where the writers are
Take the Elevator, Not the Shaft

This is an excerpt from my autobiography entitled: From Walco To Tokyo

The headline in the local newspaper read: Local Teen Jumps Down Elevator Shaft, Tries To Commit Suicide

. . .

I didn’t jump, it was just a misstep. Let me clear up the whole story for you. I was talking to Steve Elrod when I pushed the button on the wall that called for the elevator. We were pushing a large box of textile waste – fuzzy cotton fibers that had escaped the spinning machines during the creation of blue jean thread – to a dump area in the largest textile mill in the Avondale Mills chain, Eva Jane. The mills were named after daughters in the Comer family, the people who owned the mill and most of the town where I was born and lived until I went off to college. I could see the light of the elevator through the small glass window located just above eye level on the elevator door. This elevator was a freight elevator – nothing like what you ride up and down in office buildings. It had two light bulbs – one on each wall just under the steel I-beam that stretched across the open top of the carriage about eight feet above the hard wood floor. There was no ceiling in the elevator and if looked up, you could watch the cables move through the pulleys as you rode up and down.


The elevator was older than most people’s grand mothers and the mill was older than that. When you pushed the button on the wall, the elevator doors could be pulled open if the elevator was on your floor. There were two doors on this elevator and they swung open from the middle like French doors in a house. They were not the vertical lift doors that you had to bend over to lift from the bottom toward the top. The doors were made of wood and painted that pale, faded, whitish color that is to green what Pepto Bismol is to the color red.


If you could see the light through the door window – not the actual bulb, but the light from the bulb – that meant the elevator was on your floor. I reached for the door handle on the right door and pulled it toward me but the door didn’t open. Steve noticed that I was struggling with it and he said to me, “I’ll open that son of a bitch.” We were both teenage boys and we thought we sounded tough when we cursed like that. He walked around the side of the six-by-eight foot plywood container that had four rubber-wheeled casters on the bottom and grabbed the door. He could pull harder than I could. He was stronger than me – I was a massive 137-pounder soaking wet.


When the door swung open, I grabbed the front end of the box with my left hand and stepped into the elevator, right foot first. I wasn’t looking at the elevator when I took my step, focusing on guiding the box through the opening. About the time my foot was supposed to hit the elevator floor, Steve yelled at me. I don’t remember what he said but when I looked into the elevator, I realized there was a problem. The elevator was not there and the floor was way below me. I had one leg going into the open shaft and the other leg on the elevator landing like an upside down V. It was like stepping onto a boat from a dock and the boat starts moving away from you. I was falling and there was no way to stop. The elevator was at the bottom of the large mill and I was at the top, rotating into a head-first flight pattern. All I could see was the I-Beam across the top of the elevator at the bottom.


Then everything stopped. Time and gravity took what seemed like a 15-minute break from their normal jobs. I was falling but it was like my mind was thinking at the speed of light. My thoughts were a lot quicker than the real-life action around me. I had always heard that right before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes. I was experiencing this sensation, but it was not the replay of my 17 years of life that I saw. I was able to think clearly and my critical task was trying to figure out how I could stop the fall before I smashed into the bottom. Looking back on the fall, I am amazed at how clear and concise my thoughts were during the fall, and how organized I was in a time that should have been filled with terror.


My first thought was to grab the cables that held the elevator. They were in the center of the 16-by-16 foot square shaft. My momentum was carrying me toward the center of the shaft and this seemed like a perfectly logical thing to do at the time. I got my left arm around the cables as I was flying by, but I didn’t stop. I don’t even think I slowed down. The cables were covered with thick, black grease and they were too slippery to grab and I was moving too fast to hold on.


Although unsuccessful, the lunge at the cables did serve a useful purpose. My body turned as I bounced off them, changing my fall from head-first to feet-first. I thought that was a major improvement over the face-plant-in-the-I-Beam dive I was attempting.


With the catch-the-cable plan shot all to hell and back, I was basically out of options, but time was still suspended and my mind was racing. The second big idea that came into my head was to quickly learn how to fly like a bird. I had watched birds fly before and it didn’t seem that hard – just move your arms. I really think that I moved my arms in a flapping motion, and although time and my downward motion seemed suspended, the capability to move my body was somewhat suspended too. Only my brain was working at hyper-speed. My body wasn’t. I couldn’t make my arms move nearly fast enough to lift my body. I don’t think my arms moved any at all. Perhaps I was a hummingbird in some kind of past life, but it wasn’t working now.


With the flying thing out the window, I started my third big thought process before I hit the bottom. Being a teenage boy of sound mind, I knew that I was a superior thinker. I had always made A’s in school and I came to the conclusion that I was probably just having a bad dream. “Yeah, that’s the ticket,” I thought. I had always believed that if you were having a bad dream you could think yourself out of it. I was too smart to fall down an elevator shaft. This wasn’t really happening to me. So I decided to think myself out of the dream. This idea had to be the right one, I concluded, so I just decided to wake up. I knew I would wake up in a minute or two and be sweating bullets in my warm bed, thinking “Man. That was a close one.”


I was still falling, the dream alarm clock seemed to be running late, and I was still thinking when I decided to close my eyes just in case the fall was real. It looked like I was going to crash and I didn’t relish the thought of watching myself slam into the I-beam, but I still clung to the idea that I was about to wake up. I knew it would be scary, but what else could I do? I was out of options and the suspended animation thing was about over and gravity seemed to be getting its old pull back.


