When I was five, seat belts were optional. Heck, children safety seats were optional. Kids crawled through moving vehicles like they were portable playgrounds: Over the backs of seats we went, bouncing and laughing, trading places and squealing, parents yelling at us to sit still while they adjusted rearview mirrors. In the years of my youth, the lawlessness of vehicular transport compares nicely to shipping lanes off Somalia today. There were no rules.
Except for the rules of physics, of course.
I was in the middle of the first bench seat of our Ford van. It was the choicest seat a kid could have once adults secured the two up front. You couldn’t see over the seats otherwise. But in the center of that first bench, it was like you were soaring over the pavement. You could see the billboards first. See the ocean first. And sometimes you really did go soaring.
My mom looked both ways, but the other driver didn’t. She pulled into the intersection; the other driver did as well. First law of physics: two objects can’t occupy the same place at the same time. Second law of physics: an object in motion will stay in motion until the dashboard whacks it in the face.
That was my face. I was five. I don’t even think I knew what a car wreck was, but I’d just been in one. My next memory is of being on a table, doctors and nurses all around me. As I remember it, there were dozens of them. There was probably just two.
I was screaming. My eye was cut so bad, I was seeing through my own blood. I’d never seen through a curtain of my own blood before. When the rags came away soaked in it, I felt raw terror for the first time. What was this? What was happening to me? I wanted out of that place where they were trying to make me better. I didn’t know they were helping. The first memory is of being there, and then the blood. Even at five, I could put two and two together. These people were bad. Where was my mother?
Oh, there is my father. He looks worried. He knows these people are bad, that they’re hurting me. He’ll save me.
But the doctor is asking him a question, asking for permission for something. Is my father one of them? Is he colluding with these horrible people who are wicking away my blood? My father looks sick, but he nods yes. He has told them they can do something. I am a writhing snake. I am a bucking horse. I am an angry bull. I keep all four limbs moving, plus my head, daring them to hold me still. But my dad has given them permission. I watch as a door is closed, the long board behind it procured. It would be many years before I learned what a Pappose board was. When I was five, all I knew was that it was used to torture little kids. They lifted me onto this thick plank of wood and began cinching straps across my body. There go my legs. There go my arms. There’s even one for my forehead. I can’t move, all I can do is scream and look through tear-filled eyes at my father. Why would he do this to me?
There are needles coming at my eye. The doctors and nurses are angry. I’ve made things worse. I yell for my father to help, but he’s the one who did this. He turns and walks away, leaving me there. Abandoning me.
It would be a dozen years before I understood that everyone was trying to help me, trying to patch me up. A dozen years before I could tell him I remembered, and ask him what the hell had happened. A dozen years before he could explain. Before he could respond with:
“Son, I couldn’t bear to watch.”