Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chasing Death Part I - Karmann Ghia

Tina Harwell Waterson was my mama's very best friend all her life up to and there on the day mama died. They grew up together, worked together at the Big Orange Drive-In as car hops in shorts, jaunty caps, and roller skates during WW Two as teenagers.

It's customary for Southern children to address a dear, close family friend as Auntie or Uncle. We're trained to be polite, honor elders, and use Ma'am and Sir when addressing adults to show respect. That bent of courtesy, charm and thoughtfulness sometimes gets us pegged as "slow".

Aunt T knew the power of a buck so she cut me a break and let me start young. I got some of my appreciation for hard work, independence and owning your own business from working for Aunt T. I watched and learned from her shrewdness in dealing with the vendors she bought from, and the way she handled recalcitrant customers who had the audacity to not pay their bills or give her a bad check. She drilled the sense of pride in ownership into me many times saying, "You never get ahead or find total joy in making a living until you work for yourself in something that you love doing". I took that to heart.

Christmas was always a busy season at my Aunt Tina's Waterwell Florist in Gibsonton, Florida. I had worked for her weekends and summers since I was fourteen, running errands, putting up the window displays, culling out less-than-perfect flowers, cleaning, selling the dry goods and cutting the cloth she also carried in the store. When I was older, I drove the big, white van with her logo on the doors to deliver flowers to hospitals and funeral homes.

I've never been scared of dead folks. I love hanging out in cemeteries. It's a family thing I'll tell you about another time. I learned early that it was the live folks that could mess you up. The dead just mind their own business in a solemn, quiet way. I didn't mind arranging the wreaths, floral casket blankets and sprays around the dead in the coffins. What DID bother me was funerals of children and infants. They always looked like waxen dolls in sleepy-bye mode, always false, always wrong no matter how much rouge you put on their pale cheeks.

There is something very disturbing with children dying - as if you'd pinched green rose buds off the bush before they'd even had a chance to open and show you their stuff. An adult usually has had some time to attend a few parties, have a passionate love affair, performed a task they really hate, hurt someone they cared about, and have Life kick the shit out of them a bit. So I dreaded delivery of funeral flowers to children's rites.

My first husband, Bobby was just home a month from the Vietnam War and decided that we should have a beige 1958 Type 14 Karmann Ghia with a black convertible top that he fell in love with. Cars are having an impact on my thoughts and dreams these days. Can you tell? Having owned two Porches - a Cadillac Gold 1958 Speedster Convertible with all the charm of a rolling bathtub and tiny windows, and a red 1962 coupe, Bobby thought the Karmann Ghia was the next logical step in trying to own every exotic vehicle still rolling on the tarmac. He bought it just before Christmas, 1968 to make up for lost time spent in the Army killing people in another country in the last generation's version of War on Terror. That one made as much sense as this one.

The Karmann Ghia was the car I drove to work. Bobby was still looking for a job with not very much luck. But I was working full time for Aunt T that Christmas Eve. I woke up very late, panicked, called Aunt T and told her I was on the way.

After loading my Christmas gifts for T and the folks I knew in Gibsonton on the back seat, I spent about 30 minutes digging out the seat belt from under the front seat runners of the car. They were installed after-market sometimes as most cars back then didn't have to have them until 1966 when Congress finally got behind seat belts with the Automobile Safety Act. They were mostly just a strap across your lap. The fancy shoulder part came about later.

Our seat belts had been bolted to the floor before the car rolled off the dealer's lot. The guys in the shop left them under the seat sliders after re-installing the seats in their haste to get 'er done. I don't know why I decided to put on a seat belt for the first time in my life - ever. I don't know why I chose that day to start being conscientious about auto safety and digging them out, but I remember the day and date vividly. It never struck me as really silly at the time to spend time pulling out seat belts when I was already an hour or more late for work. But I did.

Seat belt finally on and happily tooling down the road, I'm thinking of how pleased Aunt T will be with her gift from me - White Shoulders perfume. It was the only thing she ever wore. I am also thinking of the flower delivery to Stowers Funeral Home in Brandon for a little girl of about three who drowned right before Christmas we had scheduled for that day.

On 56th Street just after the curve, a pink Cadillac pulled out of old myrtle Hill Cemetery and headed north to my south. Now. A pink car is something that catches your attention - especially in the 1960s before the days of Mary Kay cosmetic doyennes rolling down the road in their signature pink reward cars. The Cadillac pulling out of the cemetery posed a problem because she was in the inside lane - mine - on the wrong side of the four-lane. School bus on the right of me full of children, beer truck (big) right on my tail, I could not brake or move over. So I pulled the car to the left onto the grassy median. The only option left for me .

