Fraternity Reunion in Wine Country Brings Healing After Months in Bed with a Pressure Sore
When is healing complete? Wounds close, bones mend, infection passes, but complete healing requires taking back lost ground and returning to a familiar life, which can take months or even years. Knowing this, while recuperating from flap surgery I set a future date as a challenge. Following several months of being stuck in bed, I wanted to be well enough to fly from Portland to a reunion of fraternity brothers at a California winery the weekend of June 1-3. If I could pull it off with no setbacks, I would pronounce myself healed, no matter what anyone else thought, including my plastic surgeon.
“I usually don’t want my patients to fly or travel long distances for a minimum of 90 days following surgery,” said Dr. B, “and your case is more complicated than most,” he warned. “I would wait until July.”
I thanked him for his concern and ratcheted up my plan for preparing my body for the June trip. I respected his opinion, but his expertise was based on his prior experience, not mine.
In the lead-up to June, I exercised with bands to strengthen painful shoulder, neck and back muscles that had atrophied from being bedbound for six months. I ate well, consumed extra protein and vitamins. And when he told me I could start sitting up in my wheelchair for 30 minutes per day and add 15 minutes every other day, I did. But once I got up to three hours, I split my days into two sections of three hours each, separated by three hours in bed, for a total of six hours sitting per day. When June came, I was up to a total of eight to ten hours per day of sitting. I was ready for my trip.
Then Murphy’s Law kicked in. At the Portland airport, a TSA drone pulled me aside for an exhaustive search. Naturally, an alarm went off.
“What does that mean?” I asked, irritated.
“Explosives,” said the drone. “You tested positive.”
Right. I forgot. All wheelchair users are potential terrorists. After 30 minutes of re-testing and TSA mini-conferences, they let me pass, but not before I threw a fit. Believe it or not, this was my third false alarm for explosives.
When we deplaned in San Jose, the shuttle to an off-site car rental location arrived with no lift — par for the course. So they sent out a minivan with a rear ramp. At the rental lot I asked if I could rent the rampvan instead of a less expensive car with no upcharge, realizing it would save my shoulders. Surprisingly, they agreed. My wife, Sam, drove, along with my friend and fraternity brother, McQ.
Then came a snarl of Friday traffic on Hwy 101, so by the time we got to Paso Robles wine country, I had already been up in my chair for about nine hours and the party hadn’t even started.
Help from Brothers, Then and Now
At the patio party overlooking the rolling hills and vineyard, Steve Lock, the fraternity chapter’s president in the mid-1960’s and at that time my personal “big brother,” reprised the same role he had played more than 50 years earlier. He had built me a patio lounge just the right height for easy transfers, with a reclining back, ample cushioning and a pull-out extension just right for a wine glass and bottle. As owner of Ecluse Wines, he was the perfect host and historian.
Sixteen fraternity brothers from UCLA were there, most with their wives. With no name tags, at first we strained to recognize each other through the wrinkles and extra pounds. Our mannerisms were familiar but our habits had changed. In our college days we drank prodigious amounts of beer by the keg and danced. Now we sipped fine wines and sidled up to each other in small groups. Since it’s impossible to sidle while lying on a lounge or sitting in a wheelchair, the brothers dropped in on me one by one to pay their respects.
“Remember the time I lost control of your chair coming down the staircase in my apartment in Manhattan Beach?” asked Big Brother Lock, laughing as he poured me a glass of his award-winning 2015 Cab.
“How could I forget? You know, I didn’t feel a thing.”
“I think we were both anesthetized.”
Besides Lock and his ultra-friendly wife, Pam, Den Cooper was there, a retired accountant and former roommate of mine who moved to Oregon in the early 1970s with Kathy, his wife, to start his own business. Sam and I followed their lead, traveling to Oregon in 1974. For two weeks we parked nights on the concrete pad in front of their garage and slept in Sam’s van, Bodacious, after exploring the Oregon territory that called to us each day.
“That reminds me,” said Den, “you never paid me any rent.”
“Rent? For a concrete garage pad and no electricity?”
