Tragic Accident Reveals a Family’s Strengths

<i> Wilson is a local free</i> -<i> lance writer and instructor with the UCLA Extension Writer's Program</i>

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.

“I felt like I had a choice to stay where I was, or fight it,” he said. “I remember saying to myself: I’ve got too much to do . . . I had to turn it into a fight--it was me against whatever somebody told me I couldn’t do.”

Hospital routine got a jolt: Roland woke other patients with rock ‘n’ roll from his oversized radio, worked out secretly in the rehabilitation room late at night with a borrowed key, entertained teen-age visitors. When he was able to sit up, his friend Matt Delillio sneaked him out of the hospital to attend a car show--Delillio in a borrowed wheelchair to show his camaraderie. There was Ping-Pong, pool, wheelchair sports of almost every kind; Joanne Winkler even splashed around in an inner tube in a paraplegic version of water polo.

Roland “cussed out friends, family, doctors and nurses” in frustration, his mother said, but worked overtime at therapy, and “every day there was a little more improvement.” Four months after the accident, he went home, carried up and down the steps by his husky brother David, Matt Delillio or other loyal friends.

The Father Vanishes

But before the year was out, his father vanished just after selling the hilltop home. Joanne Winkler blames the disappearance on her husband’s financial problems. An associate of Don Winkler, she said, died about that time in a gangland-style killing in Century City, and her husband has been virtually incommunicado ever since, though a divorce is imminent. “I talked to him at noon that (last) day. He was coming home at 6. I never saw him again.” (Although Don Winkler could not be reached for comment, his attorney verified her account.)

Joanne rented a small house in Reseda and took a part-time receptionist’s job in a beauty salon, spending the rest of her day with Roland, who was slowly learning to take care of himself. Her affluent friends pitched in to help; one brought her maid to help clean the house.

Craving independence, Roland enrolled at Cal State Northridge and became a volunteer counselor for other young paraplegics. In his wheelchair, he went dancing, bowling and swimming with friends. Joanne tried not to fuss over him, but there was inevitable conflict; one day, he begged her to start “letting go” of him emotionally.

‘I Earn My Way’

She found her own independence as she moved upward through a series of jobs to her current position as office manager (“practically a partner,” she said) with a firm that sells video broadcasting equipment. “I love it. Now I earn my way. My self-worth has increased tremendously. I’m a different person now.”

The real test of her willingness to let go came after Roland met Gaylene (Gayle) Felder in a Studio City dance club two years ago, charming her into a courtship. Gracious and self-assured, the former model moved into the Winkler household a short time later.

‘She’s Very Good for Wink’

“I liked Gayle the first time I met her,” Joanne Winkler said. “And she’s very good for Wink. We had the usual problems two women living in the same house have, but nothing we couldn’t work out.”

Roland’s fortune increased last New Year’s Eve when Studio City attorney Edward Steinbrecher called to tell him he’d won $3.9 million (now $4.3 million with accrued interest) in a lawsuit against Leif Garrett’s insurance carrier (the performer claimed assets of less than $80,000). (One insurance company has paid $1.1 million; a new lawsuit for the remainder, plus punitive damages, has been filed against a second company.)

Last month, Gayle and Roland moved into a new, four-bedroom house in Canoga Park. He gets about in a customized van, swims in the backyard pool, lifts weights, plays music in a bedroom converted to a studio. Last summer, longing for an ocean swim, he hitched a rope to his wheelchair and rolled off a pier in Marina del Rey; while his friends hauled the chair out of the water, he swam to shore on his own.

‘I’m Still the Same’

“I can’t walk,” he said, “but otherwise I haven’t changed. I’m still the same person.”

He will have a lifetime of complications from his paralysis: leg spasms that have already resulted in broken toes, multiple bladder and bowel problems, dangerous skin ulcers, concern about fevers, infections and circulation and the challenge of moving about in a world largely designed for the fully mobile.

But Joanne Winkler sums up the positive: “We are a family. The accident turned all our lives around--all the little things we used to worry about became no longer important. We learned to second guess each other’s needs. We really got in tune and in touch with each other.”

On May 3, Gaylene’s birthday, Roland surprised her with an engagement ring. She accepted.

Nine days later, the family gathered at the house to celebrate. Fittingly, it was Mother’s Day.