I turned off the TV after watching the Philadelphia Phillies lose another one. Even though it was a Friday evening in May—early in the long baseball season—it was easy to see things didn't look good for the Phils as they started off in 1960.
I sat back down in the cozy old chair in our living room and waited for Buddy to show up. He and I put in a long day of work at the Philadelphia Electric substation in Plymouth Meeting, PA, just outside of Philly. We were in a training class, learning how to climb electrical poles and repair power lines. I was 21 years old.
I heard a rumbling engine outside and I looked out the window. Buddy pulled up in his red Pontiac. He honked his horn and waved. I yelled out to Mom—she was in the kitchen washing dishes—telling her I wouldn’t be home too late.
I walked out the front door and down the walkway toward the street, past our neatly trimmed lawn—Dad liked to keep it thick and green. The evening sky was dark gray, the trees were bending in the breeze and a light rain was coming down, just enough to put a sheen on the street.
Buddy’s car was a beauty, a 1959 Bonneville convertible. When I opened the door and slid into the passenger seat, he gave me a hearty handshake. My eyes wandered around the car, from the soft black leather seats to the big red steering wheel and silver chrome dashboard. Buddy stepped on the gas and the engine rumbled to life as we headed out.
“Good to see you, Buddy,” I said. “I don’t know about you, but every muscle in my body is sore. Those slave drivers worked us hard today, didn’t they? It will be nice to go out for a while and unwind, maybe grab a few beers and play some darts. Let’s head to the tavern down the road, what do you think?”
“Sounds good, George,” he said. “I’m worn out too, but I really like the work. I’d much rather be working outside up on telephone poles than sitting in an office, tied to a desk from 9 to 5. I don’t think I could stand having a boss looking over my shoulder all day.”
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” I said. “We work on our own and I like that. My Dad works for the railroad and every night he comes home exhausted because his bosses are tough as nails. They drive the workers nonstop and they never let up. Dad needs his job so he has no choice but to take it.
“Someday I’m going to have my own business so I don’t have to take that from anybody—I’ll be in charge and I’ll call the shots.”
Buddy was driving way over the speed limit. “Hey, would you mind slowing down a bit?” I said. “I know this road well and when it’s wet like it is now, it can get slippery. Ease up on the gas a little.”
He looked annoyed. “Don’t worry, I’m a good driver. Take it easy and enjoy the ride.”
“Just get me to the tavern in one piece,” I said.
I didn’t know Buddy well, but we worked together during training and I sensed some good things about him. He seemed a lot like me, high energy and enthusiastic, a hard worker. When we teamed up on a project he always gave it 100%.
I thought we might hit it off and become good friends but as we sped along in his car, I wondered if he was wrapped a little too tight. I couldn’t quite pin down what it was. Was he just an aggressive, forceful kind of guy or was he angry?
During the short ride to the tavern, we made small talk and got to know each other a bit. Buddy was from a blue-collar family like mine. He went to a high school across town from my school, Eisenhower High in Norristown. Just like me, he did well in school, but his real passion was sports. It didn’t take long for us to start complaining about the Philly teams we followed reli‐ giously—it seemed like they’d never bring a championship to our town.
Buddy turned the big Pontiac into the tavern parking lot and pulled into a spot close to the front entrance. I always liked the look of the tavern—it was a dark brown log cabin that fit right into the forest of tall trees that surrounded it. We went in, took seats at the bar and ordered a couple of beers.
“Were you in the military, George?” Buddy asked as he took a sip.
“Yes, last year I was honorably discharged from the Air Force with the rank of Airman First Class,” I said.
“I was in the Army for three years.” Buddy said with a sneer. “While you guys were flying those fancy jets up in the sky, I was on the battlefield getting in the way of enemy fire.”
“Hey, Air Force pilots get in harm’s way just as much as the soldiers on the ground, my friend,” I said. “Besides, I wasn’t a pilot, I was an electronics technician—I repaired early-warning radar systems. The work was a good fit for me. I don’t mean to brag, but I can fix just about anything.”
