Monday, February 21, 2011

It's A Dangerous World

I don't know how old I was when I first heard someone claim that this world must have been designed by a higher intelligence because it's so perfectly arranged or ordered. Whenever it was, I'm pretty sure that I thought they were joking and laughed hard. Whenever I realize that the people who make this claim aren't joking, I want to cry instead. It's like coming face to face with someone seriously trying to claim that terrible diseases and painful accidents and the death of children are all good things we should just lay back and enjoy, or maybe even go out and increase. If that's not madness, it's the next closest thing.

I'm not sure exactly when I first realized that this world wasn't merely imperfect but dangerously so. Whenever it was, it must have been very early on.

Maybe that realization came when I was a young child suffering through my first bout of stomach flu. Suffering from a high fever made worse by hot summer nights without air conditioning and an inability to sleep, an inability to keep even water down, an inability to understand what was happening to me, an inability to do much of anything but beg my powerless relatives to take me to a hospital they couldn't afford, I felt permanently trapped in utter agony. It is impossible to square that never-to-be forgotten agony with the claim that this world is good let alone perfect.

A few years later I nearly choked to death while eating a piece of fruit. A few years after that, my mother almost choked to death while eating dinner. It's an experience I suppose we all experience and witness at some point, thanks to the human body's extremely unfortunate commingling of our eating and our breathing tubes. (The New York State Department of Health website says that at least one child in the US chokes to death on food every five days. It also says that choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional death in children under the age of 5.) Perfect bodies living in perfect worlds wouldn't choke. Ever.

It was more or less the same year that I almost choked to death that I fell down a flight of stairs. It was Halloween night and I was on my way out to trick or treat. The Quick Draw McGraw cartoon show was big at the time and I'd sent away for a Quick Draw McGraw mask. It turned out to be a huge cardboard thing that completely enveloped my small head. The eye holes weren't even close to where my eyes actually were, and the only way I could keep it on at all was to hold it firm against my shoulders with my hands. I never should have worn it at all, but I actually insisted on putting it on before setting out from our second floor apartment. I immediately lost my bearings and my footing the second I opened our top door and faced our front stairwell. I spent the next ten seconds or so somersaulting down an uncarpeted flight of 23 hardwood steps. I suspect a fall like that today would kill me several times over. I was lucky enough at the time to have suffered only some minor bruising, but the experience taught me how quickly and easily a common, every day activity like leaving my home can turn deadly. (Especially when leaving that home involves using stairs without a railing. We didn't have one the night I fell - and we didn't get one afterwards, either, even though our landlord was wealthy enough to have had one put in and probably had the skills necessary to put one in himself had he been so inclined. I'm sure he felt himself to be a good and compassionate Christian man. How he squared that belief with these obviously unsafe stairs, I don't know. But it makes me wonder how many lives have been saved by secular government regulations that force Jesus-loving landlords to do the right thing.)

The dangers of the world were brought home once again the day a 12-year-old boy was run over by a semi less than half a block from my home. Although I didn't walk over to see what the commotion was all about off to my east, my landlord did. He came back grim-faced and saying that it was a terrible thing to see. Thanks to the solid line of buildings that extended down my street to the intersection where the accident happened, I could only see the back tenth or so of the stopped truck, but that was enough to leave an indelible impression. It was a situation impossible to reconcile with the otherwise picture perfect day....

I don't suppose I thought about that boy *every* time I crossed the same street he tried to as I went to catch a bus or run an errand over the course of the next 10 years, but I'm sure I thought about it the morning I myself almost got run over. The guy who almost hit me was driving a big dark car, not a silvery truck, and he was making a left turn, not going straight north, but I suppose I was more or less in the same position the boy had been when I realized that the guy wasn't going to yield to me even though I was a pedestrian in a crosswalk. If I hadn't been alert and started to run out of the way, I'm sure I would have been hit - hit by a black man wearing a beret, sunglasses, and a deadly cold expression directed my way. If I had to guess what he was thinking as he attempted to complete his turn without swerving or braking or even slowing down, it would be, "Huh, looks like I might actually get the chance to kill a white kid today."

It was sometime between these last two incidents that I saw my first dead squirrel in the road. It was the road that ran along the west side of my block, not the east side, however, and I didn't see the vehicle responsible, but the results were undeniably gruesome. I was still young enough to stare and stare and stare some more as I tried to will a miraculous resurrection. I don't think I succeeded in getting even a bit of fur to catch the wind....

