Chapter 1 – The Accident
The summer of 1977 started out like any other summer before it but ended with me losing nearly every close friend that I had. Not because of death or anything else tragic, but because they became frightened of me, scared of what I became and what I was capable of doing.
Before getting ahead of myself and explaining what I mean by that, allow me to tell you a little bit about myself first.
I was born and raised in Pahokee, Florida, a small, rural farming community located in western Palm Beach County and on the east side of Lake Okeechobee. With a population of less than twenty thousand residents, my hometown sits in the heart of an area known as the Glades – not to be confused with the Florida Everglades, which are much further south.
The rich black muck used for planting sugar cane and sweet corn is known as Black Gold and even has an annual parade and festival in its honor.
Sugar mills and vegetable packing houses are prominent in Pahokee. Celery and radishes are bagged inside the houses and shipped out to various grocery stores around the lake area.
Anglers come from around the world to participate in fishing tournaments on Lake Okeechobee. Large-mouthed bass and crappie are the most popular for the tournaments and sport fishing, but the lake is also filled with blue gill, speckled perch, and yes, even gators.
It’s not uncommon to see airboats speeding noisily through the water or cutting through marshes, reeds and grassy areas like a warm knife slicing through butter.
You may be wondering why any of this information is important, and the answer is because I want you to be able to fully understand how life was growing up in a small town where everybody knew everybody – and knew about their personal business as well.
We had no large department stores, no mall, no shopping plazas, no multi-plex theaters, and only a couple of restaurants. To enjoy any of those amenities, a fifty-mile trip to West Palm Beach would be required.
Even with the absence of all those big city luxuries, us Pahokee kids never suffered from a lack of fun or from boredom because we always found something to do. In other words, we made our own fun.
Typical summers for me consisted of a variety of activities that were sometimes shared with the company of friends and at other times, I preferred to do things alone, such as using my cane pole to fish off the marina pier and not worry about constant talking and scaring the fish away. I personally never believed that to be true but there were plenty of older fishermen (and women) along the pier that would argue otherwise. I also liked going to the city park and sitting alone in a swing while I gathered my thoughts and wondered about life in general.
I spent many afternoons at the Prince Theater, the town’s one-screen movie house, where I paid a dollar for admission and was allowed to sit there all day long if I chose to and watch the movie, sometimes double features, over and over without getting kicked out. Try doing that these days and you’re likely to get escorted out by an usher or told that you have to buy another admission ticket if you choose to stay. Swimming parties at the public pool were always fun, although any amount of extended time in the sun always resulted in the same thing for me – a nasty sunburn due to my fair complexion. After the burn healed and the redness faded, peeling would follow which resulted in even more freckles being added to my shoulders, nose and cheeks. One of my all-time favorite things to do on a Saturday night was make a pallet on the living room floor where I’d lay on my stomach eating popcorn and watching monster movies on television. The blankets of the pallet came in handy if I got scared, because I could cover my head and not look at the gory creature that was about to devour me whole. When I thought it was safe to uncover my head, I’d always look over my shoulder to make sure there wasn’t a vampire, mummy or werewolf lurking in a dark corner of the living room. If I needed to change the channel to continue my horror fest, I had to get up to do it because our television had no remote control. I dare you to try that with monsters in the room watching your every move!
During the day, I stayed outside from the time the sun came up until it said goodnight, painting the evening Florida skies with magnificent hues of oranges and pinks. If I got thirsty while playing, I took a drink from the water hose because there was no running in and out of the house lest you “let the flies in,” and we didn’t have bottled water back then. One of the main reasons I loved summertime is because my birthday is in July, and that always meant having friends over for cake, ice cream and opening presents. That summer I was on the cusp of turning fifteen.
I was small for my age, less than five feet tall, petite and skinny as a twig, and a late bloomer with a chest as flat as a two by four. Why mom ever made me wear those ugly training bras with the large triangle shapes on the cups I will never understand, because other than the two marbles barely poking through my shirts, there wasn’t anything there to train. I kept my auburn hair cut in a short pixie-style because I didn’t want it hanging in my eyes, and I also wasn’t keen on being bothered with the monotonous chore of pretty hair maintenance.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I was a tomboy in every sense of the word. Dresses were out of the question when it came to my attire. All I ever wore were jeans, shorts, t-shirts and either sneakers or flip-flops. It was a simple and easy style without looking too girlie, and perfectly comfortable for me.
While all these things were loads of fun, and something that I looked forward to every summer, what I loved more than anything else was playing softball. A bunch of us project kids, (that’s what we were referred to because we lived in a housing authority), would get together in the afternoons to play in the large field behind our apartment houses. Short, tall, skinny or fat, we didn’t care. If you could play ball, you would be picked for one of the teams.
We used personal items as makeshift bases – a pair of sneakers for first, a shirt for second and so on, then proceeded on to picking team captains and making our choices for players, leaving no one out. If there were more players than needed, they got scattered in the outfield. If we were short a few players, then that meant that some of the others would have to cover more than one position.
