Scarred For Life
(or Why I Hate Yellow Sheets)

This is a story of the bike ride that wasn’t. It’s also the story of a scar I’ll carry to my grave.  It makes me look uglier, too.  I used to have a silver tooth, too, right up front.  Another souvenir life gave me; not related to this tale.  The dentist took care of that after twenty-five years, replacing the stainless steel one the Army had given me as a kid.  After all, as an Army dependent, only the cheapest will do.  And it’s also the story of why you don’t put a yellow sheet over my head, obscuring my view.  It bothers me, irritates me, and can make me a grumpy old man.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love yellow flowers, and see what most folks think of as weeds – dandelions – as one of the most beautiful and soft yellow flowers around. I love yellow in sunrises and sunsets. But something happened that day long ago which forever made a sheet of yellow – one covering my vision – a hateful and upsetting thing.

When I was a kid my brother had a bicycle – and I didn’t. I was about seven years old. Most of the kids in the neighborhood had bikes – but not me. Instead I had to run – running right there with them like a happy dog, keeping up with the fastest – even the teenagers on their high bikes. Most of the kids didn’t care – all our families were poor – and there were always a pack of us ‘runners’ running around.  I was one – running constantly, up and down that hill, running in the sand that we called our road under the hot summer sun, up in the pine barrens not too far from a place called Tobacco Road.  Yeah – the one the book was named after.  And it was hot and it was humid and the thunderstorms came in the afternoon.

I was a fast runner.  The kids who didn’t know me who tried to hurt me or mess with me soon found their bikes weren’t fast enough to escape my wrath.  I’d come storming up behind them like a tornado, overtaking them like a dervish, and snatching the seat sideways, would hurl them and their bike down and beat them up if they weren’t already hurt by their fall. Not that I was vicious – as soon as a kid started crying, I’d feel sorry for them and let them get up to go their own way. I just managed to get my point across: you don’t mess with Mikie and get by with it.  And I don’t care what you’re riding on.

Now this was back in ‘the day’ when parents were a bit more – shall we say nonchalant? – about safety issues regarding bicycles. And so were bicycle manufacturers – there was none of that nifty padding they put on the cross braces and handlebars today.  And for the longest time I never understood why the boy’s bikes had that bar right there, set at perfect crotch level, so that if your foot slipped off the pedal you’d rupture the family jewels, driving both them and your parent’s hopes of grandchildren out of sight.  Girl’s bikes are built more considerately, at least from a boy’s point of view.  If you don’t believe me, land on that bar a few times.  I know I did. (I later learned in engineering that that upper bar is because boy’s are more hefty and apt to put their bicycles through more strain; therefore more strength is needed; hence the crossbar you see on boy’s bikes. Just in case your kid asks.)

My brother’s bike was old – it was always old. I rather suspect it was bought used, or one of the many ‘resurrected’ bikes that kids built from other bikes that had been resurrected from bikes before. After all (and as I’ve said before), we were poor, the other kids were poor – the entire neighborhood was poor. And my brother’s bike lacked the rubber hand grips, the rusty chain rattled, the paint chipped, and the whole thing looked . . . used.

Now, I didn’t know how to ride a bike, and I was about seven years old. I remember quite clearly when it happened, when I learned to hate sheets of yellow.

We were on the carport, my brother and I, along with several friends, most of whom were busily playing with my brother. I wanted to ride his bike, but he’d said no (he said “no” to a lot of things, it seemed). He had it leaned up against the laundry room wall, which was built onto the back of the carport, separate from the house. It was a red bike, that I remember well, with chromed tubular steel framed handlebars. Looking back at my brother (I can see him in my mind; back to me, crouched on the concrete carport, doing something with his friends) – I decided I was going to ride this thing – whether I knew how or not. (Okay, not the smartest decision on my part, but I was one of those little boys whose determination was only exceeded by his foolishness in pursuing a goal sometimes.) So I get on the bike – carefully, with it still leaning up against the wall – quietly, so that my brother, who has forbidden me to ride this thing won’t notice. I’m just starting to smile, lifting my feet to the pedals – when it happens.

The bicycle went slipping down the wall, crashing to the concrete – and throwing me – face first – into the handlebars.

