We Were Young and Strong; We Were Runnin’ Against the Wind

1970s Metal swingset

Tonia came home from the hospital in a wheelchair. At first Joyce kept Tonia near her at all times, but soon she began letting Tonia sit outside if I stayed with her. That was perfectly fine with me; we usually had Sean with us too. At first Tonia’s wheelchair was set on the front porch with the wheels locked, but the front porch was situated in a way that kept it from getting sun until evening. It can get pretty cool sitting still in the shade in Montana all day. So one morning, Joyce took us to the backyard and parked the chair there in the sun. 

The end of our backyard was the foot of a small hill that turned into the backyards of houses on the next street over. No sooner had Joyce locked the chair in place and gone inside, than two thin freckled girls came running down the hill and asked us if we wanted to play. And that’s how we met Juliette and Jeanette, our best friends for the next two years. Jeanette was in the grade above me at school and Julie was just below me, in kindergarten. They had an older brother, John, but he was a big kid in junior high and had no use for girls or little kids. 

Jeanette was the tallest of us, thin but bold and strong. Julie turned out to be the perfect friend for Tonia; she was small and delicate and ultra-feminine. She and Tonia loved to play house, hair salon, fashion show, Miss America–anything that called for babies, doing your hair, dressing up. Jeanette and I liked to climb trees, play tag and hide-n-seek, and build forts. We were the breadwinners who left for work when we played house and we made certain any of our activities involved running, jumping, rolling down the hill, and screaming at the top of our lungs–or as we put it, screaming bloody murder. 

Larry put up our swingset in the backyard, which brought even more kids around, but Julie and Jeanette were our BFFs, helping me watch Sean and roll Tonia’s chair around so she wasn’t left behind. I don’t remember Tonia learning to walk again, but she surely did it as quickly as she could so she could get out of that chair and roam freely with us. 

Karla and her brother Kirk lived across the street from Julie and Jeanette. Their family was Mormon and they took us to church and to church camp with them. Next door to Julie and Jeanette lived a kid called Boobie. I didn’t like him much because he told a lot of sexual jokes that I didn’t understand. I was a devastatingly shy kid, with a horror of looking silly in front of others, and Boobie always made me feel stupid. I was so shy I had a hard time calling him by his nickname. Who calls their kid Boobie? It made me stutter and blush. 

Siberian Peashrub

When Tonia was able to move on her own again without the wheelchair or crutches, We spent every free moment we could with Julie and Jeanette. The houses in our neighborhood were duplexes and a row of Siberian Pea Shrubs split the shared backyards in two. These shrubs were far too slender and delicate for climbing, but they were excellent stand-ins for jungles, enchanted forests, castles–whatever we needed them to be. We used the flowers for bouquets and decorations and we plucked the beans to use as our play food. The pods would release their seeds and then curl up into corkscrews as they dried before falling to the ground. As much as we loved those trees in the spring and early summer, by late summer and fall the discarded pods were a menace to our bare feet. We were all basically barefoot from the last day of school to the first, and while I really never minded wearing shoes to school, I was a barefoot girl and played outside barefoot until even I had to concede it was too cold.

We roamed our neighborhood. At the time, it seemed like the hill to Julie and Jeanette’s was giant and our block was miles long, but when I looked it up as an adult, the giant hill was a gentle slope maybe 10 feet long. The scope of our territory was two streets wide and half a block long. The elementary school was three blocks away and the park was four.  We were allowed to go to the park as long as the four of us were together and we weren’t allowed to take Sean–it was too far.  The park was a perfect specimen of 60s/70s playground equipment: a steel slide to catch the sun and blister bare legs, black rubber swings hanging from thick chains that pinched fingers if you weren’t careful, wooden teeter-totters that slid splinters into your thighs, and a metal and wood merry-go-round designed by someone with a severe hatred of children. 

