R.I.P. Ozzie. His real name was Nick. He was a man of courage and patience who loved a good practical joke. I was recruited more than once as co-conspirator. It was a privilege and honor to serve as his nurse.
If you read Truck: A Love Story, you know the story. Sometime after Truck came out, I was asked to write a little update. At the visitation today a laminated poster of that story–along with photos of Nick’s ’68 Dodge Charger–was displayed along with photos from his life. With the family’s permission, I share it now. It’s the best way I know to send him on his way.
Back in 1984, high-schooler Nick bought himself a ‘68 Dodge Charger. He was gonna fix it up and roar down the road.
Nick was born a gearhead. A hot rod. From the first time he drove, he drove hard. The redline was always at hand. When he joined the Army out of high school and shipped to Germany he got hooked on the autobahn, where you could ease over to the left lane, stomp the foot-feed flat, and shoot, they just let you go. “Fast,” Nick likes to say, “isn’t the same as reckless.”
All that racing around, and then life served up a grim little joke: The day Nick wrecked – the day his life changed forever, the last day he ever stood on his own two feet – he was going 35 miles per hour with his seatbelt on. He’d been married two weeks. He and his wife were on their way home from their Wisconsin honeymoon, making the run back to Texas in Nick’s Gran Prix. They were towing a rusted-out Ford Bronco – Nick always had his eye out for a cheap beater, and he had found one up north. On a rough stretch of road Nick crawled in the Bronco to keep it straight. The front tire hooked a pothole. The tie rod snapped. The seat belt broke. He landed in the ditch. The Bronco landed on his neck.
Nick says he remembers the sun in his eyes. Then the darkness closing in.
A lot of years, then. Hospitals. Home. Hospitals. The marriage ended. Back to Wisconsin. Rehab, and more hospitals. The speed demon, not going anywhere fast.
But eventually he had them drag that Charger out. Arranged to get it in the shop. Whenever he had a little money, he’d get some work done. “They whittled away at it,” he says. “I told my mom, if I die, dump my ashes in the fuel tank, and I’ll go down the drag strip one last time.”
Seventeen years. Seventeen years of learning how to live from the neck up. Seventeen years of whittling. He’d show you the latest pictures – a quarter panel here, a shot of primer there, a couple tires. He’d get down to the shop, supervise in person when he could. He couldn’t run the wrenches, but he could run the show. He’d sneak out for a little speed fix sometimes – once a paraplegic friend strapped Nick’s chair to a motorcycle sidecar and they blew down the road, one good pair of arms between’em. Nick says it was good to feel the wind on his face.
On a sunny day in October of 2006, Nick’s pals helped him slide from one set of wheels into another. They strapped him in the passenger side, and you could see the anticipation on his face, even behind the mirrored shades. The car cruised out of the lot, and then picked up speed, the blower making a Mad Max whine as the wheels warmed to the road. After a nice easy ride, the Charger pulled to a stop on an isolated little stretch of blacktop. There was a quiet moment, before the driver wound that 426 fuel-injected blown Hemi up tight. Then Nick gave the nod and went fishtailing down the blacktop on a journey that had never really ended.
Road’s wide open, Nick. Punch it.
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