I have a three-inch scar on my left shin that looks a little bit like a worm. It’s less visible now than it once was–camouflaged in a jungle of thick blond leg hair, freckles, and increasingly wrinkled skin. But it’s still unsightly enough if you happen to study my shins (which I wouldn’t recommend). The scar has been with me, literally, for as long as I can remember–since I was only four years old. And somehow that seems fitting: that my earliest memory left a visible scar.
It was the fall of 1975, and my older brother, Tim, had started playing soccer for the Annandale Boys Club. My father had taken me along to watch a game on the field behind Ravensworth Elementary School, where I would spend a fair part of my childhood. We had walked to the school, which was half a mile from our house, together.
I don’t remember the game specifically, but it’s safe to assume that it was chaotic. Picture 22 six-year-olds rampaging mob-like across a field of crab grass and dirt in pursuit of a white-and-black ball that none of them could remotely control. And picture their parents shouting encouragement and instruction from the sidelines, even though–at that point–most of them had never seen a proper soccer match in their lives.
“Get it, Georgie!”
“Kick it again, Johnny!”
“Don’t let him push you, Tommy!”
Meanwhile, just a little ways from the field, picture a tow-headed four-year-old boy playing on a playground that seemingly predates both plastic and color. Its monkey bars, slides, and geodesic climbing dome are all made of good old-fashioned metal, painted grey and firmly planted in a field of colorless, middle-weight gravel.
That little boy, of course, is me.
Notably, no one is watching me closely. No one feels a need. The neighborhood is known (or at least believed) to be safe. And I’ve been told not to wander off by my father, who is nearby watching the soccer game–though, knowing him, not shouting any instructions from the sidelines himself.
At some point I decide to climb to the top of a small hill that separates the back of the brick schoolhouse from the field and playground below. The hill is steep enough that we use it for sledding in winter, but this time of year, at this time of morning, it’s covered with dew-dampened grass.
Feeling bold, I charge headlong down the hill, then suddenly drop to my knees to slide through the grass. It’s a move seemingly designed to tattoo permanent grass stains onto my jeans’ knees. And so, as a four-year-old boy, it makes me giddy.
I am smiling, sliding, laughing, gliding down the hill–until something abruptly cuts through my jeans and into my shin. Turns out, a broken beer bottle has been lying in wait for me, craftily camouflaging itself beneath the dew-dampened blades.
To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the moment of the cut or what I did right after it happened. For that matter, I don’t clearly remember anything I’ve written so far–though it mostly must have happened more or less as I’ve described it.
What I do remember–clearly–is my father scooping me up and carrying me home in his arms. With my legs dangling over one of his forearms and my head cradled into the other, he told me everything would be all right. And I believed him.
Oddly enough, I remember being basically at peace. I knew bleeding so much wasn’t good, but my biggest concern was my pants. As if grass stains on my jeans weren’t bad enough, I had gone and added injury to insult. My mother, I feared, would be furious.
Officially, my parents ran our household in partnership. In fact, my mom was in charge. As a petite 22-year-old, she had traveled from her home in the hills of West Virginia to work as a nurse in the mental ward of a Washington, DC hospital. Neither nasty cuts nor sometimes naughty boys were any match for her.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t there when we got home. So dad plopped me in the back seat of his gold-and-white Chevy Nova and drove me to the doctor’s office. Not the hospital, mind you, but the office of our local pediatrician, Dr. Handfling, who met us there on a Saturday morning. Times have changed in the medical profession.
Dr. Handfling reminded me of Andy Griffith, the sheriff of Mayberry I saw on TV, who may have been nothing like the actual Andy Griffith (I wouldn’t know). Dr. Handfling was calm and cool and seemed possessed of deep knowledge and wisdom even though his vibe was entirely earthy and human.
After cleaning up my shin, he shrugged. “We should probably close this up with some stitches,” he said. “But I suppose we could also just butterfly it, assuming you don’t mind him having a scar on his shin.”
Immediately, I began begging my father not to let them stitch me. And I started crying, for the first time since the hillside behind the school. My leg hardly hurt at all. But even the idea of Dr. Handfling running a needle and thread through the edges of my open wound sent chills down my spine. Truth be told, it still does, even though I’ve had my share of stitches since.
Besides, as I told my father, I didn’t mind the idea of a scar. Scars look tough. Even at four I knew this. And I knew boys were supposed to be tough. I didn’t yet recognize the irony of crying to avoid stitches in a bid to look “tough.”
Anyway, my father let me choose. No stitches. Only a permanent scar that still looks like a worm on my shin. A lingering mark that triggers an original memory–of being scooped up and carried away in a moment of need, of having my feelings heard and considered, and of being allowed to make a choice. Even, perhaps, a wrong one.
My mother was always angry with my father for not getting the stitches. She would have seen that wound properly closed, sealed off and minimized despite my silly fears of a sterilized needle and thread. And she would have been entirely right. Though I survived just fine–and I wonder if I might have learned a much lesser lesson from having a better procedure.