Scars of DUI: Red

  • Published
  • By Dr. Mary Koopman
  • Nathan F. Twining Elementary and Middle School principal
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article features graphic descriptions.)

I remember the plush, green grass on my bare feet as I ran to the family station wagon for a trip to the local ice cream shop. My new outfit felt scratchy on my sunburned skin. It had been an exciting birthday party. The sun was beginning to set behind the trees, turning the summer sky a beautiful orange and pink. My three brothers, sister, and the neighbor boy piled into the car with my father at the wheel. My mother stood waving on the front steps of our home, my baby brother in her arms. He was fussy that day, "teething" my mom said, so she decided not to make that trip with us. Had she gotten into that car, with the baby on her lap, he would probably be dead. Seatbelts and car seats weren't something that we used back then, a decision we would all come to regret.

The family station wagon was a popular vehicle in the early 70s. It was made to fit a large family. In this case, there were 7 of us comfortably seated - two in front, three in the middle, and my brother and I in the back, rear-facing seat. Most of my childhood car trips were spent looking backwards at the world. But today, I knelt on the seat looking forward, anticipating the ice cream I would never end up getting that evening.

Driving down the city street, I thought about my birthday party that day - the cake, the presents, the decorations, the ice cream that my father forgot to bring home, resulting in this after-party car trip. It was a temporary memory-lapse he would remember the rest of his life. The inside of the car was noisy, the radio blasting a summer tune. The discussion centered around what treat we would each be ordering. Suddenly, the screech of brakes filled the air and I heard my father scream, "Look out!"

It's amazing how time changes during a catastrophe, dragging out a few seconds into a slow-motion event. One's senses become intensely heightened. I was aware of a quick flash of a red car, the long, drawn-out squeal of tires, the smell of burning rubber, the sound of crunching metal, the explosion of breaking glass....and the sound of my father screaming. I recall the force of the collision pulling me backwards, the intense pain in my head, and slices of pain through my skin, as I was forced out through the closed window, headfirst into the summer night.

My eyes blinked open...there were tiny pieces of glass on my face. I remembered thinking how hot the asphalt was, as I realized I was lying in the middle of the city street. The night air was strangely quiet. My heart was beating wildly, a strange sensation of trickling warmth running down my neck and around my head. I touched my head, and pulled away my hand, now a bright, sticky red color. I tried to move but the weight of something pinned me legs. I reached with my bloody hand towards a soft lumpy form lying next to me. It was my brother Johnny, the one who had been seated to my left in the back of the car. I said his name, pushing him with my hand. He did not respond.

The sounds came suddenly....the screams of my father, doors of homes in the neighborhood opening, panicked voices, the sounds of footsteps running. My father was yelling in a way that was not his usual voice when we were being scolded. These were screams of despair, high-pitched and scary. "My children! Help my children! Bring towels! Get help! My children are dying!" Where were my other brothers and sister? I closed my eyes.

I woke up days later in a strange bed, with walls an ugly, pale green. I tried to lift my head, but it was heavy and stuck to the pillowcase. I turned my eyes to the left, seeing another bed like mine, another person like me. I moved my hand to the back of my head, feeling baldness and a crisscross of multiple stitches and bandages. What happened to my hair? Why did my head hurt so bad? I was struck with a wave of nausea, as I closed my eyes and lost consciousness again.

The horrific car accident was not only local news; it was on all the news channels in the entire state. The newspapers read "Ten Hospitalized in Car Crash". It involved one adult (my father) and nine children. Three of those children were teenagers in a red car. The other six children were from our family station wagon. The teenagers in the red car had been drinking, the driver possessing an astoundingly high blood-alcohol level. He had sped through a stop sign at a high rate of speed, t-boning the station wagon with such force that my entire family was thrown through the closed windows, like crumpled rag dolls. Except my father...he was thrown forward into the dashboard, crushing one knee. What physical and emotional pain my father must have felt, never losing consciousness, struggling to get out of the mangled car only to see his bloody, broken children lying still on the ground.

They say our lives were saved because it was summer and people had their windows open, including the hospital two blocks away. People came running from all over when they heard the sickening crash - neighborhood folk, hospital personnel, and passers-by. My siblings and I were found lying in the street and on front lawns. Our bleeding wounds and broken bones were bound with dish towels or blankets, whatever could be found in those first few minutes after the crash. It was told to me that my life was saved by a police officer, who discovered a shard of glass sticking out of my neck. Acting quickly, he staunched the flow of my life's blood with his fingers. He then lifted me in his arms and ran to the nearby hospital, recognizing that waiting for the ambulance would be my death.

In the emergency room, my new birthday outfit was cut off of my body. The ER nurse fainted when she washed off my bloody face and discovered I was her daughter's neighborhood playmate. My mother, who was told of the crash within minutes of it happening, ran six blocks to the hospital, carrying my baby brother in her arms, her curlers flying off her head one by one. When she arrived at the hospital ER, she saw her five children and the neighbor boy all lined up on gurneys, our blood red and dripping onto the floor as the medical personnel tried frantically to assess and tend to our wounds....and not a sound could be heard from any of us. A nurse caught the baby, as my mom screamed and fell to the ground in a dead faint.

Our wounds were serious, our recoveries prolonged, and the injuries too numerous to mention. The scars are plentiful on our bodies and some forty years later we still suffer the effects of our injuries in some way. For me, the accident caused years of recurring headaches, speech therapy, and a slight lisp due to the traumatic head injury I received from breaking through the back window headfirst. My legs still ache when I recall the weight of the tailgate lying across my lower half. But most of all, I imagine what it must have been like for my parents, to see their children, reduced to crumpled, bloody heaps...some near death.....all due to three teenagers and the effects of drinking and driving.

I often recall the horrified screams of my parents. I think mostly about the children - mine and yours. Will they one day be victims of a drunk driver or be a drunk driver themselves? I think about the three teenagers in the red car, wondering how their lives changed after that terrible night. I like to tell this story to my 8th grade students....those who are so excited about their upcoming drivers' permits. They stare at me in stunned disbelief. "I would never drink and drive!", they say. "Who would be so stupid?" they ask. I tell them that it happens every day, every hour, every minute. Life is about choices. I hope they make the right ones.