When Wes went over a cliff on May 28, 1978

Toonces the Driving Cat, from Saturday Night Live
(Toonces the Driving Cat, from Saturday Night Live)

Note: Since it was Wes' wreck, he'll be telling the story here...

When I was 15, I went over a 300-some foot cliff in a Volvo in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range on May 28, 1978. It wasn't a straight-down vertical cliff, but it was very much a steep, Hollywood-movie style cliff; the kind where the car careens over the edge, lands, and then starts flipping end over end.

That's what happened in real-life, too.

I was out joyriding with my best friend, David, on Memorial Day weekend in 1978. (I'm not saying this is a smart thing, but I am being truthful. My mother was out of town for the weekend and didn't know that I had an extra set of car keys. And no, I did not have a driver's license.) David and I drove from our little town of Visalia, California (right in the center of the state, just west of the Sierra Nevada range) up to Three Rivers, California. Three Rivers is a little country town up in the mountains. Very picturesque.

I've always been intrigued by roads that seem to go nowhere. There was one such road in town. I decided to follow it. At first the road was just an ordinary dirt road along a hillside. There was another hill across a little valley. Flowing between the two hills was a little creek. (This was probably one of the tributaries from which "Three Rivers" got its name.) But the further we went, the higher the road got -- and the more the hill turned into a mountain. The road curved around the mountain's bulges and kept slowly climbing. The curves also made it so we couldn't see where the road would end up. After a while, it seemed like the road just wasn't going to end. But, finally, it stopped at a clearing at the very top of the mountain. This is where the road went. Why was it here? Who knows. Maybe just for the view.

David and I got out of the car. The view was beautiful: We were at a sheer cliff on the mountaintop, the little river far, far below. But as we looked back from where we'd come, the sides of the two mountains slowly softened -- becoming hills again -- and got further apart, forming a beautiful, green meadow. Looking down, on the other hand, was downright scary. It was a huge drop (600 feet?) down a vertical, rocky cliff. Just getting near the edge gave me the willies.

I should stop for a moment and explain a bit about my life at the time so that what comes next has some context:
  • I lived alone with my mother, who was a single mom working hard to make a living. When I would get home from school, my mother was still working. Later, after she got home, she had "transcribing" of her daytime work to do. (She was a "court reporter" who used a machine to take down court proceedings in shorthand. The transcribing work was to convert the shorthand to full words.) She would go in her office, shut the door, and work for hours.
  • I had first had sex with another male when I was 13. (No, I wasn't "seduced" or "corrupted" by someone. I instigated it.) But, by 15, I still didn't really fully grasp that I was gay. (It's not that I was stupid, it was just all that conflicting stuff: The internal voices from society about how being gay was a horrible thing. But I knew that I was not a horrible person. So there was a long period before I accepted that I really was gay, and that the external messages from society were just flat wrong.)
  • Though I hadn't come to grips with my homosexuality, the thugs in school had figured it out. They made my school life a living hell, chasing after me to beat me up (I don't recall ever actually getting caught -- thank goodness for already being 6 feet tall at the time and having long running legs) and calling me all sorts of names -- "queer," "faggot" "homo," whatever. I always felt in danger.
  • It was a horribly lonely and desolate time for me.
  • This was also the time that I got in touch with my rage. A girl from school wrote "Wesley is a fag" in big letters on her street -- one I went down. (Was it in chalk? I don't remember.) I'd teach her: I got a little jar of white paint and threw it in her face the next time I went by and she taunted me.
  • It was my freshman year in high school. I had no male friends until David and I became buddies when spring rolled around. David and his father lived in the dirt-poor town of Goshen nearby (it was primarily home to immigrant field workers) in a tiny, rundown home with no back door. His father was a drunken truck driver. David and I were both outcasts, but for very different reasons.
  • David and I were the perfect and worst combination for each other:
    • We were both lonely and depressed, and our companionship filled a desperate need. (That's the good part.)
    • David introduced me to smoking pot and getting drunk a short time before our ill-fated road trip. (One month? Two months?) Now, don't think I'm striking a moral stance and saying "nobody should smoke pot or drink." I don't have a problem with someone having a good time responsibly. But David and I would do it whenever, wherever, and as often as it was possible. We would drink when our parents were gone for the weekend. We would drink at lunch. We would hop into a restroom and down a bottle of wine -- each -- between classes. I even drank in class. And we smoked pot much the same way, walking way out in the football field during lunch to get high. I had discovered that getting drunk or high made the moment seem more bearable -- even fun.
      But I was a black-out drunk from day one. (That's the bad part.)
  • In keeping with the throwaway-kids theme, a neighbor girl across my street (Pam) had biker parents. They had a customized van, which they used in biker get-togethers for orgies. Pam was about 15 also, and had already had sex during those biker runs. She was the one who introduced me to "poppers," a form of inhalant.
  • The night before our drive up the road, I threw a big booze-fest party at my house. There were 20+ cases of beer. I was excited that anyone would come to my party. Free beer was the attraction. Later, though, two guys put their fists through a wall in a drunken test of strength before I could stop it. And the wall they'd punched had a mural on it. That was going to be hard to fix...
  • After the carnage of the party, David and I had humped each other.
  • With all that said, now on with the story...

