Letter to my boyfriend after my junior year of college. I had just returned to California for the summer from Pennsylvania by Greyhound bus, May 29, 1977.
My kids don’t know what a stubbed toe, a stubbed heel, or a scraped knee is, really. They understand the concept, but they aren’t even sure how you’d go about getting them. I’m guessing they aren’t alone.
When I was a kid, the snow was four feet deep.
Just kidding. I grew up in the Bay Area.
But in the summers, we were always barefoot, even when we were hiking, unless it was going to bother someone else (most often, someone else’s parents). We knew which parts of the trails had sharp rocks, prickly oak leaves, and “stickers”—our generic term for sharp points on thistle leaves, and super sharp points on what we called “cow-horn stickers” (Tribulus terrestris—-truly a painful sticker). We knew how to walk over all every hazard with a rolling of the foot, a shifting of the weight. We knew that sun-exposed strips on the trails would be scorching hot, and to step on the horse manure there, preferably the old and dry spots, because they were softer and had a lower heat transfer coefficient than the dirt and rocks around them.
Stubbed toes were usually from walking or running straight into something, like a rock, a stair-step, or a bit of root that hadn’t finished decaying. Those were excusable. But stubbed toes also could have come from stupid carelessness, like from walking through a pile of wood that rocked and caught your foot. And speaking of which, we stepped on nails a lot, too.
Our stubbed heels came from the screen door. It had a pneumatic contraption that let the screen door almost fall shut, but then it bounced back out, and closed more slowly. That second closure after the bounce got all of our heels, all of the time. Stubbed heels were harder to put into shoes than stubbed toes, which reinforced the general wisdom that wearing shoes was a mistake and a pain.
When we got too hot, we jumped in the pool. There, we had a jumping game. Basically, we sank, knees bent, then boom! we jumped up, just enough for a breath. Sometimes we’d be “in cahoots” with the other jumpers, meaning if I bleated “hi” they could hear me. One time after jumping for hours, one of my brothers showed me his toes: each one had a flat hole on its pad from the abrasion. “Me too,” I exulted, and showed him mine.
Cold? We’d “go barrel jumping.” The bluff next to our house had not been developed. It was a meadow studded with a tall tussock-forming grass called Phalaris aquatica (a relative of reed canarygrass). In fact, I identified it in the days between getting off the bus and writing this very letter.
We would run, shoeless, lifting heels to the level of our knees, and we would bound—yes, bound–over the dry tussocks. One foot or two or three might hit the ground before we bounded over the next and the next down a hill. The ground had cracks in it half as wide as my foot. The trick was to sprint while compensating for everything—location of tussocks relative to one another, encounters with rocks and cracks, and sometimes, near-collisions with the competitor who barrel-jumped at breakneck speed five feet away.
Thirsty? We’d drink water from the spigot down by the bomb shelter, which presented as a pipe coming out of the grass and a door in the hillside. We let the spigot run for a bit because often—or at least once—it had a spider in it.
Hungry? That would call for a trip to the big freezer, which was under the stairs. Mom kept it stocked with white boxes of Hostess Ding Dongs. We’d eat them frozen. We’d first eat off that almost-rigid brown cake, and then get to the reward: a white ball of hard, delectability. If a new friend was over, one of the family would get the Ding Dongs because we, and our old friends, knew to avoid the bags of frozen roadkill which my family had a fondness for. One brother and his friend, a very good barrel-jumper, made mouse paperweights and tried to sell them at the corner of the road. They were half a ping-pong ball filled with plaster of Paris and sealed on the bottom with some classy a green felt pad. Glued to that white hemisphere were the skinned and cured mouse head (stretched back onto its skull, with BBs for eyes), and in the front, two little arms, and in the back, two little legs and a tail. They didn’t sell well. The nosy neighbor called our parents to report that my brother and his friend were causing a traffic hazard, so we ended up getting quite a few of them for Christmas. Sort of luckily, they didn’t last long because the cats gnawed them off—or maybe mom “put them away somewhere.”
What else did we do? Sometimes we sat and talked. We had names for places. I still like having names for places. We’d look at flowers. We’d look at ants. We’d look at trees.
Scraped knees? How did we get scraped knees? The usual ways: falling off the bike on our dirt road, or worse, on the frost on a paved road. Falling off a dresser when we were trying to get to a shelf, and hitting the edge on the way down. Softball-like games, or tennis, when our feet got tangled. Or via skateboard. We’d lie belly-down on the skateboard, knees bent, and then propel ourselves around the rectangular patio that surrounded the pool, racing against a stopwatch. We not only had to make the four tight corners, but we had to remember to straighten our legs when we zipped under the diving board. It didn’t take much of a miscalculation for knees (and elbows) to become ground off. Fun times! The problem with scraped knees was the sheets—so we wore band-aids—and also, that they made it hard to walk for a while. The other problem was how much they stung when we gave up and rolled off the skateboard and into the pool.
And at the end of a summer day? Well, we’d do nothing. Sure, we had bone bruises and stickers and scrapes. Poison oak. Scabs that we clandestinely picked, and then powder with dried horse manure if there was some handy. It clotted them up and stopped the cascades of blood. We’d do that clandestinely because we thought it was possible that horse manure, and rusty nails, would give us lockjaw. Or something.
But no, at the end of a summer day, we must have done something. We probably watched TV if we weren’t having sleepovers with someone. We didn’t waste time with the stubbed toes or trying to pick the stickers out. The toes would heal and the stickers would resolve one way or another.
~ ~ ~
Why don’t my kids know much about scraped knees and stubbed toes? One reason is that they grew up in Oregon, on a “city” block. It was colder here, both parents worked, and there weren’t places to barrel jump. Other than that, I guess it’s culture.
But my kids experienced other types of stubs that we could never have imagined. Both of them were hit by vehicles that didn’t stay to help. One of the drivers yelled at my young daughter to get out from under his bumper where she had ended up, and two weeks later, my son had to limp home in ripped pants, carrying a bike that wouldn’t roll. What else? AP exam anxiety. Too much supervision and surveillance in spite of, or because, both of us worked. Hearing that the world was dangerous, and that it had gotten to a point from which it could not heal. Worrying about friends becoming dependent on drugs and alcohol, and that these friends already may have gone down a one-way street. Worrying about whether our consumption choices impacted children, water, and habitat around the globe, and worrying that the system could not recover. Imagine the despair.
The letter about my feet concluded with the following:
Some things never change. I wish they could.
Enormous thanks to my boyfriend of those times, forty years ago, for scanning our old correspondence and sending it to me.