“OK, let me see you fix the Phillies so they score some runs,” Buddy said. “I tell you, even you can’t fix that team!”
We laughed as a song from a great new rock ‘n’ roll singer, Elvis Presley, played loud on the jukebox.
“In the Air Force I worked on the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, the first missile detection radar ever made,” I said. “I became buddies with a bunch of Air Force guys who worked as linemen up on telephone poles, and before you know it, I was outside working with those guys. I loved the work and I didn’t have a boss telling me what do to.”
“Sounds great, but I’m getting tired of sitting here,” Buddy said. “Let’s play a few games of darts and some pool too. This Army solider is going to show you how it’s done. Sorry, but you don’t stand a chance!”
“We’ll see about that,” I said.
Buddy’s challenge was all in good fun, but I could tell he was very competitive. He had no idea that I was the same way. I was determined to show him that this Air Force guy could battle it out with an Army soldier and come out on top.
We played darts and pool for a couple of hours. I did OK at darts, but I won every game of pool. What Buddy didn’t know was that I learned to shoot pool in the Air Force from guys who were great at the game. I was very good at it, but of course, I didn’t tell Buddy that.
After the games, we decided we had enough for the night. We left the tavern, climbed back into the Pontiac and headed for home. We didn’t wear seat belts, but that wasn't being careless— back then, cars didn't have them.
A light rain was still coming down. We took River Road, a narrow, winding short cut that would get us home a little sooner. Buddy said he didn't know the way very well. He leaned forward and squinted into the rain, focusing on the twisting, turning road.
It was a nice warm night. As I rode in the passenger seat with the window open, the breeze blowing on my face felt good. The ride was bumpy and the sharp turns pushed me side to side but I didn’t mind—I was used to cruising down this back road in my beat-up old jalopy.
We took a sharp left turn and it felt like we were going too fast. “Hey Buddy, take it easy,” I said. “Slow down. The road is wet.”
“Don’t tell me how to drive,” he said. “I like buzzing down these country roads.”
A loud squealing sound pierced the air as the rear wheels skidded hard to the right.
A jolt of tension filled my body and I looked at Buddy. His eyes were as big as silver dollars.
“Oh my God!” he yelled.
He wrestled the steering wheel to the left, trying to straighten out the car. But that just made it whip further to the right. I felt the back wheels skid off the road and smack into the grass with a loud thud.
That's the last thing I remember about that night.
I heard a clicking sound. It wasn't constant. Every few minutes there were a couple of loud clicks. It sounded like some kind of machine. There was a hissing now and then, like the hydraulic brakes on a truck, but very faint and about five feet away.
There was an odor I wasn’t familiar with. I heard footsteps, light and quick, like someone in a hurry. It didn't sound like shoes, more like sneakers making soft little sounds on the floor. There were voices that started far away, then got closer and louder. Then they moved away again.
I opened my eyes but it stayed completely dark. I was lying on my back in what felt like a bed, but I had no idea where I was. I didn’t recognize the voices. What the hell was going on?
I heard a man's gravelly voice about ten feet to my left. It sounded like he was waking up and wasn’t too happy. He moaned and groaned and used some pretty choice language as he moved around.
A calm, gentle voice whispered to me: ”Hi George, I'm Judy and I'll be taking care of you."
“Who are you, where am I and why are you taking care of me?” I said.
“I’m a nurse and we’re in Norristown Hospital,” she said calmly. “Try to relax, you’re in good hands here.”
The hospital was only 20 minutes from my family’s house. My nose felt stuffy like I had a cold—maybe I was just under the weather. But when I reached up and touched my face, I felt cloth and strips of tape from my chin to my forehead.
“Please tell me what’s happening, Judy,” I said, my voice shak‐ ing. “What is all this stuff on my face? Why do I barely have a voice?”
“You were in a car accident a week ago,” she said gently. “You just came out of a coma. The car you were riding in ran off the road and hit a tree. You have a tracheotomy and you’re breathing and making sounds through an opening in your throat. You have some facial injuries but your vital signs are good. That’s a real blessing.”
“What kind of facial injuries?” I said.
