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Tragic Accident Reveals a Family's Strengths

May 27, 1985|JOHN M. WILSON | Wilson is a local free - lance writer and instructor with the UCLA Extension Writer's Program

Six years ago, Joanne Winkler's life resembled the stuff of lush paperback novels and Laundromat fantasies.

She was married to an insurance executive, a pillar of the community. They belonged to an exclusive country club, golfed regularly, attended and threw lavish parties, lived in a view house atop the Hollywood Hills. Roland, their older son, then 19, was rebellious but had his mother's forceful personality and striking blond looks. His brother, David, 15, was quiet and dutiful, a model student. Everyone was healthy.

Then, on Nov. 3, 1979, while Joanne and her husband, Don, spent a weekend in Hawaii looking at property, she was informed that Roland had been in an automobile accident in North Hollywood. He was on his way to an intensive care unit, paralyzed from the shoulders down.

More Complications

To complicate matters, the driver of the Porsche 911 that had gone off a freeway embankment was pop singer and teen idol Leif Garrett, Roland's closest friend. News of the tragedy spread rapidly while Joanne and Don Winkler waited six hours for the next flight home.

"I was absolutely hysterical," Joanne recalled recently, "and I'm not the hysterical type."

It began a saga of pain and personal transformation: Less than a year later, Don Winkler would mysteriously leave his family. While Roland struggled to recover, Joanne Winkler would rejoin the work force after 18 years, without job skills but with a mother's heart. Not only would she pull a single-parent family through a devastating crisis but she would emerge a proud, successful working woman--in her words, "a different person." All that happened before the Winklers learned that a multimillion-dollar legal judgment would seemingly assure Roland's financial future.

In the beginning of the family's ordeal, inevitably, there was conflict as well as love between the strong-willed mother and son.

"Wink (her nickname for Roland) gets his stubbornness from me," she said, laughing. "I think it's what pulled him through."

She describes a nightmarish scene the first time she saw him in Northridge Hospital Medical Center: Roland immobile, with a device called "Crutchfield's thongs" fitted into holes drilled in his skull, weighted with 65 pounds to stretch his head and neck upward. When nurses turned him every two hours, Joanne said, "I could only stand the screaming for a few minutes, then I had to get out of the room."

Before the accident, Roland had been wildly active: a professional pop dancer, off-road motorcycle rider, hot-rod fan, self-styled daredevil who "liked to live close to the edge." He and Leif Garrett had been inseparable buddies for about a year.

"We were together almost 24 hours a day," Roland said recently, curled in a wheelchair, pressing on his atrophied legs to stifle their involuntary spasms.

They had spent the fateful day at a party. When they left in Garrett's Porsche, Roland didn't buckle his seat belt. Minutes later, the car went off the Hollywood Freeway in North Hollywood, leaving Roland with damaged cervical vertebrae. (Garrett, then five days shy of his 18th birthday and not seriously hurt, was eventually tried as a juvenile on drunk-driving charges; his driver's license was suspended for a year and he was placed on a year's probation.)

Someone close to the family suggests that the accident saved Roland from worse self-destruction. He was into drugs, he admits now, "partially because everybody else was. I was 19 and had some kind of drive and restlessness inside me I couldn't handle. I definitely don't use drugs now. I still love to party; I just don't get high."

Anger and Few Tears

He remembers crying only once during the early part of his ordeal--when a doctor told him point-blank that he would never walk again. "I was so mad I wanted to get out of bed and hit him, but I couldn't move. So I cried."

Joanne, her husband and son David became regulars at the hospital, sometimes lying on the floor looking up when he was forced to lie face down. Leif Garrett also came. Joanne recalled Garrett's first visit: "He and Wink talked for a few minutes. Like kids talk, nothing in depth, just surface. But when Leif came out, he started to cry. I put my arms around him, I guess because I'm a mom."

Garrett visited several more times, Roland remembered, "and then he just stopped coming around." They haven't seen each other in five years. "I don't hold any grudges. It was an accident. I'd still like to be friends." (Garrett's personal manager said his client had no comment on the situation.)

After three weeks, doctors suggested surgery that might give Roland more mobility. He planned suicide in case the operation failed--"no way could I live like that"--but it restored most of his upper body movement and full sexual function. After that, he began rehabilitation with fierce resolve.

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