Last week, I was digging through a drawer looking for my DD214 Military Discharge Form and ran across a hospital receipt from 1990. The charges were for patching up my skull after receiving a beat down on the highway outside Dallas in broad daylight.
My first job after I got out of the Air Force was for NEC America as an Associate Engineer designing the cellular telephones. This was in 1989 when the only people who carried cell phones were drug dealers and (probably their) lawyers. We were designing a new generation of handheld phones and part of the process involved a great deal of field testing which was carried out in exhausting detail prior to the release of the new product. Back in the day, cellular coverage was limited to major urban cities and even that coverage pretty much dropped off at the edge of town. This was known as the fringe area. In Dallas' case, the east fringe area frayed out around the tiny town of Royse City on Interstate 30. My testing process involved driving out to the fringe with several competitor phones a few of our new prototypes. The idea was that if our phone performed at least as well as the competitors' in a less than perfect environment, we were in good shape. There were other test criteria, such as RF inter-modulation and receiver front-end saturation, but these would be conducted in Chicago where those phenomena were more common and their location was predictable.
On this particular day, I had driven the plain white company station wagon out to Royse City, pulled off the highway, and circled back onto the westbound service road at a spot where my test equipment indicated the cellular service was fading. My routine was set up the phones and place calls to an NEC lab back in Richardson. Dale, a technician back in the lab would monitor the calls and measure parameters like distortion and voice quality. My prototypes in the field had similar measurement equipment so the near and distant data could be analyzed and compared. Once I found the right spot, I would open the station wagon tailgate, turn the keys backward to the accessory position so I could hear the stereo, and start placing calls. Every call was logged on both ends as inbound/outbound, with duration, RF channel, and other aspects noted in mind numbing detail. The Japanese were meticulous about testing and had high standards for accountability. I was their stateside contact for design quality and I took my role seriously, but I also really enjoyed the work.
I was parked on the westbound service road, which at this point was about 500 feet north of the highway and the two were separated by grass and weeds. Sitting on the tailgate with music blasting from the lo-fidelity stock Philco radio, I placed call after call to the lab and logged the data while Dale logged data in the lab. Cars would drive by occasionally and I would just wave and give the OK sign with my hand when they asked if I needed help. At one point an old white pickup truck approached from the east and drove up slowly; eventually slowing to a stop. The driver asked if I needed help as he scanned the entirety of the opened tailgate. I shook my head and said I was just testing phones and he nodded and drove on. The day passed, the calls continued, and the music played on. The testing and logging required considerable attention to detail as different prototypes with varying degrees of modification were put through the paces and validated. Despite my ADHD tendencies, I maintained an intense level of focus on the tasks at hand. I heard another vehicle approaching and looked up surprised to see the same white pickup truck, only now there were silhouettes of three people in the seat. The driver stopped about twenty feet from the opened tailgate and both doors opened. Two of the passengers got out and the one in the middle slid to the passenger door, but didn't get out; instead standing on the floorboard looking over at me from behind the open door. I was solely focused on my testing tasks at hand.
They approached my station wagon as I was in the middle of a call to Dale. I put my hand up making a "just a sec" gesture and finished the call. Clueless and friendly, I asked "what's up?" The driver asked what I was doing out there; to which I responded that I was testing mobile telephones. He haphazardly rummaged through the box of prototype phones sitting on the tailgate to the left of me with an apparent feigned interest. Oddly enough, he then asked where he could get one. Somewhat surprised, but still not aware of the situation, I responded that they weren't available to the public yet, adding that it would probably be about six months. Facing him to my left, I paid no attention to the whereabouts of the other guy. The driver to my left then said "Well, what if I don't wanna wait that long?" What had been just an ordinary day out testing up to that point instantly became an oh shit moment. Right about then, the music stopped. Still sitting on the tailgate, I spun around to my right and saw the bottom half of the other guy sticking out from the station wagon driver's window. He extricated himself, turned to face the driver at the tailgate, and triumphantly held up his hand, the key ring spinning on his index finger. In a split second of awkward silence, I became instantly aware of several things. I was in the middle of nowhere. I was surrounded by at least two east Texas rednecks who had seemingly just hijacked my company car. I had no means of protecting myself. I was fucked.
