What Happened (once again I am reminded that I am no Jay Leno)

Thea Gavin
12 min readJan 2, 2023

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Yep, it could have been way worse . . .

I write this on December 29, 2022, to try to make sense of what happened two days ago.

(And hey . . . the Jay Leno angle — It’s real! NOT just click-bait! I would never take advantage of one or more near-death incidents to contrive a connection to a comedian who just happens to be a little more successful!)

Classic car repair gone bad, Jay Leno style
Our own classic collectible 1972 Dodge van . . . in happier times

Back to the story: At 8 pm on December 27, Steve and I climbed into in our 1972 Dodge (#VanLife) van and tried to navigate down the very steep, very dark driveway in front of our oldest son’s house.

Then the engine quit and set into motion a chain of events that could have been way worse, but was still bad enough to make writing this difficult in more than one way.

It had been such a fun post-Christmas sleepover with our three kids and seven grandkids: we played tag and basketball, sat in the jacuzzi, dared each other to dip into the 50-degree pool, ate Christmas leftovers, watched a re-cap of the best goals of the World Cup, played Uno Flip and Double Ditto, shopped for and planted sweet peas and manzanita, and on and on.

Until it was 8 pm on Tuesday, December 27 — time to once again make the 80-mile drive home from Escondido to Orange, CA, in our old Dodge.

This time, though, the van’s beefy V-8 engine balked.

Refused to start.

Are you kidding? This beast always starts and runs and takes us on adventures to and from the Eastern Sierra Nevada; Grand Canyon; Wallowa County, OR; Wright, WY; Lafayette, LA . . .

It. Always. Starts.

Not this time.

Steve, ever an optimist, kept trying, turning the key, listening intently to decode the message of struggle: RRrrRRrrRRRrrrRRRRRrrr.

But that good old gas guzzling motor — located in between us, there inside the front of that good old van, our solar-powered home away from home — that old reliable 318 cubic inch monster refused to growl to life.

“We just need to get it on level ground,” Steve declared. He should know. Half a million miles ago he transformed this beast from an empty metal shell into the awesome mini-home we’ve spent so much of our traveling life in.

He built the tiny stainless steel kitchen — complete with sink, refrigerator, and three-burner stove. He welded the bed in back to exactly fit us. And, of course, he re-built the engine and drive train with all their mighty components: the gear splitter, the Holley carburetor . . . Steve imagined it and then labored for years to make his dream real.

But that was when we were much younger.

Before we started forgetting things.

Before Steve had to ask, “Which freeway are we on right now?”

Before . . . the cognitive slippage that has begun to nibble at the edges of his judgment, slippage that now regularly causes chunks of his skin to go missing as his power tool mishaps increase and his bike crashes multiply.

But it seemed reasonable to let the van roll down the steep driveway to the level, dead-end street where our oldest son and his family live. We ended up in the middle of the dark lane. A quiet place, aptly named Quiet Hills.

Quiet for just a few more minutes.

As Steve had schooled me very early in our 47-year marriage, an internal combustion engine needs three things in order to run: fuel, air, and spark.

There are many ways to test to see if an engine is getting the proper amount of each of these three key components.

Please don’t try the one Steve did.

He popped the engine cover off the massive 318 Dodge engine, which, lest we forget, sits INSIDE THE VAN between our two fancy front seats (salvaged by Steve from a Jeep Cherokee).

He grabbed my tooth-brush-rinsing plastic cup, 8 ounce capacity, from the sink counter, went outside to the back corner of the van, and opened a cubby that held a special gas tank drain line which he had crafted to supply fuel for our motorcycles.

Six ounces of gasoline later, he climbed back up in the van, and in an act of typical Steve dexterity, he reached low with one hand to turn the key, high with the other to drip gas into the throttle body Holley carburetor.

His reasoning — if you could label “reasonable” the act of dripping gasoline onto a machine that only works if there’s a spark involved — was that if the van started when fuel came from an external source, that would narrow down the problem to either the motor’s fuel line being clogged or the fuel pump not working.

My reasoning — as I stood in the deep December dark just outside the open driver’s side door, watching yet another chapter of “what the fix-it is my husband doing this time” unfold — was more along the lines of, “OK, I see the fire extinguisher just under the driver’s seat. How fast can I get to it if this turns into non-disco inferno?”

Lots more stuff was going through my mind as well: Questions as to why we drive a ’72 Dodge van when we’re in our mid-60s. Memories of previous Steve-induced, van-related trauma, such as the time we had just crested the 4,000-foot Tejon Summit on Interstate 5 and Steve decided to coast down in neutral to save gas, only the engine died and there was no way to re-start it as we careened down the grade at God-only-knows miles an hour with the power steering and braking systems disabled due to the fact that the motor was not running. With no brakes and little steering (but guardian angels on every side), Steve managed to weave around cars and trucks until we coasted to a stop a mile past the bottom of the mountain.

