Rebecca West: Words & Music

Miracle at Watertown Square

by Bob West

I was released from active duty at Altus AFB, Oklahoma, on October 1, 1955. Sylvia and I packed Suzanne and everything we owned, plus a month's supply of baby food from the base commissary, in our car and drove to Boston where I had enrolled in the New England School of Art.

We found a place to live with the help and generous hospitality of my Air Force buddy, Ralph Zampitella, and his family who lived in Waltham.

Our first apartment was on the third floor of an old frame house in Watertown. The floors were lower in the middle than on the sides. At first we did not have a refrigerator, but the weather was cold enough for us to keep our milk, etc., on the roof outside our kitchen window. Later, we bought an old used gas refrigerator. It was mostly motor and compressor with very little storage space, and it weighed a "ton"! At least it felt that way when Ralph and I carried it up our three flights of narrow stairs.

Later, when we were able to move to a nicer (second floor) apartment in Waltham, we sold that refrigerator (or maybe gave it away free) with the condition that I didn't have to help carry it down the stairs. We bought a new refrigerator and had it delivered to our new apartment.

For the next two years we drove from Waltham to Malden every Sunday to attend the only Church of Christ in the area. The group was small and our "church building" was a rented house. It was here that our preacher, W. H. "Dub" Harrison, encouraged me to preach my first sermon, except it was called "making a talk." I was very shy and had never done any public speaking. The thought of doing so terrified me. I was literally sick for about three days before I got up to speak.

My VA benefits paid my tuition and helped with our living expenses, but I needed a part-time job to pay the rest. My first job was cleaning tables at a Hayes-Bickford cafe near the school. Sylvia worked for a while in a dress shop in Waltham, but there was very little left of her pay after baby-sitting fees, etc. I tried freelancing and did some art and lettering for a greeting card company and a salt and pepper shaker design for another firm, but very little else. I worked for a while retouching negatives and other pre-press work at a commercial printer. And I worked for a while at a meat packing plant in South Boston.

It was while I had this job that my classmate and fellow worker, Bob Arnold, and I had to abandon my car in Boston on our way home one night after work during a blizzard. The snow was over two feet deep and our side of the divided highway had not been plowed. Someone going in the opposite direction gave us a ride to the subway station. We took the subway to North Station and then took the train to Waltham and walked home in the snow storm from the depot. I arrived home around four in the morning, which didn't leave much time to sleep before going back to dig my car out before it was damaged by a snowplow. Bob's uncle gave us a ride to the car and helped us retrieve the car just in time.

Parking near the art school in uptown Boston was limited and expensive. I parked on the street and moved my car every two hours to avoid a parking ticket.

When the school closed for the summer, I got a full-time job as a senior draftsman at Raytheon's Transformer Division, located in Waltham within walking distance of our home. I worked hard and made a good impression with my boss. They did not have a night shift in the drafting department, but when it was time for school to start back, I was able to talk them into letting me come in after school daily and work a few hours unsupervised. The model shop in the same building had an evening shift and I was allowed to work the same hours.

Bob and I took turns driving to school. He had a 1940 Pontiac, which had small windows and was built like a tank, providing more protection than my post-war Ford with lots of glass and thinner metal. It was my turn to drive this particular day, October 23, 1956, but we switched and he drove because his wife needed the car the next day.

Just out of Watertown Square, a speeding 18-wheeler loaded with tons of corrugated paper, coming from the opposite direction, suddenly cut directly across our path, jack-knifed and toppled over on top of our car as we crashed into its side. The car was totaled, but by the grace of God we both survived.

Bob's 1956 auto accident

In the photo you can see where my head made a hole in the windshield. (This was years before seat belts or air bags were added to vehicles.) My thumb was almost severed from my drawing hand and the rest of my hand was cut up pretty bad. As it healed I had to learn to draw all over again. I suffered migraine headaches, and chronic pain in my neck and back for years. But I was alive, and this amazed people who saw the car.

I recall getting out of the car by myself and taking a few steps before laying down on the pavement. I had on a winter jacket and pulled the collar up so my head would have something soft to lay on. I could see my hand bleeding so I raised it up above me. I heard someone yell, "Has anyone got a necktie? This guy needs a tourniquet!" Then I saw several faces looking down at me from every direction with my arm and bloody hand coming up among them. I thought, "What a great composition for a magazine story illustration. Maybe I will paint that someday."

(At that time my religious views did not recognize modern miracles or spiritual warfare or attacks by the powers of darkness to silence God's people. I believed that miracles ceased after the first century. I am glad that my Father in heaven did not hold that view.)

Sylvia learned to drive and got her driver's license while we lived in the Boston area. We had a manual transmission, which meant she had to learn to stop at traffic lights on the side of hills and use the brake, clutch, and shift to move forward without stalling the engine or rolling backward into the car behind. I was very proud of how well Sylvia did. And very appreciative of my friend and classmate, Alan Munroe, for taking care of little two-year-old Suzanne in the back seat, while I coached Sylvia from the front passenger seat.

I continued to work three or four hours after school each day at Raytheon as a draftsman until the end of my second school year. Then I accepted a job as an artist in Raytheon's Public Relations art department.

In June 1957, our son David was born. Sylvia was in Waltham. I was at work in another town. Since she had the car that day, she drove herself to the hospital.

A few weeks later we took a vacation trip to Florida to visit relatives and to look for a better job.

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