Sunday, March 18, 2012

Crashes, consequences, providence and newspapers

(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
The headlights of the approaching vehicle were all wrong.

Frank and I were headed back to the dorm from a state park near Winona, Minn., when I first saw the headlights moving around the curve. But they were jumping up and down erratically, and then they began to spin.

In all, I believe the car rolled over seven times before it landed on its roof.
I do not recall all the details of that fall evening in 1979, except that Frank and I had headed out to a nearby state park on a Friday night to enjoy a beer or two and some talk under the night sky. I am not certain whether the park remains today. Winona and the surrounding area were hard-hit by the Mississippi flood of 1993. For all I know, the floodwaters completely reshaped the area. But back then, the spot we headed to was near the foot of a low-head dam, where we sometimes fished for white bass on the weekends.

But it was a lot colder that night than we had expected. By the time we each finished our first beer, we were quite cold and decided the dorm would be far more comfortable. We got into the station wagon I’d driven and headed back toward the dorm.

Frank and I shared one thing in common that for some reason other students in Aquinas Hall thought was a really big deal. We both had interrupted our college educations. Frank had stepped away for at least several years, I for a little less than a year and a half — but we had come back to get our degrees.

I never really understood why some of our peers found that to be so awesome — one once told me that few people who interrupted their college educations ever finished. That was news to me. As I said, I never thought it was particularly remarkable.

Frank had left for an opportunity to work with the highway patrol — in Minnesota, if I remember correctly. But his dream was to become a conservation policeman, and he found a road to that opportunity at the same college I attended, St. Mary’s, which today is called St. Mary’s University of Winona.

Winona is a college town along the Mississippi River, 46 miles nearly due east of Rochester, home of the famed Mayo Clinic, and about 30 miles northwest of LaCrosse, Wis., which at that time was home to one of the region’s largest liquor stores, not to mention many merry cheeseheads and countless Badgers fans.

The town was home to St. Mary’s, Winona State University and the College of St. Teresa, which closed in 1989. Winona State is toward the center of town, while St. Mary’s is nestled among the bluffs above Winona.

I had taken some time off after my freshman year at Loyola University to get my head together. I went to work at Hoffer Plastics, a factory in South Elgin, Ill., trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

So it was that Frank and I ended up in St. Mary’s Aquinas Hall — a dorm geared primarily toward freshmen and transfer students. I had a year or two on the freshmen, Frank has a year or two on me.

But on this cold fall night, when we thought we just might catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis, Frank and I instead encountered a bloody mess.

When the other car began rolling, I hit the brakes and pulled off onto the shoulder, stopping across the roadway from the wreckage. I could raise no one on the CB radio I had in the car. Since Frank knew the area better than I did, he drove off to the sheriff’s office for help after I got out to render whatever aid I could.

As I ran to the vehicle, a young woman and a guy were pulling another guy from its rear window. He was screaming out repeatedly, “hail Mary, full of grace,” as if it were some kind of mantra.

Shattered glass was spewed all around and crunched under foot. As I drew near, they lifted him to his feet and I could see the skin had peeled off the palm of his right hand. I vividly recall that, in spite of all the blood, I easily could have counted the exposed bones in his palm. Steam wafted up from his blood in the chilly night air as he continued to chant the phrase from a longer prayer that is commonly known among Catholics.

Likely he had been riding with the window open, his hand resting on the roof of the car when it crashed.

The girl was trying to fashion her belt into a tourniquet to stanch his bleeding, and she resisted vehemently when I tried to intervene. I pulled out a clean handkerchief and placed it in her palm, which I then locked over the young man’s bloody hand. “Stay with him and hold this on his hand to stop the bleeding and maybe they can save it,” I told her. “If you use a tourniquet, they’ll probably have to cut it off.”

She seemed to get the message, but as I turned to check the others, I could not be sure.

I began looking over the others, but remarkably, I don’t recall anyone else bleeding or even complaining of pain. A siren blared in the distance.

“Where’s Karen?” asked a voice I did not recognize.

I had no light, but I told the guy who was not bleeding to begin searching the ditch along the side of the road. I ran to the car and got down on my stomach to look inside. It was too dark to make anything out, so I crawled inside, pushing aside an empty pint vodka bottle on the ground next to the car as I did.

Karen — I no longer recall her full name — was still strapped in the driver’s seat, her body awkwardly half-hanging from the seat belts, half-slumping onto the misshapen roof of the wrecked car she had been driving just minutes before.

“Help me.” I could barely hear her weak voice over the sound of the siren, which was growing as the ambulance neared.

“Are you Karen?”


“Karen, I’m going to stay with you until the ambulance gets here. I do not want to take a chance moving you, so I’ll stay right here.” I put my hand out onto her arm, hoping she found the gesture reassuring.

