I Died Last Friday; Give Me A Call

I'm not sure the difference between a New York minute and an Arkansas or Texas or any other minute since they are all 60 seconds, but I've always heard your life can change in a New York minute. I now understand and believe. You see, Friday morning,  12/17/10, at the ripe young age of 60, I was just fine one minute and dead the next. It's kind of a long story, but what the hell, I've got the time if you do.

My daughter is a very good little girl; now 12-years-old, her teachers have always loved her, and she has never gotten in trouble at school. At least not until that week. On 12/15, she was taking a test. Everyone's books were on their desk and one of the questions indicated "Using a phrase from your book to prove your answer..." Not understanding she was supposed to only use memory, Katie opened her book to get a phrase and the class tattle-tell of course ran to the teacher and told her Katie was cheating. Katie had to go tell the principal and we had to have a parent/student/principal discussion the next day. But the next day was Thursday and we had to leave that afternoon to get to Little Rock for the wife's Master's Degree Graduation Ceremony and the principal wasn't available in the morning so the parent/Principal discussion would have to wait until Friday.

The grad ceremony went fine Thursday night, but at the point where the wife was finished and met us in the hallway downstairs is the point where I have lost all recollection. I don't remember driving us to IHOP to eat, driving us home, relatives staying over for the night, conversations or anything else. Having a heart attack and the resulting drugs administered by good doctors can and usually do have a wonderfully de-weighting effect of erasing the memories of pain, the total confusion of not really understanding what is happening or, even if you do understand, not being able to do anything about it. In my particular case, the loss of memory went back to 12 full hours before the actual heart attack; 12 hours I would like to have back as they were probably full of good conversation and happiness.

Friday morning (at least what I was told), I awoke and complained of slight chest pains and arm pains. My wife said it sounded to her like I was having a heart attack, but of course, being a rather normal guy, I poo-pooed the thought. Surprisingly though, I did take the 2 aspirin she offered and also let her drive me to the parent/principal meeting that morning, neither of which would be in any way normal for me to do. So the wife, since I wanted to handle this little nonsense myself, dropped us at the door of the school and found a parking spot. Inside the school, my daughter and I were sitting next to each other in the office, waiting on the principal to see us when, without making a sound, I simply slumped over onto her.  At this point, Katie started screaming for someone to come help her daddy and this set off a whole set of circumstances which would strain the credibility of a fiction writer.  Very possibly, if any one of these circumstances had not lined up so perfectly, my family would be casting my ashes into the wind now.  Outside, sitting in the car in the parking lot, the wife watched as police cars and an ambulance rolled up to the front doors of the school.

Lets go back a few years now, to when Ms. Teri was first hired as one of  only 2 school nurses for the 5 (now 6) Greenbrier schools. Much to her surprise, she found no defibrillators anywhere. After putting together voluminous studies indicating the need for one in each school and presenting it to the school board, the previous superintendent declared the cost to be too much and he would not approve purchasing even one. Convinced of the need, Ms. Teri, on her own, went to the individual PTO clubs for each school, made her presentation and convinced each of them to purchase one for their school. She took some grief from the school board for this "back-room dealing," but she placed these much needed machines in each building. Flash forward several years, with only two nurses for 6 school buildings, the odds of a roving nurse being in any one particular building is only 1 in 3.  And where was the very qualified Nurse Teri when I slumped over and my daughter screamed for help? She and one of her "back-door" defibrillators was in the nurse's office just a few feet away.  That machine and her knowledge were put to good use to get my heart started again after 3 - 4 minutes of death and to get me stabilized enough for the ambulance ride to the big town of Conway and the hospital about 20 miles away.

The emergency personnel at the hospital were top flight and it was a good thing because my heart stopped beating again as I was wheeled in. For the 2nd time, I was clinically dead. You may have seen scenes on TV where somebody is being wheeled in on a stretcher and a doctor is riding on top of the poor patient giving him CPR and medical people are running around yelling medical things and hollering "Stat!" Well, I was the one laying on that stretcher.

The doctor I spoke to later said he usually only uses the defibrillator 3, maybe 4 times before calling time of death. On the 4th try, I came back. Once again, I had stared the Grim Reaper in the face and spit in his eye! But it had been close. Very close.

From what I understand, I wasn't exactly the best patient. They cut off all of my clothes and I guess I didn't like that because I struggled and fought against them so much that I finally had to be tied down to the bed. I ended up with a tube down my throat, another one down my nose, another one up my manly part, 2 cardiovascular stints inserted up my thigh and into my heart, an oxygen mask, open IV lines for quickly dumping gallons of drugs into me, and many, many clips stuck to me for monitoring vitals. I couldn't do much once I was restrained and taped down except to bite through those tubes time after time.  I also bit clear through my lips in several places. Of course, I wasn't aware of any of this until days later and then I was very painfully aware of exactly what I had done to myself.

