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I was born just a stone's throw from the Big Easy. My mother gave birth to me in the heart of bayou country-in the old southeastern Louisiana town of Metairie. That's right outside the one and only city of New Orleans.
There are two things you can't escape in New Orleans: the humidity and the music. If you're lucky enough to call this place home, the humidity is a burden you learn to live with, and the music is a penetrating joy you never want to go too long without. And if you're a musician-especially a jazz drummer-what better place to grow up than the birthplace of jazz itself?
New Orleans has its own cadence, a rhythm fashioned centuries ago amidst the cultural clash of its first inhabitants and the subsequent blending of African, European, and Latin musical traditions. What evolved was a rhythm that is distinctively American, and as primitive and potent as the human heartbeat. It's a rhythm that has given birth to countless new harmonious styles, from jazz to zydeco, from Cajun music to the Delta Blues. It's an inherently soulful sound that has endured wars and disease, hurricanes and floods. But it's also woven into the tapestry of daily life inthe Big Easy, part of everything from funeral processions to prayer meetings, from garage jam sessions to smoke-filled Bourbon Street jazz clubs, from the smallest music festival to Mardi Gras itself.
That rhythm pulled my soul to the city before I was born, wooed the cosmos when I was only an embryonic notion to my parents-and, as I emerged, planted a vision in my heart and body that I'd follow for my life to come.
Yes, I believe I was destined to become a musician. So I was not in the least surprised to learn that my parents, John and Marilyn, had met and fallen in love at a concert. Both of my father's parents had played musical instruments, and Dad was a professional musician himself in his younger years and had even managed to support himself playing the trumpet. Unfortunately, as I would one day discover, being a musician is a precarious career at best, and paychecks can be few and far between. So when my parents decided to get married, Dad put the trumpet aside and began selling insurance.
Soon my mother and father had saved enough money to buy a small house in a lower-middle-income neighborhood in Metairie and begin raising a family. When I arrived in the world on November 16, 1979, the Caro family was already well under way. My eldest brother, John Jr. (or Johnny, as we all call him), was born seven years before me and was an only child for four years until my brother Scott arrived on the scene. For most of my seminal years I was the baby of the family, a role I was forced to give up when my baby brother, Paul, was born not long after my eighth birthday.
We weren't wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but to use a cliché that truly fit our family life, we were "rich in love." We lived modestly but never wanted for anything. We always owned the house we lived in, and that house was constantly filled with laughter and music. Friends, relatives, and neighbors crowded our backyard during countless barbeques. And although I honestly don't know how my parents afforded it, every year without fail they packed my three brothers and me (and usually a couple of our pals) into the family van and drove us somewhere exotic-such as the Florida Panhandle-for a summer vacation. We'd fish, sail, and enjoy days of doing nothing but exploring sandy beaches and plunging into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Curiously, my very first memory is when I was only three or four months old. My big brother Johnny picked me up and held me over a small brick pond in our backyard so that I could see the goldfish that lived there. The shiny orange fish apparently fascinated me, and Johnny held me above the water as I giggled. Even though I was being dangled perilously over water, there is nothing terrifying in that memory for me now-just a sense of contentment while being in the arms of someone who loved me. And despite the trauma my family would endure less than two short years later, that feeling of being protected by every member of my family throughout my childhood is one of the things I treasure most even now.
I also grew up secure in the belief that there was a higher power watching over me. My parents were and still are devout Catholics. Not only was attending Sunday Mass mandatory for my brothers and me, so were early-morning prayers-and I mean early! I'm sure it was actually a bit later than my memory is telling me now, but it seemed that prayers always happened at the crack of dawn.
Dad would barge into our bedrooms and drag his four bleary-eyed sons downstairs to say the rosary together. Most of the time I was still asleep as I began the first "Hail Mary," and I honestly wasn't aware of a word I'd uttered until I heard that all too welcome "Amen" escape my lips. Then, you see, I was able to return to bed until it was time to get ready for school.
Even though I would question Catholicism in my teenage years, I never lost faith that all of our lives, and the very universe itself, are guided by a force greater than ourselves-one that we cannot, perhaps, ever fully comprehend. Whether we call it God, the Divine, or simply Energy, it is a power that will enlarge our souls and enrich us if we have the courage to go through life with open minds and compliant hearts. It took me years to discover this immense truth, one I am still unraveling as I continue my living journey. However, I don't want to get too far ahead in my story....
