In July, 1988, CBC Radio acquired a twenty-three year old with a lot of growing up yet to do. I wasn’t completely green, though. I’d been in broadcasting since the age of fourteen. At that age I’d begun volunteering at the local cable affiliate, Cable 5, in Summerside, PEI.
I loved working at Cable 5. I learned to operate the cameras and the big clunky Video Tape Recorders (VTRs) and I was especially fond of “switching” the shows on the cool looking switcher. My friends and I produced our own shows and worked on other peoples’ shows, often about music. At the same time I also worked at Three Oaks High School’s brand new and exceptionally well-run radio station under the leadership of teacher Ralph Carruthers, who launched at least two careers in broadcasting that I know of, and probably more.
That was all volunteer, though. I needed a part time job that actually paid money. So I got a job at MacDonald’s. I hated it there. The managers, only a little older than me, were always yelling and screaming at the rest of us, especially me, it seemed. I’d curse them angrily under my breath. Luckily, after one month they fired me.
“It’s not for everyone,” the franchise manager told me, not unkindly.
She meant that it wasn’t for immature fifteen-year olds who couldn’t be bothered to memorize what went on a Big Mac.
Getting fired from MacDonald’s was one of the happiest days of my life.
Had I not been fired from MacDonald’s I might never have got my first real job in radio. One cold November afternoon I cruised down Water Street in an Oldsmobile with my friend Justin Hickey at the wheels and two other pals, the four of us probably listening to classic Genesis. We passed Summerside’s local radio station, a 250 watt day-timer with the call letters CJRW, located at 1240 AM on the dial. I’d grown up listening to CJRW.
“Stop the car!” I shouted to Justin.
I jumped out, crossed the street, and entered CJRW’s front door. I climbed up a flight of stairs to CJRW’s reception area, walls festooned with plaques attesting to the station’s long history of community activity. Elton John was playing on a set of speakers: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” the first time I’d ever heard that song. I’ve loved it ever since.
A lady greeted me at the reception desk (possibly Rose Anne Gaudet), super friendly (maybe she knew my mother).
“I’d like to apply for a job,” I told her.
She furnished me with an application. I filled it out as best I could. A man took me to a studio booth and gave me several sheets of thin yellow paper with dot matrix type. News, weather and sports. I recorded an audition tape on the spot. A month later, at home, the phone rang.
I recognized Lowell’s voice immediately. He was the first famous person I’d ever spoken to. Famous on PEI, anyway. “I’d like to offer you a job as a disc jockey. When can you start?”
I could barely believe my good fortune. Lowell and CJRW hired me to host two shifts each week. I had a six-hour long country music show on Friday nights and a rock show on Saturday nights. I hated country music. I grew to like it in time. Well, some of it. I worked at CJRW all through High School. I would have done it for free. I almost did do it for free: I earned $3.35 per hour, minimum wage at the time.
I darned near didn’t show up for my first shift (I was still the same kid who couldn’t memorize hamburger ingredients). I got confused about which week I was supposed to start. One of my fellow disc jockeys was Peter Arsenault (he went by Peter Scott on air). Peter happened to drive down High Street—my street—in his gold Pontiac Firebird Trans Am shortly before the start of my shift. Spotting me, he pulled up beside me and rolled down the window.
“You do realize you start tonight, don’t you?”
“Get in the damned car!”
He drove me to the station and put me on the air before a big silver console with rotary pots and two huge turntables. I learned how to cue up 7” 45 single records so they’d start an instant after introducing them (about one quarter turn back from where the needle hit the first sound). We played IDs and promos on cartridges (called “carts”). There was a quarter inch tape machine that looked rather daunting. For my first few shifts I got the guy who worked before me to cue it up. His name was Jim Murray and like me he’d go on to work for the CBC (they’d call him James Murray there).
I got nervous before every shift, but I was never nervous on air. I loved every second of it. I got to choose my own music. I played other peoples’ requests. Once, I sneezed on air. I learned not to do that. Once, introducing a record, I choked on a potato chip. I learned not to do that. I had two laughing fits on air—I never learned not to do that (I was a giddy teen-ager).
With a mere 250 watts, CJRW didn’t have a very strong signal, but it seemed to reach a lot of people. I grew close to my audience. I got calls from all over western PEI as well as Cap Pele, in New Brunswick, across the Northumberland Strait. They’d call to make requests. They’d call to say hi. They’d call week after week. They’d tell me I knew them but wouldn’t tell me who they were. Once, calling a friend during a show, I accidentally called the wrong number. A girl answered the phone. “Hey, you’re the guy on the radio!”
