Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Learning to Shoot


I got my first BB gun in when I was 10 years old. Before that, I had a couple of toy Fanner 50’s in a hand-carved leather double holster rig. A Fanner 50 is a toy old-west style six-shooter. My dad made the holsters from a Tandy Leather Company kit. Once, I surprised him working on the leather carving and guessed that it was for me. After that I got to watch him cut and stamp out the all the stylized flowers and scrollwork as he worked on the project. It was very, very cool. I still have one of the holsters. I don’t know what happened to the belt and the other holster.
I’ve always liked guns, even toy guns. The Christmas when I got the double holster rig with the Fanner 50’s, I was instructed by my dad to never point a gun, even a toy gun, at anyone, ever. About the only safety instruction I got from my dad was gun safety. That’s okay, though, because as a result, I’ve never had an accident with a gun in all the years since I got that first BB gun. It wasn’t a Red Ryder BB gun, like the one made popular in the move A Christmas Story, instead it was a Daisy target-shooting gun. Paper targets are what I was taught to shoot at, rather than those more tempting birds and small mammals . My dad showed me the proper way to hold the gun so that the sights would stay on target as I squeezed the trigger. He taught me to always shoot into a backstop so as the keep the BBs from going somewhere I didn’t intend. I got pretty good with that BB gun, and I loved shooting it. I didn’t always shoot targets though, sometimes I shot a few cans, too. Cans were more fun because they would fall over when you hit them, targets just showed you how accurate you were aiming. Cans give an indication of the potential power of a BB when propelled at high speed; it is enough to do serious damage at close range.
When I joined the Boy Scouts, I learned about .22 caliber rifles. At summer camp, one of the high points of the week was the time spent on the rifle range learning to shoot bolt-action .22 rifles. We were given careful instruction on all aspects of safe gun handling before we were allowed to get anywhere near these potentially lethal weapons. Only after we had thoroughly learned gun safety were we issued the little wooden blocks which held five, live rounds of .22 caliber long rifle ammunition in little holes drilled into the block. You were only supposed to shoot five rounds into each target. The goal was to get as many of the rounds into the center of the target as possible. As a beginner, the object is to first get all five rounds onto the target. Once you’ve done that, you then strive to get all the rounds as close together as possible. When you’ve managed to get all five rounds reasonably close together, say within the diameter of a quarter, then you’ve got what is a called a “group” of shots. If you can group your shots, then you can adjust your point of aim to get them all in the center of the target. While you’re trying to do that, you also need to remember to always keep the muzzle of the weapon (the end from which the bullets exit) pointed in a safe direction, to treat every gun as if it were loaded, to listen to the range officer (the guy who gives you directions on a shooting range), to squeeze the trigger, to control your breathing, and to be aware of where the bullet goes after it exits the target. That’s not a lot to remember, really, and I absorbed it easily.
I got good enough at it that my dad gave me a rifle of my own, a bolt-action .22 caliber Mossberg. It is a wonderfully accurate rifle and I had a great time using it whenever we would go out target shooting. My dad’s rifle was a semi-automatic .22 with a scope and, sometimes, I got to shoot that rifle, too, but I really liked my simple Mossberg and the way I could knock out the center of a target with it. I still have that Mossberg. I don’t get a chance to shoot it much anymore, but when I do, I get just as much enjoyment from it as I ever did as a teenager. There’s something very satisfying about being able to control a rifle, to be able to place a round wherever I want it to go. It’s not something everyone can do. It’s not something everyone wants to do. I know people who are afraid of guns. In most cases, it stems from fear of the unknown. If all you know about guns is what you see on TV, in movies or in most media sources, it is no wonder that you are afraid of them. In my case, after target shooting nearly all my life, I still find it thoroughly enjoyable to spend a couple of hours knocking the center out of a few targets.
Shooting was a good thing to learn in my teen and pre-teen years. It gave me a sense of accomplishment, but it also gave me a sense of responsibility. Being entrusted with something which has the power to kill a human being or an animal was not something I took lightly, and it gave me a bit of a self-esteem boost at a time when I didn’t really have much. It’s good to have at your disposal skills that you can call upon and use confidently and competently. The Boy Scout program gave me a great many survival skills upon which I can depend when needed, tying knots, first aid, camping, cooking, leadership and such, but shooting is the most fun.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Lost on a Canoe Trip

