Bill Marsh

Show-and-Tell

At the age of ten I was run over by a tractor. I bear the scar to this day—a dent the size of a Kennedy half-dollar on my left leg, just above the knee. As tractor accidents go, I got lucky. No broken bones, not even a limp to carry into old age. For two days I rolled around in a wheelchair, took a crutch with me back to school. I didn’t need it (the crutch), could walk just fine without it, but what’s the point of getting run over if you can’t show it off to your friends?

Crushed muscle, the ER doctor said. In the weeks following I repeated this blunt diagnosis for the benefit of my undented siblings, in part to register the permanence (you can’t un-crush a muscle) but also as a form of self-adulation. I was proud of my new scar because it out-did anything they’d ever done. When he was nine my older brother contracted one of those rare, polysyllabic diseases that strike terror into the hearts of parents. I was too young to visit him in the hospital, but I remember reports of noxious medicines and foot-long needles, doctors whispering in the hallway as test results rolled in. Not a fun time, to be sure, but no lasting disfigurement that I’m aware of.

My little sister caught a pencil in the cheek once. I don’t recall which one of us threw it, but whoever did had impeccable aim. The point had been recently sharpened so the pencil stuck like a dart and dangled there for a couple seconds before falling off. Today if you lean in real close you can see the gray, freckle-sized stain marking the spot where the tip bore in. It’s a decent little blemish (points for originality) but doesn’t hold a candle to my tractor dent.

The ground was sponge-cake soft that day after a heavy rain. Good thing, too, because on harder, compacted soil the damage could have been much worse. The offending tire was the chubby left rear—a Goodyear with a five-foot diameter and deep diagonal treads. When he gets the chance my uncle likes to proclaim, with considerable flourish, that a fluid-filled tire of that size would have torn the leg clean off, spitting my twisted body out the back end to bleed out where it lay. “Crushed muscle, my ass,” he crows dismissively. I wish he’d mentioned this before. My schoolyard pals would have been much impressed.

The tractor in question—a 1958 Ford 871 ‘Select-O-Speed’—would by modern farming standards classify as a medium-small machine, not much bigger than a compact car. Of course it felt a lot bigger back then, considerably so as it rolled over my leg. But nowadays when I scrutinize the old tractor I feel a twinge of disappointment—the monster I remember now shrunken, defanged and docile, long past its prime, sulking in the barn stall like a dog kicked outside for bad behavior. It still runs okay (Ford tough, indeed), and despite our troubled past I will operate it on occasion when the mood strikes and duty calls. In our official dealings I’m careful to treat the 871 with utmost respect, one pesky survivor paying homage to another.

My younger brother was driving when it happened. It was his turn that day to mow the ten-acre field just north of the farmhouse, leaving me to my own devices back in the barnyard. I can’t blame my mother for wondering, even now after all these years, what prompted my grandfather to hand over the keys. Weren’t her boys a little young to be manning a machine of that size? But this was rural Illinois in the mid 1970s, and my brother and I, at nine and ten respectively, were hired farmhands doing a job that needed doing. Back in the suburbs you lug your dad’s lawnmower around on the lookout for shaggy yards and lazy neighbors. But out here in the country we scored our summer bubblegum cash dragging a double-blade bush hog through the wide-open fields. It was dreamy, duly compensated work requiring decent hand-eye coordination and, depending on the field’s size, a fair amount of patience. Minimal risk, really, as long as you pay attention.

And don’t goof around.

*

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

This trip to the hospital would be my second. At five I went in for a tonsillectomy, spent two nights in a Catholic hospital where nuns in rumpled habits muttered Latin prayers as they tucked you in. I’ve been told that today’s pediatricians think twice before ordering up this particular surgery, but back then it was as common as cornflakes. In fact, my little brother had undergone a similar procedure just one month before. I remember chafing at this insurrectionist move on his part. As the older sibling, didn’t I have first dibs? Wasn’t I supposed to get my tonsils out first?

