I was one with the universe. Everything around me was aglow in the summer sunlight, twinkling with a profound luster. I was floating serenely in my VW through the time-space continuum. My consciousness was wide open. And then, in an instant, everything went black.
I was twenty-two, and had just spent three days in meditation at a Cistercian Monastery near Dubuque, Iowa. Out there in the middle of the cornfields, behind the stone walls, it was a world of quiet, calm and peace. In other words, there wasn’t much to do but meditate. And the free food wasn’t bad either.
I decided to check out Eagle Point Park on the Mississippi before heading back to Iowa City. I was cruising down a Dubuque residential arterial street in my ’63 Beetle in an unfamiliar part of town, entranced by the play of the sunlight on the dappling leaves of the giant elms overhead.
The last thing I remember was gliding into an intersection, and suddenly the profile of a 1969 Ford station wagon appears dead ahead. Where did that come from?
Everything had been so perfect; I couldn’t integrate this highly un-synchronous intrusion into the continuum of my bliss. I momentarily contemplated the possibility that my expansive self would just float through the apparition and re-assemble on the other side of the hulking Ford. Then, like the shutter of a camera closing, everything went black.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, the iris of the camera opened again, but only to a pin-point. What had been a seemingly infinite expansion of consciousness outward in every direction was now replaced by the most narrowly focused fragment of awareness I’d ever experienced.
I was now only aware of the most elemental reality, and only just barely so: that I was sprawled on the pavement in the middle of the intersection. A voice screamed inside my head: “Get out of there!” In a rush of adrenaline, I somehow managed to crawl or slither to the nearest curb. I rolled onto my back in the soft grass.
The shutter iris opened slightly wider. Now I was aware of my back screaming at me. I began a rudimentary self-diagnosis. I could see all my limbs. Surprisingly, there wasn’t any blood. But as I worked my way downwards, I realized I couldn’t move or feel my feet.
The idea of spending my life in a wheelchair pressed on my mind like a suffocating weight. I looked up and saw concerned faces staring down at me. I turned my throbbing head to look at the intersection. The Ford Country Sedan sat there with a crumpled right front fender. But my VW was nowhere in sight! Had it magically floated though the obstacle and left me behind to confront the Ford alone?
I remember telling the ambulance crew my concerns about my spine’s health. Once they scooped me up in the clam-shell board and loaded me inside the meat wagon, blackness took over again.
I remember little of the hospital except the on-call radiologist’s annoyance at having his Sunday golf game interrupted. The next thing I (vaguely) knew, I was being discharged. I was shocked and confused. I needed to stay! Where was my doctor father who always met me at the hospital after childhood accidents and made sure I got proper care?
Feeling had returned to my legs, but my brain was utterly scrambled. I was not ready to get kicked out of the hospital.
A cop took me back to the station. I sat dazed in the lobby, hunched over and holding my aching head. I felt a big lump high on my forehead, under my long thick hair. I had absolutely no idea why I was in Dubuque or how I got there.
I was living out a nightmare. Everything I looked at triggered an intense memory of a dream that somehow seemed to correlate, provoking an endless flood of déjà-vu. Or was I dreaming simultaneously while being awake? I couldn’t tell. Acid was nothing compared to this bummer.
Eventually I remembered about the monastery and used the phone to call them. Someone came for me. The drive back to the monastery unleashed more of the same: everything I saw unleashed a flood of old and forgotten dreams. Or so it seemed.
The monks put me straight to bed. After a couple hours of sleep and a plate of home-made cookies and milk, I mostly returned to the world as I had remembered it, although it would be a while before that process was complete.
It took me awhile to figure out exactly what must have happened: Obviously, I ran through a stop sign. It had been at least partly obscured by a parked truck parked just before it at the curb. I may have caught a momentary glimpse of it, but way too late. I was a bit spaced out from all the meditation. I probably tried to turn right just before I hit the Ford, because my Beetle hit it at about a 60 degree angle.
The VW bounced abruptly off to the right, and the impact popped open the door. Due to inertia, I ejected, striking my head on the way out (no, I wasn’t wearing a seat belt). My back bounced off the wagon, leaving a tell-tale dent (on the Ford’s passenger side front door). According to the cop, he thought it was a miracle that I didn’t get squished between the two cars. My VW made a perfect right turn, rolled down the road driver-less, and finally came to rest in a gas station a block away.
