I hadn’t heard any screaming because we were all asleep when it happened. There was no up or down, just round and round. Glass breaking, metal bending and all in complete darkness. I felt like I was tumbling over and over and over again like a surfer caught in an undertow. I was awash in a sea of sleeping bags, clothes, and all manner of camping gear.
The van slowly stopped rolling, rocking back and forth until it finally rested on the wheels in the upright position. I could feel sleeping bags, backpacks and other clutter being pulled off of me. I heard a chorus of people asking each other, ”Are you alright?”
It took a while for each of us to come to our senses. We couldn’t really process what just happened for a few more minutes. We needed information. What did happen? Okay, it was obvious we were in an auto accident. But how and with who? Was everyone all right?
As I’ve been almost totally paralyzed for several years as a result of a fall from a cliff, I couldn’t help my friends trying to make order out of chaos. Some called my name but I was lost in confusion. I didn’t know what to say. The only thing that came out of my mouth was, “What happened?”
My friend Bill, also a quadriplegic, was somewhere in the van, I think, but I hadn’t heard his voice yet. Bruce instructed everyone to get out of the van. We collectively conducted the necessary triage and found who was hurt and to what degree. We were in the only vehicle involved in this accident so our concern was concentrated on ourselves.
My sense of time became distorted. I recall being carried from the van into a field by two people. One held my shoulders, the other carried my legs. I was looking around as I was being carried by Bruce and Michele. They plopped me down on some grassy area. I was surrounded by luggage that had been pulled from the van. Bill was lying down close to me. Our wheelchairs were the last items to come out of the van. They were both damaged beyond use.
This is not how I pictured our winter break from college. Only days ago we finished up our Fall finals at Kent State University near Cleveland, Ohio. We left the winter weather of the Rust Belt in search of warmer climes. Though, in full disclosure, it may be more accurate to say some of us were only looking for warmer weather.
Bruce and I were on a quest, trying to drive from Cleveland, Ohio to Bogota, Columbia. This would be an epic adventure, to drive to another continent. Knowing that the Pan Am Hwy wasn’t yet finished, we planned on catching a ferryboat from Panama to get to Bogota, as this was the closest, big city on the South American continent. This was the ultimate road trip. Successfully completing this trip would give us a high level of “road cred.” That is to say, we would be in the Who’s Who of Road Trip Royalty.
Bruce was a man's man. Every woman wanted him and every man wanted to be like him. He had the build of a soccer player and swagger to match. You could say he was the alpha male, not because he was the biggest and strongest but because he was clever and charming. He was the consummate diplomat, the epitome of savoir-faire. He could open an oyster with a kind word, and a locked door with a gentle nudge. He did both with equal zeal.
As if not endowed with enough advantages, Bruce was known for his physical prowess as a swimmer. This was something I learned firsthand as he took me snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off the Florida Keys. He seemed at home, in the water. It was as if he could see under the ocean’s surface and knew just where to stop the boat and drop anchor. With his beach blond hair I’m quite certain he would’ve been a surfer had he lived on the West Coast. His well justified self-confidence was only exceeded by his humility. He never boasted nor blamed. He just shared his ever widening vision of this thing we call life.
On the way south, somewhere in central Mexico we had to stop for van repairs. That held us up two days. Our Mexican auto insurance was running out of time. We were trying to get to Guatemala before it expired. My friends - fellow students, who did the driving, sensed the urgency to make up some time so we drove day and night. Somewhere along this 2-lane, winding Mexican road we met our fate in the still of the night.
Until we crashed, we were an unremarkable group of college kids responding to the call of the open road. We were a mixture of four guys and four girls with no particular need to be anywhere. Bruce was our expedition leader, having a perennial penchant for adventure. John was laid back and comfortable in any setting. Bill and I are both quadriplegics by way of traumatic accidents. Nothing fazed us. We found humor in every situation. Bill often offered his insight, which was always appreciated, if not often acknowledged. Nancy was a smart, capable young woman who was studying Spanish. In some situations a second language is handy. In our current situation, her language skills were an indispensable asset. Linda, a nursing student, and Pauline provided the energy and lively conversation. They always seemed to have had a little too much coffee. They were always perky and quite animated.
