Nigh on forty years ago to this day (December 10th) I had an accident while working in a cranberry bog on the island of Nantucket. This accident changed the way I look at life.
I had been working for a local cranberry farmer since August. In the beginning I was brought on as a cranberry harvester. It was toiling work but I really enjoyed being outdoors and quickly fell into the pace of things. Because I was a large, strong lad my job was to pull a two inch manilla rope through a flooded cranberry bog. A cranberry harvesting machine, looking a bit like a horizontal egg beater with a seat for the fellow running the machine, had beaten the berries off of the vines and the bright red fruit was floating in the water. There was a stout Portuguese fellow on the other end of the 100 foot rope and it was our job to drag the rope through the water gathering and directing the cranberries to a conveyor belt that worked off of the power take off unit on a Ford 8N tractor. As we dragged the rope through the water it pushed the berries toward the conveyor belt where a couple of wiry workers directed the billions of cranberries onto the conveyor belt which dumped them into bushel baskets where another worker threw them onto a trailer.
The work was exhausting. The rope weighed a couple of hundred pounds and pulling it through the flooded bog all day really wore me out. Day after day we harvested berries and as time rolled on the water in which we worked got colder and colder. We worked in wading boots. In those days they weren’t insulated. As the water got colder we added layers of clothing to combat the chill. By the end of the season we could barely pull ourselves into the waders because of the bulky clothes. Once we stuffed ourselves into the chest high boots we looked a bit like the Michelin Man, more than a little rotund.
It was a dangerous job in those days. OSHA really wasn’t around inspecting farm labor practices. The last thing you wanted to do was step into a irrigation ditch which was several feet lower than the elevation of the bog. If you did step into an irrigation ditch your waders would fill up with water and you’d sink to the bottom like a rock. Extracting yourself completely from the waders wasn’t an option. Waders filled with water adhere to your body like a magnet to metal. Some sort of suction prevents you from extracting yourself from these death traps! We carried a sharp knife. If you went under you had to cut the boot part of the wader off. You then pulled the boot part off each foot. This relieved the weight of the water and allowed you to pop back up to the surface. Of course you had to accomplish all of this in under a minute and a half, or however long it was you could hold your breath. If you didn’t and another worker wasn’t able to pull you back up to the surface, well, then you were history.
Two years before I was working in this bog a worker in another bog drowned when he stepped into a bog irrigation ditch. The thought of this used to scare the hell out of me. I kept an eye on the markers that showed the approximate position of the irrigation ditches and am proud to say that I never had to try cutting my boots off. It never sounded like you had enough time to me.
I toiled hard throughout the autumn. The pay was poor but I was happy to have the money. I was living with my girlfriend who was shucking scallops for cash. We shared a room in an old cottage in Sconsett on the far end of the island. We basically lived day to day. In those days that was fine with me. I had no real plans.
The cranberry farm owner would often compliment me on how hard I worked. I was the first one there and the last one to leave. I didn’t mind the extra time. I enjoyed being outdoors. I learned that at the end of the season the owner would pick one laborer to work through the winter doing bog maintenance. That sounded good to me so I worked even harder. As luck would have it he did keep me on.
I was in my third week working by myself in the bogs after all of the other laborers had been laid off. The foreman would come about once a week, give me a weeks worth of work, and then I wouldn’t see him until the following Monday. That suited me well. My main job at this point was mowing around the edge of the bogs using an old tractor with a sickle bar. The tractor I was using was the old Ford 8N. It was a sound machine with one exception. It had almost no brakes. I kept the machine in low range and in first gear so braking wasn’t that important. I didn’t mind working a little extra if I thought I was falling behind. My girlfriend and I had a falling out and she had left the island. I was now living by myself, except for my two trusty dogs, Max and Scruggs, who waited patiently each day for me to return home from work when we would take a two hour walk on the beach.
After getting my instructions from the farm foreman on that day, December 10th 1973, I went about my work. It was about 7:30 in the morning. The old tractor hummed as I hugged an irrigation ditch, the sickle bar extended, cutting down weeds as I slowly moved along. A large deer suddenly jumped out of the ditch in front of me! I veered to avoid it and the wheels of the tractor teetered on the edge of the irrigation canal. I tried hitting the brakes. There were none and the tractor started to tip over into the ditch. I tried to bail out but the tractor had already passed its proverbial tipping point. I remember falling sideways and the the feeling of extreme pain. The tractor had fallen into the ditch and had landed, partially, on my leg!
