The High Chaparral
"The Day Leif Erickson Faced Death"

By Ruth Waterbury
TV Radio Mirror/ August 1970

     "If that blood clot moves," the doctor warned, "it can reach your heart or brain in seconds...and you will die instantly!"

     On TV, Big John Cannon is strong and silent, even in the face of suffering.  Leif Erickson, who plays him, is much the same way in real life.  So much so, that death almost took him unaware!  Leif being Leif, there were no headlines when it happened.  But when you ask him frankly about that frightening experience, he seems almost glad to tell you --- because it was in those days and nights of pain, of frantic worry for those he loved, that Leif Erickson discovered a faith in God such as he had never found before.

     It all began on a beautiful Arizona desert morning, two years ago this coming November, when The High Chaparral was shooting on location, just as it always does.  Leif didn't give a second thought to the stunt he was about to perform.  All he had to do was to jump from a pile of rocks and land close enough to the villain on the road below to knock the villainy out of him!

     A high wind was blowing, but so what?  To Leif, 6-feet-4 and a born athlete, such a stunt was no sweat.  As the wooden clapper sounded that meant the cameras were rolling, he leaped.  How could he possibly realize that, in that second, his whole life would change?  How could he know that he was about to come close to death?

     In that instant in space, the wind hit Leif with such force that he was thrown slightly off balance.  He hit his right knee against the rocks.  That hurt like hell and, as he thudded down beside the villain, it hurt worse.  Like most right-handed people, he instinctively fell on his right side.

     Leif cursed.  IT was himself he was cursing.  Only then did he realize that, while dressing that morning, he had forgotten to put on protective knee pads.

     "You all right, Leif?" the director called as the cameras stopped.  Everyone waited.

     Leif pulled himself upright. "Oh, sure," he said.  He really thought he was.  A year before, doing another High Chaparral scene, he had fallen and broken an arm.  He hadn't made any fuss about that.  So he didn't intend to carry on about a bruised knee!

Leif Erickson, Linda Cristal, Frank Silvera,
Henry Darrow, and Mark Slade

     One of the troubles with starring in a TV series is that every precious moment of shooting counts.  All schedules are up tight.  No one is pampered.  Thus, that day, the director felt only relief that Leif wasn't "seriously" hurt and went quickly into the next scenes.  [Left:  Leif with his High Chaparral costars, Linda Cristal, Frank Silvera, Henry Darrow, and Mark Slade.]

     Leif kept going until lunch.  Then he had to admit that pain was really getting to him, increasing rather than lessening.

     "They let me off for the balance of the day when I told them that," Leif recalls.  "I assured them I'd by okay in the morning.  I thought I would be.  Besides, I didn't want anything --- including me! --- to hold up production.  You see, a few weeks previously, I had agreed that I'd go on a promotional tour of some new NBC stations in the South.  For me to keep those dates, we had to finish our 'spring batch' of High Chaparral within the next two weeks.

     "So, the day of that idiot accident, I went home confidently.  I took a couple of aspirin and corked off until dawn the next morning.  But I didn't wake up to bliss.  Instead, the pain was still with me and my right knee was puffed up like a sofa cushion."

     Leif shakes his craggy head, recalling those moments.  "I dressed so fast that Anne never got a glimpse of that knee!  I whirled out to work --- though, all day, behind the scenes I was playing, I was recalling how strenuous personal appearances can be.

     "The  scam on those is that you usually get up about 4:30 A.M. to catch the only plane from city to city.  You're on your feet all day, making the appearances, signing autographs, doing your thing on the various stations in whatever city you're hitting.  And you, of course, always smiling.

     "So right there on our Tucson location, before I even took off, I knew I also had to be always smiling, no matter how much the whole right side of me kept on aching.  I couldn't let myself limp.  I tried putting all my weight on my left leg, as I went into one action shot after the other.  For those solid two weeks, there was nothing but action shots.  But somehow I kept the smile on my face and walked straight.