At some point an ambulance arrived. Pauline and John were taken to the hospital. I wasn’t really aware of their physical condition. I desperately hoped their injuries weren’t serious. Nancy spoke Spanish so we relied heavily on her to communicate with the ambulance folks. That left six of us to sort out and assess the damage. Physically, we were, for the most part unscathed. It’s a miracle to me how that could happen.
I finally learned that Michele, our French-Canadian hitchhiker, fell asleep at the wheel. What was he doing driving? He was a hitchhiker! We picked up Michele and his six-year-old son some miles back. I gathered what Information I could and began to put pieces together to makes some sense.
It took us all a few minutes to get through the shock of the wreck. Our hearts were pounding, all of us were confused, and we weren’t sure who was hurt. Once we had assessed the situation, it was clear that I needed help, so did Bill. Bruce got busy trying to make us comfortable. He spread sleeping blankets on the grassy field. Bruce put Bill on one, and put me on top of another, next to Bill.
The Federales, Mexican police, showed up. I wasn’t part of the conversation but I learned they were taking the van. But why?
We didn’t damage any property and certainly didn’t hit another vehicle. Our transportation, our only home and only shelter was taken from us. We were several thousand miles away from home, in a foreign country, literally laid out in a field, with no one to help us. Our group could have benefited from some calm, reassuring words. I was at a loss to offer any.
When daylight came, the enormity of the situation became clear. Luggage was scattered about nearby. Thankfully the weather was mild. We were in southern Mexico, in mid-December. Bruce was working on the wheelchairs. They were both broken but he was trying to make one usable chair out of parts from both of them. Thankfully, both Bill and I were the same size. Consequently, our wheelchairs were the same sizes as well.
Actually, Bill was a few inches taller than me and only commensurately heavier. Our wheelchairs were almost identical, the only difference being his leg-rests were longer. Bill sat in the front passenger seat because he was too tall to sit in his wheelchair while we were driving. I usually sat in my wheelchair wedged in between the driver and passenger seat. The engine housing blocked my forward motion. If I were any taller, my head would hit on the roof of the van. At that time of the accident though, I was laying down in the back.
Fortunately, Bruce never goes anywhere without a complete set of tools. They are like his security blanket. He was at least as skilled with a wrench as he was the right word. He had a gift for knowing what and when to say something. He was always equipped to fix anything from a truck engine to a broken heart.
Eventually, Bruce was able to build one useable wheelchair. Bill and I took turns sitting in it. The absurdity of the situation was not lost on us. Amidst the carnage and wreckage we were able to find some levity. That’s how people usually maintain their sanity; they look for humor in tragedies. Permission to embrace humor fell directly on my shoulders. I had purchased this van brand-new only six months previous. Now it was totaled. Our Mexican insurance had expired. I alone would bear the financial loss. The fact that there were two of our friends in the hospital only added to the somber situation. The six of us needed to start healing. Social convention dictates that someone needed to give permission to laugh at our situation, for the sake of group dynamics. Bill and I managed to come up with the right words. “Enjoy roadside hospitality at Open Air Hotel. We’ll leave the stars on for you.”
The following day, Bruce and Nancy and I flagged down a cab and went to town. I used the only working wheelchair, which meant Bill had to lie in the field during our absence. We needed to meet with the police chief about getting our van back. Again Nancy interpreted for us. I had heard stories about the Federales trying to extort money from tourists. I wondered if this was why the police asked us to come to their station. I suspected the police were looking for a payoff. I don’t remember what it cost but we acquiesced to their demands and got our van. Despite the fact it looked like a teepee pointed straight up in the middle, it was still drivable, that is to say, the engine still ran. It just wasn’t safe to drive as it was. We got a taxi ride back to the crash site. Now was Bruce’s turn to work his magic. He would get the van to a shop where they could beat it back into the original boxy shape.
It was about this time Pauline and John returned from the hospital. They were seriously bruised but didn’t have broken bones, nor did they require surgery. We were all thankful for that. I never found out what happened with their hospital bill. The only provision we’d made for sharing expenses was to each contribute to a Kitty of cash that we kept in a bag the size of a business envelope. It stayed on the van dashboard and whenever we needed to buy gas or food for the group, we tapped its small resources. I hope at least some of their costs were covered by our tiny emergency fund.
With John and Pauline back in the group, all of us finally together again in the farmer’s field, we fell into a daily routine. In the morning, we rubbed the grit out of our eyes. Bathing, in any form, would have been a luxury. Breakfast was more of a scrounging activity. We pulled out a bag of granola or some such snack. I don’t remember being hungry. There were too many distractions.
