Woody was seventeen when he shot himself, and we all watched.
I didn't want to go; and I especially didn't want to see anyone get shot. I’ve never liked guns, but my husband, John, insisted. “We’ll have fun. I promise we won’t shoot any animals, just tin cans.” I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of tagging along with a carload of guys to the Everglades on a hot July afternoon just to shoot some tin cans. But, being newlywed, I wanted to please him. If nothing else, I can keep them out of trouble.
Marty, the quintessential Marine with the fatigues and crew cut, is John's best friend. Woody, his cousin, is seventeen, five foot eight, carrot top and terribly obese at 280 pounds; and for the life of me, I can't see how John and he are related. John's a brunette, tall, slender and good looking, so different from everyone else in his family. My brother, Jeff, twelve years old and very shy begged to come. Jeff was only eight when our parents divorced and it hasn't been easy for him; he looks up to John as a father figure.
We climbed into Marty’s 1970 Grand Prix V8 with the bench seat — Marty driving with John and Jeff in front and Woody in back with me — and headed west on what is currently called I-75. After driving about fifty miles (which is midway between Ft. Lauderdale on the east coast and Naples on the west coast), we pulled off to the side of the road at the first area we came to where the canal stopped and the road was halfway dry. Back in 1970, it was only a two-lane highway with canals on both sides, full of alligators and moccasins, and only a few areas of dry land. Marty decided it wasn’t dry enough to drive the car off the roadway, so we parked it on the side of the highway. In those days, you could go shooting in the Everglades as long as you were a quarter mile from the highway.
We got out of the car, artillery slug over our shoulders, and waded through patches of ankle-high swamp water heading for the dry area a hundred yards ahead. I quickly remarked, “Nobody told me to wear boots. You’re all wearing boots and I’m wearing tennis shoes. Are there snakes around here?”
“We thought it’d be dry, honey” my husband said. “You’re fine in those tennis shoes. The water’s not too deep. We’ll get to the dry spot soon.”
John had purchased a .22 caliber repeater rifle for me and he and Marty had carbines. I’m not sure why they needed carbines to shoot tin cans, but who am I to question a Marine. Woody carried a .22 caliber pistol in a holster strapped to his waist. My brother didn't have a gun and said he just wanted to watch. Marty stacked the tin cans on a rock and began shooting with his carbine, as did my husband. After being a spectator for awhile, my brother asked John to show him how to shoot. I shot a few tin cans with my rifle and was actually starting to enjoy myself.
Woody started playing quick draw with his .22 pistol. “Hey guys, watch this,” he said. He’d yank the gun from the holster…shoot…return it to the holster…yank the gun out…shoot…return it to the holster…shoot…yank the gun out... “I think I shot myself,” he said in a calm, disbelieving voice as he looked down at the calf of his left leg where blood was spurting out. Then he shouted, "I shot myself!"
“Damn, Woody! Why’d you have to play quick draw?” John yelled as Marty and he raced over to hold him up, just as his knees started to buckle. Woody's eyes rolled back and he was turning a chalky white.
"He could go into shock real soon," Marty said, yanking his belt off. "Sit him on the ground. I have to tie this belt above the wound to stop the bleeding." Once the belt was in place, he and Marty struggled to get Woody to stand.
“We’re going to have to help him to the car,” John said to Marty as they got on either side of him and put Woody's arms around each of their shoulders. "Can you give us a hand, Jeff?" John asked, but my brother took one look at the blood and all color left his face. “I gotta sit down. I think I’m gonna faint.”
“You can’t Jeff!” I yelled. “We need you.” But Jeff wasn't moving so I got behind Woody and tried to keep him up by grabbing onto his belt and lifting. As we struggled to keep Woody's 280 pound body from hitting the dirt, John said, “Don’t do it Woody. Don’t you dare faint. We’ve got to get you back to the car and we’re a quarter mile away.”
Marty shouted to me, “Sharon, you're not helping. You need to run back to the car and see if you can flag someone down. We’re going to have to get Woody to a hospital. Jeff, you’re going to have the carry all the rifles and Woody's gun.” I took off running through the swampy water in my tennis shoes heading for the car. If a snake bites me, at least we’re on our way to a hospital.
Normally, many cars pass this way on a Sunday afternoon, but not today. As I stood by the car waiting, I could see them about fifty yards away. John and Marty were on either side of Woody dragging him along while poor little Jeff, looking like Rambo carrying Woody’s holster and gun with the carbines and rifle slug over his shoulders, was trailing behind. Marty and John squeezed Woody in the front seat so John could hold Woody's leg up, and Jeff got in back with me looking like he was going to vomit any second. “Don’t get sick on me, Jeff,” I said.
Marty got behind the wheel, started the car and paused. “We’re halfway between Naples and Ft. Lauderdale. Take a pick. Do we head west to a hospital in Naples or east back to Ft. Lauderdale?” Woody managed to speak, “Take me to Naples, it won’t be as crowded.” Marty hit the accelerator and we headed west at about eighty. Naples was a good hour’s drive, as was Ft. Lauderdale. Woody was in pain but holding up okay. The bleeding appeared to have stopped, but his face was a chalky white and I was worried he might go into shock, if he hadn’t already.
We had been driving for about fifteen minutes at a constant eighty miles per hour when I heard a noise that didn't sound right to me. “Marty, I hear something,” I said. “It’s a whistling noise. Maybe you better slow down.” No sooner had Marty slowed the car down to about fifty when the right rear tire blew, slinging rubber all over the road. Thankfully, he was able to maintain control until he pulled it off the highway, where there was very little ground between the shoulder and the canal. In 1970, there were no fences like there are now to keep out the alligators; but, I chose not to remind them of that particular fact because they didn’t have a choice; they had to change the tire, so why upset them. Woody had already passed out and my brother wasn’t looking too good either.
An hour later, we arrived at the Naples Hospital. We stayed in the waiting room while they took Woody to emergency. Thirty minutes later, the doctor wheeled him out to us and explained. “I’m afraid you’ll have to take him back to Ft. Lauderdale. He’s allergic to penicillin so we can’t treat him here. From the x-rays, it appears that the bullet lodged in the fatty tissue of his calf and missed any major artery or bone. We’ve stopped the bleeding and patched him up so he should be okay until he gets to the hospital in Ft. Lauderdale.” Relieved that he wasn't in shock and not bleeding to death, Woody sat in back with me and Jeff sat in front with John and Marty. It was getting dark and we still had a two-hour drive to Ft. Lauderdale ahead of us.
When we reached Broward General in Ft. Lauderdale, they took Woody to emergency while we all waited in the lobby. We hadn’t eaten or drank anything since breakfast so we raided the vending machines, assuming we'd be there awhile. Thirty minutes later, the doctor wheeled him out and explained. “I’ve talked to his parents and we’ve decided not to operate. There is so much fatty tissue on his leg that exploratory surgery would be worse for him. The bullet hasn’t hit anything major so we’re just going to leave it in there. It should work itself out one of these days. If not, we can always operate when he’s lost some weight.”
On the way to his house, Woody perked up and was starting to look a little better. “Thanks guys. I’m sorry I put you through all this. It was really stupid of me." Feeling relieved that the day's events were behind us and Woody was going to be okay, John turned and said, "Forget it. We're just glad you're okay." Marty Iooked at him through the rear view mirrow and was about to reiterate the same, but instead, his smile turned into a scowl and a spasm of irritation crossed his face when Woody nervously chuckled and divulged, "I guess it’s a good thing I took out the hollow points and replaced them with regular twenty-twos!”