Friday, June 19, 2020

My Father's Accident-1978

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This is not a tragic story. A sad story, yes, but not tragic. My father, Frank Thompson, was a working class laborer for most of my life. In my first 10 years, my dad worked in factories, foundries, he was a security guard, an insurance collector, and a liquor store clerk (for one day-long story). When I was about 10 years old, an upstairs neighbor pulled some strings and got him a civil service job as a janitor at the main Cincinnati post office. It may not sound like much but it paid better than he had ever been paid before and had excellent benefits. Best of all, he enjoyed the job! 


Thus, all during my teenage years, he had steady work for the first time in my life. When I was 14, he even took on a second janitorial job for the Social Security office building right next door to our apartment house. My mother and I helped him with that one. For a few hours each night, we would go next door and clean. My mother would wash down all the tables and desks and vacuum the carpeted areas. I would empty all 50 trashcans and probably twice that many ashtrays and clean the restrooms, while my dad would mop and buff the entire floor. Most of the time, the employees were all gone so I could crank up music or, later, Sally Jessy Raphael, while I worked.


In 1977, at age 18, I graduated high school near the top of my class. No one at the school had ever discussed college with me so I had no idea what to do next. At one point, at the last minute, I was offered a full ride to NKU but I turned it down because I was ignorant and confused and felt I had been abandoned by the system. I didn’t even realize what that meant and it was never explained to me.


So that’s where we were a year later in 1978. I was living at home and had taken over most of the office building janitorial position next door as my job. My mother was still working in a factory as she had done since the 1930s, and my dad was still at the post office. 


On December 28thof that year, age 68, he walked uptown for a quick trip to the bank one day and was going to bring me home some coney islands from Covington Chili. It should have been a half hour trip, tops. He never arrived home. 


I was home alone. I considered going out looking for him but was afraid I’d miss him if he DID show up back home. I called my mom at work. She was frantic and told me she was coming straight home. We had only one car, though, and my other didn’t drive so she had to take the bus and that took about an hour. Just before she got home, I got a telephone call from the hospital, which was literally just a block and a half away from our apartment! He was there. He’d been hit by a car but he was okay. A broken shoulder, a lot of bruises, something wrong with one leg, and everything fractured. We had had to get an unlisted phone number after a series of harassing phone calls the year before so they had to wait until they could get him to give the number before they could call me. 


I waited until my mother arrived, explained the situation to her, and off we hurried on over to the hospital. He looked bad. Real bad. I don’t recall for sure but I believe they kept him for a night or two. 


The next day, we saw he had made the front page of both newspapers! What a weird feeling! First of all, why was “Man Gets Hit by Car” front page news? Second, why did both papers send a photographer? And why did each photographer snap such odd pics—one with the passerby just staring down at him and the other with the cop’s rear end dominating the shot? Oh, well. Being the archivist I was even then I dutifully clipped them out. Later, when he saw them, he was amused. 


The woman in the one picture is the woman who hit him. It was a cold, sunny afternoon, and by all accounts both she and he had the sun blinding them. He was crossing the street at the crosswalk next to the Public Library, just three blocks from our house, and she was turning from the side street. He supposedly told first responders to take the coney islands home to me so they could tell me what was going on.    


When he finally came home, he had his arm in a leather brace covering a fleece lined pad. They said he was to never take it off, even in the shower. Since we didn’t even have a shower, that part was easy. He started walking with a cane. The physical bruises slowly healed but he just seemed very depressed all the time.


The insurance rep for the woman who hit him contacted us. She was a young black woman. As I’ve written before, my dad was typical of many old school prejudiced white people. He disliked every black person he NEVER met! Once he met them, he rarely had a problem with them. In this case, both he and the insurance agent bonded over one thing. Both of them were put out that the driver never came to see him at the hospital nor contacted him in any way to see how he was doing after he got out. Ultimately, the insurance agent arranged a $10,000 settlement. 


A lot of money, yes, but things changed from that point. He couldn’t work anymore. Since he was already past the age of retirement by several years, he officially retired, taking his generous pension and social security, and thankful that his civil service years had put him in such a good position. As for the next-door janitor position, I took it over completely. It became my job. 


He couldn’t drive anymore. Or at least he chose not to. Neither my mother nor I could drive, either, so our car sat in front of the house for the following year. Finally, someone complained and my dad was given a ticket. He drove it once around the block, then paid a neighbor to drive it out to his brother’s house in the country, where it sat until he sold it a while later. Since we lived just a block or two away from then main bus route, as well as within walking distance of downtown Covington AND downtown Cincinnati, we could still get to most places easily.


