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Even After Tragedies, Hope Springs Eternal

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-05-27

One of my recent routine jobs was to edit a paragraph concerning a car traveling along Route 58 late one night last week. The 30-year-old driver apparently dozed off at the wheel; hit a highway divider, the car flipped over onto its roof, felled a palm tree and skidded into a gas stand, where it caught fire. He was flown to Yokoska Naval Base, with severe burns.

This sort of tragedy, taking up a paragraph of news space, is more often than not casually looked at by the reader and even if he feels some pity for victims of accidents, wars and other staples of the news business, he quickly moves on to other pages: gossip, sports, whatever.

Although I didn't know the victim of this tragic accident, I felt very differently about this piece of news. I couldn't get it out of my mind. Whenever I passed the charred gas stand I again thought of the scarred life, that had been dealt with in a small square of newsprint.

The reason I felt differently about this story was because I had met the man in the car, if only briefly. The night before his car crash I'd been out to a nightclub he was managing. I was briefly introduced to him, I bought some drinks tickets from his wife and he periodically walked past my table during the night.

Suddenly there was a face and a family to connect to the impersonal language of the news report. An added detail that made the story all the more tragic was that I heard he had just settled back on his home island after several years away.

I don't whether his burns will be easily treatable - there are amazing plastic surgery techniques these days - or whether his condition is more serious. Whatever the case, his family and friends will now be trying to lift him and themselves out of their depression.

What they will be trying hard to deal with amongst all the regrets, what-ifs and what-might-have beens, will be the idea that there is worthwhile life after the disaster. There most assuredly is. It has been proven time and again.

I used to live in South Africa. One report I wrote there was on a rehabilitation center for victims of political violence. One of the men I interviewed at the center was a priest who had been a member of the banned political organization, ANC (African National Congress) during the apartheid years.

When things had become too hot for him at home, he had fled to neighboring Zimbabwe where he had thought he was safe. The South African secret police sent him a letter bomb, which blew off both his hands.

He was living a fulfilled life when I met him, organizing and helping at the center. He had recently visited a young man in hospital who had also been crippled by a bomb. He had been trying to convince the man, who was overwhelmed with grief for the opportunities in his life that had suddenly been snatched away, that there was hope, plenty of it if he cared to look.

Another man, John Hockenberry, who had a severely disabling car accident when he was 19, became a reporter for National Public Radio in the USA. He did not let his confinement to a wheelchair stop him from being sent by to the Middle East as a correspondent. One of his famous exploits was reporting on an exodus of Kurdish refugees, across mountainous territory, on the back of a mule. None of his able bodied colleagues thought to make the same, hazardous journey and he scooped them all.

Another member of the Press Corps was English photographer Tim Page, who took some of the most celebrated photographs of the Vietnam War. His daring took him on missions few other correspondents would contemplate.

On one of them a sergeant stepped on a land mine. While a group of soldiers and Page helped carry the wounded man to a helicopter, the photographer also stepped on a mine, receiving shrapnel splinters in his brain. He was paralyzed down one side and was not expected to live.

However, he made a slow recovery, was eventually able to walk again and even returned to Vietnam in peacetime for more photographic assignments.

Tim Page also wrote a book ‘Page After Page’. In one passage he was learning, with difficulty, to stand up and move with one unresponsive leg. Suddenly he caught sight of himself in a mirror and was reduced to helpless laughter. The pathos and the parody in the expression ‘laughing at yourself’ in this context, is almost unbearable.

Other examples of refusals to give in to altered circumstances and even to surpass previous capabilities, were obvious at the recent Special Olympics. They will be so again in Connections 2000: the Summit Show previewed in this issue. Painting is excellent therapy for injured people and many go on to become talented artists.

The man in the hospital bed at Yokoska might not be inspired by much of this. His physical problems probably overwhelm all other considerations at the moment. In time however he will have choices to make and they can lead him down a path, though assuredly painful and difficult, to a worthwhile, happy life.

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