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The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Two: Attack on the Road

Over the previous weeks, we'd discussed the next stage of the journey, the choices being to travel a few hours and stay overnight or to go right through to Palermo in Sicily, where we would be staying for the next ten days. It wasn't much of a decision. We had habitually traveled long distances at night in both the United States and Europe since the children were born so as not to eat into vacation time. They slept comfortably and were generally well rested when we reached our destination, and we avoided the drag of a long journey through the daylight hours, everyone awake and impatient to be there. We were on the Salerno-Reggio di Calabria autostrada, the only main route south from northern Europe to Sicily, a limited-access divided highway, well engineered and well used day and night.

Did I know there was anything to worry about? Like everyone, I had heard stories of the Mafia in Sicily, pickpockets in Naples, elaborately planned thefts of anything from wallets to cars. I had spoken to friends who knew the south, asked at the Italian tourist office, told hotel keepers what we planned to do. The response, whoever gave it, and whatever language they used, generally amounted to the same advice: petty crime is rife and tourists are vulnerable. Be as careful as you can and, if you are robbed, be philosophical about it. None of this added up to murderous attacks on innocent travelers. As far as I knew, the most dangerous feature of the road we were on was the possibility of an accident and, by driving carefully, I thought I could minimize that.

Leaving Paestum, as usual the last visitors to go, we repacked the car, clearing the back seat and stuffing clothes into the pillowcases we'd brought for the children. We drove along, playing a few car games, talking about what we'd seen that day and what lay ahead. It was a perfectly normal scene, something I'd done dozens of times: cars overtaking or being overtaken, trucks laboring up steep hills or crowding the rearview mirror on the downslopes, bunches of traffic in places, quiet patches in between.

By now we were in Calabria, the toe of Italy. The children were fast asleep, their small heads resting peacefully on their makeshift pillows at both ends of the back seat. We decided to pull into a rest area so we could close our eyes too, but immediately saw it wouldn't do. There were several trucks and lots of cars, one with the radio playing loudly, and people lounging around in the warm air. "We can't get any sleep here," I said. "Let's go on. I'm not tired, really." As we set off, Maggie closed her eyes and was soon asleep. I took it easy so as not to waken anyone. A few miles farther, I noticed something in the rearview mirror that looked quite ordinary at first glance, a car coming up behind us. It came closer and closer and for the first time I felt a quiver of uneasiness. Cars overtaking in Italy move out a long way behind and come by fast. This one was getting too close. It came nearer still, and I remember saying quietly to myself, "There's something wrong here."

At that moment, it pulled out into the overtaking lane and I breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing wrong after all. Then, a split second later, instead of pulling away it was running alongside us. Now I spoke aloud: "Something's happening." Maggie woke immediately, just as from the other car came the sound of loud, angry voices, a deep-throated menacing roar, the words indistinguishable, but clearly ordering us to stop. Maggie leaned forward, looked across at them, and then sat back in her seat. That may have saved her life.

In the next sliver of time, all the things I'd thought about violent crime came rushing into my mind. "Don't resist, they just want your money." "Keep calm. It'll all pass soon." "They can't mean it: they're just trying to frighten you." But overriding everything was the sound of those savage threatening voices and the conclusion: "Once we are in their power they can do anything they like-kill us all, kidnap the children, take Maggie." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the hood of their car, next to ours, and noticed what appeared to be spots of rust or dirt. A thought ran through my mind, "It looks like an older car than ours. We can probably outdistance them." I held the wheel tight, in case they tried to force us off the road, and fixed my eyes on the road ahead.

"We can't stop," I said to Maggie. "We have to get away." As usual, she didn't try to second-guess. I was at the wheel and she left the decision to me. I pressed the accelerator and the voices roared out again. By now we were picking up speed. I saw the speedometer crawl up. Come on, come on, maybe we can do it.

A moment later, all hopes of an easy way out disappeared. An explosion blew out the side window by the back seat. Until then, I didn't know they had guns. Now I did and there were another few seconds to change the decision. Even as the thought came, I dismissed it: "People as reckless as this aren't going to stop at anything. We've got to outrun them." By now we were traveling fast and still accelerating.

At that moment there was another explosion, and the side window where I was driving disintegrated. The bullet must have missed Maggie and me by an inch or two. There was no question any more. These weren't warning shots. Now, however, we were definitely pulling away, and to an onset of relief I saw them falling farther and farther behind until, from being next to us, I saw their lights in my driving mirror. "They've dropped back," I said. I felt safer, but who knew if they might not come again. Maggie looked back at the children, both apparently fast asleep, while I kept my foot on the floor. We sped through the night, on our own again.

In all this time, I had never looked at the attackers. All my concentration had been on getting the last ounce of speed out of that strong-hearted little car. It's difficult to sort out the flood of emotions at that stage. I wasn't shaking, for example, and my hands had been steady on the wheel throughout. Frightened, certainly, but not terrified. Perhaps it was all too unreal, another of Italy's theatrical displays. Astounded perhaps comes closest and now, of course, mightily relieved. Neither of us, I think, was even angry. Perhaps we were just in shock. Maggie wryly summed up the mood of the moment, "Now I suppose the two insurance companies will be arguing for the next six months whether this is car damage or theft."

Just about then Eleanor, on the back seat, woke up for a moment, saying she was cold: the wind was rushing in through the blown-out windows and we were still traveling full out. Maggie put some clothes around her and glanced again at Nicholas, sound asleep as usual. We drove on, looking for a filling station, somewhere with bright lights and people, and a telephone to call the police. As it happened, before we reached one, we came across a serious accident, with police already there and an ambulance at the side of the road. I stopped despite the loud protests of a young policeman controlling traffic, intending to show him the blown-out windows. As I opened the car door and the light came on, we both looked at Nicholas. He didn't move. His tongue was sticking out a little, and he had a trace of vomit on his chin. Maggie cried out in horror and called to the policeman. He looked casually inside the car for a moment, then, horrified too, he ran distractedly, shouting, shouting continuously, to the police car twenty yards back along the road.