The last thing I thought about was asking God for some Divine intervention, but I never really asked. I still believed in my dream theory, and God is a really busy woman anyway.


When I opened my eyes I was lying on my left side. I was not in my bed as I had hoped. I was still in the elevator. I closed my eyes again, for how long I do not know. When I opened them the second time I was sitting upright on the I-beam. I was in no pain, which was kind of hard to figure out. I looked up to the elevator door where I walked in. There, about 100 feet above me, was Steve Elrod, white as a ghost, eyes nearly popping out of his head, his mouth gaping wide open.


I looked down and noticed that something was wrong with my right leg. My foot and knee were pointing almost backward. It looked like I had two knees, one at my regular location, turned backward; the other halfway up my thigh. That’s where my new knee was bending. Then I noticed the bone. My femur (that’s the big bone between your hip and knee) was sticking out of my Levi pants leg about six inches. There was a lot of blood and I realized that my pants were probably ruined. My mother had always told me that blood stains, grass stains, wine and grape juice were hard to get out, and Spray And Wash had not yet been invented. I had done grass stains and grape juice before, but this was my first attempt to stain clothes with large quantities of blood. I would try the wine stain a few years later in life.


Sitting on top of that I-beam, reality all of a sudden hit me square in the face. I was in a mess. Suddenly the sight of my own blood made me sick at my stomach. I thought I was going to pass out. I knew I couldn’t look at my leg again, and I didn’t.


I have been told that the bad break of my leg put me into instant shock. When you’re in shock you can still do things. It’s like the car wreck story you always hear about where the husband lifts the car off of his trapped wife to save her and later that week he goes to the gym and can’t bench press 200 pounds. It really happens. My adrenalin was flowing so well, I temporarily acquired super-human strength and I decided I needed to get out of that elevator and get someone to help me. I looked back up to Elrod. He hadn’t moved and I yelled for him to get help. Then I looked around the elevator and decided that I needed to get off the beam. The floor was about eight feet below where I sat. I thought about jumping but that would probably hurt a lot. I wasn’t feeling any pain at the moment, so why ruin a good feeling, I thought to myself.


I decided to climb down. There was a small ledge on one of the elevator walls about level with the I-beam. I put one hand on the beam reached out to grab the ledge. This would let me lower my body to the floor. I swung my body toward the ledge. When I got my hand on the ledge, I realized that I was doing the iron cross gymnastics maneuver. One hand on the beam, one hand on the ledge, arms horizontal at the shoulders and my body hanging vertically. I couldn’t do this on a normal day. As I looked around, I felt a sense of pride, because the iron cross was the move those Olympians always had the most trouble with and I was doing it without any effort at all.


As it turned out, the iron cross move wasn’t the smartest thing I had done that day; maybe it was smarter than walking into an elevator without looking for the floor, but I wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the floor with my legs. I had miscalculated the distance from the beam to the floor and I was coming up about four feet short. As I hung, deciding to jump or just hang on, I noticed that my injured leg seemed to be hanging down about four to six inches longer than normal. The weight of my lower leg and shoe had pulled the leg down when I swung to the wall. The bone was pulled back into my pants and because the bone was not connected anymore, my muscles stretched out and my leg just hung way down. At that moment I thought that I had somehow severed my leg. It looked like my favorite, faded blue Levis were the only thing holding it on. That was a sick feeling and that was also when my adrenalin rush kicked out of overdrive and back into a crawl. I still didn’t feel any pain, something I will never understand, but now I knew I was in big trouble. My boss was going to kill me. At Avondale we took a lot of pride in having no lost time injuries. It was all part of the big ZD (Zero Defects) campaign the company had started years earlier. I had just screwed up our chance to break the lost time injury record for the spinning room where I worked. We kept track of the total man hours the spinning room employees had accumulated without anyone getting hurt badly enough to miss work. Now our 400,000 plus hour record was shattered like my leg. I thought that maybe they could give me some kind of desk job so I wouldn’t miss any work and we could keep the record intact.


As I thought of ways to explain my accident, someone opened the door to the elevator. He looked as frightened as Steve Elrod. I asked him to help me get down. He just stared at me shaking his head side to side. Finally after what seemed like a short debate on the subject, I told him that if he didn’t help me I was going to jump. I was bluffing, but he fell for it. He grabbed me around the waist and helped me down. I was lucky someone was working in the department where I had fallen. It was Sunday and most of the non-production areas of the mill where I had fallen were closed.


In about what seemed like a minute, there were several people around me. I noticed they all had this terrible look on their faces. They would look at me and just shake their heads. Some of the mill old timers told me how lucky I was to be alive. They made me lie down on the concrete floor. They were afraid to move me. I got kind of pissed off when they wouldn’t let me have any water to drink. The fall had made me really thirsty. I’ve never thought to ask any parachute jumpers if they get thirsty when they free-fall, but I’m sure there’s a correlation somehow between the two.


Finally, the ambulance got there. The Avondale complex where I worked had three mills and the diver couldn’t find the gate closest to where I was. The ambulance took me to the emergency room at the Sylacauga (my home town in Alabama) Hospital. During the ride there, I thought about how lucky I was. But I realized that I wasn’t lucky. When I thought about asking God for help about three-quarters of the way down that shaft, that’s what saved me. SHE didn’t need to be asked. All I had to do was think about asking.


I told myself that day that I would write a story about my accident. It’s taken me a long time to do it – almost 40 years – but all that extra time has added a lot of good stuff to the story. This is my story. I hope you enjoy reading about it as much as I have enjoyed living it.