I was three years old when I fractured my skull while on vacation.
I still remember it to this day like some faded homemade movie, bright yellow and tan with flickers and jitters and movements sped up just a bit - as if I wasn't even there. But I was - I have the scar to prove it. It is the earliest memory lodged in my brain that I can still recall after all these years. It was the luckiest day of my life.
It was summer, 1976, and we were on a beach. My sisters were there, along with many cousins and people I did not know, a group of kids out in the sun. We were all there with our parents enjoying vacation on the edge of Lake Erie, less than 75 miles south of Buffalo, N.Y.
My cousin Michael came bouncing down the sand. He was an ordinary Kennedy-type looking kid, a typical South Buffalo "Mick", a skinny brown haired boy approaching his teens in the mid-70's, for what it's worth. I remember him reeking of deodorant; his armpits were covered with a powder that trailed the sides of his torso. He had a golf club in one hand and a plastic cup in the other.
"Let's do some golfing", he joyfully yelled.
A herd of children gathered around this lanky and pinked Irish lad, like a paparazzi of midgets astounded and awestruck. They followed his every move. He brought wonderment and joy with him in the form of an exotic game, a new toy for all to play with. As he walked proudly toward me, I joined the exhibition (more than I ever intended).
"Stand back, I'll show you how it's done", Mike announced like some carnival yo-yo trying to get your attention to play some game for a sickly goldfish that is more dead than gold. He confidently summoned his brother Tony and ordered him to put the cup in the sand a good distance away. A Tiger Woods well before his time? No doubt. To this day, I find such hubris at a young age the most irritating trait in children.
I stood close to him, eager to see the demonstration. He was facing the water. I stood behind him slightly off to his right. Kids were scattered all around the young phenomenon. They were screaming and pointing and showing off their own golf techniques with imaginary clubs. It was obvious they caught up in it, twenty or so kids with their arms swinging spastically, only to stop and watch an invisible ball. Oh, how we need games in our life. Tony placed himself near the cup acting in place of the flag. The excitement was feverish.
Golf? Is it not the sport of kings? Is it not folly for the rich? We were tasting the good life in our own little way. We were moving up socioeconomic positions by leaps and bounds. For a moment we were sons and daughters of dentists, doctors and lawyers. But never mind that.
Michael held and moved the club like a baseball bat. He set himself to show us how it was done. As he swung back for his wind-up, the face of the iron club came within inches of my face from my spot behind him. Everyone realized this. "Stop!" "Wait a second!" The shouts went out all around, “time out!" I was in a dangerous location, a destination of ruin. Even Michael realized the severity of my proximity. "Hey Billy, you can't stand there." "You'll get yourself killed!" He moved me a yard or so to my left. Now I stood behind over his left shoulder instead of his right as we faced the gentle tap of the waves on the beach, just a few feet before us.
Michael got back to his audience and the show at hand. He dropped his head and steadied himself. The exhibition was at hand; all eyes were on the ball. How far would it go? Would it go in the water? Would it hit Tony? The club went far back behind his head. He was set in a batter's stance. The chrome of the stick glistened like a magic wand. It hung there for a moment before it came down.
His eyes were still on the ball when the club came down. He put his whole puny body into it. All the force this boy could muster was behind this swing. That ball better watch out. Yes, sir.
Then there was a brief moment of complete darkness. I would be told years later that this presumed giant of golf, my darling cousin Michael, missed the ball completely. I guess his pro golf career ended that day. A star would not be born. When I opened my eyes, or the light came back to them – whichever is the case – I saw the backs of everyone on the beach as they ran away from me. Through the stars, or my tears, or whatever was blinding my vision, I saw blurred images that appeared to be human figures in extreme panic. I heard screams of terror and felt elements of chaos. Even my cousin Danny, by far the eldest of the bunch, was retreating with spastic ferocity. I remember him scrambling up the beach, his arms flailing and his feet kicking up sand higher than he stood. He was screaming "Aunt Kath! Aunt Kath!", my mother.
