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"God made my husband risk
both our lives to save mine!"
She opens the door herself! A radiant, beautiful, smiling girl - Ann-Margret - who three weeks before, had stepped onto a platform at the Sahara Tahoe and plummeted 22 feet below, who had lain with blood gushing from her ears, mouth and nose, her arm broken, her knee gashed to the bone. A woman the world thought could never be the same.
"I'm so happy to be alive!" the voice is vibrant with joy, though her teeth are wired tightly to her jaw and she cannot open her mouth. But she can smile, and does she ever. "I'm just so happy, I'm bubbling. I'm like a race horse", and she does a quick little race horse step, pawing the ground with those marvellous legs on which first prognosis warned she might never be able to dance again. Oh, but she can, she has. "The boys from my act were here yesterday. We were all dancing and singing right in this room".
Her arm, of course, is still in a cast. Her face, fractured in five places, is still a little swollen on the left side, but she knows now what she didn't know until a few days ago, that it's just a matter of time. She wears no makeup, has her hair pulled back, is attired in bright green mini-skirt blouse, and shoes with four-inch heels. She is about to dash out, the nurse driving, of course, to see the doctor and do some shopping.
The hospital bed is still set up in the den. She should probably be in it, but psychologically it's better for her to be active, to be as nearly as possible her own self.
One of those things Ann didn't want was to "feel sick", so instead of setting up the hospital bed in the master bedroom, Roger installed her in the little den which is really the center of their house. Here are all their souvenirs. Here is the television set and the close circuit TV which monitors the driveway and the electric gate. The new additions: Flowers, cards and letters, sent by everyone in the industry, from fans, even a letter from the White House and a huge poster with a kitten dangling from a tree branch and the motto, "HANG IN THERE, BABY".
Roger says, "I think a lot of people thought they were going to lose her, or at least what she was. They've identified with Annie and loved her; they've known she's led such a clean life, has such a clean young image and that it hasn't all been an easy go".
I had brought with me half a gallon of her favourite coffee ice cream and a carton of marshmallow sauce, a gift from a mutual friend, publicist Emily Torchia, who worked with her at MGM.
Annie hugged the package like a happy child. "I am so full of love. I can't explain it exactly, but I never knew people cared so much, that I had so many friends. I'm so grateful for all the cheering words, for all the thougtfulness and prayers and for that miracle man, Dr Franklin Ashley at UCLA, and for that other miracle man who got me to him..." She gives Roger a look beyond words.
He risked his life to save hers and she knows it. He made decisions that were formidable. He went through 48 hours of which she has no memory and he alone was responsible for her life.
She has always trusted him implicity, but now ther is more than trust. No love can be as precious as that which you've almost lost. She is the one woman who never need wonder, "Does he love me?" As if to remind her, there is on her hand the great 20 carat marquis diamond Roger ordered a couple of weeks before "when things were looking pretty bleak".
He had been planning on a diamond for Christmas and had been looking for six months. Roger had his stone shipped from New York, and was able to give it to her a week ago when she was still in bed. It probably wouldn't have meant as much before Ann stepped onto the platform and was pitched down to what might have been death or hopeless crippling. This diamond now has become a symbol of the crucial experience of their lives.
Roger had spoken to her less then five minutes before the accident.
"I was on the phone talking to Ann-Margret when Dan Gottlieb (their lawyer) buzzed the gate. Ann told me she'd call as soon as the show was over. Dan came in and started telling me what a tremendous ovation sh'd been given at the early show. He'd just flown down from Tahoe. She never played Tahoe before, we never thought of her as a Tahoe act. The audiences are essentially unsophisticated and not usually attracted to slick shows. But we were trying out a new act. The audiences were very warm; the hotel couldn't believe it! They've offered us a three-year contract.
"Ten minutes after Dan walked in, the phone rang. It was Marcia, Dan's sister-in-law. She told us Ann-Margret had fallen from the top. It was such a shock it didn't register. I couldn't believe that anyone could fall that far onto a hard floor and be alive. I had to get to her. That was the thing I had to get to her.
"I gabbed a phone and started calling commercial airlines. No flights until the following morning. The earliest I could get out of here was at 9:30 a. m. that would get me up to Tahoe att 11.00 a. m. No way. I called charter flights. There wasn't one available. At this hour (now almost 1:00 a. m.) most of them didn't answer their phones. If they finally did, they had no available pilots. Finally , one line did answer, did have a pilot, and one last plane, it was just going out. The last one.
"If I drove I could make it in 10 hours. No way. Meanwhile Dan had grabbed the other phone and was talking to doctors up in Tahoe. In his legal practice he has handled many medical cases. He is knowledgeable and he was trying to estimate the damage.
"I really didn't want to fly myself. I sold my own plane a year-and-a-half ago and have done virually no flying. We haven't had time to fly for fun, and on our business trips we've needed jets. My little plane was sitting in the hangar with the tires gone flat, rotting. But by 1:30, I knew I was going to have to fly myself. I just felt it was right; I had to.
