For once I can begin a column by just repeating the title. It really is true, when you start something you never know where it will end. And start something I did. Back in 1954 I started the engine of a 1935 Chevy four-door sedan, and here I am, 54 years later, still thinking about the drive I took that night.
The Chevy belonged to my brother Charlie, the best brother who ever lived.
He bought it while I was over in Iceland in 1953. When I came home, Charlie — being Charlie — treated the old ’35 Chevy as though it belonged to both of us. In fact, I think I drove it more than he did.
I suppose I more or less earned the “right” to drive the old Chevy because I worked hard helping Charlie to restore it, but even if I hadn’t lifted a finger, things would have been the same. That’s the way it was with me and Charlie. What was his was mine, and what was mine was his.
Trouble is, Charlie was three years older than I was, so there was a lot more of “his” than there was of “mine.” Didn’t make any difference to Charlie. He was that kind of brother.
Daddy died when I was 5. Bill and Frank were a lot older than I was, so I didn’t know them very well. I was just 9 when Bill married, and both he and Frank went into the Army that same year and were off fighting World War II as I grew into my teens. And, for reasons I’ve mentioned before, Charlie lived away from home until he was 16 and I was 13. So he was really the only older brother I ever knew, or at least knew well.
And so it was natural that when I came home from Iceland and Charlie was starting to restore the old ’35 Chevy I pitched right in, making it as much my project as it was his. And restore it we did. I had gone back to work in the auto store where I worked before my guard outfit was called up during the Korean War, and I’m not kidding when I say that one of everything that store sold went into the old Chevy. We even rewired it from stem to stern and redid the head liner, door panels and seats.
Having been repainted, the last thing left to do on the old Chevy were the bumpers, which were being replated on the day in question. And so, at 10:40 p.m. on Jan. 24, 1954, when I strolled across the street from the Capitol Theater and cranked up the Chevy, it looked like it had just rolled off the assembly line.
And it stayed that way for — oh-h-h-h — 20 minutes. While driving on a four-lane highway that snowy night and approaching an intersection I looked up and saw an amazing sight — a 1951 Chevy two-door sedan just five feet in front of my hood.
It seems that some nut, drunk out of his mind and doing 65 miles an hour, didn’t notice: a) The flashing red light. b) The stop sign. c) The highway. d) Me.
I broke off — with my head — two iron bars, each three-eighths of an inch thick. It was not something I did voluntarily. You see, the old all-steel visors were mounted that way. And there were, of course, no seat belts, so when my little old Chevy stopped dead, I kept going at 45 miles an hour.
Windshields were not so generously large in those days, so instead of being ejected out into all that nasty snow, I bonged my head on the top of the windshield opening, broke off the visor, and ricocheted back into my seat, from whence they retrieved me 30 minutes later.
It was fun. I woke up, saw colored lights spinning around outside, heard the engine going putta-putta-putta, felt the car going around in a circle, and decided that it might be a good idea to shut off the engine and see what all the excitement was about.
They took me to the hospital in an ambulance, cleaned up the blood, found out what was underneath it — me — and asked me if I was alive. When I said yes they let me go home — without further ado.
Problem is, Johnny ...
Oh, you guessed already?
Right you are! Broke my neck!
Nope! No X-ray. Gee! Why waste an X-ray on a guy with a gash in his head and blood running all over his nice, new, gray suit? Didn’t you know? Twenty-one-year-olds are immortal.
Next day I went to work and had a minor problem. My neck hurt like hell, and if I looked up it got stuck that way. So I took off my thin old 1950s-style belt, slid it under my arms and around my neck, buckled it across my chest, and sold auto parts.
My head did not fall off. And it only hurt for three weeks.
But here’s the part that fits the “you never know where it will end ...” thrust of this column.
1957: Air Force doctor tells me I had a broken neck once.
Tom’s brilliant comment: “No kidding?”
1962: I lose use of my left arm just as I am moving from one base to another. I do not want to report this to the Air Force because I believe they have little use for uni-brachiators (one-armed tree climbers). So I fake it as I take a driving test, deftly turning the steering wheel with my right hand while keeping my left hand still and anchoring said wheel wherever I want it.
Comment of official giving test: “Well, that’s one doggone unusual way of handling a steering wheel, but since you drive well, I guess it’s not important.”
My comment? (After I got out of there.) “Whew!”
1963: Left arm now works, but right arm is out of commission. The Air Force — much to my surprise — arranges for a neurosurgeon to do a spinal fusion on my neck. But a wise old medic tells me to refuse the surgery and instead use a device that stretches my neck. Lo and behold! Arm, and highly painful neck, are both cured.
Next 34 years (to 1997): Repeated battles with arm-paralysis and neck pain, cured each time by hanging myself. But then ...
The crazy neck just quits giving me trouble!
2001: Chiropractor takes an X-ray and tells me nature has fused the bones in my neck all on its own. Thank you, Ma Nature!
So listen, Johnny, before you climb behind the wheel of a 1935 Chevy ...