Even from inside the wrecked car, I could see the flashing red lights of the approaching ambulance. I prayed that she would be OK.

When I heard the crunching sound of the firefighters’ boots on the broken glass and pea gravel near the car, I told Karen, “They’re here now. I need to get out of their way so they can help you.”

I called out to the paramedics as I shinnied backward, then moved aside as they moved in to do their work. I backed away slowly, watching them maneuver in a backboard and other gear. Frank suddenly appeared at my side.

“You all right?”

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” I said.

We checked first with the officers to see if they needed to take our statements before we left.

I let Frank drive as we headed back to campus. At first, we were quiet, then I began telling him what I’d seen after he left.

From his perspective, it had been a “good” wreck — everyone came out of it alive. He told me that crawling into that car was a brave thing — I very easily could have encountered a corpse, he said. “My,” I observed sardonically, “I find that comforting.”

Frank was a good guy.

When we got back to the dorm, he dropped me off at the door and went to park the car. As I headed inside and walked down the hall toward my room, I wondered why the eyes of my fellow students seemed to pop wide in surprise as I drew near. Once I stepped into the bathroom to clean up, however, I understood.

When I had left the dorm with Frank, I was wearing my favorite white, Western style bullet shirt and white denim pants. Now, they were caked with blood and dirt. Apparently, I had crawled through a pool of gore as I went in search of Karen.

The head resident came running into the bathroom — someone thought maybe I’d been in a bar fight and had been knifed. No, I explained to him, that’s really not my style.

I explained what had happened as I peeled off my shirt and began rinsing it in the sink, wringing the blood out of it as I did. Frank showed up a few minutes later and verified my story. I had begun to suspect the head resident was going to call the police. I had never seen that much blood before and was certain he thought I’d murdered someone.

Frank and I went our separate ways for the rest of the night. As I did, I’m sure he went back to his room to ponder the evening’s course of events over a few beers. But then perhaps he did not — he had seen this kind of thing before as a highway patrolman.

With time, the memories of that night faded until they were all but forgotten.

I am not quite certain what brought them rushing back this past week. This was a very intense week — four full days of classes on Adobe software. In addition, I had had some welcome but time-consuming surprises from each of my three part-time jobs that left me little time for thought, this blog or even sleep, for that matter.

But perhaps it was word earlier in the week that the Chicago Tribune was trimming 15 journalists from its newsroom ranks. I read the article in Crain’s and wondered how many rounds of layoffs the Trib had made in the past five years — certainly not as many as Sun-Times Media had. How could one financially troubled company have fewer casualties than another, when they’d both been a part of the same industrywide crash?

But then, I realized, I might be wrong about that. The eyes of my former co-workers and mine had been so focused on the pain in our midst that I doubt we truly gave more than passing notice to much of what was happening elsewhere. We might have read a story or even have given lip service to the cuts at other newspapers. But we were besieged by round after round of cuts among our own. What was happening at other papers paled in comparison to what we were experiencing.

Perhaps the point of my recalling that night more than three decades ago lies more in the consideration of providence as it pertains to the sad debacle in the newspaper industry.

Alcohol was a factor in the wreck that night, and the people in that car had a hand in determining what had happened. They made poor choices and paid the consequences. Fortunately for them, no one was killed, no innocent victims in another car were involved.

In some ways, it has been similar in the newspaper industry. Some leaders seemed more concerned about maintaining a profitable bottom line than about preserving good journalism or finding a business model that would work in the digital world. If they had been making candy bars instead, they would have diluted the recipe to save a buck, and in doing so would have lost customers of a product that no longer tasted as good. They cut staff, cut quality, and so diluted the recipe — the journalism that once had added such a rich flavor to the communities they served.

Those publishers, if they survive, will do so more by sheer dumb luck than any other reason, much like the four or five people in that wrecked car more than three decades ago. Some of those publishers’ decisions will affect people like many of my former colleagues and myself, people with a passion, if not a calling, to serve the communities in which we live by producing quality, fair and accurate news.

There is nothing fair about this, just as there is nothing fair about a drunken driver whose decision to drive shatters, maims or even kills innocent lives.

But there are some out there who are making responsible decisions. Frank and I went out with the intent of having no more than a beer or two each, just a couple of buddies more intent on good conversation than getting a buzz. We each had one and left.

Likewise, in the news industry today, there are publishers who are adapting to the industry’s paradigm shift. They are trying to anticipate what’s happening in the industry, what might be coming at them around the bend, and planning accordingly.

Certainly, even some of these companies will fail. But some will survive, some may even thrive. When that happens, their work will become the model on which other companies can build, and by providence and hard work, good journalism will re-emerge.

But let’s hope, and pray, that that does not take too long. There is too much at stake, for journalists and nonjournalists alike.