When I ran into my girlfriend at school after that weekend, she told me she had heard about the incident. I was humiliated, and I tried to explain to her why I had not accepted the guyís challenge outside the skating rink.
"Well," she said, seriously, "I certainly donít think youíre chicken."
Which, of course, was exactly what she did think. We let it drop and it never came up again, but Iím sure it made a difference in the way she thought of me. At seventeen, I was expected to "be a man," and refusing to fight was a sign of something less than that. As far back as I could remember, which was all of my high school years, I had been a "square," a "nerd," or a "dweeb," depending upon which generation youíre from. Never skilled or particularly interested in sports, I had not developed much muscle. Probably as a result of that, I avoided physical confrontations. Smaller boys picked fights with me. Larger ones no doubt considered me unworthy of a challenge.
About the same time, my grandmother related a story to me about her three sons, the youngest of which, like me, avoided fights. One day she was watching the youngsters coming down the street from school, trailed by a small group of other boys taunting them. A scuffle ensued. My grandmother watched for a moment, then opened the door and shouted to her youngest, "Merton, take your hands out of your pockets and fight!" I donít remember how the story ended, although all three boys eventually grew up, with Merton being the first to own an expensive automobile and live in a fancy neighborhood. I do remember thinking, however, that Grandmother was trying to tell me something.
It wasnít until I got out of the Coast Guard (during which time, incidentally, I laid around a light house and lost whatever muscle my boot camp experience bestowed on me), it was after that that I took an interest in my body. The only job I could find was in a factory, baling up paper bags and tossing them onto pallets. My hands were bloody for several weeks from pulling on the rough twine, and my arms ached constantly. Within six months, without realizing it, I was transformed. I filled out my shirts, and I accompanied my coworkers to the local bars after work. There was always a charge in the atmosphere of such places, much like the saloons of old Western movies. One wrong word, and itís out into the parking lot to "settle this." I never sought out fights, but I surprised myself at my lack of fear. It was not as though I thought I could whip any man in the place, but only that getting hurt physically was not a thing to be afraid of. One simply did what one had to do.
Within a few years, I had moved from blue collar work to white collar work. My body gradually returned to its former softness. I was more interested in what I could do to exercise my mind than what my body could do. Somehow, though, I retained the self-confidence I had learned in the factory. It was a long time before I again found myself fearful of physical harm. The body image that I held in my head didnít lose its strength as quickly as the actual body did.
In my sixties, however, reality made itself felt. Not only could I not do a lot of things that I used to do, I was conscious of my increasing physical vulnerability. Fortunately, old men arenít usually seen as sufficient challenges for the testosterone crowd. In fact, Iíve become aware of my growing invisibility in the outside world. If Iím not wearing a suit, automobile salesmen and maitre dís often ignore me. But, as I observed in the introduction to my web site, "having satisfied the powers that be that I am no longer needed to support the economy," Iím also less interested in what the world thinks of me.
Recently, however, Iíve had to pay a lot more attention to my body, particularly to my muscular abilities. Somehow, I tore a ligament in my right rotator cuff. Thatís a group of tendons that surround the shoulder joint and permit the complex and wonderful movements of the arm. My damage could have been from launching a model planeóa three-pound aircraft with a six-foot wingspanóor even from the fortieth time in an hour that I threw a ball for our retriever to fetch. Whatever the cause, the pain grew until I had to get help. Physical therapy and steroid shots helped for a while, but eventually a surgeon was called in. He repaired the damage in "a simple procedure."
The pain, however, didnít go away. In fact, for a couple of months, it was worse than anything I had endured before. I wore a sling for a month, forbidden to pull, push or lift anything. I didnít have to be reminded, since the pain prevented me from even thinking about doing anything with my right arm. I even slept with the sling, when I could sleep, which didnít seem like very much.
After the first month, the surgeon told me to get rid of the sling. Just like that. He referred me again to the physical therapist. I could bend my arm from the elbow, but I couldnít support a coffee cup with it. I simply could not lift my elbow away from my body in any direction. The surgeon did, however, in testing my range of motion (and my ability to withstand pain without screaming).
Itís amazing to me how many ordinary activities require oneís right arm, if that happens to be the dominant side (and Iíve read that itís usually the dominant rotator cuff that gets injured). Brushing my teeth was a fifteen-minute ordeal with my left hand. I couldnít pull my pants or on tuck my shirt tail in. Major contortions were required to wash under my left arm in the shower. I finally learned how to put deodorant on, sitting down and resting my right elbow on my knee to reach my left armpit, then leaning over and moving my left shoulder in a circular motion. Lying down was the easiest way to apply it to my right armpit. I soon found the maximum amount of pain killers that I could take and still remain awake most of the day.
Of course, my friends all felt sorry for me, and went out of their way to assist me, even when I didnít want it. It reminded me of my adolescent days, when I "couldnít fight my way out of a paper bag," as other so-called friends used to put it. At least now I had a good excuse. Even sports jocks get rotator cuff injuries.
In the intervening forty years between my bag-factory days and my retirement, I had pretty much taken my body for granted. I adjusted my level of activity to what it allowed. In the past six months, though, Iíve thought about little other than my body. My husbandly work around the house waits for me. The bathtub needs recaulking, but I know my arm wonít allow it yet. I learned to drive again with my left hand, recalling the good old days when my right arm was busy being draped over a girlís shoulder. At least now I have a car with automatic transmission.
Each day that I can manage something I couldnít do yesterday is a day to rejoice just a little. Now I can shampoo my hair using both hands. I can put on my pants without grimacing more than a little. If Iím determined, I can raise my right fist straight over my head. I donít mind the pain it causes.
And thatís the connection I have discovered with my bag-factory days. Pain is something that, up to a point, I can ignore in deciding to do something. I do what I have to do, noticing but not giving in to it. The doctor and the physical therapist have convinced me that I need to push my body, the way I did when I began working at the bag press, cutting my hands bloody and tossing the forty-pound bales onto a skid. There are limits, of course. Iíll never again have a twenty-year-old body. I didnít wrench my shoulder throwing a runner out at third baseóI donít even remember a particular time when I injured it. Human tissue simply gives out after a long time. Iíll put wheels on my three-pound airplane, and let the motor get it into the air. Iíll toss a ball to Tasha more gently. She wonít notice that she doesnít have to run a hundred yards to get it. Sheís getting old, herself.
Iíve watched my biceps and triceps take on shape again. I canít do the Popeye thing anymore, but thatís okay. Iím just glad to have my body back again . . .
. . . for a while.
Donald Skiff, September 5, 2002