Eleanor, frightened and confused, wanted to know what was happening. Maggie picked her up and held her tight. "Nicholas has been shot," she replied, quiet again. "We're going to get him to the hospital." In all the time since then, I can't remember an occasion when she has raised her voice about any aspect of this affair. The ambulance men didn't ask any questions. "Wait a minute," I called and found the little shred of sheepskin Nicholas had taken to bed almost every night of his life. "He won't feel comfortable if he wakes up and doesn't find this," I told an attendant. There was no common language, but he understood and placed it gently on the stretcher next to the little pale face. The ambulance took off at high speed, and we were told to wait to tell the police what had happened.

A driver who had stopped at the accident to see if he could help offered to take us to the hospital. "Your car has to stay here," he explained. We climbed in, numb with anxiety, and turning off the autostrada drove ten, twenty miles on dark, winding, slow roads. With only a few words of English, this quiet pious man tried to quiet our fears, repeating over and over, "It's all right. You'll see." Then, searching for some more tangible reassurance, he said, "You aren't Catholic, I know, but this will help," and handed us his rosary. His name was Giuseppe Ioppolo, but to Maggie he was the Good Samaritan and that is what we have called him ever since. On the back seat of the car, and sitting close together, Maggie explained to Eleanor as simply as possible what had happened. In a tiny voice, Eleanor asked if Nicholas would get better. It was a question that could neither be ducked nor answered, and we said only that the doctors would do everything they could.

At last we drove into the parking lot of a small hospital. All the floodlights were turned on, and in their glare what looked like the entire medical staff was grouped in total silence in a semicircle around the open back of an ambulance. I looked in, hoping against hope they were waiting for some other patient. But inside, his face newly washed, looking just as he did when he went to bed, was Nicholas. The one hope I'd clung to was that he'd been hit by a glancing blow that had knocked him out. Seeing now that they hadn't treated him, I knew it must be as bad as I'd feared. The head doctor explained gently that they were sending him to the nearest big hospital, in Messina, Sicily, because he was too seriously wounded for them to deal with. I've never known such bleakness.

We were driven to a police station filled with large strong men, apparently as stunned as the doctors. We pieced together the shocked whispers. "A child has been shot-He's badly hurt-He's being taken to Messina." And when the head of the police unit took our statements, it was with a quiet solicitousness that belied his military bearing. It was now after 11:00 p.m., and he had with him a professor from the local college who had been telephoned at home to come in and help with the language. He spoke English fluently, removing that terrible feeling of helplessness when trying to describe something precisely in a foreign language. But it took a long, long time, trying to remember every detail that might prove useful, anxious not to be too definite about what was hazy, but not too vague either or to leave out something important. Everything had to be translated, read back to us and signed, while all the time Nicholas was being taken farther and farther away.

The Good Samaritan had applied the spiritual comfort. Now the police officers in that little Calabrian town, whose names we didn't bother to ask-what did it matter?-searched for practical ways to help, bringing cup after cup of water and, when we left, pressing on us half a loaf, a knife, and some homemade marmalade.

A police car took us back to the still-busy autostrada-it was a shock to see everything looking so normal-and onto the ferry for the short crossing to Sicily. Only a handful of passengers were onboard, but it was clear from the hushed tones everyone knew something dreadful had happened. Every now and then someone would come in from another part of the boat, look at us for a moment or two, and then leave. Maggie sat with Eleanor on her lap, and I lay down on the hard bench, feeling cold and empty. We'd all looked forward to this crossing, its history full of wars and wrecks and monsters. Now one half of me wanted just to get it over with as quickly as possible, the other half for it to go on and on, to push away whatever news was waiting for us on the other side. The police had assured us a car would be waiting on the quay. I was surprised to find it there, but that was the last time I doubted their word. The police in Italy are widely criticized, but with us they were models of attentiveness and efficiency.

As we docked, a flutter of hope started up. Suppose the decision of the small hospital was just precautionary. Suppose the much bigger hospital had facilities that would reveal a less serious situation. Children can have recoveries that seem miraculous: their little bodies are so adaptable. "Do you know children Nicholas' age have been known to grow a new finger?" Maggie said as we docked. "Even if he's very badly hurt, he could recover." Please, please, someone, let it be.

The signs were against it. The police car drove us to the hospital, the Policlinico, and stopped at a door marked Rianimazione, literally, reanimation. The waiting room hushed as we entered. We were taken immediately into a bare room with perhaps a dozen doctors and nurses, all waiting for us, all absolutely still. Maggie was offered a chair, a bad sign, she felt. Eleanor, tired and bewildered, but proud and straight-backed, sat on her lap. The chief surgeon introduced himself. Without preamble he said simply, "The situation is very dramatic." The small shoots of hope withered away.

The bullet had lodged at the stem of the brain, the base from which all the main functions are controlled. It was too deep to operate on. The only hope was that his condition would stabilize and that in time they might be able to do something. The only thing for us to do, they said, was to go to bed, keep as strong as possible, and check back the next day.

The police had reserved a room at a nearby hotel, and as we were driven there I don't think I have ever felt I was in a more alien environment. I wanted only to go home, take Nicholas with us, however badly damaged, help nurse him through whatever he faced, hold his hand again, put my arms around him. I knew without asking that Maggie felt the same way. It was the worst night of my life. Overriding everything was the dullness of a terrible loss to come, a void that could never be filled. But underneath was a nagging, recurrent accusation. "You led him into this danger. You should have known better. He trusted you and you let him down."

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