That was basically what I was told when I was about twelve in Germany. No more running. No more jumping. No joining a team with my best friend. No football – which I dearly loved – it was strictly forbidden. No hockey, no basketball, no baseball. Add to this no TV, no radio (Except one military station), no internet, no telephone.
Overseas, while opening my minds to new cultures and ideas, new ways of thinking – led to a (perhaps) secret military program to militarize children, training them in the arts of war (for their own good, naturally) – closed a lot of doors. It closed the door on my official “childhood” years, my childhood home, separated me from my friends, any family I had beyond my immediate family – separated from the land I had grown up in (and yet returning to the one in which I had been born) . . . no, no, no. The military was full of regulations, my parents full of theirs.
It’s funny how one thing can lead to another, which leads to another, which leads you down an entirely different path in life than the one you thought you’d take. Sometimes it can be an accident, a move, a change in relationships. Sometimes it can be meeting a friend or losing an old one. Sometimes it’s just nature kicking you in the butt; sometimes it’s you kicking your own.
When I was a kid, I loved football. Now I’m talking about the time up until I went to Germany, and it wasn’t team football – it was that ragged free-for-all type of football neighborhood kids play. I was broad shouldered, big for my age, and had a fearsome reputation as a forward rush. I wasn’t good at catching or throwing the ball, but getting in there in the rough, and tackling my opponent – I was all into that. We didn’t have the niceties of game play, like football helmets and mouth guards. This was all one-on-one, flesh to flesh. Listening to the teenager talk, I had little kid aspirations of playing football on a team.
But some time after I turned twelve things started to change. I started to change. And the change wasn’t the subtle change of puberty. (That was to come much later, in my mid-teens.) It was something to do with my knees.
They first started giving me notice by a sullen ache, voicing their dissent with pain. Later on, they would begin swelling – for no apparent reason, until they were the size of large grapefruit (or small cantaloupes). At first my parents dismissed my complaints of “my knees hurt!” with “it’s just growing pains” – then later, as the evidence became more visual, they realized something must be wrong.
Now being overseas, the military hospitals didn’t have all the latest and greatest equipment – or doctors, it seemed. This was long before the invention of laparoscopic surgery or MRI’s. So the doctors poked and prodded, painfully twisting my knees this way and that, and taking x-rays of them. They scratched their heads, puzzling over the x-rays, and did it again. This went on for months – about six of them, if I recall. Finally throwing their hands up in disgust, they sent my medical records “Stateside”. Apparently there was some debate in the United States, because they took even more x-rays, having me assume uncomfortable positions so that they could get a better look inside my knees.
“Tunnel View” and “Skyline” were two terms I was to get accustomed to in the X-ray room. These views required climbing on the table on your hands and knees (sore knees at that) – and holding still in a contorted position while the technician made their adjustments and went and took the picture. I had so many pictures taken of my knees that they should have glowed.
Finally, months later, the doctor gives his verdict.
“Osteochondritis dissecans,” he solemnly intones, pointing to the x-rays he’s clipped on the light panels. He points to one that looks like the ghostly ends of a chicken bone. The ends are ragged.
“You see here,” he says, circling his pencil around the mountains and valleys, “the cartilage isn’t getting enough blood. It’s malformed, ragged.” He points to a white spot, like an eclipse on the left tibia. “And here is a bone tumor.” He shakes his head, regarding the x-ray for a moment while “tsk-tsking”. Then he turns and looks at my parents and I, huddled on the other side of the desk.
“He can’t run anymore – do anything which might jar his knees. No football, no playing sports.”
“What about an operation?” my mom asks. We’ve heard about knee operations. They usually have bad results. We know, having talked to several people who have had their knees operated on. And artificial knees hadn’t been invented yet.
He sits, leans back, his pencil stroking his upper lip.
“Well,” he admits, “We could look inside. But that requires cutting his kneecaps back – and we’d probably end up doing more damage than good. We can’t cure him. It’s best if we just give it time, see where it goes. But if he jams his knees – gets a good knock on them – it might break bits of cartilage loose, and then we’ll have to operate.”
And so there it was. No more playing sports, no more jumping around. No more leaping out of trees, no chance of joining a school team. The only “safe” sports the doctor recommended were swimming and walking. Nothing more. And even then – as I was to find out – my knees would still give me trouble, swelling up like balloons. And the pain could be excruciating – a grating, grumbling pain, especially in my left knee. I had to give up the high jump and the broad jump at school (not that I was any good at them, anyway), and soccer (in which I was excelling.)
But, ignoring the doctor’s advice like any kid would, I still played. I never played team games, nor was I allowed to play team sports, but I played. I jumped down stairwells, jumped from trees. I went running across the landscape and through the woods with all their trips and falls – and sometimes paid the price for it. But my parents, taking the doctor’s warning to heart, forbade me from doing those sort of things, even going to the point of putting me on restriction a time or two or three for “jumping” or playing. The only time they gave me a break was when we went skiing, and when I went ice-skating. Otherwise they’d always be warning me about my knees, until tiring of it, I’d go and do something anyway.
For their part, the doctors pronounced this condition a rarity. They made this completely clear after the initial diagnosis. They wanted to take pictures of it – that “Tunnel” and “Skyline” view – every three months or so, and watch its progress. I wasn’t too happy about that – the sessions always left my knees aching – but being an Army brat with no control over his life, I obediently submitted as required.
They got worse over the next few years – I developed a “trick” knee, which would go out on me unexpectedly like a limp noodle, sending me toppling down a flight of stairs, or tripping over my own two feet on the street. For the most part I tried to ignore it – when the pain wasn’t there I played just as hard as any kid, ignoring the doctor’s advice. I couldn’t of cared less – while I was jumping from trees or engaging in other sorts of hazardous activity, the thought was always in the back of my mind that I was taking a risk – but I just couldn’t seem to care. I viewed my knees as my body’s betrayal, and I was determined not to let them stop me from having a good time. As it was, I resented them – and my parents – for pulling me out of sports, and turning me towards a more sedentary lifestyle. For the first time in my life, I found something to hate about myself, a hate that continued to grow. And as a result I also grew more alone and separated from my peers – unable to join in their games, unable to keep up – which led to me becoming more isolated, more dependent upon myself for my own entertainment. Turning to books, especially when my knees hurt too much to walk, I found myself spending more time in my bedroom, stretched out on the bed with a scattering of books and a novel in hand. I hated it, but there was nothing I – or the doctors, apparently – could do, and my parents didn’t seem to take much notice. In the end this ended up making my life richer – I read more books than anyone else I know – but on the other hand, I think it robbed me of a lot of things – the thrill of playing on a team, the rush of victory. (Loss I already knew all too well.) But like most things in life, you gotta take the bad with the good – and struggle to find the good in the bad, though it can be hard sometimes.
As a result – this path nature forced me to take – I never did develop any great interest in sports, turning my attention more towards books and introspection. I know in part the reason is my own parent’s apathy towards sports – I don’t recall my dad ever watching a ball game, much less playing ball with us, and my brother has the same disinterest. (It was my mom who taught us how to catch and throw – which is why I “threw like a girl” for the first fifteen years of my life.) The few friends I have don’t understand my disinterest in sports, my apathy towards music – some of the things that sets me apart from them. But my daughter and my wife appreciate that I don’t spend my weekends watching games on TV, choosing instead to spend my time doing things more productive, or spending time with them.
Odd, the paths that life – whether through our own doing, or the doings of Mother Nature – takes us. Which, I think, is one of the reasons for the rich diversity of the human race.