Through the Trees

It was supposed to be an easy float down a wide creek with a stop for the night at a little camp ground right along the creek. Some of the two-man canoe teams carried the tents, other had food. Everyone carried his own personal gear in the boat as well. The canoe I was in had a tent and our personal gear including sleeping bags, clothes, scout knives, compasses, that sort of thing. I had some experience with canoes and knew how to paddle and steer using the “J-stroke” which allows you to give the boat forward energy and still control the side-to-side swing of the bow that comes with just straight paddling. The boy at the bow of my canoe was younger and less experienced. There were about a dozen boats in our group and each inexperienced boy was supposed to be paired with someone who knew what he was doing.
As soon as we had unloaded the canoes from the trailer, put our assigned gear into them and launched them into the stream, it became apparent that one of the boats was manned by two very inexperienced boaters. Neither boy knew how to steer the boat and, as a result, he and his partner went down the stream running aground on first one bank and then the other. The people at the front of the group hadn’t noticed the one canoe that was lagging behind. I decided that, rather than abandoning the two tyros to their fate, I would attempt to teach them how to guide their boat. I tried my best, but they never really did get the hang of it, and my boat and theirs had soon fallen a long way behind the rest of the group.
I took my Scout Oath quite seriously and, thus, felt a moral obligation to stay with the boys in the other boat. It was a good thing I did because, not only were we destined to be lost on this trip, but the rest of the group wound up in the same condition. Somewhere downstream there was supposed to be a sign that indicated the location of our camping spot for the night. What no one knew was that the sign had been posted on a fence that was being used to contain a herd of cattle. One of the things that cows do is scratch their backs on fences. In doing so, one of the cows had knocked down the sign that we were all looking for. The group in the lead missed the camping spot and ended up camping in a little park within a small town along the creek. The two boats in my group ran out of daylight well before we reached the spot and couldn’t have seen the sign even if the cow hadn’t knocked it down.
As we floated along in the dark, scanning the stream bank for some sign of the rest of the group, we heard the roar or some faster-moving water ahead. We only had a couple of flashlights among our personal gear and they weren’t very powerful, so we couldn’t see very far ahead, nor could we see very much along the sides of the stream. There was a landing of sorts at the head of the shallow, fast moving water. I hesitate to call it a “rapids,” but in the dark, the rocky shallow water was intimidating enough to cause us to stop and consider a strategy for navigating it. I didn’t dare let the two inexperienced boys try to get through it on their own, so I decided to tie the two canoes together side-by-side to give the boats more stability. It was too dark, and there were too many rocks, to attempt to just float down the fast water, so I and the other kid in my boat elected to wade down the stream holding the canoes and guiding them through the rocks. The water wasn’t too deep, nor was it very cold, and the night was warm, so getting into the water was no problem. We walked the boats down to the bottom of the fast water. It was quite smooth at that point, so we got back aboard and, leaving the two boats tied together, continued down the stream looking for the camp. We paddled along, still trying to locate the rest of the group, but found no sign of them. We thought that perhaps we might have missed the spot somewhere along the way and, after a while we decided to head back upstream to recheck the area.
It was more difficult moving upstream, and everyone was getting tired and we were certainly hungry. I was doing nearly all the paddling, the other boys were just too exhausted to be of much help. When we reached the fast water on our way upstream, we again got out of the boats and walked them up through the rocks. We paddled upstream further above the fast water, searching the banks for the campsite. We didn’t find it. We went back downstream, walked the boats down through the rocks again and searched. Finally, when we hadn’t found anything, we went back upstream and up through the rocks to the landing above the fast water. We pulled the boats up onto the bank and found a little clearing, right next to a cornfield where someone had recently been camping. There was a fire pit and enough space to set up camp, so we carried our gear up from the canoes, pitched our tents, unrolled our sleeping bags and, hungry, wet and tired, went to sleep.
We woke up early the next morning, hungry, but somewhat rested after a short night. It had been quite late by the time we had set up camp. Since we had already search the stream rather thoroughly the night before, we decided we’d start walking and try to find a road. There was a one-lane dirt trail that ran along the cornfield, so we set out on that path walking away from the stream. The corn planted in the field was just ripening field corn. Once it got ripe, it would turn hard and impossible for our human teeth to chew, but at that time it was soft, juicy and tender, or so the two boys who ate some of it told me. They had plucked a couple of ears from the stalks as we walked. Soon, we reach an established road and as we walked to its edge to have a look up and down it, a car raced by. It has just passed us when the driver locked up the brakes and slid to a stop. It was my father’s car. He had been driving up and down the roads paralleling the stream trying to find us. He was very happy that he had, and we were very happy to be found.
He explained to us that a cow had knocked down the campground sign and everybody had missed it. He told us that the rest of the group was just a couple of miles downstream from us and that we should get back in the boats and paddle down to where they were. He got back in the car to drive back to where the group was loading up their canoes and packing up their gear. We walked back to our little camp, packed up our stuff, loaded up the boats and got back into the stream. One last time, we walked the boats down the rocky, fast water and then got back aboard. It was a beautiful morning and we knew the end of our adventure was near. As we floated down the stream, we passed through deep stretch of water overhung with large trees. The fish in the stream were jumping up to catch the insects that were flying just above the water. As we floated along, one of the fish misjudged his jump and, instead of going over the boat, landed in the boat, right in front of me. I took off the pith helmet that I was wearing and slapped it down over the fish so he couldn’t jump out. Soon, he stopped struggling. I didn’t throw him back into the water because, first of all, who would believe he’s actually jumped into the boat, and second, I hadn’t had breakfast yet and thought he might be just the thing I needed for that meal.
Shortly after the fish jumping incident, we came upon a bridge that had fallen into the stream. This was where the rest of the group had left the water. They were waiting for us in the park just a few yards from the stream and helped us get the boats out of the water and our gear off-loaded. We cleaned the fish, loaded our gear into the car and we all drove back to camp. I had that fish for lunch while I told the rest of the boys the story of our adventure. We survived it without any problem because of our training. We were supposed to be able to do things like this and, when put to the test, had been quite able to use our training and knowledge to help us make the best of what could have been a very dangerous situation. As it was, we learned that we were capable of taking care of ourselves by using what we had been taught. I consider that a valuable lesson. I learned a great many others while I was a Boy Scout and they have been, and continue to be, of inestimable value in my life.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Playing with Sticks, Part 2