It was near the southwest corner of my block, perhaps halfway between the spot where the squirrel had lost its life and the 12-year-old boy had lost his, that I first donned a pair of old-style roller skates - the metal type that you slipped on over the bottom of your shoes and then tied. I was in front of a friend's house at the time. We were playing on the sidewalk that ran along the busy street we both lived on. As soon as I stood up, I was completely out of control. Only a hard fall to the walk prevented me from rolling right out in front of the cars and trucks going by. I haven't tried to roller skate since....

That incident came back to my mind recently when I was researching the history of my old neighborhood and came across a front page news story about a 4-year-old girl who had been killed by a car just a stone's throw away from my friend's house about 10 years earlier in 1953. She had lived in the corner house just across the street from my block - which is to say, across the street that I saw my first dead squirrel on. Apparently she'd been playing with and chasing a neighbor's dog when she ran out into the street from behind a parked car and was hit by a 19-year-old driver. Her mother had been inside ironing at the time. The story went on to say that less than a year earlier, both the girl and her mother had almost lost their lives in a boating accident on the Maumee River. Although I passed her old home often when I was a child myself and had long made it a habit to stare at everything I could see and milk everything I saw of all the information I possibly could, I can't recall ever seeing anything that indicated that such a tragedy had happened there. No cross marked the spot, no blood stains remained, whatever wails her mother may have let out when she first got the news had long since faded away. All that remained was a spot on the brick road indistinguishable from all the other spots. No lingering trace of tragedy was to be found. And no signs of any possible future tragedies were to be gleaned. The sad fact of the matter is, untold numbers of such tragedies have occurred all around us, and untold numbers of such tragedies remain to unfold on spots that look as normal today as all the others....

In 1967, some 14 years after 4-year-old Dolores had lost her life at the corner of Central and Cambridge, I was walking south on Cambridge with two of my friends, Tim and Rick - twin brothers a year older than I was. We were about a block and a half north of Dolores's old home and perhaps a block south of the spot where I saw my first dead squirrel. We were on the west side of Cambridge when Tim and Rick spotted Nick up ahead. Nick was a year or two younger than I was. I don't know why Tim and Rick hated Nick, but they took off in pursuit the moment they saw him. Panic-stricken Nick darted between parked cars into the street to get away from them and was immediately hit by a car headed south. Although the car was only going about 25 mph, it was more than enough to send Nick somersaulting up into the air and across the hood, then against the windshield, then forward onto the brick. As the horrified young accountant-type male driver stopped and got out to check on Nick, I faded away to the north. Tim and Rick likewise decided that the best thing to do was to make themselves scarce, though I'm not sure exactly how they did so. When I alone drifted back some minutes later, I saw Nick's mother running frantically to him as he still lay sprawled in the middle of the street. I suppose she had run all the way from their home less than a block away. It was a pathetic scene made chilling by his mother's loud condemnation of my friends by name for their long-time stalking of her son. A small crowd seems to have gathered by then - but no emergency vehicles. Birds sang. The sun still shone. Ants crawled as oblivious as ever across the sidewalk. If the universe gave a shit about poor Nick, it hid the fact very well....

Remarkably, Nick survived. Maybe his young bones saved him just like my young bones had saved me when I fell down the stairs. In fact, he seems to have been out and about again in fairly short order. It was his mother who ended up dying - of cancer, I believe - just a few years later. In the meantime, cancer claimed the life of the mother of the friend I'd tried to roller skate with. Nick's mom had dark hair and looked vaguely like an eternally unsmiling Cher. My friend's mom had blond curly hair and looked more like an always smiling female Harpo Marx. It's odd now to realize that both of them died before they were 50 despite their many differences - and odder still to realize that my own much-poorer mother nearly made it to 80 despite smoking a pack-a-day for nearly 60 years. (And when she did die, it wasn't of cancer.)

Such is life. You're born; long stretches of boredom are interrupted by random moments of sheer terror and agony; and then you're dead.

Babble about perfection and intelligently-designed order just makes things worse by gratuitously adding insanity to the mix.

1 comment:

  1. In an intelligently designed universe, nobody would have to live in apartments with smokers.