     "Until I got home, that is.  Then I'd make excused to keep out of Anne's sight, while I'd check up on my right knee's swelling.

     "Every night, I hoped it would have gone down by morning, but the reverse was always true.  It was more swollen --- and the night that I saw that the left knee was swollen, too, I nearly hit the panic button.  But that wasn't the climax, either.  A few days later, both knees were puffed up, front and back.

     "I'm a big boy," Leif grins, "but I hadn't been that scared since my first day in kindergarten.  The only pleasure I got, those next two weeks, was in realizing that I was a good enough actor that nobody --- including my sharp, dear Anne at home --- knew how I felt!

     "We did finish High C, right on schedule, and I took off on my tour.  With my height, I'm always cramped in airplanes and it didn't help my pain any to be hunched up over a long flight.  I had to change planes twice.  That was nearly unendurable.  But I hid my discomfort as best I could.

The irony of it all!

     "My first stop was Lafayette, Louisiana, on a Saturday night.  The NBC station there was throwing a dinner with guess-who as its big, smashing star!  If I could have done what I wanted, I'd have been holed up in a bed for a week, but that station was a private enterprise thing that a lot of doctors had put their own money into.  They'd sold an armful of tickets to the dinner.  It was their 'gala.'  I simply couldn't let them down.

     "So I pasted a smile on my face and breezed into that group of real nice people.  The irony of my situation was that --- seated at the top table --- I was entirely surrounded by doctors!  On my right was an obstetrician, on my left a heart man.  All down the table were eye doctors, skin doctors, or what's your medical problem?

     "It was the obstetrician who noticed, behind my wisecracks, that I was in pain.  He asked, "What's bothering you?"  Help at last, I thought.  I pulled up my trousers.  He looked at my knees and said, 'My God, we've got to get you to a vascular man immediately!'  A 'vascular man,' I learned, is a vein specialist.

     "My friend, the baby doctor, hustled me out to his car, rushed me to a hospital.  But because it was a Saturday, there was no doctor around that night who was conversant with my kind of problem.  However, the other doctors at the hospital bandaged my knees, gave me some antibiotics and told me to get to a good vascular surgeon just as soon as I could."

     Leif pauses for a long breath, before resuming.  "I was really scared but I wouldn't admit it, even to myself.  I went on to the other TV stations, finished my tour --- though frankly, I was in more and more pain all the time.

     "Finally, after what seemed like years, I hobbled aboard a plane, headed for Tucson, which I knew has marvelous hospitals staffed with great doctors.  Tucson was already my second home then.  Our real place was at Malibu, but my wife is the kind of woman who could turn a worn-out tent into a home.  She's the type who, no matter how late we finish High Chaparral, always  has a hot dinner and a cold martini ready when I return.

     "After any day in the desert, I have to have a bath regardless.  That means there's always a hot tub waiting for me.  The moment I hit the door, I plow into it.  Anne gives me the martini and sits there beside me while I wash and drink and discuss all the day's chatter.

     "Being that kind of dame, you know that when I told her long-distance how sick I was, she called me back to say a vascular doctor would be at the plane to meet me!  And, of course, he was there --- he and an ambulance.

     "He didn't mince any words, either, once he got me undressed and hospitalized.  He said bluntly, "You have a thrombosis in the vein of your left leg, caused by this blockage due to the excessive water on the knee.  Your condition is extremely dangerous.  If that clot in your blood moves, it can reach your brain or your heart in a matter of seconds and you will die instantly.

     "'I will do everything to prevent that,' he reassured me.  For one straight month, you must lie in bed --- absolutely prone --- and not move at all for any reason!'

     "I stared at him.  I said, 'No bathrooms?'

     "He said, 'No nothing.  We will give you medication that will thin your blood and we hope, dissolve the thrombosis.'  He gave me a long look, then added, "Just in case you are thinking you will get up and around, the moment my back is turned, let me tell you that two weeks ago a young man, much your junior, was here in the same condition your are.

