Friday, December 9, 2011

I Am A Superstar

Until the accident, a late-December respite in Vermont was the much-needed so-called battery charge for our family.

One particular ski trip was my chance to move beyond “intermediate” skiing. Out on the slopes, the sun was disappearing behind the formidable mountain. Closing out day one, I’d have four more to distinguish myself and improve my technique.

For the proverbial Last Run of the Day, Viviane and I come across a black diamond called “Superstar.” Just seeing that name gets my adrenaline pumping: strong and confident notions of red, white and blue achievement, Superman, Wonder Woman, Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps in their USA Speedos. If my run were televised, Jim McKay would be in a canary yellow blazer describing it.

Viviane is smooth and light on her skis. She describes my style as Jean-Claude Killy on the green bunny runs and Jerry Lewis on the blacks.

Today, Jerry is a no show. I haven’t gone down once. The legs feel good. It’s time to master the elements, blast past the fat part of the bell curve and enter the rarified realm of the expert skier. I am a super star.

I point a pole to the beckoning trail sign. Viviane nods, and a bad idea builds momentum with the trail’s steep decline and wind-blown moguls. (Are the scary bumps called “moguls,” because they mimic Donald Trump’s hair?)

My wife is out in front, finding her way down the difficult slope. I gather too much speed and try to cut back in a groove between slick moguls, a move that would have looked good on the chalkboard. Too bad we’re not in a classroom but sliding down an iceberg. My skis hit a rut and pull to the side. My top heavy body surges in the other direction as if launched from a circus cannon. Except my arms aren’t stoic at my sides. This is a flailing, out-of-control, agony-of-defeat cartwheel.

NASCAR drivers see crashes happening in slow motion. Wayne Gretzky once explained when he scored a goal, time slowed, and the puck appeared the size of a pizza pie, the goal as wide as the Hoover Dam. None of that here. It’s an instantaneous, oh-snap blur, white canvas screaming toward my face. Greg Louganis couldn’t have hit the surface at a more precise 90-degree angle. It sounds like chomping a mouthful of Cap’n Crunch. I bounce like a Super Ball. On the second revolution, my head smacks the rock-hard mountain like a bowling ball dropped from a roof. Finally, silence.

It is a sad reflection of our You Tube culture that laying there, thankfully breathing (albeit stunned) and reassured my skull was not split like a rotten pumpkin, I wonder if anyone on the chair lift captured my spastic circus-act flop. Please tell me no one camera-phoned this. I’m destined to be an internet laughing stock. Without royalties.

There are no cameras or giggling. I’m alone, in one piece.

This can’t be that bad. The morning papers said a Manhattan window washer survived a 47-story fall. All my digits are moving. But as the commercial says, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.

That initial crunch wasn’t the give of snow. It something in my shoulder breaking.

My wife kept her wits and balance, which kind of describes our marriage, and had pulled to a stop below. The grade is too steep for her to come up. All is OK, no worries, I reassure her with a sprightly lefty Super Star-like thumbs up, confidently gesturing like a downed lineman pinned to the stretcher as he's carted off the field to the crowd's roar of sympathetic approval and relief the game will again resume. Yet I do not feel confident and am rather worried. The covenant of marriage allows making claims to your life partner that you do not believe. She tells passing skiers following her gaze up the mountain, “Oh, he’s fine. He’s just catching his breath.”

All I can do is flash a dumb smile and that thumbs-up with the arm I can move.

“Baby, just put your skis on and ski on down!” she urges.

Maybe an expert skier could do that. I’m an eternal intermediate, forever checking that middle box on the rental line, a reckless overachiever who flirted with bragging rights for super-stardom beyond his proficiency and paid the price. The run couldn’t have been named “Devil’s Emergency Room” to scare me away? I try to stand, but the shoulder is shot. I slide on my bottom across the slippery surface, faster and faster down the steep hill. This is not going to end well. I dig boot heels into the ice, and lurch to a stop.