OK. That’s a lot to run through one’s mind, so maybe it was just a vague sense of unease, the cognitive dissonance involved as gas is poured near something called a spark plug in an enclosed space

All rational thoughts ended, though, when my deepest gut fear erupted in a loud pop and flash of flame: a fireball inside the van.

Then the fireball flew straight toward me.

It was round. And fiery. I can still see it when I close my eyes.

While I don’t remember any feeling of impact, I will never forget that one second I was not on fire, and the next second I was.

All the 1960s-era elementary school visits from our friendly City of Orange firefighters culminated in that moment as my mind silently shouted “Stop, drop, and roll!”

Which I did. I crossed my arms over the chest-flames. I threw myself down on the crumbly blacktop. I rolled for my life.

But I was still on fire.

Then I felt Steve plop onto my back and begin what must have looked like the most awkward spooning session ever. His legs and arms wrapped around me, we thrashed around like unhinged salmon until my forehead was bruised and bleeding, but I was finally not on fire.

Well, technically, I was not on fire.

But my hands felt like they were still burning, burning, burning . . .

“Help!” I began yelling. “Call 9–1–1! I need help! I’m burned and it hurts!” (My apologies to Will Ferrell for not getting his Austin Powers movie lines exactly correct.)

So our son, who had been outside up at the house letting the dog do its business, and who had come running down when he saw the fireball in the van, stood over writhing me as he punched 9–1–1 into his phone. I heard his shaky voice ask for help, only to be rebuffed by a dispatcher with . . . advice?

“Have her hold it under cold running water for 20 minutes,” the pleasant female voice on speaker-phone said.

So I began my maniacal screaming again. “I am BURNED and I need help. I am in PAIN and I am NOT MOVING and I NEED MORPHINE. Send paramedics NOW!”

I think the speakerphone feature *might* have caught some of my comments, because the discussion then turned to important stuff like what was the address, and make sure someone was waiting at the end of the street.

By now, my three brilliant and adorable teenage granddaughters had gathered about 20 feet away, looking scared and sad, so to cheer them up (and to add to the long list of times their always-barefoot “Grammy G” has done something embarrassing), I began singing outrageous songs about pain and morphine and handsome firefighters who were on their way to save me. I don’t remember the exact lyrics or tune. Unfortunately. These would have made a great addition to my song-writing oeuvre.

I continued yell-singing for my horrified captive audience until the first responders showed up — all cliched-ly young and rugged and expert with the questions while they were taking my vitals and cutting my melted fleece jacket off.

“What’s your name?”

“Do you have any allergies?”

“What happened?”

I’m pretty sure that in all the times they’d asked that last question, they’d never received the answer I supplied as I tried to briefly describe the non-starting van . . . the cup of gasoline to test if it was a fuel pump problem . . . the fireball that struck me smack in the chest.

The well-mustachioed firefighter who had asked the question now paused before he replied, as if to digest my story. Using an age-old teaching technique, he repeated back what I had said in his own words, in a way that made more sense to him, “So your husband threw a molotov cocktail at you?”

“Yes, sir. Yes, he did.”

So now my husband had yet another nickname, and I got a 20-minute ride south to the University of San Diego Medical Center emergency room, conveniently located in the same building as the UCSD Burn Center, which I soon learned was a pretty great place to get help when your otherwise extremely kind and nice husband of 47 years has a bad auto-repair day and turns into Molotov Steve.

Rumbling down Interstate 15 in the back of the paramedic unit, with my pain score in the “9” range, I received my first and second (and, I hope, last ever) doses of fentanyl. My writerly duty is to report only the facts: it might have helped with the burn pain, but there was no early-1970s brain-pain relief (i.e., I never felt “high”).

Also of note: there is such a thing as intravenous Tylenol. It is good also.

Once admitted to the ER, I was offered oxycodone, so in the interest of my ongoing pain science experiment I accepted that as well. Similar to the fentanyl, it was quite effective for the physical ouch, but did not a thing to transport my mind away from the fact that I ALMOST JUST DIED from my husband throwing burning gasoline at me.

Other what-ifs, AKA “Things that could have gone wrong as well as dying”:

Since the fireball of burning gas hit me square in the chest, I was superbly protected by my 1990s-era LL Bean fleece jacket, which was fresh from my mom’s estate — she died last month at age 96, which could lead to a whole nother set of stories, but not today.

