Playing With Fire

When I was eleven years old, I got burned. At the time it happened, the injuries seemed horrific, although none of the burns probably exceeded the 2nd degree and covered only a small portion of my body: face, chest, one arm and hand. The incident occurred at my cousin’s house, who lived a few blocks from my house with his maternal grandmother, divorced mother, and a younger brother. My two cousins and another younger neighborhood boy were playing early on a Saturday afternoon in my cousin’s backyard. So many adolescents are mesmerized by fire. Perhaps there is some element born and nurtured deep in our evolutionary past that drives us to create fire, master it, and even flirt with its dangers. Fire is one of the key tools that allowed our genus to survive the Stone Age and to eventually dominate all other animals. My cousins and I were certainly not thinking about paleoanthropology on that particular Saturday, even if “shadows of forgotten ancestors” were influencing our actions.

We decided that afternoon it would be great fun to build a bonfire. Keep in mind this was summer in middle Georgia, where temperatures frequently climb to and above 100 degrees F. In evolutionary terms, we were not exhibiting behavior of a species that is the fittest to survive. We began gathering into a pile an impressive collection of pine straw, leaves, and sticks from around the yard, and for good measure we even threw in a few charcoal briquettes we found in a bag in the crawl space under the house. The heap was probably between two and three feet high.  I don’t remember who had the matches nor who lit one and strategically placed it at the bottom edge of the dry fuel mound we had sculpted. I do remember all four of us standing in a circle watching with giddy anticipation as a thin cloud of blueish-gray smoke began drifting up from the pyre. And then nothing happened. At least, nothing discernible happened. The smoke became thinner until it all but disappeared. There was no cracking or popping sound, no flames dancing toward the sky. We were greatly insulted.

I recalled seeing a can of gasoline next to the lawnmower that was just barely tucked under the backside of the house at the edge of the open crawlspace. I had watched my father pour gasoline on charcoal to start fires for grilling. I was aware of its combustible qualities. We could not stand by patiently and hope that fire would grace us with its presence. We had to summon it with the magic of fossil fuel. I remember the gas can was heavy and thus probably near full. I brought it over to our faux alter, opened the top of the tubular spout, grabbed the handle and lifted the can about chest high in front of me, and then bent straight over to pour gas on the pile.

The combustion was instantaneous and violent, shooting hot flames toward my chest and face. Even a smoldering spark when paired with gasoline can at once be transformed into a raging inferno.  Perhaps the “swooshing” sound of the ignition gave my reflexes a nanosecond of time to tightly shut my eyes, but I could not escape the fumes that had already penetrated my shirt, which immediately burst into flames as a I dropped the gas can. One of the boys had enough presence of mind to grab the can and quickly move it away from the mound, which was now engulfed in flames. We had succeeded with building a fire, but at a considerable cost.  I can still remember turning to run in the opposite direction of the burning pile and hearing the characteristic sound of flames whipping up from my shirt, across the right side of my face, and over my shoulder. And, I distinctly remember hearing my own screams. Then I suddenly stopped, reached down to the bottom of my shirt, and ripped it over my head, throwing it to the ground. I had escaped the fire, but not before it had peeled the skin from my right cheek, the middle of my chest, and several patches on my right arm and hand. My eye lashes and brows and much of my hair were singed.  My right ear managed to catch much of the flame’s wrath and later that evening would swell to almost twice its normal size. I ran over to a water spigot, turned it on, and splashed water on my face, which did not have the soothing effect I had hoped for at all.  It stung like hell.

The entire mishap probably lasted ten seconds, fifteen at the most. The little neighborhood boy left immediately, no doubt horrified. My cousins and I went inside the house where their mother, upon seeing my condition, was visibly frightened and probably concerned that she had somehow failed in keeping me safe while I was visiting their house. Of course, she was not at fault. Children are curious and do dangerous things. Most survive; some sadly do not. I was lucky. My cousin’s mother quickly got on the telephone and called my father, who was at home making lunch for himself. Otherwise, he would have been outside on a Saturday and would not have received the call. My mother, sister, and grandmother were not at home at the time.

My father called our pediatrician, who met us at his office to assess the damage. He decided I could forgo the hospital, and he applied ointment and bandages and sent us home. The women of the house were back home by then, waiting with dread to see how badly scarred the accident had left the youngest child and only boy of our extended family. In fact, I still do have at least one scar from the burns, on the inside of my right arm near the armpit. I suspect the scar was the result of skin that didn’t heal smoothly because the bandage could not be secured well enough in that location. The other scars would eventually fade, although some of them on my arm and hand took years to completely disappear. Other mental scars have perhaps never gone away. I was probably too cautious with my sons out of fear that they might suffer a similar calamity, and that may have made me overprotective at times. I hope my fears didn’t inflict too much hardship on their childhood. I am thankful that my brush with fire never made me fearful of it in general.  In fact, I never stopped being drawn to its light, warmth, sounds, and magical qualities. As an adult, I have never lived in a home without a fireplace or outdoor fire pit.  I respect the potential danger of fire, but I will always like playing with it.

