As an only child and an accident waiting to happen, I didn’t have lots of playmates when I was in grade school. All of my Jersey cousins were much older than me. So, from time to time, Dad would pack up the car, and we would leave suburbia and make the grueling trek to West Virginia. My dad had a kid brother, Uncle Tom, and his kids were older than me, but not by much. Dad would get to see his father, brothers, and sister and the rest of his side of the family. While everyone there was still shocked that Halsey had left home for good, nobody was surprised that Dot, the Jersey Tomato, couldn’t stand the rural life. Dot and Hal had moved to West Virginia after they were married. They owned a little country store for a couple of years. That was long before I was born. And I might not have been born at all if Dad hadn’t followed my mother back to NJ after she said, “Hal, I’m leaving. I’m going back to New Jersey. I’d like to stay married to you, but I can’t stay here. If you come to New Jersey, great. If not, well, it’s been nice.”
I was as unsuited for country life as I was for sports. For one thing, I was allergic to everything that grew out of the ground or walked on four legs. And when it came to playing in the woods, I was completely lost.
I got along well with my cousins. I think they were fascinated by me. I was their version of a sideshow oddity. And since there were only two television stations, one of which had marathon bingo games, I was a welcome break from the monotony that was the fabric of living out in the sticks.
Two of my cousins and I crossed the dirt road and headed into the woods. It was an overgrown mess, and I wondered why we were bothering to explore such an uninviting area.
“Wait until you see,” My cousin Mark said with excitement.
And see I did. We came to a clearing where long vines hung down from the towering trees. The vines had apparently choked out the small trees below. The remnants of these unlucky saplings were sharp pointy dead stalks that lined the forest floor like vampire teeth. There was also a large tree stump with a more or less flat top at the entrance to this area.
“Check this out,” Mark said. He jumped easily onto the large stump. Mark was five years older than me. There was a family resemblance, but physically he was everything I was not. Mark was strong, agile and good at sports. I was, well, me.
Mark reached out and coaxed one of the vines over to him. He grabbed on, kicked off the stump and swung out and back, landing nimbly back on the stump.
“Tarzan.” He said and did a fair impression of the classic Johnny Weissmuller yodel. He waved to me. “Come on.”
It looked like a lot of fun, but I wasn’t sure. There was something about it that looked, I don’t know, deadly. I didn’t move.
“It’s okay,” Linda said to me. Linda was the youngest of the cousin clan and only a year older than me. She scrambled up to the top of the stump. Her brother handed her the vine and jumped down. Linda swung out and back, pushed off and did it again. She smiled at me. “See?”
Wow, I thought. If she can do it, I can too. And if she did it, I’d better do it. I managed to get to on top of the stump and took the vine from Linda.
“Just hold on tight,” she said.
That was excellent advice. Too bad I didn’t take it. I pushed off and swung out across the clearing. On the way back, my soft city-boy hands slid down the vine and screamed in protest. And that’s when I let go.
It wasn’t a long fall, but one of those nasty sharp tree teeth was waiting for me. I took it in the groin and remained perched.
“I’m kilt,” I said miserably. “I’m kilt.”
Mark, already well on his way to puberty, doubled over in sympathy. “He’s kilt all right,” he thought, “or he’s going to wish he was.”
It was up to Linda to race back to the farmhouse for help.
I forget who unplucked me from the wooden spike. I was pretty black and blue, but nothing important was damaged. I mean, I did manage to have children.
No worse for wear.