Childhood injuries

I had a mostly-healthy childhood, except for the summer I turned six. That’s when I fell off the basement steps and hit my head, and a short time later I was wrongly diagnosed with asthma.

My family lived in a ranch house that had a largely unfinished basement. The top of the steps faced the back door of the house: to reach the basement, one took four steps down facing west, stopped at a landing and turned, and took eight steps down facing north. The first four steps were enclosed by walls, but the other eight steps had only a handrail, with open space on either side. That is why, when I fell, I did not fall down the stairs. I fell off the stairs, landing head-first on the cement floor.

I do not remember the fall, so I don’t know what I was doing that caused me to fall off the steps. My mother was in the basement and heard me cry when I hit the floor. She feared a concussion and raced me to the hospital after leaving a note for my father. My sister rode to the hospital with us, and she remembers talking with me, making sure I stayed awake, because of a common misperception at that time that a person with a concussion would slip into a coma if he or she fell asleep.

I remember being in the hospital. I was in a ward for children, one with several crib-like beds. I must have been there several days, because I remember that my bed had become a rat’s nest including a few toys from home, hand-made get-well cards from my sister, and coins from well-wishers who I no longer remember. Across the room was a girl named Rosie. One day I scrawled a message to her and tried to toss it to her, but it fell short. She cried, but I remained calm. I pressed the call button and asked the nurse to pick up the message and hand it to Rosie. I remember her name because I named a toy for her, a pale blue rabbit with a rose atop its head.

I was home and convalescing when I had my next medical episode. I was playing with a toy called Rig-a-jig. (see image below) The plastic shapes could be connected in a number of ways, either by putting them sideways tab to tab, or by connecting two tabs with red plastic tubes, the shortest of which was about half an inch long. An almost endless list of projects could be produced by attaching the pieces together. But sometimes the plastic pieces got stuck to one another and were hard to separate. That was the case that day—one of the short plastic tubes was stuck on the tab of one of the colored shapes. Being six, I had the bad judgment to try to loosen the tube with my teeth. I succeeded, but the tube went down my throat. Once again, my mother rushed me to the hospital, where I was X-rayed. The plastic tube did not appear on the X-ray, so the doctor decided that it had gone into my stomach and would pass through my digestive tract without causing any harm.

No one connected that event with the fact that I almost immediately developed symptoms of asthma—the characteristic wheezing sound of asthma when I breathed, which worsened when I exerted myself and had to breathe more deeply. I was not allowed to play outdoors—even my first-grade recess times were spent in the classroom. I came home from school as quickly as possible, which meant that I was always wheezing strongly when I came in the front door. Tests were scheduled to determine which allergens were responsible for my symptoms. Only a couple days before the scheduled tests, I coughed out the plastic tube, and my symptoms disappeared.

When I brought the phlegm-coated tube to my mother, she at first accused me of swallowing a second tube. When I insisted that I was not holding a second tube, but that it was the first one that had disappeared down my throat earlier, and when she noticed that I was no longer wheezing, she called the doctor and canceled the tests. He asked if he could have the tube to show his colleagues. Evidently, I had inhaled the tube and it had lodged in a bronchus, from where it produced the noises that sounded like asthma when I breathed.

Children sometimes do foolish or careless things that cause them harm. I’ve been to the emergency room with my own children more than once. But none of them has ever inhaled a piece of a toy, I am glad to say. Repeating their father’s mistake would be doubly foolish. J.

 

rigajig

The basement

As I’ve written before, I grew up in a ranch house with a full basement. A lot happened down in the basement, including some spectacular floods.

The washing machine and clothes drier were down there, along with a chest freezer and a second refrigerator. My parents stored frozen vegetables and fruits from the garden in the freezer, and also had shelves of canned fruits, jellies, applesauce, and the like. One of my mother’s hobbies was ceramics, which she taught to 4-H children and also to ladies from the church. Year-round, the ladies would gather once a week in the basement to prepare items for their annual Christmas sale. Most of them were cast in molds; my mother had a large collection of molds, glazes, and a kiln for firing the ceramics.

Two of my father’s hobbies were woodworking and photography. He had a fairly complete work area in one corner of the basement with a table saw and other tools. In another corner he assembled a darkroom in which he printed photographs he had taken. When he built the darkroom, he also made a second room which he intended to be a recreation room. It had a tile floor and wood panel walls. A ping pong table was in the room, but gradually it accumulated various items for storage, so not much recreation happened there.

Twelve wooden stairs led down from the back entry to the basement. There were four steps and then a landing (which held the cat’s litter box), and then a turn to the right and eight more steps down to the basement floor. Next to those steps was the furnace that heated the house in the winter. When I was young, I kept some of my toys in the cubbyhole underneath the steps and landing.

My parents never threw away a cardboard box, because one never knows when one will need a box of a certain size. I remember a huge mountain of boxes in the basement when I was younger. Of course when the basement was flooded, the cardboard was ruined and had to be discarded. Most of the molds survived and were usable again after they had thoroughly dried. The freezer floated and tipped over, spilling its contents, which (needless to say) also had to be discarded.

Aside from the recreation room and darkroom, the floor of the basement was concrete. It had a number of cracks through which water would seep on rainy days. A sump pump kept the basement relatively dry except during major floods, but most summers the basement had a musty smell.

Our first major flood was caused by a heavy rainfall in the summer. The second major flood, a few years later, happened because of an early spring rain while there was still snow on the ground. We had no heat in the house because of that flood; the pilot light of the furnace was below the level of the floodwater. More floods followed. When the creek was high and water was seeping through the cracks in the floor, my parents and I would try to get items of value out of the basement. I, of course, was most worried about my toys; my parents had other concerns. My father eventually bought a second sump pump to deal with floods. The main sump pump was electric and diverted water into the creek. The second sump pump was gasoline powered; when my father ran that pump, he had to run the hose out the basement window. Of course when floodwaters reached the window, trying to pump water out of the basement was pointless.

My parents were legally required to purchase flood insurance. After a major flood, the insurance company would give them money to replace the furnace, washer, drier, and freezer. They did not cover craft materials or toys. Along with replacement money, though, the insurance also provided funds for cleaning the basement, based on the square footage of the floor and walls that had come in contact with floodwater. As my parents became older and major floods became more frequent, the basement was increasingly unsafe. I know that pockets of mold and mildew existed where they could not be reached to be removed. My father was anxious to move, but my mother was very attached to the house and the village.

After my mother died (a little more than a year ago), my father relocated as quickly as he could. A government agency was purchasing houses in the floodplain. Months of legal negotiations were involved in the transaction, but eventually my father was able to move, and the house was leveled.

I clearly remember many afternoons spent in the basement. I remember using a hand drill to drill holes in a block of wood, which kept me busy while my father worked on more complicated projects. I remember the gatherings of 4-H children and church ladies to work on ceramics, and I remember a few projects I produced at the same table. (One of them won prizes at the county fair and was exhibited at the state fair.) I remember playing with toys on the floor of the recreation room, and I remember frantically gathering toys to take upstairs because it was raining outside. I remember lessons from my father on developing film and printing pictures, many years before telephones were used to take pictures. I remember a sense of security while my mother loaded the kiln and my father sculpted cabinet doors for the kitchen and I played with my toys. All that remains today are the memories. J.