"Suddenly, I remembered that at the place where I've leased planes, out at Burbank, there is a twin-engine Cessna left unlocked, and you don't need a key for the ignition. You just turn the ignition, turn on the battery and fire up."
Two minutes after this brainstorm, Roger and Dan were enroute to Burbank. When they got there, they could find no one. There is a ten-foot chain link fence with barbed wire over the hangings. Roger started climbing the fence but he was so tired that Dan insisted he try. Once over, he was able to open the gate and Roger started his game of blind man's buff. In the pitch dark airfield, he wandered about from plane to plane, checked out over a hundred before he found it, the Sky Master 37, the only plane on the line that didn't need a key, and yes, the door was open.
He had no question about "borrowing" it. They'd understand. Then, he checked the weather; it was terrible. It wasn't completely fogged-in, but it was not what they call VFR, visible Flight Rules, says Roger. "You have to know what you're doing because you can't see anything. You have to be really adept at following the instrument instructions. 90 percent of air accidents are caused by bad weather. I hadn't flown in weather like that in years."
Interesting. Years ago, when Roger was on "77 Sunset Strip" he was a kid with no sense of fear. He'd insist on doing his own stunts and was always being hauled off in a shrieking ambulance to the Emergency Hospital. Finally for brain surgery. He smiles wryly when you mention that now. "I have a great sense of fear now. I don't parachute; I'm very careful on a motorcycle. I used to do stunt-flying. I used to be crazy, but not anymore. As you grow older, you grow more involved with people. There is so much, my three children, Ann-Margret. There are too many people who depend on me."
But that dependancy demanded the unusual now. They had set Ann's arm and sewed up her leg. They were waiting for Roger to give permission for the facial operation. In order to repair the broken jaw and cheek bones, they would have to slit her across the face. He had to get to her.
With Dan he levelled. "Look", he said, "why don't you wait until morning and fly commercially. I haven't flown in a year. The weather looks terrible. There's no use in both of us going up there. I don't feel really comfotable about it. As a matter of fact, I've had a premonition."
He'd had a premonition from the moment he'd flown down with his daughter Tracey from Tahoe. Then, he didn't associate it with Ann-Margret. He thought the plane they were on was in danger.
"Now", he confessed to Dan, "I'm sure this flight is going to end up a mess. I reminded Dan that he had a family. He thought about it, and said, 'You tell me, Roger, do you think you can make it?' And I said I thought I could, but he must understand that for me to get out of this basin, I'd have to find a place where I could see. I can't fly through clouds. I'm not that sure of myself on instruments.
"The last report says there's a clearing in the Banning Pass near Palm Springs. I may have to fly awfully low across the city, down through Palm Springs over the mountains, and then head back.
"Dan said, 'Let's go'. There'd be a lot of decisions, medical and technical. Someone had to get to the stage and see that nothing was touched, that photographs were made. There were legal matters to be handled. He trusted my flying, he said."
For a while, it looked as they'd never get there. He flew to Palm Springs. The opening had closed. He next tried Ontario. No go. The weather had lowered. It was too low for a minimum; He'd see a little hole but to go through those holes you have to have enough room for your wing spread. Occasionally, he'd see a momentary star, but that's dangerous too. You need a bigger space to even see another plane. He'd about decided he'd have to work out an instrument pattern when all of a sudden there was a break in the sky far enough away from Van Nuys, Burbank to chance it, and he started circling up, and on that instant was above the clouds in clean moonlight.
It was startingly beautiful. All the moonlight and the billowing clouds below. But it was scary because they were heading North and East, the route across the Rockies. Who wants to fly the Rockies at night in a little plane with a non-pressuized canin and no deicres?
"Luckily, I'd brought coffee. I was so tired. The clouds got higher and higher as we progressed, until finally we were well above 10,000 feet, not recommended as an altitude in a plane that doesn't have oxygen because you don't think well at that altitude.
"Watch me", he told Dan. "Don't let me doze off."
It was 5:30 in the morning when the sun rose and they got their first glimpse of Tahoe. "Tgere were open patches and we came down, circled the lake and landed, and rushed to the hospital.
""Now I saw her, her cheek was busted, her eyes completely closed, her jaw broken, her teeth sticking two inches out of it. I couldn't even cry. Her arm was already in a cast, her leg had been sewed up. She was under heavy morphine (she doesn't remember any of this), but she was conscious and she could talk:
"'Did I finish the show?' she asked.
"'No baby, you didn't even start it.'"
"'Did the audience het its money back?' That was bothering her. I assured her it was okay.
"'Will I be able to go on tomorrow? Roger, please see that the boys (our dancers) are paid'".
Now, Roger faced a decision that was even more difficult than the one he'd made. To risk his life was one thing, to risk Ann's...
They wanted to operate on her face as soon as possible. While he had nothing against the little hospital at Tahoe or its excellent staff, he kept thinking of UCLA's great medical center. "What was needed right now for Ann-Margret was not just a plastic surgeon but someone who specialized in natural facial reconstruction. A small hospital like Tahoe doesn't have that type of man".
