Kieth Nielsen never came back

August 12, 2009

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Editor’s note: The following is the first in a five-part series.

“Don’t go, Kieth. You ain’t coming back.”—Lori Morrison

A flat, faceless stretch of Illinois Route 2 in rural Winnebago County is not unlike so many others. The gray strip of aging asphalt separates the rows of houses on its north and south sides, like a weathered gray belt separating green pants from a green shirt. It is a very quiet place in a world so seemingly filled with noise.

However, places like this faceless strip of state highway have a way of talking to some people. The collected stillness can gather in the mind of a person connected in some way to this tiny area and create a deafening sound.

“I lost a lot in that creek bed,” said Kieth Nielsen, 44, of Rockford, shattering the silence created by cars whizzing past like bees in a flower patch. Nielsen nearly lost his life in this creek bed, about three-quarters of a mile east of the Byron Fire Department on the edge of Route 2, 25 years ago.

On a beautiful Saturday in March 2009, Nielsen stood on the narrow shoulder of the road when he noted the shoulder was not always as wide as it is now. He surveyed the still water some 15 feet below like a man searching for a lucky coin he had dropped years ago.

He became as still and quiet as the rust-tinted water beneath him, as the realization that what he had lost in that creek bed (which is really a Rock River backwater inlet) was never to be returned swept over him like the spring breeze. He turned and navigated his way back toward the parked truck, walking against traffic with the setting sun of an early March Saturday as his backdrop.

Nielsen had not dropped a wallet or set of keys into that murky, shallow water. Neither a wedding ring nor any other sentimental memento had escaped his grasp and slipped into that cloudy, motionless water he had been staring into.

He closed the truck door and inserted the keys into the ignition, just as he had done so many times before. He reached for a cigarette with hands bent from constant pain, and lit it after placing it in his lips. And, with one depression of the clutch, he was off. He glanced to his left at a trailer park, then up-shifted into third and began to accelerate noticeably.

What Nielsen lost in that creek bed on a warm night in August 1984 cannot be measured in monetary increments or weighted against sentimental value. But as he drove toward the east, his silence and facial expression made his loss—and the subsequent path of his life—tangible and palpable.

The trees just outside the streaked windshield were almost alive with his loss, swaying in time to a tune that could not be heard, but at the same time was ringing in his ears.

Music and traveling quickly

“Music takes me places,” Nielsen said. “I can just sit back, relax and just listen to the words and the music, and be almost anywhere.”

Nielsen was born April 22, 1965, in the Rockford area. He grew up in Winnebago with his parents, who were store owners and professional square dancers. His parents’ square dancing allowed him to see much of this country in the mid to early 1970s. Those scenes now play out on thick Polaroid film stock, with fading colors and wide-collared shirts.

“Growing up, we traveled a lot. We went just about everywhere I could imagine at that age. We were always listening to music, Roy Orbison mostly. He’s still my favorite singer after all these years,” Nielsen said.

He grew vertically, and as thin as a pole as a youngster, with an unmistakable head of auburn hair atop his head. He hoisted first-place Little League Baseball trophies, blew out candles on homemade birthday cakes and opened presents with his younger sister on Christmas mornings in sepia-toned memories he now keeps in large Ziploc bags in the safety of an antique dresser drawer.

Things began to change when he became a teenager, as they often do. It was around this time Nielsen had his first taste of alcohol, which is not uncommon for many teens.

“I started drinking when I was around 13, I guess. It really didn’t seem too big a deal to me at the time,” Nielsen said.

You could build a small, sturdy bunker out of all the studies that have established a link between alcohol use by teens and developmental problems including depression, low self-esteem and alcohol abuse as adults. Studies conducted in 2007 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration point to a marked increase in drinking among today’s teens.

According to the most recent study, slightly more than half (51.1 percent or 126.8 million) of Americans 12 and older reported being current drinkers of alcohol, which means they had at least one drink in the last 30 days. More than one-fifth (23.3 percent or 57.8 million) of those surveyed participated in binge drinking, or consumed at least five drinks on the same occasion. These numbers were noticeably higher than the studies conducted a year earlier in 2006.

As a teen, Nielsen continued to drink, and eventually struck up a recreational relationship with marijuana and other drugs.

Resisting the temptations of a world seemingly spilling over with wrong choices has proven to be too much for many young people. According to Richard Gallagher, Ph. D., of the New York University Child Study Center: “The temptations of substance use, and abuse, is a major problem that affects a large number of adolescents in their late-teenage years. Illegal drug use and misuse of prescription drugs are commonly encountered, while alcohol misuse is the most prevalent concern. Arguments, fights, and dangerous but daring acts—and their corresponding unpleasant consequences—are all encountered, as alcohol and other substances typically set off a chain-reaction due to changing brain chemistry.”