We had a good chat.
The name of the Friday night country show was The Ranch Party. I always opened it with Bobbie Nelson’s Down Yonder from Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The station didn’t own that record; my father did. I always brought in a lot of my own stuff. I mixed the country up with folk music from time to time. Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers were favourites. I used to play this one song by them. One night after I played it a Ranch Party regular called up, an older Acadian woman.
“That song you just played?” she said. “You must never play it again.”
“It’s too sad.”
She wasn’t wrong:
Isn’t it grand, boys, to be bloody well dead? Let’s not have a sniffle, let’s have a bloody good cry And always remember the longer you live The sooner you’ll bloody well die.
I had always gotten a kick out of it. Young and fully alive, it didn’t apply to me. I could see how it might be considered a little morbid, though. I respected my listeners. I never played it again.
Another night, during the Saturday night rock show, a girl called up, not someone I knew.
“I love you!” she said, before hanging up.
I laughed. I was always getting calls like that. It was just some kid in town having fun, probably hanging out with a bunch of other kids. For a few short years me and my fellow disc jockeys John Burke and Peter Scott and Mike Surette and all the rest of them supplied the soundtrack of these kids lives, and we all had fun together, so much more fun than grilling hamburgers.
Looking through the Wayback Machine just now I stumbled upon a bit I’d posted about my friend and colleague Steve Starchev. The old version of this blog imploded a few years after posting about Steve, rendering these memories inaccessible, so, because Steve was a special guy, I thought I’d dust them off and get them back out into the light of day, where they belong:
It is with great sadness that I write to you today to inform you that our colleague Steve Starchev passed away this weekend after a long illness.
Steve will be greatly missed by both his friends in the SRC/CBC radio services and by the music community of Toronto to whom he gave so much delight over the years.I worked closely with Steve for four and a half years up in the French department of CBC Radio. He was charming, affable, a really pleasant person to work with, and he introduced me to a lot of great music. He was also young, older than me but damned young, too young to die. They diagnosed him with kidney cancer this past August and now, six months later, he’s gone.I didn’t even get to say goodbye, which is my fault, because I didn’t make the time. Shame on me.
Palmira: February 23rd, 2006 @ 7:15 pm It’s been nice to see such lovely things written about Steve Starchev…amazing isn’t it? I am his aunt and there seems to be an entire life he led that I didn’t know about. I knew about his radio program and his love of music, of course. But the vast number of people that he knew is something I was not aware of. Many members of Steve’s large family are also musicians and so his love of music was not a surprise to anyone of us.Steve, his sister Lili, my brother Rudi (also his uncle) and I grew up together, as only four years separated the oldest (me) from the youngest (Lili). We were more like brothers and sisters than an aunt, uncle, nephew and niece. I visited Steve in the hospital and told him he had to get better, that any other alternatives were unacceptable. He said no problem….he’d just bought a new pair of shoes and he planned to wear them. Good I thought, that’s the right attitude. His passing has left a huge void in our family, especially in his Mother’s heart. He fell out of line. It should not have been his turn. Not yet. There is a natural order to life and when that goes awry, hearts are broken and lives are changed forever. Because of his suffering, Steve’s passing was a blessing at first, but now it just hurts to know he’s gone. I hope he’s in the good company of the many musicians who have gone before him and I also hope that he’s playing whatever instrument he can get his hands on at full volume and wearing those new shoes. Steve, you are missed. P.
Kendal: February 25th, 2006 @ 10:35 pm I am Steve’s oldest niece. It’s so nice to know that my uncle was loved by so many people. I lived in Toronto for about a year, and coming from a small town, I didn’t know much. He was such a caring person and was always there when no one else was. That’s the way he was, though. Obviously not only for me, but so many people I didn’t know about. I miss you so much. Love Kendal
Leslie Soos: February 28th, 2006 @ 4:09 pm I knew Steve since our days at Central Tech. He was a good friend, and I will always remember him as a kind, intelligent individual. I regret not keeping in closer touch, but sometimes we don’t realise how quickly time progresses.If anyone can please put me in touch with his sister, Lili, or his family, I would greatly appreciate it. I know email addresses are not displayed on this site, but would request that mine be given to Steve’s family, or vice versa, so I can pay my respects.
