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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

The pain of unrequited love

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

I got my first motorcycle at 16 and my first broken leg three months later. Having a cycle meant I could focus all my energy on learning to be a loner. I didn’t really need friends any longer since I could occupy all my spare time with exploring the back roads near my home. I went from Mountaintop to Cresco to Upper and Lower Askam to Hobbie.

14,500 miles on a Honda Sport 50 was an impressive number for two years of riding.

School was out and my parents took me to Atlantic City for a little getaway. I did not want to get away, I wanted to get back. The love of my life (a very one-sided affair) Elayne, was going to a party at Harvey’s Lake at the home of one of her friends. I invited myself along but had to find a way to convince my parents that Atlantic City was a repulsive and boring place to be. I used the only tools at my disposal. I whined. I begged them to cut our trip short a day so I could attend the party to end all parties. Finally, they agreed.

I set out on Route 309 mid-morning with nothing but happy thoughts. It was hot and humid and 309 was a black topped road back then. My thoughts drifted a bit too far as traffic began to slow for a traffic light up ahead. I slammed on the rear brake, locking up the wheel, and watched in perpetual slow motion as my bike slid sideways into the car in front of me, crushing my right leg between it and the car’s rear bumper.

The impact threw me forward and I landed with a thud on top of the motorcycle. In profound shock, I thought I smelled hamburgers frying on the grill. The reality was I smelled my right elbow frying on my exhaust manifold. As I fell forward onto the bike, my arm wrapped around the exhaust where it exited the engine. The pain of unrequited love.

An ambulance took me to Nesbitt Hospital, where my broken tibia was set in a full leg cast, and my second-degree burns were treated. I listened to the radio reports of my accident but was dismayed when my condition went from good to fair. I was housed in a ward with alcoholics with the D.T.’s. They hallucinated vividly at night, adding a Twilight Zone aura to my three day stay there. My long-time buddy Jimmy D. fetched my motorcycle from the scene of the accident and brought it to my home. It fared much better than I did, with little more than a broken taillight and a few scrapes and bruises.

Elayne and her gang did come to visit me at the hospital.

There were no MRIs back in 1965, so the secondary damage to my knee cartilage was not discovered until it catastrophically failed in 1972. I was living in Phyllis’ parent’s home while she worked in Asbury Park, NJ. It was December and I brought my Honda 305 into her basement to work on. I bent down to pick up a screwdriver, and when I stood up, my right leg locked up and I went crashing to the floor.

The pain was excruciating. I could not straighten my leg, and the only phone in the home to call for help was upstairs. The basement was unheated. The cold concrete only added another level of misery, but the worst was yet to come. The radio was blaring a four-hour tribute to the Beatles, and I hated their music with a passion. So here I was: injured, cold, and blasted with bad tunes.

I tried crawling up the stairs but each wave of pain was worse than the previous one. I laid on the floor the entire four hours of the Beatles marathon before I summoned the strength to drag my body up the stairs. I thought about that fateful day on the way to Harvey’s Lake, and Elayne. The pain of unrequited love.

I called Phyllis’ uncle Sal and he immediately came to my rescue. It was a short ride to the hospital, and the surgeon on call was a knee specialist. They began by injecting 25mg of Thorazine directly into the joint, hoping it would relax. No joy. They did it again. By this time I had enough barbiturates in me to render a horse unconscious, but I’m still curled up in a ball. Their only choice was exploratory surgery.

If you haven’t experienced surgery in the early 1970’s, it’s pretty much the same as it was during the Civil War. Open you up, see if they can find out what’s wrong, try and fix it, sew it back together and see what happens. The first whiff of sadism rolled through my mind when two orderlies walked into the room with a large dumbbell. They told me my leg need to be straightened prior to the operation. I protested. I asked them why it couldn’t be done after I was sedated. They shot back with an irrefutable argument: Doctor’s Orders!

They tied a rope around my ankle, and the other end around the weight. They then dropped the weight over the bed railing. I passed out from the pain and awoke the next morning as a nurse was prepping me for surgery. The next thing I remember was waking up three days after the surgery in restraints, my wrists and ankles bound to the sides of the bed. A nurse explained that I had a bad reaction to the anesthetic and started pulling the IV tubes out of my arms. They had to restrain me to keep the juice flowing.

When my mind cleared, I realized mighty quickly that I hadn’t peed in three days, and I had to go, right now. Here’s another wonderful truth of post-surgical recovery: the anesthetic can choke of your urethra, making it impossible to eliminate. I learned the hard way to ask for a catheter to be installed while I was under for my next 16 major surgeries. An orderly came in with a roll of what looked like clear plastic fuel line. He cut off a length, put a small dab of Vaseline on the end, and shoved it home. I levitated in the process.

The last step of the surgery was a full-length plaster cast on my leg to keep the knee joint immobile. I started to feel pressure inside, which turned into pain. I kept asking for my shot of Demerol every four hours. The doctor told me that the pain should subside after 2-3 days. When I kept requesting pain medication through day six, the staff assumed I was a junkie wanting to get high. The nurse would come in and jam the syringe into my thigh, like she was trying to slice through meat. What she didn’t realize was that the Demerol had deadened the nerves in the area they injected, so their sadistic attempt to hurt me went unnoticed.

The other side effect of prolonged doses of pain medication is constipation. When the doctor came to visit that day and found out I hadn’t taken a dump in six days, he became alarmed. I told him to take a number. He ordered the nurse to mix up what they called back then a ‘black and white.’ It looked just like a milk shake, but worked like a load of dynamite.

The hospital was a training facility and all the nurses were drop-dead-gorgeous young women from Thailand. A scene from a Marx’s Brothers movie developed quickly. One nurse would slide a bed pan under me while the other took a full one into the bathroom to empty and clean. By my count, each nurse made eight round trips to the bathroom, all while the doctor roared with laughter. By day seven the pain was quite bad and I begged the doc to split the cast and have a look see. He agreed.

They took me into an exam room and the doctor sawed the cast in half lengthwise. My leg was so swollen that the two sides of the plaster separated about three inches. Wish I had had a camera to record the look of alarm on his face. He started to probe the incisions and the problem became abundantly clear.

When he separated the incision sufficiently, a column of blood shot upwards about three feet. The magical part of this horrendous display was that my pain left my body with the blood. Every muscle and bone relaxed. Nothing hurt. The doctor realized a hematoma formed under the incision, and the subsequent swelling was the source of the pain. I no longer required any Demerol, and when my story began to circulate on the floor, my nurses realized I was not a junkie, and they became quite repentant.

I spent two more days there, nine in total before I was released. When they wheeled me outside into the cold winter morning and I got my first breath of fresh air, I beamed my first smile in quite a while. I thought the pain of unrequited love was finally over. I was dead wrong.

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