L.A. trucker upbeat with life on the mend after savage attack in riot

December 26, 1992|By Bob Sipchen | Bob Sipchen,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- Wherever he goes, people wonder if he is really the man they saw dragged from his truck April 29 and beaten so severely that few thought he would live.

"Here, give me your hand," says Reginald O. Denny. He guides a visitor's fingers from where his blond-brown hair meets his forehead down into a saucer-sized crater and back out onto his cheek.

"I tell people, the real Reginald Denny has half his skull missing," he says, maintaining a serious stare for a split second before smiling. He puts his palm in the indentation, his elbow sticking out: "I call it my kickstand."

Still grinning, he glances at his daughter, Ashley, who has been yawning and eating green Tic-Tacs: "My daughter calls me 'Reginald Denty.' "

It's not just his wounds that tug him back to the first moments of the Los Angeles riots.

This month, the intersection of Florence and Normandie avenues, where television cameras recorded his beating, erupted again in violence. Then the mother of one of his accused attackers invited him and Rodney G. King to Christmas dinner: "I'm going to teach Reginald Denny how to eat corn bread and greens with his fingers," she said.

Eight months after its self-destructive shudder, Los Angeles still seems unwilling or unable to pull itself together and heal. But Mr. Denny's life appears to be mending at the same remarkable speed as his battered body.

Just weeks after what he reflexively refers to as "the accident," he met a woman he plans to marry.

He has become friends with the four blacks who risked their lives to rescue him: Mr. Denny and one man swap radio and electronics gear; Mr. Denny's 8-year-old daughter went to Hawaii with the daughter of the woman who cradled his bloody body in her arms.

And Mr. Denny's employer, Transit Mixed, has hired the unemployed trucker who drove him to the hospital.

He fondly remembers the 25,000 letters he has received -- including notes from Los Angeles Police Department officers apologizing for letting him down -- and a bedside visit from Arsenio Hall at the hospital he later left clandestinely.

As he awaits word on a claim he has made alleging that the city of Los Angeles failed to protect him, People magazine and other media nationwide want a piece of him. Life magazine reportedly wants to put him and Rodney King on the cover -- and his attorney has suggested to Mayor Tom Bradley that Mr. Denny and Mr. King appear together on public service announcements calling for calm as trials that their beatings triggered begin.

Mr. Denny knows how Mr. King must feel, he says, and says it is "pretty weird" the way America conveys instant celebrity on someone who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mr. Denny still remembers nothing of his pummeling or the following days of violence that provided some of the most lucid memories many Angelenos will ever have.

"For the rest of my life," he says, "it's just going to stick in my mind as something wacky that happened."

He was born in Lansing, Mich., but his parents moved to Los Angeles by the time he was crawling. He grew up riding bikes and playing in the streets, working a paper route to earn money and occasionally chucking eggs stolen from a nearby chicken ranch at his friends.

He has no illusions about his station in life. When his attorney tells him a success story of a young person who made it through school while living and studying in the back of her parents' car, Mr. Denny listens intently.

"I don't have what it takes," the 36-year-old Teamster says. "I'm the kind of guy who goes along, tries to do my own thing."

He remembers shaking his head after seeing the videotape of Mr. King's beating in 1991:

"It was like amazement, like check this out, man: 'Are there enough policemen to beat this guy up?' . . . You don't like to think that this is the police, the guys who legally can do stuff."

But 13 months later, Mr. King was not on Mr. Denny's mind as he left the Transit Mixed sand and gravel quarry in Azusa and headed to the company's Inglewood plant. As he got off the freeway and cut across town on the streets, Mr. Denny thought only about making "a five-haul night," and the bragging rights he would have if he were the first driver back to the quarry at shift's end.

By the time his 18-wheeler full of gravel reached the corner of Florence and Normandie, Mr. Denny noticed something unusual.

"I can relate to how police must feel when they get to a place and things are just going haywire," he says.

"It didn't click in my mind what was going on. It's almost like a numbing effect. . . . Like what the heck is going on here? . . . If I'd had power steering, I might have cranked a U-turn."

But he was stuck.

Rioters were attacking a truck in front of him, unloading its contents. "Man, that guy's gonna get in trouble," he recalls thinking.

As he anxiously watched the madness building, he noticed a few odd details, such as the pretty, splayed pattern bottles make as they shatter on asphalt.

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