Judy’s voice became even softer. “I’m sorry to tell you this, George, but you had a fractured skull, a broken jaw, a concussion and some injuries to your eyes.”
“What am I going to do?” was all I could manage to say. “What am I going to do?”
I was struggling to take all this in. I was in a hospital room and I just woke up from a car accident that happened a week ago. Was this really happening? Maybe I was just having a night‐ mare and soon I’d wake up and be safe and warm in my bed at home.
I could hear a few other nurses circling around me, talking quietly. Since I couldn’t see them, in my stressed-out condition I imagined they were angels sent from Heaven to take care of me. They kept telling me to be still and relax.
Quick footsteps rushed into the room and stopped next to the bed. "It's me, George, it’s Mom." Thank goodness! I could tell by her quivering voice she was upset. "Don't worry, every‐ thing is going to be fine," she said.
Dad's strong, deep voice came next. He asked how I was doing and then said over and over, “We’re here, we’re here.”
Dad was the rock of our family—he always stayed calm and handled stressful situations well, but this time he was trying a little too hard to be strong. His voice was unsteady.
They pulled chairs next to the bed and sat down. “Because of your injuries, you’re going to have to stay in the hospital for a few weeks,” Mom said. “Don’t worry, your family and friends will be here all the time—we’ll be here so much you’ll be dying for us to leave.”
She tried to laugh, but instead she started to cry.
Heavy footsteps came into the room and when they stopped, a man introduced himself as Dr. Tate. He had a deep voice and sounded kind. “George, I’m going to take some of the bandages off and shine a small light into your eyes to see how your retinas respond,” he said.
I couldn't tell when he put the light on my eyes because I didn't see it. He asked me to look left, right, up and down.
After a couple of minutes, he said, “Your eyes didn’t respond very much to the light. From what I can tell at this point, you might end up with enough eyesight to read, but I can’t say for sure—we have to run more tests. Let’s hope that your eyes heal and things improve. I’ll be back to check on you soon.”
I felt like I was stuck in the middle of a hurricane—I couldn’t slow my mind down. Thoughts were coming and going a mile a minute, some panicky, some painful: Does this mean I'm going to be blind? What kind of life will I have if I can't see? Hold on, now, take it easy, the doctor didn't say “blind” so don't think like that. Everything is going to be fine.
Bit by bit, I learned more about the car accident. A nurse told me that on the night it happened, she called my parents and asked them to hurry to the hospital because our family doctor, Dr. Watson, examined me and didn't expect me to survive.
When I pulled through, he told me it was because I was young and in great shape, and I put up one hell of a fight to live.
Judy came into the room and said she was going to put an IV tube in my arm that would give me a sedative to reduce pain.
“Judy, on the night of the accident, was there anyone else in the car?” I said.
“Yes, you were in the passenger seat and a guy named Buddy was driving,” she said. “The ambulance brought him to the emer‐ gency room the same time it brought you.”
“Did he get hurt too?” I asked.
“As unbelievable as it sounds, he came out of that terrible crash with only a broken wrist,” she said. “He was treated and released that same night.”
“Do you believe that guy?” I said to Mom and Dad. “He drove us into a terrible car accident and never even stops by to see how I’m doing. What’s wrong with him?”
The monitor that kept track of my heart rate started beeping faster.
“I’m really surprised at him,” I said. “I thought he was a decent guy, but this happens and that coward bails out on me. Wait until I get ahold of him—he’ll wish he never met me.”
“Don’t worry about him, George,” Mom said, taking my hand and holding it gently, sniffling as she cried a little more. “What’s important now is that you get well. I’m going to make sure the nurses and doctors take good care of you and we’ll be here around the clock. You’ll be out of here before you know it.”
“I’ll keep you posted on the Phillies, George,” Dad said, “but they’re playing so bad, you might not want to hear it.”
In a crisis, Dad tended to steer the conversation away from the situation. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to deal with it; he just wanted to keep things as light as possible. That was his style. Like so many fathers and sons, we turned to sports when times got tough.
“Dad, am I going to be blind?” I said, my voice shaking.
