My son, Hunter Sky Niro Magee, taken in early 2004 at age 6
Today is the 39th anniversary of my accident and third anniversary of the start of my long letter to Hunter, which evolved into my book. The letter, with a few minor editorial changes, is now the first chapter of my book. Here it is, exactly as written, three years ago today. Enjoy!
December 22, 2003
Today, in recognition of the 36th anniversary of my accident, I decided to drive north along the Connecticut River to the spot where it happened. I haven’t been back many times over the years, perhaps seven or eight, but each visit has been special. In a sense, it is a pilgrimage that I afford myself every now and then. It provides an opportunity for quiet reflection and a vortex for emotional healing.
It is a pretty drive from my cottage in East Hampton. Connecticut, in my opinion, is one of the prettiest states in the country with its myriad of colors and hills and bodies of water scattered on the landscape, even in December when there are no flowers and the leaves and birds are gone for the winter. Today the sun was glistening off the ripples of the river. The world around me seemed tranquil and soothing, just the way I wanted it to be.
Every place is an easy drive from every place else in the state, except for rush hour when everybody who has an automobile seems to be on the same road at the same time. As I pulled off the highway upon reaching my destination, it occurred to me that there’s at least a small bit of irony in the distance up the river from my new home to Windsor Locks: 26.2 miles, the exact distance of a marathon.
The Spot is located on Spring Street, in sight of the front gate of Bradley International Airport. The atmosphere remains punctuated by the roar of airliners taking off and landing every four minutes or so, just as it was back then. Once I spotted the old Mobil Gas sign, memories started filling my mind. Not just memories of the paramedics scraping me off the pavement but also of the good times before and the periodic visits since. And there were feelings of curiosity and wonderment about what might have been.
Less than a week before the accident in 1967, Tom Derderian and I had breezed through that same spot on a training run. Our hometown newspaper, the Milford Daily News, frequently referred to us as the ‘Running Twins’ because we ran so many races together and because we were seen so often running on the local streets. Neither of us imagined that this particular occasion would be the last time that we would run together for nearly twenty years.
Tom and I were high school cross country and track competitors. We went to different schools in the same town. He was a year behind me in school but we were evenly matched. We were arch-rivals and wonderful friends at the same time. My recollection of one of our earliest conversations was his explanation for joining the cross country team. “I was on the chess team and one day I lost the first game of our elimination match. So I had to watch the other kids play for the rest of the day. I went outside and saw some boys running. Everyone got to keep running whether they were in first place or last. That seemed more enjoyable and satisfying to me. I decided at that moment to give up chess and get involved with running.” I recall thinking that I may want to avoid the game of chess. Sometimes I wish I had remembered sooner.
Tom Derderian graduated from Milford High School in 1967 and attended college at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I visited him at his freshman high-rise dormitory in November while I was temporarily working at a shoe store a few miles down the road in Palmer. A month later he was making a courtesy return visit to Windsor Locks where I was managing a shoe store in Dexter Plaza, presumably my last stop before returning to school in January. It was a 72-hour per week position. It felt like I was working all of the time, except for an hour each morning and afternoon when I would go out for my run.
Tom and I were both training for the North Medford Club Championship, a six mile event in Newburyport MA to be held at the end of December. We ran side-by-side during most of the 1966 event. He out-sprinted me at the finish to take third place behind Ron ‘Vito’ Gaff and Rick Bayko. I returned the favor a few weeks later by finishing ahead of him to win the New Year’s Day race in Amesbury. Private bragging rights were now on the line.
We anticipated that the 1967 club championship would be close again and that our main competition would likely be Rick Bayko. Ron Gaff was nursing an injury and unlikely to compete. The best runners in the club, Jim Daley and Larry Olsen, didn’t participate in the club events very often. They raced seldom in order to maximize their success and preferred open competition whenever possible. Rick had beaten us many times during the past year. The 1967 race would be in his hometown giving him a distinct advantage. We were training to outrun Rick Bayko as much as we were training to defeat each other. Like all great rivalries, it motivated us to work hard and perform our best.
I had competed only once since the Canadian National Marathon in September. I was stale from too many races and it took longer than usual to recover from the Holyoke massacre in June. I decided to focus on training during the fall of 1967 rather than racing. It was a conscious effort to build a foundation of conditioning for the upcoming 1968 season. During this period I ran twelve consecutive 70-mile weeks, five of them over 100. It was the most intense training period of my life and it seemed to be working. My regimen consisted of speed training on the track, a few race walking competitions for cross training purpose, intervals on hills, and what is known as Fartlek (long, slow distance runs with intermittent changes in speed). I ended each day with a timed six mile run on the same six mile loop out by the airport and back, trying each day to improve by a couple of seconds from the day before.
