by Bud Finlayson

Chapter 20

Rejection, Second Opinion, and Tongs

I could have just sat on that river bank for the rest of my life and been content but I had to go back to the real world and back to school. But attending school without playing football was like eating eggs without chili, boring and tasteless. School was merely a prelude to football, something that had to be tolerated to earn the privilege of stepping onto a gridiron. I had grown so accustomed to football being in my life that it was hard to have it stolen away so suddenly with no time to adjust to the vacuum created. I wasn't so ignorant to think there was no more to life than football, but football had been all I'd ever wanted and by choice I'd limited myself to football. So, the rest of that week I just showed up at school in a limbo of confusion, with only the reassurance of seeing Lori, to bolster my faltering self esteem.

Tuesday had passed on to Friday and I was never contacted to return to the squad, nor had my friends protested my dismissal and it appeared that the team would be fine without me. The halls were decked out in blue and gray and excitement was everywhere as was the typical game day atmosphere. I would have been wearing my varsity "LAMAR CONS FOOTBALL" T-shirt but I was not worthy, being a non-football player.

Since Tuesday, Lori had seemed a little distant, even though I looked to her more and more for positive support. She was obviously more reserved and less affectionate around me, and several times failed to meet me between classes, after having been perfect in doing so, during the previous two weeks. I was too trusting to see it coming, but after third period government class, she did show up to tell me something as we met in the school's spacious central lobby. She smiled at me sweetly and my heart melted with the pleasure of receiving her greeting, but then she looked reluctant.

"Bud," she offered, "I don't want you to take this in the wrong way or feel hurt by it because I know you already feel bad enough about being kicked off the team but I have to tell you something. Look. I really like you a lot. You're a nice guy; one of the really nicest guys I've ever dated, but I don't want to get too serious with any one guy yet. You know I dated Johnny last year, don't you? (J.Phillips the blue chip running back) Well, I really still like him, and want to be able to see him when he visits on weekends from college. And I'd like to date other guys besides that. It's not that I don't like you, or anything. We'll still be friends and all. I don't want any hard feelings to come between us. You understand don't you?"

Kinda like after Lucky's speech, there wasn't a whole lot to say after something as thorough as that and I was too green to know how to respond or demand her submission. I merely answered, "Well. Yeah. I guess so. If you're sure that's the way you want it. But what about the Homecoming dance?" "I wanted to ask you about that, too." she returned, "I really had my heart set on going with a varsity football player, and I know you already asked me, but if somebody else from the team asks me; you wouldn't mind if I went with them instead? Would you?" Again, I was too stupefied to talk and just muttered, "" Her smile returned and she said, "I knew you'd understand."

She concluded by saying that if nobody asked her, that she'd go with me if I still wanted to, but in the meantime, I didn't have to worry about walking her to class and all that. I figured my chances were slim that I'd escort her to the dance, for once she put the word out that she was available, guys would be all over her like a loose fumble. So, I guess, I'd been officially dumped. If I was no longer a football player then naturally, I had no right to retain the fringe benefits, even though it did hurt. I had been so naive to believe that her affections were genuine towards me, but now it was clear that I'd been used by her to procure a date to the Homecoming dance. Someone of her good looks and status could not be accompanied by anyone less than a varsity football player, and me being unclaimed and not the worst looking one, I just happened to get picked, although little did she know that I'd be "subversive" enough to get kicked off the team. I should have known from the start that she was out of my league, but I was still so gullible that her kisses and caresses stayed with me, and I still longed to experience them again.

Now, my rejection was finalized; earlier in the week Lucky had broken my spirit and then Lori broke my heart, and I retreated into a severe state of indifference. What-the-hell? I didn't care what happened to me then, for I'd lost the only things that mattered to me in life; the recognition of football and to be desired by a girl. I broke my pledge of not getting high during the season, and began to do so every chance I got, whether on the weekend or during school, it didn't matter. I shunned football, authority and girls, but all the while, secretly pined away for Lori. The new role of a deviant misfit, I accepted wholeheartedly and began to befriend those of the "wrong crowd" and color for the criteria was not so stringent on one to gain approval. All one had to do was have an open mind; not clamped shut like the majority, "status quo" intolerants. And, for the next two weeks, I drifted through an oblivion of marijuana smoke, guilt, anger, and the ever-present burning pain in my neck, that hadn't subsided one bit.