Raccoons Are So Cute . . . and Deadly

What could be more adorable among wild animals than a raccoon?  With that signature black mask that looks like a small child dressed for Halloween and that distinctive striped, bushy tail, these waddling mammals are quite often photographed and recorded on video as they make their way through suburban neighborhoods, and even large cities, looking for an easy meal. Considering how adaptive they have become to residential areas and how broad their diet is, most meals are probably fairly easy indeed.  They are mostly nocturnal, spending the hours after dusk raiding trash cans or prowling around for frogs and crustaceans.  Watching them rub their faces or stand on their hinds legs with their front paws extended forward, observers are lured into thinking that raccoons are practically tame and even friendly.  Plenty of people have made pets of young raccoons, and as long as their diet and other environmental conditions are strictly controlled, they are probably harmless for the most part.  Nevertheless, the raccoon is not a domesticated species — it is wild.  Here lies the problem.

Raccoon at pond
Raccoon at pond

In captivity, raccoons can live up to 20 years; however, in the wild they rarely live more than 3-4 years.  That’s quite a significant spread.  They have very few natural predators, and humans are not as nearly interested in their pelts as was the case several generations ago (alas, Daniel Boone and Fess Parker have been dead for a while).  They are hunted for sport, but not widely.  What accounts for the difference?  Disease and infection are the greatest threat to longevity for raccoons, and because they share environments with humans, they are a greater risk than most people realize.  YouTube is full of videos of raccoons wandering around in backyards, playing in sandboxes, or even swimming in pools.  How cute!  How dangerous!!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an entire section of its website devoted to risks associated with close encounters with raccoons.  In addition to rabies, giardia, and leptospirosis, raccoons also spread the Baylisascaris infection from a specific type of roundworm.  The roundworm eggs are sometimes found in the feces of raccoons, and if ingested, they can cause a deadly infection.  Raccoons need water for digestion, and they also feed on amphibians, so they are naturally drawn to water, even swimming pools.  Frogs often gather along the waterline of pools and in the skimmers, which offers a feeding opportunity for raccoons.  They are creatures of habit, so once they start visiting a pool and find food, they will likely return.  Another habit they have is pooping in water, and they will often do so in the shallow walk-out sections of swimming pools.  If the feces is infected, it can introduce roundworm eggs into the water.  And the real kicker is this: chlorine doesn’t kill the eggs or the parasite!

It is simply not a good idea to attract raccoons to where people live, especially by intentionally feeding them.  Young children have a tendency to place their hands and objects in their mouths, which puts them at significant risk if they are playing in areas where raccoons are roaming around freely.  As cute as they are, raccoons are something you want to see on a hike through the forest, not in your backyard.

Free at Last

I made the final visit to my orthopedic surgeon today, who said my x-rays from my broken ankle look fine and that I am good to go.  He actually said I can even try to jog a mile to see how the ankle behaves.  I’m not exactly anxious to start jogging, but the walking is getting better every day.  I still have a bit of tightness, mostly in my lower leg muscles, and the swelling hasn’t completely gone.  At any rate, I don’t have to go back unless I have a real problem.  It was just under two months ago when I broke the ankle, and I am very relieved to be at the end of the initial recovery period of 6-8 weeks.  I shook my doctor’s hand, thanked him, and told him he is the best doctor I have ever had.  In his typical self-deprecating manner he said, “I didn’t do anything!”  I respectfully disagree.  He was wonderful.

It is a little embarrassing how carefully I walk now, especially on grass.  I hope my fear will subside as I get more strength in the left leg and gain more confidence about walking.  I need to be in shape for next spring, when I plan to hike to the top of one of the highest hills near our home.  And, I certainly want to be ready to get back in the Hobie kayak when the weather turns warm again in 2016.  Don’t let anyone tell you that grass isn’t harmful — it will knock you off your feet!

Incapacitated

A month has passed since my last entry, but I have a few good excuses.  My wife and I did some traveling in July, and my workload at the office increased a bit too.   Even so, I would have made an entry by the last week of the month had it not been for a significant event on July 19 that brought me to a brief standstill — a broken ankle.  This is the first time I have ever broken a bone, and I wasn’t prepared for how the pain, though not necessarily acute, would linger for several weeks.  I am fortunate in that it was a single fracture and apparently not bad enough to require surgery (at least not so far), but I have been in a cast for two weeks and have had to get around either on crutches or with this snazzy four-wheel contraption with a bench for my knee that allows me to scoot around pushing off with the good leg.

