The Perils of an Eager Young Mind
“Kent had to be ‘sawed out’ at neighbor’s today.”
- diary entry of Clarence Stolt, April 16, 1966
Some memories just stay with you. There’s one in particular I’ve hung onto for some reason, like an old snapshot pulled from a box full of memories. In fact, the more time goes by the more it seems like it never really happened. But it did.
It’s more than a little hazy now, but I still remember the time my father took my mother and me to see a re-release of Gone With The Wind that was showing in theaters in 1966. Dad was something of an amateur historian and a bona fide Civil War buff, and from him I picked up a playful boy’s interest in soldiers and battles of that era. So, being all of six years-old at the time, I gladly tagged along when they told me it was a movie about the Civil War.
What they didn’t tell me was that it was a four-hour marathon bore with too much talking, kissing and crying. Where were all the battle scenes? The cavalry charging and the cannons blazing? Neat stuff like that. As for the troubles of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, well, I didn’t much give a damn either.
However, there was one scene in the movie that did stick in my mind. It takes place during the siege of Atlanta and starts with a panoramic shot showing the streets literally covered with the dead and dying men of the Confederacy. Cut to a crowded hotel lobby serving as a makeshift field hospital. Surrounded by stretchers and the anguished cries of the injured, a white-haired doctor stands with sleeves rolled up and his shirt smeared with blood; haggard and helpless to stop the suffering. He says he hasn’t been home to see his family in days. As for treating the men around him, they’re out of bandages, anesthetic and hope. When yet another young soldier is brought before him the doctor takes a weary look at the wound, sighs, and declares that the leg will have to come off.
What? Sitting there in that dark theater my eyes grew wide.
The soldier lets out a blood-curdling scream, followed by a plea for mercy. “No, not my leg. Don’t take my leg.” Two attendants hold him down while the doctor shakes his head, picks up a bone saw and pours some whiskey over the blade. He bends over and there’s another long, horrible scream as the camera pulls up and the scene fades away.
Well…talk about horrified. To these young eyes that had never seen anything of the horrors of war, it was a new experience, to say the least. Finally the ending credits rolled and the house lights came up. No doubt by then my butt was plenty stiff and sore from having sat through four hours of a love story.
Fast-forward to a warm Saturday afternoon a few weeks later — April 16, 1966, to be exact. I was goofing around with my next door neighbor in his front yard. For some reason, or none at all, we were climbing around the wrought iron hand railing near the front door and I happened to stick my skinny little leg between two of the bars. Putting my weight down my left leg sank in further. Then I decided to twist my foot back so that the toe would catch behind another bar. I wish I could say there was a logical reason for doing all this, but it escaped me then and it certainly escapes me now.
Anyway, my leg was wedged in there pretty good when I decided it was time to untangle myself.
Hey, wait a minute. Something’s not — this doesn’t feel right.
The more I struggled, the more a fear started to grow. I couldn’t get any leverage to free my foot or my leg. I was stuck!
Fear was in my voice and in my eyes. My friend stared at me rather dumbfounded before he finally decided that he better go get his dad. So his dad comes outside, probably not understanding at all what his own son was trying to explain. What do you mean Kent is stuck in the railing outside?
He comes over and very gently tries to pry my limb loose, but no luck. By now my breathing was raspy and the tears were rolling.
Not wanting to risk further physical damage, our neighbor decided this was a matter for my dad to deal with, so off he went to fetch him. An eerie minute or two passed. Meanwhile, I kept wiggling my leg in a desperate attempt to free myself, which only made the situation worse because my leg was starting to swell up. Finally the two fathers turned the corner. Dad took one look and shook his head, no doubt thinking something along the lines of “how the hell did the kid manage to do that?” He came over to take a closer look, tried to pry me out himself, but my tears and fear dissuaded him from going too far with that.
Like surgeons the two men conferred briefly out of earshot, then quickly decided on a course of action. Dad said he’d be right back. He headed back over to our house and returned a minute later. Now there was something in his hand.
Sweet Jesus, he’s got a saw!
I’m wailing now. Wailing and blubbering at the same time so that none of my words are coming out as actual words. I’m trying to say, “No, don’t do it. Please don’t do it.” But they don’t hear anything but the crying and the blubbering. Dad comes over and tries to calm me down, but to no avail. He gently puts a hand on my thigh and brings up the blade. And he’s not even going to use any whiskey to sterilize the blade.
Finally it comes out: “No, not my leg!”
Suddenly the two guys start to laugh. I can’t believe it. My mind is pulsating with visions of torn flesh and naked bone, not to mention a lifetime of hobbling around on a wooden leg, and they’re laughing at me?
This can’t be happening. Dad could be temperamental from time to time, but this was ridiculous. He put his hand on my leg and I closed my eyes in anticipation of the first searing jolt of pain.
Of course, the blood and pain never came. (Now wouldn’t this be a hell of a story if it did? But let’s keep it real, shall we?) The next sound I heard was the scratching of metal on metal. I looked down and saw not a bloodbath but the steady movement of a hacksaw cutting into the wrought iron railing.
I suppose at that moment I should have been relieved, a little embarrassed maybe, but relieved. No, all I cared about at that point was getting out of this devilish trap and running away as fast as I could. So when Dad finally stopped laughing and cut through the bar on one end enough to bend it back and set me free, that’s exactly what I did. I ran like hell. On two skinny, but very sound legs.
A big part of growing up is learning to separate the irrational fears in our head from the slightly more rational world that really is out there. Maybe this was the first step for me in that regard and that’s why I still remember it. Oh, I still harbor my share of irrational fears, even these many years later. Doesn’t everybody? They’re just not quite as irrational as they were when I was six years old.
Yes, I did learn something about the hard realities of life that day; it’s a lesson I have carried with me all these years. And I can safely say that I have never stuck my leg through another metal railing since.