I knew right away: this was bad.
At age 13, within earshot of my idyllic, lakeside Kansas home, my hand was ensnared in the sprocket of the Suzuki 185cc motocross bike. (Trust me, I couldn’t replicate the freaky endo-from-hell again if I tried for 100 years.) Trapped, I could only scream bloody murder for someone to come to my rescue. It became chaos as my parents as well as aunts and uncles and cousins came scurrying up the road. My dad was able to extract my hand by removing the chain guard and left-side engine panel on the bike. The first two fingers on my left hand were mangled, hanging like ground beef by a thin strand of skin.
Hearing and seeing several accounts of victims of the Boston bombing who are lucky to be alive but are now amputees with inspiring attitudes, I was compelled to share my story of losing several of my own digits. While I absolutely do not equate my situation with the seriousness of losing a leg or a foot in a horrid attack, it has brought back a lot of images and memories. I haven’t spoken in depth about it with many people (until now I suppose), but don’t go out of my way to hide what became known as “my stubs.”
After attending my first super-modified dirt track race, I was hooked. (Initially for the sno-cone I would get before the feature each Friday night, but, hey! - whatever it takes when you’re three!) I loved anything that was fast and loud, an addictive affliction that continues today.
My dad owned car dealerships and, for a brief time, added a motorcycle dealership to the mix. (The first Kawasaki dealership in Kansas, BTW.) We went to see a variety of motorcycle races: from motocross to hare scrambles and flat-track ovals to the AMA Grand National bikes on the mile-oval at Sedalia, Mo. I was enthralled, and had someone to cheer for as one of our neighbors, Ken Pressgrove, moved his way up the ranks. The smooth and fast Pressgrove reached AMA’s top series, only to be killed at Louisville Downs during his rookie season. The 23-year old racer fell from his No. 14N BSA bike on the opening lap and was run over by other riders. (Click the image below for a larger view.)
Worried for the health and welfare of their son, mom and dad were resistant. But never underestimate the dogged determination of a grade-schooler who only wants to ride fast. Finally a deal was struck: if I got all-A's on my report card for the entire second-grade year, I could earn a mini-bike.
I was so excited! But, the day it was brought home, it was raining like only a Kansas gully washer can. Undaunted, I insisted on doing a few laps in the garage. As a newbie, not yet aware of the theory of motorized power and the concept of proper braking, I screamed “Dad! Stop pushing me!” immediately before I crashed head-on into the garage wall. (Hilariously, he hadn’t actually pushed me at all.) My debut wasn’t auspicious, but it would get much better from there.
One thing my parents insisted upon was safety first. To ride the mini-bike, it was mandatory to wear a helmet, heavy boots and protective gloves. Through the years, I progressed to bigger and faster bikes, while always wearing the full complement of gear.
Which brings me to the summer of my 13th year.
With my hand now freed from the bike, I collapsed to the ground while all sorts of cacophony took place around me. Being in shock adds a shadowy, bleary filter to memories and visions, but I clearly recall a young cousin burning rubber to move a car out of the driveway so I could be driven to the hospital in our Lincoln-Continental. We lived outside of town, and it was decided it would take too long to wait for an ambulance.
I sprawled uncomfortably in the back of the car, my hand wrapped tightly by an aunt with some sort of previous medical training. Dad was driving, and mom was screaming at him the entire ride as he careened wildly down the streets of Topeka. “Slow down, you’ll kill us all!” was one urgent command from the passenger seat. As dad honked the horn frantically to get through traffic, some motorists mistook it for a friendly beep, and waved at our car while we sped around them. All I wanted was to reach the hospital and get some damn-fine pain medication.
Arriving in the emergency room, it was a bee-hive of activity as they gingerly cut off my shirt and leather gloves while the doctor examined what little was left of my digits.
“The bones are crushed and there’s very little skin that remains, so we’re going to have to amputate,” he told us.
I was still in shock and in the grips of heavy narcotics, but I was thrilled with the word amputate.
A short time before my accident, a close friend had badly broken his leg and had a scary and ornate wiry contraption surgically installed to stabilize the bone. (What the hell are those contraptions called? Anyone?) I couldn’t look at it because it appeared to be a crude medieval torture device emanating out of the skin on both sides of his lower leg. Amputation meant I wouldn’t have those scary wires sprouting out of my fingers like a spider's web. So, delirious or not, I was pleased.
The most surreal moment was having the wounds cleaned before emergency surgery. Because the injuries were very grimy and greasy from the sprocket, infection was a big concern, so they created a witches’ concoction of chemicals in a large pan. As my hand was placed inside, I could vaguely feel the tips of my former fingers floating freely and clanking off the sides of the sizeable container. It wasn't pleasant.
I was soon wheeled into the operating room, emerging forever-changed. I was now “8 Fingers.”
Thanks for enduring my travails and lengthy blathering, and check back here in the next day or so for "Part Two: The Aftermath."
And, by request, here's how the stubs look these days: