March 30, 2001

It began as a day just like any other. March 30, 2001. A Friday.

At Sacred Heart High School in Vineland, New Jersey, teachers and administrators began to trickle into the building. Raindrops streaked off their umbrellas under the bleak sky.

Students eventually began to filter in, too, including some of my senior classmates. Many of them walked into the brick, two-story building near the corner of Landis and East avenues through the entrance by the gymnasium. That was the side of the school closest to the parking lots, the side I always entered and exited through. The front door of the building was actually on East Avenue — North East Avenue, to be precise, but I don’t remember anyone ever using it.

But maybe I just didn’t know. After all, it was my first year at the school, and it was a chaotic time.

I had college applications and scholarships on my mind, as well as the imminent start of baseball season.

The gym, formally known as Jim Mogan Auditorium, was where my friends and I would talk about these topics, and whatever else came to mind, as we waited for the homeroom bell to ring.

And on this Friday, they gathered as usual. I was not there. That was unusual.

Maybe Jon is late or sick, they reasoned. But they thought it was odd, because they knew I almost never stayed home sick and was rarely late.

They waited some more and chatted to pass the time. The bell sounded. Everyone grabbed their backpacks and headed to their lockers.

 

****************

Growing up, my perception of what life as a senior as supposed to be like (which I had acquired mostly through TV) was that it was mostly about partying, applying to college, avoiding blemishes on my permanent record and generally enjoying the lofty status and admiration/respect of underclassmen.

But when I got to senior year, I was a stranger in a strange land. The high school that I had attended for the previous three years — St. James High in Carneys Point, New Jersey, in the shadow of the Delaware Memorial Bridge — had been abruptly closed by the Diocese of Camden at the end of my junior year. Faced with the challenge of finding a suitable venue to finish high school, I chose (like dozens of my fellow St. James refugees) Sacred Heart.

“Choice” might be the wrong word. Once St. James closed its doors, Sacred Heart was the next-closest private school of its kind, and so it was a foregone conclusion for my parents that I would enroll there.

Vineland has roots as a farming town, and its claim to fame was that it was the birthplace of Welch’s Grape Juice in 1869. But in the late 20th century it was caught between two inexorable forces: the decline of American industrialism and the rise of urban poverty. I knew it as a place where you had to pay only half the normal sales tax.

I adjusted to the school switch about as well as possible: I made new friends, got involved in clubs and activities (including a stint as the public address announcer for the successful Sacred Heart boys and girls basketball teams) and did just as well academically as I had at St. James, where I had been on schedule to be valedictorian before the diocese came in and callously announced that “the decision has been made” to shutter the school.

Seeing a school community go through the equivalent of corporate downsizing could have alienated me; I know it did for others. But I didn’t let it.

By the end of March, I had A’s in all my classes and was ranked No. 2 in the class. There was a bit of disappointment when I found out I wasn’t at the top overall in this new setting, but I also knew there were far bigger things ahead academically.  I was still trying to figure out whether to apply to Syracuse, which had left me feeling awestruck during a visit two years earlier. Even though it was late March, I still had time, but it was vanishing quickly.

****************

 

I can still remember bits and pieces, to a certain point.

It was a drizzly morning, and I felt an urgency to leave a few minutes early because the car that I was driving at the time, a 1988 gold Chevrolet Monte Carlo that was a hand-me-down from my older sister, needed extra care in anything but optimal driving conditions.

But leaving more than a few minutes ahead of schedule for the 45- minute drive would be difficult on any morning. I was a night owl, and getting out of bed was a battle with my alarm clock.

I tapped the mouse of the computer in the kitchen to check AOL Instant Messenger. I left it logged in, as always, but this time I forgot to put up an away message.

I hefted my black golf bag, loaded with a budget set of  irons and woods, and eased it into the trunk of the Monte Carlo with a thud. The latch had a tendency not to close correctly, so I always made sure to slam it shut.