The Merry-go-round OF DEATH

The merry-go-round was a hexagon formed of wooden planks bolted to six spokes extending from a central post. In front of the wooden planks, facing inward to the post, was a hexagonal bar to hold onto so you didn’t fly off. The hand bar was connected to the central shaft by its own six spokes. To get the merry-go-round going round, there were 3 options. 1) someone was chosen to be ‘pusher’ and they stood outside the hexagon and used the handle bars to push the ride around as they stood in one place. The pusher couldn’t ride because they couldn’t get on once the merry-go-round was in motion. 2) The pusher situated themself at a corner of the hexagon, placed one hand on the plank, the other on the hand bar, and started running, pushing the ride in front of them. Once the ride got going, the pusher could jump on if they were nimble enough. If they missed the jump, they went rolling into the field and had to wait for the ride to stop to try again.  3) the pusher got inside the hexagon and pushed, using the top spokes as a bar to push against and jumping up to put their feet on the lower spokes when it got going. Sometimes this method got the merry-go-round going too fast for the pusher and they’d end up being dragged around under the ride if their feet slipped off the bar. 

The only way to stop the merry-go-round once in motion was to use your feet as brakes and your weight as ballast to slow it down and stop it. To make the ride even more challenging, someone had pulled most of the plank seats off the merry-go-round, leaving one board to sit on, plus the four metal bases the other planks had once been bolted to. These bases were perfect for little behinds to balance on, being careful not to scratch yourself or pinch yourself with the loose bolts that remained fastened there even with the planks gone. They also acted as nifty little diving boards from which to launch oneself from the spinning top. If more than 6 people were on the ride, the extra people balanced themselves on the top spokes.

Tonia, Julie, and I were too small to stand still and push and too small to push from the outside of the merry-go-round; all three of us had no choice but to push from inside it. We were a democratic group; everyone had to take their turn pushing. Tonia wasn’t as big a fan of bare feet as I was: rocks and ‘prickers’ hurt her feet. One day, she was inside the merry-go-round pushing, and the strap of her sandal broke. Her shoe fell off and tripped her and she went down, under the spinning metal top. She landed on her belly, losing her grip on the bar and basically face planting in the dirt. She lifted her head, laughing, and the nifty little metal base with its four giant bolts smacked her in the back of the head.

Tonia face-planted in the dirt again but now it was horrifying instead of funny: there was blood everywhere, gushing from the back of her head. She was trying to get up again and I screamed at her to stay down as everyone on the merry-go-round jumped off and applied the brakes, Flintstones-style. I pulled Tonia out from under and she sat up and put her hand to her head where it had been hit. When she felt a giant wet spot instead of a bunch of hair with a lump forming under it, she brought her hand to her face to look at it and seeing her hand full of blood, began shrieking in horror. When she screamed, her head spurted blood and I screamed, so she screamed again and her head spurted more. 

I yanked her up and put her in a headlock so I could support her while placing my hand on the wound to hold in the blood. There was so much blood! I put my other arm around her waist and told her to run and we began running the four blocks home, Julie and Jeanette and a pack of kids trailing behind us. As we ran, Tonia kept putting her hand to her head, looking at the blood, and screaming. I cut through yards, half dragging my sister, who I was sure was bleeding to death –again– running home with her to get help.  When we got to the top of the hill behind our house, I began screaming, too, shouting for Joyce to come help us. I dragged Tonia up the back porch to find the back door was locked. I dragged her back down and ran around the garage, still screaming for Joyce, Tonia still screaming about the blood. 

Joyce met us in the driveway, put us in the car, and we were again off to the ER. Tonia got ten stitches, a temporary bald spot, and no concussion. Joyce told the story often, and to everyone, forever: how I dragged Tonia home, running–as she put it–the hundred-yard-dash in my bare feet. She said she couldn’t tell which of us was hurt, not because we were both covered in blood, which we were, but because I was screaming and crying and Tonia was completely calm. This was absolutely not true. I probably was crying, because once again my little sister was bleeding to death, but I was screaming for Joyce to help us, not because I was hysterical. Tonia WAS hysterical, screaming and weeping because–say it with me: she was bleeding to death. But that’s not how Joyce told the story. In her story, repeated as often as she could find an audience, Tonia was calm and I was in hysterics. Tonia didn’t cry while they cleaned her up and stitched her, but according to Joyce, I wept the whole time. When I would try to explain to people that in fact, Tonia was crying and I was not in a blind panic, Joyce would tell me and the listener that I was too young to remember it correctly and of course I would make myself the hero.

