Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Tiny Piece of Shrapnel

Whether or not the TSA agents notice it depends upon how high the X-ray unit is set. Every so often I am stopped and asked about the piece of metal that has been embedded in my back since the summer of 1967. Otherwise, I am waved through. It is only a small chunk of shrapnel.

I remember the blood and the pain and the hole in the back of my shirt at those times. I was driving  a large International Harvester tractor along Interstate 94 in St. Clair County. My summer job was cutting the grass.  I drove a big mower and worked on my tan until the boss made wearing a shirt and long pants obligatory. This was my second summer on the mower crew and I was quite accustomed to the routine. Early in the morning the mower drivers would report to work at the main garage of the St. Clair Country Road Commission. We'd be transported to where we had left the tractors the night before.  Usually there were two mowers playing leap frog along each side of the highway, all headed in the direction of Detroit.  Late in the afternoon the transport would pick us up. At that time we would park our machines in a cluster as far from the road as possible, pile in to the truck, and head back to the garage.

Relatively speaking there was not much volume on I-94 and although we crossed  the highway to trim the median, we were cautious.  It was unlikely we would be hit by a car or truck.  The mowing crew was considered safer than the paving crew. Every once in a while a worker  on the chipper or recap crew would be sideswiped by an impatient driver who had a different idea what the word slow meant. I thought what we did on the Interstate was carefree until one of the tractor drivers was mowing the incline around a culvert and tipped his machine too far. The tractor rolled over, dumping him off and squashing him.   This happened not on our crew, but to a solo mower along a trunk line.  What was especially sobering to our summer crew of college boys was the dead mower had ten years experience.

Each day I had the same routine. Go to the garage and punch the time clock, be driven to my mower, cut grass in the direction of Detroit, then be picked up late in the day and returned to the garage and punch out.  After work I was still living at home with my parents and siblings.  After dinner I hung out with other college students.

When I first met the other students I was somewhat surprised that so many my own age had summer employment less than a hundred yards from my home. I met the first group on the beach and they invited me back to their barracks. There were girls and boys from all over. None of them were from Michigan and no two attended the same college. They were a diverse group. We'd buy a case of beer at the party store, located midway between their housing and my home. We'd sit and talk and listen to music.  Some of the students were internationals. One girl was from France, another from Italy, and there were guys from Trinidad & Tobago and India. They were all working for the Gratiot Inn, a summer resort on Lake Huron. They had been hired for the summer to be chamber maids, waiters, pool boys, and such. The prettiest girls got to be hostesses for the dining hall. I didn't meet the pretty ones. They were too busy with the older guys. I mainly hung out with the guys from outside the USA. I don't know why, I just did. Maybe it was because I had never traveled beyond my home state and could learn a little bit about the outside world through them.

I brought a few of these kids home and introduced them to my parents.  We might sit in the back yard at the picnic table and talk.

I could see Bill McDonald looking out his living room window as we passed his house. Bill was our next door neighbor.  He was perhaps two years younger than my father. I don't really know what Bill did for a living, but he was an asshole by nature.  He painted his house and everything he owned with white paint, white enamel. Even his riding lawn mower was painted white. His riding lawn mower was only used after dark to take full advantage of the headlights on his noisy gas driven toy.  This meant he cut the grass after the ten o'clock news.  I didn't watch the news. I should have.

I already had grown tired of my neighbor.  He was always showing off his hunting gear.  He may have been the first deer hunter I knew who wore full camouflage and face paint. He left home to go deer hunting, driving a couple hundred miles with brown and green grease smeared on his face.  I saw him driving his pickup looking like this and it wasn't even hunting season.