The farmer, whose field in which we crashed, appeared happy to help us out. He was a short, thin man, the type you might think too frail to be a farmer. His face was weathered from too many seasons under the Mexican sun. He could’ve been an extra in any one of the spaghetti Western movies starring Clint Eastwood. His hands had the appearance of well-worn tools. He came out into the field to talk to us, but discovered that we did not speak Spanish. His arms were open as he gestured to us, he seemed almost to welcome us and he wanted to communicate. He made eye contact with each of us and I got the sense that he was trying to find out what we needed.
Wielding a machete like a samurai, the farmer’s daughter prepared dinner for us. I’m guessing she was no more than 10 years old but she carried herself with the confidence of an accomplished chef. She held the gourd in one hand, and the large, heavy machete in the other, and sliced the skin off the gourd with quick, even strokes. It was the size of a basketball, but taller than wide and lighter in color, with flesh the texture of pumpkin. With a few more precise strokes of the machete, she reduced it to pieces, small chunks manageable by ravenous vagabonds.
We had been without real sustenance for several days. We were all looking forward to a dinner provided by our farmer host. He and his daughter brought food out to us, in a grand gesture of his hospitality. From the large pot, he dished out individual servings. We each anxiously starting to devour the food under the farmer’s watchful gaze. After we swallowed the first bite we just looked at each other. The food was absolutely horrible. The farmer smiled at us while we all started to chew in slow motion. We returned the smiles back to the farmer while talking amongst our selves, commenting on the deplorable food we held in our hands. We did our best to pretend we were enjoying this gourd stew. The farmer seemed gratified that we appreciated his hospitality. He was so gracious, he allowed us to stay in his field, his daughter prepared the food for all of us, and he cooked it in his house and brought it out to share with us. But we just couldn’t eat it. Confident he had done a good deed for us, the farmer returned to his house.
As hungry as we were, we were bewildered. How could something so fresh taste so bad? What were we to do with all this food that was leftover? Bruce had a solution. He always had a solution. It wasn’t always legal, and it wasn’t always ethical, but he always had a solution. He collected all the leftovers. Sometime during the night he fed them to the farmer’s hogs. We were glad to get rid of it.
Mornings always brought certain optimism, an opportunity to start over, to begin life anew. This morning, however, as we lay in the farmer’s field, looking more like homeless vagrants than happy-go-lucky college kids, we woke to a most embarrassing surprise. Bruce sheepishly approached us. He managed a questionable grin and said, “The hogs didn’t eat it.” The food that the farmer and his daughter spent hours preparing and presented to us was now fodder for the hogs. But they just weren’t touching it. I wished I could just disappear. I felt so bad for the farmer after all he had done for us and we tossed his food away. I was feeling more disturbed by this than the wreck. I would recover from my financial loss and eventually buy another van. The farmer’s pride, however, was damaged. Sometimes pride is the only thing that keeps a man going. We had outstayed our welcome, it was time for us to go.
We were keen to get back on the road. Bruce hitched a ride back into town to pick up our van. The engine was in running condition and the body of the van had been pounded back close to its original shape. The mirrors were broken off but miraculously, the doors still worked. Plexiglas replaced broken glass windows. Our transportation, home and shelter, was now back in our hands. This was our Phoenix, rising from the ashes. Once given up for dead, new life had been infused into it. Perhaps now we could get back on the road and return to Ohio, from where we started. Having determined that the van was road safe, we loaded it up and headed north. Michele and his son continued their hitch hiking adventure deeper into Mexico.
When we got to Texas we were once again doing highway speeds. It wasn’t long before the makeshift Plexiglas windshield broke and we had to remove all remnants of it. When it started to rain, Bruce turned on the wipers more for comic relief rather than any other possible function they might serve.
We were now beginning to feel the impact of winter. With the windshield conspicuously absent, and having no barrier to the wind, we all donned our winter clothes. I even covered myself with a sleeping bag. The heater was on full force. Those in the very front of the van were uncomfortably warm while those in the back felt almost no benefit of the microclimate I was trying to create.
The cumulative toll of our excursion was approaching a critical level. Something had to be done. Bruce and I were grabbing at straws trying to find a solution. We assessed our assets and tried to imagine a way we could leverage them. Now that we were back in the states, my auto insurance would be in effect. No agency in authority yet knew about our situation. Perhaps we could exploit this fact.
