Playing In Puddles

It was late autumn afternoon in the school year. I was seven or so I reckon. A brief Georgia thunder burst had rolled across the ‘hood, dropping sheets of cold rain and lashing us with wind. For us kids it meant huddling on the carport like wet chicks beneath a sheltering wing, waiting for the tempest to pass – flinching each time the lightning crackled overhead with an angry roar, and then laughing nervously at each others fear. Eventually the storm rolled over, the swollen bellies of the roiling clouds disappearing beyond the tops of glistening pines, freeing us to roam again.

There was a gorgeous sunset to the west, piled with clouds and smeared with red and gold. I remember how beautiful that was. Sheets of clear rippling water ran over the fine white sand of the sunken ditches, mere shallows in which one could stand and pump your feet, sinking in it like quicksand up to your shins. But my best friend and I had other plans as we headed to the bottom of the hill. There the water pooled around a sand choked storm drain. There we could splash and play in the deep pool that would form as the overwhelmed drain struggled to keep up with the storm runoff.

We frolicked that day in the crystal clear water as the sunset deepened from gold to red, laced with purple bands. We ran in circles, kicking silvery sprays of water and splashing each other, dressed in cutoff shorts – two kids playing in a big ol’ puddle and having a grand old time. As the eastern sky deepened to a dark azure and the western one was set on fire we heard the not too distant call of the dinner bells. So it must have been about five thirty, six o’clock or so, because that’s when the dinner bells rang. And that meant it was time to go home, eat supper, take a bath, and go to bed. Our bedtime, firmly kept, came at eight – punctual, on the clock, like a military regime.

I took a shower which was unusual for me, but considering the sand it made sense to my mom. Better that than me filling the tub up with sand! The hot shower felt good the cold chill of sitting through dinner in wet clothes – I hadn’t noticed the cold when I’d been outside playing, warmed up by my exercise – so it felt good. However, I hardly noticed, washing quickly. I didn’t caring much for showers, scrubbing the grit out of my short cropped hair. I preferred long baths where I could exercise my imagination, sending my G.I. Joe on rescue missions to save his G.I.’s floating in their cutout cardboard milk carton, which I would fill with Army men. I had learned cut the G.I. Green (olive drab) half gallon milk cartons to look like boats – some of them sleek craft, some of them just barges. There were always two or three, but after a time the rough cut edges would grow soft despite the thick waxy coating of the boxes inside and out. I would push the ships across the water’s rippling surface, the little army men inside – G.I. Joe either diving underneath the bubbles to save them, or attack them some of the time. Towards the end I would get to sloshing the water from one end of the tub to the other, delighting in the long tall waves pushing me around; feeling like a slick fish gliding from one side to another. However this time . . . no bath. Just a quick hot shower, a quicker scrubbing down; stand there let the water beat me across the face and shoulders, and get out. And when I got out I felt myself growing chilled.

I dried off quickly, and wrapping my towel around my shoulders the way a child should, I went to my room to get my pajamas on. Already I was shivering. I had barely began to draw my bottoms on when it hit me – long cold shivers, followed by waves of heat. I felt suddenly weak as the waves rolled over me, and I knew something was wrong. Gritting my teeth, I finished putting on my pajama bottoms, hoping their warmth would help. The chills were the worst; I stood there shivering and hugging myself with my arms, my teeth chattering. Aware that something was wrong, and feeling weaker by the moment, I stumbled into the living room where my mom and dad sat watching TV.

“I think I’m sick,” I told them. I remember standing there, my eyes flicking from the TV to them and back.

“Oh, no, your not,” my mom reassured, not taking her eyes from the set.

“No, I – somethings wrong,” I said, shivering so hard my teeth rattled. My knees felt like they’d become noodles. Tears were beginning to come to my eyes. I was beginning to ache. I think that’s what caught my mom’s attention – those tears. I rarely cried over anything, anything at all, no matter the pain or how distressing. Crying was more than strongly discouraged in our house – it was a sin. If you need to cry you went to your room and did it, alone. That’s where crying kids belonged. “I feel . . . sick.”

“Come here,” she said, motioning me over. I went, shambling and trembling. She placed her hand on my forehead and shot an anxious look at my dad.

“He’s sick,” she said, stating the obvious. I shivered, wavering. Her face grew a bit more alarmed as I sagged in place – not falling, just . . . sagging on my own two feet. That, too, was unlike me. I was usually an active and energetic young boy.

I must of faded fast, because before much longer, my father had me bundled in the station wagon, and we drove through the night, headed for the Army hospital (a terrible place). By the time we got there I couldn’t stand, and I remember my father carrying up the steps into the linoleum floored lobby of that utilitarian institution, cradling me like a limp fish. After asking him if he needed it, a male nurse brought a wheelchair, and my dad propped me in it. I slumped dismally, barely aware – a miserable kid; a sick one. Normally I would have been thrilled by such an excursion – I had never been in a wheelchair before, but I wasn’t. I was just well enough to notice that I was missing the thrill of it and wished I was well. For I knew I was sick; desperately sick, terribly sick, too sick to even care. I kept passing out and coming to until they wheeled me into the lab.

The lab was a small dark room dominated by a long table crowded with strange instruments. The only light came from a desk lamp; equipment lurked in the murky shadows like mysterious monsters; glints of glassware gleamed on the shelves. The technician asked for my hand; I attempted to give it to him, but my arm just hung limply, useless to me. Taking my hand, he laid it on the desk under the yellow glow of that single desk lamp. I flinched as a needle point of pain pricked my finger, and as I watched, he began sucking my blood up a glass pipet (tube). He’s drinking my blood!, I thought in horror. Why is he drinking my blood!? I passed out, bewildered, before they could wheel me out of the room – and I guess I didn’t come to until the next day. I don’t really remember: everything was fuzzy for a few weeks. Later I learned it was double pneumonia. My mom always blamed it on my playing in the rain, dancing in that puddle. I don’t know, but I do know I missed six weeks of first grade because of it, and during those six weeks I was treated like a king.

Instead of sleeping in my bedroom, my mom put me on the day bed in her sewing room where she could monitor me. The smell of frying bacon would make me nauseous; this room, abutting the kitchen and dining room (where she usually stayed) became my new haven. She would shut the door in the morning while she was fixing breakfast – an acknowledgment of my condition – and open it later on. I know I was weak and frail for the first few weeks – I can still feel it – and sleeping often, barely moving from the bed. It took me a long time to recover my strength; nobody came over to play with me. I don’t think they were allowed to. But by the fourth week I was longing for the outdoors, becoming more restless, by the fifth I felt trapped in that room. However, by the sixth week I was once again set free, to go roam and romp in the woods. But for the first month or so the other kids were gentle with me – not challenging me to the endless fights, nor having me run after them while they rode their bikes. Instead they would get off their speedy machines, and walk the road with me, slowing down to my pace. Odd how I remember that: walking down the hill with a friend, him pushing his bike instead of riding. I guess I must have been pretty sick for them to have such understanding. But sometimes in kids you can find compassion for one of their own kind. Strange.

And no – it didn’t cure me of my love of puddles. I still love them today. And yes, sometimes – sometimes, if my wife isn’t looking – I will dip my foot into them.

Some things never change.