Although both my mother and I had convinced ourselves that this was the beginning of the end for my dad, we were both proven wrong. In the months that followed, his sense of humor slowly returned. His interests came back. He had had to give up horseshoes after years as a champion on several state levels. But he tried it again, brace and all. 


The brace…stunk. When they said not to take it off, they meant NEVER. I checked. So it stunk. Always. After a while, he was set up with physical therapy and I would go with him on the bus to that. I would also accompany him to his monthly doctor checkups. Since the doctor was in Florence, we would come out and then take the bus further out to nearby Florence Mall where we would have lunch at his favorite barbecue place in the food court.


Once, the doctor said his shoulder wasn’t setting right and he needed to re-set it there in the office. He gave my dad some heavy painkillers and then essentially rebroke his shoulder in front of me so he could reset it. As he was doing it, my drugged-up father was moaning something awful but afterwards the doctor asked him how it felt and he replied calmly, “Didn’t feel it at all.” Against my better judgement, we went on out for our regular barbecue and, naturally, that’s when the anesthetic wore off!


Months went by and he got slowly better. He FELT slowly better! He started going places on his own again, walking uptown via the same route he had taken the day he had been hit. Sometimes, he even helped me at the office next door again. 


After another solid year, he was allowed to take off the leather arm brace for good! He made a big deal of tossing the smelly old thing but the fleece pad was washed and stuck up in a closet for some reason. 


By 1980, things were back to what felt like mostly normal, except we had no car anymore. I didn’t drive because I had motion sickness issues, and I was feeling tremendous pressure, not from my parents but from other relatives, to now learn. I started looking again at moving out, getting a better-paying job and my own apartment. I had even found one I liked and later taken my parents to see it.


Then one day, my mother said her co-workers were commenting that she looked a little jaundiced. A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer followed along with an emergency operation. My dad had been declared diabetic some years earlier. He was so nervous about my mother’s  operation that he dropped his controls and ended up in the hospital himself that day in a coma. Worst day of my life, with BOTH parents in the hospital. First time in 21 years I was home completely alone overnight.


My dad bounced back quickly, again, though, and for a while it seemed my mother would, too. Six months of chemotherapy took their toll, and she said later if she had to do it again, she would choose to pass on the treatments. But by mid-year of 1981 she was looking good again and preparing to return to work. My dad and I were both pleased and once again I considered moving out on my own. But then the cancer returned and she went downhill rapidly. She passed just before Christmas.


My dad was devastated. In some ways, he never got over her passing. More than once, I caught him placing my mother’s photograph on her side of the bed and lying down next to it. I felt lost, myself, too, and decided once again NOT to move out as we needed to take care of each other.


But in other ways, the 1980s would prove to be surprisingly active and exciting for him. Having rarely flown before, he decided to join a travel group. They saw plays and attended festivals. He flew or took the bus to all sorts of destinations, including Las Vegas! He even flew out with me to San Diego and went twice with me to Chicago for comic book conventions.


I gave up the night janitor position and began my long bookstore career. We remained in the same apartment I had lived in since I was 7 years old and yet so much had changed. We were now roomies as much as father and son and the new dynamic allowed for us to get to know each other differently than when I was growing up.


I had always loved my father but now I liked him quite a bit, too, and his eternal resilience set the example for me, showing me that one can choose to just give up or one can choose to bounce back from almost anything, no matter how life-threatening, no matter how devastating. 


Even when he was hit by a massive stroke in 1990, he bounced back more than expected, and survived another 16 months before leaving us for good not when the doctor said but when HE was ready to go, when he was sure he had taught me all he could teach me. One of the last things he said that we could understand, after Rene and I were married, was that now he wanted grandkids. 


On this Father’s Day weekend, in this time of uncertainty, I hope I have learned the lessons. I hope I have passed them on to his grandkid. 


Oh, and that fleece pad that got stuffed up in the closet? Years later, when we got our first cat, Chauncey, we dug it out of storage as a cheap toy for Chaunce. He took to it like I’ve never seen a cat with a toy! He carried it everywhere, he spoke to it, he wrestled it, he padded it, he slept with it. When Chauncey passed, 17 years later, we had it cremated with him. We weren’t allowed pets in our building when I grew up but my dad was a cat person. I think he would appreciate the legacy of that accident all those years later. 


  1. Wonderful story Steve! I have great memories of my own father and your story brought them all back to me. I'm so fortunate to have my two sons near me along with my fantastic wife!
    Thank you for the memories!

  2. That ws very very nice, man.