| "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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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