Chapter 70: Tragedy Strikes Richard D. Armstrong
By January 1958, the World Tomorrow program was being broadcast over every inhabited continent on Earth. We were using more than 4 million watts of radio power every week. We were broadcasting from Okinawa, from Mozambique into the Republic of South Africa, and into India, over into Burma and the East Indies, and into Eastern Africa by the three superpower beams of Radio Ceylon, besides Radio Luxembourg, world’s most powerful station in Europe—and beamed over the British Isles.
These were very powerful stations—reaching out as far as 2,000 miles, covering vast areas. With our coverage in South America, we were reaching out over areas containing approximately half of the entire world’s population.
Of course I do not mean that that many people actually tuned in and listened to the broadcast—but that many could, if they all owned radio sets and tuned in to hear it. Actually, our estimate was that some 4 or 5 million actually did hear the program during an average week of broadcasting. But that’s a vast audience!
But we knew well that we were only barely started!
The big growth was yet before us!
By September of that year—1958—another million watts of radio power per week had been added.
Most significant among the new doors of radio being opened to The World Tomorrow was the powerful kgo, San Francisco. This is one of the few AA-class 50,000-watt radio stations on the West Coast that was heard clearly up and down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Mexico. We were given a good time, seven nights a week. Also newly added by that September were such valuable stations as wpit, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; kgbx, Springfield, Missouri; and kwjj, Portland, Oregon.
Also, by October, that year, the Plain Truth had been increased to 32 pages. It had been printed in two colors since February 1957. With the November 1958 number, we began publishing, serially, The Bible Story written and illustrated by Basil Wolverton. By that time, the circulation of the Plain Truth had gone up to 175,000 copies.
During the early part of summer, 1958, Mrs. Armstrong and I had driven once more back up to Oregon for a period of fasting and rest on one of the Oregon beaches. Dick was left in command at headquarters. In more ways than one he showed excellent executive ability and good judgment.
We returned to Pasadena after two or three weeks.
It was along about this time that two significant events—occurrences that would seem incredible to many—directly involved Dick.
One, the birth of a baby. It was a most serious breech birth. The situation was becoming desperate, and since Dick was the ranking minister then at headquarters, he was called in on the emergency. He drove immediately to the home where the baby was being delivered. The doctor and the nurse were near exhaustion—perhaps more of hope than physical—and the mother near physical exhaustion. Of course all Dick could do was pray but pray he did, and in faith. He kept reassuring the others but the situation was fast becoming hopeless.
Finally the doctor gave up hope, said there was nothing he could do, unless to take the baby by cesarean section, which the family refused to allow. The doctor went home. The husband and the wife were counseled by Dick not to become frantic or to lose hope but to rely on God. Dick refused to lose faith. He continued to pray. And finally his faith was rewarded. The fetus turned over in the womb. The doctor was called back, and the baby was born in a normal manner.
The other incident, more amazing, involved a war veteran. He was paralyzed in his back, in his legs and both arms—helpless. He had to be moved in a wheelchair. The military hospitals had done everything for him that medical science could do. It was an incurable case. He was confined to helplessness for life, and put on a life pension for special financial support.
This man called for Dick to pray for him and ask God to perform a miracle that he might be restored to a life of usefulness.
This was one of Dick’s last acts. He did go to this man, and following the New Testament instruction in James 5:14-15, anointed him with oil and laid hands on him as he prayed, asking the Eternal Creator to do what man was unable to do and had pronounced impossible to be done.
This man, a former Yale football player, was healed and quickly restored to the full use of arms and legs and his whole body. He entered Ambassador College and soon was climbing up and down ladders painting buildings.
The Last Baptizing Tour
It was shortly after this incident that Dick was off, with an assistant, on a baptizing tour up the Pacific Coast. A number of people had sent in written requests for counsel with a minister and for baptism.
At the time I was using, for an office, a very small room in what we called “the penthouse” atop the library building. The room was so small that I was having to use a small woman’s boudoir table for a desk—an ordinary business desk was too large for the room.
I shall never forget, of course, how Dick came briskly running up the stairs to say goodbye.
“Well Dad,” he said with cheerful enthusiasm, “I’m off on this trip.”
A few days later his companion, Mr. Alton Billingsley, called me on the telephone.
“Mr. Armstrong,” he said in a voice that signaled even before his words that something was very wrong, “We’ve had a terrible accident, and Dick is in very critical condition.”
Quickly I asked for all of the facts. The accident had occurred a short distance north of San Luis Obispo, which is about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, on the Coast Highway. It had been a head-on collision. Both our men had been thrown completely out of the car. The right third of our car had been virtually sliced clear off. Dick had been sitting in the right front seat—often called “the death seat”—and had he not quickly moved to the left he would have been killed instantly.
As I learned later, they were driving north on the Coast Highway 101 after having baptized a man that morning. As Mr. Billingsley was driving, Dick had opened his briefcase and was checking his list of people to visit planning their next few stops. They had been on a dual highway—one way traffic only on each side of a divided highway, with a short space in between. The divided highway had ended but somehow neither of them had noticed it. A half block or so to their left was another paved road running parallel to theirs, which Mr. Billingsley noticed, supposing it to be the other two lanes of the divided highway.
Assuming that they were still on the divided highway with only one-way traffic on their two lanes, they were driving on the left lane to pass another car. Suddenly, from over a slight hilltop, came another car in their lane heading directly toward them. At this precise second they were almost past the car on their right—but not far enough to turn right in front of it in order to miss the oncoming car in their lane. There was no time for that, anyway.
Dick shouted, “Turn left! Turn left!”
