[1972 - Burlington, North Carolina]
It’s an early morning in June and the sun is already shining, so the great outdoors beckons to my eight-year-old brother Greg and me with an array of options. We are living in my Grandmama’s tiny two bedrooms—one bath house located on a busy road and surrounded by a junkyard, a creek and an alcoholic neighbor with a working beat down wife and three children...again. Every so often, when the stress of simultaneously gambling in the stock market; trading in the riskier options, while raising a family of four with a fairly uninvolved wife gets to be too stressful for my dad, we pack up our paltry belongings and move in with my dad’s widowed mother, our Grandmama.
This particular weekend morning, like many, my brother and I are bored and too crowded in the tiny house. We pass through the heavily furnished living area where Grandmama, always with a pinch of Tube Rose Snuff tucked under her bottom lip, is sitting on a plush floral sofa that doubles as her bed every night, having given up both bedrooms to the six of us when we invaded her household. She is spitting brown snuff into a label-less can while watching Mannix on her tiny rabbit-ear-antenna TV. We inform her of our destination as in an attempt to be quiet, we creep by; but then blow it by letting the screen door slam behind us.
We decide to go see what the twelve-year-old neighboring twins, about a year older than I am, are up to and then will likely go down to play at the creek. This Burlington, North Carolina creek is mostly avoided by supervised children, since there is a manufacturing plant of some type located on its banks with a drainpipe routed from a windowless building, straight down to the water. The factory doesn’t even attempt to hide the fact that there is a steady stream of sludge trickling constantly into the shallow water. We think it is cool though because the minnows and turtles look weird; the sighting of a two-headed turtle part of local legend, and all of the rocks located around the brackish sludge-water have changed from their natural whites, browns, tans and grays to fluorescent turquoises, greens and pinks and have a smooth texture reminiscent of centuries-old river rocks. We collect them and swim with them, completely unaware of the danger of the chemicals in this creek. Still, they are very shiny and radiant, and I am quite sure some of them emit an eerie greenish glow at night.
We knock on the neighbors’ door for a while and getting no response, move on. Since it appears to be just the two of us this morning, we choose to lob the smooth and colorful rocks, gathered from the shallow creek bed, at each other. We have grown weary of lighting fires in puddles of gasoline, taking turns pretending to drive a rusty car housing a nest full of bumblebees, and climbing trees to precarious heights in the poison ivy laden woods behind the twin's house.
All of our activities seem to be dangerous. The type that only completely unsupervised kids participate in, which mainly includes my three younger siblings, me, and the alcoholic neighbor’s three kids, the oldest daughter not giving us the time of day, while the twin boys engage us in death-defying activities on a daily basis.
A rock fight is the obvious and least dangerous choice for us today. We had already been disciplined the previous day for spitting down on our six-year-old sister Julie, because she couldn’t climb the tree we were perched in. The two of us confer; and the verdict is unanimous. Rock fight it is!
We continue our trek through woods, avoiding poison ivy, oak and sumac. I had just gotten over a scathing case of poison ivy on my legs and didn’t really want a repeat of the double-takes I received from strangers as I walked by with oozy scabs slathered in pink Calamine lotion. I felt like a walking plague, folks scattering in my wake. They didn’t want my legs brushing up against them and I didn’t blame them.
We finally reach the creek and I wade across to the far side, my usual battle spot, and scramble up the bank. I turn and look downhill at Greg far below on the opposite side, looking like a duck. A sitting duck. I snicker and start building an arsenal of artillery consisting of smallish rocks with just one large no-holds-barred-last-ditch-effort boulder. I probably won’t use it, I think, but still place it to the side of the neat pyramid of glowing-rock-ammo I have constructed. As a courtesy, I call across the creek to my brother. “Are you ready?” I don’t want to start throwing radioactive rocks at him until he knows they are coming.
“Almost,” he yells back as a rock whistles by, awfully close to my ear. That dirty rat, I think and picking up a smaller rock from the top of the pile, I launch it downward, aiming for his arm, now raised holding a second missile. He releases it just seconds before my tiny rock finds purchase on his wrist. “Didn’t even hurt,” he smirks.
I grab a fistful of pea-gravel-filled dirt and toss it high in the air. It rains down on him like a dusty meteorite shower and he does a little chicken dance trying to dodge the bigger pebbles. We are both laughing, and he tries launching his own handful of gravel at me, but it doesn’t have the same effect traveling uphill. I watch as a hailstorm of rocks rain down just shy of my higher launch-pad area.