We had to gather local information to formulate a plan. We had to find someone knowledgeable in this part of Texas but also disinterested in our affairs. We needed a source that knew the local landscape, and may himself, have pushed the boundaries of the law. I learned from many B movies with poor scripts that a cab driver would be a likely resource. Bruce called a cab for the two of us.
After he settled me in the backseat and put my wheelchair in the trunk, I told the driver, “Just drive.”
I played the role of the naïve, suburban, white kid. The driver was supposed to play the role of the street smart, black, blue collar worker who found himself, at least once, on the wrong side of a prison wall.
“How long have you been driving a cab?” I nonchalantly asked.
Playing his role well, he responded, “A lot of years.”
I kept the conversation alive, “Oh, that long, heh? Then you know this area well?”
He simply nodded his head.
This guy was a real chatterbox. Not exactly a fountain of information. If I could get him to divulge his association with known criminals, it would make my mission much easier.
“I bet you’ve seen a lot here,” I said, trying to get him to open up about the seedy underworld that we all knew existed here.
Again, he just nodded his head. He was either holding back on an academy award worthy performance or simply didn’t get the memo on stereotypes.
I decided to cut to the chase and, in a somewhat awkward fashion, I posited a hypothetical situation to him.
“Suppose someone had a vehicle they needed to ‘make gone’. Maybe stolen or scrapped but somehow just gone. How would they do that?”
Again with the silent act. Either he didn’t hear me, didn’t understand me, or, in a highly unlikely scenario, just didn’t want to share that information.
We were college kids, adults to be sure, but we didn’t always think with the minds of mature adults. My thinking was that if I could report the van stolen, perhaps I could recover something from this tragedy.
After a few minutes of staring out the window, and of observing the landscape of urban blight, I told the cab driver to drop us off back where we started, at the motel.
There, in a crowded motel room, amidst my friends and all the contents of the van, I made a decision that marked another turning point. I made a call to my father. When he asked how I was doing, I told him we were in an accident and the van was badly damaged.
He handed the phone to my older brother Bill, who was the oldest of seven children. His position in the family constellation made him the responsible one.
“Hey what’s happening Geno?”
“Bill, what’s going on? I was just talking to dad.”
“Yeah,” Bill said, “He just handed me the phone.”
“Well” I started again, “we got into a bad accident.”
Bill was always level headed, which is probably why my father handed him the phone. “Was anybody hurt?” he asked.
“We had a few people injured”, I responded while scanning the motel room looking for Pauline and John. “But nothing major.”
“Listen Bill”, I continued, ”the thing is, the van is pretty messed up. I mean we rolled over a few times and it’s all busted up.” By this time, the silence in the motel room was deafening. All eyes were on me.
“Oh geez, you’re sure everybody is all right?” he asked. Bill and I spoke alike. Even during distressing times, neither one of us had use for foul language. My father would swear up a storm but Bill and I were always civil.
“Well what the heck happened?” Bill asked. I was prepared for his question. I told him, “We were driving late at night, down a long stretch of road in the middle of nowhere here in Texas. The driver fell asleep and we went off the road. We were the only vehicle involved and, at that time, we had no way to call the police to make a report.” “Alright,” he said, ”hold on.”
At this point, I moved my head away from the phone that someone was holding for me. I recapped the conversation so far, to my friends. Bruce chuckled when I mentioned the part about my father handing the phone to Bill.
After a few more questions Bill said he would call the insurance company and get back to me. After a long tension filled spell, my brother called back. “Geno?” My family is half Italian so they, and my closest friends, call me Geno rather than my given name, Gene.
“Yeah, I’m here.” I responded.
“Is the van drivable?” Bill asked. I told him it was.
“In that case,” he continued, “the insurance company wants you to bring it back to Cleveland so they can look at it and you could make an accident claim.”
Well, this was some glimmer of hope in a very long tunnel of darkness.
Our new mission was to drive this beat up old van from the middle of nowhere Texas to Cleveland, a distance of approximately 1500 miles. In order to take advantage of the slightly milder winter weather in the South, we would drive east on I-10, through the southern states, to Florida, and then head straight north on I-75 to Cleveland.
As drivers took their turn, they were challenged to drive this facsimile of an auto down the highway. It would test their limits. We didn’t see any other choice. So on we drove through the vast expanse of Texas into Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and finally into Florida.