I was on the golf team at Sacred Heart, which was unexpected given that until the previous summer, when I took a maintenance job at a golf course about 10 miles from my house, I had never swung a club in my life.

Thankfully, the golf team was not good, which meant I could have fun and not worry about the fact that I was one of the least experienced players on the team — and that I had made the decision (in hindsight, a very questionable one) to spend much of my meager savings from my first summer of employment on an assortment of golf clubs.

But I was nonetheless happy to be making use of my new skills, and it gave me something to do in addition to my work on the school’s award-winning public speaking (aka “forensics”) team. Because it was rainy that Friday morning, I didn’t know whether practice would be canceled. Since I packed the clubs, I must have thought there was a chance the weather would clear.

I opened the Monte Carlo’s cumbersome driver-side door, which groaned sharply as always, flicked on the windshield wiper blades and eased the car down my parents’ long dirt road.

****************

 

As a child in a farm family, I quickly got used to being in a moving vehicle. Whether in my father’s pickup truck, my family’s 1986 black and red Chevy Suburban, an 18-wheeler or a tractor, I was quite often along for the ride during the work of running a farm. There was even a time or two that my dad picked me up from school in his green John Deere harvesting combine, which — if you’ve ever seen a combine — was quite a sight amid the stream of cars and yellow school buses.

A product of spending so much of my childhood on these countless work trips was that I got to know some routes quite well. One of the usual destinations was Bridgeton, a town about 20 minutes east of my home in Lower Alloways Creek. I came to know quite well the various ways to get there.

One of the main ways to do that was to pass through a little village called Roadstown — a village so small that if you blinked you’d miss it.

The center of Roadstown is the intersection of County Route 626 (Roadstown Road) and County Route 620 (Shiloh Road).  To get to Bridgeton, you’d travel east on Roadstown Road, with farmland on your left and right, and end up within Bridgeton city limits.

If there was a dangerous part of that route, a part where your heart skipped a beat, it was right at that intersection of Roadstown Road and Shiloh Road. A blinking light marked the crossing — yellow for drivers on Roadstown Road, red for the cross traffic on Shiloh. There was (and still is) also an Arco gas sign there, a landmark that is one of the few remnants from a filling station long gone.

Heading east on Roadstown, the roadway veered around a curve to the left, and to make matters even more hazardous, it also went uphill. The result was that as you approached the curve, with the Arco sign coming into view on your left, there was a moment where you entered into a Twilight Zone of uncertainty, where you could see only the roadway in front of you as it bent out of view and you didn’t know what was next.

It was, in effect, a blind curve. Cumberland County had wisely compensated for this by making the speed limit for that section of road very low — it was in the range of 20 or 25 miles per hour.

I went around that bend a hundred times during all those trips of my youth, and if my mother were driving, she would often remark that she didn’t like it. And we would creep around the bend as she peered to the left and right to make sure no cross traffic was coming.

****************

 

That morning, Liam and Brandon arrived at Sacred Heart and headed to the gym to hang out before homeroom. Liam drove from the Swedesboro area, Brandon from Salem County. They waited for me to arrive.

But the bell rang, and I had not shown up. They headed off to homeroom; I had Mr. Schelder for homeroom, and neither of them did, so they probably figured I was just running late.

But at some point during homeroom or first period, Liam and Brandon were called down to the office of the vice principal, Mr. Jones. He told them I had been in a car accident; he wanted to inform them before announcing it over the school’s intercom.

At some point in the day, Liam and Brandon, and perhaps other friends of ours, spoke with Ms. Shuster, a gym teacher whom we’d had at St. James, about what had happened. Ms. Shuster characterized the accident as bad. Liam asked her whether I would live.

In Liam’s words, “She gave a look that said, ‘It doesn’t look good, so don’t ask that.'”

 

****************

It was a nightmare come true.