This was the first time I went running to Joyce with a bleeding sibling in tow, but it was far from the last. It was the last time I screamed for Joyce. I’m a quick learner. I don’t panic.

U.S.Military Bunk Beds

For a while, Tonia, Sean, and I shared a room. After Cheryl left, Midget moved in. He found a place downtown and moved out and then Jesse moved in. When Jesse met Gerry and moved out, we kids finally got separated into the girls’ room and Sean’s room. When we were sharing a room, Sean slept in the crib and then a toddler bed, basically a low platform for the crib mattress to lay on, with a fiberboard headboard at one end. Tonia and I had twin beds that had been picked up at a garage sale or at surplus. One bed was a wooden frame with wooden slats, a box spring, and mattress. It had been painted with a thick coat of red paint. The other bed was military surplus, stamped on one rail: U.S. BED, BUNK, STEEL. SUPERIOR SLEEPRITE CORP. It was made of iron pipes with caps to protect you from the sharp ends. I should say cap, because three of the four caps were missing. The fantastic thing about this bed was that there was no box spring, or slats, or platform. The mattress laid directly on a net of metal squiggles attached to the frame by springs. It was like a trampoline.

After Cheryl moved back home to Florida, Joyce began sleeping a lot, at all hours of the day. She was sleeping the day Tonia and I made our bloody run from the park. I realize as an adult that sleeping like that is a sign of severe depression. As a kid, I just kind of assumed that’s what moms do after breakfast and lunch: they sleep. Then they make dinner, watch TV with dads, and fall asleep early. Tonia and I started doing dishes and washing clothes before Tonia started elementary school, standing on chairs to reach the sink and washing machine.

While Joyce slept, we played outside with Julie and Jeanette. When we couldn’t play outside, we played in the basement or living room, or literally climbed the walls in the hallway. We also liked to shut the hallway doors, turn off the lights, and play that we were all blind. But the best thing to do was jump on the trampoline bed. We got spankings if we got caught, but with Larry at work and Joyce sleeping…

One day it was raining, Joyce was sleeping, and Tonia, Sean and I were jumping on the trampoline bed. One of us girls jumped too hard, or double-jumped, and sent Sean flying. He didn’t fall off the bed, but it was close. Instead he bounced off the wall and landed on his back, his head hitting one of the capless iron posts. He started crying as only toddlers do: complete silence followed by a huge inhale and then the deluge. I pulled him up and examined the back of his head. There was what looked to be a tiny little cut just below his occipital shelf, bleeding just the slightest bit.

By this time kids at school had informed me of the dangers of bumping your head too hard: You could get a concussion, and then if you fell asleep, you’d DIE! So I carried Sean into Joyce’s room and told her that he’d fallen on one of the posts of the silver bed. I wasn’t screaming her name or covered in blood this time. I told her he was bleeding a little bit but he might have a concussion. She pulled him into bed with her and checked the back of his head. Not seeing any blood, she laid his head on her arm and told him to take a nap with his mommy. 

I was still worried about him Dying Of Concussion, but parents know more about that than kids do, so I went back to playing with Tonia–not jumping on the bed any more. About thirty minutes later, Joyce started shouting my name. She’d woken back up because her arm was wet. It was blood. The pressure of Sean laying with his head across her arm had pushed open the cut and her arm and pillow were soaked. Sean was asleep and didn’t want to wake up. Joyce threw on some clothes, shouted at me to watch Tonia, and they were off to the ER. Sean got 5 stitches. Who panicked this time?

Larry put a piece of plywood between the mattress and the springs so the trampoline bed was no more. 

