John Thompson had his arms ripped off by a piece of farm machinery when he was 18 years old.
That sort of thing happens in North Dakota. Go to the diners and bars and churches of the Peace Garden State, look at the worn hands of old men and you will see fingers missing. Sometimes the whole hand. Sometimes more. The fabric of the universe is woven together with unfairness and sometimes the simple act of trying to feed your family will cost a piece of you.
John's arms were ripped off just below the shoulder and he was knocked unconscious. His dog brought him back, licking his face, whining and barking. Confused, blood pouring from his body, John rocked himself up and onto his feet.
"I didn't want to lay there and die," he later told a newspaper.
He dizzily made his way 150 yards to the house and managed to open the door with a series of kicks. He fell inside, found a pencil with which to clench in his teeth and dialled 911. He calmly explained to the person on the other end what had happened, asked if they wouldn't mind sending an ambulance, then went to sit in the bathtub, so he wouldn't get blood on his mother's new carpet.
It was January, which is a bitterly cold and awful time to be in North Dakota, unless, perhaps, you've just had your arms ripped off. The cold and snow helped to preserve his arms. Because of it, all three items -- John, his left arm, and his right arm -- arrived the hospital in about the best condition one could expect for things which shouldn't ever be separated.
The state of North Dakota, of course, is conveniently located next to the state of Minnesota, which, fortunately for John, is home to all kinds of amazing medical research. John and his arms were quickly transported there and it was collectively decided by family and doctors: Hey, what the hell -- let's try strapping these things back on and see what happens.
The story made national news. I was 13 years old at the time, living in a Minneapolis suburb, and John's story was to be found on every newscast, every night, for several days. Over and over they'd show an airbrushed high school yearbook photo of a pimple-faced, scrawny boy with one of the most embarrassing mullets you've ever seen, posing next to his dog. A local daytime talk show promised to have an expert on to discuss John's case and I faked illness to be able to stay home and watch it.
Eventually, he was there in front of the cameras, painfully shy and awkward, his arms in slings and his hands purple and puffy, but amazingly and miraculously intact. He quietly apologised to his mother for getting any blood on the carpet and promised to clean it up as soon as he could, and smiled a quiet little smile while the whole room laughed and cheered and cameras clicked and whirred.
Several months later, he was asked to sing the National Anthem at a Twins baseball game. He came and stood in front of thousands of people and the shyness on his face suggested he might have preferred to just have his arms ripped off again rather than suffer all this attention. He warbled through the anthem and I found myself crying as I watched.
That was 20 years ago. His story has stuck with me ever since. I found myself thinking about him again this morning.
I am a cynical person. I often blame my years working in journalism, but I don't know if that's actually true. Maybe I am just a miserable person. And when I look at the world around me, I see running through it, as I say, unfairness and cruelty. These things are constants -- they are inevitabilities. Bad stuff is going to happen. When another baby is mauled to death by a pit bull, when another child drowns, when another young mother is brutally murdered, when another father is killed by a drunken driver, when another grandmother dies of neglect, I find myself frustratingly unaffected. It is sad, but not surprising. Terrible things are waiting for all of us.
John's story has stuck with me because it feels as if he cheated. His arms were ripped off, but then someone put them back on so he could wave his middle finger in the face of fate. And when one of us somehow gets away with such a thing -- even just one of us -- it gives you hope. It makes me think: Maybe I, too, could win that lottery, could somehow pull off a stunning upset against the incontrovertibility of misery. Chilean miners, Ernest Shackleton walking 32 miles over mountains, and John Thompson getting his arms back are things that help me get out of bed in the morning.
But when good things happen to me, I get worried. I think: maybe that was it; maybe that was my last triumph; maybe I won't get to cheat again.