I noticed a big scar on my friend Michelle’s knee the other day and asked her how she got it. With squealing delight she told me about how when she was a kid some friends dared her to jump into the lake and how she cut her leg on a nail protruding from the dock. Her excitement escalated as she recalled the amount of blood and the trip to the emergency room. That story prompted me to show Michelle the scar I got when I was climbing around a construction site and fell into a pile of bricks. The next fifteen minutes were devoted to scar stories and perhaps some exaggeration as we competed in the age-old custom of one-upmanship. It also made me think about the padded kids in my neighborhood that are so protected when they go out to play that I don’t think any part of their bodies has ever made contact with the ground.
My childhood was long before the days of helmets, knee guards, elbow pads, and plastic play structures. We rode three on a bike with the shortest kid on the handlebars and the lightest kid balancing on the fender. We slid down aluminum slides that baked in the summer sun and scorched our legs as we screamed our way down. Our skateboards were metal wheels attached to a slim wooden board. And from sunup to sundown we played in the streets and playgrounds without one parent hovering over us with water bottles and hand sanitizers. Without supervision we were daredevils, risk-takers, thrill-seekers and pretty damn stupid.
Parental supervision might have been a good idea in my neighborhood. But then again, if some responsible adult had been watching I might never have ended up with my neck in a cast. When I was five my next-door neighbor, Roy, had a swing set that we played on every day. After a while, just plain swinging became boring so one day as I sat on the swing, Roy twisted the chain around and around and then spun me in the opposite direction into a free-wheeling spiral where my head snapped around so fast that I wrenched and twisted every muscle in my neck. For two weeks I walked around with a dirty ponytail on top of my head and a big white cast around my neck. My mother couldn’t get my shirts on over the cast and so I wore just a pair of shorts most of the time. My older sister was very upset, not because of my injury and constant pain, but because I somehow found a way to insert my topless, greasy haired, neck-casted self into all of her prom pictures. It was while I was looking at those pictures in our family album that I started asking my friends and relatives about their favorite childhood injuries. It surprised me to see how excited everyone was to retell the bloody, broken, and bruised stories from their past. I was also shocked that these people were still alive.
It seems to me that the majority of the mishaps I heard about involved bicycles. Especially one big, green, ugly Huffy bike from the 1950s. This bicycle belonged to my sister and she shared it with all of our cousins. I have a vague memory of this bicycle because after I was born my parents held onto it for me. I, however, wanted nothing to do with that bike. It weighed about 350 pounds, I couldn’t tell the difference between the bike’s tires and the tires on my father’s Buick. It had a big silver headlight and fenders that could seat six. I told my mother I was too embarrassed to ride it next to the beautiful streamlined three-speed English racers my friends rode. Feeling sorry for me my mother decided to paint the bike silver. Needless to say, I walked everywhere until I got my driver’s license.
But apparently, back in its day, this bike had served my sister and our cousins well. There was the time they rigged up a ramp inside the house that ran from the back stairs to the side door. My cousin John got on the bike and just as he hit full speed he ripped through the side door and was thrust head first into the steel fence. One day my sister was riding the bike down the street with my cousin Nancy hanging on the back fender. There was an old woman walking ahead of them on the sidewalk. Since the bike was not outfitted with modern conveniences like a horn, my sister kept politely saying, “Beep, beep.” The old woman didn’t move. “Beep, beep,” my sister said again. Still the old woman continued on her way. I imagine being faced with either riding on someone’s grass or possibly being charged with manslaughter, my sister decided on manslaughter because she ran the woman down in broad daylight and left her sprawled out on the cement. My cousin Nancy, who was on the back fender, said when they hit the woman it, “Just felt like a little bump.”
I watch the kids around me and wonder if they even know what “a little bump” even feels like. George Carlin once said that bicycle helmets and padding were causing “the pussification of American children.” I laughed when he said that, but I do see some truth in his statement. It’s the scraped knees and casts and missing eyes from a wildly thrown metal Jart that makes a kid strong. So, the next time I see a child riding by my house on a bike I may just run out and shove him to the ground just so he’ll have something to remember about being a kid.