     "'After he had been bedded down about two weeks, and when neither a doctor nor a nurse was around, he got up and went to the bathroom --- and he died in half an hour.'"

     Leif pauses. "Well, that certainly straightened me out.  I had to admit that once I was in the sack with my legs propped up, I was in much less misery.  But I was spooky, that's for sure!  Hooked up in the room there was an electrocardiograph machine that recorded everything.  It was hooked up to me, too, and to a central station outside --- this is so the nurses, even if they aren't actually in the room, can keep track of you.

     "It sure got on my nerves," Leif admits, "particularly when it would stop and then go beep-beep-beep --- which, I later learned, meant the clot was trying to slip through.  If you went to a certain point on the machine, it would even ring.  A nurse would come flying in then to check up on you, and that was enough to start your panic and make you think That's all, Charley.  But I knew I had to live with it --- if I wanted to live --- and I purely did.

     "They gave me the blood-thinner stuff till my blood looked like dishwater.  There was just one cheerful factor involved.  To keep my strength up, they fed me booze all day.  That really wasn't too hard to take!  I just lay there, with my lovely Anne sitting beside me, day after day.

Jolt to reality

     "Then, with a jolt, I got the word that because the cyst which had formed at the back of my knees was blocking the leg veins, they had decided they must operate one me!  Only first they had to undo all the blood-thinning process and go into the blood-thickening before they could be sure I would live through the surgery.  By this time, it was early December and that was not the best piece of news I'd ever heard."

     Big Leif stands up and stretches.  We're having lunch at his yacht club and nearby his yacht rides at anchor, a lovely 44-ft. schooner, Pagan, the family home when Erickson gets a break from filming, and on which he and Anne, his wife of 24 years, and their two children --- Bill, now 23, and Suzie, now 19 --- have sailed almost every ocean in the world.  To the actor, the sea offers solitude, a placid haven in which the world slows down so a man can stand back and get a good look at it.

     Leif sits down again, smiling, as though he's read my thoughts, for then he adds, "When a man's got a good wife and good kids, he owns the world. Anne recognized my fear and, without telling me, she determined to get word to Bill.  If she had to move heaven and earth, she was going to get him back home before the time of my operation was to be performed.

     "Now while I was in the hospital, Anne and I had stopped talking about our worry over Bill, over there in Vietnam, but we hadn't heard from him a weeks.  We knew he was down in the Delta with the Green Berets, in the worst fighting area at the time. 'No mail' meant he was in bad danger --- because, up until then, he had written us every few days.

     "His silence just pulled the rug out from under me.  In fact, I hadn't had a really good night's sleep in the 11 months he'd been away and I suspected that Anne hadn't had one, either.

     "My operation was scheduled for December 17th, which also happens to be Bill's birthday.  All around us, people were getting ready for Christmas.  It was a bad time for us and it got even worse.

     "That was because our daughter, Suzie, on December 15th, got involved in an automobile accident while she was driving down Tucson's main boulevard on her way to buy some Christmas cards.  She was making a left turn when a guy, roaring drunk and driving on the wrong side of the street, sideswiped her.

     "Suzie didn't have her seat belt fastened --- but the crazy miracle is that this turned out to be a blessing!  The impact just about ruined her car, but it also tossed her over into the softness of the back seat.  Suzie emerged from it with only a slight concussion.  But worrying about her, with all our other worries, really drilled on me and Anne.

     "God was on our side, though.  If we didn't know where our boy was, the Army, after three days of hunting, did.  In one of those fantastic jobs they do so efficiently, they picked Bill up by helicopter out of some Delta swamp, flew him to headquarters in something like a half-hour.  In less than another, they had him on a plane which delivered him, broad and smiling, to my bedside that same day!

     "And what day do you suppose that was?  Just his 22nd birthday, that's all.  Furthermore, Bill was free.  His Army stretch was over." ("Note please," Leif says parenthetically, "that I don't call Bill tall.  In the family, we call him ' runt' since he is a mere 5-feet-1 to my 6-feet-4.  But, you know, he still might grow some!" he adds, with a little laugh."