By the time we reached Pensacola we were the sorriest sight you would ever want to see. We stopped at a convenience store to gas up and take a much-needed break. We were drenched from the relentless rain coming through the front of the van, which, by the way was being held together by duct tape. By this time we were accustomed to the attention we were drawing. This time however we were drawing more than usual. A man, dressed in jeans and flannel shirt, finally approached us. He inquired about our situation and we told him our long, sad tale. He seemed genuinely concerned. Bruce acted as an intermediary for the group.
He engaged this gentleman in conversation. This poor man was having a difficult time comprehending what he saw before him. Here was a windshield-less van, full of college students, soaked to the core, hungry and cold. He eventually invited us to his house. The stranger told us he would get us some food and help us put a strong Plexiglas windshield in the van. Once again, saved by a caring Good Samaritan.
It was like winning the lottery. We now had a roof over our heads, albeit quite temporary, a roof nonetheless. No more rain for a while. We had hot chow, and thanks to this stranger, some liquid libations. Happy days were here again. Our host took Bruce to Home Depot to get repair materials, while the rest of us relaxed with our host’s housemate, an older man.
The dawn brought hope as sunshine cascaded into this small home. Bruce and our hosts repaired the windshield to the best of their ability. They put in some pretty strong Plexiglas as well as a wood brace to keep it from breaking as we hit highway speeds. Most of the windows were now Plexiglas. It wasn’t pretty but it worked.
Bruce was at the helm as we drove into Georgia. I was feeling more relaxed the deeper we got into the state. The dream of getting back to Cleveland was becoming ever more tangible. A few more states and we would be in Ohio. From there, a couple hundred miles and we would be in Cleveland.
I was laying down in the back of the van what I heard a police siren. It was for us. Were we ever going to get back to Cleveland? Bruce pulled van over to the side of the road. This wasn’t his first rodeo. He decided to act from a position of strength. Instead of staying in the van he got out to approach the officer. No sooner did I hear the van door close than I heard the officer yelling. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?!” the officer screamed. This guy sure had a set of lungs on him. Bruce was unshakable but played the part of an intimidated driver. “I’m sorry, what were we doing wrong?” he asked. I had trouble hearing clearly what the trooper said, but I learned that he was giving high-speed chase in an unmarked car when Bruce cut him off. Our mirrors were broken off and we simply didn’t see him. “What is your damn hurry anyway?” he screamed. Bruce calmly told him, “We’re just trying to get back to school at Kent State.” I couldn’t see the trooper, no one could, but I imagined his face was beet red, with blood vessels popping out of his neck. The trooper said, “Kent State is that where them damn guardsmen shot them kids?”
One of Bruce’s many gifts was that he could read people. He studied their mannerisms, the way they talked, the way they walked, and the words they said. Bruce latched on to the trooper’s words like a junkyard dog on a bone. His reaction was instantaneous. Bruce replied, in a voice loud enough for me to clearly hear, “Yeah, Geno was one of them.” That was my cue.
In 1969, a few years prior to our enrollment at Kent State, National guardsmen shot a group of students on the Kent State campus, killing four and injuring several others during a protest. One of them became permanently paralyzed. I was hoping the trooper remembered that. The trooper’s tone seemed a little calmer. “Let’s have a look.” He said. With that, Bruce brought the trooper around to the back of the van and opened the back door. I was lying down with my head closest to the door and I was trying to look as sorry as possible. I certainly didn’t need acting lessons for that. The trooper looked directly at me. His eyes were piercing and, I was right, his blood vessels were popping out of his neck. He quickly examined the rest of the van interior. He saw the Statue of Liberty poem in the flesh - tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We were indeed, the tempest tossed.
The trooper looked Bruce directly in the eyes and made his point crystal clear, “I’m giving you to the count of three to get out of here! Otherwise I’ll arrest the whole damn lot of you!”. We were gone by the count of two.
24 hours later, as we pulled into the Kent State University parking lot, we ended one adventure and opened the door to planning on the next. We parked the van, or what was left of it, in front of our dorm, Stopher Hall.
There would be plenty of questions about our recent trip, and even more about the van. I had mixed feelings about saying goodbye to it. This mangled mess was sort of a scar that I displayed, with honor. Now I had to turn it over to the insurance company. It was time for a new van and time to start planning for another adventure.