The age 9 is a special threshold for a boy. It’s the cusp of maturity burning away childish endeavors. It’s where a boy stumbles onto the path to manhood and social commitments. Toys start to lose their allure and self-image begins to dominate the mind share. When I was 9, one event, one hour, destroyed my face and ended the promise of just being normal.
I lived in the high desert of California near the Joshua Tree National Monument. For a 9 year old boy it was heaven. Every day I hiked through the desert and explored terrain that most people only see in postcards. But the desert tends to beckon people that don’t build human connections willingly. Houses are far apart and paved roads are for tourists. I walked hours to and from my friend’s house. It was a lonely time but I had parents that loved me. When I was 9 they bought me a motorcycle. When I was 9, I road in an ambulance for the first time.
Within an hour of receiving my chrome plated freedom I had crashed on a quiet sandy road. I wasn’t wearing a helmet and I was invincible. I was a 9 year old with a motorcycle, for christ’s sake. I was also severely injured. Sand has a delicate beauty that masks a ferociousness. Any carpenter can tell you how effective sand is at removing the flesh of a tree. I can tell you it is equally effective at ending childhood dreams.
I woke up several days later in intensive care. Apparently I had hit soft sand and flipped over the handle bars at high speed, touching down on earth with my face. I was found wandering and bleeding along the side of the road with no memory of the crash or where I lived. In what must be a parent’s worst nightmare, my mother’s first indication of a crack running through eden was the sound of an ambulance bouncing up a dirt road. I can’t imagine her heartbreak. It tied a knot in her throat that has never left.
I was in the hospital for a few weeks recovering from a concussion and I convalesced at home for several more weeks. My face and left arm seeped through gauze bandages and sleep was difficult. Doctors prescribed pain killers and torture at regular intervals. After a couple of months I emerged from my cocoon as a broken and torn butterfly ready to start the fifth grade.
I was a big boy. When I was 8 I had no problem getting along in school. I was confident and bully-proof. I also had my first girlfriend. She wasn’t popular but I liked her company more than anyone else. When your 8, that’s serious and when you’re an adult, that’s marriage. When I was 9 I learned my first hard lessons about pretty little girls and damaged little boys. I started the fifth grade single and shy.
Over the next couple of years surgeons applied paste and tissue paper to my face and attempted to rebuild my dignity like a grade school art project. They experimented and boasted and exhibited great pride in their work. They kept scrapbooks bulging with Polaroids of horror while I avoided eye contact and relationships. I also developed callouses that protected me from the unconscious stares of children and the conscious whispers of adults. You think kids can be mean, just wait until you meet an adult.
I grew up faster than I should have. I had few friends, but I knew what a friend was better than most kids my age. My parents moved a lot which was tough for a kid that had a hard time making friends or forming a smile. I continued to be the biggest kid in my age group. I continued to need to be the biggest kid in my age group. I progressed through high school without another girlfriend and with the most diverse group of companions any kid could have.
The football coach thought my copious meat was an asset. At the same time, I really just wanted to not be noticed while I hid in the chess and physics clubs. I eventually got my wish. I had friends in those anti-social gatherings. I had really good friends. But I was self conscious and tried too hard. College was where I redefined my view of myself and the world.
As a young man I discovered that most people are insecure and full of shit. They are balloons of crap on the verge of bursting. The slightest pin-prick can destroy their self image and cover everyone else in their filth. I discovered that “normal” is a lie. A teenage boy that can’t smile is as self conscious as a girl with a bad haircut. I was lucky. When I was 9 I lost control of a motorcycle and crashed. When I was 9 I learned that there’s no such thing as being normal.