I stayed unconscious the rest of the day and night and the next day, the docs couldn't figure out why I was still under because the stints and drugs seemed to be working as they should. I stayed unconscious for a couple of more days and they kept me in the ICU. My wife was told to prepare for the worse because I might not make it and if I did, there was a very real possibility I would wake up only to lay there drooling for the rest of my life. They told her it was a miracle I was still alive because the kind of massive heart attack I had suffered, commonly called a "Widow Maker," was fatal 90 - 95% of the time and I had had two of them.

Finally, late Tuesday afternoon, 12/21/10, after being in a coma for almost 5 days, I opened my eyes, saw my wife standing there and wondered what the hell was going on. Why was she standing in what was obviously an ICU room? Wait a minute, why am I in this ICU bed looking like some half-man, half-machine freak? After tubes were removed from my throat and nose, I asked to see and speak to my youngest daughter, Katie. It was vitally important to me that she knows how much I love her and how proud of her I am. I remember leaning over to hug her and talking with her and then I don't remember much of the next several hours.

To those good people who came to visit me later that evening, I apologize because it was very confusing and almost impossible to make sense in my mind of what had happened to me. I'm not over-weight, in decent physical shape, just had a full physical less than 2 years ago which didn't show anything untoward. How could my body have turned on me like this? That afternoon, I was moved to a private room. It was interesting to see most of the doctors and nurses who had worked on me the first few days stick their heads into the room, explain who they were and what they had done on me and say they really were surprised to see me doing so well. I learned later that a couple of them had told my wife they would pray for us because they didn't have much hope for my survival and figured I had suffered some degree of brain damage even if I didn't die.

Now that I was awake, I wanted to go home. I wanted to spend Christmas with my wife and daughter. I was told to stay in bed to recover and get my strength back. I was told I couldn't go home until I could walk unaided. So I spent almost the whole night pulling myself out of bed and taking a few steps at a time, holding onto the side of the bed or a wall or a chair to keep me from collapsing on the floor. After each time, I fell back into bed, out of breath and exhausted. It was hard, it was painful, it was scary, but by the next morning, I could walk un-aided, (slowly, but still un-aided) to the bathroom about 6 steps away. Every doctor or nurse that came in, I kept asking, "Can I go home now?" "No," was always the reply, "you need to stay with us for 3 or 4 more days." And then when they left, I would go back to doing sit-ups in the bed or walking around the room, my portable IV unit always beside me like a faithful dog.

After 5 days of nothing but liquids, I was hungry. I kept asking for a cheeseburger, but was told no, no way. The next day, after a bunch of "swallow" tests, I was cleared to eat whatever I wanted. They were concerned I wouldn't be able to eat solid foods, but I surprised them again. I ate the bite of pudding the nurse gave me; I ate the bite of macaroni and cheese and I ate the cracker. I told the nurse I was very hungry and if she didn't get me some real food real soon, the next time she put something in my mouth, I couldn't be held responsible if I bit her finger. After proving I really could chew and eat and swallow, the hospital gave me some mashed potatoes, a couple of very soft vegetables and pudding. It wouldn't have filled up a baby. My darling wife went to a place a few blocks away and got me a cheeseburger & fries. She watched me like a hawk as I ate every bite. Not a fry was left and I didn't choke to death.

My doctor told me the staff was calling me their Christmas miracle. Just think about the odds I had beaten - with a fatality rate of 90 - 95%, out of 100 people who suffer a "Widow Maker" heart attack, only 5 - 10 will be alive afterwards. I had survived it twice. Tough or simply incredibly lucky? I still don't know the answer to that one.

After a lot of talking and pleading and walking up and down the halls in front of the staff,  slowly, but unaided, my doctor released me and I went home late Thursday, 12/23. I was still extremely weak and a bit unsteady on my feet, but I was home for Christmas Eve.  There were a few side-effects: Once I woke up, I didn't go back to sleep for about 28 hours and even now, 8 days after the first event, I haven't been able to sleep for more than 4 hours and then I'm awake for another 8 - 10 hours before going to sleep for a short time again. I'm thinking this is a factor of all the drugs I'm taking, about 15 pills a day now. At first I was concerned it was because I was subconsciously afraid to go to sleep for fear of dying, but now I don't think so.  I also seem to have some slight short-term memory problems with words. Occasionally, a word that used to just naturally roll off my tongue, I have to think about for a few seconds and sometimes it just won't come to me at all. We'll see if that too is from the drugs or if that will get better as time goes on. I'm hoping it's not permanent, but if it is, well, that's a small price to pay for getting a 2nd chance at life!

