Monday, February 27, 2012

Saving Worth Wagers

From John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection of essays "Pulphead" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux  2011) here's another cautionary tale about the dangers of ungrounded equipment. Sullivan is being hailed as "the new Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace or Hunter S. Thompson, or some combination of all three." Amazon describes "Pulphead" as being "filled with hunks of other people's sometimes misshapen humanity." 

John, is a contributing writer to The New York Times magazine, a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and The Paris Review. He is the son of the longtime Louisville Courier-Journal sportswriter, the late Mike Sullivan. Pulphead is the second book he's had published, preceded by Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportwriter's Son. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004)

This post is based on John's essay in "Pulphead" that detailed his musician brother's near death electrocution from a microphone. Worth (Ellsworth) Wagers is actually John's stepbrother, John's mother having married Worth's father Lee. Worth was a guitarist and vocalist with a mid-90's Chicago rock band called The Moviegoers. (named after a Walker Percy novel) A band he formed with Liam Davis in 1988.

The Moviegoers were moderately successful, releasing two ep's and touring Europe in 1992.  Their first album "As You Were" came out in 1993, and was well received. They were in the process of planning a second album at the time of Worth's accident. On April 21st. 1995 the band stopped at Mike Sullivan's home in Lexington, Kentucky. They were scheduled to open for The Reverend Horton Heat in Memphis three days later.

The band chose to take advantage of the down time to rehearse in Mike's garage. As they set up the equipment, Liam Davis reminded Worth Wagers to wear his Chuck Taylors.  The rubber soles of those iconic high tops would serve as an insulator, sparing Worth from the full electrical force. That fateful reminder would save Worth from instant death.

As the band counted down for their first number, Worth while holding his guitar, put his mouth to the microphone. Instantly volts of electricity jolted his body. The guitar strings and frets seared his hand.  He fell straight back having received a massive electrical shock.

Worth's vital signs were weak. As Liam Davis checked his pulse, Worth stopped breathing. Lacking any CPR training the band members stood by, watching in horror as he lay dying.  A policeman was the first on the scene, he immediately started administering CPR.

Worth had essentially flat lined, the first responders worked feverishly to regain a pulse. Ironically they zapped him with 200 joules of electric shock to restart his heart. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital he would flat line five more times. 
                                                                        Worth Wagers

Eventually his heart resumed beating, but he needed help from a breathing machine to stay alive. A brain scan showed that he was in near vegetative state. Then, with all hope exhausted, Worth stunned everyone by pulling out of the coma and regaining his motor skills.

Both John and his father, without knowing that the other was doing so, kept detailed notes on Worth's progress. John's notes would form the basis of the Pulphead essay. John's narrative is riveting and insightful as he details Worth's return from the dead. A few his observations are heartbreaking, others funny and some are so strange that they defy explanation.

The process of Worth's brain healing itself, offered John a rare window to the basic human kernel... the command center. The electric shock had scrambled Worth's thought process, now he struggled to make sense of everything he had ever known.

Eventually Worth made a total recovery. He rejoined the band and they recorded that second album "Twin Pop" His experience was made into an episode of Rescue 911, hosted by none other than William Shatner. "My brother played himself in the dramatization, which was amusing for him, since he has no memory whatsoever of the real event."  John Jeremiah Sullivan