Those who have read this blog know that mobility is extremely important to me.  I love to travel, I spend lots of time walking and hiking, and my job even requires me to be outdoors on a fairly regular basis.  Furthermore, I am a gardener and love growing and caring for plants in our yard and maintaining the lawn.  In fact, I was spraying deer and rabbit repellent in the front yard when the accident occurred.  I really wish I had a better story for how I crashed to the ground, but wet grass, a steep slope, and the wrong kind of shoes were a deadly combination that sent me crawling back to the front door, where my dear wife helped me in and iced my ankle immediately.  The swelling began very quickly but was not widespread and there was very little bruising.  It could have been much worse.  A trip to the clinic the next evening for X-rays confirmed that I had a fracture.

I’m sure the modern style of cast that I am sporting, the bright-colored fiberglass wrap, is infinitely better than the old plaster casts of years ago.  Still, the weight of the cast is probably as much a source of discomfort as the fracture itself.  My calf tends to swell, along with my ankle, inside the cast if I don’t keep the leg elevated most of the time, a condition that ranges from being uncomfortable to painful.  The depressing part of the whole dilemma is that I have to keep weight off the ankle for up to six weeks.  I will probably transition from the cast to a lace-up boot pretty soon, which will probably be more comfortable, but I will remain very limited in my mobility for several more weeks.  I’m having a hard time adjusting, but knowing that the situation is temporary also invokes a sense of guilt.  How ridiculous for me to complain about this inconvenience when there are so many people who have to make these kinds of adjustments, and a whole lot more, for the rest of their lives.

What will I take away from this event that has disrupted my routines for a few weeks?  Well, for starters, I will give more consideration to the type of shoes I wear, especially while strolling around the yard.  I will probably be more aware of the terrain and surfaces where I walk regardless of what I may be doing at the time.  I want to be more careful without being too fearful.  I certainly hope I will be more sympathetic to people with disabilities who struggle with everyday tasks and movements about which I normally would not give a second thought.  I will be forever grateful to my wife, my youngest son who was home for the summer, and many others who have been so gracious, considerate, patient, and helpful in getting me around and who are assisting me in getting back on both of my feet.  I am thankful for a fantastic orthopedic surgeon, one of the best doctors I have ever met, whose skill, knowledge, and bedside manner have given me a great deal of assurance.  Lastly, I suspect for the rest of my life I will be reminded of how fragile we are and how quickly a freak accident can take us from being fully functional to a piling heap on the ground.

The Call

On Saturday evening, I got the call.  Actually, the call came in the form of three voice mails left on my cell phone because I was at a musical event and had my phone turned completely off.  The calls and messages left were from the nursing home, where my father has spent that last five years of his life.  Most of those years could not really be characterized as “living” in the sense that most of us use the word.  Oddly enough, I just posted a few days ago about my sorrow in watching my dad’s recent, rapid decline.

Getting one voice mail from the nursing home is common; getting three back-to-back in a matter of a few minutes indicated something serious.  I have been expecting this call for quite a long time.  At times I have dreaded it, at others I have longed for it, which has been the case recently.  Had the call been to inform me that, due to either illness or accident, my father had been taken to the hospital, it would certainly have anguished me.  The last thing I wanted, any of us who knew him really wanted, was for him to go through the agony of multiple trips to the hospital for procedures to prolong a life not worth living anymore.

There is a certain finality to the words “Your father passed away this evening.”  At the age of 94, the phrase is not unexpected, and as I have indicated in this case, it has quietly been hoped for by friends and family.  He certainly was ready to go and had been for a few years.  He frequently expressed his astonishment that he was still alive. “I never dreamed I’d live this long,” he said many times when we visited him.  “I don’t know why the Lord is keeping me here.”  Good question.  I don’t know the answer.  I can’t say for certain, but maybe he knows the answer . . . now.

You Can’t Run Away from a Bad Diet

For years my wife has been telling me that, while she knows we need to exercise for our health and well-being, exercise won’t help her shed the pounds she wants to lose (she doesn’t have that much to shed truly).  I have always resisted her on this point, thinking that burning off calories with vigorous exercise has to eventually result in weight loss.  While that still may be true with a sensible diet, the fact remains that exercise without cutting back portions and watching the amount of calories and fat we take in will not result in any serious weight loss.  Such are the findings of a team of British cardiologists in a recent study, which they explain in an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.  In essence, they are claiming that even though regular exercise reduces the risk of developing a number of health issues such as heart disease, dementia, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t promote weight loss.

Once again, my wife is smarter than I.  This information that she knew and that I was slightly skeptical about is even more troubling for her than it is for me because she also knows that, as we both age, her metabolism as a woman slows down at a much faster rate than mine does as a man.  This means that I can take in more calories than she, and with everything else being equal, my weight remains stable.  No, it certainly isn’t fair and is another example of how women get the shaft from nature.  I’m not so concerned about how my wife’s body looks (well, yes it does matter, but it isn’t my main concern), but I do want her to be healthy and well as we march toward retirement in the next ten years.  I am convinced that avoiding obesity is essential in achieving that goal, for both of us.  Beyond that extreme though, I hope we can both eat well, exercise regularly, and maintain our fitness as we age so we can enjoy that retirement by traveling around and exploring, relatively free of pain and with as much physical flexibility and stability as possible.