Doctors adviced him against moving her. Their recommendation was to wait a few days, but on the other hand leaving her jaw undone, not fixing her face, knowing her sinuses must be filled with blood, left Roger fearful.
"God knew what was going on and I felt he wanted me to get her to the best place I could". Dan and Roger manned two phones and started calling every doctorthey knew asking for advice and for the facial expert he thought the best.
By the time they were ready to move her, they had a list of 24 doctors across the United States, but the name most often mentioned was Dr. Franklin Ashley at UCLA.
If only he could get her to Dr Ashley! He talked to him by phone and the doctor, though he couldn't guarantee a diagnosis, did feel that the operation could be done up through the gums, laying back the facial skin and not having to cut through her face. Roger didn't understand just how this was to be done, but he did understand what it would mean to this beautiful girl not to have scars.
It was now one in the afternoon. Doctors begged him not to move her, not to play God. But Roger seemed driven by an inner force: he signed the papers for her release.
The night mare began anew when it was discovered there was no ambulance plane to be had in the area. The only available was a plane smaller than the one they had come in.
"Until now, Dan and I hadn't mentioned taking her in our Mickey Mouse plane. The whole idea was too absurd. The weather still wasn't good. I still hadn't slept; I still hadn't cried. The only alternative was San Francisco and we didn't have the same feeling about that situation as we did about UCLA.
"We thought of driving her all the way to L.A. by ambulance, but there are long stretches of road without a hospital. Suppose something started to happen and she needed immediate attention? In a plane we could come down quickly, land in any city.
"At this point we started thinking of taking her ourselves. I begged for a nurse or a doctor to go with us. No one would. As a matter of fact, a doctor out at the airfield said: 'I hear you are taking her. Don't do this'. He was a nice man, a good man, and he meant it. But I had to do what I felt was right for Ann-Margret. I started taking the seats out of the plane I didn't even have permission to rent. (He had called the owner, however, and received his okay.)
"I took out four of the six seats. It wasn't easy. I didn't know what to do with them, I lft them, then I piled two sleeping bags on the floor, took blankets and pillows from the hotel. When the ambulance brought her on to the field, I told them just to lift her out on the gerney (it's like a stretcher). We couldn't possibly lift her, she was too broken, so we just took the gerney and laid it as carefully as we could on top of the sleeping bags on the left side of the plane. I took over at the controls, dan acted as nurse. Our patient was completely unconscious, sedated heavily... I must tell you that to put this poor sleeping girl in this little plane with her face all swollen and mussed up and her black and blue eye anf her arm in a cast and her leg useless... was really getting to me.
"I just went straight up, climbed as high as I could because there are les bumps up high. I also knew that the difference in pressure was going to bother her ears and those sinuses filled with blood, but the pain couldn't be much worse than what she'd already had. Down below was the doctor who'd said 'Don't take her' and up where we were it seemed the bumpiest ride I'd ever had. Everything depended on me now.
"I was running full bore, as fast as the plane would go, calling weather, finding out conditions. I had my computer out, trying to find the best altitude at this temperature. Then, I glanced over at Dan, holding Annie. Now, this man is a genuine Jack Armstrong-American Boy. He has never smoked or drank. He doesn't even drink coffee! He's a Rock of Gibraltar, and I've always admired him for his complete emotional control. Well, at this point, he has tears streaming down his face because she looks so pathetic, so helpless.
"All the accumulated anguish rose up in me then and I sat crying like a baby, flying through the night, crying like a kid. I never did regain my composure. Three days afterward, I was always on the verge of tears".
He still is. We sit in the little den chatting. Roger is curled up in the hospital bed which fills the room. From time to time he turns away, his voice choking.
This is a love story. This is what the man will do for the girl he loves. And much more. It's the story of God working in our lives. All the time Roger was praying. As soon as Ann was able, they prayed together. There have been terrible moments since. After he'd brought Ann home from UCLA, she didn't believe her progress was so remarkable. She'd look in the mirror and say, "But why isn't the swelling going down? Are you really telling me everything?" She didn't quite beieve him until Roger got hold of a picture taken at the hospital before surgery and brought it home. Then she knew.
Only a week ago, they pulled out the packing and then she really saw.
During it all, Ann-Margret never stopped being Ann-Margret. As soon as she was conscious, she worried about her father, who is very ill with cancer. She worried about her godfather, Gus Randall, the man who paid for her dancing lessons, and who was also hopitalized with cancer. She insisted on going to the hospital to see Gus, so he could see her.
The first day she was able to stand on her feet, she went. Roger begged her not to, he'd seen Gus, the guy was in a coma, it would be terribly painful for her to walk and it would do no good. Annie went just the same. She went to Santa Monica Hospital and he did recognize her, smileed and three hours later was dead.
While she rested in the hospital bed and Roger curled up beside her, he told her little by little what she wanted to know. How had he gotten to her? How had he done it? How had she gotten back? This time they cried together.
By Jane Ardmore