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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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.’ ”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

He doesn’t remember what radio station he was listening to that afternoon, but it was probably KKLA, a Christian channel, he says, or country station KZLA--something “soothing.”

By the time his bottom-dump, 18-wheeler full of gravel reached the corner of Florence and Normandie, Denny noticed something unusual.

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“I can relate to how police must feel when they get to a place and things are just going haywire,” he says. “It didn’t click in my mind what was going on. It’s almost like a numbing effect. . . . Like what the heck is going on here? . . . If I’d had power steering, I might have cranked a U-turn.”

But he was stuck.

Denny says other drivers have said they would “have just done a pedal-to-the-metal kind of thing.

“That’s easy for them to say, because they weren’t there. Given the situation, that’s not what you do. . . . There were a lot of people. . . . Am I going to have it on my conscience where I killed 10 people? This crazy truck driver?”

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Rioters were attacking a truck in front of him, unloading its contents. “Man, that guy’s gonna get in trouble,” he recalls thinking.

As he anxiously watched the building madness, he noticed a few odd details, such as the pretty, splayed pattern bottles make as they shatter on asphalt.

Then something crashed through the passenger window of his truck. “What the heck is going on?” he wondered, terrified.

Across America, people grimaced at television pictures of a young man climbing onto the truck and smashing Denny in the head with what apparently was a crowbar.

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“It was just one big wallop,” Denny remembers. Then he went blank.

Of the countless people watching the televised assault that followed, two men and two women left nearby homes and scrambled to rescue him.

Dr. Madison Richardson and the staff at Daniel Freeman Hospital went to work trying to save Denny, who paramedics have said was within minutes of dying.

When he emerged from his coma days later, Denny’s first concern was getting the truck back and letting his crew know where he was. He immediately grabbed a pen and paper, awkwardly scrawling a message: “Please call Denise at Transit Mix.”

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“I thought I was in trouble,” he says. “Seriously.”

Color photographs of Denny in the hospital showed an apparent cadaver, with a knot of blue and clear plastic tubes filled with blood and other fluids poking into a skull that was fractured in 91 places.

His eyes looked like two smashed plums. A Frankenstein scar ran from the center of his forehead, up over a shaved scalp, and back down to his cheek.

For awhile, the nurses wouldn’t let him have a mirror. He’d ask how he looked, and they’d draw grease-pencil portraits in the bottom of a bedpan.

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Denny was embarrassed to find himself with “no clothes on, basically” in a hospital. He was even more embarrassed to be the center of so much attention.

When nurses told him Arsenio Hall was there to see him, Denny thought they were joking.

But Hall cracked him up, storming into the room. “He made me laugh . . . ‘Woof, woof, woof,’ ” Denny says, imitating Hall with his swirling clenched-fist trademark.

Not everything was so amusing. Denny was “extremely angry” when told a defense attorney had alleged that he provoked the mob with obscene gestures and racial slurs.

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For one thing, Denny says, he’s never been big on machismo: “I’m not a physical specimen. . . . When I was in school, I got picked on by all kinds of guys. If someone picked on me, I got my butt kicked, that’s all there was to it. I’m not a fighting type person.”

What makes him madder, though, is the implication that he is racist.

In the mail he received were diatribes from white racists, which were returned, donations included.

“Someone sent me a T-shirt that had something (racist) written all over it--I care not to repeat it--I used it, literally, to mop up the grease out of the shop. . . . These guys, someone ought to slap ‘em. Wake ‘em up,” Denny says, with a slapstick gesture: “ Pow pow pow pow pow . Wake up!”

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Denny is also bothered that some people seemed willing to believe that since he’s a blue-collar Christian who listens to country music, he must also be a bigot.

“What did we do,” he asks, “when they were giving me 10 or 12 units of blood? What does a person do in a hospital, ask for the race of that blood? It’s all red, as far as I’m concerned.”

Nurses shielded him from the video of his beating and riot coverage.

When he finally saw the scene most Americans had watched dozens of times, “I’d kind of look at it, going, ‘Man that must’ve hurt,’ ” he says, laughing.

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He even tries to see the positive side of the video. “They could have just pulled me and then backed up and watched me tumble out, which would have been a hard landing,” Denny says. “These guys, at least they have some compassion there. They kind of eased me to the ground.”

There’s not much he takes too seriously.

“Even now, when someone calls me Reginald, I say, ‘No that’s the guy on TV.’ Or ‘Who’s that dude? I don’t know that character. He’s just some guy who’s been on TV.’ I say, ‘My friends call me Reggie.’ ”

Two weeks and a battery of operations after the beating, Denny checked himself out of Daniel Freeman Hospital--against his doctors’ advice.

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With his arms wrapped around two nurses’ shoulders, he hobbled down three flights of stairs and climbed into his ex-wife’s brother’s pickup, which had been parked at a loading dock to avoid the media.

Before heading home, however, his brother-in-law drove him to a drag boat race at Castaic Lake.

His brief stay at the wind-swept lake caused an uproar. “I couldn’t stop crying,” Denny recalls. “Grown men who race boats were all hugging me.”