September had come to a close and the Mustangs had improved their record to 3-1 with two wins in a row, since I'd been booted from the team. They shut-out Jersey village by a convincing 35-0 margin and the following week they shut out Victoria Stroman in a tight 7-0 defensive struggle, providing strong evidence that I was not missed. David remained as a backup behind the coach's son, Bobby, and as a result quit the team. It wasn't worth the sacrifice of him enduring a chronic asthma condition he'd contacted in dusty hay barns the summer of our Freshman year, to just ride the bench. He said it was also for all of Lucky's bullshit, besides that. Again, Lucky had discouraged and snuffed out another young man's dreams. David too, was looked upon with contempt and suspicion.

I attended neither of the games for one that had been ostracized such as I was not considered worthy of backing the team. A football stadium was the last place I wanted to be on a Friday night though, because I no longer cared if the Mustangs won or lost. I just wanted to get stoned, to ease the mental and physical pain and to forget that I was once a part of them. They would be tested in the upcoming game against undefeated El Campo though, a long time nemesis and a top contender for the district crown.

Monday morning began with a heightened festiveness, for it was the week of the Homecoming game. The air was filled with gaiety, mystery, and anticipation of what would climax on Friday evening. In the cool of that October night, in a jam packed Mustang stadium, the home team would hopefully prevail, while an extra special half-time show would see the new Homecoming queen crowned, and then the partying would resume in the school cafeteria at the big dance. I was feeling detached from all the fun, but there was still a chance that I might go with Lori to the dance for she'd not yet arranged a substitute for me. My friends kept telling me to blow her off, but I was still fool enough to think we could go and things would be forgotten and I'd regain her confidence and affections. I figured that I was due for something to go right; life certainly couldn't be that unfair.

Wednesday of that week, October third, my Mom had set up an appointment for me to go see a specialist in Houston, about my neck. She'd grown impatient with the treatment I'd received locally, for their 2-3 week estimated recovery period had grown then to six weeks and still there was no improvement. My Mom drove me to school that morning, and was back at 2:00 o'clock to pick me up early and we drove into Houston via South Main, through Sugarland, Missouri City and Stafford. The clinic was south of town, outside the loop, a squat, modern building with a row of expensive foreign cars in the doctor's parking spaces.

The reception lobby was carpeted and plush and we filled out an information medical history form as we waited. Shortly, I was led into a windowless X-ray room and a plump, dark man with purplish lips came in, in a white doctor's coat with his name embroidered on it but I couldn't make it out. He introduced himself in a foreign accented English and I began to explain, from the beginning what had happened but he seemed to not listen as he felt around on my neck. All he said was, "We will take X-rays."

I was laid on a hard X-ray table and told to relax, for it was going to take about half an hour. The camera mechanism, connected to a boom, was pulled over me and positioned in place above my head and the cross-hairs were lined up on my neck and I was told to hold my breath. They pushed a button and the camera boom began to move quickly in an arc, down to my feet then back over my head, the camera always aiming at my neck. When it stopped, I was told to breathe again. They changed the film plate under me, made an adjustment on the camera boom, and repeated the process. That was done about ten times, then I was turned to my side, and the same was done about ten more times.

When the X-rays were all finished the doctor studied them quietly and I asked what he saw but he didn't answer me, as if I weren't there. I was beginning to resent his rudeness, but then he came to me, pulled a stick-pin from his lab coat lapel and began to prick the back of my left hand, asking me if I felt it, and if so, sharp or dull? Amazingly, it wasn't painful, like a pin; it felt more like he poked me with a wooden toothpick. He moved to my other hand, then instructed me to remove my shoes and socks, and he began to stick my bare feet, and again it felt like a blunt object. He stopped, thought to himself, then announced that he didn't want to speculate, but wanted us to go see a neurologist in the Medical center. I thought an appointment was being made for a future date, but upon finishing a telephone call, he told us to go right over from there.

