Thursday, July 14, 2011
A near-death experience with a remarkable update.
Meet Fred Gallegos.
I first encountered him some 42 years ago. This is what he looks like today.
Here’s the story of our previous encounter:
The headlights from the cars going the other direction on the Ventura Freeway were filtered by the chain link fence that divided the freeways back on June 5, 1969 --- all except one set of headlights that were distinctly brighter.
I was in the fast lane heading east. The car with the way-too-bright lights was heading west in our direction. I couldn’t say for sure, but there was a chance he was on our side of the freeway --- in the same lane.
I was home on leave following my time in Vietnam. My friend John Stiles and I had been checking out the Bob’s Big Boy restaurants in Toluca Lake and then Van Nuys. We were looking for another guy we used to run with. It was past midnight and we were heading back to Bob’s T.L. just in case he might be there now.
But now, all I could think of was to get the hell off the freeway – just in case it was a wrong-way driver --- and let him have all of the lanes to himself. John didn’t know what was going on when I darted to the right from lane #1 to lane #4 and then onto the shoulder of the freeway just past the Cahuenga Blvd. on-ramp.
As John was asking me what the heck I was doing, the wrong-war driver failed to come out of the gentle curve and was barreling directly toward us. There was nowhere to go and nothing else we could do.
We both braced for the crash. But less than a second before the unavoidable impact, a little Mercedes Benz drove past us in the slow lane to our left and smashed head-on into the wrong-way driver.
Only about eight feet from the front of our car, the two vehicles rose up in the air and crashed down in front of us.
Then there was silence --- the most eerie silence I’ve ever not heard in my life. If there were other cars, I didn’t hear them. We both got out and, through the steam and dust, we ran up to the driver of the Mercedes. He was crushed up against the steering wheel, unconscious.
But he was still breathing. John immediately pried open the hood of the car and somehow ripped the battery cables from their terminals. At the same time, the driver of the other car, a huge Chrysler convertible with the top down, staggered out and started wandering around the scene.
The next thing I remember was seeing a guy walking quickly in our direction from a car about an eighth of a mile in front of the scene. He was lighting highway flares and laying them down. I ran toward him to give him a hand. When I got close to him, I realized that this was the friend we had been looking for all evening.
I had to leave a day or two later for my next duty station in Michigan, so I never got a chance to find out what happened after that --- until today, that is.
I had an appointment with my favorite dental hygienist in the morning at the V.A. clinic in Downtown L.A. Afterwards, I walked to the main L.A. Library to look up a bunch of stuff in the L.A. Times Index they have online there. I used the search terms “head-on,” “wrong-way” and “Ventura” for the months of May and June of 1969.
Back at my office, I dug into the public records indices to find a Fred Callegos (the middle initial was blotched out, as you can see) who was born in 1941 or 1942. The only match was Fred P. Gallegos who has a business in the Agoura Hills area.
So I called the number on the website. Even though it was after hours, a woman answered. I said I was looking for the Fred Gallegos who was in an accident on the Ventura Freeway in 1969. She knew all about it and put him on the phone.
To say that it was a strange conversation for both of us would be an understatement. Probably more for him than for me. I always seem to be doing these kinds of things. To make a long story shorter, he was eager to hear about the accident. All he remembered was waking up in traction in the hospital --- and the year it took him to recuperate.
He was a construction worker at the time, which is probably why he’s alive today.
“The doctors told me that anybody else would have died from that accident,” he said. “I was in great shape --- almost at the peak age of 28.”
But he was still a mess. Broken femurs, broken jaw, teeth crushed and rearranged. But for all of the damage, there were some amazing things that seemed have happened through fate or karma or something.
He used to hang out in a bar in Glendale,he told me. One of his drinking pals was an insurance agent who had pestered him to sign up for a $300 disability insurance package. Finally, Fred had given in, he says.
“Then, a little while later, the guy tells me I should increase it to $500,” Fred said, “so I did.” It was only a short later that he got hit on the freeway. And, it turns out, the drunk in the other car had no insurance whatsoever. If it hadn’t been for that disability policy, Fred says, he’d have been screwed.
And also, right before the accident occurred, Fred’s dentist had taken impressions of his mouth for some dental work. When the dentist heard about the accident, he made up a cast of Fred’s mouth and took it to the hospital.
“He came in an moved all of my teeth back to where they had been!”
Over the years, Fred has had more than 40 surgical procedures for everything from throat cancer to fused vertebrae to a heart attack to gall bladder surgery and four knee surgeries. Then there was his right eye that got hit with something and another six surgeries because of that. But he never once complained to me or murmured a bit of regret. Instead, he wanted to talk about his wife, Paula, and how well the kids have done.
We talked for more than an hour, and I got to know a man whose life is filled with spirit --- positive spirit --- and a man who has never stopped living each day with gusto.
We’re going to get together in the next week or two.
It’s strange how we hook up with people, isn’t it?