Deadeye's dead eye

In between all the hiking and hospitalization, I was going to school. I was in Mrs. Gottschalk's 6th Grade class. Mrs. Gottschalk was a sweet lady who decided that even though I missed several weeks of classes that year, I was still okay to move on to 7th Grade with the rest of my classmates. Part of that, I think, was due to my split 5th/6th grade class the year before and my paying more attention to the 6th grade material than to the fifth grade stuff I was supposed to be learning. By the time I got to the 6th grade, I had already been exposed to most of the curriculum and absorbed most of what I would need to get through the grade. And, really, how much of what you learn in the 6th Grade is going to make or break the rest of your education anyway? For me, the best part of that year was not having to attend school for as many weeks as I was supposed to and I seem to have managed to survive to this point without some of that essential 6th Grade knowledge.

I liked the 6th Grade. For one thing, I was across a river and in a different city from my former associates in East Peoria. For another, even though I still had no social skills whatsoever, there were now a couple of people with whom I could spend recess that weren't continually torturing me. I was playing in the elementary school band, so that, in addition to the Boy Scouts, there was at least one other group that I felt I belonged to. My biggest obstacle was my desperation for approval of my eleven-year-old peers. Girls I still considered an entirely different species, one to be feared and avoided where possible. I still occasionally attracted a bully or two, but none of these Peoria-bred types had anywhere near the persistence or the intimidation skills of their East Peoria counterparts. Life was better in Peoria, at least for me it was.

The morning I woke up with pain in my left eye whenever the pupil size changed was the beginning of a whole series of doctor visits. When I reported the symptom to my parents, they called the eye surgeon who had done the repair and made an appointment for me so that we could find out what it meant. The doctor had a look at the eye and then measured its internal pressure. This was done by having me lie on my back with my eyes open while some sort of measuring device was placed upon the surface of the eye. I was told not to blink while this was going on. That was difficult, since my natural reaction to having something placed on my eye was, of course, to blink. If I blinked, it screwed up the test and he had to start all over again. After several attempts, I finally managed to hold off blinking long enough for him to get the information he needed. The diagnosis was that there was a problem with the left eye that if left alone would ultimately affect the right eye causing a loss of vision in both of the eyes. The remedy for this was the removal of the left eye. I was not happy about this, nor were my parents. They decided that a second opinion would be desirable.

The doctor they found that could give that second opinion had his office in Chicago, so off we went. The testing procedure in Chicago was much the same as that which I experienced in Peoria, including the pressure measuring, no-blinking ordeal which I again had to endure. The second opinion was the same as the first. The eye would have to be removed. It would be replaced with a prosthesis, a "glass eye" as it was called at that time. I was still unhappy with this diagnosis, but I was starting to get used to the idea, and given the alternative of going blind, I didn't see where I had much choice in the matter, not that anyone actually asked me what I wanted to do. I was just swept along with the stream of events, almost a spectator to my own life. It was all very interesting, but it was also rather surreal.

There is another surreal moment in my life that I only know from the stories I heard told by my parents, my father primarily, and confirmed by various other relatives, aunts and uncles mostly. As the story goes, when I was eighteen months old, I had crawled out onto the fire escape on our second-floor apartment in Chicago and then on out into thin air. Since I couldn't fly, I fell into the yard below, fracturing my skull. I guess I must have survived, since I'm here to tell you about it, but I sure don't remember anything like that ever happening to me. Maybe they had me confused with some other Brett, I don't know, the whole thing is quite unreal to me. I have some hospital bills from that time and they appear to confirm that I was injured, hospitalized and released, so I suppose it must be true. When I think about it, many things that happened in my life are implausible, and this was just another implausibility in a whole series of implausible events.

