We moved from Whiteman AFB to Malmstrom AFB the summer after I finished kindergarten. Malmstrom is just outside Great Falls, Montana, This is where I learned to read, ride a bike, and speak in ASL (temporarily). I learned to love the prairie there, the smell of Russian sage, the chirp of the locusts, the actual amber waves not of grain, but of the tall prairie grass being swept by the wind.
It seemed like every other year our school took a field trip to Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, then known as Custer Battlefield National Monument–or “Custer’s Last Stand.” It was beautiful out there, a holy place. I always wanted to ditch the guides, teachers, chaperones, and classmates and walk across the prairie, over the hills, walk away and away and never stop.
I must’ve been born a cynic or maybe just a doubter. The adults would take us out there and tell us the tragic story of Custer’s heroic last stand and show us the grave markers and all I could think was George Armstrong Custer was a murderer and an idiot. Even as a pre-tween, I understood that this land we were standing on was not ours and the natives who had died there were defending their own land, their own families and homes. And if the white man was so superior, then slaughtering people less capable or intelligent–as the warriors were described to us? Well, that was immoral, it was murder. But the natives had shown that prideful buffoon. He didn’t walk away from his misplaced cockiness. Why were we celebrating such a creature? Why were we out here disturbing the serenity of this holy place? I wanted to just walk and walk and walk away through the whispering waves of grass.
Great Falls is named for a group of five waterfalls on the Missouri River which runs around the city to the north and east. Three of the waterfalls house hydroelectric dams. Lewis and Clark traveled through the area on their famous journey with their Native guide Sacagawea. Before the white people came, Great Falls belonged to the Salish Tribe, and then the Piegan Blackfeet. It was part of the Louisiana Purchase, then part of Nebraska Territory, part of Dakota Territory, then Idaho Territory, and finally Montana Territory. Larry called the Missouri River the Big Muddy–maybe others did too? But I thought the river was beautiful. And I got to see a lot of it, as we often went with Larry to go fishing off the dams.
In 1908, Boston & Montana Railway built a copper smelting plant near the Black Eagle Dam, erecting a smelter stack, at the time the tallest chimney in the world at 506 feet and with a base nearly 79 feet in diameter. The chimney was creatively named The Big Stack and it stood until 1982. When I was little, I thought the Big Stack made the clouds. Montana is called Big Sky Country and I imagined if the stack wasn’t there to create clouds, the vast blue sky would lower itself to the ground and cover us like a big cool blanket. The clouds from the Big Stack held up the sky.
I don’t remember the trip from Missouri to Montana. I’m assuming we went from Missouri to Pensacola for a month and then back up to Montana because we seemed to spend every summer back home with the folks. I know that summer I thought my Aunt Cheryl was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen and I wished my eyes were bad so I could wear glasses just like her. I don’t remember staying in the base TLQs, though I’m sure we did because that was also pretty standard. I remember the smell of the new house, freshly painted, and the new yard, freshly mowed. I don’t remember the movers being there to unload our household goods, but I remember running through all of the empty rooms shouting because they echoed. It’s really not surprising I don’t remember much about the move: the majority of adults have a hard time remembering events that occurred before the ages of 6-8. I was 5-going-on-6 that summer.
The motorcycles moved with us: Larry’s Hodaka Road Toad, Joyce’s Hodaka Dirt Squirt, my and Tonia’s Hodaka Ace 100 Bonanza Mini-Bike. We were quite the stylish family: the family car was a 1968 Dodge Coronet Superbee. This baby had a 4-barrel carburetor, dual exhaust, automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, dual reservoir master cylinder, and Sun Pro auxiliary gauges. It was a bright blue 2-door with white Bumblebee striping, white vinyl top and interior, bucket seats, center console, chrome floor shift, air conditioning, thumbwheel design AM/8-track radio package, remote driver’s mirror, tinted glass, and 5-spoke road wheels. It was a mid-sized muscle car with low-riding seats and a giant, high hood.