Syl Lebar: March 2nd, 2006 @ 11:42 pm I am Steve’s youngest uncle. In fact the only uncle that is actually younger than he was…by 3½ years. We used to talk about how odd that was and the fact that it was due to the nature of our large family. There was a time from the late 70’s going into the late 80’s when Steve and I were more buddies than family. We did everything together…concerts, girls, a beer, and often sitting and listening to great music together, and discussing it. One thing I will never forget Steve for was his constant encouragement in my musical endeavours. He was one of the few family members that would sit and listen to me play the piano. His comment was often, “what I’d give to play like that!” His sense of humour was for me one of his most outstanding features…he’d have me in stitches with a mere glance. We were in a video arcade once and I started playing a ‘disco’ pinball game. Steve put on an act of embarrassment with simply a facial expression, and even at 20 paces his ever so sideways glance had me laughing so hard I was in tears. I remember many a time when he got me laughing so hard it literally hurt. My son happens to be the youngest grandchild while Steve was the eldest. I got a great picture of them together at his Mother’s place over a Thanksgiving dinner. I remember the moment vividly when Emil went and stood beside him, and the thought suddenly occured to me that these two were cousins at opposite ends of the age spectrum. 41 years to be exact. My son believes that Steve is playing his Hurdy-Gurdy for St. Peter right now. Knowing Steve that’s probably right, and he most likely has St. Peter in stitches too! Steve, you will be fondly missed. Thanks for leaving me with such great memories of the times we spent together.
Lili (Starchev) Brands: March 3rd, 2006 @ 2:35 am Hi, I am Steve’s sister. It is so wonderful to know that Steve was so well thought of by those whose lives he touched. I miss him so terribly already, and feel so very privileged that I was able to be there with him and for him during his last peaceful moments. I remember all the fun times we had as kids, and the many friends we shared due to being only 14 months apart. Steve is forever embedded in my heart and I am so thankful for the time I had with my “big brother” Thanks to everybody for your kind words and condolences it means a lot to me and to his family. Seka (Little Sister)
(This post contains spoilers for the third season of Ozark)
The other day, during a walk with my wife, I burst into tears.
During the pandemic we’ve gotten into the excellent habit of going for long walks. We find them therapeutic. On this walk, I was telling Lynda about some family history we’d never really got into before.
“He was my favorite cousin,” I told her, and then I burst into tears.
I actually stood hunched over on a corner racked with sobs for what felt like several minutes before I regained control. The last time I cried anything like that in public was twenty years ago, during the end credits of Life is Beautiful, the movie with Roberto Benigni.
This time also had to do with popular entertainment, but it’s much deeper than that.
Three nights earlier Lynda and I had finished watching the third season of Ozark. The season had begun by introducing a character who quickly became my favourite on the show, the brother of Laura Linney’s character. His name was Ben (played by Tom Pelphrey), and it soon came out that the character had bipolar disorder. This became a major plot point, and in the season finale things did not end well for Ben, so much so that I was devastated. I did not cry then, but I was wounded, and it lingered with me for three days, until Lynda and I took our walk, and it all came out.
Apart from the incident with Life is Beautiful, I’m not normally in the habit of crying during or after movies or TV shows. I’m usually immune to entertainment’s emotional manipulations. But this one hit close to the bone. It was more than Ben’s fate that did me in. It was reality. My reality since about the age of twelve.
No, I’m not bipolar. I’ll try to explain, the way I did to my wife during our walk.
When I was about twelve my parents gave me a gift. It was a book. They told me it used to belong to my Uncle Bill.
I wasn’t aware I had an Uncle Bill, and said so.
I don’t know how much my parents told me that day, but over time I learned that Uncle Bill had been institutionalized for schizophrenia back in the fifties. He spent most if not all of his life institutionalized. It’s my understanding that he experienced electroshock therapy during his time in the institution, back before they perfected that. I never met Uncle Bill.
When my parents gave me Uncle Bill’s book something was said. I don’t remember what, exactly. But it was something like Uncle Bill was creative and so are you so it seems appropriate that you should have this book. It was a perfectly innocent remark and it was meant as a compliment. But it had the inadvertent effect of creating, in my young, impressionable mind, a link between Uncle Bill and me.
