“Boy!” Johnny Rauschert snorted to himself. “Somebody on the ground sure isn’t paying attention today!”
He signaled the boom operator and then whistled to his crew.
“Wait!” He shouted over the din of the construction site. “We’re two feet short!”
He would have to reposition the boom-ball if they were going to get the cement bucket up to the columns for the pour. He should have waited. He should have climbed down off the high steel and done it on the ground but construction jobs are always on a tight schedule and perennially behind and the task was easy enough. Johnny grabbed the hoist cable, slipped one leg over the rim of the empty bucket and then carefully pulled the other in as the crane boom swung perilously in the wind out over the ground. He loosened the pin on the eight-inch ball and began to adjust it. In the next moment, he was airborne. The bucket tripped and spilled him sixty-five feet to the ground. It was the morning of October 1st, 1968.
A six-story fall from a cement bucket on the high steel of a construction site would have killed an ordinary man: Johnny Rauschert is no ordinary man.
He was born in August of 1931, the son of stubborn German/French ancestry, in the upstairs bedroom of a two-story house on 160 windblown acres of costal Oregon farmland his grandfather had settled. By the time he was thirty-seven years old, he was a construction worker and dairyman on the same land. He and his wife, Shirley, ran fifty or sixty dairy-cows that had to be milked twice a day. Johnny would rise before the sun, and with the help of his wife and a neighboring teenage boy, he would milk the cows and then go to work at the construction site: work all day and then come home and milk the cows again. It wasn’t a bad life in all. It was certainly a hard life and the days were long but Johnny was a man who had been taught by his father and grandfather how to work. And he did. His dairy cows had to be milked twice a day and they didn’t care if he was sick or tired. They didn’t care if the weather was foul or if it was cold out or hot. And similarly, construction won’t wait on you if you are sick and tired, or if the weather is foul or if it is cold out or hot. A job has to get done. Johnny was as dependable on the construction site as he was on the farm. He showed up every day and went to work. Sick and tired could wait for Saturday, when the cows would still have to be milked twice.
When the cement bucket tripped, John was thrown head over heels toward the ground. By some unknown marvel, he was able to right himself just in time to impact the first of the scaffolding on the way down. The unyielding cross-members sheared the two-inch heels off of his boots and broke both of his ankles, but righted him as he continued to fall.
He had just enough time to think of his wife and children and to say a prayer.
“Oh, Lord…” Johnny prayed as the crisp October air whistled past him, “watch over my family!” It was a simple prayer made none-the-less urgent by the short but deadly distance to the ground. Curiously, he felt no fear. He was a child of God and though death was seemingly immanent, he knew he would soon be with his savior, Jesus Christ.
At thirty-two feet per second/per second, the rate of descent governed by the immutable laws of gravity; by the time John hit the ground he was falling at almost terminal velocity. It doesn’t take a man very long to fall six stories: hardly two seconds, and if he survives, it will take him a lifetime to recover. Johnny hit the ground and landed on his feet at about a thirty-degree angle. His right leg absorbed most of the terrible impact. What bones had remained unbroken in his feet and ankles from the collision with the scaffold above, were shattered along with his right shin. His leg was telescoped and driven into his ribcage. His pelvis was crushed. His back was broken in two places.
He bounced once, like a rag-doll thrown from a speeding car and then fell face first and headlong another fifteen feet down into the substructure that was filled with rebar and yet more scaffolding. The last distance broke out his teeth, bruised and battered his face and upper torso and gave him a concussion. In all, Johnny Rauschert fell some eighty feet.
A co-worker, probably the crane operator got to him first. Johnny was still conscious, although no one knows why. His first words were,
“Help me up so I can get back to work!”
But work would be months away if it returned to him at all. He was badly injured, bloodied and broken but his broken bones were the least of it. Johnny Rauschert was bleeding to death from internal injuries.
At the hospital, the doctors hardly knew where to start. He was a horribly mangled human jigsaw puzzle. They told his wife,
“There is very little chance he will survive, even if we can stop the bleeding and right now, it doesn’t look like we can.” But Shirley knew where to start- prayer.