We sat down near the edge of the cliff and enjoyed the view. And drank.

After a while, we noticed a car coming up the little road. From our vantage point, we saw it for a long time before it ever arrived. And then, when it did arrive, it was almost magical: The little station wagon (a Pinto? a Vega?) was driven by a cute girl who had an adorable puppy with her. And some "red hair" marijuana.

We decided to "party" together: David and I shared our liquor, while she shared her pot. The three of us sat, imbibing, enjoying the view and visiting.

And then it was time for her to go. We didn't have any reason to stay, since we'd found out where the road went. So we decided to leave also.

I remembered we were following her down the road, in the cloud of dust generated by her car ahead of us. I could see, but the visibility was poor. Down the winding road we went. Then we hit a tight, outward-curve left turn. I was going too fast. The car tires were aimed left to follow the road, but we went straight ahead.

At first it was as if we were driving down the hillside, crashing through shrubs. But then we hit a rock or something, and the car started flipping end-over-end. Sometime during this, the doors pop open and David is thrown out of the car. He lands on a pile of rocks and breaks his neck, four ribs and ruptures his spleen.

I'm holding on for dear life to the steering wheel. Apparently, near the bottom, I'm knocked unconscious and thrown past the car into the creek.

Side note
I was watching a rerun of Saturday Night Live recently when one of those "Deep Thoughts, by Jack Handey" came on:

"I bet a funny thing about going over a cliff is that -- even in midair -- you still hit those brakes.

Hey! Better try the emergency brake!"

Then the Volvo came crashing down after me, the front bumper landing on my head and pinning me underwater.

Just picture this: We're up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, near the entrance to King's Canyon National Forest, 40-some miles from our town -- the only town around with a hospital. In addition to that, we're off on a one-lane dirt road around a mountain. We have just had a huge wreck in the middle of nowhere. The girl we were following apparently drove on. Was she afraid of being caught loaded if she went for help? I don't know.

But there was a couple on the opposite side of the ravine who saw the whole thing.

(This is the most dramatic "coincidence" I've ever heard of. My mother says I was saved by God. Others just say I'm blessed.)

The couple is on the other hill that formed the canyon. And why was there a couple near a cliff in the middle of nowhere? They were rappeling. [Rappel: The act or method of descending from a mountainside or cliff by means of a double rope passed under one thigh and over the opposite shoulder.]

David and I had crashed just opposite a pair of cliff droppers.

The couple rappelled down their mountainside. The husband did one one of those super-human strength things you sometimes hear about in emergencies: He lifted the car up off my head and his wife pulled me out of the creek.

Then they went for help.

The closest help was at a tiny town's volunteer fire department. The firemen came to bring us back up the mountain on stretchers. But it was just too steep for them.

Next they called the National Park Service. The Park Service has helicopters with pulleys that can lower a thing down that helps them move (tranquilized) "bad" bears (ones that have been getting into campsites and stuff) deeper into the woods. The helicopter was dispatched to our location. But, the two sides of the cliff were too close together: The helicopter couldn't get down far enough for its long mechanism to reach without running the risk of the rotor blades hitting a side. Something else would have to be done.