Around this time, at the age of twelve, my best friend Kevin Brown moved away. A slew of friends I’d been friends with since Grade One drifted away. I found myself isolated. Some jerk at school began bullying me. I got moved out of my bedroom upstairs into the basement while my father built a new bedroom for me. One night, alone in the basement, just before I drifted off to sleep, I experienced the unmistakable, unfathomable presence of evil in the form of absolute despair.
That’s what it felt like, anyway—a fleeting glimpse of horror, of utter hopelessness. It lasted only a few seconds, but it shook me to my core. I had not known it was possible to feel such abject terror.
It was a long time ago so I don’t remember the exact chronology. But around then I decided I no longer wanted to go to school. Every morning, within minutes of waking up, a pit formed in my stomach. I lost the ability to eat breakfast. I just couldn’t eat. It would be eighteen years before I would be able to eat a full breakfast again in the morning. For a while there I couldn’t talk either, in the mornings. I remember reluctantly walking to school with my sister Susan while she tried in vain to understand why I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t have been able to explain even had I been able to open my mouth. I could only nod or shake my head at her questions. Once, or twice, or maybe thrice, I felt so weird during class that my mother had to come to school to take me home. She wasn’t happy about it. She didn’t understand. Neither did I.
I thought I was either crazy or about to go crazy, but I couldn’t tell anybody about it. I had to deal with it myself. I was absolutely certain that what had happened to my uncle Bill would happen to me. I didn’t know it but I was grappling with the inability to prove a negative. There was no way to prove to myself that I wouldn’t go crazy. Because I could have! Logically, if Uncle Bill had gone crazy, if people could go crazy, then it could happen to me. Only time would tell. This fear, together with the increasing isolation of my social circle, did me in, for a while.
It lasted until the summer. Sometime after school let out, my parents got us a puppy, Sarge, and took Sarge, my three sisters and me on a three week long trip around the Maritimes. We camped in Prince Edward Island, drove the Cabot Trail, visited my old friend Kevin Brown in Sydney, Nova Scotia, visited relatives in Norton, New Brunswick, and visited more relatives in northern New Brunswick. The trip was sufficiently eventful and fun that I forgot all my fears and returned to normal. I especially enjoyed visiting my cousins in Johnville, New Brunswick, including my cousin James, who was the same age as me.
James was a lot of fun. He and his brothers taught my sisters and me how to play many card games, and one night we camped outside their old farmhouse on the old Mahoney homestead. That night James told me the funniest joke I’d ever heard up til that point in my life. “What’s big and hairy and sticks out of your pyjamas?” he asked me.
I laughed and laughed, and I hadn’t even heard the punchline yet.
“What?” I asked.
“Your head,” he said.
I just about died at the age of twelve laughing.
James was my favourite cousin, I decided.
By the time I started Grade Eight, I had recovered from my anxiety, and no longer thought I was going crazy, and replaced all that with an almost but not quite crippling case of self-consciousness, especially around anybody I thought was better than me, and girls. I thought just about everybody was better than me, especially girls, so I was pretty much self-conscious around everybody. Still, I’d replaced the old set of friends with a new set and with thoughts of my poor uncle out of my mind I was more or less happy for the rest of my teens.
I don’t remember seeing much of cousin James until later on in my teens when we visited my Aunt and Uncle’s cottage on Skiff Lake in New Brunswick. James and I found time to do a bit of canoeing around the lake together, and I quickly discovered that he wasn’t quite the same James as I remembered. He told me tales of a trip to Toronto that did not sound quite right to me, adventures so fantastic and prurient that I did not think they could be true, and that whether true or not I found disturbing. I found I couldn’t relate to him, and alas he became no longer my favourite cousin.
On January 17th, 1985. I was attending Ryerson Polytechnical Insitute (it wasn’t a university yet) in Toronto. I was a long way from home, in a completely new environment, with a whole new set of friends, but I was having a good time. By this time I was keeping a journal. On that date I wrote:
“I am susceptible to two different kinds of depression. One I’ve felt all my life; I call it the ‘Black Irish Mood.’ …the other depression borders on clinical depression. I’ve felt it three times that I can remember. I get it when I’m extremely tired or physically run down. I felt it for a large part of grade 7, for the last few weeks of summer, and I feel it occasionally now. It scares me. It is characterized by feeling totally out of control of my life. I feel at the mercy of unknown forces.”
I would come to think of that first year in Toronto as one of the best years of my life. Still, that journal entry hints at some dark clouds assembling on the horizon.
All remained well until I returned home to the island for the summer.
