In the early 1950s, we began to play serious war games with rubber guns and opposing teams: if you were hit, you were out of the game for the remainder of that day. We dug fox holes, trenches, and even hidden tunnels in our main "battlefield," several large open lots behind our house. One of our favorite places to play was Yreka creek (which also held its share of neat animals). I recall once creeping stealthily down a trail in dense vegetation leading my small band "on patrol", and hearing our "enemies" coming the other way. At my silent signal, we dove into the bushes alongside the trail, only to discover that we were in a patch of nettles! But we had the fortitude to lay there unflinching for long seconds until the "enemy" came around the corner into full view. We ambushed them, taking them totally by surprise, and splaying them with stout rubber bands. We "won" the battle that day, although we paid for our victory with welts all over.
I became a Boy Scout, and was looking forward to going on a two week long Scout summer camping expedition in the wild along Beaver creek, a tributary of the untamed Klamath river. Walking back from a scout meeting one night in early April of 1952 with a friend, we were amazed, and excited to see what appeared to be a fireworks display off in the distance south of town. Bright arcs of light shot through the air, punctuated with explosions, and bursts, and flashes of light. We raced home only to discover that it was too late for us to go, but that my brother Mike had gone to watch the National Guardsmen display their military equipment. I was beside myself with agony for having missed the opportunity to attend. Soon my brother returned, wide-eyed, and full of tales about everything he'd seen: real machine guns, real tracer bullets, real bazookas, plus parachutes with bright magnesium flares that lit up the target area. We laid awake that night plotting what we would do the next day. The demonstration had taken place about 2 miles south of town at a small community firing range next to the sawmill where my father and great uncle worked. We had often tried to make parachutes rather unsuccessfully, and were especially eager to get the parachutes before some other kids got them.
I was at that lucky age of 13, and in the eighth grade, my last year of grammer school. Mike and I rode our bikes out as soon as possible the next morning. No one else had beaten us to the firing range. Our first find at the shooting area was some cardboard tubes with metal caps in which the bazooka shells had been transported. There were also heaps of brass shell casings from the machine guns. Out in the target area, a sawdust disposal heap from the nearby sawmill, we looked for but couldn't find any of the parachutes. But we eagerly scooped up 50 mm machine gun bullet tips laying around on top of the sawdust, to be put together with their brass casings later. Then we found some fragments of exploded bazooka shells. Coming over a crest of sawdust, I saw laying before me a nearly perfect, olive drab, intact bazooka shell with only a bullet hole through its nose. I didn't hesitate to scoop it up, and declare my ownership, peering through the hole. I was the luckiest boy alive! Immediately, we figured out what must have happened the night before: as the missile was winging its way through the air towards the target area, it had been hit by a stray round from a machine gun (just one slight inexplicable problem: how did the bazooka shell get crossways to the machine gun fire?). All its powder had drained out before it hit the soft sawdust -- I planned to restore my trophy to its full original state by pounding back the metal flanges where the bullet had exited, soldering over the holes and painting over the patches. We intended to hide in our fox holes in the field behind our house, and fling the bazooka shell back and forth. Lovingly, I slid my bazooka shell into one of the cardboard tubes and screwed on the cap.
In fact, bazookas are designed as anti-tank weapons. To detonate, they must hit something very hard such as a tank. The front half of the shell houses a vacuum chamber, designed to implode, and flatten out on the surface of the tank milliseconds before detonation. The firing pin is located in the central part of the front end of the shell, and the explosive charge is in the rear end of the head of the shell. My "dud" was completely live. When the naive Guardsmen shot a bazooka that didn't explode on impact (because it hit soft sawdust!), they were concerned about leaving a live shell out there on a public shooting range, and so they laid a belt of machine gun fire back and forth in an effort to explode the bazooka shell from a safe distance. Evidently, they hit it once but it still failed to trip the firing pin (this is a cumulative device, with each impact moving it a little closer to detonation!). None of the National Guardsmen was brave enough to go out to the target area in the dark looking for this dangerous bomb, and they left it there for a lucky 13-year old boy to find the next day.