After everyone was finished examining, diagnosing and consulting about my eyes, I was scheduled for surgery. My parents drove me to the hospital and I was checked into the children's ward. There was some time to kill before I was to be wheeled off into the operating room, so I had brought along a plastic model airplane that I had been building and I proceeded to continue gluing the little parts together while I waited. Most of the other children in the ward were there to have their tonsils removed or they had already had them removed and were recovering. Recovering from having your tonsils removed consisted of whining and puking. The anesthetic of choice at that time for a tonsillectomy was ether. One of the after-effects of ether is nausea and vomiting. Almost everyone in that children's ward was either sick and miserable or about to be. I, on the other hand, was going to go under a general anesthetic. Lucky me, I was going to avoid all that whining and puking, so I was quite cheerful. One of the other kids’ mom's asked me what I was in the hospital for. When I told her I was about to have my eye removed, she was horrified. By this time, I was quite used to the idea of what was about to happen, so I was rather nonchalant about the whole thing. I suppose the parents of the tonsillectomy patients thought I was a brave little boy. I don't think there was any bravery involved on my part. I was just floating down the implausibility stream of my life, waiting to see what would happen next.

A couple of the hospital staff, nurses I guess, came in and gave me a shot and transferred me to a gurney. As we rolled along the hallways, I began to get a little groggy, which I guess was the effect the shot was supposed to have. I was transferred to the operating table and a needle was inserted in the vein in my arm. Someone had me count backwards from one-hundred. I didn't get very far and I was out. I woke up in what I was told was the recovery room. I must have recovered enough to be rolled back into my room and put to bed. I was only allowed to sleep on my back or on my right side, which made the urge to sleep on my left side almost irresistible. When I needed to eliminate any bodily wastes I was supposed to call a nurse and they would bring me a bed pan. I tried that once. It was horrible and embarrassing and nearly impossible. After that, I figured out how to get out of bed on my own when there were no nurses watching me and get myself to the bathroom to take care of those necessities. It wasn't that I was unable to walk, or see where I was going. The problem was that when the socket for the prosthesis, the artificial eye, had been installed, the muscles that were formerly used to move my eye were now sewn into the plastic socket. Every time I moved my eyes, the pain was excruciating, and when you get up and move around, moving your eyes is almost automatic. I taught myself to move my head without moving my eyes so that I could see where I was going without putting any strain on those sutured muscles. Once I had the technique down, it was easy to climb out of bed and get to the bathroom. Of course, the nurses found out what I was doing, but no one stopped me for which I was grateful. No more bedpans for me.

Every day the doctor would come in, remove the bandages (along with some of my hair) and look through the clear plastic conformer that was installed in the eye socket. The new socket had four little half "pea" shaped bumps on it and the half-spherical conformer had corresponding indentations its backside. The purpose of all this was so that my new "eye" would move along with my good right eye. The implanted plastic socket is called an Iowa Implant and it was brand new technology at that time. I kept that conformer for years until I finally found an interesting use for it one evening while I was attending college. I’ll tell you about that some other time.

Eventually, the pain eased as the socket healed and I got bored with being in the hospital. I was allowed to go home, but I still had to wear a bandage over the eye for quite a long time. Under the bandage was a convex, oval metal protector with its edges covered in adhesive tape that kept the still healing socket from getting accidentally bumped. At first, coming back to school with my eye all bandaged up was kind of interesting in that it got me lots of attention and quite a lot of sympathy, but after a while that got a bit old for me and everyone else. I tried to keep the bandaging to a minimum and we went from adhesive tape to just cellophane tape. The nice part about using the cellophane tape was that it was a lot less painful to remove. It didn't seem to pull out quite as much hair as the adhesive tape.

After several weeks of healing, the socket was pronounced healed and it was time for me to be fitted with an artificial eye. The people who make artificial eyes are called ocularists. The way an artificial eye was made in the early 1960s was that you first made a mold of the conformer. Then you made a white acrylic copy of that conformer. With the subject in front of you, you have to install the blank acrylic "eye" in to the eye socket and figure out where the cornea and pupil need to be. To do that you take a cornea that you have sliced off of some other plastic eye and you attached it to the blank in what you think is the right location. To attach it you use wax. Then you put the wax covered blank in the subject's eye socket, see if you’ve got the cornea in the right spot, remove the blank, adjust as needed and repeat. If that sounds uncomfortable, it is. Once you figure out where the cornea needs to be, you have to paint a new one to match the subject, me in this case. How that is done is the ocularist gets out his acrylic paints, his tiny brushes and a blank cornea shape and paints one. Once all the parts are assembled and encased in a clear acrylic shell, you have an artificial eye that is nearly impossible to distinguish from the real one next to it.

