I wrote a post today on Middle Grade Minded about writing for middle graders, and, more specifically, why I do it. If you’re curious, go check it out. As part of that discussion, I made reference to the time I broke my arm in the fourth grade, just as school got out for the summer.
I later wrote an essay about the event, but for the first time in my young life, I approached the retelling the way a storyteller would, not the way a 5th grade writing an essay would.
My teacher loved it.
I loved it too.
Of course, what I wrote that day has been gone for more than thirty years. But I still remember exactly what happened that day when I broke my arm. I can still play the movie of it in head, all these years later. And despite years of seemingly trying to damage my memory on purpose, most of the details are as sharp as the day it happened.
So, how did I break my arm in 4th grade? Well, it goes a little something like this
The boy finished pumping the pedals of his burnt sienna brown Huffy at the third house from the start of the cul-de-sac, down at the bottom on the hill. That was as far up as he was allowed to climb without asking someone for permission to go further. Not that the “Land beyond the Third House” was undiscovered country or anything, but any more and he’d be beyond sight of his own house down below.
He swiveled his bike towards his family’s bi-level and straddled the familiar vinyl seat. The hill was so steep. In his 10 years, he’d never seen a steeper one with his own eyes. And this one was his. He could ride it everyday, zooming towards that concrete circle below at break-neck speeds. The sensation of flying down it must be like what those ski-jump guys at the Olympics felt.
No use waiting. With a shove of his Keds, he pushed off and started the familiar descent.
Once at a stable speed, the boy let go of the handlebars, reaching his arms out to both sides. He was a ‘T’ shape now, cutting through the warm spring air like a odd-shaped knife. Halfway down, and short of actually flying, there couldn’t possibly be a better feeling on earth. Hands free, letting gravity do it’s job while his Huffy lead the way.
But, then, why did he only ever let go of the handlebars? What would it be like to stick his feet out too? To be tethered to the bike by nothing more than the connection of that vinyl seat cover? Wouldn’t that be even more like flying?
Not wasting a moment for second thoughts, his feet abandoned their assigned posts at the pedals, and now instead of an ‘T’, he was an ‘X’, careening towards the bottom of the hill. The houses below were getting bigger and bigger. He felt like a bird. a powerful, graceful, majestic one. Like, an eagle or something.
The scary part loomed ahead. A jagged, bumpy pad of concrete where the hill met the cul-de-sac, cracked in places and always full of gravel. He rocketed through it, bouncing across the uneven surface. He’d done it a thousand times, and it had never caught him up before. It was nothing to worry much about.
Except this time wasn’t like before.
This time, he was only barely in control of the Huffy under him.
The bike hit a crack and shimmied to the right. Without hands or feet in place to control it, he reacted by instinct and shifted his whole weight left.
Too much. The biked leaned precariously, nearly tilting in process.
Panic – a grown up-sized sharp, electric jolt – shot through the boy. His feet found their designated assignments again in half a heartbeat, and his hands squeezed the familiar, cracked plastic grips of the handlebars. He tried to turn the Huffy, shifting it back to the right, hoping to bring it back into balance.
Or, maybe, too much.
He’d turned it too hard, and the wheels lost their purchase on the pavement below him. The whole bicycle slid sideways, taking him with it. He was going down. It was going be a rough one.
And then the boy’s mind…lurched.
But yet, as he looked to the sky, a spring-time palate of piercing blue and cottony white spiraled around and around over head. The whole world was spinning a thousand miles an hour. How could the sky possibly move THAT fast? Had the Earth been launched from its orbit?
But wait. What was happening? Something else was going on, right? As if he was watching the entire thing play out like a movie, on cue, the scene wiped from one view to another. An arm…someone’s arm, or maybe no one’s?…stretched out in front of his eyes,
Pavement — hard, angry, sun-baked concrete – raced upwards to meet it. No force in Heaven or Earth could stop the two from meeting, from crashing against each other.
A scream split the air.
Only much later would the boy realized it had been his voice.
The arm, his arm, smacked against the concrete, which showed all the tenderness of, well, a slab of concrete. And even still, that wasn’t the worst part. The worst thing was when that arm bounced. The elbow struck first and popped, lurching back up towards the sky like one of those rubber super ball or a fake chicken or something. It had been nearly flat, held straight out, when the arm first touched the ground. But after that bounce, it wasn’t any longer.
It bent the wrong way.
The angle of his elbow pointed to the sun overhead.
His mind snapped back into normal speed as his elbow and the rest of his arm crashed into the pavement.
Someone screamed again. This time it wasn’t him. At the same time, a strange sensation fired through him. Not pain, exactly, but something maybe a little better, and yet somehow far worse. A uncomfortable numbness where the boy knew there should instead be searing, lancing, agonizing pain.
It was years later that he found out about medical shock.
“MY AAAARRRRRM!” he shouted in a jumbled a heap beneath his forgotten Huffy, not yet having the courage to move. People raced to him from every direction. They pulled the bike off him, helped him find his feet, and gingerly cradled his arm. Someone else, an adult neighbor, guided him up the driveway to his house. By that point, the poor high school girl charged with watching the boy that afternoon had come outside to see the commotion first hand. Her face was tight, and her eyes danced in an unfamiliar way that he didn’t yet realize hinted at fear. Still, she kept it hidden, and assured the boy in soothing tones that everything would be all right. That his father would be home soon and they’d go get something called X-rays.
He staggered inside and settled onto the couch to wait, snuffling uncontrollably every few minutes. At least he wasn’t crying anymore, but that was small comfort against the odd sensation of numb pain pulsing outward from his elbow.
One of his brothers rolled his burnt sienna Huffy into the garage. He didn’t know it, but a wrapped cast, a pair of surgical pins, and six long weeks of summer vacation would all come and go before he had another opportunity to ride that bike again.
And he never rode it down the hill without his hands on the bars again.