Chapter Nine: Caves, Crashes, and Cocktails

Continued from Chapter 8: Spring Break and the Big Ride

One of the new friends I made in West Virginia introduced me to a new hobby: caving (spelunking). The university actually had (maybe they still do) a caving ‘club’. My friend (Jody) would get maps, lamps, helmets and carbide from the club and take us out to explore the area’s caves. We bought coveralls, kneepads and boots to complete the basic safety ensemble.

We explored a few of the more accessible caves along the Laurel Ridge throughout the spring and summer. Jody, my roommate Ox, our friend Phil and I decided to take a more extensive trip over a long weekend in late July to explore a collection of particularly interesting caves down in the middle of West Virginia. We headed out Friday afternoon to set up camp and plan for the first 2 caves on Saturday.

In a word, it was awesome. We had a wonderful time exploring four or five caves capped off by a swim in the spring to wash off the mud and enjoy a cold beer on Sunday afternoon before striking camp and heading back to Morgantown.

But things didn’t go quite as planned.

On our way out of the wilderness on a dirt road, we collided with a pickup truck at high speed. I was lucky to walk away with only a sprained ankle and fractured vertebra. My roommate suffered a broken arm and fractured sternum. Our friend Phil suffered the greatest injuries.

In the time before airbags, Phil had hit his head on the steering wheel and suffered severe head trauma and a fractured orbit. Meanwhile, the force of the impact drove his lower body up under the dashboard giving him a compound fracture of the left femur.

We were all wearing seatbelts.

Everyone was transported to the Hospital in Marlinton, WV (Pocahontas County). I was treated and released. My roommate was treated for his broken bones and kept until he stabilized. Phil was immediately airlifted to the trauma unit in Morgantown and spent the next month in a coma before beginning the painstaking process of learning how to walk again.

Perhaps, one day in the future, I’ll write a more detailed account of what happened that weekend, but there are some hints in the lyric of “Whose Earth?” and in the webpage notes.

Some of the facts are so incredible they defy description, but I want to turn the page, so to speak and move on to the next thing that happened in my life: I met Donna four days after that accident.

I mentioned that I left my one-bedroom apartment and moved into a three bedroom house with two friends. Ox was with us on the caving trip, but Tom was not. Tom defended his dissertation that week and couldn’t take the time off.

One of the professors on Tom’s committee (Nigel Clark) was having a barbeque and invited Tom, but after hearing of our accident, Nigel invited us (me and Ox) out of sympathy and compassion even though he didn’t know us. So, the three of us drove to the party in Tom’s car. Ox in a body cast and me, more or less ambulatory, but hobbling about and very, very sore.

Here’s the backstory: Donna had a habit of exploring the dirt roads around Morgantown in her new Honda Accord and this is where she met Nigel and his POSLQ (Cheryl). They were off-road enthusiasts and pointed out that Donna wasn’t really equipped for the sport.

Anyone who’s met Donna knows she makes friends easily and this encounter was no exception. Nigel and Cheryl ended up inviting Donna out in a proper off-road vehicle on their next outing. Donna accepted, but wasn’t really prepared for what this wild man had in mind. When she met Nigel and Cheryl, she learned that she would seated among a crowd of Nigel’s graduate students on the troop benches in the back of a four-wheel drive military transport vehicle. Despite the absurdity of the situation, Nigel showed everyone a pretty good time.

Donna had a friend who lived in Washington, DC and she spent weekends there often. She became familiar with the District and learned (among other things) that its political atmosphere tended to foster the 24/7 availability of cheap liquor (or maybe it’s the other way around, no one can be sure).

Anyway, as a gesture of gratitude, Donna picked up some liquor in Washington, DC for Nigel, Cheryl and Nigel’s parents who were visiting that summer. They, in turn, invited her to their end of summer barbeque.

Now the stage was set: I arrived at the barbeque and (although I was about as limber as Quasimodo) began the requisite mingling since I didn’t know anyone at the party except Tom and Ox. Nigel, Cheryl, mom, dad, dozens of students and some preppy girl from the psych department with big glasses.

There was something about that preppy girl from the psych department. For one thing, she was dressed better than any graduate student I knew: Alligator polo shirt, pressed white shorts and (this may be a false memory) a sweater draped over her shoulders. Bear in mind, my wardrobe consisted of denim, flannel and Fruit-Of-The-Loom pocket T-shirts.

She was sitting on the porch… literally, she was actually sitting on the porch. Not in a chair, on the porch, legs crossed in front of the kitchen door. I remember this because I had to maneuver around her to go inside and that’s when she introduced herself and shook my hand (but didn’t get up).

I don’t know whether Donna was the only girl at the party, but she’s the only one I remember. After a couple beers, we started talking and just never stopped. I sat down to eat at the end of an old picnic table next to the dying bonfire and Donna sat next to me. In the time it takes to draw a breath, but not yet speak, the picnic table broke in half and I rolled into the bonfire. In my injured state, I was not able to right myself and lay at the edge of the fire pit like a helpless tortoise until Donna and a few others helped me up. I had survived my trial by fire without sustaining additional injury.

After dinner, things began to wind down. Ox was in pain and Tom said we needed to go, but Donna said she’d give me a ride home if I didn’t want to leave right away. I accepted.

I don’t remember how long we stayed at the party, but we talked continuously and it was very late when she dropped me off. I invited her to a party at our house the following weekend, but she wasn’t sure she could make it. I gave her my phone number and asked her to let me know. Then, there was an awkward pause.

I didn’t want to mess this up and try to kiss her if that wasn’t what she wanted, but also didn’t want to be so casual as to give the impression I wasn’t interested. All I could think to do was squeeze her hand between mine and then, feeling like I’d done something stupid, quickly said good night without making further eye contact and ran away.

Three days later, I was standing in the kitchen when the phone rang. The voice on the other end sounded familiar, but she said “Is Kevin there?”. I said “There’s no one here by that name, but my name is Ken. Is that who you’re looking for?”. There was a pause, then the voice said “Yes. This is Donna.”. (Hey, at least she called me.)

She said that she could come to the party and I blurted out that “my roommates and I were just about to go out for a sandwich and would she like to join us?” and she said yes to that too.

That evening she spilled my drink for the first time… and the second time. She spilled it at the party that weekend too, but I stopped counting after that. I did, however, make a mental note that she was very expressive at roughly table height.

Read on: Chapter 10: Alone No More