One moment I was driving, my eyes focused on the road in front of me. I was on Willis Road, which runs east-west through the township of Stow Creek. Just before it meets Roadstown Road, Willis bends to the right, then goes straight for a few hundred yards. That bend means that Willis meets Roadstown Road at a sharp angle. To head toward Bridgeton and points east, you have to turn your head and look far over your shoulder to check for oncoming traffic.

There was no traffic at that intersection that morning. I turned the Monte Carlo’s steering wheel to the right and eased through the turn.

And that is where, in the tape reel of my mind, everything stops — the screen goes black and the audio cuts out.

At least that’s how it feels at a normal level of consciousness. At some greater depth, I sometimes think, there is a faint imprint in my memory of some of the moments of sheer chaos that occurred on Roadstown Road on the morning of March 30, 2001.

Infrequently I feel that some of these snippets are there in my mind, but that for some reason I cannot bring them into focus. The mind works in mysterious ways, and its limitations are sometimes for the better.

What I do know is that I awoke in a hospital bed.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Tubes tethered me to a monitor.

How did I get there? Immediately, I had no recollection.

Where exactly was I? I did not know.

To my left, a curtain hung from the ceiling.

It was no longer Friday, but Sunday or early Monday. As I would find out, I was in Cooper Hospital in Camden, New Jersey. I had been induced into a coma to alleviate swelling on my brain. I had also been intubated but had pulled out the tube on my own.

My mother asked me whether there was anything I wanted. My CD player, I said. So she brought it to me, with a disc my sister Meredyth had burned for me at college; at that time CD burning technology was new and our Gateway PC at home didn’t have it.

Someone placed the headphones around my ears and hit the “play” button. I was too weak to do it myself, at least at first. I couldn’t stay awake for more than an hour or so at a time, so I drifted in and out amid the sounds of Collective Soul, R.E.M. and the rest of the mixtape.

Lock the door, lock the door
And it’s good to know that you’ll drive away
From this car crash nightmare
And I’ll be there to help you again

There’s no danger
We’re just killing time again
When they order up new parts

I have been good
I understood
Like a machine they’ll fix you from the start

Our Lady Peace, “In Repair”

**************

March 31, 2001, copy of the Press of Atlantic City

March 31, 2001, copy of the Press of Atlantic City

 

“Who beat me up?”

That was one of my first questions to my mother and whoever else was in my room. She remembers it even now.

As I regained awareness, faint memories rose to the surface like bubbles from the depths of my mind. I tried to retrace my path mentally but could not.

As I would find out, I had been in a car accident, a head-on collision, at the bend on Roadstown Road. Moments later, at least three passers-by happened upon the scene — a nurse, a county worker and a farmer. The farmer, a man named Dean Roork, had been driving toward the intersection on Greenwich Road, to my right. He was the first to reach the car. Someone called 911 from a phone booth at the intersection.

The collision had such an incredible amount of force that it jolted the Monte Carlo backward, perhaps some 75 to 100 feet, from the point of impact, sending the car into a telephone pole and guy wire. That second impact was hard enough to dent the trunk and the metal sheath around the guy wire. (The wire still has the dent, my mother says.)

Most of the bones around my left eye were broken, and it was uncertain whether my eye was damaged. My right ankle was severely sprained, though not broken.

I had been hit by two teenage brothers, Christopher and Dustin Opperman, who were speeding in a Geo Metro on their way to a public high school in the area. As they went around the curve, the most notorious one in the area, they lost control of their car. I asked about them; they were fine.

I had lost a lot of blood. At the hospital I received two units via transfusion.

This was too much for me to process. How could this happen?

I also began to notice the commotion coming from the bed to my left. It was, as I found out, a teenage boy who’d been in a dirt bike accident. I do not remember how long he had been in the hospital. I do not even remember his name. Sometimes he would scream out in pain; at others, he would demand painkillers. He became addicted to them, and as he was denied the drugs, he would yell out even more.

