of you getting off the ground and into the ambulance.”

Charlene never saw James Embree, the driver of the car. She told me she remembers nothing but this: her holding me there, waiting for the ambulance while my soul fought a battle for my life. “The time it took for the ambulance to come were the longest moments in my life. Everyone in the crowd felt the same way: What was taking the ambulance so long? You were fighting so hard to stay alive. I could feel the struggle your soul was making, and it was extraordinary.”

I have that same memory. I believed for years afterwards that it was my will, this desire, that passion for life that shouted down death’s throat, “You will not have me. I am staying. I want to live,” which saved me. I believed it was my own desire to live and create my own existence that kept me going through rough times. That belief lasted more than 15 years.

At a later time, however, it seemed to me that my own will and desire had nothing to do with living – only surviving. Once I had seen enough death, God’s will to save anyone appeared random, and it was conceit to believe I was saved because I wanted to live so badly. By my late 30’s, I was a fatalist. Life is a crapshoot; riding a motorcycle, I was a high roller.

At our interview, I told Charlene my ‘will to survive theory’, and that I believed if I had died, I would have gone to hell. “Because that’s where I was at the time. And now, because I do believe in God, I have been redeemed. “I told her this at our interview in 1996.”

She reminds me, “But God is not the other. It is also the Self, the place in you which is God is telling you to stay, stay on this plane.”

I silently wonder about her place in this scheme, and she answers without my asking.

“I believe I was put into your life for a reason. I could’ve said, ‘no, I don’t want to do that. It was too horrific. I don’t want to look at it again.’” When she told me this I realize I never questioned that our connection was as difficult for her to look at as I. “But you have,” I countered.

“Yes, this is a time for me to come full circle with this myself and help somebody else in the process.”

How could I help her? I told Charlene that during my first visit with her I heard a message that I had chosen life. My soul knew what it was getting into as I lay dying – even this hard part. For the first time, I began telling people freely, new friends – not just old ones who already knew most of it – openly about what happened to me. And I began to write again, this time about my accident. I began with a letter to Charlene.

Chapter Five: The First (on it’s way!)

Chapter Three – The Voice

May 1971, Lory State Park, Northampton, Massachusetts. Preparing for a cartwheel, I'm wearing the "$27 bathing suit."

Before leaving for his dormitory, I couldn’t resist trying on the unfinished bathing suit. I was already wearing my favorite — and only — bathing suit under my jeans, from which I had made a pattern for this one. My old suit was red, white, and blue with circles and wavy lines, which rode low on my hips and under my belly. I loved the way it fit, but it had begun to fade. The reason I couldn’t part with it was sentimental. The day we bought it was the first time my mother had taken me shopping for such an intimate item. That not only acknowledged that I was becoming a young woman, but seemed to honor it.

The top was simple, but cut low enough to be very sexy. In the dressing room that day when I shopped with my mother, I liked it so much that I thought she’d probably veto it. I was reluctant to show it to her. When she asked if I was ready, I came out from behind the drapery and looked down in embarrassment.

“Oh, how lovely,” My mother said softly. She was probably surprised to see me in so little clothing; I was extremely modest at home. “Andit fits you perfectly. How much is it, dear?” That was the next hurdle. I had no idea how much she was willing to spend. She seemed to deliberate, and then the sales lady came over to tell us it was on sale from $40 to $27.

“Oh, we have to get it now! Do you like it, dear?” After an early adolescence in which my mother was absent for several years while she both worked and then went to the hospital to be with my younger sister Kathy who was dying of leukemia, this kind of bonding was what healed the hurt of those years of unintended neglect. This bathing suit transaction was a rite of passage, a go-ahead to be a woman with a young woman’s body without having to hide.

Back in my dorm room, I took off my old bathing suit top and put on the unfinished one. Admiring my tan lines, I congratulated myself on a perfect fit. I rode my hands over my hips and held the bottom against the old bathing suit to see how it matched. It looked real good, much better than the first version I had made several days earlier. I decided I would give that one to my sister Chrissie who was a size larger than my petite self. Standing on my tiptoes, I did a pirouette before the mirror for one last look at the top. I then threw all my sewing gear into a box, shoved it under the bed, and ran into the lounge to get the sewing machine to put away downstairs in a locked closet. I was finally ready, and I nearly tripped as I ran out of the dorm to get to Mark’s.

Riding the elevator up the 20th floor of the all-male dorm where Mark lived was fun because a girl never knew whom she would run into. I often encountered guys from my other classes, and once in a while the now basketball legend, Julius Irving, AKA Dr. J. At that time, he was the hero of the UMass Basketball team. Julius was a genuine nice guy; most of the other young men I met on the elevator made it a social lark to travel to Mark’s room. When I got to his door, I was surprised when he wasn’t completely ready to go. He handed me a helmet, and looked excited but serious.

“You’re going to need a helmet. I’ve got a jacket you can borrow.” These were both disappointing to hear.

“But what about the wind in my hair and the grasshoppers in my teeth?” I was wearing cut-off shorts, sandals and a tank top. I was going for full spring effect.

Mark laughed, but in a way that took the options out of my protest. “If we had time, I’d make you go back and wear a pair of long pants.” I could tell then he disapproved of my sandals. I had no idea I would have to wear so much special gear. I never did the few times I rode in high school. He pulled out a second helmet and a jeans jacket, and we both headed for the parking lot. I asked him if we could drop off a roll of film I’d taken at the State Park in Northampton of our whole gang of guys and girls. With the film bulging in my back pocket, we headed in direction of downtown, and I ran into the drug store before we headed out for the open road.

Springtime comes full of promise to Amherst, with birds chirping from newly hatched shells, grass shining out of rolling green pastures, and the perfume of lilac trees and apple blossoms wafting in the air. On the way to Sunderland and points northwest, the Berkshires beckoned. After a semester of hard work I was ready for springtime’s promise of summer. In a few days, I would be in Saranac Lake.

I was glad not to be going back to Revere. I wanted to leave my family and that past behind. There would be relatives and good friends to stay with in Saranac Lake while I found my summer job. Summer’s promise included learning to water ski, being reunited with my good friend Patty and having plenty of beer parties down by Lake Ampersand where her fiancée, Beef Bevilacqua lived.

But I was not thinking of the summer while riding with Mark. The rush of air and scenery were breathtaking and intoxicating. And now, surrounded by the muffled roar of the BSA bike we were on, I was thinking, “Finally, we’re getting out of town. Finally I’m riding a motorcycle.”