The call went out to every pastor and priest in every church and to every member of every congregation of every faith in the little fishing and logging village of Bandon, Oregon and everyone hit their knees. The bleeding stopped. The doctor’s set about to try and piece him- the proverbial Humpty Dumpty- back together but they solemnly warned his wife,
“He’ll never walk again.” They were wrong.
In the days that followed, every prayer meeting, every prayer circle, every individual meditation remembered Johnny and miraculously, he began to recover. In the first few days, only his wife and clergy were allowed to visit but after two weeks, my father went to see him. My dad tried not to show his shock upon entering Johnny’s room. He looked more like a science project and an elaborate Erector Set than a man. He was a tangled morass of plaster casts, braces, traction ropes and counterweights but he was doing chin-ups on the bar above his bed.
“Do you think you should be doing that, John?” My father was nearly beside himself. “Your back is broken!”
Johnny smiled through his broken teeth and horribly bruised face.
“It’s okay, Pete.” He said as he reassured my panic stricken father. “God has healed me!”
Johnny Rauschert was a modern day Lazarus, raised from the dead by faith, prayer and a miracle.
Some weeks later, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Johnny Rauschert, the man who was never supposed to walk again, much less live, hobbled slowly on his crutches into the Bandon Pacific Community Church to thank his pastor and his congregation for their prayers and to give them his testimony. It was a sight! The audience applauded; the elders clutched their bibles and murmured their amen’s while the women wept silently. Johnny began to tell the story of his accident and it was truly appalling. My little brother and I were transfixed. We were riveted. We were terrified. We couldn’t have turned away, no matter how horrific the details, if we had wanted to. And we didn’t want to.
As he spoke, a great storm began to blow in off the sea. The sky was darkened with bilious angry clouds. The salted wind howled. The towering fir trees swayed. I was covered from head to toe with goose-bumps. When there came a moment in the telling, when it looked like all hope was gone and Johnny would surely die, a searing bolt of lightning shorted out the power in the tidy little sanctuary. I can still see him, his bruised and toothless happy face, hunched over in the half-light on his crutches, as the ominous thunder rumbled across the distant sea; praising God for the astonishing gift of life! In the end, he told how God had stanched his internal hemorrhage, healed his back, allowed him to walk again and spared his life. It was truly a miracle, that’s what he said and that’s what he believed. We believed it too and I still believe it.
Most men never know the positive impact they have on the people around them and certainly not on young boys in Bandon, Oregon in 1968. Sometimes, if a son is lucky, is fortunate, his father knows. Mine did. But there is a short list of men behind my father who gave me an example of true manhood, of courage and the gift of faith and belief at a young age and that line of men begins behind Johnny Rauschert. I never knew him well, but he is one of my heroes.
Post Script: Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Johnny died peacefully on August 8, 2009; due in part to years of complications of his injuries from his fall at the construction site in 1968. He was an extraordinary man.
His daughter, Missy, asked me if I would write something; if I would append this story with a message about her father and I thought about it, wrestled with the idea for hours wondering what I might say about a man I knew so little of beyond this small narrative.
I am tempted to speak of the perilous decade in which I came of age: the October missile crisis, the Cold War; the Civil Rights Movement and of the race riots; of the assassinations of President Kennedy and his brother, Bobby and that of Dr. King; of the terrible war in Southeast Asia and how the world desperately needed giant men of stature, of faith and simple quiet dignity.
But, as I look around the world in which we live today, I realize that not much has changed, but that the truth presents itself in this; through each decade, each epoch in which we struggle to live and come of age, we have always needed and shall always continue to desperately need giant men of stature, of faith and simple quiet dignity, like Johnny Rauschert.
I rejoice for Johnny in this: his suffering is at an end and he is at long last rejoined with his beloved Shirley in the comforting bosom of his Savior, Jesus Christ and my heart is equally torn by an appalling grief; by the width and depth and breadth of a terrible sorrow for his family and for myself, for this intemperate and difficult world, that this day shall find us all absent a giant we so desperately need.
I consider it my life’s privilege to have known Johnny Rauschert.
March 10, 2013 at 11:23 am
Brilliant essay, Mitchell!
An inspirational tale – told in the nick of time.
Thanks, I needed that…