Saturday, July 27, 2013

Danger Tools

While wrapping up a rewarding ten day mission trip to Guatemala with The Village Chapel where we did much physical labor alongside our Bethel Church brethren, I'm reminded of a blog I wrote seven years ago...

Every now and then I’ll look at my body and quote that wonderful line from Indiana Jones: “It’s not the years…it’s the mileage.”  There are untold scars, pock marks, discolorations, and blotches that are badges of sorts; some from adventures gone awry, others from labor that went kablooey; and some that I’ll be durned if I can recall where they came from.

But in many cases, these were self-inflicted from momentary lapses of reason in relation to tools of one sort or another.

While installing a four hundred pound, twenty foot wide electric sign at Dog Ear Records in Libertyville, Illinois, me and a coworker utilized a series of ropes, pulleys, and two twelve foot step ladders to lift and set the behemoth moniker. Several hours of strain were rewarded with a job well done just as some rain clouds were gathering.  As we collected all of the tools I asked my buddy where the heavy-duty ratchet-wrench was. I had just begun glancing upward as I finished my sentence, and saw the device plummeting directly for my skull. It was literally about six inches from impact with my brow.  It had fallen about seven feet from the top of the ladder which we were beginning to fold, and met the bridge of my nose with extreme malice. Knocking me for a loop, I staggered for a moment; off the sidewalk and nearly into traffic.  If my friend hadn’t seized me, I probably would’ve been pancaked by a heavy-laden beer truck.

Even though my nose was broken, it didn’t bleed much.  But for the next week I had blinding headaches, and two fearsome black eyes from the concussion.

My Uncle Earl loved to take us kids fishing whenever we would visit Buttermilk Hill  outside of Oil City, PA.  One morning, while he was teaching my brother how to cast, he told me to go about ten feet behind to dig up some worms along the soft soiled shoreline. As I was sifting through the dirt, I felt a stinging in my shoulder, and subsequent tugging.  My brother had errantly back-cast and caught the hook in my tender flesh…and thinking he had snagged a bush, he kept yanking on the rod trying to propel the line out into the water.  When Jim and my uncle realized my utterances were not joyous exclamations of thick night crawlers I had discovered, but were instead anguished wails over being plucked and teathered, the fishing lesson came to a quick close.

I had a lawn-cutting service that my best bud, Duke, and I started while in high school (“Du-Mar will Do More for your lawn” was out motto…ahhh,my marketing wizardry was blossoming even then).  Among the couple dozen yards we regularly mowed was a large mansion and accompanying grounds along Lake Decatur.  The owner would let us use his self-propelled monstrosity for the largest sections. Neither of us really liked the machine…but it was so much more efficient than our puny little Lawnboys. On top of that, the back yard was on a twenty-five degree slope headed down to the shoreline, and featured many exposed, bony roots from the massive oaks that filled his property, so, despite the cumbersome hassles, the gas-guzzling lummox was preferred for that steep grade.   

One steamy July afternoon as I was circling up and around a huge trunk, the drive shaft for the propulsion portion of the several hundred pound device failed, but the blades were still fully engaged.  As the weight suddenly shifted from lack of momentum, I found myself being pushed backwards down the slope towards the rocky shoreline.  I probably should’ve just let the slicing abomination roll into the lake…but it was either valor or stupidity that took over in that split second. I kept trying to brace myself against the onslaught by wedging my heels into some of the ruts until I could finally gain enough traction to straighten the beast and turn it off.  But several grunting attempts kept pushing me back further until I summoned all my strength and braced my right leg firmly into another trunk. In so doing, I felt something snap under the skin in mycalf.  But as the adrenaline rush passed and I was able to corral the wayward bladerunner, I was simply glad the ordeal was over.  After catching my breath, I restarted the mutant mulcher and finished the job.

Later that night, I felt some pain in my lower right leg and noticed some veins were larger than normal. Over the next several weeks this continued, and eventually I was diagnosed with varicose veins—a rather odd malady for a sixteen-year-old.  They have progressed further down that leg over the years, and are none too pretty to look at.  But the surgeries that would be necessary to “remedy” the situation would be costly as well as leaving nearly as many unsightly scars…so I’ve learned to live with ‘em.

Once, when helping clear brush near the back of our lot in central Illinois, I decided there were some limbs hanging over our new garden that were impeding sunlight.  As any good lumberjack will tell you, pants, long sleeves, and a manly pair of gloves are minimal when trying to subdue forestry. Being in a hurry, I deemed that my gym shorts, ragged t-shirt, and manly bare hands were sufficient.  This was a tall elm, and I fetched an eight foot step ladder that would help me reach that limb jutting out at around the twelve foot height.