A joyride gone wrong

Aug. 5, 1984, was a warm late-summer evening. Kieth, now 19, was at a party at Timber Lane trailer park. Beer and other assorted adult beverages were being enjoyed; hot dogs and hamburgers were sizzling on a grill, filling the air with the unmistakable smell of a summer evening. The rows of mobile homes were alive with the sounds of youth and frivolity.

Evening became night, and the drinks were still flowing. Kieth and a friend—both noticeably intoxicated—decided to take a motorcycle for a joyride.

“I don’t remember walking out the door of the trailer, but I remember Lori Morrison grabbing me by the arm and saying, ‘Don’t go, Kieth. You ain’t coming back,’” Nielsen said. “I can still hear her saying it.

“We came out of the trailer park flying,” Nielsen continued. “I was on the back, and my friend was on the front. We were riding a ‘crotch-rocket,’ a big one. It was the first one I’d been on.”

Kieth and his friend reached an estimated speed of 85 miles per hour, blistering the silent pavement on Route 2, with only the front-mounted headlight and moon lighting the pitch-black night. The houses were all dark and silent, as many of the owners had turned in for the evening. Luckily for Kieth and his friend, Liz Chelinsky had just returned home from buying groceries after a long evening of nursing classes.

Chelinsky’s home, which she shared with her daughter and husband on that night, sits directly beside that tiny, calm creek. The bridge, spanning the distance of the creek bed, is slightly to the northwest of the home, but well within earshot.

“I was taking classes at night over at Rock Valley [College],” Liz Chelinsky said. “I was bringing in the last of the groceries when, out of nowhere, I heard metal scraping the pavement and stuff flying everywhere.”

Nielsen described the wreck: “We were doing about 85 [mph], and my friend swerved to miss a raccoon. The motorcycle hit the guardrail, and I was slung through two trees and hit the quarry rock in the bottom of the creek bed. If I would have landed 12 inches further to the left, I would’ve landed in water.

“My friend later told me that he remembered seeing my body fly past him when we hit that rail,” Kieth added after a considerable pause.

Chelinsky was a first responder, which means she had completed 40 to 60 hours of training in providing pre-hospital care for medical emergencies. Typically, first responders have more skill than someone who is trained in basic first aid, but they are not medical technicians. Certified first responders fill the gap between a basic first aid provider and an EMT-Basic.

“I dropped the bag of groceries and yelled to Wendy (daughter) and Frank (husband), ‘There’s been a bad accident,’” Chelinsky said. “They came out of the house, and Frank was carrying a battery-powered spotlight.

“As I got closer, I could hear someone moaning, writhing in pain down in the creek bed,” Chelinsky said. “I told Wendy to go inside and call 911. I could hear someone moaning: ‘Get my mom. Oh, God, I’m hurt. Get my mom.’ Kieth was in and out of consciousness, and I knew from my first responder training that I had to keep him awake and talking.

“His leg was injured pretty badly. I could see straight through it,” Chelinsky said. “I knew that if my daughter saw the shape his leg was in, she’d pass out and be of no use to me then. I kept him awake by talking to him about his mom and asking where I could find her. He was in bad shape. I thought there was no way he’d ever live to get out of that creek bed.”

The Byron Fire Department was first on the scene, and they executed a helicopter extraction to save precious time and, eventually, Kieth’s life.

“If they wouldn’t have carried me out of there on that helicopter, I would’ve died that night,” Kieth said. “The EMTs later told me that my body hit that quarry rock at somewhere near 135 miles per hour. I still live with the pain from the injuries, and doctors have told me that I’ll always live with the pain.”

Though he walked away from this accident, he spent the majority of the following three weeks unconscious. He also carried away a laundry list of injuries from the accident, including: a broken left arm, a solid fracture of his C2 vertebra, a compound fracture of his right femur, damage to his Achilles tendon, multiple heart and lung contusions, and his left ring finger was shoved completely through his left palm as a result of the impact.

After the accident, Kieth was left alone to recuperate from his substantial injuries.

“I was left alone all the time then,” Kieth said. “None of my friends were around because it was probably hard for them to look at. They didn’t want to see what could happen to any of us.”

In the silence and loneliness that filled his rehabilitation time, Kieth fell further and further into the grip of drugs, both prescription and illegal. He grew depressed and longed for the opportunity to just get out and live again, to be with his friends.

Though his journey was only beginning, Kieth had faced death in the stone lining of a mostly dried-up creek bed. His visit on that beautiful Saturday in March 2009 to the site of the accident was not Nielsen’s first trip back. It was evident by watching him relate to the landscape, almost asking the trees he was catapulted through for reasoning, that he had been there many times before. His movements and mannerisms became very deliberate and rigid, like a scarecrow responding to a soft breeze.

Kieth’s journey was about to take him even farther from home, but at the same time much closer to death. No more than half a mile to the east down the same stretch of Route 2 sat a home well off the road. This would prove to be Kieth’s next fork, and the path he chose to take Aug. 16, 1986, would change the rest of his life.

from the Aug 12-18, 2009 issue

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