“Now don’t talk like that, George!” he said almost angrily. “The doctors and nurses haven’t said anything like that, so let’s just concentrate on you getting well. When you’re out of here, we’ll go downtown and catch a Phillies game. That is, if you can stand watching those bums lose.”
Dad laughed a little, but it wasn’t his usual laugh—it was forced and uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but think he knew something was very wrong.
It was difficult for me to talk—my voice was faint and raspy—and the sedatives flowing through the IV needle made me groggy. When I tried to answer Mom and Dad, all I could do was mumble. It was hard to keep track of who they were and what day it was.
I lay in that bed for an eternity, trying to find a bright spot in this whole thing, but it was impossible. I was an energetic young guy, right on the verge of an exciting and, who knows, maybe a very successful life. Now, just because that car skidded off the road, the picture of my future became dimmer, just like my eyesight.
As the days passed, Mom showed up several times a day and often stayed through the night. She gave me a lot of love and gently reassured me that everything was going to be alright. She asked the nurses to make sure I was comfortable. She took my hand and held it for hours.
My Dad, my brother, my sisters and some friends strolled in at various times throughout the day to keep my spirits up between the many naps I took. They made me laugh when I desperately needed to. They encouraged me when I was down. They put up with me when I was frustrated and angry. They understood when I broke down crying.
They weren’t the only ones who took good care of me. The nurses encouraged me and celebrated my small victories. They helped me into a wheelchair and took me around the hospital to visit other patients so I wouldn’t feel lonely. I hung onto their words of encouragement as if they were a lifeboat that would carry me out of this terrible situation.
After a week, Dr. Tate walked into the room. I heard a rubbing sound on the floor as he pulled up a chair. “George, we were considering an operation that would replace the broken joints in your jaws with rubber implants, but we decided against that because it’s still new and unproven,” he said. “We thought about using bone grafts from your hip to rebuild your nose, but since you sustained a severe concussion, surgery around your nose and forehead is too risky. The best course of action is to wire your jaws shut for six weeks and hopefully they’ll heal on their own.”
“Does that mean I’ll have to eat mashed up food all that time?” I asked, my voice weak. “Do I really have to do that, doctor? Haven’t I been through enough already?”
“I’m sorry, George,” he said, “but it’s the best way for your jaws to heal.”
The procedure was done the next morning, and that night I had horrible nausea. An ear, nose and throat doctor said that was because the damaged bones in my nose weren't being nourished well enough, which caused drainage into my stomach.
“We’re going to have to flush out your nasal passages,” he said. “It’s important to keep them clean. We’ll have to do it a few times a day.”
He and Nurse Judy told me they were going to use a big plastic bag full of salt water with two long tubes coming out of it. They put the tubes up my nose and flushed water through it for ten minutes—it felt like ten hours.
That procedure made me feel like I was drowning, but since I knew it was going to help me, I hung in there and didn't complain. Well, I didn't complain much.
“Doctor, how much longer do I have to endure these treat‐ ments?” I said as loudly as possible through the hole in my throat. “I don’t know how much more I can take.”
“I’m sorry, George, I know it’s difficult,” he said, “but it’s important for your recovery. I know what you’re going through.”
“Do you really?” I said. “Do you really know what I’m going though? You get to go home at the end of the day and have your nice, normal life. I’m stuck in this bed for who knows how long, I have to go through one lousy treatment after another, and I can’t see. So do you really know what I’m going through? Pardon me, but I don’t think you do!”
As soon as those words came out of my mouth I felt badly. “Doctor, I’m sorry I said that, but please try to understand—I’m exhausted, having my jaws are wired shut is making me crazy, I’m feeling sick and I’m scared that I’m going to be blind for the rest of my life. Other than that, it’s a wonderful day.”
He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Just know that you’re not alone, George. We’re all trying to help.”
One afternoon when Mom was visiting, Dr. Tate walked into my room. “George, we’re going to send you to University of Pennsylvania Hospital for more tests,” he said. “One of the top eye doctors in the country will examine your eyes and let you know if you’ll regain your vision.”
