April 4, 1974, started off as a nice, ordinary early-spring day in Charlotte.
Actually, that’s not true at all. At Carmel Junior High School, where I was in eighth grade, that day was ’50s Day. Not only had we all been encouraged to come to school dressed in ’50s garb, there would be an actual sock hop after school.
Well, I was in homeroom before the day really began, and everyone was admiring everyone else’s getup. I never could get pegged jeans or boots. But I did score some honest-to-God butch wax with which to give myself a real DA hairstyle — and since my hair was almost to my shoulders at that point, my pompadour and DA were very well fleshed out. And, coolest of all, I’d scored a gen-u-wine leather biker jacket from a guy my mother was tutoring. (He went on to play football at Alabama.)
So I wasn’t the most perfectly styled ’50s icon that morning, but I was definitely in the top quartile. I was looking pretty good and feeling pretty good about looking good. Trust me, as unusual as that feeling is for me today, it was way more unusual when I was 14. And I was reveling in it.
That’s when I heard an unfamiliar noise — loud, roaring. It was a motorcycle. More to the point, it was a motorcycle being ridden by the teacher in the next room. Our rooms were on ground level, and he, also in full ’50s regalia, had driven his bike right up to the window of his classroom before killing the engine and lowering the kickstand. Because each room had a window at each end of that wall that could be opened, the students in his homeroom opened the window and he hopped in to take over the classroom.
I was watching all this while leaning into the doorway of his classroom, which I was accomplishing by holding onto the door frame of my homeroom. Unfortunately, I later learned, someone in my homeroom had complained about the bike noise, and someone else — who remains a Facebook friend today, although I won’t name her because I know this was an accident — shut the door without checking to see whether the door frame was clear of all vulnerable objects like, you know, the first three fingers of my left hand.
The door was solid oak. The door frame was solid steel. They fit so closely I don’t know if you could have slipped a credit card between them.
And the ends of my fingers were in there.
And I couldn’t get them out.
So I did what anyone else in that situation would do: I screamed like a baby. I do not recall whether I screamed actual words, like, “Open the door!,” or issued a long string of cuss words, or whether I just ululated incoherently until somebody outside in the hall with me figured out what was going on and started pounding on the door, which was locked, to get someone to open it.
I don’t know how long it took to get the door open, and I don’t recall how long it seemed like it took. I don’t even recall the pain being that great. (That would come later.) But when the door opened, I saw two things: a godawful amount of blood running down the door frame to puddle on the floor, and a single, entire white fingernail sticking to some of the blood.
I don’t remember who took me upstairs to the office. I don’t remember who called my mom. But she took me to the ER, and eventually, a surgeon arrived. He put tight rubber bands around the bases of all three fingers, then injected them all with anesthetic (Novocaine, I think). And then, once the fingers were good and insensate, he threaded a needle with black silk and set about stitching together the bleeding ends of the first three fingers on my left hand. Somewhere in all this, I remember a nurse remarking to a colleague on my getup, but I don’t recall now what she said.
Because the hand wasn’t hurting at all at that point (thanks, Novocaine!), I looked at him and observed three things. He appeared to be in his early 50s. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days. And he had what appeared to be dried blood on his scrubs.
“Long day?” I asked.
“Well, before you, I had to take out a man’s stomach,” he said.
That was kind of a conversation-killer.
When the stitching was done, he dressed each finger, then wrapped the three of them together with gauze, then wrapped the gauze around my hand and wrist, thus instantly rendering me capable of flipping the world’s biggest bird. Then he x-rayed me. Sure enough, all three fingers were broken, but there was nothing more that he could do for them, so that was that. He gave me (well, Mom) a prescription for painkillers, told me to keep it the hand dry, scheduled a time for me to come to his office for a checkup and rebandaging, and sent us on our way.
Despite all that had happened, there were still a couple of hours before the sock hop started. I told Mom I wanted to go. She was dubious but said I could. And I did, and in my ninth-grade yearbook (the incident happened too late to make deadline for the eight-grade yearbook) there’s a picture of me at the sock hop with the bandaging on my left hand and my DA and my badass leather jacket. (I’m on the right. My friend Mark Asperheim is next to me.)
Toward the end of the sock hop, I didn’t feel so great. Later that night I was, to put it charitably, in a great deal of pain.
Recovery took weeks. And as bad as the pain from the injury was, it was nothing compared to the bandage change. They took the original dressings off my stitched, swollen, sensitive, nail-less fingers. The dressings, of course, were stuck on to the exposed nail beds with dried blood, and bathe those things in hydrogen peroxide as the doctor might, he could not get them off easily, gently, or painlessly.
I wasn’t just crying. I wasn’t just screaming. It hurt so badly that I literally wanted to die. If you had offered to shoot me at that moment, I would have taken you up on it without a moment’s hesitation if not snatched the weapon from your hand and pulled the trigger myself. Of that I had no doubt then and have no doubt now. And I also have no doubt that neither before nor since, in spite of numerous illnesses and injuries, have I ever wanted to die simply because of the pain the way I wanted to die in those few minutes in the doctor’s office. I’ve been sick a couple of times where I thought I was going to die, sure. But this was on a whole ‘nother level. If I hadn’t hit the bathroom just before coming into the doctor’s office, I’m sure I’d’ve soiled myself. Memo: It’s bad form to die with full pants.
At the time, I was teaching myself guitar. I wasn’t going to be quitting my day job anytime soon, but I actually was getting sorta kinda good. Even after I recovered fully from the injury and my nails grew back (two out of three look normal; my ring-finger nail has a squared-off shape to it), my fingers didn’t have the flexibility they had had before. And they never would again. I was gonna be a power-chorder from there on out.
And so it came to pass, until I gave up the guitar for good around age 27 or so. I played at my next-door neighbor’s turkey fry last Thanksgiving Eve, and I sounded awful, but everyone else was drunk and/or tolerant, so no one said anything unkind.
So what’s the larger lesson here? I honestly don’t know. But I have thought about this event every year since it happened. I don’t have nightmares about it, let alone anything like PTSD, but I remember. That said, I’m under no illusion that the accident ended a budding music career.
But I did learn that there are things worse than death, or things that at least seem so.
And I have learned not to grip doorframes for support when leaning.
And I have learned that I don’t look bad in a leather jacket.