This month marks the three-year anniversary of the death of a cousin who died much too soon. It’s funny how life pulls you different directions but something can occur that brings back memories of good times and makes the years melt away. The selfies of our childhood are safely locked and cataloged in our brains, never to be lost. I am reminded of a time when we were young and our worries, however great they seemed at the time, were trivial; of a time when the biggest concern to our nine-year-old minds was whether or not we would both be selected for the Green Bay Packers so we could play together in the pros and what kind of punishment our mothers would mete out when (we knew it was never if, it was always when) they learned of our latest shenanigans.
There were the endless games of baseball, basketball and football; roaming the neighborhood barefooted, swimming in creeks, secret forts, spying on big kids and a seemingly eternal succession of dogs named Pete.
I found this story of one of our adventures that I wrote several years ago:
With all the bad things in the news today, modern kids have many things to fear. We were lucky growing up in the sixties. We only had two things to worry about; two things our mothers had ingrained in us to avoid at all costs. The first was to be bitten by an unknown dog. To suffer this unlucky event, every kid knew, would require rabies shots. And we were all acutely aware that by the 1960s medical science had progressed to the state that rabies shots always had to be given—in a series and very painfully—in the stomach. In every town in America there had been at least one poor kid who had needed this horrifying treatment and mothers reminded their children of it at least once a month.
The second thing to avoid was the rusty nail. Apparently you could be completely run through with a clean nail and nothing would happen. But let one solitary piece of rust be on the nail and your worst nightmare would come true: tetanus, lock-jaw. We had no idea why it was so dreadful to have your jaw locked. We only knew that when mothers spoke of it, our spines tingled and our skin crawled.
One fateful day my cousin and I were on our way back to his house from a Little League game when we decided to take a short cut through the woods. His mother had warned him not to go through these woods because teenagers went there to take drugs. In the sixties, according to my aunt, teenagers were always sneaking away to dark places to take drugs--when they weren’t doing other dastardly deeds such as lacing candy hearts with LSD or listening to Beetles music.
As we were cutting through the woods, our eyes keeping a sharp lookout for drug-taking teenagers, it happened. My cousin didn’t see an old board on the ground and stepped on a protruding nail. The nail pierced the soft rubbery sole of his tennis shoe and cut into his foot. And to our horror, we discovered that this was not just any nail. On close inspection our worst fears were confirmed—this was the dreaded, sinister rusty nail!
My cousin complained about bad luck, but I knew better. I had been to Sunday School enough to recognize the M.O. This had all the signs of a classic Old Testament smiting. Verily God had looked down upon us and had been disappointed that we had disobeyed our mothers and He had decided to smite us.
We hurried to my cousin’s house as fast as we could—certain that sudden death would overtake him at any minute. Luckily his mother was not home yet. He quickly made the life-or-death choice only a nine-year-old can make: it was better to die of tetanus than to face the wrath (and “I told you so”) of his mother. We searched the medicine cabinet for something to clean it up with. Hydrogen peroxide—that would work, just look at the way it bubbles! We cleaned the wound and destroyed the evidence before his mother arrived.
Then, a miracle occurred: we got away with it. She never suspected a thing. I spent a few sleepless nights worrying that his mother would find him dead at any time—his jaw completely locked--but he pulled through.
Over the years my cousin and I never discussed the episode again—too ashamed most likely. To this day I can not quite look my aunt in the eye, afraid that she may see the long-hidden truth. I’m afraid that she might grill me and I would certainly crack under the pressure and spill my guts like only a guilt-ridden middle-aged man can. I sometimes think we should go to her and confess to the whole sordid affair. But I’m afraid that she might be disappointed by the fact that, since he lived through it, perhaps the episode proves that what she had been warning him of all those years had not really been true. And if that wasn’t true, what about the teenagers and those candy hearts she never let him eat and Beetles music?
RIP Scott Engle, 1962-2012