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Breaking My Back

Note: today is both the Pennsylvania Primary and Earth Day. In celebration, I recommend dousing an effigy of Hillary Clinton with biofuels and setting it ablaze inside a hybrid gas tank.
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Questions have been raised with regard to my broken back that I mentioned yesterday.

To fully understand the story, I have to take you back to the early months of 1986, when Calabasas High School was holding auditions for its spring musical, Grease. I was pretty ticked off, because I was the school’s reigning musical theatre hero at the time, having wowed the world with my Music Man star turn the previous spring, and this was my senior year, my last to chance to shine. So why did they have to pick Grease? I was completely unsuited to play some Travoltaesque Fonzie. So when they cast me as the guy who sang the “Beauty School Dropout” number, I just stopped going to rehearsal. That was a really snotty, teenagery thing to do, so when I saw the guy who replaced me at my 20th high school reunion, I apologized. He told me not to sweat it. Everything’s cool now.

Anyway, this has nothing to do with Grease – which is a wretched musical, by the way – but it just so happened that during the auditions, I was sitting atop the fiberglass lunch tables swapping stories with other drama geeks when I started to laugh and tipped off the back of the table and slammed down, back first, on the hard concrete below.

I landed right square in the middle of my back, and it knocked all the air out of my lungs. Somebody asked “Are you all right?” as they tried to help me to my feet, and I managed to wheeze back, melodramatically, “No, I am going to die.” I really thought I was, until, slowly, my breath returned and I could stand on my feet. But my back still hurt, excruciatingly so. I walked around the rest of the day with my hands at my hips to brace myself, and that may have been why I didn’t have the air of cool needed to win the starring role as a teenage hipster/Scientologist.

I actually think I may have broken my back that day and not known it. In any case, ever since then, it’s that exact spot where I landed that’s given me problems.

When I was serving a mission in Scotland, I was doing a service project for some lady in Dundee. I was hefting big sacks of sand, when suddenly something tweaked right in the middle of my back and I collapsed in a heap. I only needed to rest for a few minutes and then was able to carry on, but that spot in my back always wore out more quickly than the rest of me, and even when I’m not exerting myself too much, it’s often a little tender.

All this is prelude to the big day in August of 1998, when I’m finishing up what would prove to be my final season as the Executive Producer of the Grand Teton Mainstage Theatre in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I don’t remember the circumstances as to how this happened, but for some reason, the pregnant Mrs. Cornell was back at out home in Salt Lake City, 289 miles away from Jackson, but I had our then-18-month-old oldest daughter Cleta with me. I really don’t understand, to this day, how that could have been the case, but that’s neither here nor there. I was in Jackson with my daughter, and the story begins as we’re finishing up a fun morning riding the Alpine Slide at the Snow King Ski Resort.

Cleta was too little to ride the slide by herself, so she rode in my lap as we tore down the mountain at breakneck speeds on a wheeled sled with inadequate brakes. Many people have injured themselves by capsizing on the slide – my brother-in-law almost severed his ear in one incident – and it would be a far more manly story if I had broken my back by playing the daredevil. It would also probably have done Cleta some serious damage, which, thankfully, was not the case when I engaged in the boneheaded behavior that resulted in my injury.

Alas, the fateful moment came just a minute or two after our safe arrival at the bottom of the ride. Cleta was in high spirits, and I was swinging her around in the air as we skipped down the gentle, grassy slope to the parking lot below. It was early enough in the morning that the grass was still wet from the morning dew, so it was not surprising that I lost my footing and slipped, landed on my butt, and involuntarily sent little Cleta flying off in the air some distance away as I lay there, sprawled out on the grass, replaying the “I’m going to die” motif from Grease auditions twelve years earlier.

Cleta was uninjured, but, even though she was too young to speak, it was clear she was terrified out of her mind. She ran back over and started to pound on my chest, screaming at the top of her lungs. I couldn’t lift my arms. I couldn’t even speak. I thought I might black out, but I was scared what would happen to Cleta if I did.

I don’t know how many times I tried, and failed, to get to my feet, but it was several. Cleta kept trying to get me to pick her up, but I couldn’t even get off the ground. So I started to wheeze “help” to the sundry passers-by who, a la the priest and the Levite, walked as far away from me as possible. I was only a few yards away from the taxi stand in front of the resort, and, despite having a hysterical screaming daughter and being clearly incapacitated, no one bothered to offer me a hand.

Finally, after who knows how long, I slumped forward and was able to sort of roll myself up on my feet, but the pain was unbearable, and I could barely walk. Cleta kept jumping up on me, still screaming, unable to understand that there was no way I could possibly lift her. I made my way to the taxi stand, and I asked the lead driver to take me to the emergency room. He told me he wouldn’t be able to do that, since I didn’t have a car seat for my toddler. So I begged him to drive us to my own car, just to the other side of the parking lot, since I didn’t think I’d be able to walk that far. He relented, and he helped get Cleta into her car seat, in which she promptly fell asleep, exhausted and spent from having screamed in fury for what must have been close to an hour.

I got to the emergency room and left Cleta sleeping in the car as I hobbled up to the desk and checked myself in. They called some of the actors from my theatre, who came and picked up Cleta, and then I was wheeled in for X-rays and whatever else they do. They determined that I had a compression fracture in the same place that I had injured during the long-ago Grease auditions. My spinal cord was not in danger; it was a “stable” fracture, and the most they could do was give me drugs – which were very nice – and they told me to stay flat on my back for the next couple of days. Mrs. Cornell arrived in Jackson that night, and she took over handling Cleta, despite that she – Mrs. Cornell, not Cleta – was five months pregnant.

The rest is history. For two or three years after that, my back would wear out very quickly. Now it’s not all that bad, but I can still feel it, and it’s easily the first part of my body to wear under strain. I think I’ve got a little arthritis back there now, too, but it’s not that big a deal. It could have been a whole lot worse.

Mrs. Cornell told me I ought to write about fun and silly stories on this blog. I don’t think this one qualifies.

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  1. Don’t you just love our “don’t get involved” culture.I snapped my right ACL on Snowmass and not a single person helped me. I had to ski down on it.

  2. I was there that summer, wasn’t I? Can’t figure out why I wasn’t at the Alpine Slide, though. Wasn’t that the summer you were in the Bishopric, and Mike worked there, too? I have memories of trying to keep Cleta from running out of the bathroom while I took a shower.