How do you fix a life? Same way you fix a car: Hammer out the dents, one at a time

ST. PETERSBURG — Guys at the body shop said it couldn't be fixed.

That crumpled right front fender on the Dodge Durango would have to be replaced. No one could hammer out all those dents.

The auto body repair instructor at Pinellas Tech took that as a challenge. He decided the dented Dodge would make a great final exam for Jermaine Moore.

"Okay, go ahead. Knock down all the height first," Steve Smyrski told Jermaine.

It was a Tuesday in October, just past 7 p.m., and 23 men had gathered in the classroom bay. Some had just started the free college program, which offers 24 credits toward an associate's degree. Others, like Jermaine, had been with Smyrski for two years and were hoping to be certified soon. Their training would give them a chance at a $1,500-a-week career.

Jermaine, 24, grabbed a wedge-head hammer. Holding it in his right hand, bracing the wrinkled fender with his left, he began thwacking behind the caved section with short, steady strokes. Tat tat tat. Tat tat tat. He stopped and rubbed the spot with his hand, shook his head, went at it again.

"I'll get the grinder," Smyrski said.

"Nah," said Jermaine. "I want to go under here first and check it from behind."

He set the hammer in his lap, lifted himself out of his wheelchair, swung his legs forward, and lowered himself onto the cold cement floor.

"They said this couldn't be fixed?" he asked from beneath the fender. "Shoot. That's what the doctors told me after the accident."

In September 2005, Jermaine was 20. He was living in his brother's house in Safety Harbor and working as a trim carpenter with his best friend and roommate, Brandon Marbury. On weekends, Jermaine says, he and Brandon knocked on doors for the Jehovah's Witnesses, then went out drinking.

At 3 one Sunday morning Jermaine and Brandon awoke, hungry, after a night of partying in Ybor City. Jermaine led Brandon into the driveway to show him what he had done to his Suzuki Bandit S 1200. The motorcycle, he told his friend, had topped out at 210 mph on the Bayside Bridge. And he had altered the tailpipe to make it shoot fire.

"Check this out!" he said, revving the engine. "Flames a foot high."

Brandon had just bought a new cell phone that took video. "You ought to film me," Jermaine said. "See how cool it looks from behind."

So Jermaine jumped on his Suzuki and sped down the street. Brandon climbed into his pickup, following close behind, cell phone camera rolling.

They had gone only a couple of blocks when Jermaine braked at a stop sign. Just then, Jermaine says, Brandon got a text message. He looked down to check his phone — and ran over his best friend.

• • •

Jermaine turned 21 in intensive care. Flat on his back, unable to sit or even roll over, he heard doctors and nurses whispering about spinal cord injuries and paralysis and blood loss. He heard someone say, "He's going to die."

He wished he had.

He was just beginning to navigate the world on his own, just beginning to know what he wanted to do. Now he was stuck in a hospital bed, tethered to tubes, immobile.

"I lost myself there for a while," Jermaine said. He spent three months in St. Joseph's Hospital, another six in rehab at Tampa General. Finally, he said, he figured out why.

"This was God's way of protecting me," he said. "I was going to kill myself on that bike, doing wheelies and burn-outs, standing on the seat at 65 mph. God put me in this chair, for a while, to keep me alive."

He had been given a gift, he decided, a second shot at the life he almost lost. Instead of mourning what he had to give up, he began to celebrate what he had.

He learned to unfold and set up a wheelchair beside his bed, learned to navigate corners and, soon, to speed down the long halls. He learned to smile through the pain in his back and thighs. He still needed help bathing and dressing himself, so he couldn't live alone.

He felt he needed to become a man — again.

Before he moved back into his brother's house, Jermaine made a master plan:

1. Find a new career (he couldn't climb scaffolding to nail ceiling moldings without legs).

2. Work for yourself.

3. Live on your own.

4. Get a hot girlfriend.

5. Walk.

• • •

"How you coming?" Smyrski asked at PTEC, bending over the Dodge fender.