My front wheels and bumper caught the concrete curb of a turn around first and flipped end on end several times, hit another concrete curb at the next turn around and flipped sideways several more times. All in slo-mo, I watched dirt fly through the cab of the car, the roof peel back taking the canvas top and metal armature with it, the rear view mirror being lifted off the windshield and taken up and away right before the windshield disintegrated. I put up my hands in front of my face, which left perfectly smooth skin outlined in bloody pockmarks where the glass shards peppered my face and backs of my hands. I also felt the Karmann Ghia perfectly balanced on the top of my head with a crunch when I flipped over the concrete turn around. I kept saying "STOP! STOP IT" with each spin and roll as if words alone could make it so. When the Karmann Ghia finally stopped, I had an audience. The rolling had been lengthy enough so that the guy in the beer truck and several others were already stopped, parked and running towards the last roll that blessedly landed the car upright on what was left of the wheels on the other side of the road from where I'd started.

My left arm protruded at an awkward angle, my vision was blurry, looked like I was seeing the world through a fun house mirror, and obscured by something sticky, my feet and legs had pushed the brake pedal through the floorboard of the car where I had stood on them just to make it stop, and I had an enormous, horrible headache -the worst I've ever had. That was the only real pain at that moment. That was because my chin was resting on my chest, also at a very odd angle. The beer guy pulled me out of the car and was crying as he pulled a clot of dirt and grass and blood out of my mouth. I kept telling him that I was fine. He took off his shirt and put it over me since the sweater and bra I put on that morning was pretty much gone having unraveled into shreds exposing most of my torso. The good news was that I smelled divine as Aunt T's White Shoulders bottle had burst and coated me and the remains of the car carriage.

The woman who was driving the pink Cadillac continued on her way ignoring the fact that she'd just caused major catastrophe and put a really big hole in my day. Some boys from USF chased her down and forced her off the road before she could repeat the performance.

I don't like riding in ambulances. They came really fast. I guess the rollover took longer than I thought. The sirens blast above you and you sway and bob on the gurney. To this day, if I hear them close by I cover my ears.

When I got to Tampa General Hospital, I was told I had a broken neck and a concussion which was why I felt no pain from there down, several broken ribs, a broken leg and arm and my left eye had been forced out of the socket a bit when the skin was cut open and the bone rattled. Everything was bruised up inside and jumbled around like scrambled eggs. Outside was a dirty, bloody mess. I lost teeth where some metal pushed through my left cheek and broke them off at the gum line. After I'd been in the hospital a while, my mother found a piece of chrome antenna sticking out of the top of my head. They cut it off rather than pull it out of my scull and it's there picking up Cuban radio stations to this day. And alien radio signals via the SETI program.

And you know how your mama tells you to wear clean underwear because you never know when you're going to be in an accident? Well. Listen to her. I had on a pair of lime green see-through panties with black elastic and a spider on a web strategically embroidered that I acquired at my bridal shower. It was the day before laundry and they were the only clean pair left in the drawer. They had also shredded into silly little, lime green strings suspended by two strands of elastic. I asked the nurse to cut them off and throw them away so when the State Trooper who was in the waiting room came in to question me wouldn't see. Thank the Divine for nurses.

It took months of recuperation being strapped into a metal harness that gave my ramrod straight posture yet another notch higher up. Early in my recovery, I tried to take a bath one foot in the tub and the other one connected to an electric heater. I'm convinced to this day that the body and spine straightening jolt I received is the reason my neck healed without huge packages of excess calcium deposits.

Keith Olbermann on MSNBC tonight featured a new test method to measure the stability of vehicles in accidents with rollovers. This is where a vehicle flips over onto the roof once or more. I learned that rollovers in car crashes, while in the minority of all accidents, contribute the majority of deaths in all accidents by some 80%. That is, if you roll over in an accident, you have only a 20% probability of walking away alive. If the vehicle is a convertible without a rollbar, your chances are akin to a handslap stopping a bull elephant - i.e., almost none.

So. I feel that Death made a drive-by then for me. I knew I must have something important to do because I didn't jump on the back of his horse. Now, I don't mind a struggle to get myself together to leave, having to deal with an annoying, can't-get-away-from phone call, wake up late or procrastinate when the clock is running low on batteries and seems to give me all the time in the world. I feel it's someone looking out for my end run.

I ended up having a really good excuse for being late to Aunt T's shop that day.

No comments: