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COLUMN ONE : Reluctant Hero Longs for His Past : John Thompson captivated the nation when his arms were reattached after a farm accident. Now, he is tired of celebrity and wishes folks would see he's no icon, just an ordinary guy.

September 26, 1993|BARRY BEARAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HURDSFIELD, N.D. — This is the ghastly way a North Dakota farm boy became an American hero: While loading barley into a machine, he slipped on some ice. He tottered against a metal bar that was spinning in a blur parallel to the ground. His shirt was reeled in, then his hands. For a few seconds, his body was a human propeller, twirling head over heels. The force pried off his arms just below the shoulders and pitched the rest of him 20 feet away.

With his limbs suddenly gone, John Wayne Thompson glanced at his wounds. He staggered 100 yards to his house, turning the doorknob with his mouth. He phoned for help, punching in the numbers with a pen clenched between his teeth. Worrying what his mom might say about all the blood that was spotting the carpet, he crouched in the bathtub as he waited.

The ambulance crew found the missing arms. In a five-hour relay, 18-year-old Thompson and his appendages were taken by road and air from the farm here in Hurdsfield to a hospital in Minneapolis. He was placed in a pool of magnified light. Microsurgeons sorted among his severed parts, matching up the nerves and blood vessels and sewing them up with needles thinner than a human hair.

When the story hit the news last year, the teen-ager's reassembled body seemed to become a living monument to the true grit of the plains farmer. The soul's appetite for heroes is enormous, and this was one spunky, can-do kid. His survival instincts were equated with valor, his common sense elevated to ingenuity. Thousands wrote him. Donations topped $700,000, much of it the well-wishing yield of church bake sales and children's milk money.

A year and a half has passed since fate plucked Thompson from the Dakota grain fields. After 15 operations, he has made a remarkable recovery, impossible though it is to completely repair what a machine has torn asunder. His forearms do not rotate, and his fingers are curled into claws, rigid and unable to grasp. Some gains lie ahead. Still more surgery should open his hands. Further nerve regeneration may reawaken some touch in his fingers.

Therapy has been an apprenticeship in substitute ways to eat and dress and otherwise conquer the mundane. But oddly enough, he has found it easier to cope with the frustrations of his handicaps than with the peculiarity of his fame.

What was it the magazines called him? "Too tough to die . . . the comeback kid . . . astonishingly brave." Well, maybe he is an all-American boy, but if so, he considers himself of the beer-swigging, smart-aleck, pedal-to-metal variety and nobody who ought to be held up as an inspiration to a million families.

The fuss has had him playing against type. "Until maybe a month ago, I was trying to be the perfect kid, not drinking anymore or smoking or swearing," he said. "I felt like it was expected of me, with everyone watching every move I made. You wouldn't believe it. TV camera crews followed me around at my prom, which sucked. My graduation was a circus with all the satellite trucks.

"Well, I want to go back to the way I used to be. Screw everybody. I like to have fun, be rude to people, be a hell-raiser. Of course, around here if you spin your tires on Main Street, they think you're a hell-raiser."

Hurdsfield has 72 people and five churches (down from six). Most everyone is somehow related to everyone else within a 50-mile radius. These days, John drives the priciest pickup hereabouts and, as always, scoffs at the speed limits. He has let his hair grow long and sports an earring. Down in Bismarck, where he attends college, he finds himself a popular ladies' man, what with the women knowing who he is and all. That's the good side of celebrity.

The bad part is all the damn gossip and jealousy. "People think I'm living the great life, that I'll never have to work. They'd love to be John Thompson because I have a lot of money and nice vehicles and I'm famous and have girlfriends. Well, if people had to spend one week going through what I go through, with all the stress, they wouldn't talk so much."

By his reckoning, all this hero and inspiration stuff is really flipped out. He has never entirely understood what the big deal was. The only life he saved was his own and, given the choices, what was so special about that?

"What was I supposed to do, just lie there?" he asked. "C'mon, I mean, what would you do?"

*

That morning, his parents had gone to Bismarck, 90 miles away. John, the youngest of the three Thompson children and the only one still living at home, slept late. By the time he went out, the noontime sun had moistened the skin of a January frost. His chore was to unload barley from a dump truck, using a grooved shaft--an auger--that carried grain to a bin as a conveyor belt would. A tractor engine supplied the power. Connecting the engine to the auger was a flat, 1 1/2-inch bar called a power takeoff. As the bar spun, the auger turned.

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