It had taken Jermaine two hours to hammer out all the dents and grind off the paint. Now he was squirting a gooey pancake of body filler onto a square of cardboard in his lap. He kneaded out the bubbles, working back and forth with a yellow spreader.

A crowd began to gather — four, five guys leaning over Jermaine's wheelchair. He smiled and shook his head. "Just trying to learn something, man," said one of his classmates.

Every time Jermaine tackles a project, the other guys come to watch, Smyrski said. He's the master puttier, painter and refinisher. When it comes to body work, no one is more meticulous.

Smyrski met Jermaine just after he got out of the hospital, when he was working for free, rebuilding a dashboard. "He turned out to be the most determined student I've had in 30 years."

Sand and buff. Buff and sand. Jermaine kept working to smooth the fender. He dabbed on finishing putty. Sanded again. His shoulders hurt. His back burned. He had taken four pain pills already, and by 9 p.m., he was exhausted.

He dropped back onto the floor, scooched under the fender, and ran his hand across the front. "Oh man," he told Smyrski. "That's nice there."

"So here comes your test," the teacher said. "What comes next?"

Jermaine pulled himself back into his chair, closed his eyes for a second, then looked up.

"First I sand by hand with an eight grade or so, then go over it again with a 150, then 220 all the way around before you use the 320 with the lighter grit. Wipe it up, prime it, paint it . . . and I'm out of here."

Smyrski trailed his fingers across the fender they said couldn't be fixed. Grinning at Jermaine, he checked the last box on his clipboard.

"Congratulations," he said. "You'll get your certificate in the mail. But you better come back and visit, let us all know how you're doing."

• • •

Jermaine still sees four or five doctors every month. He does his own physical therapy now, works with weights and pulleys, does sit-ups on the floor. He's able to bathe and dress himself and, with a little adaptation, drive.

Behind the wheel of his black BMW, he looks like everyone else, only cooler. Women see his smile first, instead of his chair.

"It's been three years, and it's still hard," he said. "The pain, the stress. Everything takes so much longer."

But passing that PTEC program proved he can do anything, he said.

"I guess I always knew I could," he said. "It's just everyone else was telling me I couldn't. Everyone's always wanting to help me, make adaptations. I had to show them — and myself — I could do it on my own."

• • •

Late last month, after a long day of doctors' appointments, Jermaine pulled up outside a Largo warehouse and parked behind bay No. 12. He hauled his chair from the back seat, unfolded it outside the driver's door and climbed in. Then he wheeled to the warehouse, opened the sliding door with his new key.

Inside the cluttered garage, the rusting shell of a VW Bug sat by one wall. Pieces of a '63 Mustang lay scattered across the floor. A crushed Camry waited in the corner.

Jermaine rolled to the door of the Mustang, lifted it and stacked it on the trunk. He never imagined he'd have so much work so fast.

As soon as he became certified through PTEC, he bought a bunch of tools and rented this space with his buddy Paco. They have revived three cars so far — all brought in by friends.

The money Jermaine made on those cars helped him save enough to make a deposit on an apartment. After living with his brother and his brother's wife for three years, he moved into his own efficiency. He carried most of the furniture himself, on his lap, wheeling in one piece at a time.

On one of those trips, he stopped at a stoplight and saw a pretty girl on the sidewalk. Their eyes locked, and she gave him her phone number.

Check 2, 3 and 4 off the list: Works for himself, lives on his own, has a hot girlfriend.

"Whatever I missed is . . . whatever," Jermaine said when he had finished his work. "I mean, maybe I had to go through that to get all this, to know what matters."

He opened the door of his BMW, slid into the driver's seat. Then he collapsed his chair, tossed it into the back seat and headed home. "There's only one thing left I really need to do to be a man again," he said, steering through the twilight. He paused and laughed.

"Okay, two."

He's determined to walk again. And buy a motorcycle.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

How do you fix a life? Same way you fix a car: Hammer out the dents, one at a time 12/13/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2008 3:23pm]

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