(This is part of a year-long series, the rest of which can be found here.)
For Christmas, I wanted to recount one of my favorite stories involving my dad. Appropriately enough, it has nothing to do with Christmas.
My dad worked from home as a bookseller and a finder of rare books. Basically, if you wanted to find a really obscure book about the military—especially T. E. Lawrence or the French Foreign Legion—you went to my dad. He was very well known in his field and was one of the founding editors of T. E. Notes, a newsletter that has archives in Oxford and Harvard.
Because he worked from home, he pulled double-duty as a kid wrangler while my mom tended her store. I was pretty easy to wrangle, as I enjoyed making stuffed animals have conversations with each other and writing stories. However, when I had friends over, it unleashed some kind of inner child demon in me, which rubbed off on my friends. We caused a gentle sort of chaos, and most of the time my dad didn’t interfere, possibly because he didn’t realize our devious ways but more likely because he was a secret lover of chaos himself.
For example, my dad didn’t ask any questions when my friends Casey, Bonnie, and I marched through the house in our bathing suits carrying every liquid soap product the house had. Obviously when three ten-year-olds are swiping things from the house, there’s no real good that can come of it, but he turned a blind eye (or maybe winked in our direction) as we started setting up what can only be described as a bad idea.
We had a slip-n-slide. Every kid had a slip-n-slide, but most people, at that point, had fancy slip-n-slides with pools at the end and arching jets of water the length of the plastic. We had the most basic, prototypical slip-n-slide that ever existed, so we needed to rely on gravity, soap, a garden hose, and desperation to have any fun.
Our 1.5-acre yard had many hills. On the left side of the house, the hill was terraced for my mom’s garden, but the right side had one sizable hill, perfect for a slip-n-slide. My dad’s office also had a window overlooking the right side of the property, so we were somewhat nervous my dad would catch on and stop us, but at the same time, a slip-n-slide is pretty innocuous, right?
Of course, it wasn’t enough to just have a slip-n-slide that was lubricated with half a bottle of Dawn—we also had to put a skateboard ramp at the bottom, because what’s life without a little mystery? We also rubbed liquid soap all over our, uh, bottoms, just to make sure the slip-n-slide offered enough slip.
The spigot to the garden hose was directly under the window to my dad’s office, so it was impossible for him not to hear the squeak squeak squeak whoosh of the valve. He didn’t care. It was summer, and the girls were outside making noise instead of inside making noise.
For a good half an hour or so, our plan was genius. The ramp was kind of a dud—it slid with us rather than allowing us to fly like we initially thought—but the water pooled at the end in a muddy, grassy mess. And when you’re ten, a muddy, grassy mess is the Best Thing Ever.
One thing about the slip-n-slide we neglected to care about was the fact that it had a giant slit in it. Halfway down its yellow runway, the slide sported a foot-wide gash that gave a glimpse of July grass underneath. Since we flew past it on our way to the makeshift ramp-pond at the bottom, it was nothing more than a flash of green on the journey.
Until it wasn’t.
We decided to go down in a line. Casey went first, followed by me, and Bonnie came close behind. We tried to hold onto each other—clutching ankles and wrists—but it was a jumbled, soapy mess. Bonnie had been trailing her hand behind her to stay on the slide, and in doing so, her pinky got caught in the slit. She kept going, as bodies in motion tend to do, but her pinky didn’t. That damn law of inertia.
We knew it was bad. Bonnie’s face screwed up in pain and tears leaked from her round eyes as she looked at her pinky, which jutted out an an angle just odd enough to be unsettling. We ran inside and called frantically for my dad, our bathing suits dripping puddles at our feet. He appeared in the living room, took in the scene, and stopped.
Unless specifically trained in medicine, dads don’t really know how to deal with health emergencies (or at least mine didn’t). Moms kind of have an instinct for bandaids and bruises, and dads have an instinct for calling Mom. But, as misfortune would have it, Mom wasn’t around.
We explained to him what happened, and he was silent, staring at the pinky with an intense look—not one of disgust but of a man trying to solve a complex calculus equation.
It’s important to note here that my dad had a horrible sweet tooth (one that I unfortunately inherited). He was especially devoted to ice cream, but during the summer months he sometimes opted for those Pop Ice pops—the ones that come in long, plastic strips and are essentially frozen Kool Aid. As kids, we loved it because it gave us an excuse to eat things we probably shouldn’t.
On the surface this seems like an extraneous detail, but you may sense where I’m going with this.
Hit with a sudden epiphany, my dad held up one finger, said nothing, and disappeared. He returned several moments later with a strip of three Pop Ice, a rubber band, and a pair of scissors. Again, without a word, he wrapped the ice pops around Bonnie’s finger, making a little triangle, and secured them with the rubber band. He then cut the tops off of the pops and said, “It’s a splint. It’s ice. It’s also edible.”
And he smiled to himself, because it was just the kind of insane, chaotic genius my dad was known for. He laid the scissors on a table next to the couch, and from the doorway to the living room he said, “And there’s plenty more where they came from.”
He promptly left the scene, satisfied with how he handled it. I guess we weren’t too concerned, either, since Bonnie ate the ice pops and Casey and I got ourselves some, too. She ended up going to the hospital later on, and they told her the finger wasn’t broken. Months later, though, I think she went back and found out it had been broken and healed slightly crooked, but rebreaking it would have been massively painful and definitely not as fun as the initial slip-n-slide, ice-pop pinky breaking.
So that’s the story about how my dad was simultaneously the best and worst at being a parent under pressure. Bonnie still laughs about it, thank God.