Published On September 22, 2014
One sunny spring day when I was 17, I found myself standing in line at the local firehouse, waiting to find out what horrific injury I would suffer later that morning. I had volunteered to play the part of an accident victim in a mock disaster drill that public safety officials were staging to test the readiness of our town’s emergency responders. A family friend who was a police officer had asked me to participate, and I had agreed, though reluctantly. After all, I had gotten big laughs as the kooky bohemian landlord in my high school’s production of My Sister Eileen. For heaven’s sake, I’ve signed autographs, I thought to myself. Now you want me to be an extra?
Someone told me the scenario for the drill: a train explosion at the old town depot, which was no longer in use. At the time, the late 1970s, community-wide disaster drills like this one were still a relatively new idea, a descendant of the civil defense drills during the Cold War. It would still be many years before the 9/11 attacks, after which many municipalities, large and small, would conduct “mass casualty simulations” on a regular basis.
I eventually reached the head of the line of volunteer victims, where the fire captain sat at a folding table with a stack of index cards before him. He flipped one over and read it. “You have a foreign object in your left side,” he said, “and you’re hysterical.”
Hysterical? Why can’t one of the girls be hysterical, I wondered. Why can’t I have a manly problem, like major head trauma? I sulked for a moment, but as a makeup artist applied a red-smeared plaster wound to my hip, I remembered that I was an actor. They want hysteria? I’ll give them hysteria.
My fellow victims and I boarded a school bus, which brought us to the depot, where we were instructed to scatter about and lie on the grass. Someone with a clipboard and stopwatch blew a whistle, and in a few moments fire engines and ambulances raced onto the scene, sirens blaring. I took my cue and began writhing on the ground like a lizard on a hot plate, screaming: “HELP ME! OH, THE PAIN! ME FIRST!”
My histrionics quickly caught the attention of two burly EMTs, who rushed to my side. “We’re here to help you,” one said as they crouched down, but I was just getting started. “DO SOMETHING, THE PAIN IS AWFUL!” I bellowed, flailing about. The EMTs traded bewildered expressions, but managed to slide me onto a spine board. “I’M DYING, HURRY UP!” I moaned and kept up my high-volume pleas and frenetic squirming as they carted me to an ambulance, hoisted me aboard, and slammed the doors behind them. I was ready to give them a full-throated scream when the beefier of the two EMTs leaned down toward me, close enough that I could smell the coffee on his breath that this disaster drill had no doubt interrupted, and said, “You can knock it off now.”
For a moment I thought I should ignore him, remain in character and ramp up the hysteria even more. But then the other EMT chimed in. “Yeah, act like we gave you a shot of something and it made you sleepy,” he said. So as the ambulance rumbled on, the EMTs talked about the Red Sox and I lay still and silent. At the hospital, they delivered me to the emergency department and disappeared. A doctor examined me and correctly diagnosed that I had a big hunk of something in my side. Then he pointed to a red patch of skin on my leg, just beneath the hem of my shorts, and wondered out loud, “Now, what’s this?”
“Poison ivy,” I said. “It’s real.” He told me to try calamine lotion and said I could go home. I didn’t realize it as I sat outside drinking an orange soda pop and waiting for my ride, but my performance that day proved to be the finale of my acting career. At least I went out with a bang.
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