Boy, did that hurt. It hurt so bad I didn’t realize I was hurt – and in a way, I guess I wasn’t, because I don’t remember feeling any pain from the thing — not right away. (Always a sign of a serious injury, I’ve learned.) But when I put my hand up to my face (okay, now I remember: it stung. That’s all – just stung) – it came way full of blood. I mean like a whole palm full. And somethings wrong with my face. My lip feels ‘undone’ – the lower one, not the upper one. And the stinging (okay, now it’s turning to pain) is extending through my lip on into my gum – the lower one again, not the upper one. And the other kids are turning to look at me – and I feel something wet dripping down onto my legs (we all always wore cut-off shorts and nothing else) and I look down to see trickles of blood running down all over me, and there’s already a puddle starting to form on the concrete at my feet.

So I did what comes naturally to any kid that age who discovers he’s leaking vast quantities of blood. I screamed and ran inside.

Blood on the floor – in the kitchen – the forbidden thing to do (“take it outside!” my momma used to say whenever we’d start bleeding, “Don’t be bleeding in MY house!”) But I knew what to do – what you always do when you’re badly hurt and bleeding. (Even our cat knew this — another story for another time.) I bee lined it to the bathroom, trailing streams of blood all the way, my mom coming in right behind me to see what was wrong.

I supposed I must of presented quite a sight; I sort of remember her eyes opening WIDE with shock (and it takes a LOT to shock my mom), and looking back and looking at the scar I can imagine how ugly and awful it must of looked. I’d split my lip – or rather, the end of the handlebar had split my lip halfway down my chin – and it was just a ragged piece of hanging flesh. Split like a harelip, only the wrong one – the lower lip. And the handlebar had continued on into my gum, splitting it as well. I’m standing there at the sink desperately trying to keep the thing from hanging – it’s hard talking with the thing flapping there – and my momma hushes me and rushes me to the car. The other kids are standing on the carport, wide eyed and drop-jawed as she hustles me into the front seat, throws that car into reverse – and off we go.

Endless drive to the Army hospital (not a nice place, that one – see “Cat Scratch Fever” for a vivid description) – and needless to say, not a place I want to go. But – “come on!” she says, and hauls me into what must have been their emergency room.

And that’s where the yellow sheet comes in.

These Army doctors, seeing this kid, do what Army doctors are trained to do; must do. They have me sit in a chair – and I can see it right now – the big yellow rubber sheet with a hole about the size of my mouth – and yeah, I’m fighting it, don’t want them to put it over me – but they restrain my flailing arms and put it over my face anyway. And then they begin sewing.

I remember that thick black thread. There was no anesthetic, or at least I don’t remember any. I think I would of remembered getting a shot there, seeing as I remember this whole thing so clearly (the fall, the blood, the long ride, going into the hospital). Pierce and sew, pierce and sew – and now the stinging is really starting to set in. And that damned yellow sheet over my head. The doctor’s loud voices. The needle coming in – and out – and in – and out. All through this little hole around my mouth. (I reckon they should of wrapped that thing more tightly around my eyes, because I can still see that curved needle working in and out, in and out.)

Well, that’s the gist of it. To this day I have a scar – an ugly one – to remind me of the bike ride that wasn’t. And apparently my father got home – no one there – and blood on the carport, blood in the kitchen, down the hallway –blood everywhere. He’d thought my mom had finally gone beserko and killed one of us kids. (My brother, I take it, was with our ‘second mom’ across the road.) That scar – well, the Army docs weren’t trained to be plastic surgeons, so it is what it is. An ugly upside down “Y”, running from my lip halfway down my chin. Lip slightly mismatched – but not so bad as I’ve grown older. Perhaps one-eighth of an inch. Enough to add to my general ugliness (cuz’ I’ve got literally hundreds of scars – I’m the most scarred up person I know). From head to foot. But that one – each time I look in the mirror to shave or brush my teeth – well, I have worse scars now (Marine Corps went “BOOM!” in my face a couple of times.) And how my wife stands to kiss me – well, I don’t know. All I know is I’m ugly. But at least while I’m ugly on the outside, I know this much:

It ain’t so bad on the inside. At least there I can close my eyes, ignore what I see in the mirror . . .

and see a field of flowers. All of them dandelions. Blowing in the wind.

And that doesn’t bother me at all. :o)