January 17, 2021

FTV: Hard Knocks


     The human body is a remarkable machine.  Our built-in self-repair mechanisms are tested throughout one’s life and looking back, I can only wonder why humans are so determined to thoroughly test the limits of these systems.  My father and mother both smoked when I was growing up.  Thankfully, my mother quit cold turkey when I was in Junior High.  If you ask me why I laid low and stayed out of trouble during that period of early teen rebellion, that would be one of the big reasons.  My mother wasn’t a large woman, but with her dander up, she could be a force of nature.  Even in my clueless early teens, I knew not to kick that hornet nest.  During the first phase of her quitting, she was, dare I say, a bit touchy and on edge. 

      Even though dad gave up the habit a few times (for many months at one point), he was a harder nut to crack.  Well into his 70s, he ended up hospitalized with a serious pneumonia that reminded him of his younger years when he was afflicted with chronic emphysema.  He was giving the attending doctor a hard time about keeping him in the hospital.  Dad was a little shaken when the M.D. said, “You can go home anytime, but if you do not stop smoking, you will be back in worse shape.  If you don’t want to die gasping for breath, then I suggest you stop right now!” 

     My father had taken up the habit when he worked underground in an iron mine in Wakefield.  His partner used to bring one cigarette with him to smoke after lunch each day.  Dad asked him some questions about smoking so one day he brought two so he could give it a try.  From age nineteen on, dad spent more than fifty years smoking various brands.  The dangers of this nasty habit were not widely known yet and I am sure he did a lot of damage to his lungs smoking unfiltered Camels and similarly unfiltered roll-your-owns.  He always told us kids (my brother, sister, and I) to never start smoking (a parental instruction which we thankfully obeyed).  This advice did not prevent him from setting us up with his little mechanical device, rolling paper, and bulk tobacco we used to manufacture unfiltered cigarettes to refill his empty Camel packs.  The older we got, the more we nagged him about quitting but it took the prospect of his breathing problems as a young boy returning to get him to shake his habit for good.  

     Amazingly, dad walked out of the hospital after the doctor gave him the old one-two punch about his health and never smoked again.  No aids, no nicotine laced gum – just a cold turkey stop.  I am sure that he went through a good deal of discomfort, at least during the initial stages of quitting, but the longer he went, the easier it became.  When his persistent cough began to disappear, the benefits of quitting started to emerge.  Even after more than a half century of abuse, his lungs began to improve as did his stamina.  Late in his 80s and into his early 90s, COPD began to affect him more, but one can only speculate how severely (and how much earlier) it would have affected him had he continued smoking.

     Growing up, I had more than my fair share of bad sinus and lung infections.  It occurred to me later in life that mild allergies coupled with exposure to cigarette smoke were the source of many of these childhood illnesses.  After mom quit smoking, dad was compelled to do his smoking anywhere but in the house.  The indoor smoking ban and prolonged absences when I was working away from home during the summers helped keep me from getting extremely sick with every head cold I contracted.  The first six years of my teaching career coincided with a return of the sinus and lung problems I thought I had grown out of.  The main contributing factor here seemed to be the blue cloud of smoke that hovered in the teacher’s lounge.  By the middle of the 1983-84 (the first year the Ontonagon Jr. High students had moved into the high school building), I stopped eating my lunch in the lounge.  I even stopped hanging my coat in the ‘smoking lounge’ because the smell it absorbed had the same irritating effect on my sinuses.  Not long after the move to the current K-12 building, cigarettes were banned from public buildings and I again found myself battling less smoke induced complications every time I got sick.  

     When my classes began working on improving the nature trail west of the OASD school building, many former students reminded me that this area used to be ‘the smoker’s trail’.  Back in the 1980s, it was not uncommon to see small groups of students heading out there before school or during the lunch hour.  The school administration tried to combat teen smoking for many years, but it remained a problem.  As more people reminded me that this ‘used to be the smoker’s trail’, I began to realize that I hadn’t seen any students heading out to the woods for a long time.  I will not say that there are no teen smokers these days, but it certainly isn’t as common as it used to be.  One JH class actually didn’t believe me when I told them students used to go out to the woods trail to smoke during school.  If people forget that there ever was a smoker’s trail, that will be a great sign that perhaps teen tobacco use is on a permanent decline (and never becoming the ‘vape trail’ would also be great).

