I pulled over, parked in front of the building from which we had started, and shut off the engine, waiting to see what the tall man sitting next to me would say about the driving test I had just finished. It wasn’t a state driving test, nor was it the first test I had ever taken by a long shot, but it was important, because for some reason, Hill Air Force Base had its own driving test. If I didn’t pass it, I had big problems, the very least of which was how in blue blazes to get to work each day.
Right on cue, the testing officer turned to me and said, “Well, you passed all right, but did anyone ever tell you that you handle the steering wheel in an odd way?”
“Nope,” I answered as calmly as I could, holding my breath.
He seemed quite taken with the way I drove, but only in a mild, disinterested sort of way. “Yes,” he said,” as he mulled it over. “You don’t use both hands to turn the wheel. You turn it with your right hand and use your left hand to anchor it in place. Nothing wrong with that, just never saw anyone drive like that.”
I waited for the other shoe to drop, but 10 minutes later I drove away with a base driver’s license in my wallet, breathing a deep sigh of relief. Didn’t use my left hand to turn the steering wheel? You bet! My left arm was essentially paralyzed, something I had no intention of letting the Air Force know until after I was sure their solution would be a fix instead of a discharge.
It all went back to a snowy night in Connecticut when some %$#@! drunk came out of a side road at 65 miles an hour, through a stop sign and a flashing red light, and met me in the middle of the intersection, totaling my car and almost totaling me.
Then came a modest misdiagnosis — whiplash. Whiplash was all the rage in those days and I suppose the ER doctor, who never so much as took an X-ray or even examined my neck, wanted me to have one so I’d feel right in style. Actually, I had a broken neck.
The next day at work was a mite difficult. My neck kinda sorta hurt. And my head kept wanting to fall off my shoulders.
However, being 22 and immortal, I just went into the restroom in the retail store where I worked, slipped off my belt, ran it around the back of my neck, under my arms, and across my chest, buckled it, and went on with the day.
A few weeks later the pain was gone and I could use my neck all right as long as I didn’t try looking up. That hurt. And there was a 50-50 chance I’d get stuck that way.
However, even that problem faded after a few more months, and it wasn’t until I hurt my neck again three years later at Sheppard Air Force Base down in Texas, having re-enlisted after a two-year break in service, that I found out I had broken it.
“When did you break your neck?” the Air Force doctor asked.
My answer was a brilliant, “Huh?”
So I found out that my neck had been broken. And the neck, apparently enjoying the attention, decided to make trouble. Over the next six years or so, it grew steadily worse, becoming stiff and uncooperative, making a nasty clicking noise, and — oh yeah — feeling like somebody had stabbed me in the neck with an ice pick.
And another interesting symptom cropped up.
I began losing the feeling in my left arm, and out of the clear blue sky, while I was driving my family over the mountains to a new assignment at Hill AFB in Utah, it quit working altogether, refusing to lift my left hand above shoulder height.
Or do much else, for that matter.
After that driving test, having jollied the arm into working a bit better, and being very cautious about how I talked about it with the doctors, I went into the base hospital and let the Air Force in on my little secret.
After heaven only knows how many X-rays and other tests, they came up with a diagnosis and a potential treatment.
Diagnosis: A pinched nerve due to the old break in my neck.
Treatment: Schedule a New York neurosurgeon to see me and set a date for neck surgery — fusion of three vertebrae.
You know? Cut, cut, cut? Rods? Screws?
By then I was 30, no longer immortal, and perhaps even a bit wiser.
“Fusion?” I asked myself. It didn’t much sound like something I wanted for Christmas, which was only two weeks away.
So-o-o-o, in the way of the typical noncom, I went looking for a second opinion. I found a medic, an old master sergeant. He listened to me, frowned, listened some more, frowned some more, went in back, dug up something, came back, and handed it to me.
“Traction device,” he told me. “Put the cloth part on your head, attach the pulley to a chair, run the cable over the pulley, and let the weight hang down.
“Sleep head to foot on the bed. This thing will stretch your neck each night as you sleep. You’ll keep having to crawl back up the bed because it’ll slowly drag you down to the foot, but it’ll work.”
I tried it. It took just three nights to get me out of pain, and three more for my left arm to work like new.
A week later the fancy-schmancy New York neurosurgeon and I had a modest disagreement. I told him I would pass on the surgery and he told me I was a fool.
“By the time you’re 40,” he said ominously, frowning at me because I refused to sign a release, “you’ll be a basket case.”
I was 77 last week.
The arm works fine. The neck works fine. I have no bolts in my neck, and I do not have to recharge my battery by being hoisted above the castle during a lightning storm.
I still have the traction device. I’ve used it quite a few times over the years, but not in the last decade or so.
God — or Mother Nature if you prefer — stepped in and fused the vertebrae naturally, painlessly, and without charge.
You should see what chiropractors say when they see an X-ray of my neck. “Oh, we won’t fool with that!”
No we won’t. We won’t do that, thank you very much.