In the end, if everyone has done their job perfectly, you have a comfortable, moving, plastic eye that looks just like your real one. Mine is so comfortable that I rarely have to remove it for any reason. It’s a workable solution to losing an eye, but I’d still rather have two. Having only one eye closed a number of doors of opportunity and changed the course of my life in a variety of ways, but that’s was all in the future at this point in my life. With my new “eye” in place, I was able to resume my life as a socially inept sixth-grader. After all the attention I’d gotten from the accident and the subsequent recovery, I now had to return to dealing with life among the huddled masses. Other than becoming monocular, nothing had really changed much.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Playing with Sticks, Part 1

The Cub Scout

When I turned eleven, I was eligible to become a Boy Scout. That was also the year we moved to the suburbs of Peoria. Our new house was on Parkwood Drive in a subdivision named Idyllbrook. It was a nice house on three levels with a two-car garage. When we first moved in, my brother and I shared a room where we slept on bunk beds. I remember laying in the bottom bunk of that bed closing first one eye and then the other to experience the little jump in the position of the objects in the room as the view changed from one eye to the other. That memory stands out, I suppose, because later in the year I was to lose that ability.

My father had helped with the Cub Scout troop while we lived in East Peoria and helped me get up through all the achievement levels of that organization. I enjoyed being a member of the Cub Scouts. Bullying was not permitted there and I found that there were things that I could do, goals that I could reach and skills that I could learn as a member of that group. The Cub Scout regimen is more or less a kind of boot camp for the Boy Scouts in that many of the skills learned at the upper levels of the Cub Scout program are intended to make the transition into the Boy Scouts a natural progression. When we got to Peoria, my dad and I joined the local Boy Scout troop, number 233. I was in my element in the Boy Scouts, so was my dad. I learned about knot tying, carving, swimming, camping and, most important, safety. Finally, I was learning not only how to do things I enjoyed doing, but I was learning how to do them safely. Up until the Scouts came along, I hadn't really gotten the point about why safety was important. When you are learning to handle knives, axes, guns, fire and small boats, it is good to also learn to handle them in such a way that you don't kill yourself or others. What I really learned was that there are consequences to one's actions and how to become aware of what those consequence might be. This is primarily a matter of awareness of your surroundings. Skill at observation and planning are essential to creating a safe environment for handling dangerous tools. In learning how to safely carve small figures from a stick of wood, chop and split a log for a fire, build and keep a fire under control, and put a bullet into the bull's-eye of a target, I was also learning how to observe and think logically. Observation and logical thinking are skills that have served me very well throughout my life, but, like any sort of skill, it is necessary to practice them constantly to maintain an acceptable level of ability in applying them.

Boy Scout Troop 233 was an active, outdoor kind of troop. There were other troops that stressed more urban skills, but in Troop 233 we camped and hiked and went on canoe trips and built towers and bridges. We went to summer camp and learned to shoot rifles, indentify trees and plants, practice our camping skills, and help other, younger Scouts learn their basics. Every other weekend or so, the troop would load up into the cars of those parents who had volunteered to drive and head off to tackle some hiking trail around Central Illinois. One in particular, the Amaquonsippi Trail, was an endurance trail that featured a rope bridge and some other obstacles along the route. "Amaquonsippe" is an American Indian word. I don't know what it means, though, perhaps, "eighteen miles of hills, forests, creeks and poison ivy" might be a possible definition. It was that kind of trail, and we needed to hike it all in one day.

We had loaded up the cars early, before dawn, but the sun was already up when we climbed out of the cars and got ready to hit the trail. Some of us whose parents knew a bit about hiking and outdoor activities had come equipped with day packs, proper hiking boots and canteens, but there always seemed to be a couple of kids who just didn't get it. They would show up wearing regular leather shoes and carrying their lunch in a brown paper bag. Before long these ill-equipped Scouts would be having a miserable time on the trail with their feet sore and their hands tired from carrying that sack lunch. They always made it to the end of the hike and, though they may not have enjoyed the experience, eventually, they learned the right way to do it. Eighteen miles is a long way to hike in one day, even with the proper equipment and I always had very sore leg muscles the next day. I didn't envy those guys hiking the same trail without the benefit of the right gear.

Hiking was easy for me, though, as I said, I always paid for it in very sore muscles the next day, but some of the kids just didn't have hiker's bodies. Seems like there was always one kid with flat feet. He usually suffered the most on one of these hikes, but I had to admire the fact that, in spite of his physical liabilities, he kept plodding along to the end. The flat-footed kids were also usually the ones carrying their sack lunch in their hands. I always tried to be at the front of the group setting the pace for the hike. At lunch time we waited for the slower guys to catch up so as to keep the group more or less together and the adult leaders always kept track of the slower kids to make sure that no one got lost or left behind.

