I had a bad year that began in August 1966 when my wife refused to go to Texas with me. I was in the Marines, stationed in southern California. I had been selected for a prestigious Navy Enlisted Scientific Education Program (NESEP) at the University of Texas in Austin. The position meant a promotion to sergeant and offered the opportunity to become a commissioned officer. I felt a sense of accomplishment, but my wife thought she wouldn't fit into that world.
I put my wife with our son in an apartment and drove alone to Austin. I found an apartment with another NESEP and began classes. A couple of months later my wife and son arrived and moved into a different apartment complex. We attempted a reconciliation, but I found a letter she had written to her lover in California saying she preferred him to me. I got a divorce. That may seem superfluous but at the time I was communicating with my mother and she knew the details.
After the divorce I started dating again. There was one woman that I liked named Cathy in a class I was taking. We often had lunch together. She played clarinet in the marching band and their practices took up all her free time. She promised that once football season was over we would start dating. I anticipated a new love, a new relationship, a new brighter future.
One morning my clock radio woke me to the morning news announcer naming Cathy among the four band members killed on their way to the last game of the season. The car she rode in was hit head-on by a wrong-way driver on the freeway. I went into shock, not knowing what to do or think. I remember asking the radio station to play a particular popular song dedicated to her; they said no.
I shared these kinds of things with my mother. Although I wrote letters, my mother and I also exchanged audio tapes using small reel-to-reel recorders. I would mail a tape with my message and she would listen to it then record over it and send me the tape. We could record on both sides of the tape, but sometimes only one side would be recorded over, leaving the conversation from the other party. Thus, I still have a few tapes of my mother's voice relaying the family news of the time, including one about an upcoming plan to see her.
I had a Volkswagen Beetle in Austin and my parents had a Pontiac GTO. My dad had quit his job to get a degree in sports officiating. Mom worked as a transcriber with the Los Angeles County but she developed bursitis and was seeking disability. Money was a little tight on their end and we decided to switch cars. The plan was for mom and my brothers Mark and Matt to meet me in Lordsburg, New Mexico, which was almost half way between us to socialize and exchange cars.
I asked my commanding officer for permission to travel to Lordsburg over the weekend. He denied the request, saying it was too far. I went anyway. In Lordsburg I checked into a motel and waited for them to arrive. In the morning the state police knocked on my door and told me to call home. I asked why but they said they only had that message.
Grandpa answered the phone and told me that a crash just outside Safford, Arizona, had killed my mother and brother Matt, but that Mark was in the hospital in Safford. He told me to go back to Austin because Dad was on his way to Safford. After I hung up, I drove to Safford where I inquired about the crash.
Apparently they approached a bridge over a culvert when for some reason they hit the end of the guardrail. In Texas the guardrails have the ends buried, but in Arizona they just stuck out. Mom was driving, Matt was in the front passenger seat and Mark was asleep in the backseat. Matt went through the windshield. Mark woke up in the front seat, badly injured with his dead mother lying with her head on him. I have no way of knowing the horror Mark endured.
Guard rail after crash near Safford, Arizona
I talked to Mark in the hospital and he asked me about mom. I knew dad would soon be there, and that I wasn't supposed to be there, so I didn't know if it was proper for me to tell him she had died so I didn't. Maybe I should have. I think it upset Mark later that I had lied to him about not knowing. It also put the burden of telling him on my dad.
After Dad arrived in the Safford hospital, I left to return to Austin, stopping to take pictures of the car and the crash site. I drove through the night and in the early-morning mist almost hit a deer crossing the road. Still I made it back. I then had to ask for leave in order to attend the funeral.
Meanwhile, Mark continued to experience bad luck. Mark's original diagnosis was that he had a leg fracture and bruised organs, but when Dad took him home on a plane, Mark complained of neck pain. Dad took him to our family doctor who determined that Mark also had a fractured spine. They put him in traction in the local hospital, which meant Mark was strapped on a padded board placed lengthwise on his bed. They drilled holes on each side of his head above his ears and inserted metal pins. A metal U-shaped harness was then connected to the pins and a rope ran from the harness over a pulley to a bag of sand that hung freely and stretched his spine.
The bag also swung freely back and forth when one day a rolling earthquake caused the building to sway. He was on the fourth floor of the hospital in a semi-private room. Because he was in traction he could not get up nor move around. He could only lie there and barely move his head.
I was able to visit Mark at the hospital when I went to the funeral. He told me that story and another about the patient in the bed next to him constantly moaning loudly. Mark complained several times to the nurses over his intercom that the noise kept him from sleeping. Finally Mark called the nurse station and a nurse answered in an annoyed voice: "Yes, Mark." Mark told the nurse: "You know that guy next to me?" The nurse repeated "Yes, Mark." Mark told her "He just died." A mild panic ensued in his room and Mark actually had to instruct one panicked orderly how to attach a device to the wall.
Mark was eventually released from the hospital after I returned to Texas, but his bad luck continued. He was prescribed pain pills to take whenever his pain got too intense, so he carried a few with him. On one occasion he got pulled over by the police for some traffic violation and was arrested for having narcotics: his pain pills. He had to post bail and go to court.
The funeral was for both Mom and Matt. I remember looking at Matt in his casket, knowing that I had a fancy technical watch that he had really liked. I felt bad that I hadn't given him the watch and brightened up his life before he died. I put the watch on his wrist in the casket. I also remember comforting my grandmother. It was a time of great sadness that revolved about me while I remained stoic, trying to stay strong.
Right after the funeral I flew back to Texas. I had flown out of San Antonio on military standby, parking my car at the airport. After returning, I left San Antonio to drive north to Austin that evening. The freeway was two lanes on either side of a wide median. A chain-link fence ran next to the freeway along the median.
As I drove north I could see the line of red tail-lights ahead of me and a line of white headlights on the other side of the median. I was in my Volkswagen Beetle in the fast lane passing alongside an 18-wheeler when I noticed one of the white lights seemed out of place. It took me a moment to realize it was a car coming towards me on the wrong side of the freeway. Suddenly jolted alert, I searched for options to escape this oncoming death.
Since I was between the chain-link fence and the cab of the 18-wheeler I was afraid that if I braked I wouldn't get behind the truck before the car ahead hit me head on. So I floored the accelerator on the underpowered VW Beetle. It crept slowly alongside the truck as I watched the approaching lights. Barely ahead of the truck, maybe not even completely ahead, I knew I had to get out of the path of that oncoming car. I swerved in front of the truck right before the oncoming headlights shot past me to my left. Maybe the truck driver saw the situation and braked.
I don't know what happened to that oncoming car, or to cars on the highway behind me. Once again I felt somewhat in shock, realizing that I had almost died exactly like Cathy had died. That would have made for a very bad year. In less than a year I had my wife betray me, had my girlfriend die, had my mother and brother die, and nearly died myself. Other than that….