A friend who recently had hip replacement surgery was walking by my house. She stopped to catch up, socially distanced over the barberry bushes. I asked if I could see her scar. She said sure, pulled up her shorts leg, and there it was, actually much finer and smaller than I thought it would be.
Scars have always fascinated me. Accidental tattoos, a memento of an accident, or a surgery, a bite, a vaccination. They are excellent conversation starters, or enders. Because they are associated with pain, the circumstances of their creation are often vivid, despite years and distance, and telling the accompanying story gives a sense of mastery over time.
I often look at a v-shaped scar on the base of my right thumb. I received it from Nurse Hollis when I was twelve years old. I’d broken two bones in that hand – a boxer’s fracture – when I’d punched a metal locker.
It was the end of sixth grade. 1977. My teacher, Ms. Salome, had refused to let me take part in an after-school party because I’d not finished my homework. This was a tipping point of sorts. I was filled with rage for various reasons, and this pushed me over the edge. I slammed my fist into the locker, and the metacarpals leading to my pinky and ring fingers snapped. Only two weeks before, my older brother had broken his own hand in the exact same way, except he’d struck a friend’s skull.
Word to the wise: If you’re going to slam your fist into something, try and connect with the knuckles of your index and middle fingers. They’re supported by a chunk of bone in the hand, and less likely to break. This was one takeaway of the summer of my broken bones.
A couple of weeks later, with an elbow cast on my right arm and hand, I competed for the physical-fitness skill award on a Boy Scout campout in the Tennessee mountains. After jumping as far as I could, I landed on my left arm, snapping both the radius and ulna bones in my wrist. They came very close to breaking the skin, but thankfully did not. I am sure my fellow scouts are still talking about it to this day. It was not unlike a horror movie, complete with screaming and vomiting.
The scoutmaster drove me the seven or so hours back to Atlanta with my arm in a splint, ice melting into my lap from an ice pack that did little to numb the pain. To date, that was probably the most painful seven hours of my life, although pain is hard to recall, to express in words. The only way to remember it is to feel the same pain again and say, “Oh yeah, that.” Or maybe that’s just me, and it’s not a good thing.
At Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, they looked at my obviously broken left arm and right forearm already in a cast, which of course was littered with signatures and goofy doodles. They were confused.
Somebody said the words, “accident prone,” and they nodded, and finally gave me drugs. I slept ‘til the next morning when Dr. Allgood – who’d just set my hand a couple of weeks before – wheeled me into the operating theater, put me under, and straightened my crooked wrist. I awoke with warm plaster encasing my entire left arm, and the bearish, smiling orthopedic surgeon telling me to keep the cast dry, to not go swimming.
A few weeks later, it was time to saw off the plaster cast on my right forearm. My hand had healed well and quickly. My grandmother took me to the appointment. Dr. Allgood was there, and he ribbed me about both my appendages being out of commission. He let Nurse Hollis do most of the work. She cut through my cast with a circular saw, then, with gleaming metal scissors that loom large in my memory, she sliced through the funkified gauze that had swaddled my right forearm and hand for six weeks. I remember her chatting away, birdlike. I was thinking: she’s going to cut me.
As if reading my mind, my grandmother said, “Be careful you don’t cut him.”
Nurse Hollis said, “Oh I’ve never cut–” and sliced into my thumb quite deep. Deep red blood gushed. It hurt.
Of course she was mortified and almost wept. I wanted to cry but held it together. Dr. Allgood scowled, but did not lose his composure. I thought my grandmother was going to strike Nurse Hollis, but she was mindful of propriety, and did not. There was some quick discussion as to whether I needed some stitches – it was that deep – but it was decided they would tape me up and get me the hell out of there.
So they did. Despite the pain, and the shock, I was overall very relieved to have one of my arms out of plaster, my dominant hand free at last and ready to begin learning to play bass, and to explore the bodies of the permissive girls who were my companions, and equally curious.
For decades after, an angry red welt was the memento not only of that day, but also of that season, which thankfully would have much sweetness to it. The mark has faded, but I know it will never disappear. Perhaps my memories of that time will fade, too, but judging by what wells up in me when I look at the v-shaped scar, I doubt it.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.