Off North Road

A shot to remember

By Russell Hoxsie - February 9, 2006

Walter Woods, Jr. (Wally) joined the Martha's Vineyard Hospital as custodian 30 years ago, probably the longest tenured in that position. One spring day in 1967 his chance for future tenure of any sort nearly came to an abrupt end.

"April 18, a cold miserable rainy day like today, " Wally says as we sit in his living room in Vineyard Haven two weeks ago. "School vacation with nothing to do so we decided [he and three friends] to go crow hunting. Those days were different [off Edgartown Road], not so many houses. We ranged the whole area this side of the Lagoon, John's Jungle [Brightwood Park] connections to Winyah Avenue and the swamp where my grandfather watered his cows; we could go anywhere without somebody calling the police. Never got many crows but hunting with my dog always got my limit of pheasant." Wally now owns four German shepherds, all of which are isolated in a room adjacent to the living room where we talk. Through the hour I can hear Baron scratch at the door and whine to come in. I suppress a suggestion that my host comply.

Wally continues, "We were walking along; (he gets up to mimic with rifle over shoulder) the last I remember was looking at blueberry bushes along the path, then realized something was wrong ... I was in and out. Some kid was doing first aid and I woke up a little." Later he remembers I drove in through Serusa's field which is no longer there. "I wondered how you ever got your VW through there when you came to get me."

I received a call in the office that afternoon. A kid had been hit by a "ricocheted" bullet in the woods off Skiff Avenue. I should come quickly. I drove my VW as fast as I dared through town and into the woods following a boy who flagged me down. Finally I came upon the scene ahead. One boy lay still in the cart track and three or four other young teen-agers stood around in stunned silence. I raced the rest of the way on foot with my bag in hand, issuing orders for somebody to run for Ed Sylvia, the undertaker, who had an emergency station wagon, then find Wally's father (the boys had identified the victim as Wally), and bring the police and firemen. We, the kids and I, were all alone in a place I'd never been before. I approached the boy lying in the middle of the path. He was pale; a fresh trickle of blood ran down his right cheek and every few minutes he raised his head a little and then slumped back. The boys barely moved except the ones who ran for help. By this time I'd taken Wally's pulse and blood pressure and applied a gauze bandage over a small puncture wound on his cheek near the right ear. He was drowsy, unable to say where he was, what day it was, what had happened. From the boys I gathered that one of the guns went off as they all marched along with 22's over their shoulders. This was no ricochet, but a direct hit through the cheek.

Six or seven men arrived, all breathless and unused to running over rough ground through the woods. A stretcher was hauled out of the hearse and we loaded Wally inside; the long rush through the woods began. I feared for Wally's dad who was overweight and breathing very hard; he became more stressed as he struggled with one of the stretcher's four handles. By the time we got Wally to our emergency room and placed an intravenous, we were making plans to air-lift him to Boston. Wally remained stable. His parents and friends huddled in the small waiting room while all this went on. By six o'clock he was being wheeled into the Mass General emergency area and my job was done. I must have returned to the Vineyard on the same small plane. Helicopters were a thing of the future on the Vineyard at that time. The morning Boston Record-American printed a Page 2 picture of Wally on a Gurney passing through the MGH doors.

Soon after admission to MGH, Wally went through brain surgery. As he speaks about it now, he traces the incision with his finger up in front of his right ear from the cheek, back across his temple area and down behind the ear. The surgeons removed multiple bone fragments along the bullet's path but feared removing the actual bullet seen on x-ray because of its closeness to the carotid arty, the major blood supply for the brain. "What a thing for my parents and grandparents to go through," Wally says in a quiet voice as we continue talking at home. "I never saw [my] x-rays," he adds as an afterthought. He has lived with the bullet ever since.

Wally remembers he was still in Massachusetts General Hospital on May 7. "Ma was there with me; it was snowing out the window in Boston.... I don't remember the day of release but I had a headache for two weeks. [After I recovered] Dr Sjelberg told me not to bang my head.... [Years later] I was thrown by my horse ... horse stood there looking down at me ... slammed into the ground, bit my tongue ... started walking to the house and my eyes went 'click, click, click'." Wally assumes the spell was a transient ischemic attack (TIA). He has not ridden his horse since.

I ask how he's lived with all of this. He answers laughing, "Miss half of what the wife says! Lost the hearing on my right side!" He tells how he thinks he lost a portion of hearing on the opposite side when he first fired a shotgun he had modified with a short barrel. "It was like holding the barrel right next to my ear. I wear ear plugs now." He tends to minimize his short-term memory loss as most likely from age. "I remember telling my mother when I first returned to school I can't remember what the teacher said two minutes ago. I managed to go ahead with my class. Now I can remember 40 years ago. That's probably age too."

I ask if he has much of a scar. I cannot see a thing across the room from him. "Hardly any," he says as he points to his right ear near his jaw ... "a discoloration like a slight little freckle. You can see if you look careful. Next year will be 39 years. I ask him if he goes deer hunting. "Not anymore," he answers. "Had a close call years ago when a bullet whistled by my head," and he imitates the noise of a stray slug slithering through tall grass nearby. "Not supposed to have any peripheral vision either, but I do." He puts up fingers and wiggles each side of his head to demonstrate.

Wally doesn't hang out with the same guys any more. They've moved away. He seems to hold no grudge over the accident and is quite determined to avoid any tendency to blame someone for the accident. I ask him if this was the biggest thing in his life. "Yeah, I guess so. I'm pretty lucky, I'm a grandfather, walk around, ride my bike ... go hunting. For a while when I smiled, only half of my forehead would move. Now they both move." He is 57, an affable man who seems to have plenty of stories in him. He shows his neatly kept homestead with pride. "Welcome to Happy Valley Farm," he says as we look over the dramatic slopes and gullies of this glacial driven landscape where his grandfather Carl Lair watered cows beyond the farther hill in the swamp of John's Jungle.