I seem to be doing pretty good. I'm getting stronger every day - I'm not ready for a marathon yet, but I can walk around the house without having to stop for a rest. I have an appointment with my heart doc 01/06 and he'll make a determination if I can go back to work.

I'm still trying to figure out what to make of this in my life. How will I change? How will my life change? For now, I'm going to bed and try to get some sleep. I'll figure the rest out tomorrow. Or the next day.

Hitting The Road

There is still an America out there, begging to be driven, begging to be found. Have the interstates, the price of gas and the rush of our daily lives sucked the romance out of road trips? Has the compulsion to see what's around the next bend or over the next rise been killed? Are road trips now just a relic of days gone by? Sadly, for most people, I think so.

But not for all of us. Most people like the idea of a road trip; rolling down the byways just to see what's out there, but few actually do it. I sometimes look on a map and pick out a place that catches my fancy because of its name - Fly, Tenessee; Ben Hur, Arkansas; Happy, Texas - and plot a course from here to there, taking only the 2-lane blacktop roads. I want to see country not infested with dozens of fast food places, large office buildings and traffic backed up at traffic lights. I want to be in towns where you park on the street on the town square a few feet from the front door of the business. I want to see old men sitting on benches in a park and talk to them for a while, finding where to eat the best bar-b-que and the best pies this side of heaven and yes, I'll tell Alice hi for you when she serves me. I don't mind getting stuck behind the occasional tractor using the same road I am. I want to go to places between nowhere and never heard of.

Invariably, when I tell someone I've just returned from a road trip, they ask, "Where'd you go?" And I'm stuck on how to answer, how to tell the story. They seem confused if I tell them my destination wasn't Dallas or Memphis or New York City or some other large or at least well-known spot. They don't seem to understand it's not where you went, it's what happened on the way. It's about contentment with the land you are driving through, listening to good music and loudly singing along sounding good only to yourself, thinking about your life and the choices you made (both good and bad), wondering whatever happened to old flames, and planning what you will do when you hit the lottery.

It's the joy of running into Mabel, the 88-year-old lady who still single-handedly runs the old wooden-floored convenience store on Route 66 in Oklahoma that she and her husband built "back in the day" and the house next door where they lived, loved, and raised 6 children and getting her autograph on a bottle of Route 66 root beer I bought from her. She put down her cigarette long enough to find a felt pen and sign it. Nobody was, by God, going to tell her she couldn't smoke in her own damn store. It saddened me greatly when 2 years later, I heard she had recently died and the store was closed. I'm glad I stopped. Now, when I think of the word "feisty," she is my mental image.

It's the fun of the cute small-town girl who served me a delicious bar-b-que sandwich plate in some forgotten spot along the road (hand-painted on the front window - "Almost World Famous!") with the top two buttons of her blouse undone, leaning over and smiling big as she took my order, obviously working me for a big tip. I left a $20 bill for a $9 tab and didn't mind.

When I see a map of the United States, I don't want to just see boundaries and squiggly road lines. I want my mind to see mountains and rivers and forests and wide open spaces and the 2-mile stretch of blacktop in west Texas where I encountered thousands of tarantula's crossing the road en mass one evening, my car exploding their little hairy bodies as I drove onward in pursuit of the horizon. I want to look at that map and think that's where Mabel lived and that's where cute b-b-q girl lives.

So many places, so much road. Always another bend to go around, another rise to drive over. And so very little time.

Pearl Harbor Day

Saturday, December 6, 1941 - Washington D.C. - U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt makes a final appeal to the Emperor of Japan for peace. There is no reply. Late this same day, the U.S. code-breaking service begins intercepting a 14-part Japanese message and deciphers the first 13 parts, passing them on to the President and Secretary of State. The Americans believe a Japanese attack is imminent, most likely somewhere in Southeast Asia.
Sunday, December 7, 1941 - Washington D.C. - The last part of the Japanese message, stating that diplomatic relations with the U.S. are to be broken off, reaches Washington in the morning and is decoded at approximately 9 a.m. About an hour later, another Japanese message is intercepted. It instructs the Japanese embassy to deliver the main message to the Americans at 1 p.m. The Americans realize this time corresponds with early morning time in Pearl Harbor, which is several hours behind. The U.S. War Department then sends out an alert but uses a commercial telegraph because radio contact with Hawaii is temporarily broken. Delays prevent the alert from arriving at headquarters in Oahu until noontime (Hawaii time) four hours after the attack has already begun.