Enduring his yelling was difficult, especially given that I’d had a severe concussion and couldn’t handle loud noise. His cries did, however, strengthen my resolve that I would not ask for painkillers. I was hurting, but I was determined to tough my way through it. I searched in my mind for a place where the pain could not reach me.

As a sleep-deprived teenager, I’d never imagined that I would get tired of lying in a bed. But being hospitalized showed me that a bed can be a terribly confining place. I longed to do something as simple as standing up and walking around. But even if I’d been allowed to get up from the bed, I didn’t have the energy to do it. My equilibrium was out of whack, my strength and stamina gone.

Perhaps a day or two after I regained consciousness, the nurse told me I was allowed to get up out of bed. Not only was I allowed, but I should. So I decided I would use the bathroom. Mustering all my strength, I slid to the edge of the bed and rose slowly. My legs wobbled. I nearly fell over but stayed upright. I shuffled toward the door.

****************

 

There are some moments, some points in our lives that are imprinted in our memories indelibly. My first trip to the bathroom was one of those moments, because of what I saw when I looked in the mirror: a bizarre version of myself, one with the left side of its face caved in. I had not been prepared for that. My heart sank. I still held childhood dreams of becoming a sports broadcaster, and in my reflected image I saw my future career vanishing. Who would hire someone with a lopsided face?

I also felt something so strong that I remember it even now: determination. Many emotions coursed through my body, but above all was a sense of resolve. Hurt as they did, these injuries would not stop me. For a a few seconds, I thought of a day, far into the future, when this very scene of looking into the mirror at a bizarre version of myself would be but a brief memory.

I soon found out that I would be having surgery to insert two titanium plates in my face — one behind my eyebrow and the other below my eye. The doctors, Mulligan and Lanzi, assured me that I would look like I did before the accident. But clearly they had some uncertainty; my mother signed a waiver permitting the removal of my eye if the damage was too great.

I joked with Dr. Mulligan that he’d better not live up to his name. It took everything I had to get that joke out, given the circumstances. He laughed.

****************

 

I was a Philadelphia Phillies junkie. I followed every game, whether on TV or radio, and read the stories and looked at the box scores in the next day’s paper.

The Phillies have the most losses of any franchise in pro sports history, so it is generally hard to be a fan of them in any era, but with that said, the end of the last millennium was a bleak time. The last piece of the oddball 1993 National League champions, Curt Schilling, had been traded away to Arizona in the middle of the 2000 season, and the Phils went on to lose 97 games.

Understandably, expectations for the 2001 Phillies were low, yet that had never stopped me from watching and listening, and as April neared I was looking forward to the season opener April 2 at Florida.

I missed that game — and it’s probably just as well. Closer Jose Mesa, the team’s big free agent signing in the offseason, blew the save in his first appearance as a Phillie. The Phils would go on to win in 13 innings.

I have an uncanny memory for remembering exactly where I was for certain games, and one way I know I must have been feeling better by the next day, April 3, is that I remember watching the game on the small TV mounted high on the wall in the hospital room. As Mesa threw warm-up pitches before the bottom of ninth, with the Phillies leading 4-3, I felt nervous. That says it all about what kind of baseball nut I was — I was in the hospital and I was worried about the outcome of the second game of the season.

Mesa allowed only a single and earned the save. The next night, the Phils rallied in the eighth inning and won, 7-3, to start the season with a sweep.

****************

 

On April 8, the Sunday before Easter, I was released from Cooper Hospital. I had been there for nine days.

According to hospital policy, or so they said, I had to ride in a wheelchair to the exit. I didn’t want to, but I didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to argue that I could walk to the door.

And anyway, my right leg was black and blue from the upper ankle almost to my toes. The area around my left eye was purple, and the eye itself was streaked with red from bleeding. I just wanted to go home.

I had shed 15 to 20 pounds — which was ironic because it happened to be the same amount of weight I’d been trying, in vain, to lose for seemingly my entire life.

