When being outdoors was a terrifying adventure
By Clyde Edgerton
It was a hot summer day. 1951. In my memories of my seventh year, all summer days were hot ones, calling for me to go outside and get into them. There was no air conditioning yet in any home in our neighborhood, so there were no cool, enticing places except by a creek in the woods. You wouldn’t be caught dead inside a house — even looking at the little Emerson black and white TV. You couldn’t pull up a Minecraft adventure, or a video game, or a YouTube on that little machine. Life was outside.
Don Mitchell and Norris Campbell were on their bikes out in the yard. Did I want to go see a dead snake? Of course I did.
We were off, down the dirt road we lived on — on our bicycles — a right turn into the Goodwins’ driveway, which kept going behind their house, straight ahead on through the church graveyard, onto school grounds, by the ballfield, and on to a less familiar place down behind the school. They were in the lead, we were pedaling right along.
My Roy Rogers bike (Roy was a cowboy movie star back then) had a saddlebag like a horse and a small molded head of Roy’s horse, Trigger, between the handle bars. (Bumping along on my bike, I could never have dreamed nor been persuaded that Roy Rogers would one day be unknown to most anyone alive.) Don veered slightly to the left around a large, ground- level square of cement; Norris veered right. I saw no reason to avoid it — it was about the size of a room. I didn’t notice that a deep ditch filled with growing green grass was around the perimeter of the cement.
The bike’s front wheel dropped into the ditch, the bike stopped, I kept going, my hands out in front of me. When I gained some sense of where I was, I was sitting on the cement, staring at my right hand. Where the thumb connects to the hand looked like no thumb joint I’d ever seen; the thumb was off at an angle, and a bone was pushing up from somewhere, but not breaking through the skin; it looked absurdly irregular. I screamed and started crying loudly. I have a vague sense that Don and Norris were with me all the way home, one of them pushing my bike.
My next clear memory is of my mother staring at my hand, asking me to sit on the front steps of our house, while she goes into the neighborhood to find a car so she can take me to the emergency room. My father is at work with our car. And next comes Teresa . . . oh gosh, last name escapes me. Teresa stands before me. She’s my age.
“What happened?” she asks.
“I think I broke my thumb,” I say, between sobs. I’m crying from fear as much as from pain — my thumb is deformed.
Teresa reaches out and gently takes my arm, turns it so she can get a good look. She announces: “They might have to take it off.”
Those words seared me — are still seared into my memory.
I tell the story above because it’s a story. And because it happened in my childhood — outdoors. These days, I drive through neighborhoods and I often see no children out of doors on bikes. Maybe I’m in the wrong neighborhood. Maybe I’m in the wrong town. Maybe I’m in the wrong century.
A careful parent, or a glazed-eyed teenager, might say, “You don’t get hurt when you stay inside.”
Yes, you do.
Clyde Edgerton is the author of 10 novels, a memoir and most recently, Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers. He is the Thomas S. Kenan III Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UNCW.