A chapter of the author's memoir: Life After Leukemia
It was early December, 1953. I was five years old and entertaining myself by driving my tricycle between the living room and kitchen, maneuvering it skillfully so as not to run over a rat terrier named Daisy May, who was growling and biting at the bike’s wheels. I lived above my grandfather’s general store with my mom and dad. She was a typical 1950’s stay-at-home mother, while my father drove a truck that carried coal from the mines.
My Dad had just walked through the door after a day of work, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary with him. He looked tired, disgruntled, and dirty. He gave us a brief greeting and headed straight for the shower while my mother finished dinner. Soon he was sitting at the table, smelling of Old Spice, and radiating that pink and shiny glow that he always got from scrubbing himself free of coal dirt.
Dad didn’t usually talk a lot during the week; it was almost as if he were too exhausted most nights to develop a thought and put it into words. As Mom gave him the news from her day, he paid attention to her but rarely responded with more than a few words. Anything I said to him was usually greeted with a half-smile and a slight nod.
But tonight things were different. Dad was more relaxed and seemed to be in better spirits. He got into a conversation with Mom and even asked me how things were going. At the end of the meal he told Mom to stay seated because he had something important to tell us. And then he dropped the bomb that I knew would change my life forever…he had decided to buy a television set!
My life was suddenly filled with rapture. The outside world was finally coming into our living room and bringing with it all the entertainment that any boy could ask for. Those three channels would make it possible for me to stop producing my own fun from my imagination, because now The Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody, and Superman would be doing it for me, practically in person, while I just sat there and soaked it all in. And, miracle of miracles, it would all be mine with the push of a button and the turn of a knob.
“When are we getting it?” I almost demanded. I could already picture myself lying on my stomach with my head propped in my hands, feasting on the black-and-white programs that would magically appear from the corner of our living room.
“Hold on there.” I could tell I was about to get a reality check. “The set will be delivered in a couple of days, but we won’t be able to watch anything without an antenna. Maybe I can get someone to install one next week.”
Next week! This meant I would have to grind my way through another seven days of my boring life. Those days would be endless. Patience was not a virtue I had yet acquired. I wasn’t sure I could make it. Mom often said I wasn’t supposed to pray for things for myself, so I prayed that the antenna guy would get here quickly for my family’s sake.
Surprisingly enough, I did survive the agonizing wait, and one morning after breakfast a man arrived with something made of gray rods with a little motor on the bottom. This was the antenna, I was informed. My mom explained that the rods would pick up a signal and the motor would allow us to turn the antenna from inside the house to get a clear picture. She seemed amazed at the wonders of science…I just hoped I could watch a show by the end of the day. It was much too cold to play outdoors, and there were flurries of snow dancing in the breeze beyond our kitchen windows. Maybe the man would work faster, so he could finish quickly and come in from the cold. I certainly was hoping so.
After exchanging pleasantries with my mom, the man went into our attic and climbed out onto the roof. After a couple of hours in the cold, he climbed back into the attic and came back down into the kitchen. He said he was having trouble using his tools because his fingers were stiff from the cold. As she brought him some coffee, Mom told him to stay inside for a while and warm up. As he sat there I heard the news that nearly broke my heart---he told her he wasn’t quite finished and the snow was turning to sleet. I began to fear that our new television would be setting in the corner of our living room, dark and quiet, for at least one more day.
“Don’t go back up there,” my mom almost begged him, “It’s not worth it. You can finish when the weather improves.”
“I’m almost done,” he told her. “And I don’t want to have to come back for fifteen minutes of work.” He stayed in the kitchen for a few more minutes, finished his coffee, and headed back up to the roof.
Now, once again, it looked like we would soon be sitting in front of our new set after all. Life had suddenly taken a turn for the better. I hopped on my tricycle and rode as fast as I could peddle on the black and white checkered linoleum that ran from the kitchen through the living room. I turned around near the wall and headed back toward the kitchen when I heard the drawn-out scream. My mother had a horrified look as she raced for the stairs that led to the back porch. When she got there, her worst fears were confirmed—the man had slid off the roof and fallen nearly forty feet until the frozen ground caught him. He landed within two feet of the concrete cap that covered our well. People later commented on how lucky he was to have missed it. But he wasn’t moving, so it looked to me that the only luck he had that day was bad.
I’ve never been sure how my mother reported the accident—I don’t remember us having a telephone--but cars were soon pulling into the parking lot, people rushing to the rear of the store to see if they could help. By the time I got dressed and made my way downstairs, someone had spotted my little swimming pool under the porch and used it to protect the man from the snow and sleet. He was conscious but unable to use his arms and legs. He asked for a cigarette and one of the men lit one and placed it in the man’s mouth. He then knelt down beside the injured man and removed it whenever the smoke got into his eyes. At some point the injured man said something funny—I didn’t understand the humor, but everyone else laughed—and all of the guys who were standing around seemed to relax a bit.
When the ambulance arrived, Mom told me to go up on the porch to watch, so I wouldn’t be in the way. It only took a minute or two for the men from the ambulance to talk to him, slide him onto a stretcher, and place him into the ambulance. And then, with red lights twirling and sirens blaring, he was gone, and I never saw him again.
A few days later, when the weather had improved, another man showed up and finished the job. We had gotten our first television but, as it turned out, it was not the miracle of technology that I had expected. And, after a week or two of disappointing shows, I went back to pretending and using my imagination.
I’m sure my parents discussed the accident between themselves and with other adults, but I was never included in those conversations. A few months later we moved, and I eventually forgot all about it until several years later—I was probably in my teens by then—when I asked my mom about the man who had fallen. The question seemed to make her sad.
“Between his hospital stay and rehabilitation,” she told me, “it took him several months to recover. I talked to him whenever I ran into him around town. He walked with a limp and seemed resigned to being in pain. The worst of it was he was scared to get on a roof after that and had trouble finding work. His wife told friends that he woke up often from nightmares of falling. The last time I saw him he looked quite a bit older. Pain will do that to you.”