Birth and Death are bookends. Our lives are the volumes contained between them. My bookends had only a few coloring books between them before I was almost killed.
My first encounter with death is one of my earliest childhood memories. As I look back on it, which is seldom now, I realize how truly lucky I was.
My home for the first 18 years of my life was in a great neighborhood. The houses were modest, middle-class places with nothing more than the width of a driveway separating them on either side. By the time I was seven I knew everyone who lived in each of the homes on Palmer Street – kids and grown ups – and they knew me. Ours was not a busy street, but neither was it a dead end. It was one of a warren of residential roads that terraced a broad hill. Our little 1/8th mile road was one of the terraces and was bracketed by road-hills at each end.
Palmer Street was never heavily trafficked. Our neighbors and their visitors accounted for nearly all of the sparse traffic on our small piece of road. Most cars in the vicinity passed up or down one of the hills. The center of our village, Springdale, was at the bottom of the hill.
Kids of all ages lived on the terraced roads and hills. Our playgrounds were our back yards and the street. When we played on the street, when a kid saw a car coming he or she would cleverly yell, “Car!” We’d politely step off the road and wait for the car to pass before resuming our play.
It happened in the summer of 1956. A bunch of us were playing “war” (when “shot” you had to “die” dramatically and count to 10 before you could rejoin the battle). Not yet six years old, I was excited because the “big kids” were letting we little ones play with them.
The battle lines were on either side of the road right in front of my house. The combatants yelled “bam-bam-bam” as they pulled the triggers on their toy guns from the cover provided by the cars parked on both curbsides.
The leader of our pint-sized army called us together to describe his intricate attack strategy: basically, run at them. We all were going make a daring do-or-die heroic charge across no-man’s-land, e.g., the street, to engage the enemy on their side of the road.
I gritted what teeth I had and squeezed my plastic toy pistol. A plan! A coordinated attack with and against big kids! I couldn’t wait! On the count of three we fearless little soldiers charged as one across the street, guns blazing bam-bam-bam, to meet our foes.
I arrived at the other curb and realized I had no idea what I was supposed to do next. So, what now?
My quandary was quickly solved when the biggest and loudest enemy big kid stood right in front of me and bellowed at all of us to get back to our own side of the street before he started knocking heads together. Genuinely panicked, I turned and made a fear-fueled, though short-legged, dash towards the safety of our side of the road.
I was completely oblivious of the car driving by until it offered its greetings when I darted in front of it from between two parked cars.
I remember my head colliding with steel as I bounced off the front of the car. The next thing I knew I was lying by the curb and my mother was next to me on her knees, pale-faced and afraid. I don’t know if I was knocked unconscious by the car or by my landing, but I was out for a while during which my mother came to my side and a neighbor called for an ambulance. I opened my eyes briefly in shock. When I became conscious of my fear, confusion and pain I started to wail – a good sign.
Years later, when my mother recounted the scene, she said she was looking through our dining room windows and saw the accident about to happen. She saw the car and saw me running toward it between the parked cars moments before we collided. She shrieked “No,” as she bolted for the front door. When she opened it she saw me fall on my back near the curb.
In mere seconds she went from clearing the breakfast dishes to living in her worst nightmare, powerless to control whatever was next. I can’t imagine what she went through. When we spoke about it years later told me she “thanked God that it wasn’t my time to die.”
Luckily the lady driving the car slowed as she saw the playing children make way for her. When I darted in front of her car she had no time to avoid impact. Her precautionary speed minimized the damage to me though. Her car struck me down but I’d not been run over.
Ultimately, I learned to cross streets safely but had no comprehension of the real danger I’d been in. I realized the extent of my good fortune only years later.
To me the net result of my headlong charge in front of a moving car included an ambulance ride – sirens and all, an egg-shaped lump on my forehead, a concussion, an over night stay in the hospital, some new toys, and a vulnerability to headaches that didn’t go away for the next 20 years.
The accident was minor.
It could have been far worse.
As a child I was lucky always to feel safe and valued. Growing up I doubt I ever realized the importance of my support systems, protection, advocates, belonging, security, sustenance, privilege, personal values, modeled behavior, and all the other benefits lovingly provided by my family. It was all just there for the taking. Consequently, I was a happy, well-adjusted, upbeat kid in my early years, and I genuinely knew I had it good. I was woefully unaware, however, that lots of kids and others didn’t (still don’t) have it so good.
I had a faint awareness of death but was naturally unconcerned about my own demise as a child; after all, I’d just emerged from the starting gate in life.