Despite subsequent admissions to Verdugo Hills Hospital, his swift recovery has stunned his doctors, Denny says. Not that his problems are over: He still takes multiple medications; if he gets a cold, there’s a risk that it will spread throughout his cranium, to the ears and eyes.

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Still, while he can’t yet work, race boats or snow board, his life is returning to normal. Denny spends much time with his daughter, who lives nearby with his ex-wife, and last week went to her school Christmas pageant.

Two months after the riots, Denny went to a Price Club to renew his membership card. He spotted a tall blonde clerk, and made adjustments in line to make sure she helped him. As it happens, it was Keila Hudson’s first day on the job.

The wires had just been removed from his jaw and the hole from a metal pin still showed. His eyes were black; he’d lost 25 pounds; he had no hair.

But when Hudson heard who Denny was, she followed him from the store, told him about head injuries she’d suffered from a horse kick 10 years earlier, and said she knew what he was going through.

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Denny sent her a bouquet of flowers the next day. Now they live together with her cat and two finches in her modest condominium in a suburban community that he asks not be identified.

Somehow, things have also come together financially.

“Between my mom, and Transit Mixed and the folks at Daniel Freeman, everything just happened,” he says.

He also has received donations from people throughout the nation, although he declines to say how much.

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Few things shake Denny’s chipper demeanor. A taunting song on a CD included in High Performance magazine following the riot is one.

At its mention, Denny darts into a closet, rummages and brings out the publication.

He points to the song title, “reginald denny he ain’t dead,” and for once his wisecracking rings hollow, his smile seems forced.

That, though, fades fast.

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His doctors insist that he keep seeing psychiatrists, but he often ditches the sessions, figuring he knows how to cope. “What am I going to do, walk around like a pity party?” he laughs. ". . . Like a guy walking around all slumped, moaning ‘Oh, I’ve had it so bad.’ ”

Everywhere he goes now, people approach him. Some just want to hug him. Some cry. Others ask for autographs. On several occasions, African-Americans have come up and apologized, asking him not to hate blacks, he says:

“I feel so awkward. I don’t get that. Maybe I’d feel the same if I ran into a black guy who had been beaten up by whites.

“I say, ‘Why apologize?’ A bad guy is a bad guy, I don’t care what color he came in.”

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Then he points out that his rescuers and many of the doctors who saved his life are black.

If Denny gets a settlement from the city, he’s not sure what he’ll do.

“Quite a few people would find life a little easier,” he says. That includes his four rescuers, with whom Denny says he’ll share any proceeds: “They’re the heroes. It’s because of them that I’m going to be here to celebrate Christmas with my family.”

Denny also thinks about the villains in his story, whoever they prove to be:

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“It was just a crazy day, there was a lot of angry people, and heck, some guys were just led by the crowd. . . . I’m certain there were people who got caught up in the excitement, not even realizing what they were doing.”

Denny vacillates between forgiveness and punishment for them.

“I think the best example one can show another person is a bit of forgiveness . . . deep down inside there’s got to be some forgiveness somewhere. . . .

“I’d almost bet, given different circumstances. . . ,” he says, his stream of consciousness heartfelt but disjointed. “We’re all born babies. We learn behavior I think for the most part. . . . If you get kicked around when you’re a kid, if you see nothing but your family, your neighbor getting kicked around, and there’s nothing but mayhem going on around you, it would only stand to reason when you reach a certain age, you become that product.

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“Everyone needs respect. . . . And as soon as you take a group of people, and put them on a shelf and say they don’t count. Let me tell you, they count in a big way. . . . It’s hard saying what those guys have gone through.”

Which doesn’t mean Denny thinks his attackers should go unpunished.

“Everyone has to be held accountable for their actions, right? That’s what civilization is about. If you pull a stunt like this, beating someone up, it’s not right. Isn’t that the way it has to be?”

The recent disturbance at Florence and Normandie only added to his confusion, he says: “Some people think the people in jail should be let free, because the police who did that to Rodney King walked. I don’t think they understand. Is it because they’ve been wronged for so long? Some guys are so angry, the anger goes so far into their souls, all they see is violence as an answer. . . .

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“If they let those people out of jail, it will make them happy. But will it solve our problems as a society? I don’t think so.”

Last week, Johnnie Cochran, Denny’s attorney, told him that a defendant’s mother had publicly invited Denny and King to Christmas dinner. Cochran, who is black, offered Denny a glib response: “Guess who’s not coming to dinner.”

But Denny says he thought about the invitation: “She’s got to be a typical mom. When her kids are in trouble, she feels for them. She’s got to have a lot of anxiety for her son, where he is.

“I’m sure the mom’s a very good cook. I’m always ready for a free meal. So, I appreciate the offer, but I’m having Christmas with my family.”

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Denny says that he’d love to talk with Rodney King some day: “Can you imagine? I’d like to meet him, just for a chance to say, ‘Hey, Bud! God, we came out on the other side. What more can you ask for than we’re still up and walking around.”

And he would even like to meet his attackers. He’d ask them one question, Denny says:

“Why?”

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