My dad wore a red and black, Hunter plaid wool coat when he headed to the woods. On his face he wore a grin. Dad always came home with the pheasant or buck or whatever was in season.  I don't recall that Bill ever came home with deer. That was not why I disliked him. When I was a kid and dad wasn't home, Bill would see me in the yard and wave me over, as if to talk to as a buddy. He'd almost always offer the same advice, "Keep it in your pants".  I wondered what he meant at the time, being only a kid. He'd follow up this friendly man-to-man talk with moaning about his bad back and how lucky I was to be in such good shape. His compliment was calculated to encourage me to show off my strength, as he always had some bullshit task he didn't want to do. It would exacerbate his poor back, you understand.  I was naive and respected the requests of my elders.  However,  I quickly learned what was going on. Being reminded that my zipper should be kept closed and handed a warm bottle of Vernor's Ginger ale were not proper payment for unloading twenty sacks of concrete mix from his white pickup. Oh, and stack them this way, not that. If he backed up the truck up another foot the unloading might be easier, but why waste gas when you have the dumb neighbor kid conned?

After that, I avoided eye contact with him and always looked out the window before venturing into the yard alone.  I saw as little of Bill as possible. I did not like being used. Now, being in college I did not see him at all, except from a distance. I preferred it that way. I did not need his advice about keeping it in my pants either.

On one particular July morning in 1967 I was mowing on I-94, as usual. I would not have noticed if there were the usual number of vehicles headed to or from Detroit. Maybe the traffic flow was away from the city. I would not have noticed if there were olive drab trucks filled with National Guardsmen southbound on the freeway. My task was to cut grass and I had not heard the news about what was going on in Detroit.  The orders for the day were to reach the county line and then head back north trimming the median.

The grass was thick as I chewed my way along the northbound lane. It was too deep to see what had been a melted steel belted truck tire, like a python hiding in the weeds. I never saw it.  The rotor blades picked up just enough to fling bullet-size chucks of steel in all directions. I saw nothing and heard nothing. One moment I was driving forward, the next I was slumped forward, clinging to the wheel and trying to shut down my tractor. I felt a burning sensation and reached around to touch my lower back. I had a handful of blood.  I didn't know what had happened. The other mower saw me stop and raced over.  He thought I had been shot, but he hadn't seen anything. I suspected my mower blades had tossed a rock or something.  There was nothing sticking out of my back, but I was bleeding. I wasn't yet lunch time.  In my lunch box I had some paper napkins. The other mower Jerry-rigged a bandage for me and I compressed the wound. As if by some miracle, the driver who had dropped us off not too long ago showed up.

He was there to pick us up, haul us in. There was rioting in Detroit, he told us, and we were being evacuated as a precaution. The driver then say my back and called in for directions to the closest emergency room.

In the emergency room the doctor said it wasn't a gunshot wound, so far as he knew. He patched me up, gave me a tetanus shot, and released me. He had no x-ray machine, so didn't know about the shrapnel.  I wouldn't know about it for years, by which time the doctor who discovered it said I was safer to leave it alone. That day I went home from work early. I would have with or without the puncture wound. The road commission said we'd each be notified when to return to work.

I had not followed the news, but suddenly I was interested in hearing what was going on in Detroit. The other college students working at the inn were as interested as I was.  What they knew they got from the radio. I watched coverage on television. I'd never experienced anything quite like this, or as geographically nearby.  Still, it was far enough away.   Then as suddenly as I had been stung in the back while on my mower, I discovered fear at home.

Returning from telling my friends about my experience, I found a double-barreled shotgun pointed at me from close range.  Our next door neighbor, Bill, was cocked and loaded and screaming in my face about my dark-skin friends and how if I brought one past his house he'd use his gun on both of us. You know that he didn't say dark-skinned.  He told me I was being a smart ass to say that my Indian friend wasn't black.  I didn't understand his fear, but I did experience it second hand. I did not pee my pants.

My parents could not stand Bill as a next door neighbor and a few years later it dawned upon my father how to get rid of him. My father borrowed a for sale sign from a realtor friend. He stuck it in the front yard then made some phone calls.   As soon as Bill saw the prospective buyers were dark-skinned he put up his own sign. His was real.

Bill was gone within the week.

I had no idea my father's doctor had so many friends willing to play at house hunting.

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