It was hot.
Early August in Southwest Virginia usually means warmer than usual hot temperatures and extreme humidity. The first week of August, 1978, was no exception. Thinking back, I just remember it was the kind of heat that feels like opening a preheated oven when you step outside.
The other feeling I can recall, as the day began, was high anticipation. This was one of our family vacation times and we were getting ready to go with family friends to Kings Dominion the next day, Sunday, August 6. Being 12 years old, I was in that prime time for enjoying the fun and excitement of one of Virginia’s own theme parks which was a three hour drive from Salem. Similar to Christmas morning, I had gotten up extra early on this Saturday since I could barely contain myself. Since mom had to go to work, the plan was for dad and me to get the Buick filled up with gas, and then go by the car wash. Dad’s Buick Le Sabre was his pride and joy: a baby blue, luxury sedan with an elongated front section. Edward Carl Walker preferred his cars roomy, so it was the four-door model in which six people could ride with room to spare. He liked the outside shiny and the inside as clean as possible, except for the unmistakable evidence of a smoker who rode with dad frequently, my mom, Louise. The one small concession to a spic and span car interior was that mom smoked like a chimney and the ash tray was usually full of butts. (My secret dream was that she would quit smoking and I could enjoy the clean air and comfort of dad’s roomy car; a dream that never came true.)
As the morning wore on and the temperature rose outside, dad and I headed to downtown Salem to the Eagle Carwash, like we had done many times before. Dad pulled up to one of the central bays and stopped at the car vacuum station, where I hopped out to get the hose ready. Overhead, a cloudless sky did nothing to shade the sun from beating down on the paved driveway and metal vacuum canister. Dad stood by letting me vacuum the floor and the seats, supervising me the entire time. I remember him getting frustrated when I had only gotten one half the vehicle cleaned up when the timer ran out and he had to dig into his pocket for another quarter. So far, nothing unusual: just a father and son getting the family car ready for a trip.
Then everything changed.
Anticipation, excitement, and the promise of roller coasters and arcade games vanished like a vapor. The car was nearly clean, we were ready to drive in to the washing bay, and my life screeched to a halt. More correctly, my father’s life was about to end.
As I finished the second session of vacuuming, I noticed daddy had sat down in the driver’s seat. But he was not just sitting; he was slumped over. I ran around to his side of the car and saw his face. Instead of the robust look I was used to seeing, he appeared to have no color in his face at all. Instead of a forehead beading with sweat from the heat, he was dripping with a cold sweat. I reached out to touch his moist skin and found him icy cold, clammy.
As I touched his face, he tried to look up at me, as my body seemed to freeze on the spot, leaning in to the driver’s seat trying to see what the matter with my 52 year old father was.
“Son … I’m having a heart attack …”
Were there other sounds? Did birds stop singing? Could I hear my own circulatory system rushing blood to my brain?
Or were there only those words, the ones that barely slipped out of my father’s ashen, nearly lifeless lips? “Son, I’m having a heart attack” – Those words I have played and replayed in my mind nearly every day since August 5, 1978, were the last words I heard my father say.
My dad, Edward, probably had lived longer than his heart was supposed to allow him to live. Starting at least four years earlier, he had suffered some degree of heart trouble just about every year. By the summer of 1978, he had been in and out of the hospital several times, took a medicine chest’s worth of pills and had to watch what he ate. About the only thing he did not go through was open heart surgery or a heart bypass. As I look back, I wonder why and all I can determine is those procedures just were not as common in the 1970s. It might have been due to the expense of such operations, or other risk factors. As a 12 year old, I just knew that dad had a weak heart and that fact did not stop him from his active and busy life. I also never imagined what I would have to face, all by myself, on that fateful (and fatal), exceedingly warm Saturday.