We were handed the X-rays in a big yellow envelope and exited the clinic, traveling back up South Main, towards downtown, to the Houston Medical center. My Mom and I didn't talk a lot for we suspected something might be wrong, but couldn't begin to guess what it might be. We passed loop 610 and the Astrodome and soon were among the jungle of high-rise buildings that made up the Medical Center. The neurologist's office was atop a multi-level parking garage that we climbed around and up in the car and then took an elevator to his floor.

Behind a sliding glass window, in his small, artificially bright waiting room, a receptionist asked for the X-rays and gave us another questionnaire to fill out. When my Mom and I were called in to see the Doctor, he was already going over the X-rays shown up on a long viewing screen. There were about ten different shots, both front and side views of my head and neck. The doctor's back was to us and he continued to study the films intently, not being disturbed by our entrance, so we just stood looking at them too. Momentarily, he turned and simultaneously forced out the words, "God damned high school football!," addressed to no one in particular. Then he looked to us and introduced himself as Dr. Moiel, not apologizing for his mild outburst.

He appeared to be in his late forties, a stocky, fair skinned man of medium height and curly brown hair worn in a short afro. Maintaining a serious air, he offered us chairs and got directly to the point, "This happened playing high school football?" he asked. I told him yes and he looked even more disgusted and told me frankly, "You've got a broken neck." My Mom clutched my hand, closed her eyes, and gulped slowly, but I just had to smile, for it was such an ironically bizarre and appropriate diagnosis to conclude the past weeks turn of events.

The doctor smiled then and told me, "I'm glad to see you're taking this so well, but I don't think you understand the seriousness of your injury. You are lucky to still be walking, and much less to be alive. The 5th cervical vertebra (he pointed to it in the X-ray) is severely dislocated and is putting pressure on the spinal cord. It could slip out more and sever the cord, with just a small jolt or any quick movement, and you'd be paralyzed instantly." The vertebra did look clearly out of line but it seemed the doctor was being too cautious. I told him that I'd been that way six weeks already and taken on some jolts and blows, played in two football games and nothing had happened.

"Six weeks!," he exclaimed, "and you're just now coming to see me?!" I explained briefly about the original diagnosis and treatments "Your neck should have been immobilized immediately!," he stated in exasperation, "When are these idiot football coaches going to learn they are dealing with human beings and stop sending them to unqualified quacks! You're the third broken neck I'm treating caused by high school football this year in the Houston area; and only half the season has gone by! But that is enough of that, we've got to get your neck stabilized as soon as possible."

Mother was still shaky and upset, but kept reassuring me everything would be alright. I was just glad something was going to get done and that my complaints hadn't gone unfounded after all. The doctor proposed the options of immobilizing the spine for six weeks in traction, to let the ligaments heal around the bone and hold it naturally in place, or perform surgery and fuse the 5th & 6th vertebra together, to hold it. My Mom asked his advice and they agreed to try without the surgery first. The Doctor slipped a foam collar around my neck and called St. Lukes Hospital, only blocks away, to send over an ambulance to transport me there. He said as long as he was in charge of my care, he was going to take every precaution necessary.

Two ambulance men arrived in minutes and strapped me down to their stretcher and I felt silly being treated with such strict carefulness. They rolled me out of the office, down the elevator and into the ambulance, where Dr. Moiel joined me for the 5 minute ride to St. Lukes; and my mom followed us in the car. I was rolled directly into a surgery bay of the emergency room under a bright examination light, surrounded by white tiled walls.

I was stripped and put into a hospital gown, by orderlies, as Moiel prepared some type of injection. It was a nerve anesthetic that he shot into the sides of my head at spots a little above both ears. As it took affect, he explained basically that the tongs I was to have put on, named for their similarity to ice tongs, were an apparatus attached to the head so traction could be applied to the neck, with weight. My head would be like a block of ice, gripped tightly between the two points. I was a little nervous, but not as much as I would have been, had I seen the tongs first. For that same reason, I think, they didn't show them to me, all they said was, "Hold on. Here come the tongs."

