When we got back from our 10 day trip, I was ready to go back to work. I did love this little Irish girl, but I really wasn’t used to sharing that much of my time with another individual – love or not, I was kind of selfish with my time, and I had really missed my solitary existence, my 4 days a week that was pretty much divided between work, where I usually worked on my own, and home, where I read, wrote, ran, worked out, helped Dad out in the yard or with house chores, and just had more time to think. I liked my thinking time.
So, I was getting back into my routine, relishing the time I had to myself again, when havoc struck. It was my 4th night back on the job in the machine shop. Me and another fellow were lifting a 20-foot long length of very heavy pipe. We were lifting it with a mechanical contraption that hooked into metal threaded eyelets screwed into the top of either end of the pipe, and guiding it on either end as we moved it to where it was needed. Just as we had it a few feet off the ground and started to move it, the eyelet on my side popped out of the pipe – the threads had become stripped - and the pipe crashed straight down onto my hand, digging right into my right ring finger. The pipe was far too heavy for anyone to try to lift without mechanical aid. A guy who was standing nearby rushed over, grabbed a pry bar, and tried prying it up – this didn’t help, at all, as the pipe just slid instead of lifted, and cut deeper into my finger as it slid, which was still trapped beneath the end of the pipe. I yelled, “Stop! You’re making it worse!” Fortunately, he stopped, or that sucker would have completely severed the top of my finger right off.
I’ve heard about, and read stories, where someone has a burst of adrenaline and lifts a car up off of someone with their bare hands. But, I had never witnessed any such feat, until that very moment. The guy who I’d been working with just walked over, bent down, and lifted that pipe straight up, enough for me to pull my hand out of there, then set it back down. This was a pipe that the two of us could not have budged an inch without the help of the come-along. We all just kind of looked at each other for a second – “Wo!” - , before we got to tending to my bloody mess.
We headed straight away for the sink and first aid kit. I was possessed with an incredible calm, which was unexpected, while we cleaned it up and got a look at it. The guy helping me was all excited, and all over the place - I thought he was going to pop a gasket, so I kept trying to calm him down. “It’s o.k., Frank, try to breathe – I’ll be alright. Someone just needs to get me to a hospital, to try to salvage this thing. We might want to have Gary drive.” I wasn’t too sure we’d make it there in one piece, if Frank drove. He was visibly shaken at the sight of my finger.
It was severed, straight through the tendons and halfway through the bone, just below my upper knuckle, and the end of it was just dangling there. I really didn’t expect that they were going to be able to salvage it. I’d already kind of given it up for being a goner. This strange calmness persisted – it was like I was simply fascinated by what was happening, like I was an observer in a movie, it wasn’t really me this was happening to. I’m guessing this was some form of shock. Who knows?
They got me to the hospital, and I called my parents to let them know what happened, and that I was alright. They took me right into surgery, and somehow, salvaged the finger. I watched the whole procedure. Fascinating! They had to dig way down into the finger to find the one end of the severed tendon, and brought it up and tied it to the other end. There was a big gap where the pipe had sliced it. They said the severed bone would heal up, but my finger would never be perfectly straight, again, and that knuckle would no longer work. It would be permanently bent there. The doctor said that, any plans I may have had of being a concert pianist were probably out the window. “Damn!” Other than that, I’d have to sit work out for the next 5 – 6 weeks while the finger healed.