Islands of Hawaii, near Oahu - The Japanese attack force under the command of Admiral Nagumo, consisting of six carriers with 423 planes, is about to attack. At 6 a.m., the first attack wave of 183 Japanese planes takes off from the carriers located 230 miles north of Oahu and heads for the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor - At 7:02 a.m., two Army operators at Oahu's northern shore radar station detect the Japanese air attack approaching and contact a junior officer who disregards their reports, thinking they are American B-17 planes which are expected in from the U.S. west coast.

Near Oahu - At 7:15 a.m., a second attack wave of 167 planes takes off from the Japanese carriers and heads for Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor is not on a state on high alert. Senior commanders have concluded, based on available intelligence, there is no reason to believe an attack is imminent. Aircraft are therefore left parked wingtip to wingtip on airfields, anti-aircraft guns are unmanned with many ammunition boxes kept locked in accordance with peacetime regulations. There are also no torpedo nets protecting the fleet anchorage. And since it is Sunday morning, many officers and crewmen are leisurely ashore.

At 7:53 a.m., the first Japanese assault wave, with 51 'Val' dive bombers, 40 'Kate' torpedo bombers, 50 high level bombers and 43 'Zero' fighters, commences the attack with flight commander, Mitsuo Fuchida, sounding the battle cry: "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!).

The Americans are taken completely by surprise. The first attack wave targets airfields and battleships. The second wave targets other ships and shipyard facilities. The air raid lasts until 9:45 a.m. Eight battleships are damaged, with five sunk. Three light cruisers, three destroyers and three smaller vessels are lost along with 188 aircraft. The Japanese lose 27 planes and five midget submarines which attempted to penetrate the inner harbor and launch torpedoes.

Escaping damage from the attack are the prime targets, the three U.S. Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, Lexington, Enterprise and Saratoga, which were not in the port. Also escaping damage are the base fuel tanks.

The casualty list includes 2,335 servicemen and 68 civilians killed, with 1,178 wounded. Included are 1,104 men aboard the Battleship USS Arizona killed after a 1,760-pound air bomb penetrated into the forward magazine causing catastrophic explosions.

In Washington, various delays prevent the Japanese diplomats from presenting their war message to Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, until 2:30 p.m. (Washington time) just as the first reports of the air raid at Pearl Harbor are being read by Hull.

News of the "sneak attack" is broadcast to the American public via radio bulletins, with many popular Sunday afternoon entertainment programs being interrupted. The news sends a shockwave across the nation and results in a tremendous influx of young volunteers into the U.S. armed forces. The attack also unites the nation behind the President and effectively ends isolationist sentiment in the country.

Monday, December 8, 1941 - The United States and Britain declare war on Japan with President Roosevelt calling December 7, "a date which will live in infamy..."

Thursday, December 11, 1941 - Germany and Italy declare war on the United States. The European and Southeast Asian wars have now become a global conflict with the Axis powers; Japan, Germany and Italy, united against America, Britain, France, and their Allies. Before World War II is over, more than 60 million people will lose their lives.

Most people are not aware that there are still hundreds of service men killed in the attack that are unidentified. Even now, 69 years later, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command continues to identify recovered remains from Pearl Harbor. On the USS Oklahoma alone, 426 sailors and marines were killed, but only 36 bodies have been positively identified. On June 11, 2010, they were finally able to identify one more, Navy Fireman 3rd class Gerald Lehman of Hancock, MI. His remains have been exhumed from his grave in the National Cemetery of the Pacific where it was marked simply as "Unknown" and reburied in his home town next to the graves of family members. This young man finally found his way home.


Along the Arkansas River
I like pretty sunsets - a lot. I have a number of sunset pictures - ok, I have a lot of sunset pictures. Beautiful sunsets are a perfect way to end the day. They always calm me, make me introspective.

Some of the most awesome I have ever seen were in the middle of the ocean. For 3 years I served on an aircraft carrier and I would often make it a point to come up to the hanger bay or on the flight deck to see what kind of sunset we were having. Red sky at night, sailor's delight. I would often just sit there and watch until it got dark - listening to the underway noises and feeling the vibrations of this colossal war machine I called home, the slapping of waves on her hull, surrounded by nothing, but thousands of miles of blue Pacific ocean, watching that fireball in the sky going down, looking for all the world like it was slowly settling beneath the waves and in its last act of defiance, turning the sky into brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows. And there, living with 5,000 other guys on the most destructive piece of equipment the world has ever seen, within a stone's throw of nuclear bombs, thousands of miles from home and loved ones, for at least a few minutes, I would be at peace.

At my home in Texas
Peggy's Cove in Nova Scotia

My back yard

Mt. Magazine in Arkansas