August 22, 1996
I don’t have a very good memory. Short-term or long-term. I don’t have any significant memories before I turned 8. Just glimpses and flashes. My short-term isn’t so dramatic but it’s sometimes worrisome.
I don’t know if my terrible memory has a particular origin or date. But it could be August 22, 1996.
On that date my friend Jason and I and set out for Nutty Putty Cave, an elaborate series of underground holes at the top of a large hill west of Utah Lake. It was to be the last hurrah of the summer before school started. I was just shy of my 17th birthday. I’d already visited the cave twice before over the previous couple of years. It was a claustrophobic little adventure but I hadn’t yet mapped out the entire grid of its inner regions and I was determined to explore the parts I hadn’t yet seen.
We left in the late morning, first visiting Smith’s Marketplace in South Jordan where we lived to pick up some supplies (snacks, batteries for flashlights). We were in my father’s semi-new Toyota truck, devoid of options — including, most importantly — air conditioning but it had standard transmission, which I loved. It had taken me a while to master a standard over the last year since I began driving and now driving felt like a constant achievement. An adult achievement.
Southbound Redwood Road eventually becomes SR-71 if you take it far enough south. Hugging the outskirts of Utah County’s western foothills, the landscape looks very much like the desert wasteland much of Utah is known for, brown hills with the occasional splotch of yellow-green and sagebrush scattered to the horizon and beyond. SR-71 is a pretzel here, but that didn’t pose a significant obstacle for my still developing young brain.
“I bet I don’t even have to slow down to take these curves,” I bragged to Jason. He didn’t respond. We were speeding along at a more than respectable 70 mph. His silence was tacit agreement so I proceeded to test my confident hypothesis.
I later came to fervently believe that had I been wearing a seat belt I would have been crushed to death. By the fourth barrel roll I had fallen out of the vehicle and into the lacerating embrace of the unforgiving sagebrush. Photos of the mangled truck would show that the driver’s side roof was completely caved in. But still, always wear your seatbelt, kids.
The truck came to a rest on top of my body, the searingly hot engine pressed up against various patches of skin. I still have the scars — faint, after two decades of cellular sloughing.
I was in and out, in a hazy dream-state. “Sagebrush!” I would intermittently and incoherently cry out. Jason by this time was down the road, looking for help. He was cut up and bruised a little but none the worse for wear, at least not physically. In those ancient times we didn’t yet carry cell phones so it took him 10 minutes to flag down another vehicle, a semi-truck. The driver surveyed the scene and and quickly radioed for police. That was another 15 minutes. Then another 10 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.
Jason rode with the officer in his patrol car. It was about 30 minutes to American Fork Hospital and Jason was treated to an extended and annotated treatise of “Kids These Days.” I shouldn’t be alive after something like that, the cop told him. He’d seen nearly mirror accidents with teen drivers and not one survivor. The cop would later write me a $75 ticket for “Improper Lane Change.” I had to learn my lesson, after all. In the ambulance they had sedated me. I was cut up everywhere, burned on my arms, and bleeding out of my penis.
At least, that might be how it happened. I’ve (mostly) trusted that it is. All of the foregoing — except for my present narratival gloss, of course — was Jason’s account of the accident. I don’t remember any of that day at all, not even the hours before the accident. He would visit me a couple days later in the hospital but I wouldn’t learn the full story until some time later. He was surprisingly reticent to talk about what happened. My mom thought it was because he felt guilty, that maybe he was really the one driving. No evidence for this, of course. He had recently gotten his license and drove a sports car. I couldn’t imagine him wanting to drive my duddy little Toyota Girl-Be-Gone.
Meanwhile, my parents had put our home up for sale just that morning. The first walkthrough was later that day. My mom was home waiting for potential buyers while my dad and my siblings were spending the day at Lagoon. “Calvin Baker. Calvin Baker please come to the administration office.”