We had much too much loot to carry it all home on our bicycles, so we went up to the sawmill with it. We saw my great uncle Emil and another mill worker piling lumber, and showed them all our treasures. Then we found our father, foreman of the mill, too busy to examine our precious war toys just then. We asked him if we could put some stuff in the back seat of his car so that we wouldn't have to carry it all on our bikes. Preoccupied, he said something like "Sure, go ahead." We piled it all into his car, and rode home. My scoutmaster, a local plumber, was doing some plumbing on an addition we were building on to our house. With great excitment, I told him about my find, and when my father came home for lunch, I retrieved my bazooka shell, pulled it out of its tube, and eagerly showed it to my scoutmaster. Proudly saying that he had shot bazookas during the war, my ex-veteran scoutmaster examined the shell, concurring that it had indeed been rendered harmless.
Soon thereafter, my brother called me to lunch. Mike was standing on the front porch, and I was about 10 meters away in the front yard. I put my bazooka shell back into its tube again, and gently let the long tube slide through my hand to the lawn below. When it hit ground, it detonated. BOOM! I was standing facing north at the time. The next thing I knew, I was laying on my back with my head pointing north. I sat up, and looked in disbelief at my lower left leg which was half gone, twisted at a nightmarish L-shaped angle with my left foot off at a right angle from the leg to which it belonged. At first it was gray, but then it immediately exploded into vivid crimson with red blood gushing out in great spurts. My scoutmaster who was right there came to my rescue immediately, his military instincts functioning perfectly, pushing my upper body down, and whipping off his belt and tightening it as a tourniquet around my left thigh (I was told later that if he hadn't done this so quickly I would have bled to death right there in our front yard). When my father came up, I said to him, "Why did you let me do it, Dad?" This thoughtless remark must have made him feel terrible, but it was really rather absurd since he hadn't given permission in any way -- Mike and I had simply asserted our own freedom to do as we wished (to my parent's credit, we were given a lot of rope!). Blood was trickling down my face from cuts in my forehead. I noticed that the tip of my right middle finger had been hit and was flayed open most of the length of the terminal digital phalange. Within minutes, the ambulance arrived and I was loaded on to a stretcher and transported two blocks to the Siskiyou County General Hospital.
I was in a state of shock. The first pain I felt was when the gurney was wheeled up a ramp headfirst and the blood rushed to my decimated leg. All four of the town's doctors attended to me in surgery for nearly 4 hours that afternoon. One stitched up small head wounds and amputated the tip of my middle finger. Others tied off blood vessels, removed shrapnel, pieces of my jeans, dead, powder-burned, and damaged tissue. The front half of my lower left leg was gone, and there were gaping holes in the backside of the calf. A large chunk of flesh had been ripped out of my right thigh, but luckily the shrapnel missed the bone, and did not sever any tendons on that leg. Ten centimeters of my left tibia (shin bone) had been blown away, and the smaller fibula was broken in two places. Most of the muscles and tendons were damaged. Three of the four local M.D.s were prepared to amputate my left leg then and there. But our family doctor, who had supervised the births of myself and all my siblings, felt that if he could just keep my leg on long enough to get me to a specialist he knew about in San Francisco, they might be able to save my leg. (Years later, after I broke my left leg the third time in an auto accident, another medical doctor said to me, "It isn't much, but it's the only left leg you're going to get. Take care of it!")
I awoke from my first surgery, extremely sick at my stomach from the unfamiliar ether, with my left leg laying on a canvas cradle in a sort of sling in traction with a metal pin through my heel pulled by a window weight hanging on a pulley at the foot of the bed. Underneath the canvas sling was a pan. The front half of my leg was gone -- it was like a piece of beef steak with charred nubs of bone sticking out. They kept the raw muscles and nerves covered with gauze, squirting a saline solution on it with a big turkey baster every hour or so to keep it from drying out. The life saving, but viscous and painful, penicillin shots began, every 4 hours, night and day, around the clock: 8 AM, 12 noon, 4 PM, 8 PM, 12 midnight, 4 AM, etc. "Time for your shot, again, Ricky." I began to feel like a pin cushion, and got to where I wept and begged not to be poked again in my already painfully sore little buttocks, arms, and legs. Gangrene quickly set in, and pieces of my beefsteak leg turned green. Daily, the doctors would come in, and pull off the gauze (very painful!), and snip off little pieces of dead and gangrenous muscle (also painful). What was left of my leg began to stink -- it was like being attached to a dead rotting road-killed animal. In my shell-shocked state, I fantasized that I would somehow recover in time to go on the scout camping trip two months away (people humored me along in this fantasy). I have had more than a dozen close brushes with death during the last half century, but this was one of the closest (certainly by far the most painful!).