An orderly sprawled himself across my upper body like a wrestler going for a pin, while the other orderly and Moiel began tightening the tongs from both sides of my head. I felt tremendous pressure exerted inwards, the most terrific pain I'd experienced ever, and imagined my head squashing flat, like a grape. It was a dull, blunt, intensity as result of the anesthetic; not sharp and piercing as I'd anticipated. A split-second vision flashed to me of Curly with his head in a vice being tightened by Moe and I imagined the ridiculous crunching sound effect. Moiel backed off, a little winded, and announced that it was done, but the pressure remained constant, and he said I'd get used to it. Then I felt a force pull upward, that gave me a slight facelift. It came from a 35 pound weight dangling past the head of the bed. Tied to the tongs, it hung from a small rope running through a pulley supported by a bracket of aluminum pipes attached to the head-board. This created the tension that would pull my vertebrae into position.

One of the orderlies showed me an extra set of tongs and it was hard to believe I had them on my head. They resembled the bracket that supports a world globe; one's head being the globe laid sideways. A 3/8" square rod of stainless steel was bent similarly in a crescent shape, with 1/4" diameter, 3" long stainless steel screws pointing toward each other on the extremities. These had razor sharp, pencil sized points on the inside ends, and knurled knobs on each outside end. Imagining the axis of the globe running horizontal, between the two spots above my ears, then the screws were the pivots for the north and south poles. As the screws were tightened closer together, my head in-between, the points punctured through the skin and penetrated about 1/16" deep into the bone of my skull. The rope connected to the weight was attached to the steel hoop. I imagined my head in a giant C-clamp, and couldn't understand what stopped the points from simply drilling through my skull into my brain.

X-rays were taken and the bone had slipped nicely into place, so they rolled me up to my room on the fourteenth floor and painfully transferred me to a regular bed. I lay still, and flat, not wanting to dare turn my head and bump the tong screws, and I took in my surroundings. A typical hospital room, stark, sterile, and impersonal; with a plate-glass window and 4' high counter housing the cooling/heating units running the whole length of the outside wall to my left, and the doorway and bathroom were to my right. A TV stared down at me from near the ceiling, on the wall in front of me, and an orange neon "Rock of Gibraltar" glared in the window from atop the Prudential Building outside across the way, framed by the dirty Houston twilight.

They were serving dinner and a tray arrived for me with a plate of baked chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green Jell-O for dessert. My Mom helped me eat, for I couldn't see the food, being flat, and the pressure of the tongs made opening my mouth very uncomfortable. What I did get into my mouth all tasted like bad meat-loaf, even the Jell-O, but my appetite wasn't that voracious right then anyway, as my whole head was one big pain. I would have preferred a joint more than food, but I was out of luck. My Mom stayed by my side, praying for me and assuring me that God was with me, and then we cried a little together. When she left, she promised some home cooking, and that she'd be back soon the next day.

She left at 8:00, the end of visiting hours, and a black guy, about my same age, walking stiff and wearing a complicated neck brace from his waist up, came into my room and gave me a smile. "My name's Myles," he said, "I know you ain't hip to no visitors right now, cause I been where you at, but I just wanted to tell you that it's gonna get better; you won't even feel them tongs in 4 or 5 days. I busted my neck, too, playing football for Conroe. I was starting quarterback but ain't no more." I painfully returned his smile and asked him how long he'd been there, and he answered, "Six weeks, just like you gonna be here, but I'm outa here tomorrow. Don't try to talk man, just be cool. The first night is the worst. Did you get some pain killers?" I said no, and he told me to just ask the nurse, "When you in tongs, they'll give you some good shit. I'll leave you be and go tell the nurse myself, to bring you some. Take it easy." I said good-bye, and he was gone.

A few minutes later the nurse called in on the intercom and asked if I did want the pain pills and I guiltily said yes and she said she'd be right in. She seemed perfectly willing to give them to me, two red and gray capsules and told me to just ring her if I needed anything else. When she left, the loneliness finally hit me and I lay there in despondent thought. Primarily, I attempted bearing up mentally to the pain, and hoping the tongs weren't going to rip the top of my head off. The pain pills kicked in a little, taking the sharp edge off the piercing pressure of the tong points, but their effectiveness was minimal. I turned on the TV but its noise was only irritation to my pounding headache and I switched it right back off. All I had was the pain and my thoughts to accompany me.

