MARLETTE TWP. — It has come to be known – in conversation, in his book and, sometimes, in David Stieler’s turbulent dreams – as “the ride.”
The jaunt sounds carefree – a Sanilac County couple traveling together on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, over the omnipresent country roads of Michigan’s Thumb area, on a side trip to Caro, stopping at Dairy Queen and a garage sale, and rolling over to the hamlet of Clifford, before taking Marlette Road east to the main stoplight in Marlette.
“It was a beautiful day. We were almost home,” said Carole Stieler, David’s wife.
“The last thing either of us really remembers is stopping at the light on Marlette Road, waiting to turn north,” said David Stieler, now 67, recalling the afternoon of June 24, 2007.
“It was in the high 80s, lows 90s. Beautiful afternoon. T-shirt, riding weather. I turned around to Carole and said ‘Man, this is a great day to take a bike ride.’”
David Stieler thought the bed was too hard.
“I remember laying on my back, wondering why this bed was so hard, and asking ‘Why is that Schwan’s (grocery delivery) truck going by me?’” he said. “Then I saw dual wheels and tail lights. The tires were white, and everything else was black – it really was black and white. And it must have been the ambulance pulling up to the scene. The next thing I remember is lying on my back and I’m moving, and I’m being slid into this big silver tube headfirst while on my back, and hearing something that sounded like a jet engine.”
Stieler, who served in a combat zone in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, had a question.
“I asked them ‘Am I going for a helicopter ride?’” Stieler said. “Then I heard a door close and I recognized it as an aircraft door. I felt something shaking and I said ‘Am I going for a helicopter ride? What am I doing in a helicopter?’
“Four days later I woke up in the hospital.”
David Stieler leaned forward in his chair Wednesday, from the living room of his home in Sanilac County’s Marlette Township, with his hands clasped together, recalling how he “lied” to doctors to gain release after eight days in a Saginaw hospital in order to check on his wife, lying in a coma at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center following their motorcycle’s crash with a car.
“The first time I saw her, she was plugged into the room like an engine under the hood of a car, laying there,” he said. “That’s the first that I had any idea that she was possibly not going to make it. Nobody would tell me they didn’t expect her to live. I learned all that after the fact.”
Carole Stieler, then a court administrator/assignment clerk for Sanilac County Circuit Judge Donald Teeple, was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
“She was in a coma for first two weeks after the accident,” David Stieler said. “She came out of the coma and she had to learn how to stand, how to wash herself, how to brush her teeth. She’s had to learn everything from scratch. They didn’t expect her to live, let alone walk and talk, and she was back to work before I was. She’s a miracle child.”
While David Stieler said his right foot was at risk of being amputated by surgeons after the couple’s motorcycle struck a car along M-53 at French Line Road, his wife had her own problems.
“I don’t remember six or eight weeks that I was at Hurley (Medical Center) at all,” she said. “I didn’t start getting my memory back until I was an inpatient at The Lighthouse (Neurological Rehabilitation Center) in Caro. They helped me a lot.”
A reporter asks David Charles Stieler – the name he uses on the cover of his 2013 book, “The Ride, the Rose and the Resurrection” – why he survived the crash.
“When I woke up in the hospital and at the end of the day after everybody had gone home at 8:30 or 9 o’clock at night, and I’m laying there looking at this big wad where my right foot’s supposed to be – not even sure if I had a foot, not even sure of what people were telling me – there was this presence, this calm, came over me.
“I can’t describe it. It was almost like God himself was speaking to me, without words being spoken. And the first thing in my head was ‘This happened for a reason.’
“I thought ‘OK, God, you have my attention. Now what is it you wanted me to do with this?’ And ever since then, I have been aware of circumstances that I otherwise would have just blown right past. That’s that extra sensitivity, that extra appreciation for life. And I started piecing together the events that occurred leading up to the accident, and all of the things that happened that fell into place that saved ourselves after the accident, and the staff and the people that were there – it was humbling, not humiliating, but an eye-opening experience.