The mountain is quiet, save my gasping. I lean on my good shoulder and crawl, inches at a time, across the mountain, toward the woods. Isn’t that where animals go to die?

Someone, it’s a ski instructor, is waving his poles and shouting down from the lift. “Do you need me to radio for help?”

Up there, I’ve looked down at the meek humiliation of the daring and the clumsy, those unfortunate injured skiers who are strapped in and carted away on the Red Cross sled. Yeah, call it in. Now I’ll know how it feels to be present for your own funeral procession. Like driving a stock car at the track in Charlotte, which had different ending of hearty slaps on the back and a framed photo on fake marble, I’ll check off another bucket-list experience.

Viviane says they closed Superstar after my crash. Too treacherous; an out-of-control intermediate from the city was nearly killed. My fast-fading manhood is revived. Yes, it was the ferocious mountain, not me. Mother Nature won today’s battle, the war is mine. I am a superstar…until I find out Viviane was conjuring a well-meaning fib, something a married woman says with noble intentions but nary a shred of truth.

The doctor examining me says he’ll take x-rays but it looks like a broken collar bone. “What do you do for a living?” he asks, sounding not that interested.

“I’m with NASCAR,” I tell him. He smiles, makes eye contact for the first time, and asks if Jimmie Johnson is going to win a third championship.

In the mirror, I basically have no right shoulder. The disappearance of a frequently used body part is sickening. My arm is dangling low like an ape’s, the shoulder having apparently said, hasta la vista. The surrounding skin is already yellowish green. I want to puke.

“This looks pretty bad. Do I need surgery?”

“I don’t think so,” he says. “I want to know this. Earnhardt moving to Hendrick: is that going to change the competitive balance in the sport? I mean, Dale Jr., Gordon, Johnson – that’s like a Murderers Row or the Purple People eaters. What a lineup! They’re gonna dominate!”

I’m in starting to shiver, slipping into shock maybe. The dull pain is starting to spread to my chest. I’m wondering if they’ll screw rods into my body like some of the drivers I’ve talked to, or if I’ll be limping around like the Hunchback of NASCAR in New York.

“Do I have to stay in the hospital?” I ask.

“We’ll fix you up here, and you’ll be out in just a few. There’s quite a separation in the bone break. You must have hit pretty hard. Hey, I’ve seen some hard hits in NASCAR this year. I couldn’t believe Gordon walked away from that lick in Pocono. How about those HANS devices and new softer walls? They’re really making NASCAR much safer.”

“This hurts a lot. How long will the pain last?”

“Oh, it’s like any bone break,” the doctor says. “We’ll give you some strong medication. Did you know Dale Senior broke his collarbone at Talladega, the car just flipping like crazy, and then he drove the next week with that broken collarbone?”

“Yes, he actually won the pole and the race. Watkins Glen. Road course. Toughest course to drive, I’d imagine, with a painful injury like that. Doctor, I’m on the first day of a five-day vacation. Do I have to go home? We can get back to New York in about five hours.”

“It’s up to you. Frankly, you’ll at first be uncomfortable wherever you are. You can stay in the lodge. Hey, speaking of New York, that track NASCAR was building is not going to happen?”

This dance goes on until the doc gives me a sling and bottle of horse pills. He tells me to see an orthopedic surgeon back in New York. “I’d bet that doctor will want to operate. If I were you, I’d avoid surgery. You could place one end of your collar bone on one side of the room, and the other end on the other side, and the bones will find each other. The collar bone is a truly amazing thing. You should be OK in a few months.”

He was right. I got better. (The collarbone can find anything; too bad it couldn't go work for the goverment and find Amelia Earhardt.)

I was in tip-top shape but then gruesomely rolled an ankle at Texas Motor Speedway. What used to be a jutting ankle bone at the bottom of my skinny chicken leg soon resembled the kind of plump tomato my grandmother would have proudly thrown in the pot for Sunday’s sauce. You hit 40, and you become spastic. Your body grows hair in odd places and progressively falls apart. TV commercials offer electronic devices to alert the authorities when you become incapacitated.