Initially I though I was pinned in the narrow ditch but in fact it was the space provided by the ditch that saved me. The tractor was on its side at about a forty-five degree angle. I realized that although my bulky jacket was pinned to the ground by the heavy tractor I might be able to maneuver in such a way as to break free of the heavy machine. My right leg was in excruciating pain and I was wet and cold from falling into the irrigation ditch. I wiggled out of my jacket and using my upper body pulled myself from under the tractor and into the bog. I realized that it was the seat, with the full weight of the tractor behind it, that had hit my knee. The leg, both above and below the knee, was in screaming Mimi pain but I was free from the wreckage!
I lay on my back for a while trying to control the pain. I yelled for help but quickly realized that this reaction was silly. There was no one to hear me. I knew I couldn’t stay there. There was no one at the cottage to realize I was missing. It might be a week before I saw anyone from the farm. Only my dogs would know I was missing.
I thought this over. The bog was about a half a mile from a paved road. If I could get to the road surely someone would see me and stop. The leg was getting numb. I knew I was going into a stage of shock. I also knew I had to keep my wits about me. Using my upper body strength (thank God for all of that hard work I had been doing) I tried to pull myself across the ditch and back onto level ground where I could begin my journey. The pain was murderous each time I pulled my body forward. I found I could push with my left leg as long as it didn’t touch my right leg. I was able to move myself across the ditch but it took about a half an hour. I almost passed out a couple of times but managed to focus on getting to the road.
Once back to level and dry ground I planned my course of action. If the road was a half a mile away and I could move myself one foot at a time then I could be there in only about 2,500 upper body crawling motions. For some strange reason it sounded very doable and I proceeded cautiously. The pain had subsided slightly. I was getting used to it. I managed to scream whenever the pain rose to a level that I could not stand. The screaming seemed to help. So, one pull at a time, I proceeded.
After about an hour I heard a ripping sound. At first I didn’t know what it was. I looked around and tried to locate the point where the sound came from. I looked down and realized that my leg was so swollen it was ripping the seams in my dungarees. I took my knife out of its case on my belt and cut my pants leg. The site of my leg was ghastly; I wished I’d never taken a look at it. It was hugely swollen, purple, and disfigured both below and above the knee. I couldn’t be certain that it was broken in both places but I certainly suspected that this was a possibility.
One pull at a time, over about three hours, I inched myself up the driveway. I finally arrived at a point where I could hear automobiles driving on the road. My spirits soared! It took me about another half hour to crawl, primarily using my upper body assisted by my left leg, to reach the road.
This road didn’t receive a lot of traffic. It wasn’t the primary road to the town of Nantucket but even the hope for the occasional car gave me hope. I propped myself up against a speed limit sign. The leg pain had returned in earnest. I still screamed to relieve some of the stress periodically. I looked, once again, at the leg through my cut pants leg. It was ugly. The site of it was definitively upsetting. It was now swollen to unreal proportions, bleeding from having dragged it a half mile on a gravel road, and had a distinct distorted shape bending to the left below the knee and to the right above the knee. Still I was in a better situation than I was several hours before so I had reason to believe that help would come soon.
About ten minutes later I could hear a car. I was on a long straight away and I knew that I would easily be seen. In a few moments I could see a newer Volvo zipping towards me down the road. I waved my hands furiously. The Volvo began to slow down. I could see a man in a suit. He nearly came to a stop. My spirits soared. And then I saw him shake his head “no” and he hit the gas.
This was nearly as shocking as the initial accident. I lost my cool and swore at the man at the top of my lungs as he sped off. I was so mad that I wept. After a few minutes I reasoned that someone else would come along.
About fifteen minutes later I heard another car. This time I was a little more cautioned and controlled my emotions. As the car neared I could see that it was a Lincoln Continental. I imagined laying down in the large back seat on the way to the Nantucket Hospital. Again, I waved my arms furiously. The Lincoln slowed down slightly. The driver, a well dressed middle aged woman, took one glance and drove on. Again, I swore as loud as I could as she drove away. I couldn’t believe that this was happening.
The combination of pain and disappointment was overwhelming. I felt sick to my stomach. I just wanted help.