“I’m so happy!” I yelled to Mark, as we waited at a red light.

“What?” he yelled back at me. Even at a standstill, verbal communication on the motorcycle was difficult, so I didn’t bother to repeat myself and just hugged him. He then looked back at me through his rear view mirror, and I remember his green eyes, how they sought mine, and how he flashed his smile at me. At the green light we vroomed away from the pick-up and turned onto Route 119, the stretch of road that led to Sunderland and beyond to the Berkshires.

Spring 1971, Mark Robinson. Marks' mother, Dottie, gave me this photo of him in skydiving gear taken not long before the accident. When I took the photo out of its frame, 30 years later, it disintegrated.

Leaving the urban quadrant of the University and the quaint town of Amherst, I was surprised to find the rural campus surroundings so quickly. “Ooh, Look! Cows!” I poked Mark again; this time he smiled back and nodded. I relaxed back into the seat and hung on for the ride. Finally, away from it all. The dorms, the working, the studying, the status of pedestrian. It was 3:30, and we wouldn’t be out for long, but just this much was wonderful.

Coming around a bend on Rte 119 near Plum Tree Road, I never saw, and I don’t think Mark did, either, the car that veered straight out of his lane and into ours. Life can be gone in a minute, in a second, and it was this quickly that we were hit head on at 55 miles per hour by a man whom I later learned was a 20-year old uninsured motorist. He was driving his girlfriend’s car, and not paying attention to the road as he bent down to pick up some papers that had fallen off the seat. At the curve in the road we all met our destiny.

Mark’s leg was ripped from his body, and he died immediately. I was thrown 20 feet through the air and hit a utility pole with my pelvis, crushing it and fracturing both legs, then landed on the ground lacerating my left elbow and hand. I didn’t know at the instant of impact what happened. It didn’t even register I was in the countryside on a bike. The force of such an impact sent my body immediately into shock, and all I could figure was that I had been hit from behind by a bus that then ran me over. Though the dense, head-on blow was to the front of my body, it caused my body to undulate, whipping my head back then forward, making it feel as though I was hit from behind.  

There on the ground near Plum Tree Road, I lay trying to get up, commanding my arms to push me off the ground and stand up. Trying to push my voice out of my chest, emitting sounds that felt far away, I wondered if I still had my teeth. I expected to groan and raise my hand to my mouth, but I couldn’t. I realized I had no control over my body.

“Please help me get up,” I cried, sensing people around me.

I heard a murky hubbub, a mumbling, the sensation much like lying in brackish water, the texture of ugliness and despair. Finally, I made out one distinct sound. It was a woman’s voice, clear like a mountain stream trickling down rock walls that said, “You’re going to be all right. You have been in a motorcycle accident; the ambulance is on the way. We are here with you. Just hang in there.”

“Where’s Mark?” I knew enough that I had been with Mark Robinson, even though I didn’t make the connection I’d been hit on a motorcycle.

“We’re taking care of him. Don’t you worry.”

I fell back into the infernal blackness of shock and trauma. I fell into a dark and chaotic hole. This is Hell, I thought, as I tumbled and bumped into dark corners of space with what was left of my mind.

After trying for what seemed an eternity to push against the ground to get up, I then was forced to cling onto the earth like a barnacle. I held onto the firmament beneath my chest while the world spun round and round like a disk, trying to fling me off into the void.

The blackness was so thick and deep and buffeting, it felt like a tornado. I watched Ferris wheels spin madly out of control, and monkeys and human children swirl through space screaming. I held on with my consciousness, my mind begging: “Please let this be a dream.” The nightmare raged while I clung to whatever reality said, “This is not hell,” and whatever shred of light could believe: “This may be a dream.”

My mind was like a commander reining his soldiers in after sending them out to die, bringing me back to the Voice that responded when I could speak.            

“Where’s Mark?” I cried again.

“He is here. The ambulance is on the way,” and I was flung off again, flying raggedly through space, my body along for a ride to a destination that did not require a consciousness. When the chaos chose direction, I felt my whole being sucked out of my body into a skinny, black vortex of particles, dust, then colors, purple and green, and then a brighter light, which felt as though it could have been a release, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel natural. I didn’t want to go. I was fighting it, trying to wake up. Wake up, open your eyes, and wake up, I told myself. And I would find myself conscious again, but I couldn’t see, and barely could hear through the rushing of what might have been death’s wings. I called for Mark again.

“He is here. We are taking care of him. Don’t you worry,” and I was flung off again, flying raggedly through space, feeling annihilation a moment away. The only hope my conscious mind could hold was that I wasn’t really in hell, but having a dream of it. A dream will end.

It took the ambulance 20 minutes to get there.

Urgent voices, staccato questions reaching into the roiling darkness. “What is your name? Can you tell us where you live? What is your mother’s phone number?”

I was a smart aleck in high school, the class clown in the seventh grade. Reflexively, I wanted to joke: “I can only give me you name, rank and serial number.” But my mind suspected what my body already knew:  There was not time or energy to answer as I wanted. “Bernice Kenney, 168 Beach Street, 284-5412. In Revere.” I gave them the words, and I let go again into hell. Hell was dark, cold, and like a tornado never still. What’s happening? Where am I? How did I get here?

I heard them saying, “Get that bathing suit off,”. . . and I struggled against them, crying, “Don’t ruin my $27 bathing suit!” I was struggling out of a swamp of darkness, I couldn’t see, but I could hear.  But no one seemed to listen to me. Until my mother came.

I heard my aunts first, their tonalities the same as my mother’s, and then I could hear the resonance of my mother’s voice. It was like I was hooked into her from the other end of a tube that threatened to suck the life out of me, and she kept pulling me back in with her voice.

“Ma, where am I?”

I heard my sister Chris say my name.  “Chrissie,” I said. “I made you a bathing suit.” I then imagined us both on the beach. We were children, but in my imagination we were both wearing the red bathing suit.

“You’re in the hospital, dear. In Northampton.” My mother’s voice sounded grave and sad.

“In Northampton? Where’s Mark?”

She didn’t answer.

“He’s dead, isn’t he, Ma?” I didn’t believe it was possible when I thought to ask, but as soon as the words were out, I knew it was probable.

