I’ve been in a boat crash, a plane crash, and two car crashes. The car crashes were minor; my car was drivable afterward both times. The boat crash was interesting.
But the plane crash banged me up the worst. Broken right wrist, broken nose, three broken ribs, broken right foot (that still bothers me on stormy days). And I remember nothing about it.
Okay, not totally true. I remember darkness. Cold. Wet. Trapped. Feeling like if I could just get into the right position, I could push myself up and out of the place I was stuck. Lights, distant, coming closer. Hands, reaching me from above, grabbing under my armpits, pulling me, lifting me, bringing me up, my legs dangling uselessly. Darkness.
Background: it was a dark and stormy night in February 1982. I was an ensign in the Navy, on leave between Nuclear Power School and Submarine Officers Basic Course (SOBC), and I was flying from my parent’s place in Illinois to pick up my car in Groton, Connecticut to drive to North Carolina for my old roommate’s wedding. I had switched planes from a jet to a smaller plane in Philadelphia, but the storm caused the smaller plane to divert to New York. From there the airline got us to New Haven, Connecticut, but it took time to find another plane to make the last leg.
New Haven is only a couple hours from Groton by road. There were only five passengers going to Groton, so the airline offered to drive us by van. The roads were icing up, however, and we all voted that we’d wait for a plane. We thought it would be safer, especially since it was close to midnight at that point.
The plane we got was an eight-passenger prop plane. The rain was hard and cold, but takeoff was routine. We were low enough that I could see city lights at times. I remember I drifted off.
It was noisy.
There were voices.
I was lying on my back.
Everything was fuzzy. (No glasses. I’m not much good without them.) My right hand was suspended by my fingers, and somebody was wrapping it with some sort of material.
I was in a hospital room, in a bed. There were other beds, other patients. One of the patients was one of the other passengers. He was a petty officer, and this was the Navy hospital in Groton, Connecticut. Our plane had crashed. Nobody had died, but the passengers and crew had been banged up.
My right wrist was broken, in a cast (ah, that wrapping thing) giving me limited use of my fingers, but not much. My ribs hurt whenever I sat up, or laid down, or breathed hard, or breathed at all. My face looked like I had been in a fight and lost very, very badly (from smashing into the seat in front of me, they told me), and I had swallowed so much blood from my broken nose that there were initial fears of internal bleeding. My right foot had trouble bearing weight, but didn’t need a cast.
What did I remember about the crash? Nothing. I remembered nothing. I dozed off on the plane; I woke up in the hospital.
I started SOBC pretty much on time, although I missed the wedding and the rest of my leave wasn’t too exciting. I learned to take class notes using just my right fingers and no thumb to hold the pencil and moving my arm — turned out I had no ability with my left hand whatsoever. People would ask me what happened, and I told them I remembered nothing, just falling asleep on the plane and waking up in the hospital. Obviously I had been knocked unconscious in the crash, and then came to in the hospital; it was the only scenario that fit the facts.
Weeks went by. I got pretty good at writing with a broken wrist. And late one afternoon, after the last class of the day, I was putting away my books and…
Darkness. Cold. Wet. Trapped. Feeling like if I could just get into the right position, I could push myself up and out of the place I was stuck. Lights, distant, coming closer. Hands, reaching me from above, grabbing under my armpits, pulling me, lifting me, bringing me up, my legs dangling uselessly. Darkness.
Everything. All at once. Not even reliving it, just boom! It was missing and then it was all there.
Believe it or not, I had not tried to learn much about what had happened in the crash. Suddenly I had to know. I had to see it. I had to look at the plane.
I drove out to Groton/New London Airport and went to the airline desk, explaining who I was. Somebody took me back to one of the hangers. Two of the guys there had been on duty the night of the crash. I told them what I had just remembered. I asked what they could fill in.
They looked at me kind of funny.
Nobody had been trapped. The plane had come in on final approach and taken a gust of wind from behind; it had stalled, lost altitude, and crashed in the swamp just short of the runway. It wasn’t going very fast (hence the stall). The planes wings were a gull-wing design that extended below the fuselage, and they had taken most of the impact. The cabin was intact.
The ground crew had rushed to the plane. By the time they got there, passengers and the two crew members had already evacuated. I was the only one with a beard, so they remembered me, walking in a daze and holding my right arm. One of them had grabbed me and asked if I was okay (I must of looked awful); I said I was okay, but my arm really hurt. He made me sit down. Other airport personnel and an ambulance arrived not long after.
The guys took me to the plane, stored nearby. The wings had been removed (I don’t think there was much holding them on anyway) but the fuselage was pretty much untouched. Nothing matched what I remembered. There was no way I could have been trapped. The seats were intact. There was no way to justify how I could have been pulled up by my armpits; there was no “up” to pull me to (the cabin was so short I had to bend over to move through it). I was out of the plane before the rescuers even got there.
But the memories were so clear.
But the memories were so wrong.
Years later — about twenty — I had a colonoscopy. I was scared beforehand, a little, not from the procedure itself, but because I was afraid that when they put me under they would stick a needle in my hand to administer the anesthesia. I could still remember the needle from my time in the hospital after the crash. The feel of the needle under the skin. The way it tugged when I moved. The feel of the tape, how it pulled the hairs on the back of my hand and my wrist. The memories would come back, and I could feel it all over again. And I hate needles anyway.
Sure enough, after I stretched out on the table, a needle was gently stuck into the big vein on the back of my hand. I practiced even breathing, staying calm, staying relaxed. For about a minute, maybe, because that’s how long it took to put me under, and most of that time was the doctor talking.
For weeks afterward I’d remember that needle going in, and the needle after the crash, and I’d shiver. I could almost look down and see the needle again, sticking into my right hand, and I could feel the coldness of it, as if it…
The right hand with the cast? That right hand?
The right hand with the skin that looked (and smelled) like it had been auditioning for mummy skin after being in the cast for weeks, after they cut off the cast? The right hand that was one of my first memories in the hospital, getting the cast put on? That right hand?
I can remember being in the hospital bed with the needle and tube in my hand.
I can remember wearing that stupid cast for weeks. Including the hospital bed? Yes. No. I don’t know. I had it in the hospital. I don’t remember it while I was in the bed. Wow. That makes no sense. Whatsoever.
My memories lie to me.
I’ve caught them at it, twice. How many times have I missed? I had vivid memories of a needle in my hand for two decades, while at the same time having memories that were utterly contradictory. For two decades, I never picked up on the impossibility. How did I miss that? What else have I missed?
I can still feel the needle. I can still remember being cold and wet and trapped in the dark, and being pulled up by my armpits. I still have these memories that cannot be real.