On May 5th 1985, I wrote:
“Since getting home I haven’t been feeling like myself.”
This was a bit of an understatement. On June 17th I elaborated:
“This last week has been one of the strangest weeks of my life, at least psychologically speaking. All Wednesday night I felt real uncomfortable, and it wasn’t the first night I’ve felt like that. It was like a feeling of anxiety or nervousness. I had to go plant strawberries at Burn’s Poultry Farm on Thurs, so maybe I was a bit apprehensive. Why I don’t know; I couldn’t control the feeling. …for some reason I was gripped by anxiety, a pit in my stomach. I thought I was becoming depressed, but there was no reason for it. Weird ideas and thoughts came unbidden into my head (e.g., suicide, not something I would ever consider seriously). It crossed my mind that maybe I was on the road to a nervous breakdown or insanity. I tried to reason with myself, but the pit in my stomach wouldn’t leave. I think it is gone now…I never want to experience it again.”
I would experience it again many times. It was a bad summer. And a bad fall. It was everything I’d felt when I was twelve years old multiplied by one hundred. I became distant from my friends. I became concerned for my state of mind. I was afraid I was going crazy. I WAS crazy, kind of. I thought about how I was feeling constantly. I could hardly concentrate on my summer job. I told no one but my journal:
July 23 1985
“I still suffer the occasional feelings of anxiety or depression or whatever the hell it is.”
On September 4th, on my way back to Toronto for my second year at Ryerson, I experienced my first panic attack:
“Well, when I hit the plane I wish I knew what hit me. I had a really scary attack of the nerves, at times really bad, that lasted until about 2 hours after I landed. No reason, no warning, nothing. Scared the hell out of me. Feeling of total emptiness, of despair, and I knew that if it kept up, a total breakdown, & maybe suicide, was inevitable.”
From that point onward I lived in fear of more panic attacks. I was right to be afraid, because they kept coming. I would have them at night. I would get up and run around my apartment trying to make a panic attack go away, or keep it at bay. I would drink a glass of water, not because I thought the water helped, but because the act of getting the water and drinking it distracted me. I would have panic attacks in the morning after waking up, and run around the apartment like a madman, out to the balcony for fresh air. I would have them during the day, alone, with friends, in class, the entire time convinced that I was going crazy, that it was only a matter of time until I suffered a complete nervous breakdown, whatever that was.
I kept the way I was feeling entirely to myself. I pretended I was okay. There’s a picture of me with my friends and roommates on Thanksgiving after baking a turkey. We’re all standing around the turkey smiling at the camera. My smile is too big, unnatural, entirely fake. What was going on outside was entirely at odds with what was going on inside.
One day one of our professors at Ryerson paired each of us students up for an exercise. I was paired with a young woman whose name I wish I could remember now. She was nice, I liked her. We were told to interview one another. Ask one another a bunch of questions, get to know one another, and afterwards, share our impressions with the rest of the class. I was a mess, but I got through it okay.
“What were your impressions of Joe?” the professor asked.
“Calm,” she said. “Confident. In control.”
Anything but, I was shocked that I came across that way. But the turmoil I felt was completely inside. I did not let anything out, except rarely. I told two friends how I felt, but they were too young, had no experience in such matters, and could not help me. One of them teased me about it later, while I was still in anxiety’s horrible grip. I mention it, but I don’t hold it against him.
I went to see Ryerson’s doctor, explained my symptoms. I remember him as being older than I am now, writing this, though he might not have been. We might as well have been on two different planets. He attributed my symptoms to stress, which sounded too much like, “it’s all in your head” to be of any help to me. He couldn’t—or didn’t—help me.
I remember long, long walks at night, around enormous city blocks in the cold, to chill the fear out of me. It kept the panic attacks at bay but did not otherwise help much.
Still, a part of me resisted this invisible, relentless foe. Though I could see no end to my suffering, tiny nuggets of hope occasionally appeared to sustain me. A grandmother wrote to an advice column that she had suffered depression all her life, only to have it mysteriously lift in her old age, and now she could enjoy her grandchildren. If it could happen to her, it could happen to me. Maybe I would be fine in my old age. It was something to cling to.
One night when I decided I needed professional help. I visited Princess Margaret’s Emergency department. The emergency physician asked me several questions. The only one I remember is whether I was gay. I guess he figured maybe I was struggling with that. That wasn’t it. I asked if I could see a psychiatrist. He said the waiting lists were long, but he’d put me on one. I never did hear from anybody.
