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Another Steeltown Story: The Emergency Room

7 Sep

My first visit to the hospital emergency room took place when I was in the second grade. At the time I had a very young and very nervous first-year teacher, Miss Dole. And a few weeks into the new school year I was to add to her anxiety. Not being particularly precocious, I was easily influenced when someone suggested we play “slot machine”, using the nickels intended for the purchase of chocolate milk. I was suppose to put several nickels in my mouth, then someone would pull my arm down, I would roll my eyes, and spit out the nickels— Jackpot!

As I said I was not particularly advanced, so after putting the first nickel in my mouth, I immediately swallowed it. I decided that I should probably tell Miss Dole. Knowing how jumpy she was, I spoke in a very quiet voice. I had to repeat myself several times. When she finally comprehended what I was saying, she screamed, grabbed me, and carried me from one end of the hallway to the other several times. Her worse nightmare had come true. No one seemed to know what to do. The school nurse suggested that I eat a piece of Wonder Bread®. I was in no discomfort only curious about what was to happen next. Eventually they called an ambulance and I rode to the emergency room along accompanied by the truant officer. The driver was very nice and let me turn on the siren and flashing lights. At the hospital they said the nickel was lodged (probably in Wonder Bread®) , but didn’t constitute any danger, so after receiving a massive dose of radiation from a fluoroscope, I was whisked back to school.
Curious why I wasn’t very hungry and why I glowed in the dark when I got home, my mother asked me what happened in school. I thought she was going to faint when I told her an ambulance took me to the hospital and I had a note from the school nurse I’d forgotten to give her. Despite my hope for instant celebrity, an ingested nickel turned out to be small potatoes in our family. When that show-off Norman was in the second grade, he managed to swallow a bullet.
My second visit was a few years later. My dad was very frugal and believed that nails should be recycled. So I would pull old nails out of boards and then flatten them to be used again. On this occasion I had a large nail, in the workbench vise that I intended to straighten. I hit the nail with my hammer and a piece of it struck me right in the middle of the throat. Again I felt no pain, but blood was gushing out, as if I had severed my jugular. My mother almost fainted when she saw me, but we slapped a handkerchief over the wound and rush to the emergency room. They x-rayed me and called my pediatrician. Dr. Berman was a large, affable, cigar-chomping doctor from the old school. He breezed into the emergency room, scanned the x-ray and casually asked, “Who shot you Terry?”, as if that were not surprising. On the x-ray, the nail piece resembled a tiny bullet. He probed for it for a while and then decided it was harmless where it was. He explained about shrapnel and just left it there. To this day whenever I go through metal detectors, I worry the nail will set them off.

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The Blue Blanket of Embarrassment: Another Steeltown Story