I wanted to show Tom how fit I had become so I took our training run that day very seriously. He had just come off his college cross country season and was fit as well. I knew he was capable of stringing together five-minute miles. I wanted to see the look on his face when he discovered that I could do that too. Without saying a word to each other about our intentions, we took off on our run like it was an important race. Side-by-side we charged down Spring Street, past the front gate of the airport, by the front door of the Bradley Bowl, and over the rolling hills back into town. We experienced one of those rare but wonderful sensations that runners feel when it seemed that our feet were not touching the ground and our brains were immersed in endorphins. We felt no pain and yet we felt we were moving as fast as we possibly could. We crossed the finish line together in 31 minutes and 20 seconds. It was my best time for six miles. We were ready for the NMC championship. Teeming with confidence we sent Rick a challenge: “Get ready for third place,” we told him.
Reflecting back on it now, I am in awe at the fact that a few years later Tom ran the entire Boston Marathon at approximately the same pace. So did Rick. Four times the distance of that day plus an extra 2.2 miles for good measure. Truly awesome!
After we finished the six-mile course, we continued running across the canal to the bridge over the Connecticut River into Warehouse Point. We ran eight miles of Fartlek through the tobacco fields of Broad Brook, talking as we ran, occasionally hurdling fences, circling puddles, dodging sinkholes and chasing rabbits. I picked up a stray golf ball and dribbled it across the I-91 bridge back over the river. It was a silly place to be running but we were runners and thought we owned the roads. A few days later I would learn the hard way that cars own the roads. Runners do their thing on the roads at their own peril.
It is difficult to put into words the feelings I used to get while running. We often hear the vague reference: runner’s high. John Parker called it “real” and something that “made him free”. That’s true, but it’s more than that. To me, running reflects a spirit of excitement, adventure, freedom and joy, all at the same time. I wish I could package those feelings and give them to you as a gift. But I can’t. You will have to discover them one day for yourself. But just as your brother Richard was able to do, I am confident that you will discover the rewards of running on your own.
In 1994, your brother used his high school valedictorian speech to share the significance of running with his classmates. At the moment I heard his words, I realized that my son was explaining to his friends what I always felt but could not formulate into words. Somehow the message got across. He was feeling the same feelings as I felt at the same age. Even the description of the camaraderie was fitting of the enjoyment I felt when training with running partners like Tom Derderian and Rick Bayko. Running for him, as with me almost thirty years earlier, had become one of the most important and satisfying activities in his life. In fact, running WAS my life. In an instant it was taken away.
It’s hard for me to describe the accident in any great detail. All I remember was the car swerving off the road out of a line of cars right into me. I braced myself against the front of the car, went onto the hood and to the ground, where the car ran over both of my legs. I woke up once in the ambulance, which was stuck in Christmas-shopping traffic, to hear someone say, “Try to get around these guys. He’s losing a lot of blood.” My next recollection was waking up in the Hartford Hospital intensive care unit several days later. More than two years passed before I was able to return home. I didn’t run again for more than 18 years. When I came home, finally, I was not the same person as before. When I came home, I was no longer a child.
Here’s what Tom Derderian wrote regarding my accident nearly twenty years later. The details as he described them are graphic but accurate. The article, entitled I Beat Frank!, appeared in Boston Running News, September 1987:
“Frank Niro and I ran against each other in a road race on New Year’s Day, 1987. It was the first time since New Year’s Day, 1967. Everything and nothing had changed since then. First he tried to psyche me out by reminding me that twenty years ago on that very day he had beaten me. He used to try to psyche me out when we were in high school together. But this was a new year and a new race. I’d probably beat him in it because he had been injured for the past twenty years and I had not. But it is important to have your priorities in order: a race is a race. I intended to beat him and I knew I would because it hadn’t been an ordinary running injury for Frank.
It was a near fatal traffic accident that put him in a hospital for two years and kept him away from running for nearly twenty years. Then again, maybe it was all part of the psyche-out. You never know with runners, they are notorious liars.
On December 22, 1967, a 48-year-old factory worker filled with several quarts of Christmas party beer drove home on a busy Connecticut valley road. Frank ran to where the sidewalk ended, approaching the intersection where the Mobil station and a big house stood. Frank faced the traffic. The two of us had trained together on that loop only a few days before. At sixty mph, the factory worker’s car swerved out of the line of traffic and into the place where the sidewalk ended. The grill hit and shattered Frank’s right kneecap, drove the femur into his pelvis, breaking the pelvis in three places, as well as the femur itself. Frank’s palms jammed against the hood of the car pivoting him onto the hood. He grabbed the radio antenna instinctively while his legs slipped under the wheels. They crushed both tibias and fibulas pushing the bones through the skin. The antenna broke off in his hand releasing Frank to roll into the ditch. The last he remembers seeing was his legs twisted beneath him like pretzels, the marrow points poking through the skin. He hadn’t started to bleed. The car never slowed. Later the driver told his wife he thought he hit a dog. She however had heard a description on the radio of a police report of a car involved in a hit and run accident. She convinced him to turn himself in. By that time he was sober.
