Sunday, April 10, 2011

Death, Destruction And The American Monster-Kid

It's strange how when you're a kid you kind of expect certain things from life, and you have a specific idea of what life is. As a grown-up you realize that many of the things you thought as a child were naive--and possibly even unrealistic. But, that's part of the point of being a kid, isn't it?

Everyone's life is different, and everyone's life is unique to them. So many variables--both big and small--go into what makes us who we are that there's no way to expect two different people to be exactly the same. Experience is a huge part of what influences our personalities and outlooks, and many things that we may or may not consider important combine to mold us as we change from children into adults: where we live, who our parents are, our social and economic positions, people we are exposed to (friends, family, acquaintences, people we randomly come in contact with...), and so on and so forth...

I was lucky enough to not have experienced much in the way of hardship as a child. I wouldn't go so far as to describe my youth as "perfect", but at the same time I don't have much to complain about either. I know people who suffered a lot more than I did as a kid--people who lost parents and other loved ones at a young age. My father is currently battling cancer. While I know what the eventual outcome of this battle will be, I also know that I've been very lucky to have had both my parents with me for the forty-plus years I've been on this planet.

Having said all that, here are three random events from my youth that I can't help but feel had an influence on me (whether direct or indirect) because of the sheer unexpectedness and uniqueness of them. When you have your own child-like idea of what life is, and what it should be, unexpected events can easily shake those ideas--that's part of the reason they're "unexpected" after all. All three of these things felt very out of the ordinary and shocked me in some way. Life happens, and as humans we more-or-less have to remember to expect the unexpected--as impossible as it may be to do so.

Random Event #1: A Death in the Family

When I was in second grade my grandfather died. While not as traumatic as losing a parent, it certainly was a big learning experience for me. I was young enough that I didn't really understand what was going on. My grandfather (on my mother's side) was the only one of my grandparents that I really had a chance to get to know. The rest had either died before I was born or when I was too young to know them. My grandfather had lived with us for the last few years of his life, and I remember visiting him in his room--where he'd always give me some Nilla Wafers (he always seemed to have a box of them in his room).

When my grandfather died I became acutely aware of not only my own mortality, but more importantly, the mortality of those around me. It was the first time I realized that my parents, loved ones, friends and even myself would eventually die. Yes, that's one of the most basic traits that makes us human (you know what they say about death and taxes), but I hadn't needed to know it before then. I'd seen people killed off in movies and on TV, and even "died" myself while playing Army, but death seemed like more of a plot device than a reality. I'm pretty sure that my grandfather's death combined with my problem with the concept of time (as detailed in Monster Dad vs. Time) to make me a bit more morbid in my attitudes than I really should have been as a second-grader.

Random Event #2: A Death at Sea

When I was in the Cub Scouts as a kid my Pack visited the Battleship Massachusetts in Fall River (MA). It was a great time except for one odd moment. My fellow Scouts and I had a grand old time touring the battleship and the rest of the exhibits of Battleship Cove. I distinctly recall having an acute sense of history as we toured the mighty ship and learned a lot about life on a battleship in the days of World War II. But the random event that happened also sticks in my mind and tends to overshadow the rest of the day. It was totally unrelated to the day-trip we were on (and thus was "random"). While on the deck of the Massachusetts we saw a police boat speeding by in the water below. We all thought is was a cool thing to see (kind of like an unscheduled bonus feature of the tour). Heck, I didn't even know that there was such a thing as a police boat before then. After the boat was out of sight we resumed gawking at the huge sixteen-inch guns of the Massachusetts, and pretty much forgot about it.

Battleship Cove in Fall River, MA

As the day ended and we headed toward our Scout Leader's car we noticed that the police boat we had seen in the water was now on a trailer in the parking lot. What a great opportunity to check out this cool thing a little more up close. A police officer was standing near the boat and kind of nonchalantly motioned to us to keep away from the area. I figured he just didn't want us kids getting too close to the boat, but he didn't seem overly concerned. As we continued to work our way around the area we noticed something even more unusual. There was a metal sled-like thing (the closest thing I can describe it as is one of those rescue "stretchers" that they use to lift someone onto a helicopter) on the ground with a lifeless body on it. The metal looked pretty oily and appeared to have been in the water for some time. I don't know it the body was found on the metal thing or if it was placed on it later, but needless to say, the body was the main focus of my young eyes as we passed by. It was the body of a man. He was wearing a white t-shirt and appeared to either be rather obese, or his stomach was simply bloated from spending an amount of time submerged in the water. His shirt and body were stained with oil and other contaminates that one would expect from a busy waterway like Fall River. We were only exposed to the body for a short time, but it felt much longer (in fact it seemed like time slowed down as we passed by it). And, of course, that quick sighting of a dead body quickly overshadowed everything else we had seen on our tour of Battleship Cove that day.

Random Event #3: The Accident

I've also been lucky enough to have not been involved in a major car accident in my life (so far). But my third unexpected, random event does revolve around a car accident.

My mom was making hot dogs for dinner one summer evening. She sent me to the local convenience store to pick up some hot dog buns. I hopped on my bike and started out for the store. As I approached the end of our street I heard a loud metallic banging sound. The only thing I could picture was a large garbage dumpster being overturned. As I reached the end of our street and looked left to make sure no traffic was coming I saw something very unexpected--a car on its roof, resting perpendicular to the road. Apparently the driver took the turn too fast and hit the inclined bank of dirt on the shoulder of the road. In another example of time seeming to slow down I remember everything being very quiet and still. No police were around the accident scene; no one was trying to help the driver; no other traffic was driving by. The accident had just happened and I was the first person on the scene. I hoped that another car would happen by, or that someone would come out of one of the nearby houses, but it was just me and the car. Without really thinking I jumped off my bike and ran over to the car. I was struck by the oddity of trying to open a car door that was upside-down. The driver-side door was hard to open and it creaked pretty loudly when it did open (obviously the weight on the roof had partially jammed the door). As I opened the door I was also aware of a pretty distinct smell of gasoline. Looking into the car's interior I saw the driver. It was a woman who was sprawled out on the roof. She was apparently unconscious (at least I hoped she was only unconscious). I asked "Are you okay" and got no response.

Still no one was coming around to help or tell me what to do. I can't remember ever wishing so hard for an adult to show up. It seemed like I would have to go for help myself. For whatever reason (I obviously wasn't thinking clearly or logically at that particular moment) I didn't go to one of the houses nearby to ask for help. Instead, I ran down the hill and knocked on the door of a house that I delivered newspapers to on my paper route. Luckily someone answered and I asked them to call the police because there had been an accident up the street. Once they made the call I returned to my bike and headed straight for home. I remember being both terrified by what I had just experienced and worried that my mother would be mad at me for not getting the hot dog buns she sent me out for as I pedaled my way home. My mother said that she saw me coming up the street and knew something was wrong because I was as white as a sheet. I believe that I heard a few days later that the driver of the car was okay, but for the rest of that night (at least) I was a nervous wreck.

Exactly how all these events affected me I can't really say. Whether they had a major influence on me or whether they were more subtle in their effect, I do know that they were unexpected little chapters that happened suddenly and which I still carry with me in some way.

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