I turned quickly back to where the driver had been standing when I caught the first blow. The driver had grabbed a Motorola phone out of my box and bashed the side of my head with it. This wasn't one of those small, light flip phones Motorola became famous for introducing. This was one we called "the brick" complete with an extra high capacity battery to add weight and inertia. I remember hearing the guy still in the truck scream "oh shit!" and the other guy laughing. I hit the ground like a drunken orangutan on ice skates and involuntarily rolled about halfway under the tailgate. As I blurrily glared out from under the car, all I could see was legs and the wheels of the truck behind me. I remember noticing it had no grill and was missing one headlight. There were three sets of legs, meaning the third guy had apparently joined the other two. I saw the driver walking back to the truck with my box of test phones. The one who had taken the car keys reached to the ground and picked up a large green bottle laying on the weeds. As I rolled out and got to my knees, I heard a strange crashing sound and saw green glass raining down around me. The strange sound was accompanied by a beautiful array of stars, and then it was lights out.
"Buzzards? Are those buzzards?" That's what I remember thinking as I lay face up in the weeds on the north side of the westbound service road. They were slowly coming into focus and slowly circling with decreasing altitude above me in skies that were growing increasingly grey and pendulous. I had never been knocked out like that before and waking up from it was a strange sensation. I rolled over and got to my knees and realizing what had happened, flinched as if ready for another bottle strike. The strike never came and I stumbled and stood up. I looked around me and tried to gather my bearings as the buzzards silently soared away in search of a genuinely dead prey. The company station wagon was gone and so were my phones. In a panic, I felt myself up and was relieved that I still had my wallet, watch, and wedding ring. I had little to no cash in my wallet, my watch was a Timex, and my wedding ring was a cheap plain gold band. The items they stole might have appeared valuable, but were absolutely useless to them.
I couldn't recall exactly where I was, but the sun was setting and I knew I had to go west to get back to town. I walked along the service road and it gradually grew closer to the highway. It was April, which is the rainy season in northeast Texas. The skies grew darker and more threatening and I could no longer see the afternoon sun. A pickup truck passed me on the highway, then stopped and backed up; rolling across the short patch of grass between the highway and service road. This wasn't an old beater truck. This was your typical Texas cowboy Cadillac with custom chrome, mudflaps, lit sideboards and leather interior. The truck backed up past me, stopped and then pulled forward, stopping with the passenger window about a foot from me. I stared at the driver for a second and relieved, reached for the door handle. Through the ringing in my head, I heard an electric clunk sound and saw the shiny lock at the base of the window suddenly drop. The driver had a horrified look on his face and I assume locked the door out of reactionary panic. My focus shifted and as the driver's face became blurry, my own face came into clear view in the window's reflection. My entire forehead and most of my face was covered in dark sun dried blood. The bottle had cut my scalp in several places and the numerous cranial capillaries drizzled blood like syrup over warm pancakes. The starched, long sleeve dress shirt and the silk tie I was wearing were splattered with a mixture of blood, mud, and whatever fluid was left in the bottle when it shattered on my head. My left eye was swollen almost completely shut, a result of the abrupt Motorola phone call placed by the driver. Realizing my dilemma and with my wits slowly returning, I stepped back from the truck with my hands up as the driver lowered the passenger window. Stooping over with my hands on my knees, I started to hyperventilate as I tried to explain that I had just been rolled and I needed the police. He replied "you need a hospital!", got out of the driver side, and lowered the tailgate. "The seats are leather and my dry cleaning's in there" he said. I crawled into the bed of the tuck and he crossed the grass onto the highway and headed west. Just as I was thinking it couldn't get any worse, the skies opened up and the rain started falling. Mercifully, he pulled over, opened the electric sliding cab window, looked back at me and said "Get in. Just get in."
He took me to a truck stop and I was escorted to the drivers' lounge while someone called the police and an ambulance. It was easy to distinguish the amateur drivers from the professionals. The amateurs outwardly expressed shock at the sight of me. The truck drivers barely gave me a second glance. By the time the Sheriff arrived, I was fully cognizant of what had happened and had called Dale back in the lab from a pay phone. Dale was a Dallas County Sheriff's volunteer and suspicious of the worst, had already called guys he knew at the Rockwall county Sheriff's office. It was 4:00. The last call I made to Dale was around 2:30. I had been unconscious, lying on the side of a major highway in broad daylight for over an hour and nobody spotted me. The ambulance crew patched me up and offered to take me to the nearest hospital, which I declined. One of the EMTs suggested I see a doctor ASAP. My opened eye was dilated and I probably had a pretty serious concussion. All I knew was I didn't want to see a country doctor unless it happened to be Janet Craig, which wasn't likely because Hooterville was a long ways off. When the officer asked for a description of the assailants, all that came to mind was Larry, Darryl, and Darryl from the Newhart Show. Thinking back, in east Texas, this description would be a compliment. I described the truck with its missing grill and headlight. He commented that those descriptions could match half of the residents living in the outer edges of Rockwall county. An hour or so later, Dale showed up at the truck stop.