I can accept that. Harder to deal with is how I’d viewed those who get hurt on business trips as losers. I’m in that club, too. Not exactly on the bucket list.

Each NASCAR track has a well-staffed mini-hospital in the infield. It’s meant for drivers, not clumsy, aging, accident-prone PR people. I hobble to the Infield Care Center for an ace bandage and a tape job. I’m hosting media, will be on the ankle all day, and need to stabilize it. The Speedway doctor won’t tape me without taking x-rays. Sure enough, the tip of the fibia is broken.

The doc shows the film – a chunk the shape of India floating beneath the shin bone. The kind, gentle and efficient folks in the Infield Care Center strap on a metal boot, hand me crutches, and suggest I see an orthopedic specialist back home.

“I know,” I say. “I bet they’ll want to operate.”

The busted ankle brings out the best in service companies. Avis fetches my car at the hotel, no charge. Continental bumps me to first class with curb-to-gate wheelchair service. I make a mental note to fake an injury before a future trip. In light of recent events, pretending won’t be necessary.

I return to New York to see another doctor. You can guess what happens when he hears I was hurt at a NASCAR race. The orthopedic surgeon at St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village secretly wishes he were Tony Stewart’s jack man:

Clumsy PR Guy: So, it’s broken. Bummer. But there’s no ligament damage, right?

Doctor: No, none. What amazes me is how fast those drivers go when they are so close to one another. Extraordinary, isn’t it.

Clumsy PR Guy: What about the tendons?

Doctor: The tendons are fine. You don’t have to worry about that. They say it’s the roar of the cars and the whole massive feel of it. You go to a race, and you are just blown away and hooked.

Clumsy PR Guy: I have been elevating the leg and keeping ice on the ankle. How long should I do that?

Doctor: As long as needed. I hear NASCAR is still looking at building a track in the New York area. Jersey? Near the Meadowlands? Out on the Island? No, no, Staten Island. Yes, that’s it. Is it true? That would be great. That sport really needs to be here in New York.

Clumsy PR Guy: Unfortunately, there’s not enough political support, and that’s not gonna work out. Listen, getting back to me and the ankle, I imagine there’s some sort of physical therapy ahead?

Doctor: You will absolutely need rehab. We can make a recommendation – plenty of good places. It really seems to be a sport that has caught on like wildfire. I have a friend at ABC, who was a big skeptic but is now completely sold on it. They show your races, right?

Clumsy PR Guy: Yes, ABC is a partner, and NASCAR is very popular. I sit at a computer all day. My main exercise is hitting the send button on email. So I like to run at night. When will I be jogging again?

Doctor: Should be a few months. Just between you and me, it gets pretty wild at some of those tracks, huh? What’s it like?

Clumsy PR Guy: It’s fun. The fans are a panic. I writing a book on them. There’s a fan who took the NASCAR flag to the top of Mt. Everest. Another guy walks around at the track naked except for a Goodyear tire and Tom Sawyer straw hat. Come to think of it, he walks a lot, and I’ll be walking a lot. I can do that with the cast you’ll give me? No crutches?

Doctor: Yes, of course. I don’t understand Staten Island. Why didn’t they just didn’t go buy the land at Grumman airport out on the Island? It’s totally available.

This is a top ankle and knee guy in New York magazine’s list of the city’s best doctors. He’s in demand and hard to reach. I was able to see him instantly. You see, his assistant is a Sprint phone-carrying NASCAR fan. She saw “NASCAR” on my email requesting an appointment. I was promptly slotted in. Getting my first preference for follow up appointments was a snap. I just had to answer a few questions about what Dale Jr. was like, and does he really have a girlfriend?

Who says they don't love NASCAR in New York?

For more stories like these, Andrew Giangola’s critically acclaimed book, THE WEEKEND STARTS ON WEDNESDAY, is available online and wherever fine books (and some crappy ones) are sold.