“Missed me,” I tease, and this sets off a fury in Greg as he begins to lob a non-stop chain of pebbles at me. One after the other, rocks are whipping around, some hitting me but most flying harmlessly by. That kid has been stockpiling rocks for weeks, I think because they just keep coming. No end in sight. I am ducking and dancing around getting my share of throws in as my brother’s barrage begins to slow down and then stops. I stand in a low crouch, peeking over weeds to see him bent over maniacally scooping rocks out of the water to quickly form a new ammo pile.
He ran out of rocks. This is my big opportunity. My one chance to launch my big no-holds-barred-last-ditch-effort boulder. He is still low to the ground as I bend down grasping, rising then releasing in one fluid motion. To my horror, Greg begins to straighten up just as my hand opens and the rock is propelled in his direction...too late to take it back. Time seems to slow down, and events unfold in slow motion as he is slowly turning his face upward to watch the pending doom and I am mouthing the warning words, “Waaatch oouuut fooorrrr theeee roooock…” Too late. I hear a thud and the force of the blow sends him reeling backward. His hand instantly flies up to his forehead.
I am running and sliding down the bank and leap up and over the creek before his body fully hits the ground. I plow through a clump of weeds and emerge wearing a sticky pile of beggars’ lice from the waist down. I finally reach the scene of the crime just as my brother is carefully sitting up, his palm still clamped against his forehead.
“Let me see. Let me see,” I anxiously plead. I notice a little trickle of blood already beginning to seep out from under his clenched hand and cautiously peel it back to reveal an open gaping wound on the right side of his forehead, extending up well past his hairline and disappearing somewhere in his thick brown hair. I feel woozy at the sight of the bright red blood beginning to stream down the right side of his face.
Panic sets in as I think about the kind of trouble I will be in for inflicting this horrific injury on my little brother. We have been told time and time again about the dangers of “putting an eye out" while launching various missiles at each other, but as usual, we never listen, and the punishments are often harsh.
I help my brother stand up and he seems a little wobbly but remains upright. I take that as a good sign and begin to formulate a plan. We can’t tell our parents that we were having a rock fight again after being warned against this multiple times; especially, since they were at the end of their rope after yesterday's “spitting” episode. I am being selfish now. We won’t make the trek back to Grandmama’s house until we rehearse the scenario over and over getting it right. There can’t be loopholes in our story and most importantly, we can NEVER tell anyone else what really happened. No one can know it was a rock fight causing this massive destruction to my brother’s forehead; otherwise, I can’t even begin to fathom the punishment awaiting me if the truth were to get out.
It was just an accident but, in my mind, my parents will see it as a direct challenge to their authority not to mention a huge medical expense will be incurred. In my eleven-year-old rationale, I think it must cost millions of dollars to go to the hospital, money we don’t have. My dad, a confirmed cheapskate, and a gambler, is never a fan of spending money at all unless it is on some random money-making scheme and he will not want to waste money on a medical bill that could have been avoided if I had only “listened" and obeyed his instructions.
I am looking around at our surroundings while my mind works overtime trying to visualize a plausible scenario. My brother, always a trooper, is even throwing out a few suggestions. His hand is still clamped over the right half of his face and he looks up at me through bloodied fingers. “We can say I fell out of a tree,” he offers up as a suggestion. I picture a tree and the height necessary to cause a wound of this magnitude. It is more likely that broken arms and legs would be the result of such a fall; plus, just yesterday, we were banned for life from climbing trees. That would be even worse than “the truth" at this point so I vote “no" to that option. I am wracking my brain while pivoting slowly. I spy the rusted-out junk car a few feet away. Nope. We aren’t allowed to play in that. The danger of tetanus is a concern as well as being swarmed and stung by the bumblebees that have made this hunk of metal their home.
Time is ticking and my brother is looking a little pale and clammy, the blood starting to coagulate on his face and hand. I am resigned to the fact that I must confess to the crime and take my punishment, so we begin the journey back to Grandmama’s. Up the creek bank and through the twins’ backyard and around the clothesline pole, I stop dead in my tracks. The clothesline pole!
A plot formulates in my mind. I run it by Greg as we continue the hike forward to my pending doom and his trip to the emergency room. There are stitches in his future, and I know he is wracked with nerves as he thinks about shots and a needle pulling a thread through this gaping wound. We practice the story on our walk and have it down pat as we reach and open the screen door.