When I was six months old, my family moved from Metairie to the nearby town of Gretna. Our new house was big and had an amazing backyard, with plenty of space for a swing set, as well as room to play catch or tag. It also had a big peanut-shaped swimming pool where we could retreat to escape the soupy-hot, sticky air of southeastern Louisiana summers.
I celebrated my first two birthdays in that sprawling, neatly mowed backyard with my entire family and some of the neighborhood kids my own age. Although I was too young to remember much about those parties or anything else from that time, my older brothers and parents have told me all about those early years. And since my dad was a home-movie fanatic, I've repeatedly watched countless hours of video chronicling our family life from 1980 onward.
On those earliest tapes, I can see my first and second birthday parties: the young, laughing guests; the giant cake; and me, tearing through piles of wrapping paper as gifts are placed in front of me. There's my mother smiling adoringly at me, and my father waving happily as he holds me in his arms. There are my two older brothers carrying me around the house, playing air guitar with me, and teaching me to walk and talk as though keeping me company was the greatest game ever invented.
It's strange to look at myself as I was during the first couple years of my life. Watching those flickering images is like glimpsing an alternate reality, one residing forever in a distant universe that I only occasionally retreat to in dreams. Nonetheless, in those videos I was a rambunctious, cute, sandy-haired kid with a mischievous smile; smooth, unblemished skin; and twinkling blue eyes that didn't have a care in the world. It was a lovely, idyllic time.
Other than it being Saint Patrick's Day, there was nothing about the morning of March 17, 1982, that stood out or gave my family any reason to suspect that all of our lives were about to change forever. Of course, there never are any solid indicators that something profoundly good or overwhelmingly horrific is about to occur. Life just happens to us, deals us cards of fate, and it's our job to either endure the hand dealt or fold altogether. In my case, the life I was barely becoming aware of exploded, literally, in front of my young eyes.
I'm told that it was a particularly beautiful morning in southeastern Louisiana, sunny and mild without a hint of humidity. That Wednesday began like any other in our house: My parents rose early and had their morning prayers and breakfast done by 7:30 a.m. I was still in diapers, so naturally I stayed at home all day with my mom. My older brothers Johnny (who was ten at the time) and Scott (who was six) quickly dressed and shot out the door to catch the school bus. When Dad headed to work a few minutes later, Mom carried me outside with her so we could kiss him good-bye.
As my father pulled out of the driveway, my mother noticed that the grass in our yard was getting long. As a surprise for Dad, she decided to do something she'd never done before-mow the lawn herself. A short while later, she put me down in a fenced-in area of our patio that kept me away from our swimming pool, the most obvious threat of danger to a little boy just beginning to wander and investigate. I was an active, curious child; my mother has always told me that she loved that about me.
Mom plopped me down just a few feet away from where she was working in order to keep a close eye. She then went into the garage and filled the lawn mower with gasoline from a gas can my dad kept stored in the corner. She hauled the mower outside, started it up, and began the task at hand.
I was probably out of my mother's line of vision for less than ten seconds when she turned to push the lawn mower in the opposite direction, but that's all it took for me, a natural-born escape artist, to wander through the side door of the garage, probably in search of my favorite toy, a little plastic Flintstones wagon.
I'm not sure how it happened, either when I stepped into the garage or was pulling down one of my toys from a shelf, but somehow I knocked over the gas can my mom had used. Before I knew it, gasoline was pouring from the can and flooding across the concrete floor. An invisible cloud of fumes rose from the floor and within seconds had reached the pilot light of the water heater, which was standing in the far corner. A moment later, the garage exploded into a roaring inferno, and I was standing in the center of it. With the air around me blazing at nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, my skin instantly blistered and baked away, much of it to the bone.
It was a flash fire that lasted only seconds ... but would stay with me for the rest of my life.
I don't remember the explosion, the fire, or the screaming afterward. But the piercing cry of her burning child sliced through the droning engine of the old lawn mower and directly into my mother's heart. She instantly bolted toward the garage and saw my limp, smoldering body sprawled across the now-blackened cement floor. I was dying and she knew it; her screams of terror penetrated the otherwise sedate neighborhood, prompting several neighbors to call for help. She was still screaming when it arrived.