Mr. Billingsley had only a fraction of a second to turn partly to the left. There was not enough time to turn out of the way of the oncoming car. Two cars, for example, speeding toward one another at 50 miles an hour or more, seeing each other about 150 feet away, will crash into each other in less than one second!
The oncoming car hit them head-on, its right side striking our men’s car slightly to the right of center, and Dick’s car crashed the oncoming car into the third car that our men were then passing. It was a three-car crash!
But I didn’t wait for all these details then. I got the essential details and I was off in a flash for San Luis Obispo. Dick had been unconscious and taken in an ambulance to a hospital in San Luis Obispo.
I had our switchboard telephone operator call our college physician, Dr. Ralph E. Merrill, asking him to be ready as I would be driving past his office in Glendale on the way to San Luis Obispo. I asked Mr. Norman Smith, our radio studio manager, to go with me. Dr. Merrill was ready as we drove past. I drove as fast as I dared, consistent with safety.
Right then I was terribly aware of the danger of highway driving, and although I wanted to make the fastest time possible, caution and care in driving came first. It was a strenuous drive of approximately 200 miles.
Arriving at the hospital, we found that Dick had been transferred to another hospital—there were two hospitals in this little city.
We found him now conscious, but in very critical condition. His right arm was broken at the elbow; his pelvis had been broken badly, and they had him in traction. His jaw had been broken in three or four places; X-rays showed that his heart had been knocked over to the right—to the middle or slightly right of the middle of his chest; his left lung had been collapsed. Mr. Billingsley had been examined and released, not sufficiently injured to remain in the hospital.
Dick wanted to rely on God for healing without medical aid. The doctors asked for a conference with me and Dr. Merrill. They explained that Dick was already in their care and to protect their reputation and that of the hospital, they had to administer medical aid or else have him moved, in which case he probably would die before we could get him home.
Dr. Merrill, who himself had been healed by direct prayer and understood both sides of this problem, advised us against moving him in his very critical condition. The hospital doctors agreed to give him the very minimum of medical aid consistent with their own and the hospital’s protection. I learned later, however, that in practice that meant giving him everything “medicine” knew how to give. It was a very difficult decision to make—but with so many bones broken, it certainly seemed that we would be directly causing his death to move him out of the traction and other trappings and contraptions that they had him in.
Then followed one of the most tense, strenuous week’s vigil of my life. I telephoned my wife, and she with Lois, Dick’s wife, and their 2½-month-old son came to San Luis Obispo on the train. Of course Mr. Smith and I had anointed and prayed for Dick immediately. It was a week of almost constant prayer.
Registered nurses were required to be in constant attendance around the clock. We had one RN, as they are called in hospitals, at the college and another had applied for entrance to Ambassador College that autumn. By telephone, I arranged for these two to come immediately to the hospital, and the hospital supplied the third nurse. We preferred to have our own nurses at his side so far as possible.
It was too agonizing a week to go into in detail. Dr. Merrill had to return to Glendale, but the rest of us remained in the hotel in San Luis Obispo to be in as constant attendance as possible.
The accident occurred on July 23, 1958. By the evening of July 29, a very serious decision had to be made. Dick’s kidneys were not functioning enough to keep him alive much longer. The doctors at San Luis Obispo had called specialists from ucla Medical Center to come up for consultation. They told me that it would be necessary to attempt to remove Dick to the medical center in Westwood (Los Angeles) where they could use an artificial kidney to stimulate normal action by his own kidneys. By carrying him suspended in traction on the special kind of pallet “bed” that he was strapped on, driving slowly in an ambulance through the night, they felt that they could successfully move him to the Los Angeles medical center. Our two nurses and one or more of their doctors went along in the ambulance. Also, Mr. Norman Smith, who had remained the week with me, went along with them.
We tried to get a little sleep through part of that night, rising and leaving about 5 a.m. for Los Angeles. We felt we should arrive not too much later than the ambulance, since it was to drive very slowly.
During the week, Dick had had various ones of us read the Bible to him. In spite of the pain and the terrible condition, he kept in good spirits. Once, in prayer, he began thanking God for the many, many blessings that had been lavished on him. The nurse in attendance said that this continued a long time—he had so very many things to be thankful for.
I had typed out a number of biblical promises that God had made to us, from various parts of the Bible, for our nurses to read to Dick in the ambulance when he was awake.
As we approached the Los Angeles area on the morning of June 30, strange premonitions seemed to come into my mind. I didn’t tell the others. I didn’t want to cause them any concern, worry or lack of faith. This I had to fight out within my own mind by prayer and mental concentration. Finally, it seemed that I had won a victory over these premonitions and I had gotten my mind again into a state of faith.
We drove into the ucla Medical Center parking lot. We left the others in the car while Lois and I went to see Dick or to get a report on his condition. As we approached the entrance, Mr. Smith and our two nurses approached us with the news that just before they could get the artificial kidney connected, Dick had died.
There were present some of the most famous surgeons and specialists in the nation. They cut Dick open near the heart and tried to massage his heart back into action—they tried frantically everything that such specialists know, but to no avail.
Dick’s body was then sent to a mortuary in Pasadena.
It hit Lois as if she had been shot. I grabbed her, steadied her.
“Steady, Lois,” I said as calmly as I could. “Remember you have another very precious little life to nurse and keep alive now. You must keep calm so that your milk will not be disturbed.”
Lois responded bravely, like a trouper. Then we discussed how to break the news to Mrs. Armstrong. We tried to break it gently so it wouldn’t come as too much of a shock. We tried to keep normal composure.
“They’ve taken Dick back to Pasadena,” I said, trying to be casual as if everything was OK. But no one ever could mislead my wife. She almost fainted—for she knew that we were only trying to ease the blow. But she always was a real trouper too, and she quickly recovered without going to pieces—though naturally wounded to the very depths.