The following was written 17-09-2007.
Living on the side of a hill meant that there was a vast array of possibilities of gravitational fun. Ours was the only house at the end of the lane and our gravel driveway turned to asphalt about a third of the way down. Summer and the dry weather really only meant that you could push your bike up to the top, near my house, and then coast into town going somewhere near light speed. Accidents were frequent and my adolescent instinct was finely tuned to the point of precognition when I saw some random kid perched tentatively at the top of my driveway. Though I’ve never had even a remote urge to follow the path of my physician father, by the time I was 13 I’d patched up many a skinned knee with peroxide and a bandaid.
While the riding of supersonic bikes was about all that dry roads had to offer, winter was whole other story completely. It may have really only been sledding, but you could do it almost anywhere on that hill, the driveway was just the easiest and most accessible. On any given day off from school our driveway and the entire length of the lane were both dotted with children, wrapped up tightly in their assorted garments, slogging their little legs slowly up the hill, their sleds in tow behind them. Occasionally there would be a younger sibling riding in tow, but that would usually mean either a much older sibling or a parent pulling. It was a pretty steep hill.
The very distinctive whine of my father’s choice of car, the Saab, could be heard for about a block before he would launch himself up our driveway in an attempt to overcome the snowy iciness layering the road. After his clinic hours on a Saturday morning, the car whine would also be accompanied with the equally whiny and ineffectual honking of his horn in a futile attempt to scatter children off of their slope of pure slippery fun. The older ones would lackadaisically meander to one side of the road or the other, thinking that they’d provided just enough room between themselves and the far side of the road, not knowing that another kid behind them had done the same only to the other side. This zigzag pattern of bodies would only allow passage of a vehicle if all the little human pylons didn’t mind getting smacked in the back of the head with the rear-view mirrors as the Saab swished by. Something that I always wished my father would do, and though I knew in some rational part of my mind wasn’t safe the idea always made me smile.
Our neighbours at the bottom of the lane, like most of the population of my hometown at that point, were Palaeolithically old, and didn’t get out much. They were more than eager to help The Doctor out by letting him park in their driveway so that he could trudge his way irritatedly up the 100 yards of hill through the snow, past the slack-jawed thrill seekers who seemed to have absolutely no idea as to the part they played in the situation.
It was on one of these Saturdays that I had woken up and made to retrieve some cereal while peripherally listening to my dad and my brother discuss the details of the death of John Belushi. I remember that I thought they were kidding, or simply relating a comedic routine to each other, waiting for the funniness to wear out before going back to normal. Belushi was famous for taking seemingly boring and innocuous situations and making them retardedly funny, I was sure that they were talking about one of these now.
Death isn’t that funny though, I remember thinking, and I wondered why anyone would take the joke this far, even Belushi. The hard plastic of a rear view mirror casing slapping a knitted wool covered head is much funnier than what could, and probably would happen, if such a thing were attempted. One of my favourite funnymen doing drugs until he died was as funny to me as my dad running down some hapless sledder. I didn’t get it.
My brother wasn’t ever one for fun with the rest of us, and stayed in the house doing his own thing while I ventured outside for the morning. For some reason I don’t clearly remember there weren’t many having at the hill that morning. The haziness of the sky and the cold were probably to blame, but I enjoyed the solitude and simply put a thicker hat on before wandering around on the lesser-used slopes of the surrounding parts of the hill. Yucca plants and their long spiny leaves frequently ruined a nice and straight run, much like the zigzagged yardapes on our snowy driveway, making it increasingly obvious to me why these parts were lesser-used.
While wandering around the slopes nearest my house I heard some familiar voices and I was pleasantly surprised to be graced with the presence of the Putnam boys, the second-youngest being of “Best Friend” status during our Kindergarten and First Grade years. As I was in the middle of my second round of First Grade, our friendship had consequently ended. He and his brothers would forever be that family of “cool kids” that seem to live in stereotypically sports-themed brand-name homes in every G-rated movie and Teen sitcom. As much as I was anxious of their high opinion and favour, I feared them and would never learn to trust them.
They had probably set out from their home on the far side of town for my particular hill for no other reason than adventure, as they had a few moderate runs from the road embankment at the top of their property and some gigantic slopes on the hills that formed the other wall of our valley. I was flattered, I suppose, and ever being eager to please invited them onto the slopes around our house. My hopes of further enticing that spirit of adventure were realised when we had soon not only created a well-formed and quite slippery rut, but also a jump.
The jump wasn’t that impressive at first, as it was only formed as a result of snow being pushed down in the first few passes on the run, but our idea was indeed grand. Soon we were scooping with anything available, including the sled, and mounding the snow as high as we possibly could. Simple physics and matters of trajectory are concepts that fall quickly by the wayside in the quest for adventure and the lust for youthful adrenaline, and our jump began to resemble an igloo instead of anything that Evel Knievel would shoot off of.
This may have occurred to at least the two older Putnam boys, and therefore influenced their suggestion that the jump’s maiden launch be attempted by someone other than any of them, including the youngest and foolhardiest. Running in theme with the rest of my childhood, they singled me out. I was honoured. My chest was so puffed up that I felt like I’d shoved a pillow up into my jacket, and I could barely feel my feet as I floated up the hill alongside the greatest ride I was sure to ever have.
The irrigation ditch was empty, because it was Winter, and the back part of old Mrs. Hammond’s circular driveway was as well. The front part of her driveway was as well, she didn’t get out much at all. Her back garden shed and it’s accompanying cement stoop were unoccupied and unused in the Winter months, and this entire area was our planned landing strip for our airborne feats.
