Thursday, May 15, 2008


"Ready...." A long pause, milking it for all it was worth.

"Aim...." Blindfolded, I squirmed. I figured it was what he wanted.

"FIRE!!...." Then ...nothing. Not a surprise. This was, after all, payback. "C'mon," I said, making it sound like begging (which it was, partly.) "Just shoot me." Tick, tick.

Pkkfftack. Buried right next to my spine, deep and painful. Fair enough. Otherwise, he'd have told my mom.

Like many kids, it was by indifferent luck that Dougie and I survived childhood, and each other. On this particular occasion, we'd been shooting one another with a BB gun he'd borrowed from a neighbor. Unlike our Daisys, this one had some oomph; you could pump it more than once. Because we weren't totally clueless, we'd been using protection: the shootee wore a diving mask and a raincoat, and was dashing between trees across the street from Dougie's house. The shooter, from a window in Dougie's bedroom, took shots at the victim as he zigged the space between the trees.

Given the distance, and the precautions, it was fairly harmless, although it's hard to say where all the pellets ended up. After Dougie had had his turn as prey, he peeled off the mask and coat and ran toward the house. Who could blame me, really? It was such a clear shot. I fired one more time.

Being one year the younger, he was used to abuse by me. But this time he was really pissed, and I was scared of what I'd done. He'd screamed, "MY EYE!!!," and slapped his hand over his face, stopped dead for a moment, then run into the house and upstairs, hand still in place. (No one else, of course, was home.) I was cold-fingered and, I'm sure, white-faced as he removed his hand. The welt was within the hairs of his eyebrow, sparing his eyeball for no particular reason. He was, among other things, threatening to tell my mom.

The firing squad was our negotiated settlement, a way to retribution for him, and a promise to remain silent, for me. It's my recollection that he had to dig the pellet out of my back. Impressed with its power, we fired the gun again, at some sort of metal pan, and it went right through. Or dented it pretty good. Don't remember which.

I hog-tied Dougie once, playing cowpersons and Native Americans. Accidentally dropped him on his chin, causing enough bleeding that he thought it was coming out of his eyes. Another time my brother was showing us how to swing a golf club. I was looking over his right shoulder, Dougie over his left. My brother is right-handed. Enough said. Sounded like a coconut.

The time when actual death was among the possibilities (although I guess the golf club came close) involved bows and arrows. The real kind, with metal tips, albeit not the hunting variety. We'd been at a field at Reed College, where there were straw-stuffed archery targets. Shooting at those static circles got boring in about five minutes, so we did the natural thing: started aiming straight up into the air and seeing how close we could get ourselves to where the arrows came down. Pretty close, as it turns out. Ssshhppt. Couple inches from the shoe. Well, maybe a foot or two. Until one went up so high we lost sight of it.

Quickly computing the consequences, we sprinted in opposite directions. Dougie ended up scronched several yards away, having pulled his jacket up over his head. As if guided by the judgment of fate, the arrow returned to earth by way of Dougie's jacket and the space between his elbow and his left side. As I learned in anatomy class many years later (for this is a surgical blog), there were any number of comparatively vital structures within a shaft-breadth or two. No negotiations were required to keep us both silent about that one.

It wasn't all bad. We got hold of a couple of Army-surplus intercoms and strung wires between our houses, which were on the same block, around the corner from each other. Securing permission from every intervening neighbor, we ran the wires along fences and property lines. Battery powered, the boxes weren't very potent with that much wire between them, and there was no call buzzer. You had to lean pretty close to hear anything. Sometimes we could alert the other of a call by scraping something across the metal face of the box; usually, though, we'd call on the phone, and then hang up and carry on using the intercom.

Charmed by electricity, I did once try to electrocute Dougie, in the guise of a "lie detector" which a brainy friend and I put together. In actuality it was a battery and a capacitor to which we hooked a couple of wires and then talked Dougie into affixing them to his fingers. Asked him a question, and then zapped him. We were too young, I'd say, to be called assholes. Idiots, more properly.

Amazingly enough, Dougie and I maintain the friendship that started nearly sixty years ago. Exuding enthusiasm from every orifice, he teaches astronomy and cosmology, and the actor in him has made his planetarium show the talk of greater Portland. He played his guitar at my wedding. We call each other on birthdays (his was last week) and see each other on rarer occasions. Always it's easy and comfortable, and for the past many years, pretty much risk-free.