I was a mean right fielder with a strong throwing arm, and I’m not too shy to say so. You know the old adage about girls not being able to play ball? Anyone who said such a thing probably would have changed their minds about that if they’d ever seen me play. As I said, I was a hard-core tomboy and I was more than capable of playing with, and better than, most of the boys my age who played.
It was my great love for the sport that would make this the summer that would be different from any other, the one that would change everything about me and alter the course of my life forever, the reason why my friends chose to ostracize me because they couldn’t handle the new DeeDee Olsen. Instead, they opted to stay away from me because that was the only solution that they could come up with, and the only one that seemed feasible to them at the time.
On this particularly scorching hot June afternoon, our first week out of school for the summer, it was the bottom of the sixth inning and I was up to bat. Bases were loaded, and my team was ahead by one run. My intention was to get a walk because the worst pitcher out of all our players was on the mound, and I knew from experience that he tended to throw either high or outside balls. And unless you were a tennis player attempting to return a lob, there was no use taking a swing.
My feet were dug into the ground at home plate, which was a piece of cardboard taken out of the neighborhood dumpster, an aluminum bat gripped tightly in my hands, knees bent, eyes forward and focused – I was ready.
Like I said, Ricky was notorious for throwing high balls, but apparently our umpire, Chubby, was blind. “Steeeeee-rike one!” he called. We assigned him to the position of umpiring because he was asthmatic and unable to run. Not wanting to omit him from being able to participate, we compromised.
“Are you stupid or something?” I yelled, turning to face him. “That ball was as high as an airplane!”
“I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em,” he said, grinning and pushing up his black-rimmed glasses, then taking his umpire stance once more. His curly red hair looked like a fire on top of his head in the bright glow of the afternoon sun, and his face was so red that I couldn’t see a single one of his dozens of freckles through his flushed skin. Back in position, I waited for the next pitch, which went to the right of the plate by about three feet.
“Steeeeee-rike two!” Chubby called, holding up two fingers and casting out his arm like the umpires in professional baseball do.
“You seriously might want to consider a new pair of glasses!” I retorted. “Obviously, the ones you have don’t work.”
Frustrated at his rotten play calling, I dug in even deeper and choked up on the bat, figuring that I might as well go ahead and swing because if I didn’t, Chubby would call it strike three anyway.
Except that it was a perfect pitch that came straight across the plate. I swung hard, walloping the ball out past center field. Jake and Timmy ran for the ball while my team players on second and third bases ran across home plate, scoring runs for our team.
For some reason that only he knew, Johnny made a horrible mistake in his decision to suddenly change course. While I ran past first and second, and then touching third heading toward home plate, he changed his mind about crossing home and decided to turn around and make his way back toward third base, running as fast as lightning while looking back over his shoulder. I suppose he was making sure that he wasn’t being chased by the catcher for fear that he’d be tagged out and cost our team a run.
Even if I hadn’t been so focused on making a homerun, I could not have prevented what was about to occur because we were both at full throttle in our momentum and it happened so fast that neither of us could have put on our brakes and stopped on a dime.
We collided head-on with a forceful impact, his chin striking me on the upper left side of my forehead right above my eye. The crash sent me flying backwards and to the ground, knocking me unconscious.
I have no idea how long I was out, but when I opened my eyes, I was lying in the grass flat on my back with all of the other kids bent over staring down at me. Johnny held a bloody rag to his lacerated chin, which I later learned took six stitches to close.
“Are you okay?” “How many fingers am I holding up?” “Man, look at the size of that knot on her head!” I had no idea who was saying what, because they all seemed to be talking at once and all I could hear was a cacophony of mumbled noise.
I groaned and tried to get up, but I felt a little nauseous, so I sat back down and waited for the queasiness to pass. When it finally did, I stood up and said, “I think that’s enough ball for today.”
“DeeDee?” It was Johnny, the boy that I had collided with. “I’m really sorry,” he said, a deep look of concern on his face. “I hope you’re not hurt too bad.”
Touching my head and feeling the lump, I said, “I’m okay, Johnny. But I need to go show this to my mom.”
To say that the swelling on my forehead was a goose egg would be equivalent to comparing a twenty-carat diamond to a pebble. It was huge and covered the entire left side of my forehead and getting even bigger by the second.
My mom was sitting on the side of her bed talking to one of her friends on the telephone when I went inside. Not wanting to disturb her, I stood in the doorway waiting for her to either turn around or hang up, but after a couple of minutes of waiting and she did neither, I quietly said, “Mom?”
In one swift move, she leapt from the bed, dropping the phone to the floor with a loud PING! “Oh, my word!” she cried. “What in the world happened to you?”
I was trying to explain when the nausea hit me again, and I knew that I was going to throw up. Although I tried my best to make it to the bathroom, I wasn’t so fortunate. The vomiting began in her room and I left a trail from there all the way to the toilet.
The next thing I remember after that is lying on an examining table in the emergency room waiting for a doctor to come in. Mom stood beside me, worry furrowing her brow. Never before had I seen such an expression on my mom’s face. When I asked her how I got to the hospital, she told me that I had passed out in the bathroom and that she carried me to the car and an emergency room nurse had brought me inside on a stretcher. To this very day, I do not remember any of that.
