When I was eight years old, about the same year, more or less, that the mule stepped on my toes, we went to visit my country kinfolk up in west Randolph County at Christmas. Some of them lived sho’ ’nuff in the sticks, if that is not a redundancy.
One of my mother’s cousins lived near the Tallapoosa River, down a narrow, rutted dirt road, in the deep woods, in an old unpainted house, not much more than a cabin. It didn’t have a porch, or running water or electricity. She had five kids. There was another cramped hovel within yards of that dwelling that was identical. Another cousin lived in it with her family, consisting of several more kids about my age.
We didn’t see this branch of the family often, but one of the women had recently given birth to a new baby and my mother brought a baby gift. It was a cold, overcast winter’s day. Despite the misting, icy rain, we young’uns were sent outside so the grown folks could visit. Since they had few toys or possessions, the kids’ games consisted of mostly running and chasing, hitting each other with sweet-gum balls and pine cones, and a lot of insults, rough-housing, and angry threats– in much the same fashion as Yvonne and I entertain ourselves today.
Other than the small area the two low houses sat on, the woods had not been cleared, and trees grew right up to the cabins on all sides. This left the ground covered with a thick, crunchy carpet of twigs, dead leaves and pine needles. As I was running through the trees with that rowdy gang, I stepped into a deep, rotted stump hole that was hidden beneath the leaves, sinking up to my knee and twisting my ankle. It hurt like pure-tee hell. I was sunk so deep I couldn’t pull my foot out until my older cousin, Lynwood, helped me get loose.
(A favorite mill-village neighbor of ours, a disabled veteran named Bud Carmichael, usually wore high leather boots laced up to his knee, with his pant legs tucked inside them. I always liked the way Bud looked, and Santa Claus had brought me a similar, but smaller, pair of boots. I was wearing those new boots that dreary day, laced up to the knee, with my pants tucked inside. I’m convinced those boots kept my ankle from being snapped in half, but it was still bad enough. It hurt so badly I felt like busting out squalling – and probably did!)
Some of the girls ran back inside and told the adults what had happened. My mother and her cousin, Avis, came out and got me and took me in the house. They sat me on the worn pine-floor by the fire and removed the boot from my injured right foot; the same foot the mule had danced on. In the flickering firelight, my pale Scotch-Irish foot looked like a white peeled potato; like it was lit from inside. The pain was agonizing.
My ankle was already twice normal size. Someone recommended that they wash my foot in kerosene, which was immediately done without discussion. Mind you, this kerosene was applied liberally, right in front of a roaring open fire. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem to be the wisest therapy. Avis got some rags, which she cut into bandages, and they wrapped my foot and ankle so tightly my toes turned blue. There was no mention of a doctor. The nearest doctor was in Lineville or Roanoke, about the same distance from that location. After all, there didn’t seem to be broken bone sticking through the skin.
Avis’s lanky, bewhiskered husband, Jack Edmonson, my moonshine-drinking, banjo-picking cousin, was sitting in a straight-chair by the fire watching them minister to my injury. As I sat there, wincing and writhing, while they vigorously swabbed me with splashes of icy kerosene, Jack struck several loud, ringing warm-up chords on his banjo – “thrum, thrum, thrum” — and ripped into a sprightly tune. It was a surreal moment and is still a surreal memory. Five-string banjo music and searing, tear-inducing pain all blended together in a weird, kerosene-perfumed, oak-fire scented mosaic. My ankle still hurts every time I hear five-string banjo music.
So I made the trip back home in my daddy’s old black Chevy, with my new boot laying on the backseat beside me, and my foot and ankle throbbing like a toothache–a big toothache. I was still hobbling days later when school started in January, and well into the spring.
I couldn’t sleep that first night because of the pain. At some point in the wee hours, my daddy, who had a headache every day of his life, made a pot of coffee and got out his Standback’s. You knew you were in dire straits if he gave you a Standback washed down with black coffee. But it helped — after you stopped gagging and ignored the heartburn.
I never saw a doctor for the Christmas injury. In fact, I never saw a doctor anytime unless they thought I was in danger of imminent death — and this was open to discussion. This wasn’t neglect on my family’s part. They practiced this same behavior with their own health problems, too. A doctor was the last resort. Just one peg above a mortician.
Health care has always been a problem for po’ folks. They handled it back in the day by not seeking any professional medical assistance, as a rule. When people visited a sick relative in the hospital back in those years, it was because they wanted to see their loved ones before the sick person died. The patient had usually waited until the Grim Reaper was sitting on the front porch swing, waiting impatiently, before they saw a doctor.
In their lives, a doctor was a just a blocking tackle for the undertaker, a temporary delaying action. You knew the end was near.