Here’s the real irony: I’d been told the Ford was totaled, due to hitting it right at the front suspension. I had no idea what kind of shape my car was in, but assumed it was totaled. I had a friend drive me up to get my tools and other things out of it. But once I started pulling on the crumpled hood and front fenders, it was obvious there was no deeper damage. I yanked the fenders off, tied down the hood, and drove it back to Iowa City, where I knew of a junked donor-wagen sitting in someone’s woods. Soon I was driving a black and white Volks.
I eventually got over the severe concussion that the doctor had totally missed: “Got to get back to my golf game!” But it took over a month before I felt fully myself. Unaltered consciousness never looked better.
You’re obviously a very lucky man to have lived through that, Paul. Now, as writers (jokingly) say, your experience is great material.
My first car was supposed to be the ’66 VW belonging to my best friend’s father. We had the deal all set one evening, but he had to go to the bank to get the title. Later that night my very shaken friend called to say it was totaled. His dad took it out for one last drive on the Jersey Turnpike, where a speeding drunk rear-ended him, the VW did a 180, and the drunk front-ended him again. Miraculously he walked away.
Many years later in Oregon I’m driving my ’65 VW (the Speedo bee car) home on the crowded four-lane TV Highway through Beaverton, and Bang! I’m T-boned from the right, across two lanes into the center turn lane. An old man in a Datsun was waiting to pull out, reached out the window to grab a flyer off his windshield wiper, and his foot slipped to hit the gas. He couldn’t have hit me all that hard, but the VW folded like a dixie cup. I was belted in and just got a wrenched back. But the baby seat next to me was filled with broken glass. Thank heavens it was empty. Scared safe into a car with door beams, the ’73 Nova, after that.
Thanks for sharing, Paul — that’s a heck of a story.
On an interesting note (and I assure you, not critically meant) I note a slight generation gap opening up here that makes this 55-year-old feel younger today, and for that, additional thanks.
Namely, I learned to drive in 1972, and have never driven a car that wasn’t fitted with seat belts (nor, of course, considered not using one). Yes, I did once have a ’64 Olds 98, but that car had been fitted with belts in the front by its safety conscious former owner (he’d purchased it after being rear-ended in his former Morris Minor!).
I’m 40, and I got my first driver’s license in 1988. I’ve never driven a car that wasn’t fitted with seat belts, but I never used them until it became legally mandated. Not saying I’m proud of that, looking back with hindsight, but I think that experience is typical of a lot of people my age.
What a harrowing story! I can’t believe the hospital sent you out in that condition, still out of your mind. I’m glad your remembered the monastery and was able to call them to come get you.
Wow. I count myself exceedingly lucky/blessed that I was never in a serious accident in one of my old pre-3 point belt cars. I have had a few over the years with no belts at all. It is hard to imagine how the experience could have turned out better for you, though. Maybe the meditation with the monks had been a good thing.
My first accident with my own car was considerably less scary: I was driving my 67 Galaxie convertible home from work one winter evening. The car had started to warm up. I looked down to turn on the heat. I looked back up. I knew that a traffic light was ahead. Instead of the 2 or 3 cars that were there every night, there were maybe 7 or 8. And the last one was about 6 feet in front of me. I slammed on the brakes. The Ford nosedived under the high back bumper of a 72 Skylark. Teeny dimple on Skylark bumber, and the whole hood prow was curled under on my car.
The good news was no damage besides curled hood, mangled grille and a cracked headlight door. A trip to the junkyard yielded good fortune when someone had just brought in a 67 Galaxie 4 door – same color as mine with a perfect front end. A few nuts and bolts later, and I was a talented bodyman 🙂
I can perfectly understand your feeling of confusion after head injury, it happened to me also (I fell on my head from my Vespa, not wearing a helmet at the time). I didn’t know what happened at first, and my biggest concern was that I lost control and confidence in my consciousness. What I can hardly understand, howewer, is how your condition wasn’t recognized in the hospital. I guess that back then they didn’t worry too much about internal bleeding and such things.
That description of ethereal not-quite-there consciousness…reminds me, vividly, of the time I got run off the road on my new Yamaha SR500 – and found myself eating pavement at 50 mph. Traumatized wrists, swelling; pain in the rib area; knee laid open to the bone; hit on the head so hard it cracked my helmet. And the quack hospital was just about ready to discharge me, when the night ER nurse came in and sized me up. “No WAY” was her verdict. Later under more careful examination, I was found to have two broken wrists, eight broken ribs, and a broken elbow.
That is not a fun feeling. First, as the crisis unfolds, everything goes, in the mind’s eye, into slo-mo…then, it happens. And…I’m laying there, in the center of the road; a crowd around me; the idiot driver babbling (fortunately in that crowd was an off-duty cop who was a motorcycle patrol officer; he was not pleased with what he saw and heard).