Anonymous said...

"cowpersons and Native Americans"????

This post is better than any b'day present Dougie will ever receive.

Somehow a mental image of Calvin and Hobbes in their G.R.O.S.S. treehouse comes to mind. Wonderful, just wonderful.

Anonymous said...

What she said! And happy birthday, Dougie!

I called my mom long distance once, while young at this motherhood stuff, and wailed, "Do kids survive childhood?!"

She guffawed and went, "YOU got hit by the car. YOU took the bottom of your foot off in the spokes of your bike. YOU ran through the Browns' storm door. YOU..." And the ER receptionist in downtown Washington DC had once looked up at her hauling my injured brother in and called her by name, saying brightly, "Oh hello, Mrs. J, what is it this time?"

Glad you guys both survived too!

rlbates said...

Great stories. Thanks.

Dr. John Baldwin said...

Sid and I share amazingly similar boyhoods, full of created danger from high places, explosive devices, arrows, darts, BB gun wars and tying-up friends to trees. Much blood was spilled, no bones broken and mothers never, ever knew. The CODE of SILENCE prevailed and kids in the 40s and 50s settled problems THEMSELVES. I even had wires for our Morse code telegraphs set up from my bedroom to Tommy Cooney's, next door. I can still remember one word that all kids loved to send: 3 dots, 4 dots, 2 dots, 1 dash. It is possible that this near-death experience of growing up provided both Sid Schwab and myself the ability to serve combat tours in Vietnam, and childhood bloodshed was so commonplace that the real deal later on led us both to become surgeons. Good memories. Thanks Sid! Great, great story.
John Baldwin MD (JB)

xxnemesis2010 said...

Wow... somehow this makes me feel I'm missing out...
The closest thing I've done is run around in the forest barefoot and make shelters out of branches and leaves.

Anonymous said...

amazing story.

And thanks Drs. Baldwin and Schwab for your service.

Neither I nor my sister have ever had those kinds of adventures exactly......I almost set the house on fire by accident once though. I was out in the driveway, with a magnifying glass and some newspaper and a bucket of water. I had recently learned how to make fire with paper and a magnifying glass, and I felt like practicing. Well, I forgot about the wind. And, I picked up the flaming paper and put it in the bucket, rather than dumping the water on the paper. (I oughtta blog about this myself, but I'm just too damn tired right now.)

Thanks for another wonderful Dr. Schwab story.

The Integral

Bongi said...

my brother once set me alight although apparently not on purpose. as it turns out fire and spirits do not mix. a few months in hospital and (scars aside) as good as new.

Sid Schwab said...

bongi, that is so far beyond anything i could imagine! i'm glad you survived it.

Bongi said...

sid, i was young and don't really remember it. sure it wasn't fun at the time but it hasn't affected me. besides only my one leg got it bad. in conclusion, it really wasn't that bad.

Not Important said...

A co-worker tells a story of how he lost part of his finger. The Reader's Digest version is:
-Want to know what's inside a golf ball.
-Have two kids, a golf ball, and a hatchet.
-"You hold it, and I'll hit it."
-(in the distance) "Don't tell your mom!"

Patrick Bageant said...

haha, a childhood friend of mine has a bb gun dent in his forehead, too. Still visible. I didn't have to stand on the execution line though -- maybe I'm a better negotiator?

Anonymous said...

LOL -- I shot one of my brothers with a BB gun once. Can't remember which one - though I'd bet the shootee could tell you. Needless to say, Mom took the gun away.

Anonymous said...

My brother and his friend's BB guns didn't have extra oomph but being shot could sting! My dad didn't worry about us, gave us the severe lecture about never aiming for the head. But he was death on anyone shooting birds on our farm! Well, no shooting at any animals, but especially birds.

It was my clear memories of childhood that made me probably over-protective of my own kids.

Anonymous said...

I think Sid has spent the rest of his life trying to save people's lives after having tried, thankfully unsuccessfully, in trying to take Dougie's life. Thank you, Dougie, for surviving. Sid would have had a miserable time in juvenile detention.


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