Bill, Leif, and Suzie Erickson

     "I went into that operation with my courage back, with my boy back, my little girl nearly recovered.  I came out of it safely.  December 24th was Anne's and my wedding anniversary.  You can figure what a Christmas we all had!

     "And I'm sure this will make you understand why, the following spring, when High Chaparral had enough shows finished so that I could go on vacation, I was determined to go out on another hospital tour.  That's my way of saying thanks to God."

     "Last November Erickson became the first man ever singled out by the West Point Society of Southern California to be cited in recognition of his many visits to military hospitals and installations throughout the United States and Vietnam.  A combat veteran of World War II, as a naval aerial photographer in the Pacific area, Leif was shot down twice and once deposited into the sea when the USS Nevada was hit by a Kamikaze."

     "The year before, I'd gone to Vietnam visiting the evacuation hospital and the little field hospitals.  That's where you see war like it is --- the agony, the destruction.  But this year, I wasn't being sent into the battle zone.  That's because, with those bum knees of mine, I couldn't jump out of helicopters the way I did before.  I couldn't go without sleep the way I used to, either --- that trying to snuggle down in a bunker, the way they do, God help them!" he continues.

     "Nope, that year the Army carefully planned to make me play it safer, going alone to visit hospitals in Tokyo, Guam, Okinawa, the Philippines, the many places where there is still hope for recovery of the patients.

     "It's both a heartbreaking and an inspiring job," Leif murmurs, almost to himself.  "You go to those hospitals and you sit on the side of a fellow's bed.  What strikes you first is how young he is, and you are bound to notice how sick or how chipper he is, though you try to conceal any shocked reactions.

     "You ask him what's wrong with him, what happened.  Does he ever open up!  These boys are starved for a chance to talk.  They can't talk to one another about their wounds, for if they did, they'd bore one another crazy.  Your wound is always fascination, but only to you, the one who got it.  In the military hospitals, if the guys even try to talk to one another about their ailments, they get competitive.

     "Talking to a stranger is something else.  Especially when he's not a stranger but a guy they have seen for a couple of years on High Chaparral.  He's a real 'happening.'  He sits on the guy's bed and asks, "What hit you, where?'  It's fantastic therapy, for here is an ear that listens.

     "As a visitor," Leif speaks from experience, "you learn not to show sympathy.  You feel it deeply, but you act as if everything is gung ho.  It takes quite a bit of practice to arrive at this point.  some of the best-intentioned people can never reach it.  But you simply have to imply that everything is going to be just fine --- even when, a lot of times, you know it isn't going to work out like that.

     "But you learn to play it, and sometimes, it does work a miracle.  That's what you always hope.  If you get a sick lad at the turning point between giving up and getting with it again, you sometimes save them.  That, I now know, is because faith is sometimes better than medicine.

Search for faith

     "That faith was what happened to me," the big star says humble, "gave me the greatest Christmas I've ever known.  When I came back to awareness after my operation, I knew i had discovered true faith.

     "Some people find their faith without struggle, in the faith of their fathers.  Some of us have to search further.  I had to search.  When I was a kid, I went to a Catholic school for a year and also sang in the Episcopal Church choir.  Sometime in my teens I took up Christian Science for several years.  Next, I attended the Presbyterian Church.

     "This kind of religious quest has a lot to do with your type of personality, I'm sure.  I never 'joined,' but I saw good in all faiths.  My Bill seems to feel the same way.  He started out being a Lutheran.  In Vietnam, because he was with Chinese-speaking mercenary troops, he learned a great deal about Buddhism.  'The peace of God which passeth all understanding' --- as the Episcopalians say --- is, I believe, in all of them.

     "Speaking just for myself, I know now that it is my duty to try to repay in deeds what life and faith have given me."  Today, Leif Erickson can actually give thanks for the fateful day he faced death.

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