Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Bebop & Grammy

We had just entered into Canada at Niagara Falls, in the midst of a big adventure vacation.  I was driving my grandparent's Oldsmobile Ciera, with my grandmother ("Grammy") riding behind me in the backseat, and my grandfather ("Bebop") riding beside me up front.  We were following right behind the rest of my family in our Chevy conversion van (Dad, Mom, sister Angie, & brother Darren).  I was 18, less than a month after graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, the class of '87!  It was my grandparent's first vacation since my grandfather had been stricken by a debilitating stroke that paralyzed his right arm a few years before.

Bebop, as we called him because he had been a jazz trumpet player for most of his life, had also contracted polio when he was a baby, which paralyzed his right leg, forcing him to use crutches for his entire life.  This really didn't hinder him, and we never looked at him as being handicapped.  He could do whatever he wanted, except run, though he used a scooter as a child that probably moved him faster than most people could running.  Bebop was a terrific musician, and he played among many celebrities.  He was the only White member of an all-Black traditional jazz band that played at the Charles Hotel in Washington, DC, in the late 50s & 60s, led by piano player Booker Coleman.  The band also featured Slide Harris on trombone, Van Perry on bass, and Freddy Radcliff on drums, among others.  They were the band that the nationally known musicians would come to hear after doing their own gigs, which included Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis.  A favorite story is that of the Great Satchmo being persuaded to join the band for a few numbers and, since he didn't have his trumpet with him, used my grandfather's (I have a cherished picture of my grandfather and Louis posing together one particular evening).  One popular jazz magazine of the day called my grandfather the "best unknown trumpet player in the country"!  High praise, really.

On the first day of our trip, we had stopped in Uniontown, PA, to drop off our dog, Ginger, with my other grandfather, Pap.  It was the first time I could remember all three of my living grandparents together at the same time.  Pap & Bebop wore their "Old Fart" ball caps, and Grammy wore an "Old Fart's Wife" hat, and they posed for pictures.

We were about 3 days into our vacation, having spent the previous day touring Niagara Falls and having a great time.  Bebop got along fine in his motorized wheelchair/scooter, and we enjoyed the sites in the area.  That evening, we celebrated sister Angie's 16th birthday at Red Lobster, which was a fairly ritzy dinner for our family, used to eating at fast food and pizza joints.  We were really having a great time!

On Tuesday, June 30, 1987, we were driving on the QEW in Ontario, headed towards Toronto from Niagara Falls.  That's all I remember until I woke up in a Burlington, Ontario, hospital, later that afternoon, suffering from head trauma, including a nice sized, stitched-up gash just above my left eye, and a concussion.  Dad was in the hospital room, with 12-year old brother Darren, and explained that we had been in a pretty serious car accident.  He didn't answer any of my questions about what happened or if everyone was okay.  He said we could talk about it later, but I had to stay in the hospital overnight for observation.  I wasn't allowed to watch television, either, since, I later found out, our family had been featured on the local news and my Dad didn't want me to know what happened.  At least, not yet.  My room mate was a young guy around 30 with his leg in a cast.  He had a thick Canadian accent, and I actually enjoyed listening to him talk.  There were a lot of "Eh's?" in his speaking.

It was a miserable night, as the hospital nurses had to wake me up each hour to check my vitals and make sure my head injury wasn't any worse than what I had shown to that point.  The fact that I knew who my Dad and brother were, and that I knew we were on vacation with my grandparents, was indication that I hadn't suffered severe brain damage.  At one point, I woke up and discovered that I still had a head full of broken glass, so I had to get up and take an impromptu shower and they changed all of my bed linens.