Before the accident nearly cost Frank his life, he had been a runner who showed considerable talent and promise. As a freshman in 1966 at Bentley College, he often finished as second man on a very strong cross country team. He once ran the six mile home course in 31:25. As a seventeen year old, Frank ran his first Boston Marathon in 3:42. One year later as an 18-year-old, Frank ran 2:57:19. At times, Frank’s mileage reached 100 miles per week. I convinced him to add variety to his workouts by adding some Fartlek, speed work, rest, and race walking. In early 1967, Frank won the New England Junior Racewalking Championship 10K in 49:09. He finished in the top 25 in the National 25K walk in Berwick PA.
Luck saved Frank from bleeding to death in the ditch. The operator of the Mobil station saw the accident and ran to the big house. The doctor who lived in the house had arrived home moments earlier. He called the ambulance, rushed to Frank’s side, took his own dress shirt off to make tourniquets that he applied to stop the bleeding, and then rode in the ambulance to the hospital where Frank lived for the next two years.
After a month in intensive care, doctors placed Frank in traction for 22 weeks. After the traction, Frank was placed in a full body cast, neck to toes with two essential holes. More operations were performed for alignment and skin grafting. In the body cast his legs were attached together, to get skin from his right leg to cover the wound on his left.
The wound in Frank’s left leg became infected. It took 30 days to kill the infection, but part of the shinbone and a lot of tissue had died. Amputation was considered, but the doctors instead grafted some hipbone into the shin. After ten weeks in a body cast, Frank was fitted with casts on both legs. The first time he tried to stand, his right femur snapped like a wishbone and nineteen more weeks of traction followed.
Frank’s visit to the hospital lasted for 760 consecutive days. When he returned to his hometown of Milford MA, he was wheelchair bound. Lock kneed long-legged braces, special shoes and crutches soon replaced the wheelchair.
Frank wouldn’t give up his dream to become a top runner. After his release from the hospital, another traffic accident (he was a passenger in a friend’s car this time) broke his leg again. He couldn’t run. He had no strength in the muscles in his legs and little motion. He married a nurse, Christine, he’d met in the hospital. With Christine’s help, he completed college and earned a graduate degree in hospital administration. Things looked good for Frank. Christine was pregnant with twins. They were premature and each weighed less than two pounds. One of the twins died at birth and the other lived only 12 days. He plunged himself into his work. His marriage dissolved. Still he would not give up his dream to run again; he expected to run again. But the years passed and he didn’t run at all. Frank walked with a limp, gained weight and limped more.
Then Frank gave up. He realized he would never run again. “Until then I couldn’t reconcile myself to the losses: my legs, my twins, my marriage, I just denied to myself that those bad things had happened. It was only when I said to myself that I would never run again that I could start walking, lose weight and build myself up again.” Then he rejoined the North Medford Club and began to walk and run in races. At first it was more of a hobble than a run. Frank is now President of the North Medford Club. In races he fights it out with friends like octogenarian Ruth Rothfarb for last place.
Frank’s final alignment operation (his 19th) was in 1979, nearly twelve years after the original accident. Over the years he suffered ‘foot drop’ (in both feet), osteoporosis, loss of feeling below the left knee as a result of nerve damage, loss of mobility in both ankles and knees, one ankle completely fused and no bend of more than 45 degrees in either knee.
In a road race last fall Frank had secured his customary last place, an accomplishment that has earned him the nickname ‘Caboose’ among the other runners. He wore a t-shirt that declared the 1986 Boston Red Sox to be the American League champions. The police motorcycles clustered around him as he hobbled along in last place. With only a half mile to go, the police turned on their sirens and formed a semi-circle with him as the focus. Frank finished with the ‘official’ escort in dead last smiling, and like most of us egomaniac runners, pleased with the attention. He thanked the officers for the escort thinking maybe they had heard his story. But to be humble, he asked if the royal service was rendered because he wore the Red Sox shirt. One officer replied, “Hell no, not at all. You took so long in the race that with a half mile to go we all went on overtime pay. We were celebrating.” You’ve gotta have your priorities in order.
Oh, in the 1987 New Year’s race Frank finished last. I beat Frank. His story’s true.