     As the NFL (and eventually other sports leagues) became more concerned with concussions and their lasting effects, I thought back to whether or not I had ever had one.  Not playing organized football past sixth grade more than likely saved my noggin some wear and tear, but many times our pick up games without helmets were just as brutal as ‘the real thing’.  I eventually recalled two instances where I can say that all the signs that I was ‘concussed’ were present.  The first time my bell was truly ‘rung’ actually happened on the playground in early elementary school.

     The back of Whitman Elementary School faced a large yard with a playground on one end and an expansive lawn in the other direction.  There was a paved service driveway that looped around the school to the back door near the gym and janitor’s room.  In first or second grade (pardon my hazy memory of the exact year), I was chasing one of those red rubber playground balls down this paved area.  I tried to stop it by stepping in front of it as I had seen other kids do.  Unfortunately, I stepped ON the ball and when my foot bounced forward off the top, my body went horizontal to the ground.  The back of my head impacted the ground first and my field of vision went completely white.  After my vision cleared, I sat up and realized everyone else was heading back to class.  The rest of the day was kind of a blur and my mother was somewhat concerned that I took a nap after school (something that never happened when there were adventures to be had before dinner).  Had I looked in the mirror, I am betting my eyes were bloodshot as they can be with this type of impact to the head.

     I managed to wait until tenth grade before collecting my second concussion.  It was in Jerry Pangrzi’s gym class.  I can still remember the concerned look on his face when he asked me, “Are you okay?”  We used volleyballs as our missiles instead of those big rubber playground balls.  The lighter volleyballs could be thrown with a lot of speed, but they had less mass than those heavy rubber jobs.  One could get hit in the head with volleyball and it hardly registered.  Those rubber balls had more mass, but they also gave a double whammy when they hit.  The compression upon impact followed by the ball springing back to shape would give one’s head a double shot.  Ball compression, however, is not what caused a concussion in this case.

     We were playing on the sports deck above the main Marquette Senior High gym floor.  The wrestling mat was rolled up and stored against one end wall.  The team guarding that side of the floor would routinely sit on the rolled up mat when they were put out of the game.  The day I literally hit the wall, the guys sitting on the mat had caused it to migrate three feet out on the floor.  Near the end of one game, Mr. Pangrazzi called, “Go and get ‘em,” which meant the remaining players could go anywhere on the floor to hunt down the last survivors.  I was furiously back pedalling to avoid an onrushing attacker when my lower legs encountered the mat, now unexpectedly a yard from the brick wall.  When my legs hit the mat,  momentum carried the rest of me over the top and into the wall.  Naturally, I hit it with the back of my head and as with my earlier concussion, my vision went completely white.  The next thing I remember is Mr. P holding my shoulders and peering into my glassy eyes.  I answered his question with several seconds of blank stare and a mumbled, “Yeah, I think so.”  “Well, at least you didn’t crack the wall,”  Mr. P replied which gave me a little hint of how hard I must have hit.  Being one of those hard headed Finns, if either of these incidents did any permanent damage, it hasn’t surfaced yet (I think).

     I often kid my brother that we split up our bumps and bruises growing up.  I seemed to be the one who collected stitches and he was the one who broke bones.  The first time I remember him being in a cast was when he was tripped in the hall in Junior High and broke his arm.  I was pretty young because I vaguely remember him wearing a sling after it first happened.  The injury I remember with greater clarity came on my ninth birthday, meaning Ron would have been fifteen or sixteen.