After lunch, with the Troop all together, we set off on the last half of the hike. We were out of the forest for the moment hiking through a open meadow where some very tall weeds had grown up earlier in the year. By now, in the fall, the leaves had dried up and fallen off leaving only tall brittle stalks along both sides of the trail. As we walked along we would break off one of the four to five foot tall stalks and hurl what was now basically a spear out into the field. I had broken off a stalk and was using the flexible, feathery top end to tickle the back of the neck of the hiker in front of me. This annoyed him greatly and he told me so with great vehemence. Of course, that was exactly the reaction I was hoping to elicit, and so, instead of quitting when I had achieved this not-so-lofty goal, I continued to torment the poor Scout seeking ever more unendurable heights of annoyance in my victim. Obviously, the lessons about safety that I had previously been taught and supposedly had learned hadn't sunk in. Humans are just a dangerous when treated carelessly as any knife, axe or gun, and this one was no exception. When his level of annoyance exceeded his tolerance level and elevated into a state of rage, he turned and chucked the spear-stalk that he was holding in my direction. I don't suppose he was aiming it at any particular spot on my body, just at me in general, but the broken-off end of the stalk penetrated the front of my left eye and bounced off the retina on its way out.

There are no pain receptors in the eyeball itself, so I was never in any pain, but I knew I was in trouble since there was fluid draining out of my eye and the lights had gone out for that side of my vision. I clapped my hand over that side of my face and ran towards the front of the line of hikers shouting, "My eye, my eye." The front was where the adult leaders were hiking and my dad was among them. He had me remove my hand so he could inspect the damage. There was no mirror, so I don't know what it looked like at that point, but I suspect the damage was obvious. A first-aid kit was produced and a gauze pad was placed over the eye and held in place with one of our Scout neckerchiefs. It was like something right out of the Boy Scout manual on first-aid. Since we were at a mid-point in the hike, we were not anywhere near the cars, nor were we near any source of transportation that we could use to get to the cars. Off in the distance, a mile or so away was a farmhouse. While the rest of the group continued on with the hike, my dad and I started hiking off across the fields toward the farm house. We climbed a few fences and finally made our way to the house. Fortunately, the family who lived there was at home and let us use their telephone. My dad called the hospital in Peoria, explained the situation to them and told them we were headed in their direction. We got a ride to our car back at the trailhead and my dad, exceeding the speed limit and, somehow, not getting caught, drove us to the hospital.

At the hospital, the doctors took over. After various medical personnel had looked me over and evaluated the injury, I was given a shot, put on a gurney and rolled into surgery. When I woke up, I was in a bed in the children's ward with a bandage over my left eye. I was told that the hole in my eye had been sewn up and that there was a good chance that I would regain some small amount of vision in the eye. While I was in the hospital, the kid who had thrown the weed-stalk came by for a visit. He felt really bad about what had happened, and I told him that it was no big deal and not to worry about it. I don't suppose that made him feel any better, but it really was just another case of unintended consequences for both of us. After a couple of weeks, I was released from the hospital. Before I went back to school, my mom wrote "Closed for Repairs" on a piece of paper and taped it to the bandage on my eye. I was quite the celebrity at school for awhile with an interesting story to tell, but eventually even I got bored with it. I just wanted the thing to heal up and was anxious to see if I really would regain some of the vision in that eye.

I had to put drops in the healing eye every day and when the bandage was off I would close my good eye and check if there was any vision in the left one. I started to be able to see shadows with the left eye and that was rather encouraging. The eye surgeon who had worked on my eye had warned us that if, at some point, I experienced pain in the left eye when the pupil contracted in the light we were to call him immediately. One morning, as I walked into the bathroom to brush my teeth the pain was there. That was the beginning of a whole new chapter in my life.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Life in the Middle Lane, The East Peoria Years

Me, Scott & Colett

I don't know why we moved to East Peoria. I suppose I could ask my father. I'm sure he would remember his reasoning at the time. Probably something on the order of, "Well, there was a house we could afford in a neighborhood that appeared to be nice, and there was a big yard and it was kind of rural yet still suburban . . ." It certainly must have seemed like a great idea at the time. It's a shame that it didn't work out that way.

I think my dad liked it there. He was doing a lot of traveling at that time selling lighting fixtures for a company called Daybright Lighting. He put about 50,000 miles a year on his cars driving all over Central Illinois calling on his customers. He knew people all over and made friends easily. When you have that salesman personality you can get along almost anywhere. You're not afraid of people, instead people are all potential customers or they might know someone who would be a potential customer. When you're a salesman, your life is all about talking to people and shaking hands and having lots of confidence and meeting new people and knowing everybody's name. My dad had all that stuff and I had none of it.