I went home for Christmas that year, barely holding it together. Fake smiles, fake Christmas cheer. I felt better when I drank, so on occasion I drank a lot. One night at the local hot spot in town—it may have been the Regent—it was Zombies. You know, to turn me into a zombie. I drank one after another. They had no absolutely effect on me until suddenly they did. My mother was waiting up for me. Even less impressed than when she’d had to retrieve me from school back when I was twelve. The next morning we had our family picture taken. Shortly before the shoot I was in the bathroom puking my guts out.
“We have to get our picture taken in fifteen minutes and listen to this!” Mom complained to my father outside the bathroom. I barfed, on cue, sick, depressed, but amused.
That family picture hung on the living room wall for years. Punishment, I guess.
Waiting in the Charlottetown airport to return to Toronto, I found a patch of sunlight by a window, sat in it, and reflected on my state of mind. I decided then and there that I had to beat this thing, whatever it was. There was nobody to help me, only me. I had decided this before but it never quite took. This time resulted in a subtle shift in attitude. A positive bias that hadn’t existed before. Back in Toronto things got better. Not all at once, the panic attacks didn’t quite go away—I continued to have them off and on for years—but I dealt with them better. My fear of going crazy gradually vanished. I wasn’t going to become like my uncle. I wasn’t going to become schizophrenic. I became myself again—happy.
Meanwhile, my cousin James, my erstwhile favourite cousin—the same age as me—was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He attended university in Ottawa. I don’t know the whole story, but one day after he stopped taking his medication they found his car abandoned in a field. The driver’s door was shut and his wallet, money and identification had been discarded on the passenger seat. The passenger door was ajar. None of us has ever seen James again. They never found James’ body, and they never found James.
Thirty-four years later I watched Season Three of Ozark and rooted for my favourite character Ben, who suffered from Bipolar Disorder—not the same disorder, I know, but it resonated, like all great art.
It had all ended okay for me because I’m lucky.
It did not end well for Ben, but that doesn’t really matter because he doesn’t even exist, other than in our imaginations.
But there are those who have existed, and my cousin James is one of them, and it didn’t end well for him.
Three days after I hurt for bewildered, betrayed Ben as he stepped out of that restaurant in that final episode, I stood on the street with my wife, and said, “He was my favourite cousin.”
And it brought forth such a well of long suppressed feeling that I cried for James, and for my Uncle Bill, and for my younger, hurting self, I think.
And then I had to explain it all to my wife, as I’ve just done for you.
It was just supposed to be a short trip to pick up some Thai take-out.
I headed south on Brock toward the FreshCo in my 2019 Hyundai Elantra. The one that I’d purchased for its safety features and drive-ability, mindful that my two daughters would be learning to drive in it.
The light turned red at Dundas. A Durham Transit bus pulled up beside me on my right. On my left, a guy crossing the street waved at me. I waved back, until I realized he was waving at the bus driver to wait for him. I smiled at my foolishness. The light turned red. The intersection was clear. I pulled out in front of the bus.
Safely through the intersection, I headed down Brock for another block. Bowman & Gibson Insurance Brokers sits on the northeast corner of Colborne and Brock. It’s a single story brick building that obscures much of what might be westbound on Colborne. It shouldn’t matter; there’s a stop sign there. You should be able to proceed north or south on Brock without worrying about anyone on the side streets.
I don’t know what I was thinking about in those few seconds between Dundas and Colborne. Whatever it was, BAAMM!!! it was violently knocked outta my head (and possibly into the next province) when a thunderous crash and an enormous impact assaulted my reality and rattled my brain. In that same instant I found myself in a sea of white, my vision completely obscured as (I realized later) multiple air bags deployed around me.
“HOLY F***!!!” I shouted.
It seemed an apt response.
My past didn’t flash before me. My future did. Was I about to die? Was I badly injured, crippled maybe?
I felt no pain. I knew that pain might come, once the shock of whatever had just happened wore off.
My vision in front of me and to the left was almost completely obscured by the white air bags. I don’t remember bringing the car to a halt but I found myself stopped, the car still in gear. After a few seconds I had the presence of mind to take the car out of gear, but I didn’t think to turn it off.