Firefighters, sirens blaring, raced to us only minutes after the blast and immediately went to work, cutting the charred and melted clothes from my body. They lifted me into their arms and carried me out of the garage to the backyard, laid me down on the grass near the swimming pool, and tried to cool my boiling body and bring down my core temperature by pouring gallons of pool water over me. Ironically, the most "dangerous" part of our yard-that pool where I was fenced from going close to-became a major factor in my survival.
The one clear memory I have from that day is watching a fireman repeatedly dipping one of my mother's clay flowerpots into the pool and then carefully letting the water stream over me. I remember that the terra-cotta pot was emblazoned with a Native American design, and water flowed out of the drainage hole on the bottom as he rushed it toward me from the pool.
Paramedics arrived soon after, and Mom rode with me in the back of the ambulance as they quickly hurried us to Charity Hospital in New Orleans. Charity, which had one of the best trauma teams in the country and was the closest hospital to my home with a burn unit was probably the only medical facility in the region with even the slightest chance of saving a child who had been virtually burned alive.
My father, who has written his own account of my accident (in his book How Can YOU Play Drums?), later told me how he first heard about what happened: a worried neighbor called him at work shortly after he'd arrived at the office, telling him that there had been a mishap at home and I'd been burned. Dad immediately got in his car and headed back to our house but wasn't overly concerned, thinking I'd suffered only a minor injury.
When my father arrived home, he was greeted by firefighters who filled him in on what had just happened. They tried to spare him the gory details, but he was able to find those out for himself when he saw the remnants of my tiny shirt laying on the garage floor beside the melted Snoopy sneakers the paramedics had cut from my feet and tossed aside.
Now fearing the worst, Dad had a neighbor drive him to Charity, where he found my mother sobbing inconsolably in the inner-city hospital's old waiting room. She was crying out that she wanted to hold her child, her baby, and fell into my father's arms when he came into the room. In stammers and starts, still unable to form complete sentences after the horror of what she'd witnessed, she tried to tell him what had happened.
My mother and father just held on to each other and prayed quietly until the emergency-room doctor brought them news of my condition. Suffice it to say, it wasn't good.
"Danny is in extremely critical condition," my parents were told. "He sustained third- and fourth-degree burns over nearly 80 percent of his body. His chances of surviving are very slim. Frankly, I don't know how he has lived this long. People burned this severely usually don't even survive the trip to the hospital."
The doctor gave them a list of things that could kill me in the coming hours, the most likely being infection or respiratory failure caused by lung damage from breathing in the burning, superheated air during the flash fire. I had literally eaten fire. All they could do, the doctor informed my parents, was to wait, and pray that I lived through the first critical 72 hours. And if I did manage to hang on to life, they had best make arrangements for treatment at another, more advanced medical facility because Charity Hospital couldn't properly care for anyone as chronically ill as I was going to be.
As grim a prognosis as it was, my parents didn't know that at that moment things were much worse than the doctor let on. I only discovered the truth about my condition very recently and quite by accident while I was traveling. By some odd chance of nature or design of God, I happened to bump into one of the doctors who had treated me soon after the fire.
"You died," he said bluntly, "and not just once. You died three times on the operating table, and I was able to bring you back three times after your heart stopped."
My life-that of the endearing young boy with an uncomplicated, normal existence mapped out before him like so many others who lived in our pleasant little neighborhood-ended on a pretty March afternoon in 1982 in an emergency operating room. There is no doubt: That boy died, and I was born. The third time I came back from the dead, I'd come to stay. I was holding on and wasn't letting go. Somehow I unconsciously knew that no matter how much fight, suffering, and adversity my coming years might be filled with, it was the life I was destined to lead ... the life I am leading now.
Of course, before I could start leading that new life, I had to survive the first night after being burned. At the time, that possibility seemed exceptionally remote.
It's hard for me to imagine what my parents were experiencing as those critical hours crept by. Whatever physical misery I was clearly suffering was equally as agonizing as the heartrending turmoil they endured, as they waited to hear if I would live or die. And if by some miracle I did survive, the prospect of all the obstacles that lay ahead of me undoubtedly gnawed at their hearts. At least I was sedated; their suffering, however, was as raw and palpable as it was inescapable.
Excerpted from The Gift of Fire by DAN CARO STEVE ERWIN Copyright © 2010 by Dan Caro. Excerpted by permission.
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