“Yes, dear,” she said in a voice that leaned over and cradled me. “He didn’t make it. Mark didn’t make it.” She said this as though she had known him, too, even though my mother didn’t know any of my friends from college. Mark’s mother called my mother the next day, and from then on it was as if my mother had known Mark too.

Mark didn’t make it. Another piece of me died. It was harder to imagine Mark being gone. So I didn’t for a while. It went eventually to a little place in my heart’s memory that I now keep sacred.

This place is translucent silver, soft pink inside like a bowl and filled with tears that have turned to pearls, and I keep photographs, mostly, but with some people I keep conversations and shapes of shells and stuff that makes me cry so my heart can wring out my memory cells, all of them.  Paula’s smell, like a snake; Mark’s smile, Phil’s wild, reddish curls, Mark Newman’s rippling laughter, Aunt Mary’s sing-song phone announcements, “Carolyn Sue; it’s for you.” Dad’s morning smell with bacon and eggs all hours of the day, Ma’s soft skin on her face and her voice that I sometimes hear at night when I’m done remembering. And in my body I feel the pain of their having been here and gone, and how that surely hurt. I just know it did. I don’t care what anyone says; you don’t go quietly, gently. It’s a terrible ripping from the earth.

No one I know wanted to go. You only want to go when it hurts so much you would have to die to feel better. I know that one. But I don’t have trouble with suicide thoughts very often; I get them, but they pass.

I couldn’t see the outlines of the hospital room, but the people, their voices and their faces all felt like some Salvador Dali mural of surrealism that floated above me. I tried to piece together the puzzle. How could my two aunts from New York be in the same place as Dick Fowler from the counseling center at Southwest? And how could my mother and my sister get to Northampton? My mother didn’t know how to drive; my sister didn’t have a license. If my brother Billy had driven them, why hadn’t he spoken to me yet?

My sister told me later that they had not been able to reach my father who didn’t have a phone, but did have a car. She said she convinced my mother to hitchhike along the Massachusetts Turnpike. This was in the early ‘70’s when hitchhiking was still done, but not normally by non-hippie adults. Chris said she could feel all of my mother’s will go into a safe ride, and it happened. They got to Northampton two hours after they got the phone call informing them I was hurt and might not make it.

“When we got there they had your body up in this huge sling and your leg was sticking out high above your head. They said that as fast as they were pouring blood into you, you were losing it out your pelvis. Ma said the halls were lined with college kids who showed up every day to give you blood.”

My sister Chris is shy to mention this in front of other people, but she told me that when she saw me, and I was talking about a bathing suit – which sounded so strange and trivial to her – and probably foreign as hell because as long as we lived in the same house, I never let her touch a stitch of my hand-sewn outfits even though she tried. When she saw me like that in that sling, she felt a whoosh of energy transferred to my spirit from hers leaving her weak and drained. Many people said they prayed for me; even those who did not normally pray. Perhaps I received their energy infusions each of the times I emerged to consciousness again. I only know that my consciousness went in and out, and often it was words, which pulled me in again, though sometimes a face.

“Cale, we are going to amputate your leg.” I heard that one.

Chapter Two – Motorcycles

“CaleCaleCale,” Mark Robinson’s smile burst into the room in advance of his physical presence. When I looked up to see his green eyes, I smiled back, then leaning over the table surface I had turned into a cutting board, I snipped off the last piece of interfacing.

“MarkMarkMark, I’m making a bathing suit!” suit I announced. He stood leaning against the door jam, in cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, his arms crossed in a relaxed pose, but the excitement in his voice told me something unusual was up.

“So, this is where you are! I tried to call you. Are you ready for a ride?”

“Uh, yeah. I mean, Yes! You got the bike working! Sure! Soon as I put this stuff away.” But I wasn’t really excited at first, considering how long I had been looking forward to this maiden voyage.  I almost didn’t want to go, since I was nearly finished with the suit and wanted to see what it looked like on me. But I had been begging him for a ride ever since I heard he was getting a bike, and this was my last free day.  Tomorrow was my French final, and then my freshman year at the University of Mass in Amherst was over. “It’ll take me two minutes,” I added.

“Okay!” he said, halfway out the door, he added, “I’ll meet you at my dorm then.” He bounded down the stairs in that way of his, on the balls of his feet, like an Indian in magic moccasins. Part Cherokee, Mark wasn’t that tall, about 5’ 10”, but he was lean and all muscle. I had only recently learned that he was a track star in high school. He was forever surprising me; he didn’t seem like they kind of boy who would ride a motorcycle.  But then, I’d never known anyone who had parachuted from airplanes, either. Mark had just finished taking his first dive.

We met my first semester, his third, in an 8 a.m. French class. He would come over evenings to Herman Melville House, my all girl dormitory where I was also working as a lobby security guard. We tutored each other in French and talk about our other classes.  I’d been introduced to Aristotle, Socrates and Plato in my Classics 101 course, as well as the Greek tragedians, Sophocles and Euripedes.  Because he was a sophomore, he had taken many of the courses the year before, he talked about them as eagerly as I.

“What did you think of that analogy of the caves thing?” he asked me one night, a frown darkening his face.   “Did you get that at all?”

“Oh, yeah! Didn’t you? But I like the tragedies more. What do you think of Oedipus Rex?  Wasn’t that the most amazing story? The way he heard in advance that he would kill his father and marry his own mother, so he leaves home so he won’t do those things, and he ends up meeting his real father on the road, killing him and winning the king’s wife as a reward.”

“Yeah, no matter what, the Greeks think your fate is decided before you are born,” he said.

“But the existentialists believe you create your own destiny. Free will, and all that,” I countered.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

“I believe you can be whoever you want to be,” then I hastily added a qualifier. “Of course, your life is somewhat determined by your social class, and to a certain extent, your upbringing –”.

“And your genes, ” he interrupted.

“Yeah – but I still believe we create our own existence.” I ended my definitive statement on Life with an opening to him, “Do you think your fate was decided before you were born?”

He was a serious conversationalist, and as he stopped to think, his face took on a different cast. “I don’t know, actually.  Didn’t Oedipus have free will?” His strong, square jaw and high cheekbones became more prominent in this mood. “He’s the one who decided NOT to stay with his family.”

“Yeah, but in trying to avoid his fate, he walked right into it,” I said.

“So, who decided his fate, then?” He gave me an opening, so I prattled on.

“It was the Oracle at Delphi.  No.  It was the gods who decided his fate, and the oracle just told him. And he thought that knowing it, he could escape it.”

