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SUNDAY READING

A Certain Kind of Accident : Clara Sturak Always Believed That What She Gave to Others Would One Day Be Returned

September 21, 1986|CAROLYN SEE | Carolyn See is a Los Angeles writer and the mother of Clara Sturak

It was the first professional stage show that Clara Sturak had ever produced; she was breaking even, and she was happy. She spun her sturdy red Nissan down Pacific Coast Highway in the florid pink twilight, on her way to the Saturday night performance of "A Mum and His Symbols"--those Mums, three darling guys juggling to protest American intervention in Central America. Next to her, head down, counting the night's receipts, was an Australian actress, Julie Forsythe--Clara had toured with her the year before, all through that continent.

Clara drove in the inside lane. Traffic slowed. She felt a dull thud from the right, which pushed her into the central lane of the highway, where a luckless Asian couple turning left into a beach parking lot were forced to change their weekend plans. The Asians' car was totaled. A ghost car sped off into the night. The red Nissan burst apart. The steering wheel came up into the center of the car, shredding Clara's lips, flinging out her teeth. Her chin ripped open, her left arm went smush. And her left foot, instinctively pushing away the accident, shattered like a thrown dish. Ten- and 20-dollar bills scattered and blew across the beach traffic and the highway. Julie plunged out of the car and fell into the arms of a bystander, who began to ask her meaninglessly, "What year is it? Who's the President? What city are you in?" Tragedy ghouls began instantly to gather along the sides of the highway and along the bluffs above, as money flew and blew around the car, convinced that they were watching a robbery or a drug bust. And behind them, all the Saturday night beach traffic began to back up.

Clara had become part of what she'd so often seen on this road--a very bad car accident on PCH.

The first person at the scene of the crash was a lifeguard who had loped up across the sand. He crouched down beside her--she'd already turned off the ignition key because she couldn't stand the irritating ding ding that signified that the door was open, when in fact it had been torn off--and began saying, "Calm down, lady. Don't move your head, lady. What year is it? What city are you in?" And she was able to answer, "Aren't you David Moore? Didn't you go to Topanga Elementary?" When he said yes, he was, and yes, he had, she felt she could allow herself to cry.

But she was raised to a certain kind of California life, and she didn't cry for long. Even as the lifeguard was searching through her mouth with thumb and forefinger for stray teeth, she began requesting--demanding--that someone inform the theater that she and Julie wouldn't be in. She began what would be a long evening of thanking people. She thanked the lifeguard for rescuing her teeth and the ambulance drivers for being so careful and efficient. By the time her mother and sister and the first few friends had arrived at the emergency room of Santa Monica Hospital, she was thanking her mother's friend John for having the control to count the blood-stained money that police officer Zirenberg had retrieved from the crash scene. Clara thanked officer Zirenberg herself, who obviously didn't believe the story of the phantom sideswiper, but was far too polite to say so. Clara thanked orderlies and nurses and clerks and anyone who would listen, even as the blood gathered and caked in her ears in dark little pools.

For years she had consciously lived a certain kind of life. She tithed to charities and gave blood and answered every thank-you note. She wanted to End Hunger and Wage Peace; she gave to the Salvation Army. She joked that the Santa Monica parking tickets she paid was her fourth big charity. She knew that what you gave out in life was what you got back, so that when she had a play produced when she was just a freshman, or took that Australian tour, or even got this chance to produce the Mums, it wasn't an accident that these things happened; she was playing life according to rules that were both ancient and new; steal-ribbed and irrevocable: What you gave out, you got back.

So naturally--as the attending emergency room doctor began taking tens of minuscule stitches in her lip, and she thanked him as best she could--and her distraught family discussed who should be the orthopedic surgeon to put the dozen shattered bones in her left foot back in place, the doctor who sailed in turned out to be Todd T. Grant, surgeon to the UCLA Bruins--whose son she had gone out with for a while--another friend.

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