As rehearsed, Greg works up a couple of tears and I work up a moderate level of panic. “Daddy! We were playing next door and Greg hurt his head. He is bleeding,” my voice rising in pseudo-hysteria.
Mom and Dad rush to his side and lift his hand from the wound that is covered in blood that looks crusty and dry. We spent longer than we thought to form the plan. I hear Grandmama lightly crying in the background and telling my little sister Julie, and two-year-old baby brother Jeffrey, to stand back.
“What happened?” my dad immediately questions and I make eye contact with my brother and then dive into an Oscar-worthy performance.
Wildly gesturing and pantomiming, I act out a person running into an invisible object and his head spurting blood, I begin to explain how my brother and I were playing a “gentle” and “harmless” game of tag in the neighbors’ back yard and how I was it, and chasing my brother, both of us running as fast as we could.
“I was getting close and he turned his head to look back at me. The clothesline pole was right in front of him. I yelled ‘Greg, look out for that clothesline pole!’ but he smashed into it.” I finish up and once again look my brother in the eyes to see if he is going to crack and spill the beans. He gives me a little nod then winces. His head is really throbbing now. Our parents look puzzled, my dad looking at the jagged gash high on my brother’s forehead one more time before shrugging and saying how it seems strange that a pole could create such a wound.
They grab car keys on their way through the tiny kitchen, the emergency room at a nearby hospital their destination. I whisper a tentative “I love you” to my brother as the side door makes a little click and they are gone.
Greg ended up with a dozen or more stitches and a life-long scar, more evident as he reaches middle age and his hairline begins to recede. “You got your bangs cut,” is our running joke.
While waiting for a flight to arrive at the airport, I once overheard this comment from a woman who had been at the gate waiting for her brother to deplane. He was obviously balding—his hairline well above his forehead. She gave him a hug, and lightly touching his head said, "I see you got your bangs cut." They both laughed and I smiled, realizing that I would be stealing that joke to use on Greg in the near future.
Now 53 years old, he enters the side door in the Texas home where I currently reside with my husband, daughter, and three rescue dogs. My son lives in Boston and was not able to make it home this year for our 4th of July celebration. Greg's wife and four of his five children are in tow; his oldest son left behind to deal with the many activities and commitments a new high school graduate always seems to have. As they get close, I hold the door open to allow entrance. All arms are laden with food and luggage; and I spy my brother’s scar.
True to his word, my brother never cracked even under intense questioning by the ER doctor. It just never made sense that a rounded pole could cause such a large cut and the doctor was highly suspicious of the circumstances. Our parents, even though the facts didn’t add up, let it go and only found out the true story a year later when I confessed to my dad one day after being blackmailed for a couple of months by my older cousin.
“Go get me a Coke,” my cousin would demand.
“Get your own Coke,” I would retort.
“I’m going to tay-yell,” he would threaten, always drawing out the “tell" to multiple syllables for maximum irritation.
So, I did the only logical thing. Yelled at my brother for accidentally telling our cousin the truth about the jagged forehead scar, sealing my fate as slave-for-life to this heartless prankster; and then walked to the refrigerator, just two steps away from my cousin’s seat at the kitchen table, and got him a Coke.
After a couple of months of being at my cousin’s beck and call, I told my dad the whole story when we were alone in our ancient Volkswagen Beetle, on errands. I will always remember the moment of my confession came precisely as we were driving past the giant flying Pegasus on top of the high-rise Mobil Oil building located in downtown Dallas. (We lived here temporarily—just passing through—my dad on the way to a new job with Honeywell.) He looked to his right at me fidgeting in the passenger seat when I had finished speaking, then looked back at the highway and it was silent for an eternity.
“You should have told us before now. It is unhealthy to have something like that on your conscience for a year,” and just like that, it was over. A mental “whew" and I thought about how satisfying it would be to tell my cousin to make his own damn sandwich next time he tried to blackmail me.
I look at my brother more closely. He looks tired from the five-and-a-half-hour drive, tiny bags under both eyes. He leads a busy life with five children, a full-time job, and a highly successful side business. He is an entrepreneur and I smile, as I think to myself, how that rock must've knocked some sense into his head.
The scar somehow seems more prominent on his head this year. I look him square in the eyes and deadpan, “You got your bangs cut.”
By Lisa H. Owens
Inspired by true events. (1972 in Burlington, North Carolina)