November 1958, a rainy day in Catonsville, Md.
My dad was at home having just returned from the hospital with the first of what would be three heart attacks. I was riding in the front seat of the family car with mom at the wheel and we were returning from grocery shopping...then a weekly task with many bags and many items. Mom was anticipating Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks, so the list had been a little longer. The need to get back home to Dad was on her mind.
Catonsville MD is a sea of old oak trees and in the fall, a sea of leaves and acorns. On a rainy day, those leaves stick to the roadways, and you learn, sometimes the hard way, that they can become as slick as ice.
As Mom made the left turn from South Rolling Road onto Ridge Rd. my first recollection is slamming against the passenger door and seeing a swirl of fall colors going past the windshield. An eyewitness on the other side of Ridge Road described our 1955 Pontiac Chieftain doing a complete 360 before hitting the curb and proceeding up on the lawn of 1300 South Rolling. That was the point at which my mom tried to jam on the brakes but hit the accelerator and sent the car careening into the stone house on the corner. After the impact I regained consciousness on the floor of the front seat with a mouth full of kitty litter (we had a cat at the time and the new bag of litter had exploded in the collision.). I remember hearing my mom moaning and looked up to see the face of a young man (the eyewitness neighbor) at the driver’s side window attempting to open the car door. There was some smoke which added to the drama, but fortunately no fire.
I don’t remember being taken inside the house but do remember laying on the sofa in the living room with a towel on my head.
This was 1958. No seat belts. No airbags. Steel, unpadded dash boards. Plastic steering wheels. Breakable rearview mirrors, turn signals, shift arms and other accessories capable of becoming knives in an instant. Remember?
It was later determined after an ambulance ride to St. Agnes Hospital that I had suffered a fractured skull (a perfect impression of my forehead was in that steel dashboard), and my mom had a compound fractured arm. She had broken off the steering wheel on impact.
Mom was a profile in courage that day. Remember, my dad is at home having just returned from a long stay in the same hospital where we were going in the ambulance. She was holding her bloody arm in a towel while the kitchen phone was dialed for her, and the receiver held up to her ear. First, she called Dad to say that we had had a “little accident” (lie #1), but we were fine (lie #2). They were just taking us to the hospital to get checked out, but we’d be home soon (lie #3). Then she called her sister Annie to say that we had been in a little fender bender, and would she please go to our house to be with Dad. Finally, she called our neighbor Bud Christian (Chris’s dad, see my blog Immutable Friendship) to meet us at the hospital so that we would have a way home. All calls were performed perfectly calmly while holding a compound fractured arm in a towel.
My other memory at the house that day is an amusing detail, a crying police officer. Owing to my grandfather’s service as a magistrate in Catonsville, my dad had hung out at his office in the Catonsville Police/Fire Station over the years and had gotten to know many police officers and firemen. Being my dad, they had associated him with bake goods from my mom, little gifts, hands-on assistance with their miniature train garden every Christmas, and frequent drop-ins to check on them and their families.
It seems that when the police and fire call went out on the radio concerning our accident, my mom’s last name had alerted the constabulary to our identity. This was pre-privacy days and names were still being used. Officer Charlie Rockenbaugh, who I don’t think was even assigned to the Wilkens Precinct at the time, heard the call and was one of the responding units. So, I’m lying on the sofa and in the door comes Charlie (who I vaguely recognized). Charlie knew what kind of a year the Constance family had had. He had visited dad in the hospital and now saw a totaled family car resting against the house and mother and son pretty busted up. He had tears rolling down his cheeks and could hardly get out the words, “Son, I’m so sorry.”
When you are an eight-year-old kid, you associate the police with strength and authority. They are the “helpers” who remain strong and know what to do. I had never even seen my parents cry at this point in my life, so Charlie with tears in his eyes set me back.
We heard later that my Aunt Annie who reacted to my mom’s calm voice with a "this is no big deal” attitude, got in the family car with my Uncle Andy and headed to my parent’s house, normally about a 10-minute ride away. When they reached the center of the Village, traffic stopped and as they eventually made it to the end of South Rolling Road, the sky was ablaze in flashing lights from fire engines, police cars, and tow trucks. Surely this couldn’t be the fender bender mom had described.
And then there was that illusive jar of Tang, the powdered orange breakfast drink that was sweeping the nation. My mom had had a tough time locating it at the grocery store that day and it was one of my dad’s favorites. This problem was still lurking in the far reaches of her mind, so when she came out of operating room and was recovering from anesthesia, she kept insisting to my Uncle Bud that we had to get that jar of Tang. “Bud, I need the Tang. We can’t leave until we get the Tang. Bud, do you understand what I’m saying? This is important Bud.”
“Yes Lil, we’ll get the Tang, I promise”. Kind, patient Bud probably thought she had lost her mind.
Postscript: I missed a year of school, developed a lifelong case of math anxiety, but suffered no other ill effects (add your jokes here). Mom’s recovery was long and painful, but squeezing a tennis ball, and playing the electric organ brought back full use of her hand and arm.
I continue to warn all who will listen to be careful of wet leaves in the Fall.