Still, I had high hopes for this inaugural venture, had preloaded the event with all kinds of storybook fantasies. Day one: ice cream sundaes and raucous board games with all the new friends I’d make on arrival. Day two: pajamas and popcorn, an endless stream of Bugs Bunny cartoons. Like a birthday sleepover, in effect. But I was sadly mistaken. By nightfall, day one, I felt abandoned and homesick, desperate to be back in my own bed. There were two other boys in the room, but we never became friends, never shared so much as a word, let alone a bowl of chocolate-vanilla swirl. My pillow was already soaked with tears when, at lights out, one of the crabbier nurses paused in the backlit doorway. “Knock off that silly crying and go to sleep,” she said, closing the door. In English, not Latin.

Really I was in for an adenoidectomy. Similar to tonsils, which hide out in the back of the throat, adenoids live in the soft, fleshy roof, behind the palate. The surgery is often a two-for-one deal, both gland sets nabbed at the same time, especially if the patient suffers, as I did, from vicious earaches brought on by chronic adenoid infections. Those earaches almost always induced terrible headaches followed by dizziness and severe nausea. I remember long stretches of disembodied writhing in bed interrupted by brief interludes in the bathroom, on my knees, puking.

One remarkably vile headache came in the aftermath of the ‘family fender-bender,’ so named because all of us (Mom, Dad, five kids and Tia, our aging Great Dane) were packed into the Chevy Kingswood when Dad, looking to cheat a green light, blindsided an unsuspecting Datsun hoping to beat a red. The woman in the other car suffered a dislocated shoulder, my mother a sprained ankle. Everybody else made it out unscathed, more or less, but the real trouble hit a few hours later when my father, anxious to put the whole thing behind him, proposed a backyard barbecue to lift the mood. It was a noble gesture, I guess, but in my case that sudden jolt back in the station wagon—the crunch of metal on metal, the jarring lash of momentum halted in the seam between two drivers’ conflicting intentions—put my head in the mood for a very different kind of revelry.

I’ve often wondered if my slow pivot to vegetarianism started that evening. To this day I associate the stench of charred beef with that headache, those hours spent inside, in bed, playing mind-body cutup games, the toilet’s periodic flush a steady reminder of the role I’d been asked to play in this agonizing family drama.

What really hurt was the loneliness, that kid-mind sense of missing all the action. It’s not everyday you’re an eye witness to the vehicular mishaps of distracted adults. Not everyday the pat routines of suburban life peel back to reveal what happens when the principal homemaker, ankle wrapped and elevated, takes a well-deserved sick day, leaving Dad holding the apron and spatula. Worse yet I felt responsible somehow for my absence, my expulsion from the post-accident party a kind of penalty for missing the post-accident party. A tortured logic, yes, but perfectly reasonable to my aching brain.

At that age one doesn’t look for explanations. Five-year-olds don’t ask why me? We simply endure, wait it out. We deal with a kind of innocent, untutored stoicism. Adults learn to say things like, this too shall pass. Little kids are still stuck on this.

*

Risky Business

My mother was right. Tractors are dangerous, sometimes deadly. But this is true for all age groups, not just wily ten-year-olds. In the state of Illinois, between 1986 and 2016, 851 people died in farm-related accidents, more than half (fifty-six percent) involving tractors or other farm equipment. Other notable causes included electrocution, grain bin and manure pit accidents (falls, asphyxiation), and animal confrontations (trampling, kicking, etc.). Two-thirds of the victims were forty-five and older, while kids fourteen and under account for only seven percent (fifty-seven) of all farm fatalities during that thirty-year span.

