ELK RAPIDS — At the 19, Marlen Hollenbeck’s life hit bottom.
His dad, an unfiltered Camel cigarette smoker, was dying of lung cancer in a downstate hospital, the family’s body shop business was falling apart, and Hollenbeck, drunk, crashed his motorcycle after missing a curve on a Kewadin highway.
Thrown into a deep swamp, he remembers gasping for air. A buddy kept him from drowning until the ambulance arrived.
“The state cops were there and everyone was mad,” he said.
Hollenbeck had broken several vertebrae in the accident, paralyzing his arm. Shortly after the accident, his beloved father died.
But there was one kernel of good fortune. Hollenbeck had paralyzed his right “right” arm.
“I’m left handed,” he said. “I was lucky, I tell you. Unbelievable.”
Since that drizzly night in May of 1981, a lot has changed for Hollenbeck, who lives in Elk Rapids. Unable to bring life back to his arm, he had it amputated when he was 28. He met his true love at his surgeon’s office. And he opened a body shop, Riverside Collision.
That’s right. He restores and repairs cars, using one arm. He pulls out dents, welds and paints. He uses his belly and legs to hold things in place or a specialized tool he places against his leg—a small slab of steel with a long stem. He calls in a friend or his brother when he needs a hand lifting a heavy auto part.
“He does good work. I’ve used him for 15 years,” said pharmacist Lou Ghiringhelli, owner of River Pharmacy in Elk Rapids. “He restored a street rod that I was building. He did the body and paint work and it came out just beautiful. He does a lot of the classic cars. It’s just amazing what he does with just the one arm.”