I didn’t appear to be physically injured but I was pretty emotionally shaken up. I thought about getting out of the car. There was an air bag in my way. It was enough to deter me from getting out. I thought, I’ll just sit here a bit and collect myself. I wanted to get to the point where I could talk without my voice sounding all shaky. I knew it would be a while.
A guy showed up in the driver’s side window. “Hey buddy, how you doing?”
I thought he might be part of the emergency response team, even though it had only been about a minute since the crash. It was his manner, pretty calm and collected. Turned out his name was Brett and he worked at the Brock Street Brewing Company just down the street a bit further. I will be going there for a drink someday where I hope to buy Brett a drink.
“Blew through the stop sign,” Brett said.
I started to panic. “I blew through the stop sign?”
“No, no, the other guy!” Brett clarified. “He blew through the stop sign right into you. Now he’s buying some smokes in the corner store.”
I was relieved that I wasn’t at fault. There was definitely something amiss with the other guy, though… blasts through a stop sign onto a major road in downtown Whitby, crashes into another vehicle, and then before doing anything else goes into a convenience store to buy a pack of smokes.
“I’m gonna go make sure he doesn’t get away,” Brett said, after making sure that I was more or less okay.
I did seem to be okay physically. I tried to think how I could get the Thai food I’d ordered, then realized that probably wasn’t going to happen. I still wasn’t quite up to getting out of the car. I remembered a friend telling me about a similar accident and how he’d made the mistake of deciding he was okay, and telling the paramedics he was okay, only to have them all leave him alone while he gradually went into shock. I thought I would just sit tight and then get myself checked out.
Brett came back, said they’d got the guy. He suggested I turn off the car’s engine. Sheepishly, I turned it off. I told Brett I’d better call my wife and let her know that I wouldn’t be coming back with the Thai food.
“I’m okay,” I told her when she picked up. “But I’ve been in an accident. It’s pretty bad but like I said I’m okay.” I was sounding pretty shaky but there was nothing I could do about that. “Can you call Thai Delicious and tell them I won’t be coming?”
She told me she would and that she loved me. I told her I loved her too.
We resolved to give Thai Delicious plenty of business later to make up for it.
Brett gave me a note from a witness with a name and number. “She wanted you to have this in case you need a witness,” he said. I tucked it in my wallet.
A paramedic by the name of Tristan (I think) showed up and checked me out. Turned out I had a nasty cut on my right leg and some scrapes on my right arm. There was what looked like a bad carpet burn on my left elbow. Looking at the pictures of the airbags that were deployed, it’s obvious that all my injuries are a direct result of the airbag deployment. The airbag beneath the dashboard cut my right shin . The one from the steering wheel cut my right forearm. The one from the driver’s side door burned the skin off my left elbow. Presumably they all prevented more serious injury.
Later I would find other scrapes and the distinct impression of a seat belt running up my side. The paramedics took me to Oshawa hospital where I was also checked out and given a relatively clean bill of health and released back into the wild, though I was warned that some whiplash could develop over time.
I was kinda surprised that the hospital did nothing for my cuts and scrapes. When I asked about them, the doctor’s assistant just said, “Clean them and they’ll heal up nicely.”
The following day I had an opportunity to speak to the investigating officer when he kindly came to my home to return my driver’s license and insurance papers. He explained to me that no police are required for minor fender benders, but police are required when there are injuries involved. In this case the injuries turned out to be pretty minor (I don’t think the other guy was hurt at all), but at the time of the accident it looked to witnesses like the injuries would be far more serious.
All the witnesses the officer questioned thought I’d been killed, such was the violence of the collision. I had been struck on the driver’s side, toward the front of the car but the impact had included part of the car door. It had probably looked pretty darned dramatic. (Sure wish I could get my hands on some security footage, if any exists!) Our Hyundai Elantra’s safety features performed as advertised and I sure am happy about that.
Although the other guy claimed he’d been waved onto Brock by another driver, all three witnesses said he blew through the stop sign and right into my car. The police officer told me that if he hadn’t hit me he could well have struck and killed pedestrians crossing the street. It turned out the fellow was driving with a suspended license and had taken the family car without permission. He’s facing three charges, including careless driving. The other two charges are personal in nature and the officer wouldn’t tell me what they were (I didn’t pry).
Despite what happened to me and my car, it appears there were other factors at play that make me feel some sympathy for the guy, and his family… I think he has a rough road ahead of him.
Whereas I’m back on the road, a little worse for wear, but still intact, mobile, and enormously grateful to be alive.