Shortly after my superhero escapade, the first “Jesus, he could have been killed” misadventure came my way. As is the case with nearly every calamity in my life, it was almost completely my fault.
My Dad, Halsey Fink, grew up dirt poor on a farm in West Virginia. When the Great Depression hit, there wasn’t enough food for everyone. Halsey lit out for the territories. Like thousands of others, he hopped on a train and followed the wheat harvest. He hoboed his way across the country, getting work where he could and flat out starving some of the time.
Hal was a can-do type of guy. He figured, and rightly so, that he could do anything if he set his mind to it. We were the first family to buy a building lot on our street and we were the last family to have a house finished. Dad built it himself. He wasn’t a carpenter, a roofer, an electrician or a mason, but he was determined. He taught himself all the necessary skills to erect his piece of paradise through study and stubbornness. My mother’s brothers, the drunken Irish bricklayers, told him that there was no way in hell he could put the roof on by himself. It was too complicated. You had to get the angles just right, and if you didn’t there would be hell to pay. Hal didn’t argue. Instead, he went to the public library and read every book they had on roofing. Then he put the roof on. It never leaked. The fireplace? That was a different matter. The flue never drew right and would smoke the living room until the fire was blazing. Dad always groused about that. He was angry at himself for listening to the advice from his brother-in-laws.
Hal would point to the wisp of smoke curling out of the hearth and say, “It was your brothers who told me to put in that size flue. That’s why it smokes!”
“Why the hell did you listen to them? You knew they were a bunch of drunks,” my mother would reply. And that would be the end of the argument…until the next time they decided to build a cozy fire.
Mom’s comment wasn’t hyperbole. Back in the day, construction workers would often have a beer (or six) while working on a job. No one cared as long as the work got done. Was it quality work? You be the judge. Long before I was born, my Uncle Tom gave his kid sister a piece of advice.
He pointed to a parking garage. “You see that parking garage, Lubby?
“Yes,” my mother replied.
“Don’t ever park in there.”
“The foundation is half beer cans. It’s probably not safe.” Thankfully, the parking garage build on beer cans never came crashing down on anyone. Back then, beer cans were made of steel, not aluminum. Maybe that gave it more strength. Or maybe it was just plain luck. No matter. Years later, that garage was torn down and turned into an apartment complex…hopefully with fewer beer cans holding it up.
Back to Hal’s labor of love, the house we eventually called home. Between working full-time at a pharmaceutical company and driving a cab on the weekends, it took Hal five years to complete the house. The garage remained a work in progress for a long time after that.
The garage construction was essentially a mess of large cinder blocks and little more. One morning, my Dad pulled me aside and said, “Whatever you do, don’t play on the cinder block pile. It’s unstable.”
So, kids being kids, the first thing we did was start climbing all over the haphazardly stacked gray concrete blocks. Ignoring Dad’s sage advice was my first mistake. That was bad enough. Playing with the kid across the street, who was a sociopath in training, was far worse.
I don’t have a photographic memory, but I remember this event like it was yesterday. I was at the bottom of the pile. The neighborhood psycho was crawling up to the top. I was playing in the concrete dust, I heard a noise and looked up. One of those monster-sized cinder blocks went past my face and crushed my right pinky. I pulled my right hand out from under the block. The pinky had been ripped off and was now hanging by a thread of soft tissue, spurting blood like a scene from a cheap slasher flick.
I grabbed my crushed little finger and cradled it with my left hand. You would think I screamed bloody murder, but I didn’t. The nerves going to the finger were severed, and the pain hadn’t hit me yet. Instead, I shouted at the lunatic on the top of the pile the most menacing words I could conjure up, “I’m going to tell my mother about you!”
I ran up the back porch steps, rang the doorbell with the back of my left hand. When Mom opened the door, I raised my hands to her face and said, “Mom, look!”
That’s when the screaming started, and it wasn’t coming from me.
No one bothered with an ambulance. The psycho’s mother drove Mom and me to the hospital…at ninety miles an hour. I wish I was kidding.
The hospital staff wasted no time and did what they could to slow the bleeding. My Dad met my mother at the hospital. They were immediately whisked away to speak to the ER doctors. I was left alone sitting in a wheelchair in the hallway.
A few minutes later, a smiling black man dressed in white came up to me and said, “Hey kid, you want to play spaceman?”
Well, name any kid who wouldn’t want to play spacemen in 1962. Don’t even try, it’s impossible. And since my mother had put the kibosh on my secret Superman adventures, I was more than game.
“Sure,” I said, barely containing myself.
“Okay,” the guy said. He took charge of the wheelchair and rolled me down the hall. “We’re heading to the launchpad,” he told me.
Wow, I thought, I am one lucky kid.
I rolled into a brightly lit room. “Okay, we’re here.” he said.
That’s when I saw the big, padded chair.
“Is that the cockpit?” I asked.
“Yes,” the man smiled, picked me up and set me down in the cockpit. “Are you ready?” he asked.
He put a mask over my face. “Here’s your space mask. Take a deep breath and I’ll countdown to liftoff. Ten, nine, eight…”
My last thought before I passed out was, “Hey, something’s not right.”
I awoke with a huge cast that covered my entire hand and halfway up to the elbow. My parents were by my bedside with very relieved looks on their faces. They were probably thinking, “He’s okay. It’s not so bad. Everybody has one bad thing happen in their lives.”
Of course, this wasn’t the one bad thing, it was the first of many, but my parents didn’t know that yet. If they had, Mom would have started screaming again right then and there.
I caught a break that day. God threw me a bone…literally. The ER docs could have easily snipped off the little finger and tied off the stub. Simple. Easy. On to the next patient.
Fortunately for me, the head of surgery for the hospital was cruising through the ER when I arrived. He was an orthopedic surgeon and told his underlings on duty, “We’re going to give this boy a chance to have ten fingers.” And that’s just what happened.
The pinky didn’t make it through the ordeal unscathed. The two upper joints were crushed. Today, they are just immovable knots of bone. The surgeon shaped the finger into a curve since people tend to hold their hands with their fingers bent. Most of the time, no one notices its odd shape. And two cool things happened as a result of this calamity. In chiropractic school, my classmates started calling me Hook…a pretty cool nickname. More importantly, I was saved from accordion lessons.