I Can’t Believe I Survived!

I think about the lives my kids and all of their friends lead today, and I realize that I shouldn’t be here. It is only by the grace of God or munificent fortune that I failed to die at a young age. Here is a list of things I can’t believe I survived, and I didn’t even bother to include eating raw egg, not washing my hands, and playing with turtles and rodents.

Riding my bike without a helmet. Riding my bike without a helmet, really fast, down a long really steep hill, with a playing card clipped to the rear strut, and turning around to look down at it, and hitting the front of a parked dump truck at full speed. Without a helmet.

Walking home from school. Walking home from school, at the age of 7, crossing Twelve Mile Road in Farmington Hills, and not looking both ways, and getting tagged by Mr. Shoemaker’s sedan so hard I flipped head over heals and my shoes flew off. And then accepting a ride home from him.

Running away. Running away from home at the age of ten, in the dark, with my parents watching, and traveling less than a mile before building a small fire in a field and sitting down to wait for my Dad to show up.

Getting towed behind my Dad’s Pinto. Getting towed, behind my Dad’s red Ford Pinto, through the snowy streets of Auburn, on a ten-foot bobsled with a bunch of other screaming, laughing kids, and having it flip on a corner and scatter us all from curb to curb.

Climbing trees. Climbing as high in trees as I could possibly climb. Climbing until the branches bent under my weight, and then swinging like a monkey and falling off and breaking my left arm.

Setting stuff on fire. Setting stuff on fire on the hearth of the old brick incinerator in our basement, and pouring in a can of lacquer thinner to see what would happen, and finding out that what would happen is that it would explode and set a quarter of the basement on fire, with my parents out to dinner.

Fighting. Fighting with other boys in the schoolyard during recess in the days before “Say no to violence!” posters, when we would beat each other senseless while 2/3 of the rest of the school, including every single girl, stood in a circle egging us on.

Bumper skating. Bumper skating behind the municipal buses in Auburn, NY, crouched down low where nobody could see us, as a primary means of wintertime transportation.

Ingesting pesticides and hydrocarbons. Ingesting pesticides and hydrocarbons while riding our bikes right behind the truck that sprayed a thick fog of malathion and diesel fuel to control mosquitoes in our neighborhood in Indiana. It was cool inside that fog.

Setting half the woods on fire. Setting half the woods behind our house on fire while attempting to erect an epic tree fort, and learning that copius amounts of gasoline are not necessarily the best ant control methodology.

Playing with electricity. Playing with electricity mostly by cutting the plug and some cord off an old appliance, stripping the wire ends bare, then plugging it in and touching them to stuff, like twelve volt DC motors and six volt solenoids.

Funny thing is, I look back over that list and I think I had a pretty normal childhood. Our parents didn’t hover over us. They let us get out of the house, try stupid stuff, get burned and break bones. I can’t count the high-speed bicycle crashes I was in, and nobody wore a helmet. No teacher ever broke up one of our fights. No parent ever called the fire department because they saw one of us fifty feet up a maple. Nobody panicked when the sun went down and we weren’t home. Nobody required us to ride in the car to a friend’s house half a mile away. I ask myself whether the world today is more dangerous, and the answer is that I don’t believe it is. I think we’re the ones who have changed.

2 thoughts on “I Can’t Believe I Survived!

  1. Well, yes. I hear this from people all the time: “We didn’t have bike helmets (poison control/safety labels/stranger danger/whatever) when I was a kid, but we were okay!”

    But here’s the thing: we weren’t okay.

    I remember, to this day, hearing stories all the time of kids who weren’t okay. Kids who broke bones, who burned, who choked, who died. Kids who just disappeared. Not urban legends, not Mom’s warnings of “you’ll put your eye out!” Kids from my town, kids I knew.

    The girl who was shot in the eye by a BB gun. (Permanent brain injury.) The girl who fell off her bike in traffic and was run over by a car. (No helmet; dead.) The boy who lost control of his bike going down a hill and crashed into a tree. (No helmet; blood everywhere.) The vicious playground beatdowns I witnessed that— you’re right— nobody did a thing to stop.

    We weren’t okay. Not at all.

    You’re right, the world hasn’t changed. We have. People used to just shake their heads sadly and say there was nothing that could be done about it. “That’s the way it is.” Or that those kids should have been more careful. “Boys will be boys.” Just as we didn’t used to worry about industrial workers losing limbs in accidents. “These things happen.” There were cases of tragedy every day.

    Those broken skulls, those third-degree burns, those frayed electrical cords and exposures to carcinogenic pesticides— that’s exactly why we live the way we do now. Are you saying we should go back to that? That we should just ignore it all and shake our heads when people die?

    Exactly how many dead and crippled kids do you think would be an acceptable number?

  2. Well, since you asked me to pick a number, I’ll say three. Macabre answers to silly questions aside, we were ok. I survived all those dangerous activities just fine, and so did all the people I know. You must have lived in a particularly accident-prone place. In any case, I’d rather take my chances with that broken skull, or that third-degree burn, than grow up in the kind of padded rubber room we put our kids in these days. The world is full of dangers. Some people, when they look at the world, see the possibilities amidst the risks. Others, like you I presume, see only the risks. A good portion of my post was tongue-in-cheek. Obviously I wouldn’t encourage my kids to ride behind the pesticide truck, not that they will ever see a truck spraying pesticides. But I would encourage them to walk home from school and stay outside after dark. There is in fact not a pedophile behind every bush.

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