As the words my father uttered sank in, for a moment I remained immobile. It seemed like I was dying too, but the voice in my head was screaming to stir me into action. Moments went by that only seemed like hours, and then I reacted. Leaving dad’s side for a moment, I ran to the payphone nearby. I dialed 9-11 and immediately got the local dispatch for the Salem Rescue Squad, which I knew was only a few blocks away from the car wash. I heard myself say tell the operator my father was having a heart attack and where we were. The dispatcher talked to me calmly and made sure I knew someone would be there soon. I think she knew I was scared shitless and could barely communicate.
After hanging up, I think I stopped again. I ran back over to dad and felt for a pulse, or his heart, or any sign of life. I could see him struggling to catch a breath, but his mouth was slack and he had no response in his eyes.
Looking away for a moment, trying to figure out what to do, I saw an attendant. He was sitting in the shade, trying to cool off. I approached him and politely addressed him. “Sir, can you help me? My father is having a heart attack.”
As I replay the next moment in my mind, I see a bespectacled man, about my father’s age, dressed in a uniform shirt and blue work pants react like he had received a shock to his system. He leapt up from his shady spot as I pointed to dad’s car and his colorless form slumped over in the driver’s seat. The attendant yelled for someone to help him and I believe one or two customers came from their bays in response. Quickly they eased dad onto the ground and tried to revive him with CPR. I stood close by, wishing I could turn back time, change the weather, or use magic powers to heal my father’s tired, broken and weak heart. I wanted him to cough, to scream, to jump up and dance – I wanted him to live and I did not care how he showed it. I wanted to hear the words “Son, I am ok” and not those other words I heard over and over again.
Probably just as the Samaritans on the scene were working to help dad, the ambulance pulled up with a police car. I think the dispatcher called the police too because she figured I was alone with my father when the heart attack occurred. The rescue squad was there for my dad and the cop was there to check on me. The car wash attendant and the customers moved to let the paramedics go to work on examining dad and getting him into the rescue squad vehicle.
As I watched dad being helped on to the gurney and into the back of the ambulance, I once again froze in my spot, with a helpless feeling, one of emptiness. The police officer asked me about my mother and I told him her name, and dad’s name. I know I was able to also get out that my mom worked at the hospital and she was working right now. The cop asked me if I knew anyone else who could be with me and I drew a blank. I did not know where my older sister was, or my aunts. I just told him my mom worked at the hospital. The policeman said he could take me to the hospital to find my mom and wait to see about dad. As I rode in the squad car, for a moment, I felt a strange sense of calm. I think the police officer was very good at making small talk and helping me feel at ease. As the officer drove to Lewis-Gale, the closest hospital, my mind snapped to the fact that my father looked lifeless when I last saw him just minutes ago. What would happen now? Would his doctor be available? How bad was this heart attack? Would he make it this time, as he had before? I thought about all the things I wanted my dad to share with me still. I was only weeks away from starting junior high school, a huge step. I wanted to hear his voice, watch him read the newspaper or do his woodworking again. I wanted to climb in the front seat of his car next Saturday and head to the movies like we did so many times before. I wanted to ask him about World War II, the Navy, growing up in Tennessee during the Great Depression. I wanted to hear him sing again. Would I?
There is a sense that time behaves differently during a traumatic event. Minutes masquerading as hours pretending to be days followed once I was at the hospital. The police officer walked me onto the hallway near the operating room. I saw my mother sitting in the hallway and wondered how she knew. I realized once I told the policeman who she was he made sure the hospital staff got word to her at work. I may have thanked the policeman but all I can remember is walking towards my mom down the longest corridor in Lewis-Gale Hospital.
Several of mom’s coworkers were surrounding her. The ladies parted and allowed me to approach her. She looked up, her eyes already reddened from crying. Her eyes met mine as I held out hope there was good news right around the corner. Even though I was 12, I felt much younger in that lingering moment.
The next thing I heard was the other phrase that has run on a continuous loop in my mind for 37 years.
~ Jeff Walker, Sept. 2, 2015