Moving to East Peoria didn't miraculously endow me with the ability to fit in with my new classmates. I didn't, all of a sudden, acquire any social skills. Instead, I went unarmed, awkward, ignorant and alone into the snake pit of elementary school. Elementary school is where cruelty is finally developed into an art form. You gather with your friends and you practice picking people apart until you can do so effortlessly and creatively. You work diligently to develop your ability to spot someone's weaknesses and you hone your verbal weapons to a needle-sharp point. Then, when the new kid comes to school you wait until recess and you attack. But you don't kill him off right away, no, it's more fun to play with your prey day after day after day. Of course, after awhile it gets too easy and you get bored with the torture, but you can't stop now and so it continues, not every day anymore, but often enough to keep your victim at a constant level of misery.

In the fourth grade here were two guys who followed me around nearly every day at recess. They would point at me and laugh continuously until I was cowering and crying in a corner of the playground. I was helpless to stop it. I just wanted to be liked and accepted. I didn't have any fighting spirit, nor any fighting skills. All I had was a dread of going to school each day, knowing that at recess I would end up crying in a corner. My parents were unsympathetic. I was supposed to "stand up the them." With what? Of course, I was a poor student, since I was more worried about what was in store for me at recess than what was going in the classroom. And then there was the bus ride home. I somehow had become a bully-magnet. There was a guy on the bus who threatened to beat me up every day. He would sit near me and describe in great detail what he was going to do to me when I got off the bus. He never actually got off at my stop, but the threat was more than adequate to create the effect on me that this person was after. Yep, that was my life in East Peoria, at least as far as school was concerned.

It wasn't all a horror, of course, but there was just enough horror so that I don't remember very well the non-horror parts. One of the things I do recall is being required to sell cookies to pay part of my way to some sort of summer camp. This involved me going from door to door giving my sales pitch, which went like this: "Hi, I'm trying to earn my way to camp by selling these delicious chocolate-drop cookies." What made this difficult was that I was quite afraid of people by this time, so I was almost completely petrified when someone actually came to the door. If you're going to sell stuff door-to-door, you are better off appearing to be friendly, confident and knowledgeable about your product. I was scared nearly to immobility, desperately wanted to be somewhere else and had never tasted a chocolate-drop cookie in my entire life. What the heck is a chocolate-drop cookie anyway. There was a picture of one on the order form, but I don't think I actually had any cookies for samples, you had to pay for them up front and then later I would have to deliver them when they arrived from the chocolate-drop cookie supplier.

I don't for a minute believe that I earned my way to camp by selling cookies. I'm sure my parents had to foot the bill to send me off to the wilderness for a couple of weeks. At least camp was better than school. There was no recess, for one thing. I swam in the lake and paddled around in a canoe which was fun. There were other sporting-type activities in which I participated, but I've never been very good at team sports and these were no exception. The only thing that marred my summer camp experience was when I dropped my flashlight into the lake. It was later recovered but the water had ruined it. My parents drove up at the end of the camp session, picked me up and took me back to East Peoria. Oh, joy.

Somewhere in this period, my sister was born. Since she was eight years younger than I, we didn't have too much to do with each other early on. Later I would babysit her when my parents went out, but I wasn't yet qualified to take care of babies. That was my mom's job. She took care of my brother and sister and me, plus she answered the phone and ran the home office for my dad's sales business. She also yelled at me a lot and let me know that she was disappointed in me for a variety of reasons.

We had a dog for awhile, another English Setter. My dad loved English Setters. Maybe because his mother had a plate hanging on her wall that was painted with a hunting scene featuring an English Setter with a bird in its mouth. I inherited that plate and it hangs on the wall in the hallway where I live now, but I don't have an English Setter. Instead, I have two cats. I keep them inside so they don't get run over by a car like the dog in East Peoria did. Like the previous English Setter we had, this one liked to run all day. As we found out later, he also liked to chase cars on the county road. This proved to be his undoing. I was charged with feeding him and bringing him in at night. That seems like a simple enough task except for the fact that he didn't want to come in at night. He didn't even want to come home for supper, really. I had to call and call and call to get him to come home, and when he did I had to grab him and drag him into the house for the night.

I saw a picture of myself in a Cub Scout uniform from that time, so I guess I was a Cub Scout. The only thing I remember about being a Cub Scout was that it was getting me ready to be a Boy Scout. That turned out to be a good thing, maybe the best thing that happened to me as a kid, but I didn't realize it then. It was just something else my parents thought I should be involved in. At the end of the Cub Scout experience I started to learned some fairly useful things like how to tie knots and make campfires and that sort of thing. That was good, I figured I might be able to use some of those skills someday.