I was alone. Helpless. The congregation had left me disoriented, scared, and bloody. Who could blame my relatives? The side of my face was torn wide open. A flap of skin was hanging off my cheek and swaying in the wind. Traumatized witnesses would report later you could see my skull. I was my own horror show, and it was sure to be more gruesome than any of these innocent children were likely to have seen in their young lives. So why not run? Get the hell out of there. For all they knew I was dead.
Everything moved in slow motion and there was no longer sound. Shock had set in. I remember trying to walk. What else could I do? Even at such a young age my survival instinct was in full effect. "You are alone and you need to help, walk damnit", is what I must have told myself. Yes sir, even at three I knew not to lay there and die. As weak as my legs felt, I knew I needed to go on. So, I walked. But like some vicious nightmare each step I took brought me farther from my destination. I needed to simply walk up the beach to a path that would take me a short distance to a cottage and my parents. The world would not comply. The beach was on a slight incline that would torture my little legs and cause them to buckle in my weakened, shock-ridden condition. My head was spinning. With each step the surface of the beach would drastically tilt, alternating left then right as if I was suddenly on a ship deck during some colossal storm.
I couldn't gain any ground. My legs were too weak and puny and my vision still blurred. I was treading sand at best, stumbling first left, then right, and finally backward. I was a drunk suddenly living out his heritage.
It was only a matter of time before I saw the blood. It covered my chest and arms. I remember noticing drips of blood running off my fingertips, as my left arm lay lifeless at my side. To this day, I am still fascinated by the recreation of this scene as I stand in the shower with my arms to my sides, letting the water run down and off the end. That is exactly what it felt like.
Suddenly, my mother appeared. Her mouth was open and screaming but without sound. Her arms were stretched toward me. Soon I was in a car. I remember sitting on my mother’s lap in the front seat looking at the dry blood on my arms as we raced toward Lakeshore Hospital.
The fluorescent lights of the emergency room were blinding. For a long time these sterile walls and bright rays symbolized heaven for me - luminous and strange, but somehow you know you were in good care. I was saved from ruin.
My memory of that day fades after that. One thing I do remember is sitting in my dad's van days later, my face wrapped with a continuous gauze that went from the top of my head, over my ear, under my chin, and back again. I was trying to eat corn from a Styrofoam cup for what its worth. I couldn’t eat though; the pain was too much.
So that's my story. I ended up with a fractured skull and it took 100 some-odd stitches to put my face together. I have been left with a scar that is still prominent almost thirty years later. It's funny though; I consider that day to be the luckiest, most important day of my life. That dreadful day I became a bullet dodger, a man with a certain sort of luck. Not lotto luck, I still can't fair very well in gambling of any sort, but a certain curse of luck to get in and out of situations of extreme intensity resulting in near misses.
Doctors told my mother that if the blow were half an inch higher, I would have lost my eye. If it were half an inch lower, I would have been paralyzed on the left side of my face (since it would have destroyed a major nerve that runs along the jaw). As such, a precedent was set for me at a tender age: no matter how wretched the situation may be, I would survive by the skin of my teeth. What a lesson to learn? What a truth to be given?
Was it some sick premonition? Upon reflection it seems so. I would lead a life of great escapes. I would not die young and I would not leave a beautiful corpse. I would forever keep my head above water. Mediocrity with showmanship and style! I learned this then and I know this now.
It all makes sense. I was born a freckled pink boy and from an early age my mother would tell me the freckles were angel kisses. Thus, by the age of three, it was confirmed. I knew I was special. Maybe not in some gifted or extraordinary way, but I simply would not perish. I would be tough as nails. Yes, sir. Indeed, the kisses were real. My fair angels left with their kisses a sadistic curse of luck. Thank you, my dears! Any luck at all is better than no luck.