“Somebody said ‘Dave, keep a journal.’ I started writing a journal, and as I was reading back through that journal, it occurred to me ‘This is a story that needs to be told.’ Not just because of the trauma, but because of the recovery, and the hell that I’m going through, still. Almost 10 years later, we’re still dealing with the insurance industry.
“I want to help other people get through (issues). I’m not going to say it’s a faith-based book, but there’s a common thread of faith in it. Not religion, but faith. Nothing will ruin your faith quicker than religion.”
A Sanilac County Sheriff’s Department report notes David and Carole Stieler each received serious injuries when the motorcycle he was driving north on M-53 struck a northbound car in front of the motorcycle just before 2 p.m. on June 24, 2007. The Stielers were wearing their helmets. The crash took place on M-53 at French Line Road.
“I had head trauma,” David Stieler said. “My wife had a shattered elbow, I had a shattered ankle, all our ribs were busted on the left side. They said they had already lost me twice in the emergency room. I’d stopped breathing and they had to bring me back.”
Reports state the driver of the car, then 33 and of Marlette, fled the scene of the crash. The car driver, contacted by police the next day, told officers the motorcycle struck him from behind as he was turning left, or west, on French Line Road.
David Stieler believes the driver was in the process of making an illegal U-turn on the state highway, causing the motorcycle to strike the car.
“He did a U-turn and left us laying there,” David Stieler said. “He left us for dead in the highway. Combat veterans will crawl out under fire and drag their comrades off the battlefield, and this guy took off and left two perfectly innocent human beings to die.”
The car driver was sentenced to 90 days in jail in 2008 for two crimes, including failure to report the accident, according to Sanilac County Circuit Court records.
Three days each week, David Stieler still operates Carco Auto Electric – marking its 25th anniversary this year – in the workshop next to his home along M-53. He repairs starters, alternators and generators.
He said he’s also trying to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder that traces back to the crash in 2007 rather than to his time in a combat in the late 1960s.
“I did not have any problems from the military with PTSD until after that motorcycle accident,” Stieler said. “That triggered a lot of things and all of a sudden the nightmares started. I went to the Veterans Administration and they told me ‘You have problems.’ But what happened is the accident set it off.”
Stieler realizes he has to fix something else: his tendency to become angry, sometimes at the driver of the car struck by the Stielers’ motorcycle.
“What good can come from hating this guy?” Stieler said. “Who’s the prisoner? I become trapped by my own hate, spitefulness and vindictiveness. It’ll eat me alive. What you have to do is let it go and move on. I can’t change what happened. I can’t put my foot back to the way it was before the accident. I can’t change my wife’s brain injury.
“I can’t do anything about it. So agonizing over it isn’t going to fix a damn thing. All it’s going to do is hinder us all.”
The latter half of his book, Stieler said, focuses on “forgiveness.”
He said statistics show fewer than one in 10 marriages survive when one or both spouses receives a traumatic brain injury. Carole Stieler said that following the crash, she spent a summer with the couple’s son in Virginia.
“Brain trauma changes a person,” David Stieler said. “You have to decide to stay married, and that’s what we did. It has not been a bed of roses. It’s been extremely difficult to the point where we had to get away from each other before we kill each other. Before this turns into abuse.
“And we separated for about 4 and 1/2 months. We came back together and figured out that separation didn’t help anything. All that did was give us a hiatus, and we both regrouped and came back fully armed with our same (problems).”
Carole Stieler said that following the crash, “I showed no emotion for a long time, and that was just frustrating.”
David Stieler said his wife “lost all her happy, her sad – everything.”
“There are slight physical impairments, and short-term memory issues, timeline issues, for her,” he said. “Carole’s moods went away.” “I, on the other hand, started out with a short fuse and now I have no fuse, and I’ve been in counseling for anger issues. Part of that is the sense of urgency that people don’t seem to have.
“Geez, when you wake up from just about dying, life has a whole new importance. I don’t have the patience to sit around for people that lackadaisically (throw) it away.”