Finally, a tow truck was called and it traversed the long road up. They wound up tying the towing mechanism (with a lot of extra rope?) to one end of the stretcher, had a fireman at the other end of the stretcher, and they winched us up.

By now an ambulance was waiting. David had also been brought up the mountainside. We were headed to Visalia's hospital on "code blue:" expected dead on arrival.

On the way to town, David's heart stopped. They got his heart beating again using shock pads.

By the time we arrived at the hospital, it had been four hours since we went over the cliff.

Apparently, I'd been unconscious the whole time. Now, in another one of those amazing coincidences, I suddenly regained consciousness and spilled the beans.

I told the emergency room people that "We were coming around a curve and ran over a boulder that had fallen in the road since we went up, and that knocked us over the edge." (I didn't remember that this was a big lie until ten-plus years later, when, in therapy, I was talking about the girl with her puppy. I remembered we were following her down the road, in her cloud of dust. The mental-click happened when I realized that if she had gotten down the road, and was in front of us, we hadn't hit a boulder... It all started coming back to me...) I told them my name, David's name, our phone numbers, my blood type, where my mom worked. And then lost consciousness. (This is important, because when I regained consciousness I had very little recollection of what had happened. People told me what I had said during my moment of consciousness, and I believed it for years. As I said, it was over ten years later that I realized I'd lied, my lie had been told back to me, and I'd believed it.)

The next thing that happened (and the first one that I can remember) is coming to as I was being wheeled down a hallway on a stretcher. I was surrounded by perhaps eight people. A nurse to my left saw my eyes flutter open. She said "We're taking you to 'I See You.'" In my mental haze, I knew something very serious had happened and interpreted what she said as a test of my mental faculties. So I looked at her and said "I see you, too."

What she had meant was they were taking me to the Intensive Care Unit.

The next thing I remember is waking up in a hospital room with all sorts of wires attached to me. There was a beeping monitor above me.

The next thing I remember is waking up in a different hospital room. A regular one. And I hurt. I had a burn scab down my back on the right side that went from my neck to my butt. One huge long scab. I had a broken rib. (If you've never had one, consider yourself lucky! They are perhaps the most extended painful injury possible: It hurt every time I breathed.) My head was bandaged. (It turns out that I'd now been in the hospital several days and they had already operated to re-shape my head.) But the "cast" on my head was made with blocks of stuff: It wasn't round (as it looks in the picture, down at the bottom), but more like a 10-sided stop sign. The cast's shape meant I could only turn my head in uncomfortable increments.

I was very nearsighted and had worn glasses since I was 7. My glasses were broken in the wreck. So, even though I had my own little room and it had a television mounted on the opposite wall, I couldn't see it.

I have a fuzzy recollection of people visiting. My father and stepmother had flown out from Texas. For days I couldn't stay conscious very long, so I would just pass out on people. I remember being so very, very tired. And people wanted to show their support. But really, I wanted them to go away so I could rest.

My stepmother was one of my most welcome guests. Other people felt a need to talk and visit. She would come in and sit in a chair. She probably brought along a book, I can't quite recall. But she would just sit there for a long time, letting me drift in and out of consciousness. Her presence was reassuring.

(Doing this writeup reminded me of her reassuring presence then. Her father had a stroke in May 1997 and went into therapy. She was there about a month helping out. I called her, June 1, while I was working on the first half of this -- mostly above -- to see how she was doing. The call was one of those rare deep connections when I got to convey how helpful she was to me -- at a time when she was pretty concerned for her dad -- to remind her how helpful her presence is. And to thank her for teaching me a valuable lesson that I've used with many sick friends in the years since.)

As the days passed, I gained enough consciousness to get bored. Then, much to my pleasant surprise, little people appeared on the foot of my bed. I could see them clear as day, even though they were five feet away. There were about five of them. We started talking. I don't remember about what. I just remember they were a welcome break from the tedium. But then I lost consciousness again. And then the real kicker happened: The people didn't stop talking. My little hallucination-friends just kept on talking and talking. Ugh!