“Let’s see. A dollar a day times two weeks. You owe me 14 bucks. With interest, hmmm,” he said, doing his accounting magic. “That’s … what, a couple hundred thousand bucks?”
“How about a check for $2.”
Den and Kathy have remained good friends all these years. In the first home that Sam and I rented in Medford in 1974, Den built a wooden ramp for me up to a high porch. The long ramp had no safety rails and minimal support, so each time I started rolling down from the porch and picked up speed, the boards bowed and catapulted me out into the small yard.
In the past few years Den has had problems with a painful broken femur and complicated hip replacement that has seriously hobbled him. He no longer needs a cane but still walks with difficulty. His triathlete days are over. “I don’t know how you do it,” he said. “My situation has been so frustrating, but it’s nothing compared to yours.”
McQ, our traveling companion, is a retired high school lit teacher and amateur linguist. He served in Vietnam and came home alive, thank God. Other brothers weren’t as lucky. He and his first wife, Susanne, invited me to travel to Europe with them and their 4-year-old son, Geordan, in 1971, after McQ was discharged from the Army. We rented a flat in Germany, then he accompanied me on my trip to Ljubljana, Yugoslavia to explore the promise of functional electric stimulation. I couldn’t have made that trip without him.
Following my flap surgery 47 years later, McQ offered to help pay for part of the expensive wound therapy bed I needed to heal properly. Shortly after that, Den Cooper made the same offer, not knowing that McQ had already pledged his help. Thankfully, it looks like my Medicare policy might cover it. But my brothers are the real insurance.
I was disappointed that Bill Hermanson and wife Elena didn’t make it. Following my plane crash in 1965, Hermie, a gifted carpenter, built a very long professional-grade ramp with safety rails up the side of the fraternity house so I could return to college in a wheelchair and continue pursuing my major in advanced beer consumption. He also built a large shower seat in the corner of the house’s downstairs communal shower for me so I could hose off when needed.
Terry Reitz was there with his wife, Jane. Reitz, Hermie, Lock and another brother, Jim Roos, made the two-hour drive from LA to my parents’ home on September 1, 1966 for the opening of dove hunting season. That was the day I tried hunting for the first time in my E & J Premier folding wheelchair. The bros were there to support me as well as hunt and have a good time. They bedded down in sleeping bags on a concrete floor in my parents’ basement. I eventually gave up hunting, but these men, my lifelong brothers, were always there to keep that door open for me.
The Past Never Dies
On Day Two of the reunion, McQ and Sam and I took a morning drive to the coast before meeting the others at Lock’s winery. Beautiful country. We ended up in Cambria — just south of Hearst Castle and Big Sur. Waves rolled in as Cypress trees moved gently in the sea breeze. The sun warmed my shoulders, minimizing the pain. I pulled up a map on my cell phone and realized we were less than 15 miles from the site of the beginning of my SCI journey — the mountain where the plane crashed — the everlasting memory.
“You want to go there?” asked McQ.
I felt a tug in that direction, but the present prevailed. “Naw. It’s just a mountain.”
Back at the winery, as I relaxed on my personal lounge and looked out at the rolling hills with the vineyard receding in the distance and the fluffy white clouds, Reitz brought an ancient book to me and opened it. “Look what I found,” he said. “A record of every brother from our chapter. This page is from 1935. Look who was chapter president back then.”
On the yellowed page before me was the unmistakable handwriting of a past president I had known well — my dad — and the address where he grew up in the tiny town of Tipton, California. Those were the days when, missing his mom and dad, he would pick up a phone in Westwood, crank it by hand and say to the operator: “Give me Tipton 8.”
A warm feeling settled over me as I remembered regaining consciousness in the hospital in San Luis Obispo a week after the plane crash and felt my mom’s hand on my arm, and Dad saying, “Son … we’re here. You’re going to be OK.”
I sipped my wine on the patio. The brothers and their wives mingled, smoke rising from the grill, reminding me of the many times Dad and I used to talk over the BBQ on the old patio at home. After my crash, he replaced the bricks with smooth concrete to make rolling easier.
Appreciating my friends from long ago, I realized this was the first time I had thought of my dad as a brother. I knew then my healing journey was complete.