The next morning, I was met by Dad and Darren again, and I was released from the hospital.  We had an appointment with the local police to talk about the accident, and we took a cab to the precinct.  It was my first ever ride in a taxi.  I was told to just answer their questions as best as I could, and if I couldn't remember something, then I should just say so.  I had no memory of the previous day after we had entered Canada and before waking up in the hospital, so I wasn't able to give them much information.  It was at this time that I was told that my grandparents had been killed in the accident, in the car I was driving, after a chain reaction multi-car pile-up resulted in a tractor-trailer hitting us from behind.  Dad then shared with me the details:

We were a 2-vehicle caravan, Dad driving the family van, and me, driving my grandparents car, about to make the merge of two major highways just outside of Burlington, southwest of Toronto, on the QEW, the main highway across Canada, and Rt. 403, another major highway.  We were in the right-hand lane at the merge.  There was a teenage girl, with her mother, driving a car in front of my dad.  I was behind their van.  There was a lot of traffic in the adjacent lane to the left, and the right lane was ending, forcing a merge situation.  Dad slowed up because he didn't want to cut off the young girl in front of him, but she wouldn't get over, slowing to a crawl.  He didn't expect her to stop, and he hit the brakes just as he lightly tapped her bumper.  I was following too closely behind Dad, and couldn't see around him to know that the lane was running out.  When he stopped, I hit the brakes and did the same thing, tapping the bumper of our van.  There was a tractor trailer behind us, who was looking back to see if traffic was clear so he could get over in the left lane, and he didn't see that we were stopped.  He rammed us from behind going full speed.  The collision squeezed the van out of the chain of cars and Dad quickly pulled over on the shoulder.  He started to get out to check the damage, and to see if everyone else was okay.  He assumed that I had pulled over, as well, not knowing exactly what happened to us.  The scene that greeted him was one of chaos.  Our car was practically destroyed, with the truck almost completely on top of our car.  Dad rushed over to my side of the car and found me slumped over the steering wheel unconscious.  He could not see my grandmother, as her seat was pushed all the way up against the back of my seat.  My grandfather was unconscious, as well.  The glass on the door has shattered, so Dad tried to pull me out.  The truck driver hopped out of his truck and tried to help.  Dad couldn't get me out with the truck where it was, so the truck driver was able to get in and back it up a little.  They were then able to loosen the seat belt and pull me out of the driver's side window.  By this time, fuel and been leaking everywhere and a fire had started.  They tried to get my grandfather out of the car, but he was just too big to fit through the window.  He never regained consciousness.  Later, according to the coroner's report, we learned he died of smoke inhalation.  My grandmother perished upon impact.  Fortunately, everyone else was okay.  Mom, Dad, Angie, & Darren were just a bit sore.  The teenage girl and her mother were okay, as was the truck driver.  The three vehicles involved in the main part of the accident were all destroyed.  The van was damaged in the front and back, but with a few repairs, it was drivable.

The rest of the day was hard.  We spent the day just trying to make sense of what had happened, and to assure everyone at home that we were okay, along with news about arrangements for my grandparents.  The media was typically relentless in trying to get their stories, and camped out in the lobby of our hotel, hoping they could talk to the Americans who were vacationing in Canada.  We went to a restaurant for dinner that evening, and it was very crowded.  Some of the diners recognized us from the news reports about the accident, and, trying to be helpful, offered to make room for us to have a table more quickly.  If nothing else, the Canadians we met were, for the most part, extremely friendly.

The police report determined that no one was to blame for the accident.  Dad protested to the police, particularly after seeing the truck in the impound lot where all of the vehicles involved in the accident were taken, and noticed that several tires on the truck were practically bald, but the police showed a diagram of the accident scene which indicated that our car was partially blocking the left merge lane, impeding the forward progress of the truck.  So, if anyone was to blame, it would be me, as well as Dad for bumping into the teenager's car.  We were basically told to "cut our losses."

We were waiting for our van to be repaired and made drivable, so to pass the time, we went to the movies.  We actually split up.  Mom & Angie went to see one movie, while Dad, Darren and I went to see SPACEBALLS.  Unfortunately, given our mood and the bad jokes used in the movie, it was hard to watch and did nothing to lift our spirits.  Late in the afternoon, we finally were able to start the long journey home.  We arrived in Uniontown at Pap's house well after midnight.  I recall Mom sobbing inconsolably.  It had been a tough drive for all of us, but particularly for Mom, as the shock of losing her parents began to wear off.  We were greeted warmly by Pap and Aunt Sandi and her family.  After a long night of rest, we headed for home, with Aunt Sandi, Mindi, Jon, & Jeff joining us.  Then it was time to return to reality.

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