Originally posted May 30, 2008
Someone whose name I never knew saved my life thirty-four years ago this week.
I’d returned to St. Cloud from my academic year in Denmark on May 21, and by May 28, I was coughing every five minutes, feeling weak and winded. For a couple nights, I slept sitting up because every time I lay on my back, I started coughing uncontrollably. I’d started smoking during my last weeks in Denmark and had continued when I came home; thinking the cigarettes were the culprits, I laid them aside. But I continued to cough, and I felt weaker every day.
Finally, my mother took me to our family doctor. He tapped my chest, listened to my lungs and all that, and he sent me to the local hospital for some X-rays. At the hospital, when the X-rays had been shot, the technician asked me to wait there until he was sure they came out all right. I sat there with Mom, reading magazines and coughing. At length, the technician came out. He said, “The X-rays are all right, but they look odd. I’d like you to stay here until I can have a doctor look at them.”
And that almost certainly saved my life.
A doctor on call looked at the X-rays and had me admitted to the hospital. For half an hour or so, I went through tests – one of which determined how long I could exhale, in other words, lung capacity. I had blood drawn for lab work. About three hours or so after Mom and I walked in, I was sitting up in a bed – reading the morning paper, I think – waiting to find out what was going on.
And a doctor, a nurse and two orderlies – all with grim faces – came literally running into my room, the orderlies hauling an oxygen tank. The doctor watched as the nurse threaded a plastic tube through my nose and down into my breathing passage. She connected it to the tank and one of the orderlies turned the valve, sending oxygen into my lungs. The doctor said that no one knew why, but my lungs had – over the past week – filled with fluid to an alarming degree. I was drowning.
The doctors who cared for me in the next week gave some information to my parents that they did not share with me. From what I learned later, as I understand it (and I’ve never done much digging), the amount of oxygen, or O2, present in the blood is measured so that a normal level is somewhere around 100. When one’s O2 level drops to 50, some very bad things can occur. When it drops to 35, things get much worse. And – again, as I understand it from many years ago – when it drops to 25, one does not have much of a future. I have been told that my O2 level as I went through those tests that afternoon was 32.
That explains the grim faces on the doctor, the nurse and the orderlies.
That evening, I was moved to a room with an oxygen tank built into the walls and was given one of those oxygen masks with the nozzles that fit into one’s nose, which was much more comfortable. The internist assigned to my case told my parents and me that he was going to put me on Prednisone, a steroid. Over the course of a week, that cleared the fluid in my lungs, and doctors determined that there had been no permanent damage. I was very lucky. But the doctors never figured out why my lungs had filled; they called it an allergic reaction of unknown origin.
So I went home breathing and whole. My doctors, being understandably cautious, recommended that my activities be limited for at least the first six weeks of summer. I negotiated with them the right to walk every morning to the neighborhood grocery store a block away to buy a newspaper. And for the first half of the summer of 1974, that was just about all I was allowed to do. Oh, I imagine my folks took me out to dinner, and I know friends stopped by. But I was strongly discouraged from leaving the house on my own for anything other than that brief morning walk.
That was difficult enough for a man of twenty who was beginning to feel much better. But worse yet, I continued to take the Prednisone through the summer, and the drug had an effect on me similar to what I imagine low-grade speed would. I could sleep no more than six to seven hours a night, and when I was awake, I wanted to go, go, go. Those six weeks got long, and it was a major relief in July when I was allowed to leave home every weekday and work four to five hours at St. Cloud State’s Learning Resources Center.
Luckily, I had things to read – nearly nine months’ worth of Sports Illustrated and Time, which my dad had set aside for me while I was in Denmark – and I had music: Records in the rec room in the basement; the piano in the dining room; my guitar, which I played as I sat in our front yard overlooking the street; and radio, which was on as background most of the rest of the time, especially in the evenings, when I read late into the night.
Here’s some of what I heard that summer, thirteen songs pulled from the Billboard Top 100 for June 1, 1974:
A Selected Baker’s Dozen from 1974
“Please Come to Boston” by Dave Loggins, Epic single 11115 (No. 98 as of June 1, 1974)
“Rock Your Baby” by George McCrae, T.K. single 1004 (No. 93)
“Keep on Smilin’” by Wet Willie, Capricorn single 0043 (No. 81)
“Waterloo” by Abba, Atlantic single 3035 (No. 76)
“Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation, RCA single 0232 (No. 71)
“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” by Steely Dan, ABC single 11439 (No. 55)
“Let It Ride” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Mercury single 73457 (No. 50)
“If You Wanna Get To Heaven” by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, A&M single 1515 (No. 45)
“Mighty Mighty” by Earth, Wind & Fire, Columbia single 46007 (No. 33)
“Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, Virgin single 55100 (No. 25)
“Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely” by the Main Ingredient, RCA single 0205 (No. 24)
“Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John, MCA single 40198 (No. 21)
“Help Me” by Joni Mitchell, Asylum single 11034 (No. 8 )
A few notes:
When I do a Baker’s Dozen, I usually let the RealPlayer select the songs randomly, so I always hear at least a snippet of each song. Today, I selected the songs from the Billboard list, so I heard bits of only a few. “Please Come To Boston” was not one of those I heard this morning, but I find as I think about it that it rings more clearly in my head than almost any other song on this list, throwing – as it were – echoes around the canyon. Was it that good a song? Or was it just pervasive? It peaked at No. 5 that summer, Loggins’ only hit, and it was, I guess, a not-bad chip from the singer-songwriter block. But in the end, more pervasive than good.
I wrote a few weeks ago that Wet Willie sometimes gets overlooked when talk turns to southern rock of the Seventies. The same is true with “Keep On Smilin’.” There wasn’t much southern about it, at least not what a listener would expect of a Capricorn release. But it was fun, it moved along nicely, and it had a good vocal and a good hook.
“Rock the Boat” is another one of those songs whose lyrics roll through my head without hesitation whenever I stop to think about it. The song reached No. 1 that summer, another example of the value of a good hook.
“Tubular Bells” began as an LP with two long compositions, one on each side. The single came about when an edit of Oldfield’s composition was selected for use as the theme to the movie The Exorcist, which came out in 1973. The single was released after the film’s success and eventually made its way to No. 7.
I tend to think that “Help Me” is the best thing Joni Mitchell has ever recorded over the course of her long career.
One day in July, having received approval from my doctors, my folks let me drive to the local mall on my own. There wasn’t a lot to do there, although I imagine I checked out the paperbacks at the drug stores and then looked through LPs at Musicland and Woolworth’s. But to be out on my own again was liberating, and I sat on one of the benches in the mall, sipping a soft drink, just watching that bit of the world. As I did, I heard from the sound system of a nearby store “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” And for more than thirty years, that song has been to me the sound of freedom and relief.