     We usually celebrated birthdays as a family but were given the opportunity to have one party with invited guests.  For my ninth, we had some of the neighborhood kids over for grilled hamburgers and cake.  When the food and gifts were done, we went to the next door neighbor’s bac yard to play a little two hand touch football.  Ron was the biggest kid playing so he was more or less fooling with us smaller kids.  The south end of the neighbor’s lawn sloped up a good five feet to the next backyard and I can still see the fateful moment in my mind.  Ron was halfway up this slope and he pivoted to his left just before he went down like a ton of bricks.  The grass was a bit wet and it looked like his foot slipped and then stopped dead against a clump of grass.  Thinking it was a sprain, dad and our neighbor got him up and helped him to the couch in our living room 

     It didn’t take long to realize he had actually broken his femur because his leg began to swell above the knee.  The next time I saw him, he was in a hip to ankle cast.  The first night home from the hospital, he tried to roll over in his twin size bed and the cast pulled him right to the floor.  He spent the rest of his recuperation time sleeping on our full size roll-away bed in the living room.  Once he got out of his cast, it took a long time to rehab his shrivelled leg to get the strength back.

     Perhaps my dad caught the leg breaking disease from my brother.  The first time I remember him breaking anything was in his seventies.  He missed the bottom step going to the basement and broke his leg just above the ankle.  The doctor put a plate and screws in it and he was almost as good as new in a few months’ time.  Dad was a lot more cautious from that point on but somewhat self conscious about this leg.  Then he did brother Ron one better and broke his leg again a couple of years later.  The same leg!

     Dad was in the habit of meeting some old buddies for coffee every morning.  In the winter, he would use a walker to get back and forth to the car when the driveway was slippery, just in case.  Returning with a travel mug of coffee one morning, he made the mistake of trying to navigate the icy driveway with his coffee in hand.  He hit a patch of black ice and the walker went one way and he went the other.  Dad landed with his back to the basement door (that side of the basement was at the driveway level).  He could see his foot was pointing at a right angle from the rest of the leg.  Dad used his other let to push it back into a ‘normal’ position before figuring out what to do next.  Mom was upstairs watching TV so he knew she wouldn’t hear him yell, so he hatched a plan.

     Dad reached up and opened the door and then used his arms to pull himself across the basement (of course the stairs were on the opposite end from where he had fallen).  He then pulled himself backwards up the stairs until he could reach the doorknob.  He opened the door and told mom to get the wheelchair they had kept after his first break.  He called his family doctor and only to find out that he was out of town until the next Monday.  Being this happened on a Friday morning, he resolved to simply wait at home until he could see his doctor after the weekend.  It took the threat of calling an ambulance to get him in the car and to the ER, but in the end, that is what happened.  Not only had he broken the same leg in the same place, he had managed to bend the plate that had been used to repair the first break.  That’s my dad:  never do things halfway!  He was disappointed they did not let him keep the bent plate trophy.

     My mother-in-law, Ruth Ahlskog, also broke her ankle twice when she was still working as an RN at the Ontonagon Hospital.  The first time, she was going to drive herself to work until her kids talked her out of it.  The second time, she actually did drive to work.  Her coworkers found out and hauled her to the E.R. before one of them called to ask if I had a camera.  They said,    “Bring it to the E.R., we need you to take a picture of Ruth.”  I was a little baffled why, but they were so flabbergasted by her coming to work with a broken ankle they wanted to document the moment.  I can still see her laughing about everyone making such a fuss over a little broken bone.

     I can only summarize from my own family that Finns are a tough bunch.  We aren’t superhuman by any means, as the broken bones and stitches we collect attest.  The ‘tough’ part seems to come from how we handle those hard knocks that life dishes out from time to time.  As a youngster, my dad was helping my grandfather split rails with a mall.  They were facing each other working from opposite ends of the same log.  Dad got a little too close to grandpa and nicked the top of his head with his splitting mall.  Grandpa went down, out cold.  Dad ran to get his older brother to come and help him out, scared that he may have killed his father.   By the time they got back to the woods, grandpa was back to splitting logs.  “He never said a word about it,” dad explained, “and I wasn’t about to ask.  I did learn a couple of pretty good lessons that day.”  Maybe this was a hint as he was in the process of teaching me how to split wood.


Top Piece Video – The definitive Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room by Brownsville Station – if you are going to write about smoking, might as well make it a hit record!