The new house had a garage, which we hadn’t had in Missouri, and Joyce and Larry were trying to fit everything in it: The Hodakas, the lawn furniture, the hunting gear, I don’t know what else. But I know Tonia, Sean, and I were tired of being cooped up in the house on such a beautiful summer day. We begged Joyce to let us go outside. I promised her I’d watch Sean, who was about 14 months old and preferred running to walking, and we’d stay in the backyard, away from the street. She agreed, as long as we put our shoes on: no one was to be barefoot outside until Joyce and Larry had policed the yard. So Tonia, Sean, and I went out to the front porch where our shoes were. Larry wanted to back the car into the full garage and see if it fit, so Joyce went into the back of the garage to let him know if he got too close to anything.
The front porch was nestled in between the house and the garage. There was a little side yard beside the driveway and garage that led to the back yard. On the other side of the driveway was the front yard with a sweet little tree I couldn’t wait to climb. I put on my own shoes and put Sean’s on him and told Tonia to quit lollygagging–she still only had one sandal on. I took Sean by the hand and crossed the drive in front of the Super Bee’s grille to the side yard and turned to wait for Tonia. She was still struggling with the buckle of her second sandal. Panicked that we might leave her behind, she jumped off the porch and ran to catch up, stepping out of her unbuckled sandal in the middle of the driveway. Not wanting to get in trouble for being in the yard barefoot, Tonia sat down right where she was to put her sandal back on just as Larry started pulling forward out of the garage.
In those low bucket seats behind that giant hood, there was no way Larry could see a small-for-her-age three-year-old sitting directly in front of the car and struggling with a recalcitrant sandal. Joyce was still trapped at the back of the garage, unable to see past the car. Impatient to explore, the only thing I was paying attention to was Tonia and her sandal. But Sean started shrieking and when he did, my vision pulled back and I realized what was about to happen just as the Superbee’s grille pushed Tonia over. I tried to scream, but it was like I was strangling and no sound would come out. I stood there watching, with my fingertips in my mouth as the left front tire ran over my sister.
Larry heard Sean screaming, saw me standing in silent horror, felt the bump. He quickly reversed, hoping he’d just bumped the child he couldn’t see, that he could still prevent what had already happened. Sean and I watched the car back over Tonia and I realized she was screaming too, and Joyce was screaming and crawling over the car to get out of the garage.
Larry leapt out of the car and ran to the front of it, where Tonia was still lying under the grille, still screaming, but not crying. Joyce reached Tonia just after Larry did and began crying, reaching to pick up her middle child, her baby girl. Larry smacked her hands away and told her to get in the car. “Get Michelle and Sean and get in the car now!” He scooped Tonia up and ran back to his open door, where I had already shoved Sean into the back seat and followed him in. Larry tried to hand Tonia over to Joyce in the passenger seat, but with every movement he made, Tonia let out a loud, growling moan. He laid her instead on the center console, slammed the door, and peeled out, speeding us down the road to the ER.
Everything after that just comes back to me in flashes. They say trauma can cause memory loss starting before the trauma, and lasting until well after it. But I remember begging to go outside and bargaining with Joyce. I remember the smell of the new paint and the freshly cut grass and the high peal of Sean’s shrieks and the taste of my fingertips in my mouth and Tonia being pushed onto her stomach before the shiny spoked wheel rolled over her. I remember not even trying to push the driver’s seat forward to get in the Super Bee, but just pushing Sean through the space at the bottom and following after. I remember standing in the back floorboard, leaning over the front seat, holding Tonia’s hand, her hair on my neck. I remember Joyce weeping, holding Tonia’s other hand, calling her Babydoll and promising her she was going to be fine. I remember looking at Larry who had tears streaming down his face. He was telling Tonia and everyone else that he never saw her, never saw her, what was she doing there in the driveway where he couldn’t see her. I remember hearing Sean crying, curled up alone in the back seat. And I remember that Tonia’s bare foot was bleeding and I was sure she was going to bleed to death from that small cut on her foot because everyone knows if you get run over you will die.
And I don’t remember anything else until I saw Tonia sleeping in a dim hospital room, legs suspended in the air by a traction device that looked like it came straight out of a Frankenstein movie.
Fifty years later I walked out into my front yard just in time to watch two cars collide in front of my house. The scene tasted familiar: I was watching in horror with my fingertips in my mouth.
I don’t remember ever riding in the Super Bee again. Joyce claimed she made Larry get rid of it, and that may be true. But I can also imagine Larry getting behind the wheel of that car later that night, leaving an unconscious, crushed toddler daughter up above him in the hospital. I can imagine how his stomach must have churned, how his hands must have shaken, how dry his mouth must have felt. For the rest of his life, Larry never got into a car without walking around it first.
