No, he said hoarsely. Those names meant nothing: the Challenger disaster, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Exxon Valdez.
And he's still catching up with news closer to home, closer to the room where he's languished since late 1982: births and deaths in the family, an old girlfriend's marriage.Conley Holbrook has missed the better part of a decade, one-third of his 26-year life, locked in a twilight state from which he's just emerged.
"Yeah, there's been a bunch of babies," said his older brother Glen. "I've got three nieces and two nephews born since he's been in this. Most of 'em ain't babies no more."
"I asked him what year it was right now," Glen said. "And he said, `1981?' I mean, that's 10 years off."
Conley's twilight may have lifted, but there are some dark days ahead.
There'll be physical therapy for his atrophied body. And he'll need help with his speech, which, during a recent conversation, came in one- or two-word answers, some barely audible.
There's so much catching up to do.
Beyond all that, there's Donnie Combs, the first cousin Conley played with as a kid and was drinking with, witnesses say, that night in 1982.
Combs is awaiting trial now, charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.
In some of Conley's first waking words, his mother said, he accused his cousin of being to blame for all this, of clubbing him with a piece of firewood.
Effie Holbrook was overjoyed at her son's recovery. "A miracle," she whispered, talking in the family's house trailer about the son she's watched and prayed over for 3,000 days.
Still, she took no pleasure in the jailing of the man her son accused.
"Because it's kin, it hurts so deep," Mrs. Holbrook said. "But I guess everything's not going to be like you want it."
Down at the Davidson County Courthouse, it was another busy day for those who deal with the things that
don't turn out the way you want.
Escorted jail inmates wearing orange jumpsuits shuffled through the lobby. Folks waiting for hearings killed time, browsing through bulletin board notices of sheriff's auctions and the long criminal court docket.
In the court clerk's office, Donnie Combs' court-appointed lawyer, Bill Causey, was waiting for some records when a woman with bleached hair and bleached jeans entered, a former client.
What was she doing in the courthouse again, he asked - three times this week and it was only Thursday. Assault, she said. She'd kicked some men during a melee, "and I had my cowboy boots on."
Among some folks in this region of small farms and furniture factories, there's a "wild West mentality," a courthouse worker commented, just as in other rural places with hardscrabble pockets of low education and break-even income.
"They don't think about the consequences," said Causey, a prosecutor until entering private practice six months ago.
Nodding toward District Court, he said, "Monday's assault day over there. Husbands assaulting wives, boyfriends assaulting girlfriends, family members, brothers . . . And that's what this case would have been, had Conley not lapsed into a coma for eight years."
At trial, still months off, he'll call coma experts to testify. "Did alcohol use have any effects on his injury? Drugs? Previous fights he might have been in? Previous head injuries?"
Whatever the cause, Combs, 37, will claim self-defense: that the "assault" was really just another drunken fistfight, started by Conley.
"I'm not going to criticize Conley, but he's not the angel everybody's making him out to be," the lawyer said.
"His side is really the sympathetic side, Conley's is, just the nature of his injuries and the way he looks now. I'm sympathizing with him. You wouldn't wish that on your worst enemy.
"But there are definitely two sides."
For 19 years, Jim Johnson worked his way up in the sheriff's department, and last December he assumed the top job. Three months later, the calls started coming in, about Davidson County's real-life Rip Van Winkle.
Calls from television's Sally Jessy Raphael and the tabloid show "Hard Copy." Calls from Italy. From Germany. From Australia.
But the call Johnson wishes he'd received would have come in 1982.
"If they'd have called when it happened, we'd have had the benefit of a crime scene," the sheriff said. As it is, no weapon - including the log Conley said he was clubbed with - has been found.
Detectives learned about the incident from one of Conley's brothers, Johnson said. "That wasn't 'til a couple days later."
When investigators finally got statements from witnesses, they were inconsistent. There wasn't sufficient evidence to file charges until Conley finally spoke again Feb. 25.
"Normal procedures weren't followed. Normally, you report it right then. You call an ambulance and you take 'em to the hospital and then you tell what happened. That's not what happened in this case," the sheriff said.
"My feelings are we've got the right man in jail. It's up to the court to decide his guilt or innocence."
Like any family, the Holbrooks and the Combses often got together. Nov. 27, 1982, was no different, until late that night. Effie Holbrook's recollection goes like this:
As she and her husband John drifted off to sleep, some younger family members remained outside. Around 11:15 p.m., Mrs. Holbrook said she was awakened. "My daughter came running in . . . and said Conley was laying on the ground."I went out there and asked my nephew, Donnie, `Why's Conley on the ground?' He said, `He fell.' "
With help from John Holbrook, they got Conley, who was then 18, inside and into bed, she said. "I said, `Conley?' and he said, `Huh?' He had no blood or nothing on him. I didn't know he was hurt."
The next morning, she said she was starting breakfast when she heard Conley moaning. "I went running in and I got hold of him and shook him. And he was so hot." She and her husband tried to bring down his fever with a bath, but "he stiffened on us," she said.
"We didn't wait on an ambulance; we just loaded him into the station wagon" and rushed him to a local hospital, she said. Transferred 20 miles north to Winston-Salem, her son was found to be gravely hurt.
He had brain stem damage, and surgeons removed part of his skull to relieve pressure. "The doctor told me it'd been best if he'd just went on," Conley's mother recalled.
"I just told the doctor, `The Good Lord doesn't see it that way, and I don't either.' "
Retracing the years made her think of Conley as a boy. "Quiet," she said, and too generous. He once gave away a new coat, a birthday present, she said, because a friend needed it.
She thought of a younger Donnie, too. "I used to keep them children," she said, referring to her brother's two sons and daughter. "I practically raised them 'cause their mama and daddy was all the time separating."