My father and stepmother had gone and bought me satin pajamas to sleep in. They were very smooth and comforting. Over time, though, I began to stink. I complained to the nurse that "This soap stinks!" (They'd been washing me with Dial.) She said that was the first she had ever heard that. Only later, when I got home, did I realize the source of the smell was my comfortable pajamas that -- unlike me -- were not getting washed.

The next big thing I remember was being released from the hospital. I'd been in a surprisingly short nine days, but most of the rest of the healing work was just time -- not a hospital. Since my glasses were broken in the accident, all I could see were blurs. I was terrified when my mother and sister drove me home. I was in the back seat yelling at my mother to slow down. She was going maybe 30 miles an hour.

The accident had happened right before the end of the school year. My teachers exempted me from finals and all gave me "A"s. There was one thing I wanted to do at school, though: Pick up my yearbook and get it signed.

My father offered to go pick it up for me, but I really wanted to go. I wanted people to see that I was alive. The bandage was off my head by now, so I was just bald. My dad offered to buy me a wig if I wanted one. I opted for a hat instead.

So the two of us went to school. I was quite the sight: I could only walk at a slow, shuffling rate, and needed my dad to hold onto. But we made it.

A note in my yearbook
Dear Wesley,

What a way to get out of finals! Not so extreme next time, please.


(Before they returned to Texas, my father and stepmother went up to see where the wreck had happened. [They are the source of the photos, below.] When he found the booze bottles, Daddy did what seemed appropriate at the time and got rid of them.)

And then it was summer. David would come over to visit, and we'd tell jokes trying to make the other laugh. (This is really twisted, since we both had broken ribs and laughing was painful!) I remember the phone ranging, and saying "I'll get it." But it took me so long to get to the phone there was nobody there. Yup, I was moving slowly.

A week or two after getting out of the hospital I had a followup appointment with one of the doctors to look at my head. I was sitting in his examining chair. He told me he needed to pull the scabs off my head to decrease the scarring I'd wind up with. Then he took some tweezers and started pulling. It didn't hurt -- the nerves were paralyzed. (There's a long story here, but the short version is that during surgery they severed the "left seventh nerve" and paralyzed the left side of my face. It is one of the few nerves in the body that can regenerate, though, and over the course of the summer I regained use of the left side of my face.) But I knew what he was doing and could feel him pulling my head toward him with each try. My mother was watching this and almost threw up. I could tell by the look on her face that what was going on was really gross.

Not long after I was home, my mother announced that we were moving to Texas. "My parents [who lived in Dallas] are getting old and I want to spend more time with them." It made sense, but I'd find out a year later what really happened:

When I was brought into the hospital and they could not immediately reach my father or mother, the people trying to help were in a tizzy to do something. I'd told them where my mother worked, so they went through her work records looking for an emergency contact. In going through her work file, they remembered that my mother's hiring a couple years' prior had been contingent on her passing the certification to be a shorthand reporter in California. Since she did her job well, they'd forgotten. But, as a consequence of my accident, they remembered and my mother lost her job.

So, I was flown out to Texas and my mother and sister took care of the move. (Thanks! I hate moving!) My mother bought a home in Grand Prairie (in between Dallas and Fort Worth) and I started the fall at Lamar High School in nearby Arlington. By then, I had what looked like a "burr" cut, though the bumper scar on the left side of my forehead was noticeable -- not to mention the long moon-shaped scar on the right side where they'd peeled my scalp back to restructure the skull bones...

And that, my friends, is how I wound up in Texas. Later I would go to college at the University of Texas in Austin. From there, I got my first post-college job in Houston in 1984.

I guess if there's one thing I'd like people reading this to come away with is the sense of isolation and loneliness that gay kids have. And to gay kids themselves, to tell them that -- at least for me -- things really do get better when you grow up. I now have a loving relationship and am quite happy.

Brushy, rocky cliff

This is the cliff. For a sense of perspective, look for the tiny white dot in the middle of the picture, right under the tree line. That is my stepmother.

Here's a side shot of the Volvo after it was recovered.

Volvo side -- crunched
Volvo front -- crunched

This is the front of the Volvo.

And here I am in the hospital after they reshaped my head.

Wes' bandaged head after operation

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