My hip odyssey began during the summer of 1969. I wasn’t quite five years old, and I was just a few months shy of starting kindergarten. The day began innocently enough; I had finally been given permission to play with the “big kids,” and hide and seek was the name of the game. I thought I understood the game correctly. One person turns around, covering their eyes and counts to 100. During those 100 seconds, all the other kids would find a hiding place and wait to see if they were found. I found the perfect hiding space amongst the trees next to the red wood fence that ran all the way around the Aurora Drive-In Theater, just up the street from my house.
After what seemed like hours (probably only 20 minutes…), I emerged from the tree line only to find myself abandoned. At first I thought that I had hidden myself so well that I had stymied all of the big kids, and they were looking for me somewhere else. Furtively, I crept out of the woods and up to the side of the street. With no one else in sight, I pondered what to do next. Should I go and find them, sneak up and yell surprise? I knew about the secret code “All-y all-y in-come-free!” – the signal that whomever was “it” was at the point of giving up, and it was time to re-start the game. But was there a secret code to call out if no one found you?
I walked across the street to one of the kids’ houses; they had a two-wheeled horse trailer parked in their yard. Like any two-wheeled trailer, it was perched on the tongue of the trailer hitch, the back side of it way up in the air, suspended over two wheels. I used to love watching my dad work on cars; he would jack the car up, grab a bunch of tools, then slide underneath and proceed to get his hands greasy and dirty. I liked the idea of being a mechanic and fixing things, so I dove under the back end of the trailer and began getting my hands as dirty as I could while I was “fixing” the vehicle.
I was completely unaware that while I busied myself under the trailer, I had actually been “found” by someone still playing the game. Only after all this had happened did I find out that the goal was to ditch me from the beginning; finding me under that trailer was just another opportunity to torture me. My oldest brother was the ringleader at the time, being virtually the oldest child in the neighborhood. It was his idea to surprise me while I was hidden under the trailer. They all snuck up to the tongue side of the trailer and rammed into the side of it in tandem, sending the back end crashing down, crushing my right leg under the weight of the vehicle. As soon as it was knocked over, they all clambered up on top of it to really smash me into the ground.
While they jumped up and down on top of the trailer that was crushing my leg, I could hear their laughter at the great practical joke they had played on me, oblivious to the terrified screams emanating from beneath their feet. While the whole incident probably only lasted a few seconds, it felt like hours to me. They jumped and laughed and I wailed and writhed until the ruckus brought out the mother of one of the kids who lived next door to the horse trailer. The kids instinctually fled and she immediately drug me out from beneath the vehicle. She scooped me up in her arms and whisked me in to her living room where she lay me down on the couch and proceeded to ice my already blackening leg. Within a few minutes, my entire leg turned black beneath my cut off jean shorts. The edge of the vehicle had impacted on the upper part of my right femur, but the discoloration reached my toes. I remember the intense fear of not being able to feel my leg coupled with the discomfort of being in a stranger’s home, surrounded by strange smells and a language I didn’t understand. She and her family were immigrants, having recently arrived from Greece, and the strange and foreign nature of those surroundings plunged me further in to panic. It was my first time in the home of a family from another culture.
My memory after this is quite fuzzy; somehow, I was ferried back to my mother’s house less than a block away, but I have no recollection of it. I don’t remember going to a doctor to have my leg examined (my mother has no memory of this either…), nor do I remember being immobilized by the incident. I’m certain that I must have spent some time after this sitting still, icing, limping for a while until it healed enough for me to start putting weight on it again, but I can’t say for sure. Somewhere over the next few months, this entire incident had been filed under “horse trailer” in my mind, and nothing else was said about it. I remember when the last of the discoloration left my body; the lingering bruise was at the point of impact, an indelible stamp up high on my right leg in a straight, horizontal line. Along with my persistent limp, that scar should have served as an inescapable reminder of that fateful day and how it would affect me for the rest of my life.
