Rising from the ashes : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Rising from the ashes

Sometimes drastic events lead to great changes

By Chuck Stanion

He’d finally conquered his slice. Joe Skoda’s golf game, while at a near professional level, had suffered from his tendency to slice, but after intense professional coaching, he’d figured it out. In 1977, his game was better than ever and he was considering a professional golf career. He was thinking about giving the U.S. Open a try. He was 23 years old and ready to get serious.

Skoda4So serious, in fact, that he couldn’t even consider renting or borrowing clubs when an unexpected golf date arose with friends, so, he found himself driving home from the Catskills, where he’d been visiting, at 4:30 a.m. to fetch his own clubs before his tee time. He was driving 45 mph in his MG Midget when a deer ran across the road and he swerved onto a guardrail, sliding along the top of it until gravity took over and he flipped several times, end-over-end, down an embankment. “I know I flipped at least three times,” says Skoda. “I had an eight-track recorder and it kept going past my head—it bounced off the dashboard, drifted by my face, smashed into the steering wheel, flew in front of my eyes, bounced off the seat and went by again.” When the spinning and crashing stopped, Skoda was upside down with his legs pinned under the steering column. Trees and underbrush surrounded the car. He felt an odd buzzing sensation in his legs and feet. Even more worrisome at that moment was a more imminent danger: the overpowering smell of gasoline.

“I got the ignition turned off,” says Skoda. It seemed like the thing to do to avoid being burned to the fine, gray ashes of a former golfer. He also managed, with impossible effort, to extract himself from the car. But he couldn’t get very far from it. “It was obvious I’d suffered some sort of spinal damage.”

He makes this statement in a surprisingly unemotional tone, smoking a pipe in his workshop in Philmont, N.Y. He’s a thin man with prominent facial features and a resonant voice that would make most newscasters jealous. The shop is nothing short of beautiful, well laid out for efficient pipemaking in a small building separated by a pathway of a couple dozen steps from his home. He rebuilt the shop from a former garage—or maybe it was a carriage house; that’s how old the place is—but you could hardly recognize it as such. It’s more like a beachside cottage with abundant natural light and the multi-generational feel skoda3of family and home. When Skoda moves around the shop, it’s with a slow and balanced concentration, as though each step holds the possibility of disaster, though strangely, he also exhibits an almost slow-motion grace, navigating the gravity that seeks to push us all to the ground. He seems to have come to some sort of agreement with gravity. As long as he respects it, it is not the problem it was 36 years ago when it threw him and his car to the bottom of a ravine.

There was no one around to see the accident. He lay on the ground, drifting in and out of consciousness for about four hours. At last he heard the unmistakable sound of someone hoeing a garden in the distance and he called out for help. When the hoeing stopped, he called again. It started up again. When there was quiet, he hollered some more. After a few repetitions of that pattern, he got a response and was found.

Skoda spent four months in the hospital, six weeks of which was in a Stryker frame (you’ve probably seen one on TV doctor shows: it’s a complicated framework of metal tubing into which an injured patient is strapped; it can be turned upside down or at any angle without moving individual parts of the patient’s body).

Soon after graduating to a wheelchair, he found himself at the nurse’s station near his hospital room. It was eerily familiar—much more than mere déjà vu.

“I’d experienced that scene before, every minute detail, and easily recognized it,” he says. “I’d first seen it three weeks before the accident.” He’d touched his car door one day and been engulfed in a bizarre vision: two nurses in their pantsuit uniforms walking down a hospital hallway; a nurse’s station; the black-and-white tiled floor of a hospital hallway; a wheelchair and the back of the skoda2head of the man sitting in it. “It was my head; I was the guy in the wheelchair. I had that vision three times before the accident and knew it was the car that would get me, because it happened when I touched the car door.” And four months later, there he was seeing his vision again, but in reality. “It was clear to me that God had a different plan for my life than I did.” He’d paid a great price for it, but he achieved a spiritual reawakening, and, to this day, he is thankful for all that made it possible.

There are pivot points in every life, moments when one’s future diverges into unexpected directions. For Skoda, that defining moment was as his MG, perfectly balanced, slid impossibly along the top of a guardrail at 45 mph, teetering between the road he’d been on and a deep ravine with only the unknown at the bottom. That unlikely circumstance was beyond his control, but that didn’t mean his only choice was to watch and accept whatever happened. Skoda emerged from that ravine understanding his new circumstances, but was determined to make them the best possible.

He was told he’d never walk again, but was soon navigating on crutches. Within a year, he was walking with the help of only a cane, which he still uses today.

“It’s a mobility issue,” he says. “The pain isn’t bad. My doctors still think I shouldn’t even be able to walk. The last X-ray I saw of my spine, it looked like a train wreck. I have feeling but no motor control below my knees. It doesn’t make sense that I can walk, but that was an issue between the Almighty and I. It was quite a spiritual experience that came out of all that, and I’m much better off than I was before the accident.”

The long hospitalization gave him plenty of time to think. “In the daytime, you go through a routine, going to rehab and whatnot. But at night, when they shut out those lights, you just lie there and wonder if it’s a nightmare you’ll Skoda1somehow wake up from. I had a year to try to figure out what the hell to do next.”

Skoda refocused and got to work. He decided to get his pilot’s license, which led to his managing a flight school at the Poughkeepsie Airport for a few years. When that job eventually ended, the real estate boom was underway and he got his real estate license, which kept him busy until the market dried up. Always good with his hands, Skoda started doing custom woodworking and gained a reputation for that. He married his wife, Anna, in 1988, and they bought an apartment building, which has been keeping him busy ever since.

Pipes became a part of his life early, but they didn’t last long at first. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I tamped too tight and smoked wet tobacco. The tongue bite was awful, and I just didn’t enjoy the experience at all, so I gave up. Tried again a couple of years later, but it was the same thing. So, for 25 years, I didn’t smoke anything—cigarettes, pipes, cigars, nothing.” Then, for some reason, he started having a cigar in the summertime while sitting outside, and that appealed to him. “I thought, ‘This is real nice; it kinda makes me feel manly to sip on a beer and puff on a cigar.’ Then I thought I’d buy one of those cheap corncobs up at the grocery store and a pack of Carter Hall and give the pipe another try.”

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