As is common, my grandparents were the first of my close relatives to die during my childhood. My paternal grandmother, Myrtle Krum Ash ( that’s right, she went from a Krum to an Ash when she married) passed nine months after my birth. She’d known and loved me, held me and cared for me, but I have absolutely no recollection of her. Family photographs confirm she was a nice part of my life, but she was gone before my lasting memory was enabled. Thank goodness for photos. The love in her eyes, her smile, and her kind disposition are easy to see, even in black & white. By all accounts, she was a gem. But her death didn’t faze me in the least. My goals were focused on needing a diaper change, being fed and sleeping.
Myrtle’s husband, my paternal grandfather, Samuel Bailey Ash, survived her by five years, so I actually knew and still remember “Pop” Sam. He let my sister and me stay up late when he babysat us. He smoked his pipe or a cigar, read the newspaper and talked with us while we played with our toys on the floor. He always got us to bed and asleep before my parents returned home, so we kept our little stay-up secret with him always. Born in Brooklyn, he had been a milkman and later worked in the train yard of the New York and New Haven Railroad before he retired. After Myrtle died he moved in with my dad’s sister, Aunt Evelyn, her husband Uncle Charley and their four girls. Theirs was a small home of big hearts. Pop volunteered as a school crossing guard; he smiled a lot and was great with kids.
When we visited the small house of big hearts, I’d run upstairs to visit Pop’s room to smell his pipe tobacco. Next to his easy chair stood a side table/floor lamp that illuminated his newspapers and held what I considered his best possessions – an ashtray, his rack of briar pipes, a pipe tool, and his leather tobacco pouch. I’d climb on his lap and he’d reach for the tobacco pouch, open it, and give it to me. I’d bend my head down to stick my nose into that pouch to breathe in the aroma of pipe tobacco and leather. I loved it and he always got a kick out of that.
I was six years old when Pop Sam died. He had a heart attack while coming home from someplace in town, and drove his old Plymouth into a telephone pole. He was dead before they got him into the ambulance.
When my sister and I came home from school that day (most kids all walked to and from school in those days), I was surprised to see my father home early from work. He lifted me, looked me in the eyes, and gently told me that Pop was dead. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but I knew that because he died, I would never see him again. That was enough to make me bury my face into my dad’s shoulder and cry.
My most vivid memory of that afternoon is when Dad put me down I ran to one of the upholstered chairs in our living room, knelt before it and wept into the seat cushion. To this day, when I see photos taken in that living room and I see that chair, I remember it as the altar I cried on for Pop.
Youth is resilient and the death of someone in a family’s elder generation, while painful and sorrowful, is not an unexpected tragedy. In the 1950s the male life expectancy in the United States was 67.6 years. Today it is 76.3. When my grandfather Sam had his fatal heart attack, he was beyond his average life expectancy. When he died, Pop’s four offspring were all adults, all married, and all with families of their own. He even had a great-grandchild. His work was done.
Pop was a widower and was at the end of his days. I was too young to go to the wakes or the funeral; my introduction to the rituals of death in my land was postponed to a later date. Early in the following week, my Dad left for work as usual and my mother prepared my sister and me for school. The return to normalcy was comforting; our lives resumed essentially unchanged.
I occasionally felt Pop’s absence and would sometimes think about the implications of this death thing while trying to fall asleep at night. I’d never really wrestled with anything like this before. When I tried to imagine I would also someday die, it was beyond my comprehension. I would end up thanking God that I wasn’t an old man and took great comfort that I would not be one for a long time yet. The only way I could deal with the concept was to tell myself that I would “cross that bridge when I got to it.” My immediate future was my outermost reach; considerations of old age and death would wait.
I worried about when my parents and sister would die. I needed them, but they were older so logically they would die before me. I figured I was going to end up alone. That idea in a six-year-old mind was uncomfortable to say the least, so I made my mother, father and sister promise that after we all died we’d find one another in heaven so we could be together forever.
I guess that meant I loved them.
Even at the age of six, I somehow understood that the suffering of death was left to the living. I feared suffering more than dying. I knew what pain was but not death. Eventually, despite the promise I forced on them, I ardently prayed that I would die before my parents did. Not right away or soon, but first. I’d be the trailblazer and would choose the place in heaven where we would all be rejoined after we died. I’d know they were coming so I wouldn’t miss them too much while waiting for them. If they died first, I’d be very sad and would suffer missing them every day. Truth be told, I feared if they got there first there was a chance they’d forget our deal and leave me behind.
I prayed to be first.
It didn’t work.