Monday, April 16, 2007

1975: The Accident

Invariably one of the first things that I get asked whenever anyone sees me without a shirt is just how the hell did my arm get so scarred. I tell people a variety of explanations, ranging from a monkey knife fight through to the truth, so once and for all here's what happened. It took me years to figure out what exactly happened back in early 1975, and even then I've never really discovered what did occur, other than I was involved in a serious car accident that nearly took my life. It was probably my second serious brush with death (the first being an allergic reaction to an insect bite at a very young age) but not my last. As such I've always felt that I've been living on slightly borrowed time, which goes a way to explaining some of the more insane things that I tend to do from time to time - I want to see what happens.

The accident itself wasn't planned, but the trip was. At the time my old man was working on a pie-line somewhere in New South Wales and, although we didn't know it at the time, he was also in the early stages of establishing a new family for himself - one that he wanted us to be part of, but luckily for us my mother saw right through his bullshit, but that came later. We had an old 1964 Ford station wagon (I think it was the '64 model) and it was built like a tank. I say old, but at the time it was only nine years old, so it was fairly modern. It was aqua and since then no-one in my family has ever owned a blue car. The old man had taken some time off and asked my mum to take my brothers and myself up to see him and go on holidays - we were all for it. So into the car we crammed - my mother and four screaming kids ranging in age from nearly eight (me) through to nearly fourteen. Great combination eh? Armed with packets of barley sugar and Mrs Mills Party Parade tapes (long story, but my family has always had a perverse sense of humour, even back in the mid '70s, and Mrs Mills figured into it. I don't think any of us particularly liked Mrs Mills but we'd give each other a load of shit about it and have the tapes going to sheer laugh value - long trips, go figure. Each trip we took somehow Mrs Mills tapes magically appeared from God knows where - no-one would confess to packing them, but there they were...don't look at me though *cough cough '76*) off we went.

We stayed in a series of Flag Inn hotels on the way and met up with the old man in a town that was so small that if you blinked you'd miss it. Seriously. It consisted of a bar, a post office, a general store, a police station, a train station and a hospital, all in the one building. I went past it back in 2001 and was amazed to see that the town had doubled in size. My old man was propping up the bar section of the building, as per usual.

From there we went to a shack in Bundeena. It was a lovely place and I've always wanted to go back there just for a look around. We stayed there for about a week (it seemed like a year to me) and it was there that I met my uncle Bobby on my father's side. Well, he wasn't an uncle, he was a cousin of sorts and a damn nice guy. He took us fishing one night and amazingly enough Bobby would cast a line out, complain that the fish weren't biting and give me the rod. Incredible! I was on fire and catching several flat-heads that none of the brothers could catch. Years later I caught up with Bobby and asked him if he was catching the fish and just handing the rod to me, but nope, he insisted that I caught them fair and square. Bobby was a good guy and I do miss him. Other brother Barry trying to steal a canoe only to put an oar through it, which we covered up with leaves. The shack being so small that when my father would fart the walls would shake. Going to the Royal Easter Show and seeing Wollongong The Brave (my dad, the bloody prude walked out due to the 'bad language', but then this was a guy who walked out on Blazing Saddles because we laughed too loudly - my old man didn't have much humour). It was a good trip.

On the way back we stopped into my Nana's house and catch up with people there. It was there that my mother was given some news that I won't share, but according to her it did distract her and offers up an explanation for what happened the next day. I tend to believe she's looking for an excuse when she doesn't need to. What happened wasn't her fault at all.

Backtrack - before we left the old man had insisted on the car being fitted with brand new tyres, so we had new feet for the machine. Important that.

The first night we stopped and dropped the old man off in West Wyalong. What we didn't know is that's where his 'new' family lived. The bastard. Nice town though, full of hicks but pleasant enough. The next day we set out for home.

We reached Balranald where my mother decided to push on for Mildura. It's a decision that has haunted her ever since (and one I nearly repeated. In 1999 I was driving back to Adelaide and reached the same town in the same state of mind and thought, "I'll just push on, it's only another 60 or so miles." Suddenly I had a flash back and promptly pulled into the first caravan park I saw and rented a cabin and had a good night's sleep). On we went. I remember it was being a stinking hot day and it was late afternoon.

About halfway to Mildura it happened. The front right hand tyre blew as mum was pushing down the road in excess of 80 miles per hour (her estimate, old speedo). The bang was loud and the car instantly started to violently swerve from side to side. My mother - and this has always amazed me - actually held the bastard on the road and wrestled for control. This car was a frigging tank, loaded to the roof with luggage and four screaming kids virtually shitting themselves with panic. In desperation my mum remembered what she'd been taught - when the wheel blows out NEVER touch the brakes. The car was an automatic, so gearing down was out of the question. She weighed up her options and figured that she'd be best served by putting the car into an open paddock, taking her feet off the pedals and allowing the car to wind itself down, thus leaving us with the problem of getting the car out of the paddock later. All's good - and she worked this out in about three seconds mind you. So she gave the wheel a heave and pointed it towards a fence.

What she didn't see, what no-one could have seen (you can't see it in the photos) was that the grass, in places about three foot high, neatly hid a drainage ditch about two foot deep. Once the car hit that it was all over. I remember the screams, I remember the car rolling (in 1997 I undertook hypnotherapy in an effort to discover what happened, and also to stop the nightmares. I got partial closure on the first, the second never stopped), I remember the dirt and the last thing I remember is my head hitting the roof - no seat belts in those days. After that it's black.

