Every year on the fourth of July I think about sharing this story and I never have before. This is the year. Its a happy story and a sad story at the same time. It is, either way, a very important story for this time of year as we celebrate.
The picture in this post is of a young man named Ken. This was his high school graduation picture. It was taken in 1974. Ken’s birthday was on July 4, 1956. His mother used to call him her little firecracker. Cute huh? He was an only child. He was one of the sweetest young men I had ever met and he was very loyal to his friends and family.
You see, Ken was my first fiancé. Now wait before you stop reading – its important to know that detail.
Ken went into the Navy immediately out of high school. He was from Oklahoma and stationed in Virginia. He was extremely smart and talented too. He was going to be an accountant who also was a fabulous guitarist. What a combination that was.
I was totally and completely in love with him. Our future looked very bright together. He had proposed to me in June of 1974 while the song “Time in a Bottle” played on the radio. Oh yes, I think of him every time I hear that song. I had no idea then how poignant those lyrics would be to me for the rest of my life.
On June 17,1974, Ken went back to Oklahoma to break the news to his parents that he had found the girl of his dreams and that we were to be married the following year. They had never met me and I can just imagine what they must have thought. In fact, later I would find out that his mother told him “don’t you bring that girl home with a baby for us to raise”. Having a son of my own today, I think I understand that statement more now then I did then. Funny how time changes our perspective about some things.
Ken came back to Virginia on July 4 – his birthday. I was so excited. I had missed him very much and couldn’t wait to hear about his travel back home. I met him outside the gate at the Navy shipyard where he was stationed at about 3:00
in the afternoon. He had a friend with him that he had promised a ride home to so I followed him in my car.
Ken had a bright orange Volkswagen beetle bug. It was always unpredictable and broke down often. But it was cute – just like him True to form, it broke down just a block or so outside of the gates. I was about 20 yards behind him. Ken and his friend were looking under the hood in the back of the car where the engine was, trying to figure out what was wrong this time. When all of a sudden, out of nowhere a car came flying by and hit Kens car.
The impact pinned Ken between the bumper of the two cars and spun his friend out of the way as the Volkswagen swerved around. As I watched the entire thing in horror. My fiancé was catapulted into the air some 50 yards and when he landed on the ground, on his head and shoulders. The speeding car continued to race away. It never stopped.
I ran to his side, quite in shock after what I had just seen. Ken was unconscious and his face was completely covered in blood. His legs had been crushed and it was obvious through his pants they were in really bad shape. I was crying and holding him in my arms and talking to him over and over again. “Hang on baby”, I said “just hang on. Help is on the way. Please don’t leave me. Please be strong.” Over and over I repeated those words to him. This was life changing – and I had no idea just how life changing it was going to be.
A city bus driver that witnessed the whole thing actually chased down the hit and run driver and ran him off the road while calling it into his dispatch. Dispatch called the police. It seemed like it took FOREVER for the police and ambulance to arrive. I’m sure it was only 10 or 15 minutes but I tell you it seemed like an eternity.
Once they arrived and accessed the damage and checked Ken’s vital signs – they motioned for me to come sit with him. I think they knew, even then that this was not going to have very happy ending. I however, being the eternal optimist that I am, was certain that the doctors would be able to save Ken. I had to be strong for both of us.
Ken was taken to the Norfolk Naval Hospital where they immediaqtely took him into surgery to set both his fractured legs in casts that went up to his pelvis. He was in a coma and they had no idea how long he would stay that way.
Many things happened to him and to me in the following 3 months while he was in the hospital. I witnessed many miracles while he was there. I had the chance to touch many lives of many sailors who were on the ward that Ken was on. He was in the back where the critically injured were so I walked past many others every day to get to him. At any given time there was 25 or so young people on that ward recovering from many kinds of injuries. One young man had been in a motorcycle accident and had a broken back. Another young man who had his legs shot off at the knees while attending the guns on the USS Kennedy during a drill. Stories you simply wouldn’t believe. There was even a young lady who had been hit by a car while riding her bicycle – she was in a coma too. I witnessed he simply “wake up” out of her coma one day. It was miraculous. It gave me hope and ever single day as I visited Ken I would stop by and talk to each and every patient on that ward trying to share some of that hope with them. I tried to encourage them not give up. Most of them were very far from home and had no family here.
I heard every persons story. I cried with each and every one of them at one time or another. And I saw most of them leave that ward in much better shape than they had arrived.
But not my Ken. No – not my Ken. I came in one day and he was gone. Gone! Not in his bed. No signs of him
ever having ever been there. I fell to the floor crying. One of the interns came to comfort me and tell me – he had not passed away. No he had been flown back to Oklahoma where his parents were. As I write these words, I still remember how completely empty and lost I felt at that very moment.
You see, I was not family – not yet. We were only engaged. I had no legal right to even be informed about his transfer. So this is how I found out. By finding an empty bed. Ken was still in a coma and I was unable to go to Oklahoma to be with him. His mother kept in touch with me daily for a long time. Then once a month. Then once every couple of
months. I think everyone else knew Ken would never really recover from this and that I needed to move one. That was their idea – NOT MINE!
Well, time passed. Many years passed in fact. I was eventually able begin to live again because I know he would have wanted me to do that. I later met a wonderful man. I told him my story about Ken. I also told him that I still loved Ken and always would. He understood and in 1977 he married me anyway.
Christmas of 1979 I received a Christmas card from Kens mother. I hadn’t heard from her in a very long time. remember hoping with all my heart that Ken had finally come out of his coma and had made a full recovery. I quietly went into the bathroom, closed the door, took a deep breath and opened the envelope.
Inside were 6 words. It read “Kenny is no longer in pain.” I sobbed for hours. My heart ached. I felt every ounce of
life flow out of me through every tear. And then as if a warm blanket was placed over me, I felt a sense of calm and quite. I knew that Ken had reached down and calmed my anguish. I suddenly knew – Ken truly was no longer in pain. He was in a better place and he still loved me.
What is the point of this sad story? How could it possible have anything to do with the 4th of July other than it being Ken’s birthday? A lot actually.
The man driving the car that hit Ken was drunk. So drunk in fact that he didn’t even remember hitting Ken. He had started celebrating Independence Day early. He drank and then he got behind the wheel of his car – thinking he was in complete control of course.
This mans celebration and irresponsibility changed the lives of many people that day – including his. What happened to him is another story entirely and I won’t cloud the importance of Kens story by sharing that now.
If I could share just an ounce of the pain I still feel to this day from my loss with you – no one would EVER get behind the wheel of a car after having even one simple drink. In the absolute blink of an eye – your story can go down in history and trust me, it is not a story anyone should ever want to be remembered for.
When someone wishes you a safe and happy 4th of July – I hope for just a moment, this story will resonate in you very soul and you will either stay overnight with a friend, call a cab or give your keys to a friend to take you home.
Please, please don’t make this a story that anyone else has to live through because you think you have a drink under control. I’d love to say, please don’t drink but that’s not realistic is it? I will instead ask that you PLEASE not drink (even ONE alcoholic drink) and attempt to drive. It is NOT worth the risk.
Trust me – I know.
What’s the happy part of this story? It would be Kens birthday – my little firecracker – Celebrate with me and be safe.
Kenny, I still love you.
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