I remember thinking: It’s a two-mile walk to the last town. Now, all I gotta do is roll over a little bit, cock one leg, and hoist up my torso…why isn’t it happening? Why can’t I find the strength to DO it?
Shock is a wonderful thing. I was about five hours before I started feeling the aftereffects; and then I was about two months before I could speak without groaning in pain..
Another funny story about consciousness:
One of my colleagues was struck by lightning (and is still able to tell this story). It happened on the edge of the mountain cliff that is also a border between Slovenia and Austria. So he was hiking, wearing his raincoat (it was raining) and then lighting struck him unconscious for a few moments. Luckily he didn’t fall of the cliff, just on the trail where he was hiking. So when he start recovering, his first thought was “S..t, i don’t have my passport with me, what if I fell into Austria, I am probably in deep trouble now”
Do you still drive with no seatbelt?
No way! That was in 1975, and I’m not sure my ’63 Beetle even had belts. If so, they were moldering away under the seat.
The lesson from this accident is that even though lap belts are vastly inferior to three-point belts, it’s exactly in accidents like this that they keep you from being ejected. That’s why I wear them in my old Ford truck; better than nothing.
My dad put lap belts in his 356B roadster, and yes they are better than nothing. Especially when you are driving to a car show on I-80 and semis are passing you ten feet overhead!
I guess hospitals back then wasn’t as concerned about possible liability or ambulance-chasing laywers wasn’t so prevalent then. The fact that you weren’t contacted by them is another proof of point…
Wow, that pic of the red beetle immediately made me think crumple zone. I mean look at the displacement of the front axle and the rest of the front clip and no passenger compartment distortion at all. I bet the door still shut just fine. Now I’m sure that what it took to crumple that is a good bit less than it would take with a honda fit, but you have to admire the structural integrity of the bug in this case.
Glad to hear you were OK Paul that is a harrowing tale. My first collision was in my ’80 subaru 4×4 wagon. I stopped paying attention for a second or two on a straight suburban road in a section that normall flows without interruption, but someone in front of me decided they were making a left and had to wait for oncoming traffic. By the time I looked up I had a couple dozen feet to skid before hitting the minivan in front of me. Everyone was OK, I was belted in and the kids in the van in front were crying but OK. I remember the looks they all gave me and I won’t soon forget that level of shame…
That subi was one tought sombitch though. It had already survived the worst overheating I had ever subjected a car to when crossing the desert on I10 in Arizona–I mean it was so hot that the oil was smoking like crazy from every engine orifice. All it needed was a new heater hose and an oil change. Anyway, after the wreck it was towed back to a friend’s house. When it was in the way one day I decided to try starting it to move it and to my utter amazement it fired right up and ran with the remnants of the radiator dragging on the accessories.
You were really lucky Paul, it could have been much worse. My dad went to Shimer College in Lanark, IL and a friend there had a 356 coupe. This would have been about 1971. Three or four of them piled into it to drive to Savanna for the evening. The driver should not have been driving when they were on the way back, and he wound up crashing into a tree in front of a dentist’s office in Savanna. My dad was in the back seat, and when the front passenger door popped open, he was ejected onto the lawn, uninjured. Talk about close calls. I don’t think he ever rode with that guy again!
I remembered this story wrong, at a New Year’s Party I asked my dad about it and got the correct version. They were already in Savanna when a drunk crossed the center line and hit the 356 head on. No one was hurt too bad, but the town was so small there wasn’t an ambulance. They had to take a taxi to the hospital!
This was one of the safety issues old cars have in even a minor collision the doors burst open anti burst locks were introduced sometime in the 60s along with seatbelts.
Scary story Paul ;
Glad you made it though alright ! .
On September 30 2007 I was riding my Moto (2000 Kawasaki W-650) to work @ 04:00 and stopped for a red light .
I remember thinking how perfect everything was : My sweet and sexy Lady whom I’m still crazy about had retired the day before , I had the perfect job I loved , the night was cool and clear , I looked up and could see Mt. Wilson with it’s antennas twinkling in the dark , the Kwakie’s engine was ticking over *perfectly* ~ I was so happy with my life right then ~ I decided when the light turned green I’d stop in the gas station across the street and fill up my Moto before riding in to work .
The next thing I knew everything was dead black then a small circle of light appeared directly in front of me and I was lying on my back ~
The light was a generic round truck reversing lamp set into a Styrofoam ceiling so that meant I was either in the Morgue or a Meat Wagon ~ OH SHIT ! .