How I would love to see Lucky's and Lori's faces when they hear of my predicament. Maybe then they would regret having humiliated me. I felt vindicated for my non-participation after getting hurt because even a broken neck was serious business in Lucky's book. But six weeks tied to that bed seemed an eternity, too steep a price to pay for being forgiven; and having nothing to show when it was all said and done; not even sure of regaining my original physical well being and stature. Nobody even knew I was there, but my Mom; I was totally alone, feeling the abandonment that Warren probably felt, after being deceived by those he put his faith in and in the end being left to struggle alone against the strangling fingers of death. I doubted my case was that severe, but I did feel the isolation just the same. I drifted between these solemn thoughts, the unbearable pain, and fits of sleeplessness all the night through and I watched the sun return light to the next day.

Moiel made early 7:00am rounds and he asked how I slept and I said that I didn't, and he said I looked like I needed some sleep and he sent the nurse back with a tiny sleeping pill that I didn't think would do anything, but within a half hour I was fast asleep. I slept till 5:00 that afternoon and when I woke up, my Mom was sitting by the bed holding my hand. I smiled and she smiled and she told me she'd been there since 1:00 just praying. I was hungry and she fed me some pot roast and cornbread, she brought from home. Despite my pains, the familiar flavors of home tasted good and helped fortify me against those pains. When Mother left, she put the phone by the bed so I could call some friends.

I did call those whom had a 342-prefix for they were not long distance from Houston, and Lori was included in that group. I called her and said sarcastically, "You don't have to worry about going to Homecoming with me anymore, for I'll be unable to leave the hospital due to a broken neck." I figured I'd catch her breathless, but she answered plainly, "Oh, don't worry about me, you just get well; I got another date today. Bobby Shramme asked me to go with him at the last minute." How fitting, to be replaced by a quarterback/wide receiver that scores touchdowns and was still on the team. Lori didn't waste her time once I was conveniently out of the way. We didn't talk much longer and after hanging up I agonized; underestimating the power of Lori, I failed to shock her one bit. She seemed relieved to have me out of the way.

Again I slept hardly any, and let the drugs knock me out the next day, and Mother was also there waiting for me to wake up. After feeding me more home-cooking she left but had brought my radio and I was able to pick up Rosenberg's station, KFRD. I listened to the El Campo game and the Mustangs came away with an important win, 20-13, leaving them 2-0 in district and 4-1 for the year. Afterwards I switched to FM and listened to a rock station, KLOL, out of Houston almost the whole night. I thought of what a perfect Homecoming night it must be, that of my senior year, with the Mustangs topping the Ricebirds, and everyone going to the dance, riding the euphoria of that victory, and me bound to that hospital bed, all alone. The radio played, the complete side of a "Traffic" album and I cried. The lines spoke to me:
    "Sitting all alone by the fireside,
    Hear the wind in the chimney tops, 
    Haven't slept for days and I'm still wide eyed,
    Trying not to think but my mind won't stop,
    If I had a lover who's heart was true, 
    I wouldn't be alone in this evening blue."  
    And the next one, too: 
    "Sometimes I feel so uninspired.  
    Sometimes I feel like giving up. 
    Sometimes I feel so very tired.
    Sometimes I feel like I've had enough. 
    But don't let it get you down,
    There is no reason for not failing, 
    You've got to smile and turn the other cheek, 
    So today you might be dying, 
    Sometimes I feel like my head is spinning, 
    Hunger and pain is all I see, 
    I don't know who's losing, and I don't care who's winning,
      Hardships and troubles are following me." 

I finally fell asleep naturally, about 4:30am. I guess the tongs were getting better.