I also had a down vest, sweatshirt, and t-shirt on under the fleece jacket (hey, it’s California and I’m not used to 50-degree weather), all of which insulated my torso from the flames covering the front of me. IF I’d been in a tank top . . . with lots more skin exposed (instead of just my hands) . . .

Another what-IF: say the gasoline fireball had landed a few inches higher, perhaps smack into my face? I’m having a hard time getting that disastrous-repetitive-thought-image out of my head these days.

What about this one: IF the fireball had ignited the van interior, and caught Steve on fire before he threw the cup out . . . I could be missing a husband instead of just some skin on my hands.

OK . . . IF this “what-if” catastrophizing doesn’t stop soon . . . I’ll be heading to therapy.

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The drugs worked; my pain level went down to 1 (on a scale of 1–10), and before you know it, it was 3 a.m. and time for what I had been fearing all my life, ever since I first heard the word: debridement (spelled “bride” but pronounced “breed”).

For some reason, this word and all it conjures up has always freaked me out, and now it was my turn to experience it: “the removal of dead tissue from a wound to prevent infection.”

Dead tissue = all the blistered (and worse, but I don’t want to gross you out too much with specific colors) stuff left behind after an encounter with burning gasoline.

Armed with a compassionate smile and sharp pair of scissors, Patricia from the UCSD Burn Center got to work.

The pain jumped to 11.

We called for more oxycodone.

An hour later Patricia got back to work.

[insert your own expletives here]

Every time she touched scissor to skin, oxycodone or not, the pain skyrocketed to 10+.

I realized more drugs were not the answer (wish I would have known that back in 1974), so I just muttered “Help me, Jesus” and made small, frantic kicks with my be-socked feet. (RE: socks: the admitting nurse made me put them on when they were throwing my gas-soaked clothes away and putting me in a hospital gown: “You’ll want them for the hallways and bathroom floor.” They were correct. Yuck.)

I twitched my feet and tried to breathe and prayed out loud and it still REALLY HURT.

Somehow, the burning + tugging + scraping sensation was way worse than when it happened, all those hours ago when I had thought, “Oh, wow, this really hurts. I need to go to a hospital and they will make me feel better” when I should have been thinking, “Oh, wow, this really hurts, and when I get to the hospital it will hurt even worse.”

Patricia worked on me for hours. Or maybe it was 20 minutes. Who knows.

Finally she was done with the dead skin trimming on my right hand.

Finally she was done with the under-dead-skin scrubbing on that same hand.

Finally?

Nope. Now it was time to begin on THE OTHER HAND.

I could not help but think of our friend Mark’s son Joe, who at age 14 was involved in an off-road rollover and had worse burns than this over much of his body. How he survived; what he survived . . .

So, as I had done (and continue to do), I distracted myself with thoughts of how it could be worse.

I repeated my “help me, Jesus” mantra while continuing to flutter kick, un-arch my back and breathe (vs. holding my breath, which felt great but I guess was unsustainable). Body awareness, baby. Don’t leave home without it.

Poor Patricia. Unlike when I had braces, and the orthodontist seemed a little too cheerful when he would tighten the excruciating wires connecting my teeth, my wonderful burn-care-angel Patricia exuded kindness and empathy, even as she carried on with her un-fun debridement routine.

Then it was time to dress the wounds. Now I had to open my squeezed-shut eyes and watch carefully as caring Patricia put careful amounts of ointment and three layers of caring bandages, with lots of caring-est words of encouragement and advice for me for the next 6–8 weeks, when I would be caregiving for myself . . . with a little help from the man who caused it all, Molotov Steve himself, who feels so incredibly bad about the whole situation that I may never have to cook, clean, or do laundry again.

So here I lie, two days later, typing through shoddily wrapped, unraveling gauze, with big yellow-ish ooze stains slowly soaking the formerly white wrap, dreading the next re-bandaging session, as the first one last night had not gone so well, being interrupted by me sinking to the floor in tears, “It hurts to scrub! I can’t scrub! I don’t want to scrub!”

Of course Mr. Molotov, my bandage-changing assistant, tried to help with a kind, panicky response to my agony, “Well, then don’t scrub if you don’t want to.”

“Don’t you dare tell me not to scrub! I am GOING TO SCRUB!”

The next 6–8 weeks should be fun.

Except that I’m already tired of explaining the whole surreal mess to family; how do I deal with strangers when I finally venture out?

What can I reply to folks who dare let their gaze wander to my chest — where my two bandaged hands float like a wounded t-rex’s — and exclaim, “What happened?”

Maybe I will remind them of Jay Leno’s way-worse burn story, or maybe I’m just gonna wonder with them, for a long time, “What happened?”

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Thea Gavin

Thea is a barefoot adventurer, writer, and presenter who wants people to think “outside the shoe” and keep moving/learning/laughing through life.