5-6 June 2009
Here is an interesting website to open and examine. But hold off a bit until I tell you something about the person whose website it is and how much you owe her.
I know you’ve heard me speak in a general way about this accident, about my brand new Volkswagen losing a rear wheel on a curve on a dark highway outside a little South Carolina town, and rolling over several times, and how the underside of the rolling car smashed into my head as I was thrown out. And how my longtime girlfriend saved my life under the most extreme circumstances.
In fact, anytime anyone asks me why I have an eye patch or this scar on my forehead, I’ll briefly describe what happened — or else I may just shrug “Vietnam” and let it go at that. But for those to whom I tell the truth, I always give complete and specific credit for my successful, downright heroic rescue to Joan Sims, also known as E. Joan Sims. I am aware that whatever person I may be telling this to won’t remember her name, and you probably don’t remember it either. But obviously I do, and I’ve always figured I owed it to her memory to keep at least her name alive, in that small way.
At my recent Grady reunion I was quite seriously informed by a member of Joan’s class, which was the class ahead of mine, that she was unreachable for her own class reunion and was generally believed to have died. I was just horrified to hear this, and for most of the next week I went through death records from everywhere and, along with one of her classmates, tracked down all sorts of leads and sources simply to determine whether or not she was still amongst us.
On this very June evening, 46 years ago — having just completed my last final exam of my senior year at Emory, and with almost a week to go before graduation — I picked up Joan at the house she was sharing near Emory in my new red VW Beetle graduation present, and off we set for Hunting Island, S.C. to join Eddie Lee and his actress girlfriend, later wife, Page. (Page, incidentally, has since gone on to become one of the very ultra top handful of Thetan zealots who run the Church of Scientology, far elevated beyond our sphere.) Anyway, we were going to join Eddie and Page at the beach.
Somehow it seemed perfectly reasonable to undertake a 400-mile trip at the shank of the day. Staying awake all night was just a routine activity back then, and the idea of driving until dawn didn’t seem to present any problem at all. Even in a car I’d just owned for three days and with somewhat different handling characteristics than an American model. But I felt perfectly competent driving race cars or anything else, so this cute little auto couldn’t be a problem either.
We made the 150 or so miles to Augusta by about 12:30 AM and stopped at a Waffle House for eggs, coffee and what-not. We listened to their juke box music and joked about the clientele. The night was nice, the drive had been fine, we were fully awake, full of good humor, the whole wide world was smooth and cool.
We headed east out of Augusta, then southeast along a rural highway that skirted around the top edge of the super secret Savannah River Plant before continuing southward down to Beaufort, and on to Hunting Island. The night was brisk, the sunroof was open. There were very few lights visible from windows of the occasional farmhouses scattered along that road.
At one point we came to a sudden fork in the dark highway, and I veered to the left until I quickly realized that it was the wrong way. I remember that I stopped and backed up maybe 20 feet to the point of the fork. Then I got back onto the road we’d been traveling. And that’s the very last thing I remember.
It was about 20 miles from that fork in the road, on the far side of the small town of Barnwell, S.C., and well out into the country, at a point where the road curves sharply, that the right rear wheel of the VW collapsed. Joan had been dozing on her pillow propped against the door. The car began rolling to the right, jamming her door closed. I don’t know if she was wearing her seatbelt, just a simple lap belt back then. I, apparently, was not and was thrown out the window or the door, and the underside of the car rose up and smashed me in the left side of my head as it continued to roll.
Joan was briefly pinned inside the car, lying on its right side. Her knee was injured but she managed to crawl out through the sunroof. She found me lying on my back on the edge of the road. There was a deep gash above my left eye, my eyebrow and left temple and jaw were crushed, and my left cheek was torn wide open and bleeding.
She said, “Bill, can you hear me?” And she said I responded. She then turned my head to the left, to keep me from being choked on gushing blood, and ran to the VW to get a blanket to put under my head.
A short distance back from the highway there was a totally darkened farmhouse. This, after all, was 2 in the morning (and as I write this now, it is exactly 2:19 AM on June 6th). Joan yelled for help as she ran up to the house and beat on the door and hollered, but nobody came. Then she ran to a nearby pick-up truck and began blowing the horn and next she picked up a stick and jammed it between the back of the cab and the horn so that it was blowing nonstop.
She then came back to where I lay on the roadside and tried her best to stop the bleeding as she kept talking to keep me awake. And pretty soon an ambulance arrived — a hearse actually, from Mole Funeral Home. The men initially weren’t sure if I was already dead until, said Joan, I began screaming and they took off full tilt for the little hospital in Barnwell.
They brought me into the hospital DOA. My heart was stopped. With the loss of seven pints of blood (out of ten), all my blood vessels had collapsed except for two major veins on the inside top of my legs. The doctors cut into these veins and pumped blood into them as they started my heart back with an electrical charge. They closed my cheek and sewed up the other gashes, but there was almost nothing they could do about my pulverized skull. My back was broken also, as well as my pelvis.
Joan gave the doctors my parents’ number, and they called, waking them up. The docs reported what they had done, but they said I urgently needed to be in a larger hospital with neurosurgeons. My condition was listed “critical moribund.” I would probably be dead, they said, before my parents could possibly drive here from Atlanta.
My father immediately rang up Senator Talmadge, getting him out of bed, and asked if he could help. Sen. Talmadge immediately called the head of the University Hospital in Augusta, and in quick order he dispatched the hospital’s top neurosurgeon and a team of nurses to the Barnwell Hospital, which was about 60 miles away.