So my visit to the ‘spot’ today was worthwhile, as usual. On one previous visit with Richard Ramaskwich, a lifelong friend whom I often refer to as “Uncle Richard”, I actually met the gas station owner who went next door to get the doctor. Uncle Richard and I bowled in the Pro-Am at Bradley Bowl for several years when the Pro Bowlers’ Tour came to Windsor Locks. On a few occasions, we stopped by the ’spot’ together for a silent prayer. One time, around April1982 I think, we went inside the Mobil gas station. I asked the old timer if he was there in 1967. He said he had been there 30 years. “Do you remember the day when a young runner was hit by a drunk driver while passing your station?” I said. “I sure do,” was his response. “ I often wonder what ever happened to the kid. Do you know him?” “Yes I do. That was me. I came to thank you for saving my life.” Spontaneously we embraced. Tears filled our eyes; all three of us. After a long pause and without saying another word, Richard and I turned and left. I never met the gentleman again after that day but I am grateful for the one time. I’m sure it was important for him too. It brought an element of closure to the situation.
On another visit I arrived shortly after a devastating tornado hit the area. It was the late seventies or early eighties. Your mom was living a few miles down the road in Simsbury at the time. I was amazed at the damage to the buildings. The trees strewn on the ground looked as if someone had spilled a box of gigantic toothpicks. They were scattered all over and no trees were standing for three of four blocks. It was the first tornado that I recall hitting New England since the big one touched down in Massachusetts on June 9, 1953. The earlier one started in Petersham and passed through Worcester where it did a lot of damage. It made a big impression on me, even though I was only four years old, because it came so close to my home. I remember seeing newspaper photos of the Assumption College campus showing several wrecked buildings. South of Worcester it split in two before it reached our home in Hopkinton. One branch petered out in Uxbridge while the other lifted into the sky and dissipated in Marlboro. My father was having lunch in a diner in Marlboro. The last building the tornado hit was across the street from the diner.
The last time I visited the Spot was with your mom in 1997. Autumn and Tember were visiting with their dad for the weekend. It was convenient for Michael to drop them off at the McDonald’s in front of the airport, so that’s where the exchange took place. I remember your mom asking me, after she had seen the spot, if I had any regrets. She wanted to know if I would change anything if I had the chance to re-live my life. It was a pretty insightful question. “Of course not,” I said. “I wouldn’t be right here, right now, with you, if anything had happened differently.”
It was the only ‘correct’ answer, of course, but it is what I really believe. If we are happy with where we are in our lives today, son, then everything that went on before is part of how we arrived where we are. To change a single decision or event is to change everything. Sure we learn from our experiences and want to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. And no sane person wants to re-live life’s tragedies. The truth is that we can’t change what has gone on before even if we would like to, so there is no benefit to getting anxious or distracted or distressed by what might have happened had things worked out differently. Fundamentally, we have to remember that everything that comes before leads to who we are and where we are today. Everything, whether good or bad! We must take it all and try to make the best of every situation.
The point is that sometimes things happen that we cannot control. It is important that we make good choices and exercise sound judgment regarding the things we can control, and deal with the unexpected and uncontrollable events in the best way possible. It is all right to wonder about what might have been but it is unhealthy to fret about it. It does no good to carry anger inside for a long time. If we do that, the anger can build up and explode at a bad time with a negative effect on people who are closest to us. We risk the possibility of anger pouring out on someone we care about, someone who doesn’t deserve it. Unfortunately, it took way too many years for me to figure this out.
I remember talking to my friend and former student, Mary Ann Szufnarowski, about a difficult situation she was dealing with. I was attempting to give her encouragement by reminding her that good things happen to good people. “Sure,” she said, “but good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people too.” She was certainly right.
In the game of chess there is a term “Sockdolager” coined by Fred Reinfeld, which means a move from seemingly out of nowhere that significantly changes things. In sports like like bowling and baseball it is just plain “bad luck”. The pitch by Mike Torrez to Bucky Dent in the 1978 Playoffs and the ball going through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series are examples of bad luck. Sometimes the bad luck for you is somebody else’s good luck. Take, for example, the ‘miracle’ river card in this year’s World Series of Poker that knocked Phil Ivey out of the tournament and pushed Chris Moneymaker toward victory.
It doesn’t help the situation to become envious, jealous or embittered. Those are attributes of an unhappy person. You will find that some people (or baseball teams) seem to get more than their share of bad luck. That’s just the nature of luck. There is no guarantee that everyone will get the same amount of good and bad luck. The sooner you accept that, son, the more peaceful and emotionally healthy your life will be.
I’ll write again soon.