Another rainy day. Another day of Joyce sleeping. It had rained so much, the basement was leaking and we weren’t allowed down there. We were bored. But you know what would be fun? Playing paratrooper! In our shared room there was a chest of drawers, painted yellow and white, about 5-6 drawers high. You could climb on the footboard of the red bed and climb to the top of the chest of drawers. Then you could leap off, back onto the red bed. If you were really daring, you could jump across the room onto the trampoline bed–but you had to be careful; those springs could launch you in unpredictable directions. 

Tonia was always braver jumping off things than I was–she’d jump off the basement stairs into the pile of laundry on the cement floor below. She’d swing as high as she could on the swings at the park and then leap off at the apogee, spreading her arms and legs out like a star, hanging in the air for a breathless moment before dropping to the earth. Sean was too small to make the jump from dresser to the trampoline bed, and I was too scared. On this day, Tonia chanted the magic chant: “one, two, three!” and jumped across the room from the dresser to the silver bed, which was no longer a safe trampoline because Larry had put a sheet of plywood under the mattress to protect us kids. 

When Tonia landed on the bed, it didn’t bounce like it was supposed to. Unprepared for the resistance, she tumbled off the bed and smashed her face into the frame of the red bed. When she looked up at me, her nose was bleeding. But worse than the blood, her nose was quite definitely bent to one side.  I went and woke Joyce up and told her Tonia had tripped and fallen against the bed and I thought her nose was broken. Joyce scoffed at me, so I called Tonia over. Joyce leapt out of bed and took Tonia to the emergency room. The doctor pushed Tonia’s nose back in place, told her to sleep sitting up for a few days, warned them not to let it get bumped until it was healed, and sent them home.

One sunny Saturday afternoon, Sean decided to climb into the back of Larry’s pickup, parked at the curb in front of the house. He was maybe 3 or 4. I was sitting in the tree in the front yard with Jeanette and we watched him use the trailer hitch to haul himself up to the bumper, stand, and grab the top of the tailgate. When he tried to wriggle over the tailgate into the bed, he lost control and fell to the pavement, landing on his forehead. Gash across his temple. This time I took him to Larry and announced Sean needed stitches. He came home with five.

When Tonia got her sandal caught in her bike chain (why was she still allowed to wear sandals?) and the chain guard took a bite out of her shin, I took her to Joyce and Larry and gave my professional opinion that, while there was a lot of blood, I didn’t think she needed stitches. A visit to the ER proved me right. 

When we were at Church Camp and Sean tried to slide off the side of a mountain, I took a few steps, grabbed him by the collar, hauled him back onto the path, and we continued up the mountain. 

The summer we spent in Florida with the grandparents while Joyce contemplated leaving Larry, Elnora took us to visit Cheryl and her family in Chipley. All of us kids were out walking around the neighborhood, with Sean and cousin Ricky sharing Ricky’s bike. Sean decided to see how fast he could ride down Cemetery Hill. With a name like that, he should’ve known better, but he launched from the top of the hill and took off, pedaling as fast as he could. About two-thirds of the way down the hill, he hit a pothole and the chain bounced free of its sprocket. The sudden lack of tension on the pedals threw Sean’s balance off. I watched from the top of the hill, fingertips in my teeth, as the bike first wobbled, then leaned to one side and corrected, leaned far over to the other side and corrected, then leaned way too far to the first side and fell over. Sean and the bike slid the rest of the way down the hill on Sean’s face. When the bike stopped, Sean stood up and turned around to look back up the hill at me. I could see only one of his eyes. The other side of his face was just a blur of red. He took one step, then tumbled over into the ditch. 

Tonia and I ran to him, turned him over. He was still breathing but half of his face looked gone. It was just a bloody, skinned mess. He was unconscious. I told Tonia to hold him and make sure he kept breathing and told Ricky to stand guard. And I ran my famous 100-yard-dash to Cheryl’s house, where I burst in the door and told Nora to get the car keys and come with me. She didn’t even question my sudden bossiness, just climbed into the car and followed my directions. 