21 Jan


The start of a new school year always reminds me of my older brother, Norman. He was one of those larger than life characters, who thought ordinary rules didn’t apply to him. Norman would invariably show up the first day of school not wearing a belt and his shirttail hanging out. Mr. Dant, the principal, would lurk by the front entrance just to throw Norman out, like the first baseball of the season.
Once Norman was kicked out of a physical education class because he was wearing purple gym shorts. School rules clearly stated that gym suits must conform to the school colors of green and white. No other colors were allowed. Outraged, that night Norman acquired a pair of green shorts and a white T-shirt. Never one to leave well enough alone, he painted large white polka dots on the green shorts and large green polka dots on the white T-shirt. He thought that technically he had won, but they threw him out of class anyway, citing the school rule about not creating a nuisance — that was one charge Norman could never beat. Norman and Mr. Dant locked horns for Norman’s entire four years of high school. I am not sure which one was happier at graduation.
My own educational career in Steeltown had an equally unpropitious beginning. Although I couldn’t stay within the lines very well, I enjoyed coloring the heavily line pictures of pumpkins and corn. I especially like the playground, even though they had reduced the monkey bars to half size, after a first grader fell and suffered a compound fracture of the arm. The playground had a large wet low area that would freeze over and kids could slide on it. Also everyone took pleasure in using the long cement banisters on both sides of the front steps as sliding boards.
Mrs. Cook was a kind kindergarten teacher and my fellow classmates, while not friendly, where at least not as unpleasant as my older brother. As the Christmas holidays approached, sliding on the playground mini-pond was excellent and some of my classmates even started talking to me. They seemed excited about Christmas and talk quickly turned to putting on a Christmas program — a nativity scene perhaps? I was told by some of the popular kids that I could even be a wise man.
Of course, I would need a costume — something like a bathrobe or maybe a blanket. I could pull it over my head and use it as a burnoose. I immediately told my mother about it and insisted that I get a blanket and some cord to wrap around my head. I was taking no chances in impressing my new buddies. Plans for the program were discussed every day and eventually a date was set for the big program– just a few days before Christmas break. On the appointed day I arrived at school with my cardboard box in hand, containing my blue blanket, some gold cord, and a small package wrapped in gold colored paper. As I put my stuff in the cloakroom I thought it was curious that no one else seemed to have brought anything — how could the show go on like this? In class Mrs. Cook asked me in front of the other children why I had brought a cardboard box to school. I said for the Christmas program of course. She asked ominously, “What program?” It was then I smelled a rat. Before I could say anything one of my new buddies said, “Look!! Terry brought a blanket to school. What you gonna do? Sleep in the cloakroom? This set off a flurry of laughter with a dozen kindergartners repeating, “Yeah, what you gonna do? Sleep in the cloakroom?”
I was mortified and not for the last time in Steeltown schools, I wished I was dead. The only redeeming aspect of this disaster was the fact that I had not actually worn the blanket to class, as I had originally planned.
Denying the obvious truth, I would still like to think it was not a total setup. Maybe it was just kid talk that got out of hand. Had I not want to be part of that crowd so bad, I might’ve be more curious why the teacher wasn’t involved in planning the program.
For the rest of the year I had to endure constant comments about sleeping in the cloakroom. Kindergarten was pretty much ruined for me and only the blessing of summer vacation gave any relief. Over the summer I almost managed to repress the whole sordid affair. I would not have been so carefree that summer, had I known that that I would have to face the meanest first grade teacher at Steeltown Elementary in a few months.
From the start first grade was nearly unbearable. My new teacher, the infamous Miss Cobb, obviously could not stand me or my extremely sloppy penmanship. She seemed to take it as some sort of personal insult. “What did you write this with? A dirty fingernail?” She would say. “This isn’t writing, this looks like chicken scratching.” I started missing the teasing about the cloak room.
In those primitive times, self-esteem hadn’t been invented yet, so no attention was paid to children’s pathetic little feelings. And with no rules about taking universal precautions, Miss Cobb was known to jerk intransigent pupils around her classroom by hooking her finger in their mouths and pulling on their cheeks like they were carp.
Towards the end of first grade I got in big trouble for accidentally smearing some grape jelly in a school library book. For a week I was subjected to a daily public castigation for my sloppiness, much to the amusement of my disloyal classmates. I thought the whole ugly incident had finally ended, when I gave a book report a few weeks later. I had read a picture book about a girl named Janet who lived on a farm. After relating the simple story and surviving a few tricky questions from Miss Cobb, the other pupils where then allowed ask questions and make comments. Much everyone’s delight, Charles, my so-called best friend, shouted out, “How much jelly did you feed her, Terry? Even then, I didn’t think I could take ten more years of this.

Steeltown Stories Chapter One: An Occasional Feature

4 Nov

Steeltown

Chapter One

Steeltown

          In the 1950’s Steeltown was both a wonderful and terrible place  to grow up. It simultaneously nurtured and toughened you, but  if you didn’t escape quick enough, it killed your soul.  

          The town was built on land reclaimed from the Mississippi River. Unlike the surrounding rich topsoil, Steeltown was built upon  cinders and broken bits of amber and green glass, like the kind  that comes from  shattered bottles of beer and Seven Up.  One day when I was about five years old, I  fell  climbing over the fence and a jagged piece of green glass lacerated  my hand. The purple scar at the base of my thumb is still visible. More than half century later I can remember the sting of  the   green disinfect the doctor used to scrub the wound before putting in a few stitches. When I fell, I noticed, for the first time, that the ground was made up of a  black grit, peppered with particles of  broken glass. It was on this foundation that  Steeltown was built. 

           Three steel mills, two foundries, and a railroad car factory surrounded the little town in its heyday.  With foreign  competition,  only a single steel mill survived into the twenty-first century.  The town was  part of the great rustbelt of the Midwest and even that last mill was eventually bought by a Japanese company.   The younger employees had to learn to operate the   automated systems,  while the older workers were reduced to hanging around the VFW Hall, nursing  beers and wondering just what the hell was the point of World War II anyway.

            The town was often covered by  a cloud of  hydrogen sulfide gas and we  took     pride in living in surviving such a toxic place, where just inhaling the air was the equivalent of  smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.  Of course that didn’t stop most residents from adding a pack or two of our own.  Emphysema was just another gritty testament of our ability to adapt. The pollution itself was tangible reassurance to our depression era parents that the mill was still running and that there was work to be had.   

          My own father was an electrician at the same steel mill for over 44 years. Keeping the cyclopean overhead cranes running, unexpectedly turned out to be his  life’s work. As a boy  he  tended  his  brutal  stepfather’s  still and before he started work at the steel mill,  he had a job dumping  waste from a chocolate factory into the Mississippi River.

          A lot of things in Steeltown seemed unexpected. The people were mixture of descendents of eastern European immigrants,  Appalachian migrants,  and African Americans from the deep south,  all heading to Chicago or Detroit.  No one seemed to have planned on actually going  to Steeltown. They just ended up there on their way to somewhere else.  

          It was all so long ago now, that months past without any thoughts of Steeltown,  but deep down,  when I feel  cinders in my hands or  smell something acrid in the air,  I know with confidence that  these were the experiences that  shaped  my thinking.