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COLUMN ONE : Denny--Beaten but Unbowed : The trucker assaulted at Florence and Normandie has mended quickly. He talks about his experience with self-deprecating humor. But he remains awed by the good and evil he has seen.


Wherever he goes, people wonder if he's really the man they saw dragged from his truck April 29 and beaten so severely that few thought he would live.

"Here, give me your hand," says Reginald O. Denny. He guides a visitor's fingers from where his blond-brown hair meets his forehead down into a saucer-sized crater and back out onto his cheek.

"I tell people, the real Reginald Denny has half his skull missing," he says, maintaining a serious stare for a split second before smiling. He puts his palm in the indentation, his elbow sticking out: "I call it my kickstand."

Still grinning, he glances at his daughter, Ashley, who has been yawning and eating green Tic-Tacs: "My daughter calls me 'Reginald Denty.' "

It's not just his wounds that tug him back to the first moments of the Los Angeles riots. This month, the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, where television cameras recorded his beating, erupted again in violence. Then the mother of one of his accused attackers invited him and Rodney G. King to Christmas dinner: "I'm going to teach Reginald Denny how to eat corn bread and greens with his fingers," she said.

Eight months after its self-destructive shudder, Los Angeles still seems unwilling or unable to pull itself together and heal. But Denny's life appears to be mending at the same remarkable speed as his battered body.

Just weeks after what he reflexively refers to as "the accident," he met a woman he plans to marry.

He's become friends with the four blacks who risked their lives to rescue him: Denny and one man swap radio and electronics gear; Denny's 8-year-old daughter went to Hawaii with the daughter of the woman who cradled his bloody body in her arms. And Denny's employer, Transit Mixed, has hired the unemployed trucker who drove him to the hospital.

He fondly remembers the 25,000 letters he has received--including notes from LAPD officers apologizing for letting him down--and a bedside visit from Arsenio Hall at the hospital he later left clandestinely.

He's had plenty of time to think about both those who he says falsely accused him of racism and those who tried to ingratiate themselves with him because of that misperception.

He's thought about why the riots happened, what should happen to his attackers and what his role might be in the healing process.

As he awaits word on a claim he has made alleging that the city failed to protect him, People magazine and other media nationwide want a piece of him. Life magazine reportedly wants to put him and Rodney King on the cover--and his attorney has suggested to Mayor Tom Bradley that Denny and King appear together on public service announcements calling for calm as trials that their beatings triggered begin.

He knows how Rodney King must feel, he says, and thinks it's "pretty weird" the way America conveys instant celebrity on someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Denny still remembers nothing of his pummeling or the following days of violence that provided some of the most lucid memories many Angelenos will ever have.

"For the rest of my life," he says, "it's just going to stick in my mind as something wacky that happened."

Self-deprecating and straightforward, Denny goes out of his way to avoid attention. Asked by a photographer, "Can I call you Reg?" Denny says, " 'Hey you,' is fine. I'm not that official. I'm not educated enough to be called anything. Most people just point."

He was born in Lansing, Mich., but his parents moved to Sylmar by the time he was crawling. He grew up riding bikes and playing in the streets there, working a paper route to earn money and occasionally chucking eggs stolen from a nearby chicken ranch at his friends.

He has no illusions about his station in life. When his attorney tells him a success story of a young person who made it through school while living and studying in the back of her parents' car, Denny listens intently.

"I don't have what it takes," the 36-year-old Teamster says. "I'm the kind of guy who goes along, tries to do my own thing."

After his amicable divorce six years ago, Denny had whittled his life to pure simplicity. "I was either at my friend's boat shop in Azusa, or at Transit Mixed," he says. "My life was a repetitious bore. I didn't have a life. And I liked it."

He remembers shaking his head after seeing the videotape of King's beating in 1991: "It was like amazement, like check this out, man: 'Are there enough policemen to beat this guy up?' . . . You don't like to think that this is the police, the guys who legally can do stuff."

But 13 months later, King wasn't on Denny's mind as he left the Transit Mixed sand and gravel quarry in Azusa and headed to the company's Inglewood plant. As he got off the freeway and cut across town on surface streets, Denny thought only about making "a five-haul night," and the bragging rights he'd have if he were the first driver back to the quarry at shift's end.

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