I spent the next couple of weeks at home, thinking that I could heal quickly enough to do two things that were very important to me at the time: One was to rejoin the golf team before the end of the season in heroic fashion, and the second was to compete in the forensics meet that would determine who would go on to the national competition.

A couple of times, I ventured into the backyard with a few golf clubs and tried to hit balls into the marsh. But for a right-handed golfer, the right ankle has to turn and flex during the swing, and the pain and stiffness was too much. When the swelling didn’t subside, I went to see a doctor, who put me in a walking cast for six weeks. There would be no more golf and no forensics nationals.

There wasn’t much left in the academic year by the time I returned to school. Everyone at Sacred Heart made me feel so welcome on my first day back — something I’ll never forget. It was as if they hadn’t seen me in years. Perhaps some thought they would never see me again.

Teachers went easy on me, which I had mixed feelings about. I got through final exams. I probably could have skipped some of them and still passed, but I’ve always resisted taking the simple way out.

Even though I was back at school, my cognitive function took some time to return. I’m not sure anyone else noticed except for me. I wrote and delivered the salutatorian speech, but to this today I don’t remember any of it.

Cast, swollen eye and all, I went to prom and stayed on the dance floor longer than at any other school dance I ever attended.

 

****************

For many years, however, the left side of my face and nose felt numb, flat, dull. I would occasionally wonder if the numbness would ever go away, if the feeling would ever fully return.

At some point, I stopped thinking about it regularly, and it healed.

Going through a traumatic experience brings physical wounds as well as emotional wounds, and they overlap like a Venn diagram.

In a way, it was a terrible experience to have as a senior in high school. But there are always hidden blessings, and for me one was that I didn’t have much time to ruminate. After graduation, I went back to my weekend job at the Sunbeam newspaper, then to my summer job at the golf course. I worked seven days a week for the entire summer, without a single day off. I really couldn’t afford to; the golf job paid 6 bucks an hour, the newspaper job minimum wage, and if there was one thing I knew about college, it was that it was expensive.

There also was the legal aspect to deal with. The driver of the Metro faced driving charges that were eventually pleaded down to speeding. He never apologized to me, in court or since. And because he was underinsured, my family had to fight our own insurance company. That was disillusioning, especially for my first experience with the legal system. I don’t think the insurance company took my injuries as seriously as they were, in part because I determinedly returned to school and finished out the year. In their eyes, that lessened the severity of what I had been through.

 

****************

I live in Maryland now, and it’s been more than five years since I last drove through Roadstown. But when I was still in college, I would go down the same stretch of road nearly every time I was home on break. For years, memories and anxiety would flash through my mind. But over time, they became less and less, until I didn’t think about it at all.

Part of being a survivor is confronting your fears, and there is no greater fear than returning to the very scene that brought you, and loved ones, so much pain and anguish. There is even one expert who says the only way to overcome a traumatic experience is, essentially, to simulate it but to change the outcome.

Thanks to Google Maps’ Street View feature, I recently took a look at what a Google van equipped with a camera recorded as it drove through Roadstown. My first reaction was that the bend in road didn’t look nearly as steep, but given that it’s lined on both sides with historic homes and a fire company, I don’t think the curve or incline had been flattened.

As I clicked on the arrows to travel through the intersection one more time, in virtual reality, I noticed a major change: The intersection was a four-way stop.

The implications lingered in my mind. Had the intersection been a four-way stop fifteen years ago, perhaps everything would have played out differently and March 30, 2001, would have been just another quiet, rain-soaked morning in the hinterlands of southern New Jersey.

But if I have learned anything in the 15 years that span that morning to now, it is that reality happens only one way for us and thinking about would-haves, should-haves and could-haves is wasted time and energy.

It is at that point in space and time where I had a close call, an instant where everything could have ended for me. Yet for some reason, perhaps only for sheer luck, it did not.

It has taken me 15 years to get to the point where I felt comfortable writing about this. But it’s more than that — I felt that I had to write about it, because it was and is such an important story and I am the only one who can tell it from a first-person view.