And, that’s how I got my summer vacation in the summer of 1984, courtesy of workers compensation. It was my right hand, and I’m right-handed, so I couldn’t write – well, I started writing and doing everything else left-handed. I’ve always been slightly ambidextrous – I’m told that ran in the family, my Grandfather who I never met had ambidextrous tendencies, as did a couple of my aunts on that side. I’ve always been a better bowler left-handed, and whenever I get into a slump at the plate in softball, I’ll turn around and bat left-handed for a couple of games, and that always seems to help me figure the slump out.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, really. I got to spend more time with members of my home group, got to know them a lot better, not just their stories when we worked together with newcomers, and somehow, that made a big difference. I got a lot less self-centered, which I needed to be. I spent more time at Kathy’s apartment in the city, more time hanging out with Dad, who was retired but really had a booming furniture repair and refinishing business going on the side. He specialized in antiques, which is what he’d started on, recovering lots of old family heirlooms and what-not. He got really good at it, and when someone asked him to do their table, he did it, friends raved about it, and his little business took off, strictly by word of mouth. He really wasn’t in it for profit, he pretty much recouped his own material costs, and certainly didn’t charge enough for his labor – he just loved bringing those old pieces back to life. He took me under his wing that summer, and I lent him “a hand” – specifically, my left hand – digging out from under his backlog of pieces that needed refinished, and in the process, he taught me his craft. This was probably my greatest blessing that came out of that workplace accident – this time with my Dad, in his element, his shop, set our relationship onto a whole different course than it had ever been, which eventually led to our becoming the very best of friends during the final days of his life, 10 – 12 years hence.
Another thing that occurred while I was out on workers comp, awaiting my finger to heal up - I had put in my application, and taken the test, for a job with the Federal Government the previous January, when I was beating the pavement looking for work. I never gave it another thought, once I got the Machine Shop job, which I loved. While I was off work with the injury, I got a letter from the US Department of Agriculture, inviting me to come in to their offices in downtown Philadelphia for an interview. The interview was scheduled for 8:30 a.m., the following Tuesday. If I had been working, I never would have gone in for the interview. That was much too early when I was working until 3:00 a.m. at the Machine Shop. Besides, at that point, I wasn’t really even looking for another job. I liked my job. But, since I had nothing better to do, I went in for it, just for the hell of it. It was for a Supply Clerk/Typist position. When I took the test, I had demonstrated my typing speed (65 WPM) – fortunately, I didn’t have to do that again, as my finger was still in a splint and all bandaged up. But, I must have passed muster on the interview, as they called me back about a month later, after I’d started back to work at the machine shop, and wanted to hire me.
I was torn – I loved my job, and loved my life the way it worked, then. 4 days a week, working 10-12 hours a night in the machine shop, 3 day weekends at Kathy’s place in the city, with her. I was going to turn the offer down, but Kathy and Dad both got me to reconsider. They both felt that there was more of a future with the USDA job than my current machinist apprentice position. I didn’t see it, but I trusted both of their judgements more than my own, at the time. They were the two most important people in my life, and they both had good heads on their shoulders. I decided they probably knew better than me on that particular issue.
So, I accepted the job with the government, and met with my manager to negotiate my departure from the machine shop. I’ll never forget that meeting. “You’re leaving this opportunity to apprentice with a top-notch organization, where you have a future as a master machinist, for a government clerk job?” He shook his head, and said “There’s no future in that! But, it’s your life. You can finish out the week, and go, if that’s what you want to do.” Thankfully, I trusted Kathy and Dad’s judgement more than his or mine, and I stuck to the plan. 28 years later, I am still with the same outfit as a senior executive, having risen from the clerk-typist job to a manager position within 3 years of taking the job. One of the best decisions I ever made.
Maybe I instinctively knew all this would happen when that pipe fell on me, and that’s why I was so strangely calm through the whole ordeal. Or, maybe it was shock.
Either way, I’ve always fondly remembered that summer as a wonderful vacation, that led to so many other things, led me ultimately to my future, where I now reside.
Pictured: A rocking chair I refinished and re-caned, under Dad’s tutelage that summer.
I almost forgot – another side benefit of my injury was the time it afforded Kathy to spend with, and start to get to know, my mother and father. They immediately invited her to come stay at the house while I was recovering from the surgery on my finger, which she did for that weekend, and she got to spend some time with them, in their home, that she otherwise would not have had.
She felt funny, coming to this house where she had been picking their son up at 3:30 in the morning after my Thursday night work-shifts to whisk me away to the city for the 3 day weekends, but this valuable time was when she really got to know both of my parents, and they her.