The ride was great, but only because of the anticipation, which was as short-lived as the ride. The blast of cold winter air cut across my cheeks just enough to keep the heat from adrenaline and excitement from making me sweat. Even though I knew I wasn’t flying, yet, I was so close to it that it was easy to believe I was.
The impact of the sled slamming into the base of the jump made me grunt, and for a brief second I wondered why I didn’t explode through it like they would on the “Dukes of Hazzard” or similar high-flying stunt TV show. I don’t really remember anything about my flight through the air other than the sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when the roller coaster goes over a sudden drop. That sick feeling doubled in intensity for me when I realised that I was experiencing it because of the overly vertical nature of my trip.
If measured, I probably would have covered about 15 feet in total distance from the top of the jump to the ground. Unfortunately, only about 4 of this was along the ground. The rest was all done in the air, almost straight up-and-down. I knew that landing would hurt, so I was prepared, but when I tried to get up quickly in proof of my bravery and fearlessness I didn’t expect my body to hurt so specifically. I fell down with a cry of pain.
The Putnams had quickly clambered down to first and foremost see how my ride went, and secondly to check for any injury. I said very emphatically that the problem was my right foot and the middle boy, my former best friend, braced me against his body and told me cautiously that I should try to walk on it. I stood up and electrified shards of glass shot through my leg. I sat quickly back down. The air got suddenly serious, and even the oldest and most capable of the Putnam boys looked worried. His face changed back to resolute, and he told the youngest to come with him to go get help from my house, either my dad or my brother, it didn’t matter. I remember telling them that they had to get my dad. I knew whatever was wrong was serious, and I was still at that age where there wasn’t anything my dad couldn’t answer or fix.
Left alone with my former best friend and I was comforted, secure in the knowledge that I would be alright, and whatever was wrong with my foot would be quickly righted. The ground that had felt cold and hard, almost unforgiving, when I first landed on it, now felt like it had a giant felt blanket laying across the landscape. Time passed quickly until my father got there. I’d heard he and the oldest Putnam discussing what had happened and was perplexed as to why he hoisted me on his back and asked me as well. Even though I was in pain and not of the clearest of minds, I knew that he wasn’t really asking me a question but expressing exasperation.
His flannel shirt felt cool against my cheek, as if it had been flash-cooled in the contrasting temperatures of our warm kitchen and the wintery outdoors. I knew he was a small man by comparison to other dads, but the muscles of his back and arms seemed so strong to be carrying me so effortlessly up the driveway. The encouraging and friendly looks on the Putnam’s faces faded as my father continued to express his frustrated bewilderment at how I could do “something so stupid.” The youngest Putnam’s eyes looked confused as to how I was in the most trouble when I was the one in the most pain. I buried my face in-between my father’s shoulder blades in shame. I stopped crying.
I stopped listening too, though I heard the word “stupid” repeated several times. Dad parked me on the examining table in the clinic we had in the corner of our basement and the Putnams disappeared. My brother came out of his room in the other half of the basement and lent his cooler head to the situation. Dad had settled down and was busy arranging his gear for examination and diagnosis while David did his best to calmly and smoothly distract me with his charm and song lyrics from a Bob Seger song, “Piss on the Wall”.
In light of my father’s disapproval and apathy, my brother’s concern for me and ensuing efforts made me feel something inside, and I started crying again. Although I was the one seeking, or at least seemingly deserving, of pity during that moment, I found that I was pitying my brother. For all his confidence and charm, all of his smooth talk and naughty lyrics, he didn’t know the score, and I felt sorry that he was there giving me sympathy and care when I was in so much trouble. I felt bad about how foolish he’d feel when he found out that he was offering kindness to such an evildoer.
A self-indulgent part of me was enjoying the attention that I so rarely received and therefore made the decision not to clarify the situation for my brother. I decided to ride it out and see how long my brother could keep being nice to me. A short car ride to my dad’s office, some quick x-rays later, and my foot was stockinged and bandaged with a plaster cast. We made our way back home and before the plaster was even fully dry my brother proudly volunteered to be the first to sign my cast. He made a very big deal out of the ceremony and custom of signing someone’s cast. He not only wrote his nickname, “Mouse” across the middle front, but also drew a little crooked picture of a mouse’s face, both of which smudging slightly in the wet plaster.
Over the following weeks, I made sure to keep a few inches clear around the Mouse, on even the off-chance that someone else’s signature ink may run into it. Most eased this fear by using crayon and my return to school didn’t necessarily bring about a bustling crowd all struggling to sign my leg. As with any kid, I enjoyed the attention being given to me with my crutches and allowances being made, though I would have traded it all in a heartbeat to not have to sit in the lodge at the bottom of the mountain while all the other kids got to go skiing.
By the time the snow had cleared a bit and I was free to run around with a bare cast and my toes poking out the end, the end of my cast had started to crack and fatigue to the point of ineffectiveness anyway. I started treating it more and more like an itchy, uncomfortable shoe and put the thought forward that if I was okay enough to jump off of the top of the monkey bars at school, I should probably request that my father remove my cast.
I kept it for years though I have no idea what eventually happened to it. I would occasionally put it on my little foot, showing disbelief and surprise when it finally no longer fit. Regardless, I would remember the discomfort and feel grateful that it was off of my foot while tracing my fingers over the crayon signatures from the kids learning cursive. The date, March 5, 1982, was indelibly marked in my mind because it was shared with Belushi’s death and was carefully written in black felt pen at the top of the ankle.
The cast lasted years, and the ink on the plaster hadn’t ever smudged, nor had the crayon cursives, and even the infamous date. The only smudge on the entire cast was the most important part, slightly crooked and drawn on before the plaster was even dry.