I was fascinated with my ruptured eardrum -- I couldn't actually breathe through my ear, but I could hold my nose and blow air out of it! Later, I learned to make the most of my amputated middle finger -- I can flick people the finger with a graded response, either the full finger or just a half finger by using either my left or right arm, and hand. When someone really annoys me, they get the full one and a half! It's also fun to poke the stub into my nostril or ear, particularly in the presence of children. Kids are fascinated by my stub, and want to know how I lost the tip of my finger. I have a whole line of stories about how I lost it, each one ending with "would you like to know how I really lost it?" Once, I was a member of a prestigious panel of herpetologists, meeting to decide the future of herpetology. There were about eight of us sitting around a conference table. Glancing around, I noticed that about two thirds of us had a missing digit. Herpetologists cannot resist picking up venomous snakes. Sooner or later, most manage to get bitten, and often lose part of a digit in the process. I felt right at home in that group, even though I didn't lose mine to a snake (how were they to know?). Sometimes I wonder how much longer I will be able to avoid being bitten.
A full inquiry into the dreadful bazooka incident was made, of course. It turned out that the National Guardsmen concerned had illegally and surreptitiously taken the weapons away with them from their official training camp in order to recruit new members. Both Army and Marine officers visited me, marvelling that I had survived a point blank bazooka blast and gave me a purple heart, as well as a Lieutenant Colonel's silver oak leaf badge. They concluded that I survived only because I was so close to the explosion that the shrapnel had not yet spread. These anti-tank weapons are designed to send shrapnel forwards: 90% of the shrapnel blew down into the lawn leaving a crater nearly a meter deep, and a meter wide, and only about 10% blew back at me, and everything else (the front side of our house had many broken windows and dozens of holes in it -- my father's car looked like it had been straifed by machine gun fire -- even a power line was cut). In the weeks following the blast, my dad picked up large pieces of my shin bone to keep the neighborhood dogs from eating them. Miraculously, no one else was injured. Pieces of shrapnel came quite close to hitting both my brother standing on the front porch, and a visiting baby inside the house, but missed. To this day, I carry around several pieces that were not removed. Luckily, these are not big enough to set off the metal detectors at airports!
The nightmare continued for years. It was a long and arduous healing process, with bone grafts, skin grafts, tendon reconnections, spica body casts, bed pans and bed sores, hospital beds, wheel chairs, leg braces, crutches, etc. I must have been precariously close to becoming addicted to morphine at one point, for I remember lying there on a cloud in an exquisite euphoria begging for another pain shot (fortunately, the nurse would not give me one as time enough had not elapsed since the last one!)
Teen age boys are rambunctuous: to lessen the boredom of being bed-ridden and isolated in cubicles in the pediatrics ward, another boy and I developed a harmless but entertaining game of "catch," throwing an empty small paper milk carton back and forth between our booths over the cubicle wall. When we were discovered, a hard-nosed head nurse punished me by having me wheeled bed and all into solitary confinement for the remainder of the day (little did head nurse Lucille Ramsey know that she was contributing to the formation of a bona fide recluse and hermit!).
I lost my will to live. My appetite waned and I wasted away, becoming extremely emaciated. The hospital's head dietician visited me and asked if there was anything I would eat. Other patients had to select their meals from a short menu, but I was encouraged to write in whatever I wished. I asked for pie, ice cream, strawberries and watermelon out of season. But I did not gain weight and began to look like a victim of Auschwitz. Finally, the doctors decided to send me back home to my mother's cooking "to fatten me up" (we speculated that they wanted to get me stronger so that I could survive a leg amputation!).
The long 350 mile trip by ambulance from San Francisco back to Yreka was a dream come true for me. Home again at last, my father weighed me in, cast and all, at only 90 pounds. We rented a hospital bed that could be cranked up and down with an overhead bar, and I took up residence in the front living room of our house, along with my urinal and bedpan. My mom's home cooking perked my appetite -- I devoured the familiar great food, rump roast, corn on the cob, mashed potatos and delicious noodles in rich beef gravy, and began to gain weight (in fact, I soon became overweight, bed ridden as I was). My leg at this time was in a cast that was heavily discolored with blood and plasma and for many months still reeked rather like something dead. After six weeks, I returned to San Francisco to have the cast changed, and the leg examined. Healing had been unexpectedly good.