As soon as he arrived and saw me, Dr. Nichols, the neurosurgeon, said I would need to be taken right away back to Augusta. So that’s what they did, at top speed with siren the whole way.
Dr. Nichols removed all the shattered skull bits and rebuilt the supra-orbital ridge above my left eye with an almost perfectly matching bone from a cadaver sewn in with wire, and he put my jaw back together with wire. So I was somewhat physically reassembled for the time being, but still in a coma.
From that point, and for most of the next nearly two weeks, it was necessary that I be rousted to some level of wakefulness every half-hour to prevent lapsing into a much deeper and possibly irretrievable coma. People had to take shifts doing this.
It was within two days of this surgery that Joan’s mother took her turn on coma watch. It was late at night, and as she sat in her chair beside the bed she said that I opened my unbandaged eye, turned to her and said very calmly, “I’m going to die,” and suddenly all the monitors went flat and Mrs. Sims jumped up and hit the emergency call light.
I don’t remember that. In fact, I don’t personally remember anything I’ve reported here — not since the fork in the road. But I do remember this incident as vividly as any memory in my head. However, the scene that I clearly recall is being to the right and above the bed, almost in the upper corner of the room, looking down on where my body was lying. And I remember seeing Mrs. Sims down there, and I watched her run toward the door. But mostly I was just amazed to see how bad off I looked, lying there. I remember thinking, “Gee, I didn’t know I was in such bad shape.” My head was almost completely wrapped in bandages and I had tubes running into my arms and into my ankle. And I thought to myself as I hovered there, “I sure don’t want to go back into that.”
Now I was skimming over water, like water skiing on a lake, like being pulled along by something, and soon I realized I was gradually being dragged deeper and deeper into the water, up to my knees, up to my chest, my neck, and I felt a great rush of terror just before my head slipped beneath the surface.
But as soon as I got under the water, it was completely peaceful. I saw all kind of creatures, fish things and people too, swimming along and stopping by to show their concern with an overwhelmingly loving attitude. I knew I didn’t want to leave this. I didn’t want to go back to anything anywhere else.
Then, in a blink, I looked down and saw men in white coats huddled around my bedside and working frantically on my body, when all I wanted was just to be left alone. But before I knew it, I was back inside. And I would not come out of my coma and be fully conscious again for at least another week after this. But I was alive in spite of it all.
I have never before written this much about the accident, nor in anywhere near this level of detail. I was stirred to do this now as a result of the shock that reverberated throughout my system when I heard — and then everything seemed to confirm it — that Joan Sims had somehow preceded me in death, which seemed to violate the natural order of things. How could she save my life and then die before me?
As it finally turned out, E. Joan Sims is actually alive after all. I had not seen nor heard anything from or about her in 43 years, beyond the fact that she had married and moved to Venezuela, but as a good investigative reporter I eventually stumbled upon the website cited above, and saw there, for the first time in four decades, a photo of her in connection with the fact that she has become a successful writer of mystery fiction. Naturally I wrote right away to the e-mail address as given in this website, but it bounced back to me as permanently undeliverable. Which clearly meant she really was dead, just like they said. But no, somehow she did in fact receive my “undeliverable” message and responded a week later. I can’t tell you what a huge relief that was. And it brings all of this to mind and puts it into perspective — the wreck and everything that has happened since.
If it had not been for her, I would at least have already lived for 21 years. But you wouldn’t have existed at all, even as an embryo. It’s not as if there would be no one to mark your passing; there would be no thought of you whatsoever by anyone and no one to miss what was never there to begin with.
There would never have been a mom named Laura nor a grandfather named Judge Anderson. And Jane would never have been your wife because you would never have existed, and Warren and Charlotte would never have appeared in any form on this earth. Nothing that you are and nothing you now know would have ever come to be, either here or anywhere else in the universe.
There was a moment when everything hung in a precarious balance on a black rural road in the pre-dawn hours, exactly 46 years ago today, and it was Joan Sims, and she alone, who tipped the scale. And that’s why you are here now and able to read this story, and why you can pass it along to your own children.
So today is truly a Happy Birthday to us all.
I said that after finishing my last final exam I drove my new car, already packed, to pick up Joan for our trip.
When I arrived at the place where she was staying, I loaded her suitcase and another bag into the trunk. She went back into the house and then reappeared with a cigarette in hand. Not only that, she was actually smoking it. I was stunned and appalled. Not Joan! Not the gentle artist and writer and sweetheart and sparkly wit, suddenly polluted with a cigarette. She was the absolute epitome of the opposite end of the spectrum from the kind of tawdry girls who smoked. Moreover, she now seemed almost defiant about it. I flew into a rage over this. I opened up the trunk and flung her bags out on the lawn and then got back into the car saying I would make the trip alone. But she got rid of the cigarette and we got past the crisis, and after a few miles it was forgotten. But I have always remembered this by way of imagining what would have happened if I had gone through with my idiotic threat to set out on the highway by myself that night. I would have reached that curve and been thrown from the car and bled to death alone and undiscovered on an obscure rural road — all because of a friggin’ cigarette.
Editor’s note: “The Hog Book” by William Hedgepeth has recently been re-issued by the University of Georgia Press:
Mysteries by E. Joan Sims are available at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=e+joan+sims&x=0&y=0