I was surely quite the sight for my parents. My dad had contacted a home teacher, Arnie, who happened to also be a close friend of his, and the home teacher had already arrived and was waiting for them. When he saw my condition, Dad broke down and said he couldn’t be the voice of the blessing. I would have a similar experience a few years later when my wife had an emergency C-section to extract premature twins. The morphine had worn off much too quickly and her screaming and thrashing were too overwhelming for speech. Her father would be the one to provide a blessing in that instance.
I was in the hospital for a week. My pelvis had fractured in 5 places and I had pretty severe internal damage. Surgery would be required, but not until I had healed a little more. On the second or third day I was visited by my version of Kevin Arnold’s Winnie Cooper. My Winnie was Wendi, an on again, off again girlfriend I had been in various stages of involved with/pining for/agonizing over for the last 3 or 4 years. I remember her coming to visit for hours at a time. (There may have been a bit of Florence Nightingale in the air). We rekindled our relationship in a big way, which naturally led me to firmly believe that the whole ordeal was entirely worth it, without remainder.
At home a hospital bed was installed in my room, with the familiar metal triangle hanging from a cable that I could grab to shift myself around. I wasn’t allowed to put any weight on my pelvis, which was fine by me, since it was excruciating. Of course there still had to be walkthroughs for our house so my dad would have to pick me up and carry me down the stairs to my wheelchair so they buyers could be alone with what hopefully would be their dream home.
Surgery was a couple weeks later. Compared with the surgery, the car accident was a glorious spa retreat. To access the internal damage, doctors had to cut into my perineum. I awoke in the recovery room screaming like the man in black in the Princess Bride. A nurse had to quickly wheel me out so I wouldn’t disturb the other patients. I remember crying and thrashing and begging for relief, only to be told that they had already given me all the painkillers that were allowed and I would have to wait another couple of hours.
I was in the hospital this time for another week, a week hazy with severe pain and weeping and despairing. One of the nurses told me that I was the only male she knew who might be able to understand what it was like for a woman to give birth. That was not comforting, for some reason.
Immediately after the accident I had had a catheter surgically inserted just below my belly button. Whenever someone would so much as bump it, it would send waves of pain coursing through my entire body. I remember being a paranoid wreck for weeks that someone would touch it by accident or that I would shift too dramatically and cause it to move. At one point in the hospital a male nurse came in to change some of my bedding. My dad was visiting with me at the time and warned the nurse not to touch the colostomy bag attached to the catheter because it would cause me severe pain. Not a minute later, the nurse swung the bag from one side to the other in order reach some of the bedding and I howled in pain. My dad jumped up and tore the nurse a proverbial new one. The nurse made a hasty retreat. I never saw him again.
By the time I returned home, my junior year of high school had begun. I would need to be home schooled until we moved, so I wouldn’t be attending school with my friends. My time at Bingham High School was over. I contemplated the move with sheer dread. Moving is always tough for a teenager, but my particular situation was going to make it much harder. I remember one day being in our living room in my wheelchair, looking out the window, and suddenly breaking down in sobs. I could not comprehend how I was going to emotionally survive this. Most days were pretty black.
There were some bright spots. The young women in my ward knew of my plight and volunteered take turns wheeling me around the neighborhood. I remember one in particular, Heather, who did this multiple times. She had a reputation as a light-headed flirt and though she was plenty flirtatious on those occasions, she also revealed herself as a woman of plenty of depth and thoughtfulness. I saw a side of her that I never would have seen otherwise.
By late September I was out of the wheelchair, though I couldn’t stay on my feet for very long. I still had the colostomy bag and catheter, strapped to my leg. I relied on feeling it gradually fill up against my leg so I would know when to drain it. It made me intensely self-conscious, though you couldn’t really see the slight bulge on my thigh unless you knew to look for it.
