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|When you visit the DON
GARLITS MUSEUM OF
DRAG RACING near
beautiful Ocala, Florida,
be sure to let the fine
staff know that you saw
the museum featured on
THE CHESTER INFERNO, Part 3
...To Hell and Back!
"Mr. Garlits," the doctor began, "I've got some bad news for you."
I was flat on my back in the Chester hospital after living through an inferno at a nearby raceway, swathed
with bandages, reeking with burnt flesh and oozing skin, and there was still great doubt whether I would
live, much less ever return to drag racing.
"What could be bad news after all I've been through?" I wondered silently.
"Your hand will never be any good to you," he continued, pointing to my left extremity. Granted, it looked more like a
hunk of charcoal than a human hand, but..?
"It's useless," the doctor kept going. "We want to remove it before the sever blood poisoning in it spreads to the rest
of your body."
"Remove?" I asked. "You mean
you want to take it off?"
I tried to look as defiant: "No way!"
The doctor took a long look at me,
then wheeled from the room. He
tried to get Pat to sign a release
for the amputation. When that
didn't work, he tried my mother.
"If you'll give us permission," he
urged them, "then we can go
ahead with the operation. It may be
the only way to save his life, and
even then I can't make any promises."
Both Pat and Mom agreed, "We have to leave it up to Don."
The next day the doctor came into my room agian. I could tell that he was extremely irritated from the way he walked.
"We have to operate!" he snorted. "The hand will never be any good to you. I need your decision today. It's for the
best. You'll see."
I was fighting back my emotions. I still couldn't believe that I was in a hospital bed hearing the words "amputation"
and "blood poisoning." Drag racing seemed like another far-off world. Too much had happened too quickly.
"Doctor," I muttered through my cracked mouth, "I'll tell you what. I don't have an education. I have to use my hands
for a living. If you cut off either of `em, I'll be a worthless cripple. I'd rather just die."
I thought for an instant about what I'd just said, and I realized that it was absolutely true.
The doctor had entered my room ready to notify his waiting staff that the impending amputation was going ahead as
scheduled. He was clearly infuriated.
"Well," he shot back, "you ain't gonna die in my hospital or under my care!" With that he started toward the door.
"Then I'll just to home," I yelled at his back as the door slammed."
Going home wasn't one of my options, but transferring to Tampa General Hospital was. The train ride from Chester
to Florida was an endless succession of bone-jarring bumps. Finally we arrived at the depot where we were met by
my brother Ed. He didn't even recognize his 85-pound, baked and bandaged cadaver-looking brother.
The ride was worth it just to meet Dr. Cullen, my physician at Tampa General. Providentially, he was a skilled
specialist who had handled a number of critical burns during the Korean Conflict. He heard what I said about the
doctor in Chester, quickly scrutinized my frail body from head to foot, and he scoffed, "There's no need to take that
By the time he first saw me, stiff scar tissue had grown over my ruined hands. My fingers were becoming webbed.
The first thing Dr. Cullen did, after looking me over, was flex my fingers. The new skin broke. Blood came from every
joint. I almost passed out from the pain. That was just the beginning!
He took me into surgery the very next morning, and for five hours, Dr. Cullen literally scrubbed every square inch of
burned flesh off.
I was taken back to my room and swabbed, then both arms were placed in saline water trays. That night was the
most hellacious that I ever want to remember. It was worst than the accident itself. I was like a crazy person. Every
nerve on every bit of raw skin all over my body seethed with pain. I screamed all night until my throat croaked. The
drugs they kept giving me didn't help. The night went on and on.
Somehow I survived. Dr. Cullen's radical treatment began working right away. My skin began growing back in
patches, like grass or something. Then the patches spread and thickened, then joined together. It was amazing.
The reconstruction continued for five weeks. Countless hours were consumed with hand exercises in that briny
solution, but I was willing to do anything to get my hands working again.
I should have been thankful at that point, but it was so easy to get discouraged. As the hours and days passed, Isky
cams and superchargers and low E.T.s seemed so remote and meaningless.
Finally I snapped to Pat one day, "I'm through racing!"
Frankly, from her viewpoint, that decision had already been made. Still, she was relieved to hear the words from my
I called my brother Ed: "Sell everything! Sell all the racing equipment, the spare engines. I'm through!"
Maybe it appeared that I was decisive and confident in my choice to get out of the racing business, but inwardly I
was distraught. Life seemed over. I lay in bed through the nights wondering what I was going to do with myself.
"How can I face the world with hands that may never bend and a face that may end up looking like some scarred,
After many long weeks, I left Tampa General. I was wrapped in bandages, hat and gloves on the ride home to
protect my skin from the relentless Florida sun.
I was going home. It had been nearly three months since that fateful day at the Chester drag strip. That blazing
inferno that exploded all over me had changed everything.
I had survived, but for what? If I had only known what I would have to endure during the coming days...
|A world away from the hospital...Big Daddy and his first supercharged
Swamp Rat prior to the fateful drag race in Chester, South Carolina.