My father and I had in common a pair of physical disabilities: his right hand and my right foot. Both were handicaps beyond our control, and both were a part of our self-consciousness around others. Although he was right-handed, Dad shook hands with others using his good left hand turned thumb downward. Around others, I instinctively hid my bad right foot behind my good left one. This created something of a bond between us.
Dad had mangled his right hand as a poor North Carolina mountain boy feeding sugar cane into a sorghum molasses mill. The mill took his index and middle fingers, and did damage to the rest of the hand as well. Despite this, Dad went on to college and played football, baseball, basketball, and track. The lack of fingers never kept him from writing or gardening or typing or fishing or anything else. But he was always conscious of it and spoke little about it.
Now and then, when they give us our feet, someone gets a defective one. My right foot was given me defective, being abnormally large and equipped with tiny useless toes. Doctors removed the toes and over the years whittled down the size as much as possible. The lack of toes never kept me from football, running, golf, hiking and mountain climbing, tennis, and swimming. But I am always conscious of the foot, especially around the curious.
One day I had finished swimming at a community pool and was showering in an open area in the men’s dressing room. In from the pool came a young boy, and I saw him see my foot. After an excited, wide-eyed look, he turned and ran back the way he’d come in. He returned with his little sister to show it to her. Then he went to the door and called for his mother to come in and see. The mother called them both back out and that was the last of it. Over the years I have had many wide-eyed children staring, and occasionally some adults.
When he was old, my father took me to the area where he had lived as a boy and lost his fingers. Out from Asheville is the town of Marshall, and out from Marshall was Brush Creek. Dad and his family lived in a cabin in a valley there, close beside the French Broad River. The valley was all grown up and void of homes or dwellings, but Dad took me where he said the cabin had been located, and where the cane mill had been. He explained that after the accident they took him across the mountain to a doctor, and the doctor removed what was left of the two fingers by lantern light. His older brother George kept the fingers in his pocket and the next day the boys buried them on hill behind the house. Dad told me he could show me the burial spot “within ten feet” and did, I can only assume.
Yes, I have been to VA hospitals and seen the war-injured. And, yes, I know that a bad hand and a bad foot are not to be compared with the wounds of those service men and women. And I know I could never fully appreciate the mental trials they endure. But I do have some idea about it.