For those of you who don’t know me or my family, I’m the oldest of 4 boys. Growing up, this assured that there were always enough of us for almost any activity. Sometimes these activities were healthy and wholesome. Sometimes they were every bit the trouble that you might expect from 4 boys.
The summer before I entered 8th grade, my family moved back into the city of Syracuse. Our parents bought a big Colonial style house with plenty of room for 4 active boys. Our parents both worked full time during the day so the 4 of us took care of ourselves during summer break. It was a little bit of an urban Lord of the Flies only without the pig’s skull. (But with the loincloths. Especially on laundry day.)
We had developed a family routine of moving periodically. The new school that I would be attending that fall would be my fifth different school so the logistics of moving were well rehearsed in our home. For that particular move, I seem to remember not even packing my room but generally throwing stuff- clothes, toys, and books- into boxes the morning that my dad got the rental truck. A month or two later, the mostly-empty boxes were stashed throughout the house- basement to attic. These were the perfect building blocks for summertime fun.
For some reason, we were playing inside that day even though I remember it being very sunny with crisp blue skies. Whether it was simply too hot to venture into the sun or we needed the inside of the house for the activity is irrelevant. My brothers and I are all intelligent and creative so I’d like to think that we were choosing to celebrate winter in August with our choice for the day’s activity: the indoor bobsled.
This particular house could not have been better designed for the indoor bobsled. The house had an entrance right in the middle of the front of the house. A small vestibule opened into the house’s center, a small foyer between a formal dining room on the left and a large living room on the right. Offset just slightly to the right as you entered was a magnificent staircase leading straight up to a landing, then doubling back for a few more steps to the second floor.
This staircase was really the central artery for the home. Broad shining steps of hardwood rose regally towards an unseen second level. The stairs were broad and, when not littered with the castoff toys or books from 4 boys, a straight shot down to the foyer. In short, the perfect track for our August salute to the winter games.
We were well versed in cutting edge games that risk life and limb. Our mother didn’t like violence and, consequently, we grew up without toy guns in our home. Like good Catholics desiring that which was forbidden, we weren’t really satisfied with our competitions without some element of danger. Nothing says “excitement” for a 13 year old like a Weeble Wobble chucked past their head at 60 miles an hour. I think the indoor bobsledding was really a culmination of a series of increasingly hazardous games we had quietly invented over the years.
As I said, my brothers and I are intelligent. And being intelligent, we all understand the meaning of “Safety First”. So while our games needed an element of risk, there was no reason for us to be reckless. That could just get us in trouble.
We methodically packed Chris, the next oldest after me, into one of our cardboard moving boxes. This was a relatively rare deluxe moving box- not a grocery or liquor store castoff but a large rental truck company box tall enough for any of use to sit entirely unseen inside the box. We had laid the box on its side so Chris climbed down into it. We gathered all of the bedroom and couch pillows as his protection. (We had visited Niagara Falls a couple of years earlier and I think the inspiration for our safety mechanism was inspired by the barrels we’d seen on display there- solid looking steel cylinders with ample padding lining their interiors.) Poised at the top of the stairs, right at the edge of the landing, Chris gave us the thumbs up. I carefully pushed the box forward so that it would slide gracefully down the straight staircase before coming to a graceful stop with Chris securely nestled amongst decorative pillows and Star Wars pillowcases.
Looking back, I don’t think we gave that much thought as to how the ride would end. The bottom of the stairs was probably only about 4 feet from the wall. Although the living room had a wide arch leading in from the foyer, none of us had calculated the likelihood of Chris’ vehicle making a 90 degree turn to the left after reaching terminal velocity.
Over the years, the official story has been that Matt, the number three son, was stationed at the bottom of the stairs ready to stop Chris from rocketing through the plaster walls. The official story also explained that Joey, our youngest brother, darted out across the course, moving from living room to dining room, just as Chris launched. It was all Joey’s fault- if he hadn’t been there, Matt would have stopped the box perfectly and Chris would have successfully mastered the indoor bobsled.
Joey- I am sorry for slandering you all of these years. You did not, in fact, cause the crash. We just weren’t smart enough to wonder how Chris was going to stop. Please accept my forgiveness for besmirching your good name. (Also for the record, I was solely responsible for throwing the length of lead pipe, spear-style, at Matt a few years earlier. That incident resulted in a trip to the emergency room for Matt with, I believe, a number of stitches. Like I said- Lord of the Flies.)
Back to Chris’ launch. The box slid perfectly down the stairs on its back surface. It looked like Chris did reach terminal velocity. Strangely, though, the box did NOT make a 90 degree turn to the left upon reaching the floor. The box DID stand straight up and catapulted Chris head first into the corner of the wall between the foyer and living room. We would have been better off taping the pillows directly to Chris’ head…
There are few jobs less desirable that being the brother that has to request medical attention for a sibling. Especially if the requestor is not injured themselves. As the oldest brother, that unwanted task fell to me that day. As Chris ran around the first floor of the house bleeding like a stuck pig (again, Lord of the Flies) I ran to the wall phone and dialed our mom’s work number- rotary, not touch tone. I waited patiently while the firm’s receptionist located our mother.
“Mom?” There is really no good opener here. “I think that Chris is dying. He broke his head open.”
Mom screamed for an explanation, which was really my first chance to get my alibi into the record, and then announced that she was on her way.
I could opine as to the lethal nature of his injury with confidence as, before I had actually dialed mom’s number, I had made an effort to triage Chris’ injury. My triage consisted of chasing him through the house and up to his bedroom where he had collapsed on his bed. The triage also included me standing over Chris shouting, “Chris- are you okay?” to which Chris responded by rolling his eyes back in his head, moaning, and collapsing backwards in the way that only a 12 year old can do to best portray a death scene. (Chris acknowledged later that he decided to really ham it up and feign unconsciousness. He was very convincing. Especially since he was bleeding so heavily.)
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a head wound but it is really amazing how much even a relatively small cut on the head bleeds. Professional wrestlers get a lot of mileage out of that fact. In Chris’ case, the wound bled enough to leave a trail of red dots in a loop around the first floor, up the stairs, and into Chris’ bedroom. The wound even managed to produce enough blood to form a nice pool beneath him as he gave his finest performance as “Youth Struck Down in His Prime Through His Brothers’ Carelessness”. As I mentioned, the blood really amplified his performance so I was pretty convinced that I was only going to have 2 brothers going forward.
Mom arrived with her boss a few minutes later. They took Chris to the emergency room where he received the requisite stitches. To this day, I believe that he still has the scar on the top of his head and, if the mood strikes him, he’ll put your fingers on the ridge of the scar. (If you know Chris, ask him to let you feel the scar. He should get some thrill out of the experience!)
The expected investigation by our parents highlighted the shockingly inadequate safety methods of our bobsled design as well as the overall poor judgment demonstrated by the otherwise intelligent young men. (C’mon- a 90 degree turn? What were we thinking?) I believe that appropriate punishments were enforced. We quickly came up with the Joey-as-scapegoat story that we stuck to religiously for years. We went on with our quiet pursuit of slightly dangerous games with mostly good results.
My brothers and I have yet another story that bonds us the way that only diehard thrill seekers can understand. For a few shining moments, we chased the demon Speed on the indoor bobsled. (Okay- Chris chased it. But we all helped.)