The long lonely days turned to weeks and yes the tongs were there but the pressure was non-existent. The holes in my head became pussed scabs and I was developing a half dollar sized pressure sore on the back of my head, and my hair was a greasy mess, being unwashed for two weeks, but at least the tongs didn't hurt. The weekdays were slow, and on weekends I looked forward to my friends coming to see me, but it was hard for them to come to Houston frequently. On a Sunday the 14th, I turned eighteen and didn't sign up for the draft. I guess that was one good thing about a broken neck, it would keep me from going to Nam, if the war didn't end, as it appeared to be doing so. My Mom made me a chocolate cake and my close friends came bearing gifts. They gave me an 8X10 glossy photo of the Lamar varsity coaching staff; down on one knee. Lucky was the focal point, flanked by Johnson, Hicks, Gorka, and Montoya, the trainer. Along with that they gave me an electric vibrating dildo, apparently expecting me to find some symbolism between the two.

They stuck the picture to the ceiling right above me to be the first decoration of my stark surroundings. One nurse had told me that Myles' room was so cluttered you could hardly get in. There were streamers, butcher-paper signs, balloons, stuffed animals, flowers, cards and a steady stream of people to visit him. She wondered why I didn't get that treatment and I told her about getting kicked off the team and she immediately understood, for she was a native Texan. I did receive one big, "Get well" card all signed by my English class. My teacher, Mrs. Cox, was a known subversive that would rather soon listen to Bob Dylan than the Lamar high alma mater, and she had the dubious reputation of not passing football players, unless they actually passed her class, regardless of Lucky's concerted efforts to persuade her otherwise.

Into the fourth week of my stay, I was deteriorating more and more. My well conditioned muscles were becoming flabby and weak from lack of use. The pressure sore was full blown, staining the sheets with bloody pus and stinking with infection, but there was no other way to rest my head and relieve the pressure, due to the protruding tong screws. The tong points had slipped out of the bone one night, catching only the skin, stretching my face grotesquely sideways, until the doctor on call could reset them, but not before a one hour wait. Since then I learned to keep them tightened snugly when I would feel them becoming loose. My bowels were totally confused from my body's constant horizontal position, and had only agreed reluctantly to move three times in the four weeks and I learned how uncomfortable the pains of constipation were. Then to top it all off, Coach Lucky came to visit me.

He arrived one weekday, accompanied by Johnson and Hicks, as I lay alone listening to the radio, They entered cautiously as if my room was quarantined against the black plague, and stood at the foot of my bed, closely together. He explained that they'd had to come into town on some coaching business and figured they'd might as well stop in and see me, too. (Clearly they wouldn't make a special trip just to visit me) They gave their condolences of my unfortunate predicament and then Lucky began to talk football. He commented that, despite trouncing Victoria 45-0 the previous week, it had been a tough game and was worried about playing Brazosport High, the district front-runner, on the road in Freeport. I had mustered the most uninterested face I could and stared at his photo on the ceiling. Maybe he sensed that I wasn't enjoying his visit and sheepishly said they had to go to get ready for football practice, but had just wanted to see how I was getting along. I didn't waste my breath saying good-bye, and I didn't regret being such an unaccomodating host. His visit infuriated me. I wanted to put my fist through a wall, but couldn't even rise to do that. How dare he come conveying his sanctimonious concern, without the least bit of an admission that he treated me unjustly. If he would have confessed his wrong doing, and restored my status to the team ensuring me of receiving my varsity letter, then maybe I would have felt exonerated. That wasn't his way though, and I was left alone to stew through confused emotions of rage and self pity.

After five and a half weeks, the tongs were to be removed, to my great relief, but not without torturing me one more time. First I was fitted with a neck brace like the one I had seen Myles in. An arrangement of straps, buckles, pads, and hard plastic, sandwiched me from the lower abdomen up over my shoulders, and attached to that front center and back center, were aluminum rods running vertically up to my chin and back of head. Atop each rod sat a padded cradle to support those parts, respectively, and they were connected by leather straps from back to front, on both sides, allowing me practically no movement of my head. Once they got it on me and all cinched up, the tongs were ready to come out. Moiel said it might smart a little, because for some reason when the pressure is released, it is painful. They started to unscrew but I screamed, "Wait!" for it felt just like they were tightening them inward. They ignored me and kept loosening and the tongs fell away. Although my head pulsated with pain, I was free of those cursed tongs.

