Monday, April 11, 2011

My Scar

An aerial view of Crater Lake has been tattooed on my left knee since the summer I turned sixteen and finally passed typing after my third try. Blissfully riding home from Bernice’s house one daydreamy afternoon, I turned onto a newly oiled and graveled street where I was instantly snatched back to reality by the familiar sensation of bicycle tires skidding out of control. Two days later, flat on my back, I was held captive while Doctor Rippey, a scalpel in hand, sliced, scraped, and sterilized each gravel and dirt filled laceration on my knee, elbow, and palms. Mother was standing at my feet with her hands gently resting on my ankles; I could only imagine the worried look on her face each time I flinched. In introverted resolve I was mute, concentrating on the coolness of Mother’s hands instead of the burning pain of surgical metal against tender flesh. The only sound in the room for what seemed like hours was the clatter of gravel bits dropping into a metal tray. When at long last I was released from confinement on the exam table, everyone seemed amazed to see my back and the sheet soaked with sweat. No one questioned why the doctor neglected to suggest an anesthetic.

I can draw the complex veins of a leaf or the unique texture of a stone with photographic precision, but large motor skills have never been my strength. Always the last one chosen for the softball team, the awkward swimmer who was afraid of the deep end of the pool, the “A” student with a “C” in PE. In sixth grade, I flunked the new physical fitness test imposed on us because President Kennedy thought Americans were soft and out of shape. Rea Wheeler could pop up and down like a spring doing 36 sit-ups in the time I struggled with five.  Mother probably tried to reassure me with something like, “no one is good at everything, but everyone is good at something.” I appreciated her effort even though I wasn’t convinced by her claim.

While the visible scars of childhood often fade, a sound, a smell, a place can unexpectedly prick a memory reopening real or imagined wounds. One evening, walking through a church parking lot in the neighborhood where I grew up, an almost forgotten fire escape returned me to a day when bicycle tires were fat and no one thought about wearing a helmet.

I cautiously parked my bike next to others scattered in the parking lot and watched the kids swarming around a metal fire escape thinking it wouldn’t hurt to join in the game for just a few minutes even though none of the children were my usual playmates. It wasn’t the kids that were drawing me in; they seemed much too wild to appeal to a timid eight year-old. It was the magic of the spacious metal platform standing on spider legs at the top of an inviting stair. In my imagination, such a place could be the deck of a ship, a stage, or a playhouse perched in a tree.

I don’t know what tempted me to ride around to the back of the new Baptist Church – we were Presbyterian. The most direct four-block route to Grandma’s house, where I had been sent by Mother to borrow some essential ingredient for dinner, would have been to continue on sixty-seventh in front of the building. From that side, the fire escape and the noisy children would have been blocked from view. Maybe I was lured in by the smooth surface of the freshly poured asphalt parking lot where I could ride my bike without worry.

Whatever the reason for my detour, the game of pirates or performers I joined on the enchanted fire escape, made me forget the time and my errand. Suddenly a vision of my Mother patiently waiting for me to return flashed across my mind. With a sick feeling in my stomach I jumped on my bike, pedaling frantically the last half block past the cherry orchard to Grandma’s driveway. Much to my horror, the combination of panic, speed, and loose gravel kept me from safely negotiating the last turn. I was helpless as the tires of my bike skidded sideways throwing me face first onto the sharp rock studded ground. Stunned by the impact for a brief moment I was frozen. Somehow, in a blur of blood and tears, I picked myself up and found my way into the comfort and inevitable reproach of Grandma’s kitchen.

What a sight I was the next morning at church with partially formed scabs from chin to forehead. I held the bulletin in front of my face to cover my shame. I wonder if that was the time Mother told me the story about her gold-rimmed front tooth. “When I was your age, Wendell thought he would teach me to ride by putting me on a bike at the top of a hill and giving me a shove. I broke my tooth and my glasses. I was a mess.” It was hard to believe my invincible mother was ever a mess.

The unfortunate incident in Grandma’s driveway wasn’t my first bicycle accident and the oiled street disaster wasn’t my last. I read somewhere recently that twenty percent of all bicycle crashes involve railroad tracks, wet leaves, or loose gravel. I’ve done all three – more than once. 

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