“Yeah. But it was that very thing that caused his fate. So, did he have free will?”

“I see what you mean,” I said, liking him more for the challenge of conversation he always presented, and which I had never experienced in high school.

Other times, Mark and I had great debates over ethics, and which laws were more important, those of the individual, or those of society.  I often took the side of society because he was very much an advocate of the individual, but we both flip- flopped from time to time.

In a contemplative literature class I had learned that a Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, believed true dialogue is where we humans experience God, in the honest, give and take of relationship. These true dialogues of ours I related to as my way of being spiritual, but they really were at that point just on an intellectual dialogue level.

Second semester I began to work lobby security in another dorm, a 20-story high-rise building in the same part of campus where Mark and I lived, known as Southwest. This side of campus was a kind of city in miniature — five high-rise dormitories and a half dozen or so three-stories on a section of campus paved with cement and accented with more glass than grass.  At the beginning of that second semester Mark would stop by to visit with me, and then walk me home.  I’m sure I was just the last on a long list of people he checked in on in the evenings; he was a sociable and popular person. And we no longer shared the French class, so we were done tutoring.

When we walked across the square, I’d saunter slowly, tired from work, and he would dance around me to slow himself down. Often we’d stop outside his dorm, named after John F. Kennedy, and sit on the hot-air vents, having discussions that grew from intellectual to eventually, more personal.

“When school is over I’m going to Lake Placid – in the Adirondacks, you know? – and get a job as a waitress for the summer,” I told him as we both leaned our backs against the brick building.

“That’s in upstate New York?” he asked. “Why there?” He stretched his legs out in front of him.

“Oh, I used to live in Saranac Lake when I was 16, and I have friends there still. I’m applying at the Whiteface Inn.”

“Waitressing, huh? Have you ever done that work before?”

“No. Are you kidding? I’ve only had one other real job besides baby-sitting and cleaning people’s houses, and one year I ironed for $1/hour.  But how hard can it be to take orders and pick up plates?”

“I don’t know.” He shrugged and looked over at me. “What was your real job?”

“I was a money-checker girl at Skill-Right.

He narrowed his eyes.  “What’s a skill right?”

“A bingo joint on Revere Beach.”

He laughed and raised his knees into a rest for his arms. “I thought Bingo was illegal.”

“Don’t laugh,” I elbowed him in the ribs. “It’s serious business.  Those old folks who play Skill-Right pay some big money, like fifty dollars a day. And it’s not all old folks, either. There are some serious players.”

“But I thought only churches and clubs could play Bingo games?” He picked up a piece of gravel and tossed it toward the trees in front of us that made a hedge around the building.

I mimicked his movement, picking up the gravel like I used to pick among the beans at Skill-Right. “You got to hand it to them. They figured out a way to make it legal.”

“How’d they do that?”

“Oh, they give out cards and beans just like in Bingo, but they don’t pull numbers out of a hat or anything. The numbers supposedly come from skill because people have to throw darts at a board. Five darts. If they can match up any of their five darts with something on their cards they win a certain cash amount. Guess what the letters are instead of B-I-N-G-O?

“S-K-I-L-L?”

“Hah! That wouldn’t work because you’ve got two L’s. It’s R-I-G-H-T.”

“That makes sense,” he said thoughtfully. “So it’s not luck, and it can’t be fixed because these people create their own matches.”

I laughed.  “Well, supposedly. But – it’s mostly old ladies who play – nobody plays it that way to match their cards with the dartboard. Most of them don’t even reach the dartboard. They throw all the darts at once, and some of them land on the floor before they even get to the dart board.” I laughed just remembering the difference between the few skilled dart aimers and the tossers.

“So, how do they get the numbers for “right?” he asked.

“The way they get the numbers is a “caller” goes around from the first aisle to the last. A certain color dart is lit up on the board behind the announcer, and the caller reads out that number on each board until someone gets a RIGHT.”

“What a trip! So you did this in high school?” He smiled at me. His smile was warm and blinding; it filled his whole face with an uncommon openness.

“Yep. It was my first job where they took out taxes. It bought me clothes, and movies, and every Wednesday night on pay day, we went to the China Roma and had Chinese food.”

“I always thought Revere Beach was a weird place, but an Italian Chinese Restaurant,” he mused, and then looked to make sure another elbow wasn’t coming his way.

Mark was from a town about 40 miles north of me up the coast, called Danvers. It had beautiful beaches, not tacky like Revere, the place where I grew up as a kid.  A city of 40,000 in the 1970’s, Revere had been the first public beach in the U. S., but had been corrupted by Mafia influences over the past several decades. Most of the beautiful old amusement halls had burned down, the brass on the bandstand had gone green, the sea wall had crumbled, and the pavilions along the shore had fallen into disrepair.

“Skill right, huh? Did it pay OK?” he asked.

“Not as much as waitressing. Trust me,” I laughed.  We were both quiet then.

“So, you’re going to New York before you even know if you’ve got a job.” He laughed at me, and then spoke not shyly. “I was going to ask if you wanted to come with me sometime this summer to Plum Island.”

I was silent. Plum Island. I’d heard about this nature preserve on the Atlantic coast, but the one time I’d set out with girlfriends to see it, we ended up on the coast of New Hampshire instead.

“How would we get there?” I asked. “Hitchhike?

“On my motorcycle. I told you I’m getting a bike, didn’t I?”

“A motorcycle?” I raised my voice a couple of octaves with excitement.  “I love motorcycles! I’m going to buy a small red Honda motorbike this summer.”  I then chattered on about the romance of the road and my attraction to motorcycles. I told him how on the amusement park part of Revere Beach I developed a strong fascination with Harleys and the men and women who rode them. He told me how he didn’t have a Harley, but a small road bike he had been fixing up so he could get it running before the end of the semester. That conversation was in March.

I didn’t see Mark for several months Spring semester, and when we finally caught up, much had happened with us both. His hair had grown longer, and he looked like Prince Valiant.  Sitting on the vents, the steam floating up from below and enveloping us lightly, keeping us warm, we at first talked about school, and then our talk turned reflective.

Mark told me about an uncomfortable situation developing among his circle of friends. A woman in the group developed an attraction to him that he evidently didn’t share.  She must have been very attractive, since his friends thought he was crazy – literally – not to return her feelings and had hinted maybe he should see one of the counselors on campus about his lack of response to her. I was very sympathetic.  I also had problems with people who were attracted to me. As friendly and open as I was to people generally, I feared intimacy greatly. A non-threatening relationship like the one I had with him, where he never expressed any need or desire, felt safe.

