The following passage should be read on an empty stomach: In 1958, when I was 9 years old, on the day my dad bought our first television to watch the Wimbledon finals, I fell off of the wooden clothesline pole on which I’d been playing and, on my way down, impaled myself on one of the hooks by my wrist, my feet dangling off of the ground.
A neighbor who was mowing his lawn ran over and unhooked me. The bones in my hand were visible. And so, instead of an afternoon of beer and tennis, my dad spent three hours at the hospital, his head between his knees (all the blood had made him woozy), while I was knocked out and sewn up. Eighteen stitches later, we came home, the tennis match, in that pre-video era, gone forever.
We hold a nostalgic 1950s image of kids protected by a cohort of village moms, but the fact is, in my hometown at least, no one was watching us kids and we pretty much did what we wanted as long as we didn’t disturb the grownups. This type of injury was not uncommon. My brother and I would make torches out of lit rolled-up newspapers and run about the neighborhood waving them and howling. And when we played army, one neighborhood kid shouldered a real machine gun—supposedly disabled—that his dad had brought home from World War II. (In the 21st century, an 11-year-old running through back yards waving a submachine gun and screaming like a banshee would elicit a SWAT team response, but back then, we were just kids playing guns.)
Fireworks were completely unsupervised, and injuries from them were pandemic. My brother blew off part of his toe when he was 12, and my mother was so mad at him for his carelessness that she didn’t take him to the doctor until it became infected.
Everyone just assumed that there would be a certain number of injuries, and once in a while someone died. I knew two kids who were blind in one eye and several with missing fingers, teeth and toes, all the results of misadventure. I chopped off the tip of my left thumb in a bicycle sprocket when I was 7. The missing piece couldn’t be found, so the doctor just folded the skin over the top and bandaged it and sent me home. When I broke a toe, the same doctor just taped it to the toe next to it.
In the 1960s, when I did construction grunt work, no one wore respirators or safety glasses. I shudder to think of the hours I spent breathing who-knows-what while demolishing old construction and pulling vintage insulation out of crawl spaces. And in 1973, while running a large drill while doing winter maintenance on a refrigeration chiller in Oklahoma, I ripped out half of my hair when I caught it on the drill shaft.
This stuff just happened: Kids lost body parts, grownups trashed their respiratory systems and people got decapitated in car accidents. We figured it was our own stupid faults, somehow, and we just sort of accepted it.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was formed in 1971 but didn’t seem to really kick in until around 1980, the same time parents began deciding to reduce their families’ casualty rates. Kids started wearing bike helmets, and then their parents did too (although many still don’t wear them properly). Everyone started wearing seat belts. Playground equipment lost the sharp edges and square metal corners; the inherently lethal teeter-totter was vanquished. Kiddie car seats were improved, and then improved again. Ditto for strollers and cribs.
Thus we inch along a safety continuum that started with Thog the Cave Dweller snatching up Thog Junior before he could toddle into the fire Mrs. Thog had just discovered. Further down this continuum, we might end up wearing helmets in cars, and why shouldn’t we? I’m pretty sure automobile head injuries outnumber bike head injuries. And only a handful of states require seat belts on school buses, in which—although they are extremely safe—eight kids a year die nevertheless.
And how about helmets for going up and down stairs? Admittedly, this puts us in range of Woody Allen’s story of his mother making him wear a helmet to play chess, but I daresay someone somewhere has suffered a head injury while playing chess. It sounds like I’m making fun, but I’m not: Stair helmets only sound funny only because we don’t currently use them. A good friend of mine died in a fall down his basement stairs a few years back, and a stair helmet would have saved his life.
I can well remember thinking, 30 years ago, that it was ridiculous to make a 4-year-old on a scooter wear a helmet (remember, most of my friends were missing body parts). Kids now feel naked without helmets while on bikes and scooters, and they will adjust to whatever future measures we decide to take on their behalf. Stair helmets will probably never be mandated, but if they are, we will, after the usual period of derision and disobedience, adapt and comply.
If Allen’s mom had her way, we’d wear helmets all of the time.
Adam Granger lives in St. Anthony Park with his wife and son and is a regular contributor to the Park Bugle.