“Doctor, I’m an optimistic person, so I’m hoping for the best, but I’m afraid of being blind for the rest of my life,” I said. “If that happens, I don’t know how I’ll handle it. I’ve always dreamed of being independent, doing things on my own and having my own business, but if I can’t see, that will be impossible. How will I make a living? How will I survive?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Dr. Tate said. “It’s best if we take it one step at a time. We’ll get the tests done and go from there. And George, one more thing.”
“What’s that, doctor?” I said.
“We’re going to let you go home for a couple of days before you go to Penn for the tests,” he said. “You need to get away from all this for a while.”
The huge smile on my face was from relief as well as happiness. Finally, I was going to get a break from laying on my back in the hospital bed, being poked, prodded and tested, and eating mashed up food through a straw.
Mom and Nurse Judy picked me up out of bed and gently plopped me into a wheelchair. Mom pushed me out of the room and down the hall. My face was still heavily bandaged and I couldn't see, but when we went outside, the warmth of the sun and the mild breezes felt wonderful.
The wheelchair rumbled along the sidewalk. “It’s a beautiful day, George, and we’re going home,” Mom said cheerfully. “I can’t wait to cook you a big meal. Just relax and don’t worry about a thing. I’m going to take good care of you.”
When we got home, I sank down in my favorite chair in the living room and was welcomed by an old friend. Our dog Gyp, the pudgy little beagle we had since he was a pup, jumped into my lap, barking happily and licking my face. I couldn’t stop laughing as I petted him and talked to him. I could have stayed in that chair forever!
As Mom cooked in the kitchen, a bunch of wonderful aromas filled the house. I breathed them in and my mind worked hard to identify each one. Smells like tomato sauce. Could that be home‐ made bread? I bet that’s apple pie for dessert!
I loved hearing the familiar little squeaks in the floor as Mom walked around the kitchen, the sound of her wooden spoon going round and round in a pot, the oven door opening and slamming shut.
The front door creaked open and in walked the rest of the family. The greetings from Dad, Pete, Edie and Sis made me feel warm all over, like someone wrapped a big fuzzy blanket around me.
“It was great that you all visited me in the hospital,” I said with a tear in my eye, “but there’s nothing like us being together at home.”
“This is where you belong, George,” Mom said, “and before you know it, this will all be over and you’ll be back home to stay.”
After a wonderful meal—maybe the best I ever had—and two days of family, friends, good food and sound sleep, I hauled myself out of bed for an early breakfast. I would have given anything to keep on sleeping, but I had to face reality—it was time to head into Philly and University of Penn Hospital. I dreaded it.
After the one-hour drive into Philly, we arrived at Penn and got settled into my room. A parade of specialists came in one by one, each telling me his or her specialty and explaining the tests they were going to do.
In a few days, all the examining and testing was done and Dr. Harold Scheie, a well-known eye specialist, came into my room and sat next to the bed. He asked me how I was feeling and talked about my injuries. Like the doctor at Norristown Hospital, he shined a flashlight into my eyes. I didn't see the light at all.
“George, your facial injuries are like the ones that happen to soldiers who drive Jeeps on the battlefield,” he said. “The steering wheels in those vehicles are anchored in place and made of steel covered with hard rubber. When a Jeep hits something head-on, the driver’s face can slam into the steering wheel with tremendous force, causing terrible injuries. Just like the ones you had.
“Now about your eyesight,” he said, his voice softer. I tensed up. It all boiled down to this moment. The words that came out of the doctor's mouth would dictate the kind of life I would have from that point on.
Would I be able to see the bright green of a baseball field, read the novels I love so much, drive my hot rod and watch action movies like I used to?
Or would I be blind and live in total darkness, work lousy jobs the rest of my life, struggle to cross the street safely and worst of all, depend on other people to help me get through each day?
“I examined your eyes thoroughly,” Dr. Scheie continued. “I reviewed your test results and x-rays, and I talked to the other doctors who have taken care of you.”
He paused for a few seconds. "I'm very sorry George, but there is no chance of recovery. There is nothing we can do to restore your vision."
End of Excerpt. Copyright © George Pilz