I told him about my friend Phil, whom I had only got to know a few weeks into the second semester. Phil had seemed to have a crush on me, but then it turned out to be an obsession, which wasn’t even personal. It was a religious obsession where, after doing too much LSD, he began to relate to me as Mary Magdalene. When it came out that he saw himself as a Christ figure, I had to bring him to a drug drop-in center, from where he was later transferred to a state hospital. On his way to another facility, his parents had brought him back to get his things and say goodbye to his friends. Phil had ended up being the biggest influence in my college life. I was still recovering. Mark had heard about the infamous tragedy that had befallen this young man, though he hadn’t known I was involved.

“I’ve got to take you to meet my sister Wendy before the year is over. I think I might move into her dorm next semester, or move off campus, I’m not sure yet.”

“I’d like to meet her,” I nodded my head as well.  Then I raised my shoulders, stretched my fingers down to my feet and sloughed off the somber feelings from talking about Phil. I looked back at him again. “I can’t believe the year is over. Is your sophomore year as good as your freshman year?” I asked him. I wanted to hear that it was better.

“You can’t compare them,” he said as serious as the voice of wisdom. “But then 1969 was a year that can’t compare with any other year because of the protests.”

The previous year, the whole campus went on strike against the Vietnam War and boycotted college and classes. According to Mark, he had the one and only UMASS professor who required attendance.  “I got a “D” in chemistry, the lowest grade on campus that spring,” he told me and smiled broadly. Obviously, he wasn’t embarrassed in the least; he was proud of this distinction.

This conversation was a watershed for us. During the last few weeks of school, we gravitated strongly to each other, and when he knew he was getting his motorcycle ready for the road, he let me know I was one of the first he’d take out.

Now, finally, I would get my wish.

Look for  Chapter Three coming soon.

Chapter One – Revere Beach

at Revere Beach

We grew up in a city eight miles north of Boston on the ocean, a town built around a natural crescent of coastline which followed the ocean’s curve into an inlet under an arm of land called Lynn, in its cupped palm, a town called Nahant. From Revere Beach we could see across the water to Nahant. South of Revere was Beachmont and Winthrop and then East Boston.

As the oldest child in a family of six, home was cramped quarters of poverty and abuse. The outdoors was where I went to escape and feel alive.

Had I been born and raised in the country, horses might have conveyed the sense of adventure and romance my impressionistic mind long for.  I might have dreamed of taming a wild horse, riding her bare back into the sunset.

But it was the city of Boston in which my mother birthed me, and I was raised in an urban ocean culture where nature was just a backdrop to the more tawdry culture of commercial enterprise known as amusement concessions. The truly exciting glamorous steeds of steel that rode the coastline known as Revere Beach rode unmuffled, the leather vested motor cycle heroes, rode with bare backs, swerving in and out of the traffic along Revere Beach Boulevard, saluting with special signals those in their brotherhood who they would later meet at the far end of the Beach past Hurley’s park.

In the l940’s Revere Beach was an amusement area, Great Gatsby gone brass. And the brass had tarnished. Some said it was the Mafia who were responsible for Revere’s urban renewal. By the l950’s the glamorous dancehall had burned down, the hotel across the street burned and had been abandoned, and the pier which once led to a glittering ballroom now ended with a tackle and “boats for rent” sign. Nature had also taken her toll on the `40’s dream for the resort town. The copper tops of the bandstand and covered pavilions built every half mile or so along the length of the coastline had turned green, and the massive concrete steps had crumbled a little bit more after each storm.

Across the street from the beach Revere flaunted its cultural decadence in the tacky rides and concessions crowded like a carnival along the boulevard. Packed together halfway to the northern tip of the crescent were the Merry-Go-Round, the Ferris wheel, the double Ferris wheel, the Roustabout. There was the Hippodrome merry-go-round with its hand-painted, made-in-Germany wooden horses, and the Roller Coaster, which was famous for something– perhaps the number of sailors who died each year because they had dared to raise their arms into the air, ignoring the warning to keep your hands under the rail.

Inspiring the most terror, for me at least, was the Wild Mouse, a ride that pointed the nose of a little car over the edge of a ten-story high track as though it would soon drop over the edge, and then violently the car jerked back on to the track to yet another precipice-like corner. There was a ride called the Virginia Reel which I never got to take, but looked like a flying saucer gliding along the rollercoaster track. There were bumper cars, hot dog stands, and dart games with stuffed animals playing back-up to a big bellied hawker with a cigar for a baton. Mid-boulevard sat the façade of a huge building with bowling alley upstairs and a miniature golf game downstairs, and a lounge with famous entertainers featured on the doors closed to kids. There were open-air pizza stands, fried clam stands, pizza parlors with juke boxes, huge halls with pinball machines and picture booths; all these lined up like candy on a necklace across from the mother of it all, the ocean.

If it was the ocean which gave birth to all these man-made entertainments, it was the MBTA which made it fertile economic ground for concessionaires. Come spring, no matter what weather, you knew it was Easter when the color hit the boulevard; blacks from the city paraded in spiffy suits of canary yellows, lime greens, raucus orange and whatever new style might wake up the night. Revere was one of the few ocean beaches which could be reached by the working-class, train-transported public in the cities. Every day in the summer people would get off the train to spend the day at the Beach. Either side of the boulevard these commuter waves of people left paper cups, plates, straws, bags, and bottles in their wake, and between that and the seaweed, Revere was one of the trashiest beaches on the Atlantic.

Still, as kids, we did not know better. Revere Beach was “the beach,” our Paradise. Every week a uniformed band played at the bandstand and we kids would join a dancing crowd of funky older men and women who danced to the beat of their favorite big band music.

Before I started school, we lived on Shirley Ave, and when I was five we moved to Beachmont, which was a neighborhood of Revere. I had traveled past there before on the MBTA. My five year-old-mind imagined Beachmont was a huge mountain of ice cream with a cherry on top like the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” I had heard Burl Ives sing of. When we actually moved there, my picture of Beachmont changed. It widened to become the huge hill—a mountain!–above the beach; it was rampant with fruit trees, red ants and natural “jungles” to build forts in. It was a kind of magical place to me.