Only a few minutes later I heard a third car. As it approached I could see that it was a beat up, twenty-five year old station Plymouth station wagon. The car had no muffler and sounded like a freight train. I waved my arms, somewhat less furiously than the first two times. The car was going very slowly so I couldn’t tell if it was slowing down. Sure enough, it was slowing down and came to a stop beside me. The windows were foggy. The drivers side window slowly rolled down. I could see a middle aged woman, smoking a cigarette, staring out the window. The chatter of children could be heard in the background.
“I need help!” I said, somewhat quietly.
“Well, I guess you do!” she responded as she opened her door.
When the door opened I could see the car was full of children. They wiped off the foggy windows to get a look at me. They pressed their little faces against the glass. The look of concern was on their tiny faces.
“My God, what the HELL happened to you!” said the woman.
“I had a tractor fall on me.” I said.
“Your right leg looks God awful! Is it broken?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I just need to get to the hospital. Can you help me?” I responded.
“Honey, that’s what I’m going to do.” she said as she walked to the rear of the station wagon and opened the rear door.
For the first time I noticed that this was no ordinary woman. She was very large. She looked very strong. Her hands looked as if they had worked every day of her approximate 40 odd years. But she had a kind face and at the moment she was my angel. If there ever was an angel in human form it was her.
“Hold on sonny, this is going to hurt!” she stated as she put her arms under my armpit lifting me onto my one good leg.
She lifted my 200 pound body like I was a small sack of potatoes. The pain was immense. I tried not to scream but I couldn’t hold it in.
“You’re so strong, thank you!” I said as she nearly dragged me to the back of the station wagon.
“I’ve been pulling nets on a fishing boat for most of my life so lifting you is a piece of cake. I’m glad I came along to help you!”
She pushed me into the back of the wagon. I had to sit up so she could fit all of me in. She slammed the tail door of the wagon and returned to the driver’s seat. I looked ahead. There were six little faces staring at me. Half looked at my face, the other half at my distorted and bloody leg.
“All eyes forward!” commanded the mother.
“Don’t mind them!”, stated the woman, “they haven’t seen anything as bloody as you since we slaughtered our boar hog!”
All of the kids laughed.
This woman, my angel, drove slowly to the hospital. She drove around potholes and slowed down for frost heaves. She didn’t say much but I could see her looking at me in her rear vision mirror. When we arrived at the hospital she went in to the emergency ward. Two attendants retrieved me with a gurney. As they rolled me away I stopped the two attendants.
“Ma’am!”, I shouted, “I didn’t get your name!”
She turned and looked at me. For the first time I noticed she had steel blue eyes and a weathered face that shouted volumes as to who she was and where she had been.
“My name is Clare” she said quietly.
“Thank you, Clare. I owe you big time.”
“You don’t owe me a thing sonny. Glad I could help. This will give the kids a week’s worth of giggles. Good luck!”
And without further adieu she slid into the old Plymouth wagon. She put it in gear. The car roared as she pulled out of the emergency room exit.
I would never see her again.
Post Script: I looked for Clare, and asked everyone I could think of to find out her last name and where she lived. I never found out exactly who she was. I was never able to thank her properly. But somehow I don’t think she really needed for me to give her more praise. Even in my short introduction to this woman I knew it just wasn’t in her to want anything more than a simple thank you.
My leg was broken both below and above the knee. The hospital set the leg in both places. I was unconscious at the time. That evening I asked to released. My dogs were home alone wondering where I was. I called a friend who gave me a ride to the old cottage where I lived.
I could no longer work. Money was tight; almost nonexistent. For the next few weeks I used crutches to get to the beach where I sat and shot ducks as they flew by. Max, my labrador, retrieved them from the surf. Scruggs, my mongrel pal, celebrated life on the beach as Max brought in the water fowl. We ate ducks for almost a month until I decided to leave the island.
On the day we got on the ferry that took us to Hyannis I remember looking across an angry, gray winter sea towards the Island. Nantucket was disappearing in the fog.
I was leaving behind a time in life that I would never be able to replace. An era was coming to an end and I had no idea what would come next. I was leaving behind a big part of my soul. I now felt somewhat incomplete.
But most of all I knew I was leaving behind a true angel.
Max and Scruggs looked off the bow of the ferry. The cold winter wind and ocean spray blew in their faces. They knew we had the entire world in front of us.
What could be better?
Written for www.wildramblings.com on December 10th, 2012