The ride back to town was somewhat tense. Before working for NEC, Dale had been a lead technician on the technology that eventually became known as Laser Tag, which at the time, was in its infancy. He had good technical skills, was retired from the Air Force, and was much older than I was. As such, he harbored an unhidden resentment that I got the engineer job and his official title was Document Administrator. NEC had moved its Mobile Radio Division to Texas from Hawthorne, California. Myself , Dale, and a few others were hired locally in lieu of the costly expense of relocating staff to Texas. How the Japanese decided who was assigned which roles was beyond me. I remember not caring then. I was just thrilled at the prospect of earning a $25k annual salary and wondered how I could possibly spend that kind of money. By my first annual review, I was promoted to Product Engineer and my salary was raised to $33k. It was clear to me by then just how little that much money was. Again I digress.
Dale put aside any resentment and called my wife to explain what had happened. I tried to talk to her, but whenever I started talking, I started crying. I felt like a complete pussy. Dale compassionately said that it was probably the concussion and not to sweat it. He dropped me off at a hospital in Garland and while I waited to get patched up, returned to the NEC office and got another worker there to bring my car to the hospital. I lied to the hospital staff saying I had a ride and then drove myself home.
Needless to say, I took the next day off and when I returned to work, had to face my manager Mr. Okawa. Okawa was straight off the boat from Japan and was full blood NEC engineering management material with a complete absence of personality and seemingly zero compassion. Like most of the other engineering managers, he wore birth control glasses and black pants that were too short and revealed the white socks under his black loafers. We round eyes referred to the Japanese as "Chip and Ernie". His speech was cliche Japanese with L's and R's transposed involuntarily. When I was interviewing with Okawa for the Associate Engineer position, it took all I had to not crack up when he attempted to say "cellular telephone". It literally came out as "cerural terephone". I was asked to report to the human resources office before heading to the lab. Okawa and the HR director met me there. The HR director's compassion made Okawa look like Mother Theresa. He was focused solely on NEC's interests and outwardly expressed how my suing the company might earn me some cash, but would ultimately serve only damage my career. The idea had never entered my mind. He also told me that the station wagon was spotted, abandoned with the wheels removed less than a mile east from where I was attacked. Okawa nearly broke down in tears when he saw my swollen face and the small bandages. Looking closely, one could see a strange pattern on my left cheek. Looking closer still, anyone familiar with the technology would recognize the pattern was a phone keypad. The 3x4 pattern of numeric keys was embossed into my upper cheek, albeit backwards, and stayed there for a few days. As the manager, Okawa felt personally responsible for my injuries and he was visibly crushed. I actually felt more sorry for him than I did for myself.
Back in the lab, Okawa brought me an expense report form and instructed me to claim my shirt and tie that were ruined and the personal micro tape recorder that had been taken. I did so and a few days later, received a call from NEC America headquarters in New York telling me that NEC accepted no responsibility for my personal belongings, adding that I should claim the loss on my homeowner's insurance. I was so angry that had the keypad pattern still been on my cheek, it would have glowed bright red as if alerting an incoming call. I asked them to send me that message in writing. They refused. Looking back, I suppose for them to pay the expenses would be an admission of culpability for my on the job injuries. I had never considered answering the numerous calls I had received from ambulance chasing personal injury lawyers, but I was so angry at this point that the idea was starting to appeal to me. I mentioned the call from HQ to Dale and word made its way back to Okawa. A few weeks later, I received an expense check for well more than my property had cost me. The detail listed a trip I never took.
Whenever I experience a significant emotional event (and there have been many more than my fair share in my 49 years), I tend to look inward and analyze the situation with a goal of exploiting the good and preventing a repeat of the bad. This event was no different. The evening of the attack, I was lying in bed when my wife returned home from work after picking up my sons from day care. My youngest son came into my bedroom and upon seeing my face and the bandages starting crying. He asked what happened, to which I replied that I had had an accident at work. Through his tears, he asked "are you gonna die?" I assured him that I would indeed pull through upon which, he being at least as equally ADHD as I, scampered off to play before dinner. I got to thinking and pondered just whose fault this whole thing was. Sure, I could blame Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. I could blame NEC. Maybe I could have even blamed Okawa. But the bottom line was I was voluntarily in the middle of nowhere with no protection and completely unaware of my surroundings. I know now that I had no business being out there under those circumstances. I've since taken steps to prevent something like this from ever happening to me again and I possess a high degree self assuring confidence that the next time a coin is tossed, it will land on my side.