“How do I look?” I asked quietly. My mouth felt as dry as cotton and my throat was sore and burning.
“Like you’ve been in a fight with a semi-truck and the truck won!”
Funny thing is, it didn’t even hurt. It stung a bit, kind of like a bee bite, but there was no bad pain. I reached up to touch it and suddenly understood why my mom looked so worried. It had grown to the size of a grapefruit and was soft and mushy in the center.
“Don’t touch it, DeeDee,” my mom scolded, gently pushing my hand away. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay,” I answered. “A little lightheaded, maybe, but I don’t feel sick anymore.”
The door to my examining room opened and in walked the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life – and I didn’t even like boys. Tall and tanned, with wavy blonde hair and eyes so piercingly blue that I could almost see right through them.
“I’m Dr. Montgomery,” he said, taking my chart from the clear plastic door pocket. “Diedre Olsen?” he asked, opening the file.
“DeeDee,” I corrected him as I continued to stare. I did not like being called by my real name but hearing him say it somehow made it okay.
“DeeDee, it is,” he said, stepping up to the side of my bed. “Whoa! What happened here?” he asked, softly probing my forehead.
“I ran smack into somebody while we were playing softball,” I answered.
“Judging by the look of this bump, I’d say you two collided kind of hard. Would that be an accurate assumption?”
I nodded. I was afraid to open my mouth because the nausea was coming back and the last thing I wanted to do was hurl on his pristine white coat.
“Can you tell me exactly how this happened, DeeDee?” he asked. “And how you felt afterwards? Did you pass out, feel sick, anything unusual?”
I knew Dr. Montgomery was speaking because I could see his lips moving, but his voice sounded muffled and far away. Whatever he was saying, his words were incoherent, as though he was speaking a foreign language that I didn’t understand.
Then came a flash of bright white light, like looking directly into a flashlight beam, and then the smell of burning sugarcane followed by a horrendous wave of nausea.
When I woke up, I was no longer in the emergency room. Dr. Montgomery had admitted me to the hospital and I had been taken upstairs to a private room.
Mom was sitting in a green leather chair in the corner of the room, her arms folded across her chest as she stared at me, appearing even more worried than she had before. When she saw my eyes flutter open, she jumped from her chair and came to my bedside, grabbing onto my hand and crying.
I had no idea what had happened to me that would warrant the presence of two doctors attending to me, but there they were, both wearing their white lab coats with a stethoscope around their necks. Dr. Montgomery stood directly beside my bed, and standing behind his right shoulder, an elderly gentleman with white hair and a thin white mustache, smiling at me. He kept his arms folded behind his back, grinning and nodding while Dr. Montgomery spoke, occasionally glancing at me, winking, and then returning his attention to the chart in Dr. Montgomery’s hand.
“Glad to have you back with us,” he said, bending over me and shining a light into my eyes.
“What happened?” I asked, attempting to sit up.
“Take it easy for now,” he said, lightly touching my shoulder and laying me back down onto the pillow. He then wrote something down in my chart. “You gave us quite a scare.”
Mom nodded in agreement, as did the older doctor.
“Well?” I asked. “Will one of you please tell me what happened and why I’m in the hospital?”
“You suffered a seizure while you were in the emergency room,” Dr. Montgomery explained. “I admitted you so that I can keep an eye on you. It’s only for observation, DeeDee, so it’ll probably only be for one night. But you do have a mild concussion and I believe that’s what caused the seizure. Not that it will happen again,” he said, patting my leg. “But if it does, I’d rather you be here close to medical staff instead of at home. If you do okay during the night, and by that, I mean no more seizures, then you can go home tomorrow.”
“It takes two of you to tell me that?” I asked, puzzled.
Dr. Montgomery looked bewildered by my question. “You mean me and your mom?”
“No,” I said, pointing. “Him.”
Dr. Montgomery turned around to look behind him. Slightly cocking his head he asked, “DeeDee, do you see someone else here besides me and your mom?”
“Of course, I do,” I said, nodding. “Don’t you? How can you not see him when he’s standing right beside you? He’s a doctor, too.”
The glances exchanged between mom and him were ones of total confusion.
“Probably double vision,” he said calmly to mom. “It’s not uncommon with seizures and head injuries. I wouldn’t worry too much right now. It’s likely only temporary.” That last statement of his would turn out to be one of the biggest falsehoods I have ever been told.
And I knew that I wasn’t suffering from double vision either.
While it was true that I was young, I was also old enough to know the difference between an old doctor and a young one.
The physician that had stood at the side of Dr. Montgomery was a totally different person in every way imaginable, and they looked nothing alike.
What I didn’t understand at the time was why mom or Dr. Montgomery couldn’t see him. Afterall, he was standing right there beside my bed as clear and plain as they were.
However, it wouldn’t take long before I found out why – but not before being put through pure hell first.
Unfortunately, this episode was only the beginning of what was still yet to come.