Saying Never Is Sometimes Like Waving A Flag In Front Of A Bull

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We were 63 re-enlistees sent to an Air Force base in upstate New York for two weeks of "re-enlistee basic" because we had stayed in civilian life for more than two years before re-upping.

We looked a bit older than most basic trainees, but there the differences ended. We stood tall or short in our brogans, looked sloppy in newly issued fatigues, and had shaven heads showing dark fuzz, light fuzz, or in some cases -- being a bit older -- no fuzz.

I suppose you could say that we were about as ordinary as any group of 60-some-odd new recruits could be. And you'd be right, with one major exception.

That would be a tall, slender re-enlistee who came to be known by the rest of us as Hoppy, a reference to the way he limped after a day of marching. He was, by any measurement, one of the most remarkable people I have ever known.

Our first few days back in military life were spent marching around a hot asphalt ramp as we were reintroduced to the familiar discipline of the parade ground. The first day we didn't notice anything unusual about the way Hoppy walked, probably because he managed to hide his pain from us.

And our drill instructor didn't notice anything wrong either, or he would have pulled Hoppy out of ranks, questioned him about it, and had him discharged.

But on the second day, as we trudged back into the barracks, it was obvious that something was wrong. The instant our DI was out of sight Hoppy limped like a two-legged goat. We asked him about it, calling him Hopalong, but he fobbed us off with a smile.

But the next day, out on the drill ramp, though he still managed to hide his problem from our DI, it was obvious to us that Hoppy, as we now called him, was in pain. Bad pain!

There's a type of bonding that occurs among a group of men or women thrown together in the military. It's a coming together, a help each other, one-for-all mentality. So that third night in the barracks, when we saw Hoppy's pain, we asked the question again.

He held back at first, telling us that it might get us into trouble if we knew what he was up to, but that just fanned the flames of curiosity. And so, after holding out as long as he could, he caved in and told us one of the most extraordinary tales I've ever heard.

The year was 1954, before seat belts. Hoppy was driving a winding country road when his right front tire blew out. Thrown sideways by the blowout, the car slammed into a tall tree.

Six days later, Hoppy woke up and found himself sandwiched between two tautly stretched sheets of canvas with his head lying on one side. When he opened his eyes the first thing he heard was his mother say, "Oh, my God! He's out of the coma!"

He knew he was in trouble.

Nobody told him much at first. In fact, it took more than six months for him to wheedle the story out of everyone. From between his two taut sheets of canvas he listened to many things of which he had no memory whatsoever.

They began at the moment the ambulance attendants lifted the mangled remains of a human being off the ground, more than 60 feet from the place where his vehicle had totaled itself. The engine, by the way, was found 20 feet farther on, and the generator was discovered over 225 feet from the point of impact.

They were certain he would not survive when they lifted him.

He did.

And certain he would not survive the ride to the hospital.

He did.

The ER doctors who saw his injuries -- almost every bone in his body was broken --told his parents that he had virtually no chance of living until morning.

He did.

It was impossible to splint his broken bones, so he was placed between two tightly stretched sheets of canvas, with a tube inserted into one heel to feed him intravenously. His parents were told to prepare themselves for the worst and advised that he would probably never come out of his coma.

He did.

In its attempt to repair the breaks in his bones, his body drew calcium from wherever it could find it, including his own bones. All the doctors could do as his bones grew as soft as cartilage, was to keep him between the tightly stretched canvases.

Well, to make a long, long story short, they said he would never sit up, never walk, never walk without crutches, never walk without a cane, never ...

But he did.

It took a long time, over two and a half years. And though most of the bones in his body grew strong and solid, those in his feet, having lowest priority for some reason, stayed as soft as the cartilage in his ears.

To help him walk until the bones in his feet calcified, his doctors took casts of them and had stainless plates made to hold them in the correct shape until the bones hardened. The plates worked, but the pain of walking was excruciating.

To complicate matters, Hoppy, who had served four years in the Air Force earlier, had made up his mind just before his accident that he was going to re-enlist, and he was determined not to wait for his feet to heal before he did.

His doctor told him to forget it, that he would never pass the enlistment physical.

He did.

And so there he was with us, one of 63 retreads. The odds were he would not make it through the endless marching, the field training, and the tough obstacle course.

He did.

I wish I had space here to tell you how bravely Hoppy stood his pain, and how he literally -- leapt one hurdle after another.

There's much more to his story, but I'm going to leave it out so I can tell you what it was that carried Hoppy through those two years in the hospital, and through basic training as well.

It will have to wait until next week, though.

You will hardly believe it.

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