We lived in six rooms of a deep four-story apartment building that had not only a cellar but a scary sub-cellar. Stacked in the back were three floors of back porches over which planes flew every hour or so on their way into Logan airport in East Boston. If you stood on the condemned, pigeon-infested back porch, which we were not supposed to do, it looked like they were coming straight into the backside of the house. Whenever they flew by at night, I hid under the covers in terror because this time they might drop the bombs we practiced for in our school air raids. In school the teachers had to quit talking while the planes roared overhead.

Beachmont was also a short distance from the ocean, this time the south end of Revere Beach, where the amusements and pavilions gave way to rocky coastline with no amenities, except a park and the fishing pier, and a mile further south, a massive seawall with bathers openings. Between the pier and the seawall were huge rocks of breakers behind which some houses were built, but no public bathing was allowed. When the ocean crashed through the seawall every few years during a storm these houses were flooded, sometimes demolished, and those of us who lived just a half-mile away up on the hill wondered at the folly of those who lived right down there on the water.

In late November we would walk up Bellingham Avenue down to the southern end of the beach toward Winthrop and collect the quahog shells which had washed up on the beach by the ton. They’re a strong, heavy shell, like the tiny periwinkle, and many would survive the crashing surf in perfect shape for our Christmas craft-making of ashtrays painted with watercolors, to be sent to Aunts and Uncles in the Adirondack Mountains where my mother had grown up. We rarely went to the beach in the wintertime when we were little, though when we were in our teens the bowling alley and pizza parlors drew us down to the shore. While we lived in Beachmont it was the summertime I loved best.

My mother would load up thermoses, bags of food, pillow cases of extra clothing, and the stroller, and she would pack her four, five and six kids down to the beach for the whole day. We would eat two meals and then be met by my father for dinner at 6 or so, just before it got dark.

Even though Revere was a city, our early life there was filled with the wonders of nature. Seagulls squawked from the air while the plentiful pigeons hopped around pecking at discarded French fries or onion rings littering the beach. The ocean brought in clams, and worms and jelly fish, and once a sting ray washed up on the beach. Long serrated shawls and skinny green ropes of seaweed washed in at high tide for our investigation and creative application. Mostly we tried to scare each other with it because it was so otherworldly, like witches’ hair. Holding it with one finger, wet and dripping, I discovered the perfect slimy surprise for the back of someone’s sun burnt legs. The weather was hot, but the ocean wind would tingle and cool our salt-stained skin, and when it got later in the day my mother would call us to come put on a sweater, “That old East Wind is blowing in,” she’d say.

Knees nestled into the sand, we three older children ages 4, 5, and 6 would finger-dig the granulated firmament deep enough for the soft sand to give way to a wet, congealing consistency, and then we’d dig with a shovel from there to begin our creations. Sometimes we made castles, piling the sand up until it was chest high, then we packed it down and round with our palms, an artful swack from the shovel back here and there, and then mimicking the design of certain seashells, we used the trough of the shovel to sculpt a spiral pathway from the castle’s dome to base. We tried rolling bottle caps on their sides down this passage until we discovered the little red balls detached from ping pong paddles. These had far superior rolling action down the chutes and bobbed neatly in the moat we had filled with our pails.

Other times we sculpted sand-boats, daring to scoop them from sand close to the shore when the tide was coming in so they would be surrounded by ocean when we were done. We’d quickly pack down rectangular forms for benches and sit on them while the waves washed over the bow, half-screaming, half-squealing at whoever was still packing down the back of the boat to jump in. “We’re sailing now!” Our imaginations were limitless as we hung our make-believe fishing poles over starboard, or blew a fog horn to another boat until our vessel was ensconced and melted away by the incoming tide. We splashed and played until exhausted and hiked back up to our blanket, which was weighted down with stones at each corner in the deep, soft sand above the tide mark. There my mother would be picking sand from a sandwich for one of the kids or changing another’s diaper, or simply bouncing a baby on her knee.

We were rarely still unless exhausted. If the tide was high we would move up the grassy park before the beach and swing on the horizontal poles that formed a separator of park and beach. We practiced cartwheels and somersaults, yelling, “Hey, Ma. Watch this!” The outdoors was our playground, and the possibilities were endless. In the early morning at low tide we watched the clam diggers in their rolled up-pants as they padded the softened sand, and when a clam spit up at them, quickly turned to the worm-like opening through which the clam threw his watery wake, and began digging, chasing and overtaking the mollusk. We’d try to catch these slippery devils digging with our little hands, while looking with envious admiration at those who walked along with pails full.

Much easier to track were the hermit crabs who hung out in little pools around rocky areas, but they were neither edible nor pretty. A few times we’d come across the carcass of the beautifully shaped starfish. I used to always comb the shore for a certain small, white shell shaped like the oyster into whose apex a little hole was sometimes worn away. These I would string for earrings and necklaces. Shells made good windows and doors for our castles too. We had bright colored pails we’d deposit these treasures into, and when we came back to the blanket they would be laid out in some design for presentation for my mother to pick her favorite.

When we were really young and lived in Beachmont, we spent half our time down the beach, Steven in a stroller, Kathleen in a harness, and Billy, Chris and I hovering near like loose particles around a nucleus. My mother used to cut a branch and make a switch, whipping the backs of our legs if we strayed out of her orbit.

One day we are walking along, and suddenly, she yells to me and Bill, and in one movement she pushes us over the soft embankment of sand and bushes that slope down from the sidewalk opposite the boulevard. She flings the stroller past and partly through the bushes down a steeper dune, and from where we lay we see the boom of a large crane pass over our mother who is lying face down on the sidewalk. It chops down the huge steel lampposts like they were trees. Quickly we scramble to her. As she gathers us all in her arms, the cars yell to her. “Sue `em! Sue `em!”

“I just thank the Lord we are alive,” she tells them all, and we continue down the street. “What does “sue” mean?” I ask.

“Some people like to make money on other people’s misfortune, dear,” she tells me, and from the tone of her voice I am glad we are not like that. Even if we don’t have enough money to buy pizza later on.

