Monday, November 1, 2010

Eight Fingers and Nine Toes - The joys of growing up in small-town Ohio

(Photo by Lon Horwedel)

The following is an excerpt from my memoirs about growing up in a small, Ohio town entitled "Eight Fingers and Nine Toes." Look for more stories from my memoirs in the coming weeks.

It’s not like anyone goes out and purposefully hacks off a finger or a toe. Still, for a town with a population of barely 800, Berlin Heights, Ohio, had more than it’s share of missing digits.

Maybe it was all the farm equipment in our little fruit orchard town. Or maybe it was the relatively high number of drunks playing with fireworks every Fourth of July. Whatever it was, one thing was for sure, the metric system never would catch on in our town full of good-natured folk who were better at counting by 7’s or 8’s, than by 10’s.

Oddly, I don’t recall any of the maimed, or partially dismembered citizens of Berlin Heights ever having bandages that would indicate they’d just lost a finger … or two … or three. As far as I was concerned, my Little League coach might as well have been born with only half an index finger on his right hand, because that’s the only way I knew him. For years I thought it was just a birth defect.  But one day, after I made a bad play, he pointed that stubby, little half-finger in my face and I noticed a smile-like scar running like the seam of a baseball from one side of his mangled finger tip to the other.

The owner of the hardware store was no different, except he was missing two full fingers on his left hand, but unlike my Little League coach, who never revealed how he’d lost half his finger, the hardware store owner was proud of the negative space where his fingers once roamed. His missing digits were a conversation starter for every customer who walked in the door.

“Can I help you?”

“Just lookin’ for some saw blades.”

“Say, you better be careful son – lookie here, see what happens if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing.”

The list of townsfolk with mangled or missing digits seemed endless. Most were the usual suspects, like the hardware store owner, the clumsy farmer down the street, and the mechanic at our local gas station. It almost would be weird if they were operating at full capacity. Bu then there was my neighbor Ricky.

At the age of 11, Ricky became the youngest member of the “I can’t count to 10” club when his mother unceremoniously sent the big toe of his left foot hurtling through space and into a bunch of bramble bushes via the blade of their riding lawn mower in the early summer of 1974.

Somewhat incredibly, outside of Ricky and his mother, no one else had witnessed the event. If he did scream, no one heard it. And like most of the rest of the town’s population of partial amputees, I don’t recall ever seeing Ricky wearing a cast, a wrap, or even so much as a Band Aid after the incident. He just showed up one day later that summer missing a toe.

How he had managed to get his foot under the mower in the first place was a mystery to most of us. His mother was beside herself with guilt at the partial maiming of her son, but we neighbor kids knew that someway, somehow, it had to be Ricky’s fault.

For most of us, the event was nothing more than an opportunity for our moms to espouse upon us a lesson on the evils of mower blades and bare feet, but for Ricky’s best friend Wilson, it was the chance of a lifetime. The day after hearing about the accident, Wilson set out on a scavenger hunt looking for Ricky’s missing toe in the thick weeds and pricker bushes lining the lawn where the best John Deere riding mower money could buy had niftily hidden it.

It took a while, but Wilson was persistent, and on day three of his search he found what he was looking for (most likely with the help of his nose since Ricky’s toe, at this point, was black and greasy and smelled like road kill thanks to three days of decomposing in the bushes). But Wilson was young and full of optimism. He was, no doubt, very proud of himself when he dropped the rotting toe into a sandwich bag and headed for the hospital where he was sure the doctors would be able to reattach it.

Unfortunately for Ricky, and for Wilson, no amount of medical science in the world could reverse the effects of tissue death resulting from the three days of decomposition, so the doctor’s pronounced the greasy-black toe officially dead and it was never to be seen again.

The same can’t be said for Ricky’s four-toed left foot. For most of the rest of my childhood, he made it a point, or at least it seemed like he did, to show up barefoot everywhere he went. That wasn’t all that unusual since shoes were merely an afterthought to most kids in my neighborhood once school let out. Of course, those kids still had all 10 toes!

The sight of Ricky’s oddly shaped left foot was, at times, both disturbing and thought provoking. The fact his wound never got infected was mind boggling to me, given the amount of dirt that seemed permanently attached to most of Ricky’s body, but even more so to his feet.

Couple that with despite missing, what we’d always been told was the most important toe on the human foot, Ricky’s balance never seemed to be compromised. In fact, he was a pretty darn fast runner - maybe even faster after he lost the toe! That really surprised most of us who thought he might never be able to walk, or even stand without crutches, following the accident.  At the very least, we all figured if he were able to move on his own again, surely it would be in circles.

But Ricky thrived on nine toes and zero shoes. He climbed trees, rode bikes, kicked footballs (although I think he was right-footed) and ran around like any normal kid would. The only thing, it seemed, he couldn’t do, was wash his feet. By the end of that summer, both his feet looked nearly as black as his decomposed toe had. They were so black and disgustingly dirty, I secretly wondered if maybe he should revisit the hospital to see if his old toe could be reattached at that point, since both seemed equally rotted.

By the end of August, with the return to school looming on the doorstep, none of us were bothered much by Ricky’s foot anymore. There were more important things to think about; jumping bikes, playing ball, catching crayfish down at the creek, and seeing how many things we could blow up with the 5-gallon drum of black gunpowder my dad brought home one day after work, just to name a few.

Even Ricky, who begrudgingly had to go shoe shopping with his mother before the start of school, acted as if his missing toe was a thing of the past. The summers that came and went following his accident brought us all new adventures that had little, or nothing to do with his filthy, mangled foot.

It wasn’t until a few years later that the topic would be revisited when Ricky’s father would lose all but his thumb and half his pinkie on his right hand while cutting down a maple tree in their side yard. After Ricky’s old man almost went Captain Hook, I started to wonder if losing digits might be hereditary. Again, despite living next door, I didn’t witness the tree-chopping accident either. Nor do I remember seeing any bandages on Ricky’s dad’s mangled hand after the incident.

Like Ricky had done a few years earlier with his missing toe, his dad just showed up one day sitting at our backyard picnic table, drinking beers with my dad. The loss of most of his right hand didn’t seem to phase him one bit as he somehow perfectly balanced his can of beer on what was left of his right hand – the bottom of the can perched nicely on his half-pinkie, the top of the can secured by his thumb.

Growing up next to Ricky and his dad taught me a lot about being resilient. But, perhaps, more importantly, it taught me always to wear shoes when mowing the lawn ... and call a professional tree cutter if I ever need one!