Then they found the Brain Life Center in Clarkston, where they receive counseling and treatment.
“It’s helped,” David Stieler said. “That made the difference between maintaining the marriage, or just giving up and throwing it away.”
Kirkus Reviews describes Stieler’s book as “a forthright, incandescent examination of human fragility, couched in a tale of intense trauma and recovery.”
BlueInk Review states that “Stieler demonstrates excellent writing skills; he’s direct and clear, avoiding turning this story into a pity party.”
Carole Stieler said that “Even last week, at the (Marlette) VFW Ladies’ Auxiliary, one of the ladies had just read the book, and she said ‘Man, I could relate to some of the things I read in there.’”
The book is available through Amazon.com, iUniverse.com and at major booksellers. David Stieler said computer users can download the book on a Kindle e-Reader.
“I will tell people that this is a book that Christians can relate to, but it’s a book that non-Christians can relate to,” David Stieler said. “This is a memoir that motorcycle riders can relate to. Anybody who’s ever been traumatized can relate to it – if you’ve been in the Vietnam War or in a war zone, you can relate to this.”
He has pitched the book to movie producers.
“A writer read the book, made notes … and put it into a format that would be good on a screen, and is now in the process of doing a screenplay, and a Hollywood production company will look at that and decide whether it’s good enough to make a movie out of,” he said.
Whether the book endeavor pays off financially, the Stielers are rewarded by the knowledge that someone was looking out for them on June 24, 2007.
“I don’t believe any of this was coincidence. This was all lined up,” David Stieler said.
Take, for example, the fact their daughter, Nicole Friday, and her husband, Rodney, were sent by dispatchers from Lapeer County’s Burlington Township to the scene of the crash – Nicole as an emergency medical technician and Rodney as a medical first responder.
Rodney and Nicole Friday’s medical training, and presence with the Stielers at hospitals immediately after the crash, proved vital, Carole Stieler said.
“It’s amazing how God put pieces together,” she said. “Our son-in-law and daughter are dispatched to the accident. Our son-in-law went with Dave, and our daughter went with me. When Dave was airlifted over to St. Mary’s, the doctor over there was going to amputate his foot. Rodney, our son-in-law, said ‘Wait a minute, if this isn’t life-threatening, you wait and that can be his decision.’ Otherwise, he wouldn’t have had a foot.”
David Stieler said the actions of Dennis Pisha, an off-duty Caro firefighter who happened upon the injured couple as he drove along M-53 seconds after the crash, protected the scene and the couple from other approaching vehicles.
Both of the Stielers say their motorcycle helmets saved their lives, though they don’t support any law taking away riders’ freedom to travel without wearing one.
“That’s their right, and I support that right,” David Stieler said. “I am opposed to helmet laws just like I’m opposed to seat belt laws. … I won’t ride without a helmet, but I will defend that guy’s right to ride without one. If he wants to hit his head, fine, let him hit his head.”
Carole Stieler said “If someone is talking about whether they should wear a helmet or not, I say ‘Well, come over to my house and I’ll show you what my brand new helmet looked like after hitting the highway.’”
Carole Stieler is grateful for her husband’s help.
“God was good to me and my husband has been great, reteaching me things,” she said. “It has to be frustrating.”
Recovery, David Stieler said, is work.
“God didn’t cause that accident,” he said. “Another human being did. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time, for human purposes, but God’s hand was there to catch us. However, did God fix me? He gave me the shovel, but it’s still up to me to do the digging.”
And the riding. For more than a year after the crash, the couple didn’t ride a motorcycle.
“I wasn’t gonna ride anymore,” said David Stieler, noting that his wife had other ideas.
“When I was in neurological rehabilitation and talking about the accident, Dave was wondering ‘What did I miss?’ because he’s a very defensive driver,” Carole Stieler said. “I said ‘I dunno. Just fix the dang thing and get back on it.’
“He said ‘Would you get on the back?’ I said ‘Sure, it’s fun.’”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com