A tiny string of pieces of peri-osteum deliberately left in place along the position of my former tibia eventually merged, and began to rebuild a slightly shortened and crooked long bone. Unfortunately, I broke this fragile new piece of bone several years later, and ended up in another body cast in High School (my first year of high school was spent bed-ridden in a cast). I was assigned a home teacher who taught me English, and typing. This second break was a serious matter: eventually, it led to a pseudo-arthrosis (a "false joint") right in the middle of my tibia, which grew into a monstrous painful knob before it finally managed to inhibit all movement enough for bone-to-bone connections to form once again. The knob has since receded and stopped being painful, but has left me with a crooked, partially paralyzed, left leg about 5 cm. shorter than my right leg. Legs of uneven length lead to spinal scoliosis (an S-shaped spine); this, coupled with boney vertebral spurs that develop naturally and inexorably with age (in response to "degenerative disk disease"), has left me in later life with a pinched nerve (in my neck) to my left arm. Because my left foot was kept tightly constrained in casts during critical years of growth, it remains about the size it was at age 13, a size 8-1/2, whereas my right foot grew to its full size, a size 11. Keeping myself in shoes and boots over the past half century has been expensive (a wonderful agency, the National Odd Shoe Exchange, N.O.S.E., pairs people up with their mis-mate, allowing shoe swaps).
Summers were usually devoted to reconstructive surgery, grafting skin and bone. At one point, to transfer a pellicle of flesh, and skin from my right calf "donor area" to cover the extensive area of fragile thin scar tissue on my left leg, I actually had my legs sewn together for nearly two months. During this process, a medical doctor was removing stitches from an inflamed area on my right leg near the bone. When he tugged on a stitch to pull it up so that he could snip it, a sharp pain shot up deep inside my leg, like a red hot ramrod had been jabbed up the center of my leg. I yelled, told him that he couldn't do that, that it was incredibly painful, but he persisted, and said "just one more try." It took many more tries, each one unendurable, before the insensitive brute finally managed to cut and remove that stubborn stitch (that unfortunate stitch must have been looped right around one of the branches of my sciatic nerve itself).
I will never forget the first time I was ordered to try to stand up (on crutches of course), after being bed and wheel chair ridden for over a year: the blood rushed to both legs, and they stung and swelled (I wrapped them in Ace bandages, gradually loosening the wrap as I reacquired muscle tone). But, what I remember most is feeling as if I was teetering on top of great stilts, so high and so precariously perched. One almost loses one's sense of balance completely. My left knee wouldn't lock and just kept going backwards on me, so they installed a knee latch lock on my leg brace (eventually knee surgery restored my knee function to normal). They moved the tendon that one uses to move the ankle side to side so that I could use it to achieve a tiny bit of lift (having lost all the muscles and tendons in the front side of my left leg, I have a permanently paralyzed "drop foot"). When the bone doctors proposed chopping out a 5 cm section of the femur of my right leg to equalize leg lengths, I vetoed the plan declaring that I had already had enough surgery to last me for the rest of my life (also, I am long torsoed and short-legged anyway, and did not want to take any chances messing around with my "good" leg!).
I actually developed a sort of a love-hate relationship with my own leg! More than once I would have willingly chosen death over the pain I had to suffer. But liabilities can be transformed into assets -- from all that hardship and suffering emerged no small measure of endurance and strength: I learned to tolerate physical discomfort, became self reliant, developed fortitude and independence, as well as an astonishingly strong will (all these helped me to become a successful field biologist). Even before the bazooka shell, I was a shy and introverted kid. Being crippled during my entire adolescence really prevented me from ever becoming "properly" socialized. Perhaps this, coupled with the long and lonely stints in hospitals far away from home, contributed to my becoming inwards oriented, somewhat of a recluse and a hermit. To this day I can be comfortable without company for extended periods of time, something that most of my friends cannot fathom (indeed, most of them say it would drive them crazy!). Certainly the unpleasant events in my childhood predisposed me to become a desert rat.
My injury actually had other advantages as well. When I turned 18, the draft board issued me medically disabled 4F status, which kept me from mandatory military service (I already had my war injuries and a purple heart!). My disabilities did not prevent me from putting many many kilometers on that game leg, and I have led a very rewarding life in spite of it. Our lawsuit was eventually settled, Crippled Children's hospital, doctor's debts and attorney's fees paid off, and when I turned 21, I came into enough money to buy a car and to pay for my graduate education.
Return to Obituary
Return to Pianka lab page