I controlled my rising panic and tried to wriggle my toes ~ check (whew) then I wriggled my fingers and counted all 10 of them ~ check (double whew , means I’m neither dead nor paralyzed) .
I then was able to relax a bit in spite of realizing I was bare nekkid ~ WTF was going on here ?! .
A First responder hove into my view and asked me to move my fingers & toes again , I tried to tell him I’d already done so and didn’t want to move again but he insisted , then told me they had to begin driving me to the hospital , I blacked out in pain and have been in constant unrelenting pain ever since .
My back and neck were broken and I’ll use a cane for the rest of my life .
The GOOD news is :
I survived a fatal Motocycle accident .
I can not only walk sans my back brace but I have begun riding Motos again although the pain makes for one or two hour rides at the most , I guess I’ll never ride The Alcan Highway nor ride to Sturgis now .
OBTW : during the long convalescence My Dear Lady caught me looking at photos of the new Ural Sol sT Moto and asked me if I was planning to buy a new Moto , I said ‘ of course not ~ I have plenty of Motos ‘ but she then told me ” after what you’ve been through if you still want to buy a new Moto I believe you should ” .
I thought about that for three days then pulled the trigger , it was custom built and sat in the Dealer’s Showroom for over a year before I could go get it , not sorry I bought it one bit , rode it to work last week .
WEAR SEAT BELTS ! .
I followed the link from today’s (20 Feb 2019) VW story and found this. Man, what an awful experience to have been in such a bad crash, and thankfully, lived to tell about it. I had a ’62 VW and no, mine never had any seat belts. The way I drove when I had that car as a teenager, I was probably lucky to have never crashed it. I found you story illuminating Paul, in terms of what you felt and how you recovered from this in the hours and days following. Few people could evoke such clear memories of such a vague time in their lives. Thanks for sharing this.
Here from the same story, Lee. I drove my ’64 Beetle in Atlanta, GA rush hour traffic for six years. Bought it from the son of the original owner (who bought it in Atlanta), and once I had the drivetrain sorted, the next thing I did was buy a set of 3-point belts (lap belts for the rear seat). The mount points were already there (I think this was the case as early as ’62), but belts were a dealer option. My car actually had lap belts – rotted canvas when I took ownership.
Thankfully never had to use them.
I DD’d a ’71 VW bus for about 5 years prior and always wore belts (3-point) in it, too.
My first accident was a sideswipe by a drunk driver only a couple months after getting my license. Missed being a head-on by about 6″. Was wearing my seat belt, which was a good thing because the impact spun us around 180° and across the road into the ditch, where the car flipped up on its side. Have always worn belts since.
I missed this the first time. I ran a stop sign in my ’66 Beetle, it was blocked by a pickup with camper parked right behind it. VW’s came with 3 point mounting points, front and rear beginning in ’62. I was t boned b pillar center on the drivers side, I had installed 3 point belts and had high back seats out of a ’70 beetle. I walked away with bruises on my left side, the 3 unbelted people in the ’71 Capri went through the windshield, they all survived after some time in a hospital. I had been driving about 6 months, I was 16.
Yeah, how did I miss this one too? Maybe predates my CC reading?
Anyway, +1 that you were OK (eventually). People aren’t designed for crashing cars, I still get neck pain from being rear ended by a big Ford wagon in my teens.
I too always wear seat belts. In my 63 VW I started out with 3 point belts, but the factory mount points were too low and the shoulder part always fell off my shoulder and lay across my elbow. I figured that was worse than useless so switched to 2 point. I hope to never try them out..
I missed this one the first time as well. Back in the mid-sixties a family friend was working as some sort of regional supervisor for J.C. Penny based in Dallas, Texas. This job involved a lot of travel into central and west Texas as well as parts of Oklahoma. A lot of this travel was necessarily at night as he would spend the day at a store and then need to travel on to the next town in order to inspect another store. Anyway Mr. Willers had a 1963 VW Beetle that he used for his job as it was economical to operate and this enabled him to make money on his mileage reimbursement. Anyway, one night he crested a hill and found a herd of cows all over the road. Apparently they had broken through the fence and had congregated on the road to soak up the residual heat from the pavement. Mr. Willers was unable to stop and plowed into the herd still going around 35 MPH; the car was destroyed and several of the bovines were totaled as well. Fortunately our friend suffered only a few bruises. The dead VW was replaced by a full-size Buick, mileage be damned.