As for fatal tractor accidents specifically, the numbers break down as follows: death by overturn (199); crushed by (9); fell off and run over by (49); run over by while originally on ground (34). My own accident, which was not fatal, occurred a full decade before the University of Illinois Extension Program’s Agricultural Safety and Health Department started keeping records. But while crunching the numbers I couldn’t help but notice stories similar to my own. In 1987, for example, a twelve-year-old boy drowned when his tractor slid down a hill and tipped into a pond. The following summer (June 1988) a fourteen-year-old boy fell off a tractor and sustained fatal injuries when the rear-mounted mower ran over him. In July of that year a ten-year-old girl met the very same fate. In December of 1989 a twelve-year-old boy got snagged by the tractor’s PTO (power take-off)—basically the double-knuckled driveshaft that powers attached implements, such as mowers. That same year a fourteen-year-old was crushed between a tractor and a hay bale. Ten years later, winter 1998, a twelve-year-old boy riding shotgun on a tractor died from head injuries after falling off. Ditto for December, 1999. And finally, in April, 2001, when I was celebrating my thirty-seventh birthday, an eleven-year-old boy, helping out in the fields, fell off a tractor and got run over by the massive rear wheel.

The good news is it’s been much quieter since the early 2000s. This according to Dr. Bob Aherin, program director at the UI Agricultural Safety Department, who reported by email that we’re witnessing a “significant downturn” in farm fatalities, here in Illinois at least. Perhaps parents and grandparents are heeding the advice offered in Dr. Aherin et al’s “Developmental Stages of Children and Accident Risk Potential,” which I found posted on the UI Extension website. The authors caution, among other things, that ten- to fifteen-year-olds have a hard time processing information fast enough to avoid danger. Teens also demonstrate a weak perception of mortality and a pronounced need for experimentation. Combine that with a strong tendency to show off, and there you have it: a recipe for heavy equipment disaster, the farm kid equivalent of boarding the gateway drug train.

My own accident, in fact, was no accident at all but a reckless experiment in backyard tomfoolery. To this day my brother wants to blame himself, despite my attempts over the years to convince him otherwise. Truth is, he was the only one to exhibit any info-processing alacrity when, after I’d already mounted the moving tractor, I decided to leap off (with hardly a wink at the potential danger, let alone any tangible fear of my own “mortality”) before he had powered it down. If you ever get a chance to operate a 1958 Ford 871 Select-O-Speed, you’ll find three foot pedals, two on the right (controlling front and rear brakes) and one on the left (clutch). When I jumped off, my right foot caught the clutch pedal, which sent me tumbling head first into the path of the left-rear tire. The next thing I remember is the mower’s steel hull digging into the flesh of my right thigh as the tractor slowed to a full stop.

We’ve been over it a dozen times, my brother and I, but he refuses to budge. As the driver, he was responsible. But for what, I always ask, my egregious lapse in judgment? His failure to dissuade me from climbing on in the first place? As if he, the younger sibling, had any say in the matter? Because here’s the plain truth, brother mine: Not only is it not your fault, but your timing, intentional or not, may have saved my life. If you hadn’t hit the brakes when you did, I would have been pinned under that big fat tire—either that or yanked back into the mower’s gaping maw. Bottom line, you handled the crisis just fine, whereas I simply fucked up, my middling teen brain pretty good at gauging lift and loft but lousy at calculating potential risk. I got away with a crushed muscle, a dented ego. As the numbers show, other kids haven’t fared so well.

*

No Hard Feelings

My parents were out of town when it happened, which means by the time they arrived at the hospital they’d already crafted their lead question. I’ll never forget my mother standing there, white knuckles kneading the bedrail, the look on her face a compelling blend of maternal worry and perturbed dismay when she asked, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Not much, according to the brain scientists. At the time I had a notion, a rough vision of future success, a daredevil’s roadmap printed on the warm summer breeze. And then I went for it. The whole experience—my decision to jump, the actual leap from the tractor, an odd moment of ‘near-death’ tranquility down on the ground (more on this later)—lasted maybe three seconds, the bulk of which transpired in a brain still learning how to exercise some cognitive control in the face of tantalizing impulses and potential rewards. I remember lying there speechless and ashamed before my mother’s pointed question, but now I have an answer: I wasn’t thinking at all, I was seeking new experience, and to a healthy ten-year-old there’s a world of difference between the two.

