Longform

The Life We're Handed

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In April 1978 in Las Vegas, he and Jean got married. By 1979 she was pregnant with their first daughter, Mandy. Alexander followed, then Jaclyn.

The lesson Pittock learned from his late twenties, he says, is that the world is full enough of danger without looking for it. Often enough, it finds you.

"En route we stopped at a gas station," Robbin Pittock says. "I said, 'Hey bud, come back here, I'll let you pump the gas.'" It was his son's first try at a new skill. "He pumped it with his right hand, of course."

Alexander Pittock was four years old on April 19, 1990, riding to Costco with his father in a van. The van needed new tires. When they got to the discount store on SW 137th Avenue in Miami-Dade County, the pair picked out tires first, then went back inside to buy cereal and milk. At the time, store policy prohibited kids from riding in the shopping carts, so Alex dawdled beside his father.

"I rounded the frozen-food section -- you really couldn't see anything coming -- and as soon as I got around the corner, here's this forklift coming right at us, just a little off to one side. It passed by us. I looked around and Alexander was down on all fours."

The forklift had run over the boy's hand.
"I immediately picked him up. I picked him up and noticed his hand. I was like a dog, I guess -- blinking, turning my head from side to side and looking at him. I just couldn't understand what I was looking at. What is that? What am I looking at? It was just gone -- the tissue; all of the tissue was just gone. Gone. They call it a glove amputation. It's like you took the flesh and just took it off the way you would take a glove off. The blood, the arteries, gone. There's nothing there but 100 percent pure white bone. But I still didn't understand what was going on.

"The forklift operator had stopped. Then I heard the announcement: 'Lock the front doors, nobody leave the store.' So then I had him in my arms, and he was like Dad Dad Dad Dad!"

Pittock remembers being at the front of the store, waiting for the ambulance.

"I lit a cigarette. You're not supposed to smoke in there of course. Mostly, I'll tell you the truth, I got really preoccupied with the way other people were reacting, because I just didn't know what was going on. I had never seen anything like that. And I guess they hadn't either, but they had found the flesh of his hand on the floor. Luckily they put it on ice."

From Baptist Hospital, Alex was transported by helicopter to Mount Sinai Medical Center. A surgeon with the unlikely name of Felix Freshwater began an eight-hour operation to rejoin the bones of the boy's hand with his flesh.

"Guilt, yeah," Pittock says. "I went through a lot of private stuff, my own moments. And I remember they told me that in a lot of ways it would be worse than the death of a child because it goes on and on."

Weeks of follow-up surgery turned into months, and Alexander was left with a hand that would always lack strength and mobility.

From time to time, while Alex was still in the hospital, Pittock would fly cargo jets out of Miami International and level out at a thousand feet over the medical facility, then power up and head for the horizon. It was a not-so-secret sign for his son.

While never admitting liability, Costco eventually agreed to pay $2.1 million in connection with the accident. In May 1992, a probate judge in Miami-Dade County approved Northern Trust Bank as the guardian of a trust fund established for Alex. The goal was to manage the money in "an investment program with a growth orientation" until the year 2003, when Alex turns 18 years old.

"I thought: Northern Trust, big bank, big company, they must know what they're doing," Pittock recalls.

The court also named Jean Pittock as co-guardian. (Robbin Pittock originally sought to join his wife in the guardianship role, but his high-risk job made him a less-desirable choice, and his felony record legally excluded him.) At the same time, the judge agreed to give Jean control over a $1000-per-month allowance -- later raised to $1500 -- "to be used for the special needs of the ward."

To the layman it would seem that Alex Pittock must by now be a very wealthy young fellow. Nearly seven years after the Costco settlement, his $2.1 million might have grown substantially, given the vigorous U.S. economy and spectacular run-ups in the stock market witnessed by this decade.

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Sean Rowe