We went to church in East Peoria, too. Every time we moved into a new neighborhood, my parents had to find the perfect church for the family. In East Peoria it was some sort of Community Church. Reverend Hurst was the Pastor and he had a kid my age names Steven. I liked Steven and on those occasions when my parents would have the Pastor and his wife over for dinner, Steven and I would create some sort of imaginary science-fiction universe to travel to while our parents played cards or something. That was fun and one of the few rare moments when I was rather happy there.

One fine school day, some people brought a bunch of band instruments into the classroom. We all got to try them out to see if we were interested in learning to play one. One of the guys handed me a trombone and showed me how to make it work. I was able to make a sound with it, which surprised everyone. Finally, there was something I might be able to do. I latched onto that trombone like a drowning man grabs a life-jacket. Here was something I could do, someplace I could fit in, a group I could belong to. It wasn't that I was all that interested in playing the trombone, it was a way I could pull myself up out of the abyss of isolation and belong to something. It was good. It was something I chose to do, one of the first very small steps I took to start taking control of my own life. I learned to play that trombone. I even played it in church. I learned a solo that I could play with the piano and I played it several times for the congregation. Life was getting better for me.

I was in a combined fifth and sixth grade class our last year in East Peoria. It was a good thing, too, since I spend a good part of the sixth grade in the hospital. That comes later, though, so you'll have to be patient until we come to that part of the story. I learned a lot of sixth grade stuff when I was supposed to be learning fifth grade stuff. It was pretty interesting getting two years worth of school for the effort of only one. I was a "C" student as a fifth-grader, mostly because I was distracted by all the more interesting stuff being taught on the sixth grade side of the room. I passed, though, and then we moved. We were going back to Peoria. This time we were buying a house in the suburbs. I guess selling lighting fixtures was working out for my dad. Me, I packed up my trombone and my Cub Scout awards and got ready to move on.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Girl Next Door. A Tale from the Chicago Years.

Breakfast of Champions?   Probably not.

I know she lived nearby, on the same side of the street a house or two down from our apartment in Chicago. I had spent some time playing on her porch and thought she was an okay person, fun to spend time with. She had better toys than I had, or at least different toys, which made them seem better.

I was out in the little yard area in front of the building messing around with my bicycle. I had turned it upside down and was turning one of the pedals by hand to see how fast I could get the rear wheel to spin. I found that I could get that wheel really moving. Fun stuff, that. The little girl next door came over and was watching me spin that wheel. I guess she found it interesting, too. So interesting that she felt she needed to touch the rapidly spinning machinery.

I didn't see it happen, but she somehow got the tip of her finger too close to the moving parts. Whatever she touched, the chain, the spokes, the sprocket, I had no idea, but the next thing I knew she was running home screaming. What I did know was that I was in trouble. Something I was doing had caused someone else to get hurt. I was horrified, of course, and confused. I knew it was my fault, but I wasn't sure why. Everyone seemed sure that it was my fault.

I was told later that the little girl had suffered a severed fingertip. I wondered what it looked like, but I never got to see it. I searched the grass in the yard to see if I could find the little fingertip, but I never did. I don't suppose it was ever there. My mom and dad told me that the little girl's parents had sued us for her medical bills. I wasn't sure what that meant, but it was said in such a way that I knew it was a bad thing. I got the impression that the little girl's parents didn't like us anymore. I was forbidden to play with her. After that, I was afraid to even walk by her house. I went so far as to go around the block in the other direction just to avoid doing so. It was a case of unintended consequences.

I wish I could tell you that I learned something useful from that incident, a life lesson that I could carry with me from that point on. All I learned was that I needed to avoid going near that house up the street or I'd probably get in even more trouble. I haven't found that avoiding things is a very workable way to live. Avoidance only shrinks your world into a smaller and smaller area until you are unable to move at all for fear of causing someone else pain. It's not a good way to live, but for awhile my world got a little smaller.

I didn't learn much about the safety in the play-place until I was much older and my toys where much more dangerous. I'm sure I got the usual warnings about looking both ways before crossing the street, not running with scissors and not playing with matches, but I wasn't really listening. That sort of advice was for other people. I didn't mind getting a cut finger or a skinned knee or a bump on the head, I figured all that minor damage was just part of the job of being a kid. Yes, I got my share of bandages and iodine and kisses to make it better from my mom, but having a cool-looking Band-aid made the minor injury worth the pain, and if you had a good story to tell about how you got hurt it was perfect. I could flash my bandaged finger and someone would ask what had happened. They were interested in me for a moment and I got to talk to someone who was actually listening. It was a lot better than the usual string of orders to do this and that, since I actually got to talk for a change. Mostly, though, I just thought Band-Aids were cool. I still do.