BY ANNE STANTON
---- — 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.”
It’s been a tough road, but a happy one tor Hollenbeck, 52. He told his story on a drizzly November day, sitting in his heated garage near his next project — a 1972 Mustang Grande. Pain flashed across his face, and he explained cold weather triggers phantom pain in the stump of his missing arm. He uses one of his grandkid’s socks to keep it warm. It helps some, but he worries about getting through another winter.
“The phantom pain is a 10 out of 10,” he said.
Hollenbeck fondly remembered going to work for his dad’s Elk Rapids body shop at the age of 12, joining his older brother. They worked after school when they weren’t playing sports and 80 hour weeks in the summertime. They reveled in the camaraderie.
“We worked hard. That’s all we’ve ever done,” he said. “Our dad instilled it in us. But he made it fun and we made money. We had to work, though. There was no standing around with your hands in your pockets.”
After the accident, Hollenbeck continued to do odd jobs — painting houses or drywall work — but his main income came from Social Security benefits after his dad’s death and SSI, which pays benefits to disabled adults. A few years after he wed in 1993, he was notified that he was ineligible for benefits — and had been since his marriage.
“They told me unless my wife was handicapped, there was no disability,” he said. “They wanted me off. All of sudden, they were suing me for $38,000 for the money I’d already received.”
Several lawyers told him he should file for bankruptcy, but Hollenbeck insisted on challenging the sum in court. Thanks to a “great judge,” the state dropped its case against him, yet it stuck to its decision of no more disability benefits. Hollenbeck was left to make a full-time living somehow.
“I was terrified. What do I do now?” he said. “So I re-opened Riverside Collision, the name of my dad’s shop downtown. My dad had the same name as me, Marlen, so all the old guys knew who the hell I was.”
Hollenbeck used tools he salvaged from his dad’s business before everything was sold off and figured out how to get along with one arm. He doesn’t judge others with handicaps who don’t work.
“But I do think it’s a mindset,” he said. “My attitude is ‘game on.’ But it’s getting tougher. I’ve been busting my tail all my life, handicapped, hurting. I’ve had surgery on my knee, surgery on my good shoulder. I’ve worked hard all my life and I like coming to work. But I’m running out of juice.”
Love keeps him going, he said.
Love for his family and friends. His sister took care of him, for example, when he was healing from the motorcycle accident. He and his siblings help their aging mom get around. And Hollenbeck just restored an extended van for his brother, who works in the tile business. The wreck-of-a-van was destined for a salvage yard. Now it gleams and runs once more.
“We help each other out all the time, and we help other people. That’s what we do.”