In hindsight, I can see now that this experience affected me in profound ways. I experienced what is known as survivor’s guilt. I can remember the first and second anniversaries of the crash and feeling overwhelmed as I revisited what I had been through.

I felt embarrassed, too. That is one of the worst parts of being a victim — the loss of control, the sense of powerlessness.

In late summer 2001, I gave a short speech at the Salem County Fair on behalf of a group called the Saved By the Belt Club, which promoted seat belt awareness. It was a positive experience, yet at the same time I didn’t know how to deal with that kind of attention, didn’t know how to process it. I think I also didn’t want to accept it, at least not fully. That was the only time I spoke about the experience publicly — until now.

A car is one of the most dangerous things we handle in our lives. In our hands, these 3,000- to 4,000-pound machines have the potential to maim and kill, yet as a society we write this off as simply the cost of such luxury, or — worse yet — a “tragedy.”

I can’t stand the word “tragedy.” Automobile injuries and deaths are not tragedies, in cases such as mine. They are the result of recklessness or carelessness, often written off as “human error.” They are a daily horror that we permit.

If you take anything away from this essay, let it be this: It could have been you. In the Baltimore area, where I live now, traffic is among the worst I’ve ever seen. Why is it that way? It’s really an issue of selfishness and lack of caring. Most people drive 10 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit. Everyone behaves as if they’re in the biggest hurry and that their immediate desire — to get to where they are going, be it work, a Royal Farms or a stop sign 100 feet away — is more important than everyone else’s. And because of that, people get hurt and people suffer. Yet we can all do more to keep it from being so. If there’s anything you take away from this, I hope it’s this: Slow down, always buckle your seat belt and drive your car as if lives are always at stake. They are.

 

Note: These events are based on my memory and conversations with my mother, as well as Liam and Brandon. Some details are a bit hazy after the passing of 15 years, but with their help I have pieced them together as best I can.

 

Epilogue

8:30 p.m., March 29: I was working on the end of this essay this afternoon, sitting in a nearly empty Subway restaurant in the Wal-Mart in Dundalk while waiting for a minor car repair that, at three-plus hours, seemed to be taking far too long. I walked back to the auto body shop, asked for my car back (the shop kept the driver-side mirror cover, which was what needed work) and drove toward my job in Baltimore City. About 15 minutes later, as I traveled on U.S. Route 40, an unmarked police car pulled out in front of me in the middle of the intersection with North Gay Street. The driver of the police car, a Ford Crown Victoria, was trying to turn left across three lanes of oncoming traffic that had the right of way; I was in the far right lane and had no way to see it. I slammed on the brakes and gripped the steering wheel as tightly as I could.

For a moment, it was as if all the air were sucked out of the world. I held on, powerless, as my car skidded along the pavement. BOOM! Like the sound of a giant balloon bursting, my car smashed into the front end of the Crown Vic. Everything seemed to be in slow motion and fast forward at the same time. I waited for the air bags to inflate; they didn’t. Cars whooshed past relentlessly; none stopped to help.

As I type this, I think I am OK. My nerves are rattled, and I hope that is the extent of it. Many people would say this is simply a case of bad luck. Is it? If this essay has shown anything, it is that I am lucky.

How’s this for irony: My car is back at the same repair shop I had departed before this latest crash. It will get fixed. Soon I will be back driving, as I usually do, in the far right lane. You can look out for trouble, as I’ve found out, but sometimes it finds you. Hopefully you are lucky when it does.

A song comes to mind that I’ve heard quite frequently recently thanks to Internet streaming: “Across the Universe” by the Beatles. It is a song that is really a poem, a meditation, an incantation that, to me, celebrates a paradox. It’s a song that I thought about while writing this essay, and again as I sat in my car this afternoon and waited for the tow truck.

 

Words are flowing out like
Endless rain into a paper cup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe.
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
Are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me.
Jai Guru Deva. Om
Nothing’s gonna change my world

 

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