But Conley's accusation has split the two families.
What started the cousins' fight that night? Mrs. Holbrook said Donnie and a girlfriend were arguing, according to Conley, and he tried to break it up.
"He told the cops that Donnie was drinking liquor and taking Quaaludes, whatever that is," she added.
"That's what liquor and dope'll do to you - make a different person out of you."
The family's tragic triumph is TV movie script come to life, and the Holbrooks have had offers for the film rights, one reportedly worth $100,000. Mrs. Holbrook, who works the night shift in a nursing home and whose husband works at a furniture plant, said they could use the money. "It would be nice," she said.
After the fight, Donnie Combs said he slept in Conley Holbrook's bedroom, where in the early morning, "I saw like a steam coming out of his mouth or nose."
Combs said it was he who ran the bath and carried Conley in to try to bring his fever down. When that didn't revive his cousin, he said, he wanted an ambulance called.
"Ain't nothing wrong with him. He's just got a hangover," Combs quoted Conley's father as saying.
It wasn't until the afternoon that Conley was taken to the hospital, according to Combs.
"He was my favorite, out of 'em all," Combs said of Conley, whose family he lived with, up to a year at a time, while growing up. "It was like a home away from home. It was like a mama and dad at times."
Other times, though, members of the family drank heavily, and fights were common, Combs said. Sometimes, Conley and his father went at each other, he said.
On that night in 1982, an already belligerent Conley became angrier when the beer ran out, in Combs' retelling of events. At one point, he said, Conley pushed him down and then, "He kicked me. Caught me right here," Combs said, indicating his left cheek.
Momentarily stunned, Combs said that when he came to, his cousin was beating him. They exchanged blows, Combs said, until John Holbrook appeared and helped Conley into the house.
What about Conley's statements? What about the log?
"They're telling him what to say," Combs said. "There wasn't any stick. . . . I just don't think he'd come up with something out of the blue."
Why would the family make up such a story?
Combs' wife Gail answered: "I think it's the money - and revenge, 'cause Glen didn't get all his medical bills paid."
Conley's brother Glen suffered an artery-severing knife wound in a 1984 fight with Combs, who claimed self-defense but eventually served nine months for assault.
Glen Holbrook, displaying the scar, said he'd like to see Combs imprisoned for as long as Conley was incapacitated: "Eight years, to see what it feels like."
Gail Combs said her husband had turned his life around, stopped drinking and stayed out of trouble in recent years, and that that rankled his cousin's family. "They couldn't deal with it that Donnie didn't do it no more, and they're still at it."
Both Combs and Conley Holbrook have hellraisers' arrest records, including convictions for assault and court orders to attend classes for drunken drivers.
But Combs, who works as a brick mason, said his wild times are past. "I been pretty much straight. It was either the booze or her," he said, looking at his wife. "I chose her."
Every Sunday morning and every Wednesday night for the past eight years, the Rev. Gene Davis offered prayers for Conley Holbrook at the Grace Missionary Baptist Church.
The preacher visited the Holbrook family regularly and sat by their stricken son's bedside, reading Scriptures, "talking with him, even though he couldn't respond."
Conley's eyes often were wide open.
"He just looked, kind of stared. He'd move his head some," Davis recalled. "You could be standing there talking to him - he would be looking the other way."
The years of prayers were answered, Effie Holbrook believes. "I wasn't a religious person until this happened," she said. "The Lord put me back to him."
In sermons, Davis, too, has cited Conley's recovery to show the power of prayer. "There's no human way of explaining how he could be that much better after all these years. It's a miracle of the Lord."
As Conley's body heals, the preacher said, he'll talk with him about his soul - "see if he's really been saved . . .
"My understanding was he wasn't living a life like a Christian; he was living a life like lost people."
"The problem in a case like this is that it holds out hope for a lot of people," Dr. Ronald Cranford said sternly. A neurologist who specializes in comas, he was an expert witness in the celebrated right-to-die case of Nancy Cruzan.
Except for a few initial weeks, Conley Holbrook was not in a coma, and Cranford said that point should be emphasized so that families with loved ones in true vegetative states don't expect them to start talking, too. Cranford has not examined Conley but followed his case in news reports.
Conley's twilight could have been a catatonic stupor. "Some of these things can be psychologic," Cranford said.
Or he could have been exhibiting locked-in syndrome, in which the mind functions but not the body. If so, "he didn't so much regain consciousness as regain motor ability to speak." Visitors and Conley's mother said he sometimes communicated by blinking or a hand squeeze.
"Coming out after eight years, I'd much more favor a catatonic state," Cranford said.
But he repeated: "This is not remarkable."
Outside Conley's bedroom, Glen Holbrook sometimes revs a big motorcycle, his brother's passion in the old days. Maybe, he says, the noisy reminder will hasten Conley's recovery.
Inside, a picture of a Harley-Davidson hangs among the mementos surrounding Conley's bed. With it are cards from well-wishing strangers, a horseshoe and a framed sampler that says "God Loves You." A muted television glows in a corner; the only sound in the room is the rhythmic grinding of Conley's teeth, something his mother says he can't help.
Effie Holbrook strokes her son's black hair, tries to turn his blank expression to a smile, tries to exercise his healing brain with talk.
She speaks of a mother's hopes.
"For Conley to walk and be" - she lowers her voice - "maybe not normal, but about normal. He'll probably have a little disability, but as long as he's up and trying . . . ."
She turns to him and, speaking for him, adds: "And getting back to his motorcycles."
Then Conley speaks for himself.
Eight years unable to communicate, a visitor starts to ask, had to be . . .
"Hell," he volunteers.
What does he want to do now?
"Get out," he blurts, and goes on grinding his teeth.