On that evening of Aug. 12, 1986, over a game of gin rummy with friends, Becker began to feel the chill of death in his feet, clawing its way up his body. As he added and discarded playing cards, he made a plan. Then he threw down his cards and a few dollars, ran from the room, and drove his Subaru wagon to the 15th Street viaduct.
In the dark car he stared at the nearby train tracks, mustering up the courage to carry out the voices' ultimatum. He sprinted from his car to the tracks and—just to be safe—he deliberately, calmly pressed both arms to the quivering track. Beneath the sound of grinding metal and screeching brakes, he recited the Lord's Prayer. In an instant, the train was upon him. The wheels tore through his flesh. Blood darkened the dirt beneath the rails.
The heavy rumbling and haunting whistle faded as Becker fell back from the tracks, battered and bloodied. He looked down at his mutilated limbs and felt a searing, powerful sense of relief. He remembers musing that he'd never play the piano.
A passerby eventually noticed Becker sitting calmly in the dark, mangled arms still dangling from his body. When the man offered help, Becker asked him to pull a cigarette from his bloody shirt pocket and light it for him. The comic smoked, slowly pulling the hot smoke into his lungs while the panicked stranger ran to find a phone.
Ambulance sirens penetrated the silence and Becker's calm. Although bleeding heavily, he felt no pain until the EMTs arrived and told him he was going to live. "Then there was this surge of pain, unbelievable agony." While hurriedly wrapping his shredded arms in gauze and trying to keep him from going into shock, the medics told him he would likely lose at least one of his arms. He thought to himself, "They should take the other one too."
Don Becker is known to answer the door of his Capitol Hill condo without his prosthetic arm. The scars that stretch around his back and abdomen could almost pass for battle wounds. They are convincing "evidence" when he has sometimes answered unwelcome questions with fictional stories about fighting in Vietnam. And though his wrinkles and graying hair now seem natural for a man in his early 50s, many say he looked much the same 15 years ago.
In the years following the railroad incident, Becker was admittedly antisocial, had poor hygiene, and was generally difficult, especially when he refused to take Haldol (haloperidol), the antipsychotic medication he was prescribed shortly after losing his arm.
"I lost virtually all my friends from that period of time," he says. "I was just too hard to deal with. I'd call them from the hospital after trying to gouge my eyes out, and they'd be mad at me." Becker likens his plight to that of an alcoholic who, though sober, has inflicted so much harm that he has damaged relationships beyond repair. "But now I'm healthy and my friends haven't come back," he says sadly. Then he adds, "My friends don't want to admit that I survived, because they all banked on me not surviving."
Becker insists self-pity is not in his nature. While in the hospital, he rejected offers from lawyers to help him sue everyone from his therapist to the railroad company. He believes emphatically in individual responsibility. He has instead chosen to seek spiritual meaning in his experiences, a sometimes disturbing path that has defined his recovery process. During his convalescence, Becker explored world religions, a journey he continues to this day, though he facetiously dubs himself an agnostic Calvinist. "A Calvinist believes in predestination," he says. "In a way, I very much believe I'm going to hell. But in a way, I'm an agnostic. The literal meaning of agnostic is 'without knowledge.' I don't have any knowledge."
While hospitalized, Becker attended a benefit comedy show that was organized to help pay for his medical expenses. Roseanne, Robin Williams, and Dennis Miller were among the comics who came to Denver's Rainbow Music Hall to participate, as well as local comics Jeff Cesario, Allan Stephen, and Eddie Strange. "I think that really is a testament to Donald's wit and humor," says friend Pamela Clifton, who attended. "I was really starstruck. I felt like, 'Wow, I know Donald Becker!'"
Becker was not on stage that night, but he soon made his short-lived effort to return to stand-up comedy. Within a few years, however, he quit for good. His prosthetic, he feels, is a glaring distraction. "Imagine Bill Maher with one arm," he says. "It just doesn't work for comedy. If you have one arm, what you instantly represent to people is 'pain.'"