As any parent can tell you, the teen brain is very much in flux, a work in progress during those early double-digit years. While the limbic system (controlling mood, instinct, basic emotions, drives) tends to peak at puberty, the prefrontal cortex (controlling impulses) isn’t fully developed until the early twenties. What we get growing up, then, is a long stretch of mismatched cerebral development, a brain working hard to fine-tune its own synaptic timing, preferably before a moment of rotten timing messes it up for good. As Jay N. Giedd writes in the “The Amazing Teen Brain,” one salient feature of the prefrontal cortex is the ability to create “hypothetical what-ifs” as a guide to future outcomes. At twenty and older we start to run better “simulations” before committing to potentially dangerous situations. As adults we look before we leap. Ten-year-olds just leap.

It’s the boys, too, who take the biggest risks, which may help explain the gender disparity in my sad fatality survey above. One study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence concluded that males ages ten to twenty-five exhibit higher levels of “sensation-seeking” and lower levels of “impulse control” than females in the same age group. Thus, a “window of vulnerability” opens up in most boys (and some girls) and doesn’t close until the winds of limbic change stop blowing. All of this jibes with my own experience. By age twelve I was siphoning Jim Beam from my father’s liquor cabinet, kept a secret reserve of warm Stroh’s hidden under my bed. I not only smoked the occasional cigarette but, for some reason, curated a large ‘cigarette collection’ stashed away in my bedroom closet. My friends (mostly guys) and I played a fun little game we called Cracker Jack: see how long you can hold a lit firecracker between thumb and forefinger before the damn thing blows up. Tame stuff, by some standards, but you get the point. Impulse control? No way. I’ll take my sensation straight, thank you.

*

Going Under

The first poem I ever wrote captured its subject matter in a one-word title: “Death.” My guess is a lot of first poems explore the same theme, second only to young love, perhaps, or sports or puppies. For me it was a perfectly fitting debut. After all, I was a tractor accident survivor, and having just celebrated my eleventh birthday, I figured it was time to get serious and start recording my thoughts on the human condition.

I’ve never told anyone what I saw that day, sprawled out on the rain-soaked earth, the weight of the big world bearing down on me. To be honest there isn’t much to report. I remember the typical time-standing-still part, the third of those three seconds dragging on forever. More than anything I remember submitting my body to the will of the Goodyear. The amazing ten-year-old brain may be lax when it comes to risk assessment, but as soon as my big toe caught the clutch pedal, I knew I’d made a grave mistake. I assumed the 871’s indifferent mauling would be quick if not entirely painless. I understood the end was near, and with that understanding came complete surrender, a breathless moment of pure capitulation. Giving in and letting go. And not a lick of pain (that would come later, with the icepack). The image stored in my adult brain is of the big tire’s languid rotation, those black rubber treads ribbing out against an enormous blue sky. The first thing I recovered, in the moments just after, was my voice: “I can move my legs,” I cried up to my brother, as if, having failed to pre-assess the danger, the least I could do was get clear on the damage.

I held on to that poem until my early twenties, at which point I euthanized the poor thing with the help of a nearby dumpster, along with all my other crappy juvenilia. I couldn’t stand the stuff anymore, couldn’t stomach my kid brain’s reckless, and ultimately trite and pointless, literary experiments. What a relief, finally, to be rid of it. Besides, with all those hypothetical what-ifs up ahead, it was time to put my what-the-heck days behind me.

I felt pretty lucky, too, to be hanging out on the lip of that dumpster, so utterly embarrassed by what I had just dumped in but perfectly aware of what it meant to be there, on the edge of it all, dumping. I was alive—and suddenly gifted with a new perception, some grownup retrospection. Nor was it a rash decision, that twenty-something exercise in scriptural purging. I knew the risks, I recognized the potential danger. I had run my simulations. This was a very different kind of letting go, in other words, and as we adults know, such moments of cognitive control can be quite satisfying. Within limits, of course.