This is a tale about what happened after the first time I truly could say, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
It is a testament to how my recovery has recovered more of me than I had lost, making me stronger and clearer than I’ve ever been in my life. Regarding my two-month disappearance from all communication, rest assured, “Old hippies never die, they’re just out of sight.”
Look, everybody in my Baby Boomer generation saw those Life Call commercials in the ’80s. And boy, did we laugh. We still felt invincible back then, and the idea that anything could knock us down for the count seemed ridiculous. That’ll never be us, we thought.
I’m here to tell you: We were wrong! It took a few decades, but I finally had my first scary fall. It made me think about aging in a whole new way—and how my cohort of Boomers have a whole new health hazard to face: the ground. We’re resilient, though, and the new strength that I have felt coming back from this whole crazy episode makes me feel that, unlike that now-legendary old lady in the late-night Life Call ads, we can get up.
Comedy Goeth Before a Fall
I had been living in my Airstream trailer on a farm in Corralitos for six months. While I had driven through the intersection past the Corralitos Market and Sausage Company many times, I never looked down into the drainage ditch that runs along Eureka Canyon Road. I had seen the A-frame wooden sign used to advertise local performances to the right of the stop sign sitting on ground level, but I did not know that behind it there was a 4-foot drop into a rock-lined ditch.
I work hard to produce my comedy shows, and that is what I was doing on the night of May 31. I was preparing for a fundraiser comedy show the next day at the Corralitos Cultural Center, stapling up the last of the show posters to point the way to the theater around 9 p.m.
I had two posters left. I walked to the A-frame sign on the corner and stapled one arrow on the side facing the intersection before noticing that the sign board had a place on the other side for a poster facing Eureka Canyon Road. I walked behind the sign, stapled the paper onto the plywood surface, and then to make sure I had the arrow pointing in the right direction, I took a step back.
To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, “One small step for man, one giant leap for busting my ass.”
As I fell back into mid-air, I did not know that there was a hole underneath me. I expected to find more footing. My arms grabbed the A-frame sign and pulled it over with me. Time slowed down, but I felt myself picking up speed. I don’t know if this is even possible, but when I struck the rock below, it felt like I bounced.
Then the sign hit me in the head.
I don’t care who you are—this was comedy gold.
I don’t know how long I was unconscious. I first noticed that I was pinned underneath the plywood sign. I tried to get up, but the left side of my body did not respond; my left arm, shoulder and leg spasmed. I tried to push the sign off of me with my right arm, but the wood did not move. Pinned to the rock floor of the ditch, I tried to relax and get my breath under control. My right arm and leg still worked, but my left side quivered out of control. I tried to squirm out from under the sign, but my body moved closer to the culvert opening that goes under the road, and my left leg dangled down into the black abyss.
In one of our more memorable arguments, my father once told me, “You are going to die in the gutter.” Pinned to the bottom of the rock drainage ditch with my left leg dangling into the black abyss, I thought, “My God, the old man was right.”
I could feel that the ditch was dry. Hey, I thought, I’m not going to drown! I took this as a win. It’s amazing what can lift your spirits.
I twisted my body to the left, then got my right hand and foot against the rock above the culvert opening and pushed against the sign with my back, banging until I heard it scrape over the rock to give me wiggle room. I could bend my right leg now, and I kicked the sign off of me. My core muscles seemed to work, and I twisted my torso back and forth to worm away from the black hole, inching along the rock bottom until my head touched the ditch wall. I pushed up with my right hand and leg to sit, leaning against the wall of rock. My chest heaved with gasping breath—partly from the effort, but even more with relief.
I remembered I had my cell phone in my coat pocket. I was too far below ground to get service but managed to push my back up against the rock, and with my right arm I held the phone up, stretching as high as I could. Come on, stretch higher! Come on … and it caught a signal.
So many people would later ask me, “Why didn’t you dial 911?” Partly because I have never trusted the government or anything connected to it, and I was hoping I could get out of this without them. But mainly, because a half-mile away lives the matriarch of the farm I live on, a 78-year-old farmer named Judy Miller. She is tough as nails with a heart as big as her barn, and I knew she would know what to do. I knew she would come. She was there in 10 minutes.
Working The Emergency Room
As Judy drove me to the Watsonville emergency room, I started to feel where I was broken. Even the slightest bump felt like my left arm was being torn out of its socket.
We walked to the emergency room, me taking tiny steps. I had never felt this frail in my life. The pain was really starting to light up as we stood in a line, my right hand holding my left forearm. I focused on my breath, sucking air in hard and trying to blow the pain out with the exhale.
I called my wife Julie in San Diego and said, “Yeah, baby, I’ll probably still do the show tomorrow and head down to see you Sunday.”
But when the emergency room doctor heard about my plans, he was incredulous. “Uh, Richard, you have broken your arm badly, and we don’t know what else,” he said. “You have a comminuted humeral head fracture, and you are going to be dealing with pain management for some time.”
The one shot of Dilaudid lasted until Saturday morning. Before Judy could drive me to Walgreens for the prescribed Hydrocodone, I was popping Ibuprofen tablets like an 8-year-old with a bag of M&Ms.
My only contact with the outside world was to cancel gigs, cancel work, cancel meetings, cancel my life. My world kept shrinking, compressing inside my Airstream trailer.
All I could do was write, one hunt-and-peck letter at a time, hunched over, drooling in a pain-and-drug induced stupor. If my laptop did not have the keyboard plastic cover, I’m pretty sure I would have destroyed my MacBook Pro with my own saliva.
The ER doc had told me to sit with my left palm over my navel. For weeks, I made an extensive examination of my belly fat. I’m writing a sequel to my book Fondle The Fear called Fondle The Fat. I passed the days in a cannabis-and-pain daze. Any cough or laugh felt like Mike Tyson was punching me in the left side. Any movement hurt, although sometimes I could use my toes to pick things up. It hurt to bend over, and it took me 10 minutes to put on my socks with one hand.
The more drugs I took for the pain, the less I could see a way back to who I am. As my world became ever smaller, I got ever more desperate. How was I going to make a living? How was I going to survive? If I couldn’t perform, who was I in this world?
But I can perform. I have gotten to the point where I take bookings again, and now I will test my metal and drive to Arizona with one arm to strive to make a room of drunk people laugh. Even if I fail, I will still be made stronger for the test, just as I know that if I should fall again, I will be made stronger by what comes after the fall.
The truth is, we’re all going to have our first fall at some point. And we all have to get back up.
My surgeon tells me I’ve got six more weeks to go until I’m healed. My shoulder is still broken, but my spirit is renewed.