King of the road (rash, that is)

It was summer 1968, and Bernie Branch was riding high, wide and handsome, literally, in his ’55 Cadillac hearse.

Bernie was the lead guitarist of The Mad Men, a good local rock band who played all over the North Country. Of course, lots of good bands played around the area, but only one of them pulled up to a gig in a hearse.

The hearse was a real beaut. It may’ve been 13 years old but it was in near-mint shape, with a tony red leather interior. It also had another distinctive feature. Of the two side doors, the rear door had rear hinges, so it opened to the back. Since there was no post between the doors, it had the advantage of being much easier to get in and out of.

But it also had one huge disadvantage: If someone opened the rear door at high speed, the door would snap back and could throw the person out of the car (especially since almost no one wore seat belts back then). This was why, to the industry, they were “rear-hinge doors,” but to gearheads they were “suicide doors.”

On a fine July afternoon Bernie was red-ballin’ down the Northway at a cool 75 mph, two guys on the seat next to him, another 10 in the back, headed to Schenectady to see B.B. King at a rock club called the Aerodrome.

All was copacetic as the guys in the front grooved on tunes from Albany’s premier rock station, WPTR. Meanwhile, in the back, Gary Ryan was sitting next to the driver’s side suicide door, and Mike Munn was next to him.

“Hey,” said Mike, “I don’t think your door’s completely closed.”

Without thinking, Gary reached over and pulled up on the latch.

At that moment, Bernie heard a deafening “Thunk!”

“The hell was that?” he yelled.

A split-second later, the window behind the driver’s compartment slid open and a face appeared.

“Gary just fell out!” screamed the face.

Strictly speaking, that wasn’t true. Gary didn’t fall out — he was launched.

After flying through the firmament at 110 feet per second, Gary landed square on his tuchis, bounced, and then flipped and flopped and skidded and scraped across the pavement, till he rolled to a stop on the median.

The hearse screeched to a halt and everyone poured out and looked north.

There, limping toward them, was a ghastly apparition out of some ’50s horror flick. It had unfocused eyes as big as pie plates staring into the middle distance, and both arms, from top to tip, were covered with blood.

When the apparition was about 20 yards from them, he stopped and reached in his pocket. Then he took out his hand and held up a familiar red-and-white icon — a pack of Marlboro cigarettes.

With a weird sick smile on his face, he said, “When they say it’s a crushproof box, they mean it.”

The day’s levity over, they piled into the hearse and took off, getting out at the next exit. Luckily, an emergency hospital was within sight. Bernie, having watched too many episodes of “Ben Casey” and “Dr. Kildare,” pulled in front of the entrance and waited to be swarmed by doctors, nurses, technicians and stretcher bearers galore.

No one came out.

A few minutes later, they took the hint and walked in under their own steam.

Wrap stars

The entire staff was sitting behind the counter — one nurse.

Before she did anything, she had Gary fill out some paperwork. When that was done, she told him that since he was 15, she needed a parent’s permission to treat him.

Shocky, shaky and spaceshot, he called home and got his mother. Then, in world-class understatement, he told her he’d gotten some scratches on his arm and needed a bandage or two. In reality, any skin on his arm that wasn’t sliced and diced or slashed and gashed was flayed and fileted.

The nurse did the only two things she could. One was cut off all the flesh that was hanging off his arms and hands. The other was wrap a couple hundred yards of gauze around his arms, from shoulder to fingers. And that was it for his treatment.

When they got back in the hearse, Bernie said, “OK, so now we go back home.”

“The hell we do!” said Gary. “We came down her to see B.B. King, and we’re gonna see B.B. King.”

Q: How could such “courage” be denied?

A: It couldn’t.

In a fog

They continued on to Schenectady. When they got in the Aerodrome, the joint was packed and there wasn’t a seat to be had. This was no problem for nine of them, who stood. Gary, now too weak to stand, sat on the floor, in a corner. Not only did he feel like hell; he also looked it: By then he’d bled completely through his bandages; plus his arms hurt least if he extended them fully sideways.

Gary survived the entire show, got back in the car, and they all headed home.

At this point, the blood had dried in the gauze, so now Gary didn’t keep his arms out to lessen the pain — he kept them out because he couldn’t move them anywhichway.

As luck would have it, when they got back on the Northway, it was socked in by fog so thick they could barely see over the hood. So what would’ve been a three hour trip home was now going to take five hours … if they were lucky.

Oh, the irony! Here they were in the finest piece of Dee-troit Iron, a whopping 270 horsepower under the hood, and they were crawling along at the speed of an ox cart.

But crawl along they did till Lake George, when the fog exploded in red flashes and they got pulled over by a trooper.

He checked out the paperwork, asked the usual questions, then shined his flashlight in the back.

And there was Gary.

He was sprawled in a corner, blood-soaked bandaged arms perpendicular to his body, pain etched on his face, looking less like a kid having the worst day of his life than some gory medieval painting entitled “The Crucifixion at Rest.”

The cop asked him what happened, and Gary told him.

The cop shook his head.

“People always said law enforcement was a career that might get weird but that’d never got boring,” he said. “And ya know what? They were right.”

He vanished back in the fog, and Bernie, et. al., continued on their way, arriving home around 0200, give or take.

The next day Gary’s mom took him to the hospital to have his bandages changed and to be examined thoroughly. The less said about that, the better — especially all the gravel chunks that had to be dug out of the various layers of his skin. But miraculously, nothing else was injured, and he only had one lasting effect: No hair ever grew back on his arms.

But something lasted with Bernie, namely a resentment about the emergency hospital nurse. A few weeks later he voiced it to Gary.

“Ya know,” he said, “I’m still ticked off that nurse kept us waiting in the driveway. I know she saw us. And at an emergency hospital, no less!”

But Gary got in the last word.

“Bernie, you pulled up in a hearse,” he said. “Why would anyone rush to check that out?”