Back in 1971, when Larry ran over Tonia with the Super Bee, children were not allowed to visit hospital wards, at least not children under 13, at least not in Great Falls, Montana. Tonia was in the hospital for weeks and I was sure she was dead and my parents were lying to me about her being in the hospital. After all, I had watched her being run over by a car and I had seen her bleeding to death on the ride to the ER. If she was alive, why couldn’t I see her? Joyce and Larry tried to explain to me that kids weren’t allowed in hospital rooms, but in the “I call bullshit” cynicism I was born with, I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard or ever would hear.
After trying to cope with nights of nightmares and days of tears and recriminations, Larry enlisted a nurse to help assuage my fears. She told him when the safest time would be to sneak me up onto the ward and she stood lookout while I went to see my sister. (Joyce always claimed later that Larry slept with the nurse and that’s why she helped him.)
It was late, the halls were dark, and I’d been warned not to make a sound. In the interest of speed, Larry carried me into the elevator and from there into Tonia’s room, warning me that under no circumstances whatsoever was I to touch her because it would hurt her. The room was very dimly lit by the headboard light and all I could see when Larry set me down was a giant railed bed with a terrifying torture device hanging over it. Caught up in the web of wires and ropes and pulleys lay my sister, sleeping on her back, her head flopped to one side. For a second I was convinced it was a grisly joke; Tonia WAS dead and they’d wrapped my sister’s dead body in these wires and ropes instead of burying her. But before I could gather my breath to attempt another strangled scream, I saw Tonia’s chest rise and then fall and her eyelashes fluttering. She was alive! She was being tortured but she was alive! The torture device was a traction apparatus.
The nurse stepped in and said we had to go; the elevator was coming. Larry picked me up and carried me down the stairs. I don’t remember why, but he said he needed me to sit there in the lobby and wait for him while he went back up to Tonia’s room. Joyce wasn’t with us; she was home with Sean. The hospital was dark and eerily quiet. I was afraid of staying in the empty lobby alone. I begged him to let me ride up with him again. I promised I’d stay in the elevator.
Poor Larry. He had one daughter in traction above him because he ran over her with his own car. He had another daughter who watched him run over her sister and who seemed to be teetering on the edge of permanent hysteria. He held my hand in the elevator. When the doors opened on Tonia’s floor, a different nurse was waiting for the elevator. She told Larry children were NOT allowed on the ward and took me down to the lobby to wait for him. She told him to be quick himself. Visiting hours were over.
For the rest of our lives, whenever Joyce spoke about Tonia being in the hospital she swore that Tonia wouldn’t let Larry visit her there. She said the first time Tonia woke up after surgery and saw Larry sitting beside her, she screamed at him to go away, that he’d run her over and hurt her and she hated him. Joyce said that’s why Larry took me that night, because the only time he could visit Tonia was when she was asleep. But I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that Tonia ever said such a thing. I seriously doubt Tonia understood what was happening when the accident happened. She was three years old. How would she have known Larry was driving? She had her back to the car; she didn’t see it coming toward her. She was pushed down on her stomach, so she never saw the car ON her either. And the first person to reach her after she started screaming was Larry. He was the one who picked her up and carried her to the car. I bet he was the one who carried her into the ER, too. My brief flashes of memory of being in that Emergency Room were all about sitting alone in the waiting room with Sean on my lap, meaning both Joyce and Larry were with Tonia.
I also have had 3 year old children of my own and I can’t convince myself that children that age process things that way, like blame and cause and effect, like connecting her father to the roaring pain that had struck Tonia when she was alone. I think when Tonia was taken away to the OR Larry tried to comfort Joyce and JOYCE told Larry not to touch her, that he had run over her baby, that she herself hated him. She couldn’t forgive him for the accident. She couldn’t forgive herself for the accident–or for the terrible words she said to Larry in the ER. So she decided Tonia had said those words and she stuck with that story and told it over and over for the rest of Tonia’s life. I believed it for the longest time. I believed my sister understood what had happened and blamed Larry. I wonder if Larry heard the story so many times that he came to believe that’s what happened, too. I know Tonia believed it.