When we were younger we went to the park at the Beachmont end of the beach, but as we grew older my brother and I migrated further south, to the bathhouse, and then to the bandstand where there were more people and there were pizza stands, slush machines, ice cream vendors and the amusements. We would look for bottles thrown away by tourists and turn them in for a penny or two and collect enough sometimes in one afternoon to buy a piece of pizza. I used to dream of a day when I could eat all the slices I wanted, since the few times my mother took us for a treat the pizza was rationed. She used to cover it with hot pepper so I’d be forced to eat it more slowly. We were not allowed to drink soda pop, but I used to stare at the six bottles lined up on the counter separating the dining area from the kitchen of Bill Ash’s pizza stand: R.C. Cola, root beer, Coke, Pepsi, Orange Crush and ginger ale. I knew ginger ale from the times I was sick and my mother would give me the tonic to make me burp. I loved the fizz against my tongue and would sometimes hold my tongue in the glass a long time to savor the sensation as bubbles stimulated the mouth watering glands beneath. As I grew older, I grew bolder in my desires to have more of these treats. Billy and I soon became so industrious as to approach people drinking pop to ask them if we could take their bottle for them when they were done!

The discovery of the man-made amusements down the northern end of the beach ended our exclusive fascination with Nature. There were some pretty interesting sights down the other end. One of my favorites was to watch the big people; mostly I was fascinated with the culture of romance, personified by the foreign sailors docked in Charlestown who came over on the MBTA. They would begin their days alone or in male packs, and we would follow their progress with the pretty girls and be entranced by those who held the young beauty in their arms in broad daylight behind the seawall or lying on a blanket facing the beach.

I suppose it was the uniform which attracted me to sailors: my father had been in the navy. Down by the bandstand where I also studied the culture of romance, it was the lack of clothes which fascinated me. Here paraded the exhibitionism and masquerade of young adulthood fascinated with its own physical presence. Looking for empty bottles I waded almost unseen among the card playing, sun-worshipping and radio blasting blankets of big -hipped women in skimpy bathing suits and muscled men in cut-off shorts. It amazed me how fat women’s thighs were with their skirts off, and how hairy men seemed. I watched them play handball against the seawall, and I watched them watch each other. They were far more interesting than the blankets of families where my mother sat. They seemed to have an excited sense of their own importance which I did not have in my pre-puberty stage.

After I’d cashed in all the bottles I could find, if I wasn’t babysitting one of the little kids, I could wander across the street to the arcades to play pin ball machines or look for coins amidst the gum wrappers, combs, condoms and other assorted trash under the tilt-a-whirl and flying cars. Without money, I just watched.

I watched the motorcycle mamas with their tattoos press themselves against the red flesh of the motorcycle men, whose only concession to the sun was to bare their chests above their leather pants. I stood transfixed in front of a high cage where African monkeys chattered, hung, and swung, and they climbed the fences which kept them from the people. I have no idea why there were monkeys in this one outdoor amusement park, but the memory of standing there watching them climb their cages is with me today. They were as interesting as and no less strange to me than the motorcyclists or the sun-worshippers, but I did pity them their lack of freedom.

Sea breezes, sand, lapping water, much loving and affection as babies–this childhood sensual involvement with nature, followed by the voyeurism of pre-puberty, was then turned off–adolescence. Mine was tough, as I tried to create an identity separate from my family, in the midst of the chaos of poverty and abuse, preparing my escape from them. My mother was a romantic and my father a pessimist was also mentally ill; the two faced the realities of a big family and little resources. They had eight children in ten years, and lost two within a five year period. When I was 10, we moved to the urban section of Revere; my father lost jobs, and as we kids older kids entered into adolescence, our innocence was tainted wandering the seamier sides of the boulevard. These years my picture of the glitter and glamour of the Revere Beach grew more distorted, like children’s figures in the funhouse mirrors do.

The 60’s racial tensions left on Revere emotional scars: mortality rates increased; stabbings, beatings, and robberies were blamed on the blacks who came in from the cities, and the concessions burned down one by one, the roller coaster, the Hippodrome, and the Virginia Reel which I had dreamed of one day riding. Urban Renewal Revere-style took the form of mysterious fires, reported in the newspapers, arsonist never found.

I can remember my brother and I exploring for trinkets through the charred timber of one of the Arcade Bazaar in the sixties. Amazingly enough we found scorched but not melted plastic wallets, smoke infested but intact stuffed animals. For a kid, it was weird to find the salvage and treasure it, but it felt good to find something left behind the ruins.

As we got older we heard more about the Mafia. A friend’s father was shot down in front of his home; bodies were found and identified as gangland slayings. When I was in high school a young man who hung out at my pizza parlor, Ray Lucetta, was found with his balls cut off and stuffed in his mouth. A warning for fooling around with a gang member’s wife, the story went. These stories intrigued us, as we were not personally touched. Years later a male prostitution ring was broken up. It had been headquartered in a karate school where some of my young male childhood friends used to get us our Friday night booze. We had all been touched; we just didn’t know it.

I go down Revere Beach today, and it has changed again. Green park-like strips of land and high rise housing have replaced the old burnt-out ruins. There are still a few good fried food places, and the bandstand and 40’s bathhouses functioning in disrepair are better than nothing.

But it is the ocean side of the boulevard which makes Revere worth returning to. Down Revere Beach I will always be a child, despite my adult eyes. The ocean is a mother, promising to always be there, deep in her mystery, sparkling in the reflection of the sun, broiling in angry fury at the disturbances in the atmosphere, and then heaving watery sighs on to shore, receding from the washed-up gems which are the broken shells of her tumultuous home.

Prelude: Miss American Pie

Sweet sixteen in '67, Saranac Lake, NY

In 1968, at 16, I was a “fox.” With my All-American-Girl looks and bedroom-blue eyes I wanted to be the Marilyn Monroe of my neighborhood. Or maybe, Goldie Hawn with a bosom. Or perhaps Miss America, only short. I could picture myself walking the dais in my high heels, turning my derriere to just the right angle, smiling and waving, making up for all those years as a freckled, skinny, ugly duckling squinting into the sun as the camera invited me in for what I’d feel later was a false reading.

Until I was 15, something wasn’t right.  From grade six to grade eight I’d cringe at my school pictures. My dishwater blonde hair didn’t fall like rain from my crown like Jean Shrimpton’s golden bangs, but squiggled over my forehead like worms, stopping short of hiding scraggly eyebrows. Since vanity required I take my glasses off for a picture, I’d squinch my eyes to see straight, and smiled a crooked smile.

I’d look at those school pictures and object. I was meant to be a beauty. This destiny I could feel in my bones as they stretched from four feet, nine inches at age 10 to five-foot-one at 15. Since my own mother — who had borne eight children in ten years — had no figure to speak of, this destiny was must have been foretold by photos of her when she was young.

