By Laurie Wink
“Damn trucks!” Billy White yelled at the blockade of 18-wheelers hemming his VW in the middle lane of I94. What if the car breaks down and dies before I can get to the shoulder?
Acrid diesel fumes mixed with adrenaline-fueled anxiety had him gasping for air like a drowning man. With shoulders hunched and hands tightly gripping the wheel, Billy leaned forward, as if willing the bumper-to-bumper traffic to speed up. He had a half hour to reach the UPS plant in Hammond. UPS needed package handlers for the heavy holiday traffic, and Billy needed the work.
He’d shot through his savings from a summer construction job to buy his Uncle Bud’s 1998 VW. The blue coupe was trimmed in rust with upward of 200,000 miles, but Billy knew how to keep it running. As a kid, he’d learned about auto mechanics by hanging around the garage watching his father, Walter, and Uncle Bud repair all types of cars. Now, when Billy visited his uncle at the garage, the smell of grease, tires and cigars brought his father back to life.
As Billy crept along the clogged interstate, he remembered inhaling cigar fumes on family car trips as he and his sister, Janie, played Slug Bug in the back seat. Billy found himself glancing at nearby cars, looking for kids punching each other’s arms at the sight of his VeeDub.
The flash of red taillights on the SUV ahead interrupted Billy’s reverie. As he slammed on the brakes, the VW skidded on oil-slick pavement, stopping inches from the SUV’s bumper. He let out a deep sigh just as a Jeep Wrangler rammed him from behind, shoving his tiny piece of steel into the right lane, where a tractor trailer threatened to squash him like an insect.
Billy was unconscious and barely breathing when EMTs loaded him into an ambulance and raced to the University of Chicago Medical Center. As a surgical team fought to save his life, Billy felt himself floating above the operating table. He watched the synchronized movements, strangely detached from the battered body stretched out below. He heard the chief surgeon say, “Come on Billy! You can make it!”
And he did. After nearly a week in a coma, Billy came to in the intensive care unit. His mother, Janice, was at his side, praying the Rosary. Seeing Billy’s eyes blink open, she bowed her head and whispered, “Thank You, God.” Tears flooded her face as she said to Billy, “I’ve been pleading with God to let you live. I told Him I couldn’t handle losing both you and your father.”
A trach tube prevented Billy from answering. He was heavily sedated and drifted in and out of sleep for days. At times, he was unable to differentiate dreams from reality. Had Joey and Pete been here?
Joey Falzano and Pete Patterson were his best buddies. Their families lived on the same block in Portage, and they shared the highs and lows of growing up: broken bones, Little League triumphs, girl troubles.
At Portage High School, the boys fell in love with wrestling—a sport well-suited to their short statures and scrappy personalities. They worked out obsessively, spurring each other on to do more reps with heavier weights. Fearless and unbeatable, they became known as the Mighty Mat Masters—aka the 3Ms. By their junior year, the trio’s wrestling prowess had earned them regional acclaim. As seniors, they brought home the state wrestling championship trophy.
But the 3M bond seemed to weaken after high school. Joey went to Purdue on a wrestling scholarship, determined to be the first Falzano to earn a college degree. After graduation, he planned to go directly into law school at Valparaiso University.
Pete was from a family of steelworkers. Generations of Pattersons struggled through harsh working conditions and periodic layoffs at the mill. Pete had no intention of going down that road. Until, that is, he heard about a new program combining college classes and technical training. Steelworkers who finished the program earned nearly $90,000 a year. Pete was sold.
While Joey and Pete moved confidently forward, Billy floundered. His spirit was crushed when his father had a massive heart attack and died two weeks before high school graduation. He’d counted on joining the White family’s auto repair business and was shocked to discover it was on the verge of bankruptcy. The unexpected turn of events flattened Billy, as if a rival wrestler had him pinned to the mat, unable to move.
After graduation, Jack Webster, the wrestling coach, got Billy a job on a road construction crew. He started each day early, worked long hours, guzzled too many beers with crew members, grabbed a few hours of sleep and repeated the cycle. He numbly put one foot in front of the other and tried to avoid his grieving mother’s raw emotions.
As the construction season wound down, Billy fretted about how he could earn enough money to move out of the family house. Janice liked having him around, but Billy knew the arrangement wasn’t healthy for either of them. Getting a part-time job at UPS would be a step forward. He was energized by the possibility as he embarked on the fateful car trip.
After the accident, Billy was in intense pain and gutted out the twice-daily physical therapy sessions. The traumatic head injury hadn’t caused major damage, his physicians said. They were cautiously optimistic about a full recovery and predicted that his extreme headaches and slightly slurred speech would disappear over the next six weeks.
Billy was buoyed by regular visits with Joey and Pete. They’d rushed to the hospital the moment they heard about the accident. Since then, they’d been his staunchest allies and tireless cheerleaders. The 3M bond hadn’t weakened. It was forged for life.
Laurie Wink is a journalist who is journeying beyond the 5Ws and H of nonfiction into the magical world of fiction writing. Her story, “Smells Like Snow,” is published in Voices: A Literary Journal, by Sandcastle Writers of Lubeznik Center for the Arts. A native of Michigan, Laurie has been discovering the many wonders of Northwest Indiana since moving to Michigan City in 2003. She provides writing, editing and proofreading services through her company, Words in a Wink.