I felt fortunate I was able to take Wendi to the Homecoming Dance. We doubled with my best friend Andy and his girlfriend. I had lost a huge amount of weight; I look gaunt and tired in the dance picture. My relationship with Wendi was probably the best part of these three months in between the accident and when I moved. We talked frequently and became even better friends than romantic partners, though romance was still important to both of us. As a teenage boy I recall feeling strangely fortunate in this area. Most teenage boys are walking hormones and I was no exception. But my accident had made me completely impotent. Because my religious culture so strongly encouraged chastity, this didn’t really mitigate any kind of potential sexual relationship, but even the mere thought that this wasn’t a possibility anyway felt like a burden had been lifted. I still desired her in all the usual chemical and emotional ways, but it was curbed by this reality. I didn’t discuss this with her. I would have been too embarrassed and intercourse had never been on the table anyway. Plus my overall condition prevented us from getting too aggressive. But I felt oddly free.
We finally moved in November. Leaving my friends — and Andy in particular — was hard, but leaving Wendi was tragic. I remember crying together for hours before she left my home for the last time. 20 years on it feels somewhat naively adorable that we were so Romeo and Juliet for one another, two young people certain that the universe could still conspire to put us together forever. But it was real enough for us in those moments. No adult could have given us a reality check. It would have been wrong to do so. Besides, much of life is the tug and pull of loving and letting go. We fit seamlessly into that particular stream. I remember vividly standing in the street in front of my house watching her drive away, staring for several minutes at the last spot I saw her car before it turned and disappeared from view.
In any case, I would fly back to Utah in March of the following year to take her to prom. We wrote one another frequently and still considered ourselves committed to each other. But by this time she had already met and was getting to know the man whom she would eventually marry. The threads were already starting to unravel. Not long after prom she officially ended it.
We arrived in Fort Collins, Colorado as Winter was starting to make its appearance. Dusk settled in much earlier than it did in Utah. I was depressed out of my mind. Constant thoughts of suicide. I began school almost immediately, with the now all-too-familiar colostomy bag still strapped to my leg. My sister Kelli was only one grade behind me and we entered high school together in the same state of mind. Before too long I helped her find some Mormon girls to hang out with, though I’m not sure she ever made close friends in the short time we lived there. It took me quite a bit longer. I ate lunch alone for a few months before finally finding a tribe I could fit into, though never completely comfortably.
A visit with a urologist confirmed a fear my father had had since the beginning: it would be unknown if I would father children, particularly in the traditional way. I was still impotent several months in and the urologist could only give us alternative methods to try in the future so I could achieve erections again. It really upset my dad to hear that. He tried to console me by referencing the machine the urologist had talked about, some kind of a crank that you could turn to induce an artificial erection. He tried to explain how my future wife and I could use it during foreplay and several other things I stopped listening to after the horror of the crank story. The truth was that I hadn’t really grasped the gravity of not ever being able to father children. I was more concerned that I might never get to experience sex. But within a little over a year after the accident, normal functioning was gradually returning, and two years later everything was working perfectly fine.
My mission to Guatemala about 2 years after the accident was hard on my injuries, but I gradually grew stronger the more I walked (which was considerable, several miles a day). Today I experience the occasional twinge and my pelvis becomes sore now after exercise in a way that it hasn’t for several years, probably a consequence of getting older. But I haven’t experienced any significant long-term consequences. I married 6 years after the accident and would eventually have 4 children.
My mom frequently tells me that I was different after the accident. Before it happened, I was drifting away from my religion, rebellious in a number of respects, overly sarcastic, never taking anything seriously. After, however, I became more of a sober young man, more thoughtful, more serious about my commitments, etc. I wonder about that. I just don’t have a very good memory of my character or behavior before. I can’t really compare what came after.
But I can say that the ways my mother describes me before the accident somewhat accurately describes me now. The experience of having twins (referenced in the above link) was an unforgiving brutality. I mark that particular experience as a turning point for my faith and my outlook on the world. I don’t know how closely it’s connected to my teenage trauma. Certainly the physical pain coupled with the emotional challenges I faced at that time were considerable. But I’ve never really worked out how those experiences fit into the always-evolving story of my life. This little memoir is a first crack at that.
Nutty Putty Cave is now sealed. No one will ever enter the cave again, at least not for a very long time. John Jones died there in 2009 after being trapped for 28 hours. His body couldn’t be reached so they sealed the cave with him inside. In a sense, part of me is buried there, too.