They called her “Brick,” as in built like a brick outhouse. She had legs up to here, and face and hair like Hepburn — Katherine, that is. She posed in those 30’s short shorts, and the photographer caught her curves, from cheekbones to chin, and breasts and hips to shapely calves and well-turned ankles. I would be like her.

In the ‘60’s short-shorts were not popular. Bermuda shorts were the trend. Indian madras, from which the shorts were made, not only disguised the thigh, but also discouraged showing any shape.  Even if you got them wet enough to reveal the thigh, the madras would bleed an awful mess of colors down your legs. Not that I would ever get wet anyway when I was a teen. I never went into the pool at a party, never mind the ocean, for fear of the effect of water on the straight-haired look into which I had literally ironed my naturally curly hair.

Peering down at those pictures of my mother in her old albums, I’d think: If I could get my hands on a pair of those short shorts, I’d wear them! I experimented with blue jeans, pulling the woof from the warp until I had denim fringes hanging from two inches below my crotch to my upper thigh, like Daisy Mae in the L’il Abner cartoons. When granny dresses came into vogue in the early 70’s, I protested with mini-mini skirts. I had legs and, go Betty Grable, I was gonna show ‘em.

Who knew where this exhibitionism came from? I knew by 16 if I could control my unruly hair, and make it a shade or two blonder, I would fit so snugly into a playboy bunny outfit that you’d have to pull the staple out of her belly button to separate me from the fantasy girl. I would have power like I never did when I was 10, and I caught my Dad staring at 16-year old Nanette down the street. Once invisible like me, Nanette had recently grown into her pulchritudinous young maidenhood. She oozed some power that made my father gawk.

I learned pulchritudinous for a spelling bee that I won in the ninth grade.

As a playboy bunny I would have that same power over men — but I would use it discreetly and mainly for the betterment of society, like Mata Hari. I devoured the playboy bunny bios for some sense of politics and found none. I didn’t see how they could influence history without some kind of political platform. I mean, what was it all about? There had to be some point to winning a beauty competition! Weren’t women the moral power behind men? Wasn’t the influence of their beauty how the power was transferred? How would they know how to influence the guy to vote if they didn’t have a wide scope of information about Vietnam, or didn’t have their own moral values and passions?

At 14, when nature hadn’t taken her course, using the age-old art of glamour, I induced in myself a likeness to Cheryl Tiegs, a model whose picture I carried in my wallet, as though it were a picture of myself walking out of a plane waving to the camera. I began with ironing my hair, first the bangs. I plucked my eyebrows and lengthened my lashes with Baby Oil.  Instead of pancake makeup, I kept a California model’s color using Instant Tanning Lotion by Coppertone– except for the time I used too much and streaked my face orange.

Around 15 I started being noticed. The motor heads down the street cat- called from their garage assessing my build — “Hey, small chassis, wide ovals.” I knew that was a compliment. It seemed I grew into that valued status overnight; one day I was transparent, the next I couldn’t cross the street without some truck driver whistling at me. It was several years before the attention got old. When you’ve been starved for attention, for affection, you take it where you can get it. When you’ve had enough, you move on to something new.

At 18 something new awaited. At college I basked in the glow of ideas and knowledge. As a sociology student at UMass Amherst, I loved my studies. I still enjoyed male attention — when polite — but I hated the meat markets of the barrooms and fraternities where women were invited in to commingle like sheep led to slaughter. I liked being appreciated for my mind, my wit, my political passions, my ideas and the way I looked; at 18 this was new for me. This was how my friend Mark was attracted to me, through this combination.

But then came that fateful day in May 1971.  For several years afterwards, I craved that kind of obnoxious male attention I had learned to despise. I longed to be ogled, whistled at, lusted after like a sex kitten.  I longed to be a lamb led to slaughter, lavished with any kind of notice other than sympathy, pity or mere curiosity.

Those days passed, too, though with certain reservations.  By 20, I began to love myself again, and learned to make the best of what I had. But at times, I have stood in the shadow of that other girl’s might-have-been.

Facing the mirror as an older woman, feeling the loss of power that comes with age and diluted beauty, in my 40’s I’m taking honest stock of my girlhood dreams, and struggle to know what matters now.

I ask myself, what did I miss during those years of male attention that feed a young woman’s self esteem? After age 19, I designed and sewed my own clothing, hiding my body from the waist down with empire dresses and jumpers that went to my ankle.

Though I lost the option to run, jump, and tumble as a cheerleader, a role to which I aspired for years in high school, I did find a sport to express myself. As a competitive skier I won ground on more than one lost front.

To what extent did my accident restrict my options for love and marriage? I never got the man of my dreams after my dreams were shattered; I had boyfriends, but I never married. Arms reserved for crutches, romantic fantasies of walking the beach hand-in-hand stayed just that — fantasies.  With a body violated by radical surgery, I lost the chance to have children, while never losing my virginity properly. I am only now consciously grieving the girl I never was.

When a friend who knew me when remarked, “I could never have survived what you went through,” I surprised myself, telling her:  “I didn’t. That girl had to die, and someone new grew in her place.” The words of Don McLean’s song once brought me a recognition of my lost self and what had happened that day. “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry.  Them good ole boys were drinking whisky and rye, singin’:  “This will be the day that I die.” Again. “This will be the day that I die.”

For most of us there does come a day the music dies, and we are forced to say goodbye. At 19, on May 24, 1971 this was the day I died.

Coming Soon…

Shadow of My Former Self

One day when I was 19, I took a ride on a motorcycle and lost what was then the greatest part of becoming a woman. In the collision that cost my friend Mark Robinson his life, I was thrown 20 feet into the air and hit a telephone pole, shattering my pelvis and breaking both my legs. Three weeks later I survived to become what is termed by the medical community, a “hemipelvectomy.”

Shadow of My Former Self is the story of the first year after the “impact,” from the morning of the accident through hospitalizations, amputations, and artificial legs, to my return to classes at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.  Trying to reconstruct the wild girl who grew  Catholic in a Jewish and Italian town north of Boston, the book includes flashbacks to Revere,  Massachusetts.  I focus on body image, beauty, grief, and the attempt to recreate my shattered self.

I will be putting up chapters of the book periodically, so keep checking back to see more! This book will eventually be  in print, so this version which will take us through more than a third way through the text will become a teaser for the book in print, which is too expensive right now, but  if we are making money from Have Crutch Will Travel, others may like it enough to get this writer some money to advance my publishing business.