I fell 27 feet to my death on June 1st,, 1970. On the fifth floor of an office tower under construction—I was part of the mason contractor’s crew—I picked up one edge of a 3X3 plywood plank, started pushing it out of my way, and walked into the air. The plywood had covered a square hole in the floor.
It was a long way down. I had all the time I needed to assess my boots, my jeans, my life, and to decide in air that they all required replacements. I turned as I fell, trying to look down, so I landed on my right side. That’s why I never lost consciousness: my head hit the fourth floor, but glancingly, upside it.
The sound I made when I landed was a death rattle as rendered by those huge Marshall amps you still see behind every band in concert—in that moment I thought, this is an exhalation equal to any Poseidon made in obstructing Odysseus, and through meticulous research, I have subsequently determined that its butterfly effect was the oil crisis of 1973.
My right leg was totally purple by the time they got me to the emergency room at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. So was my right arm. I couldn’t move either. Was I paralyzed? My teeth also hurt. I answered the routine medical questions without opening my mouth. “Yes” sounded like “Ussh.”
My elbow was shattered, the doctors said, but everything else seemed, miraculously, intact. They would operate within the hour, repair the joint with metal screws, and keep me overnight at least. One of my bosses was there in the emergency room. As I remember, so was my father.
I stayed in the hospital for three nights. My girlfriend visited, as did friends who brought six-packs, and that boss from the mason contractor. I was most touched by his solicitude. I had nothing to do except read and drink beer, also ingest pain-killers—some things never change—so I churned my way through Catch-22. The experience was something like reading The Fountainhead two years earlier: here was a license to think yourself apart, so far apart that your abstention from the norms of everyday life, even civilized behavior, was not just sanctioned but sanctified.
I was on the fifth floor of that building under construction because I had been expelled from a small liberal arts college. I needed a real job, not just a summer gig between school years. Now here I was with time and pain and drugs enough to ask myself what I wanted to be when I grew up. Neither the pilot nor the architect looked like role models. But then my father didn’t, either. He was a great bullshitter, a great salesman, he could beguile almost anyone except my mother with his stories about growing up in Chicago. By his own account, he never did what he wanted to.
That boss showed up, unannounced, at my father’s house one night. I was still in the elbow sling, I hadn’t even started collecting workman’s compensation. The man offered a $1300 settlement to preempt any lawsuit for damages—the super on the job, he explained, had complained about the plywood covers on those square holes as a safety hazard—and my father enthusiastically recommended acceptance.
I wasn’t so sure. But I went along.
I’m glad I did. I took the $1300 and rented an apartment for nine months in DeKalb, Illinois, where my application for admittance to Northern Illinois University had been accepted. I figured I’d go back to college—it had to be better than working construction or pumping gas—but if the professors were morons, as they had been at the previous place, I’d just hole up in my apartment and write a novel. Give it three weeks, I told myself, see what happens.
That self died suddenly when I went to the first day of class. The rest is history.