Memorial Day — One Year Later: My Story

Category: Families & Generations

Memorial Day–One Year Later, by Bruce Sallan

For me, this Memorial Day, I have an anniversary. One for which I shudder a bit in memory and also feel extremely grateful. That is what Memorial Day is actually all about –gratitude for the men and women that have served our country in the armed forces, sacrificed their lives or their physical well-being, in support of making the world safer.

In recognition of those men and women, I first share with you this short video of VJ Day in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 14, 1945, less than 6 years after Pearl Harbor, the day that “will live in infamy,” according to our then President, FDR.

My own memory on this day is of an accident I survived. It was a miracle, as I’ve experienced so many miracles in my life (see my “Gratitude” column). Believe it or not, I was skiing last Memorial Day at Mammoth Mountain where they often have a late season. This year they expect to actually be open on July 4 so you can ski in the morning, and hike, golf, bike, or play tennis in the afternoon–in shorts.

Due to the warm weather, the bottom of the mountain is usually wet and slushy so they built a half-pipe further up. Being the middle-aged fool I still am, I actually love to “do” the pipe though I don’t do much in it. And, last MD was no exception as I started very early in the morning and for some unknown reason began skiing the pipe repeatedly, keeping count. As the morning progressed, it became more crowded as there were a couple of “ski camps” for free-riding boarders and free-skiers taking place with kids and coaches.

Prior to my 13th trip, the crowd and line waiting to drop into the pipe was too much and I decided this would be my last one. Ironic, as it certainly was. I remember dropping into the pipe. My next memory is waking up in a ski gurney with a patrolman, though I had no idea who it was at the time, sticking fingers in my face and asking “how many?” I was in pain, though I really didn’t know where. After I answered the proper number, they finished strapping me into the gurney and began taking me down to the bottom of the mountain. I remember that “ride” being scary as can be!

I also remember what seemed like the forever ride in the ambulance to the local ER. Sometime after arriving at the ER, they evidently put back in place my severely dislocated shoulder for which I have no memory, thankfully. Later they did a cat-scan of my head and x-rays of my shoulder. By now, I was more or less fully cognizant though I still had NO memory of what occurred between the time I dropped into the pipe and those fingers were thrust in my face.

Apparently, I fell upside down on my head and left shoulder. The fall, even wearing a helmet, knocked me unconscious, dislocated my shoulder several inches straight down, and broke a couple of bones in that shoulder. The cat-scan revealed some bleeding on the brain, so they kept me in the hospital overnight for “observation.”

By now, I was relieved to be alive but completely mystified as to why I had fallen. I called a local friend whose daughter is a skier in the pipe and asked her to try and find out from all those kids and coaches if anyone could tell her what had happened. As I don’t do much in the way of big air or big tricks, just clearing the lip of the pipe and turning 180 degrees slightly above it and heading back down, I couldn’t imagine what had happened? Was it someone else that had cut me off? Was it my own momentary lapse? What happened?

I didn’t find out that day or the next, when I drove home, with my arm in a sling. The neurologist’s report was that I was one lucky SOB as I had a considerable amount of bleeding on the brain. He said I’d be dead or worse had I not worn a helmet. He also said he has severely brain damaged patients with better MRI’s than I had. Again, pure luck that the bleeding took place in a little used part of my brain. My wife would disagree, saying my whole brain is little used.

My recovery was easy. The broken bones healed quickly. Some physical therapy prevented the shoulder from “freezing up” as can happen in such cases where your shoulder is in a sling for a while. The broken bones didn’t require any surgery or even a cast as I just wore a sling for a few weeks.

But, what didn’t go away was the nagging mystery of what happened.

This ski season began and I waited for when the pipes would be open and built again. I knew I had “to get back on the horse” and I eagerly awaited that opportunity. I was a little bit scared but I had to do it. Finally, over Winter Break, the smaller of the two pipes opened. It was a beautiful day and I got there early in the morning. I quickly skied to the top of this pipe and paused. Without too much forethought, I dropped in again and did it without error, though somewhat gingerly, not reaching the top on any of my turns.

I did it several more times, finally getting relaxed and comfortable enough to barely clear the lip. I kept count. When #13 came around, I paused again. I dropped in, and did it fine. I was over “it” and did it two more times for good measure.

One day, sometime in the heart of the winter, I was skiing during a “white out” snowy day. Practically no one was on the mountain. I got on the lift with a stranger and we began to talk. For some reason, I told him the story of my pipe accident. He looked at me and said, “Were you that guy?” It turned out he and his buddy not only saw it all, but were the first two people to come to my prone body. They quickly realized I was in trouble as I was shaking all over and incoherent. His buddy skied down to seek help while this young man stayed with me. The ski patrol quickly came and took over.

I asked him what happened and he described it in perfect detail, as if it had just happened. Evidently, it was an accident for the “highlights” reel and what he described completely jived with the injuries I sustained. As I remembered, I dropped in as I usually do. But, on the first time up the first lip, I evidently turned and landed half on the ledge and half going down. This caused me to lose control. Instead of stopping as I normally would’ve done, I kept going towards the next side. I must have been rattled. I didn’t have enough speed to make it to the top of the other side and as I slowed down, near the top, instead of just turning on the wall, I fell straight backwards, doing a sort of back swan dive, landing on my head and shoulder, upside down and on my back. I finally found out what happened.

It took me pretty much the whole season to get back to where I was, skiing-wise in the pipe, at the time of the accident. I bought the best new helmet I could find and enjoyed this past ski season immensely. One day, I saw a videographer working with a professional skier. Between his shots, I asked him if he’d film me in the pipe, the SuperPipe was now built with its 22-foot walls, and he agreed. He filmed me going through it three times. And, while I chose the music, he chose the edits and sent me this video, memorializing that I could still “do it.” I’m no red-headed Olympic wonder getting 20+ feet in the air, twisting around in contortions, in the pipe, but I’m one grateful “old guy’ that still has fun “playing in the park” as I like to call it (the areas where the pipes and jumps are called “terrain parks”). Here’s that video.

Happy Memorial Day everyone!