I wanted to jump immediately out of bed but Dr. Moiel prohibited me. He said that after being flat so long, that my body's equilibrium would be all out of kilter, and if I were to attempt standing, that I would black-out and fall flat on my face. It was around 5:00 in the afternoon and he promised he'd get me up first thing in the morning, but gradually, on a tilt-table. Well, my bowels were still not cooperating and hadn't budged in two weeks, so when Moiel left I righted myself slowly, held on to the wall and made my way slowly to the bathroom, just a few steps away. By the toilet, there were handrails, so I grabbed them for support and lowered myself to the sitting position and my vertical bowels willingly evacuated their contents, giving me an orgasmic relief. I got back to bed and attempted no more walking, but I raised the head of the bed up as far as it would go to try acclimating myself to an upright position.

Before breakfast, Moiel and a physical therapist came in with a tilt-table. It was like a regular gurney, but the top was a vinyl upholstered sheet of plywood with a foot board on one end. There was a fulcrum across the middle, similar to a see-saw, that allowed it to be tilted to an upright position. They maneuvered it next to my bed and had me slide over on top of it. Then it was slowly tilted to about 45 degrees and stopped. Moiel asked me how I felt, and despite being a little light headed, I was determined to report that I was fine, because of the joyous anticipation of getting back on my feet. After a five minute pause, they raised up to about 60 degrees and stopped again, but I urged them to go all the way and they did, with the only ill effect being a slight vertigo from the unfamiliar perspective of an upright stance; having my head at such a lofty height once again.

The therapist took my arm to steady me as I stepped to the floor and I took a few unsteady paces. Moiel was encouraged that I hadn't toppled to the floor and told the therapist to lead me out to the hall. I advanced with the wonder of a baby learning to walk, concentrating on my balance, while all-the-time marveling at my new surroundings. Still aided by the therapist, we traveled at a turtle's pace up one end of the hall, then back down all the way to the other end, and then back to my room to rest. I was surprised by my exhaustion and the tenderness of my feet. It was like walking on hot asphalt, barefoot in May, before your feet toughen up. You anticipate each burning step to be painful, but you force yourself to endure, because you know it will get easier with time. Moiel told me I'd be out of there in a few days if I kept up the good work on my walking and got stronger.

The therapist would be coming up three times a day to "walk" me, but my football instincts made me push harder, ignoring aching feet and leg muscles, to walk relentlessly as much as I could. The brace didn't make things any easier, the way it held my chin up and inclined my head backwards, I couldn't see immediately in front of my feet and the stiffness of my upper body, required more effort to balance. I must have looked like a snobbish Frankenstein out for a stroll, but it beat laying in bed with steel pins drilled into my skull.

It was a Wednesday, exactly six weeks since my admission to the hospital, that I was released. The sensation of walking outside and seeing the world again was glorious, although be it big city Houston, that I never had delighted in before. I filled my lungs with the smog filled air and rejoiced in it, after breathing the stench of antiseptic hospital air for a month and a half. As my Mom and I reached the outskirts of the city, it became even more exciting. Common sights inspired me: the Imperial Sugar Factory, the intersection of Highway 6 and 90 Alt, the sign that reads: "Richmond 8 miles," the State Prison farm that donated blood to Warren, the pecan trees lining bare cotton and hay fields, Ed's Silver-Spur Bar, Walter Lewis' Restaurant & Motel, the horseshoe lake, the 359 turn off, Askew Ranch, the big curve, Pony Hibbs Used cars, Onstead's Swinging Door, Mc Crary Road turning off of 359, gravel grinding under tires, past Brother's house, and home.

Good ole Ivan was there to greet me, and I gave him a hug, and he gave me a thorough sniffing, from crotch to toe, having to reaquaint himself with my smell after such a long absence. Inside the house, I relished in the familiar sights, sounds, and smells and felt the appreciation of being home. School was just letting out and I wanted to jump in my truck and head to town to see friends, but after laying briefly on the couch in our den, I conked out. A spell of exhaustion hit me and I slept till 9:00 that evening, not feeling strong enough to go anywhere. After some supper, I retired to my bedroom and despite the uncomfortable confinement of the brace, it felt wonderful to be home, sleeping in my own bed.

End of Chapter 20

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