Once the nurses cleaned up Sean’s face, it was revealed to be only a pretty serious road rash, with some pebbles embedded in the skin. His eye, nose, and teeth were undamaged. He did have to have 2-3 stitches where a larger pebble has gouged a hole under his nose. He was pretty excited when he woke up: he was staying the night in the hospital for observation and he was being given antibiotics, which he heard as ‘bionics’ and assumed he was going to be fast and strong, like the Six-Million Dollar Man.

By the time Sean was a teen, he had stitches in about 6 different places on his head and more on other parts of his body and I was present for every injury. After the broken nose, Tonia never had an accident that required stitches again. I don’t know how–she loved jumping from high places. And she kept wearing sandals.

When I was a junior in high school, I met a guy named Steve and dated him for almost a year. That summer, we would get together with friends and hang out in a farmer’s field, lighting a bonfire and drinking illegally. On the fourth of July the group headed out to our bonfire spot with fireworks and beer. The empty bottles were thrown into the fire, so inside the ring of retaining stones, there was a bunch of broken glass. Late in the evening some of the drunk guys decided to put bottle rockets into bottles, but instead of lighting them, they put the bottle in the fire to see if the bottle would heat up enough to light the rocket. 

Steve and I and a lot of people were sitting by the fire and he told these guys to knock it off, they were going to hurt somebody. When the guys refused to remove the bottle, Steve put his hand on one of the stones and leaned into the fire to get the bottle himself. In the dark, he put the heel of his hand on a shard of a broken bottle lying on the stone, slicing his hand open. The cut was about 3 inches long and bleeding freely. I jumped up and ran to Steve’s car–we’d stopped at McDonald’s earlier and I knew there was a stack of clean napkins in the glove box. I grabbed them, ran back to the fire, and wrapped Steve’s hand with the napkins. I told him to hold them tight to the cut, and this time I was the one driving someone to the ER.

The next day, we were with our friends so Steve could show off his stitches. One of the guys started laughing and told everyone I had been so panicked about the cut, I’d run to the car without Steve and had to come back and get him. I said that wasn’t true; I had run for clean napkins while they all stood around gaping at the blood like a bunch of drunken idiots. He replied, “mm-hm. Sure.” I refused to speak to him ever again. About a month later, Steve was showing the scar and telling the story and he ended it by repeating what the guy had said: “Michelle was so panicked she ran to the car without me and had to come back!”  So funny. I broke up with Steve the next day. I don’t panic.

When Monica was a baby, just learning to walk, I took the kids over to another Air Force wife’s house for a play date. Theresa’s house had tile floors and low windows with wide marble ledges. Monica was toddling along, lost her balance, and fell face first into one of the window ledges. I could tell she was gearing up for that toddler deep breath followed by a scream so I walked over to her and picked her up, soothing her, asking if she bumped her head and did it hurt. I had her facing me when she finally opened her mouth to let out the built-up scream and when she did, blood gushed out.

I grabbed my purse and keys, took Nick by the hand and as I went out the door to the car I told Theresa to call Rocky and tell him to meet us at the ER. It turned out that when Monica hit the ledge, she ripped her frenulum, the piece of tissue inside your mouth that connects the upper gum to the upper lip. It’s not an uncommon injury and it tends to bleed a lot when it occurs. No stitches were needed, just a cold compress, baby aspirin, and watch for infection. When all the families in the squadron got together not long after, Theresa laughingly told the story of how I freaked out and went running out of the house, not even saying goodbye. I didn’t even try to correct her. I never spoke to her again. 

When my kids took off running in a parking lot into the path of an oncoming car, I took two steps forward, used both hands to grab a handful of hair on the top of each of their heads, and yanked them back and put them in the car. When our oldest kids were in kindergarten and Tonia looked out the kitchen window to find they’d climbed onto the garage roof, she burst out crying in fear. I stepped out onto the porch and called sternly: “Hey. You kids get down from there right now. You know better.” They got down safely immediately. 

You see, Joyce? I do not panic.

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