Life's Painful Lessons


The most-immovable object I ever merrily walked into in the moist darkness of an old building's basement was the downturned, fully extended stem of a large OS&Y steam valve. It hit me right between the eyes, broke my eyeglasses, and bent me at the waist as I rubbed the knot and mumbled every curse word I have ever learned. The guy I was with couldn't stop laughing.

I had been tracking the condensate return with my flashlight and talking about the probable cause of the heating problem when that stem smacked me. I forgot to look up. Or forward. I was a focused man.

"You should wear a hat when you're on a job," the guy said once he managed to catch his breath. "Something with a brim." Then he went back to laughing. "You okay?" More laughing.

I tried to think of more curse words for him. Did the best I could. You would have done the same.

Life's lesson learned. Wear a hat with a brim. Walk slowly. Look up as well as down. And sideways.

Got it.

The whole family was in Cape May on vacation last July. The Lovely Marianne and I had rented a big house by the beach for a week and we invited the four daughters with their husbands and the five grandkids to join us. They all accepted because they know a good deal when they see it.

Colleen and Adam and two-year-old grandgirl, Quinn, came down from Boston, so they decided to leave on Friday instead of Saturday and spend Friday night in Atlantic City to break up the long drive. They suggested we join them and they even paid for our hotel room. Good deal.

The Lovely Marianne and I got there first and since it was too early to check in at the hotel she suggested we go to the outlet mall that's filled with lots of stores but not many people. Atlantic City is no longer a Boardwalk Empire.

We walked around for a while and T.L.M. suggested that I get a new pair of flip-flops. I was wearing Teva sandals, which I had broken in the previous summer and I liked them just fine. They used to have orange pull-tabs on the back straps, but T.L.M. didn't like the way those tabs looked, so she suggested I cut them off last summer. I did this mainly because saying yes is less expensive than divorce.

She took me into the Crocs store and picked out a pair of black plastic flip-flops that supposedly made me look less like an old guy. "These will look nice on the beach," she said, so that's what I got.

When we got to the car she had me put on the new Crocs and stuff the old Tevas into the dark part of the car's trunk with the rest of the old stuff. I now looked like a much younger man, or so she said.

So Colleen, Adam and Quinn arrive and we set out to walk the Atlantic City boardwalk in search of a bushel-basket of chili nachos and cold beers. We walk quite a ways because Quinn needs the exercise after being locked into the car seat for all those hours. I begin to notice that the Crocs are digging small bloody trenches into the tops of both my second toes. I walk a bit slower, trying to slide back away from the plastic but it just gets worse. "Why so slow?" T.L.M. asks. I show her the feet. "That looks painful," she says. "Don't worry; you'll break them in."

Women don't easily quit on new shoes, and I wasn't about to take them off and go barefoot because the Atlantic City boardwalk is made of rusty nails and venomous splinters. And so began my week of pain.

By the time we got to Cape May the next morning, I was back in my old-guy sandals and in full-bleed mode. I smeared some ointment on the cuts and sucked it up. What can you do?

The grandkids wanted to walk on the beach and I followed them because they're adorable and I love them, but I forgot that sand in an open cut only makes things worse.

"Why are you walking that way, Poppy?"

"Poppy's funny!"

We got to the house and I washed out the cuts and applied more ointment. Four-year-old Dempsey climbed onto my lap. She hugged me and told me she loved me and she filled me with warmth. She hugged me again and I was in Grandpa Heaven.

She spotted a toy on the floor a moment later and slid from my lap like a slalom skier. The razor sharp side of her leather sandal scraped like a snowplow down my shin bone and across the top of my bare left foot. The scab that had been trying to form on my miserable toe gave up.

"DAD!" her mother said.

"What does that word mean, Poppy?" Dempsey asked.

I just sobbed and applied more ointment.

The feet were better the next day and I was having a sandwich at the big dining-room table. I had my sore feet tucked outside the legs of my chair to keep them beyond stomping range. The heavy Victorian chair to my right was unoccupied and pushed back a ways. Son-in-law, Adam, noticed this as he was walking by.

"The kids are liable to bump into this," he said. "It's so heavy. They could get hurt." He lifted the chair and clomped it into place, which, unfortunately, was directly on top of my sorry toe.


"Oh, sorry," Adam said.

More ointment for Poppy.

Two days later, we take two of the grandkids to Beach Plum Farm, a small jewel of a place with pretty plants, a minor gift shop and chickens to feed. It's perfect for the little ones. We walk amongst the parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme and head for the chickens. A rooster crows and I explain to little Bridget how the rooster makes the sun come up every morning. She's not sure whether to believe me or not and I'm okay with that because there will be plenty more lies to follow as we grow old together. She'll get to pick and choose.

I put quarters into the chicken feed machine and twist the knob. I hand the small, paper cone to Bridget and she has her first experience feeding fowl. She's adorable and the chickens are hungry. A hen follows the cracked corn pellets and comes very close to us. Bridget is delighted, as is Quinn in her stroller.  A red hen walks over to me and does that thing that chickens do with their heads when they're looking around. And down.

I'm standing there watching, a silly idiot at peace with nature.

The chicken notices the red spot on my injured left toe. I'm watching this but not quite registering the chicken's interest or intent with my old-guy brain. Her head is bobbing up and down and my beloved grandgirls and I still think this is delightful.

That's when the hungry pullet turns into the viscous equivalent of a thick OS&Y valve stem. She hammers her pointy beak dead-center into my open wound. Not once, but twice, and chicken-quick. Cluck, cluck!

I do the dance of pain. Bridget asks her mommy what that word means.

Once I get my breath back and manage to stand still, Bridget kneels down and says to the chicken, "That's not corn. That's Poppy's toe. You're silly!" And then she sticks her fingernail into the bloody pulp that is my sorry toe.

"Poppy's silly, Mommy. Look at him dance."

Anyway, I survive and with a fine story for you. We all go out to a nice lunch. I order chicken, of course.

Some days you feed the chicken.

Some days the chicken feeds you.


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