What happened next is a little difficult to explain. I never really forgot about the accident, but it shifted in my memory from this horribly traumatic violence that had been inflicted upon my body to something benign, even banal. The damage that was done to my leg left a deep swath of scar tissue in my young muscles. My quadriceps had been “pinched in half” and the scar tissue was deposited along a broad, thick horizontal band in a desperate attempt at keeping the upper and lower halves of my quads together as one piece. The resulting tension in my leg needed to be balanced, so my body recruited surrounding muscles to keep everything in tight. This was all put in place as my body was initially healing, and as a five-year-old, I had no idea that I needed to release that tension. My limp simply became a part of my world and my injury’s importance faded into the background of my memory along with the emotional trauma that had inflicted it.
Through my martial arts training experience, I have come to understand the relationship between fear, trauma, and pain. Muscles recoiling against a painful event (like having a trailer dropped on your leg) often are later recruited by the afflicted area to help immobilize the trauma site. This can assist the body in preventing further injury to the affected site. Wincing away from pain is more of an emotional response than a physical one. Most people naturally recoil from pain, pull back and scrunch up their brows, maybe even yell out, and understandably so. When the physical trauma couples with the emotional response, the outcome can be a materialized emotional blockage that becomes physically stored in your body. This is how my body responded to this event, albeit without my knowledge or consent. My right hip lost a significant amount of range of motion; the scar tissue on my leg became buried deep under new muscles, and I eventually forgot how traumatic the whole experience had been.
There was a lot of violence in my childhood; but this was the most extreme thing that happened to me as a child. By the time I was eight or nine years old, I had effectively buried the whole experience in my subconscious mind, a kind of PTSD. While my mind had blocked out the event, my body still carried the scars – and the effects of those scars. It was always hard to move in my body; I ran funny (or so I was told over and over). I wasn’t particularly graceful either, often tripping and hurting myself. I was also lopsided; I always walked a little lean to the outside of the outstep of my right foot. But I never knew why I limped, it was just a difficulty moving that I had. Had I remembered my experience at the bottom of the horse trailer, I may have put it together that my imbalance was due to an extreme event in my life.
The human mind is a curious thing. When our world doesn’t make sense, our minds will fill in the gaps to come up with a relevant story that explains it to us. We need to make sense of our world, and if part of the information is absent, whatever is left is assumed as the whole truth. My mind came up with the only answer that it could at the time. I never realized that I limped, nor did I remember the scar on my leg. I did know that I had a lot of tightness in my hips, and it was painful to stretch. The only possible explanation was that I was lazy and afraid of pain.
I didn’t think there was anything different about me; I assumed that everyone had the same pain when they stretched. I thought there were simply those who had athletic prowess, and then there was the rest of us. I spent a good chunk of my childhood with my nose in a book. I stayed as sedentary as I could, and I was further teased mercilessly for it. Chided as uncoordinated and lacking any gift for physical activity, these taunts helped me explain my inherent klutziness. I always tried my hardest; but since my very best efforts yielded milquetoast results it became increasingly clear to me that my agitators were correct – I was better off in the corner with a book. This root part of my personality became an integral part of the bedrock on which I began to build my sense of self. It would take Marine Corps boot camp to help shake some of this illusion apart.
I was able to walk in to the Marine recruiter’s office on my own two feet; no one ever questioned me about my limp. The physical I was given at my inception did not include MRI’s or X rays of my legs. No one noticed, and I had not thought to tell them about my scar tissue (had I known about it, undoubtedly they would have looked). I was destined to be a musician, having auditioned for and been accepted by the USMC Drum and Bugle Corps. Boot camp made me punch through every physical barrier I had ever known before. I still ran funny, but I could finish 3 miles. Many of the psychological hurdles I had inadvertently placed in my own way had to literally be kicked out of the way for me to make it through the physical rigors of boot camp. On the surface, I just kept doing everything as fast and as hard as I could, but deep down I still heeded my tormentors’ words – I would be better off in the corner with a book.
Part II coming soon!