As I struggled with getting proper torque on the saw blade, I decided to climb all the way to the apex of the ladder.  But the wobbling that ensued only caused the legs to dig deeper into the uneven soil, and one of them poked through a mole tunnel.  Suddenly, my support system swayed wildly, and as it began to totter, I had some quick choices to make:  First off, what to do with the razor sharp three foot saw blade in my hand? I tossed it aside to my right (good choice).  Secondly, what to do with my left hand, which had been steadying the limb that was to be amputated from the tree?  Well, since it was nearly sawed-through at that point, I decided grabbing it would not be wise—seeing that it would most likely snap and hurdle me harshly into the tree trunk before I would tumble. So, I let go with my left. Probably not a bad decision.

However, now I was about to have no support under my feet and both hands free.  This is where instinct kicks in, but is not always sound. I leaned into the tree, wrapping my arms as best I could around the five foot circumference.  Had I been wearing the proper aforementioned forestry attire, this might’ve made some sense as I would try to hug my way down the tree.

But bare and sweaty fingers, arms and legs were no match for gravity.  And my supple skin was certainly not up for an abrasive confrontation with the course, jagged bark of this aging elm.  So, with Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery clearly working in opposition to my will, I slid like a tall, white, furless, humanus erectus version of Wiley Coyote down said tree in about three seconds time, leaving a fair portion of the skin from my appendages and chest embedded in it’s craggy surface.

Before the searing pain could even register, I did what any embattled artisan does with his failed tool…I kicked the fallen ladder, then picked it up and heaved it as far as I could, and cursed like Richard Pryor must’ve when he caught on fire.  Then I looked at my raw skin, watching the blood beginning to flow freely, and winced as the raw wounds mixed with salty sweat and wood chips. 

I have tried to exercise much more caution and don preventive attire when doing tree surgery from that day onward.

Another device that has caused some woe for me is the bicycle. The most memorable was when I had a pre-dawn newspaper route in my teens.  It was my first morning, and near the end of the route, there was a particularly long, steep hill on Waterview Drive to descend before delivering the last few papers.  It was a moonless night, and being a residential neighborhood, there were no lamp posts.  As I gained speed heading down the three hundred yard grade, I looked to my left to see Lake Decatur looking so serene, reflecting the lights from Lakeshore Drive on the other side two miles away in a perfect mirror.  In the midst of admiring this placid beauty I was suddenly jolted and simultaneously jettisoned over the handlebars of my ten speed Schwinn, and then slid on my chest and chin for six feet.  Fortunately, it was late fall, so I had a jacket and gloves on, so my epidermis was not flayed as it was in the tree hugging incident.

Nonetheless, I was stunned, and more than a bit agitated as to what on earth had just happened.  Had I hit a mutant possum? Had some punk kid set up trip wires at the base of the hill? Had my paper bag gotten caught in the spokes? I looked back at my bike, and the front rim was severely dented, the tire was flat.  I then stumbled as I stepped into my culprit: an eight inch deep and two foot wide pothole right at the base of the hill. Since it was so dark and there was no help from any municipal lighting, it was completely undetectable.  Other than a sore jaw, and some bruises that lasted a few weeks, I was unhurt as I walked my broken machine the final mile home.  When I look at many comrades who have broken teeth, jaws, collarbones, ribs, wrists, arms, hips, and legs from similar biking mishaps…I truly count myself blessed that my flip only wounded my skin and pride.

There have been other ordeals involving stoves, knives, tar dispensers, hammers, weed-wackers, and super-heated copper kettles.  Then there’s water-on-the-knee from hyper-extending that joint in football; a sprained ankle from dancing; another sliced chin from a wayward stick in floor hockey; a twenty-seven year softball welt on right shin; a chipped bone in my left elbow from glancing blow off a desk; a torn rotator cuff from lifting a road case and then throwing a baseball too much and too hard; a hernia from awkwardly hoisting too many twenty poundbuckets of sand at a construction site in Guatemala; compressed discs in my upper and lower back--probably from lifting in various roadie duties with rock shows over the years; and a cut on my forehead from falling down five steps onto the edge of a Tonka Toy dump truck when I was three. 

Perhaps I’ll get to those some other time. For now, I’m sore just recalling these incidents. Yep, it’s the miles, not the duration…although my creaking body seems to argue otherwise at this point.

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