I woke up to the sounds of my mother calling for me. She'd gotten out and was doing a head count, I was the only one missing. I was lying in the grass, feeling numb, so I put my feet up only to burn them on the exhaust pipe. Then I yelled. I then tried to get free only to find that the rear right wheel was sitting on my right arm trapping me. Right then the pain hit and it was unbearable. I knew I was in a lot of trouble. My mother tried to yank me free, to no avail. It only made things worse. My brothers, dazed and screwed, were of no use, so mum raced up onto the road and started to flag cars down. Some stopped, one Volkswagen Kombi van sped up and made some miles to Mildura to get help (although we didn't know it at the time).

Five guys were trying to lift the car (now emptied of it's load) and only succeeded in rocking the prick of a thing on my arm. It hurt like you'd not believe and I know it's why I have a high tolerance for pain now. Finally a truck turned up and two truckies got out, wandered down and asked just what the fuck, excuse me lady, was going on. They waved the five guys away and I kid you not lifted the car up high, I was dragged out (by some well meaning woman who pulled my right arm - the trapped arm. Thanks for that, it just made it hurt more). The two truckies offered to hold the car there in the air so we could get some more stuff out from under it. Job done they got back into the rig, radioed ahead for help and told us that police and ambulances were on their way (indeed we could hear the sirens). I have no idea who they were, but wherever they are - you have my eternal thanks. With that off they went.

The first person to turn up was the photographer for the Mildura newspaper - of course! Ahhhh the media, you can always depend on them. The ambulance turned up very shortly after with the Kombi man in hot pursuit. He'd gone to the first phone and called everyone that we needed and then turned around to see what more assitance he could lend - what a guy. He then loaded all our luggage, and my dazed brothers, into his Kombi, took them into Mildura, booked them into a hotel, made sure they were settled and off he went. Again we never got a name, but guy, my family owes you big time! That kind of thing probably wouldn't happen these days.

My arm was a mess. I was taken into Mildura Base Hospital and seen by a Doctor Butcher (seriously! That was his name - classic!) where my arm was stitched up and assessed. No breaks, loads of friction burns and cuts, including one at my bicep that was cut clear to the bone. I remember Dr Butcher telling me that scar would make me popular with the ladies when I was older. I didn't care, I just wanted the pain to stop. Eventually the drugs kicked in and the pain did stop...

It took the police three days to track down my old man. Why? He thought they were after him for drunk driving so he kept lying when he'd get pulled over and questioned. Finally they told him that there'd been an accident and that his family were in Mildura hospital. He promptly abused the cops for not telling him sooner (his story, not mine) and made his way to us. After a few days they sent us all home, battered and bruised.

I still carry those scars today. My right arm is a mish-mash of scar tissue and Dr Butcher was right - one girl I met told me that those scars just did it for her. I was two inches away from having my head crushed. I should have died back then but didn't. My mother, with some of the most incredible driving I've ever seen, kept me alive and made a bad accident as good as could be expected. We all lived.

These shots were all taken by the photographer. Apparently we made the headlines for that day, so eventually I'll spend a day back in Mildura hunting it down in their libraries. If anyone has the resources to locate it for me then be my guest. I'll love ya long time.

This first shot shows my brother Barry looking at the camera (white shirt). That the car was only that messed up speaks volumes for the durability of the old Ford.

This shot shows one of the ambulance officers working on me as I lay in the dirt and dry grass. I love the guy standing there having a smoke - the ground was filled with petrol from the car's tanks leaking by the way. You can see my mother partially obscured by my oldest brother Ronald - the lady standing shielding her eyes was the one who pulled me out by the wounded wing.

See the distance from the car that the windscreen ended up? It was a fairly violent impact. Here both ambulance officers are working on my while the aforementioned lady speaks to my mother and my brothers. I have no idea who the blonde guy is, he ain't one of ours, and I think he might have been the Kombi man.

This is the most dramatic shot for me. It shows me being carried up to the waiting ambulance. You can get an idea of the extent of my injuries just by looking at my body. My mother can't look, but in her defence I doubt I'd have been able to look either, and as she came with me in the ambulance I think she was getting her handbag and getting the brothers to start locating luggage.

This is the car in the wreckers yard after the crash. It's the only colour shot I have of it. The car was a total write off and I think they paid my mum about $100 for the shell of it.

I'd like to have pumped a few shells into it as well. To this day I'm not fond of people who like driving fast and losing control of cars while I'm in them. I get uncomfortable on dirt roads, unless I'm the driver and in control. And I'd put my mother's driving skills up against anyone, anytime. After all I lived. We all lived and that was down to her making the right choice at the right time and only being tripped up by the unknown. As they say, any accident you can walk away from is a good accident.

In 2001 my mother and myself drove to Queensland. We went past the place where the accident had happened and we finally spoke about it openly. She started to cry when I told her that I owe my life to her driving and that out of anyone and everyone I've ever driven with, I doubt anyone of them could have done better. And that includes some professional racing car drivers. I know I couldn't have worked out, that quickly and calmly, what to do in such a situation and then applied it. My ma saved us all, 'nuff said!

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