by Steve Ricci
The Three Stooges, under whose tutelage I have labored exhaustively, are the undisputed masters of head trauma. In one of my favorite routines, Curly bungles a carpentry job and Moe runs the blade of a saw across his partner’s stubbly scalp. Curly feigns agony, screaming, “OH! OH! OH!” then points at the saw and says, “Look!” Cut to a close-up of the gnarled, twisted saw with its teeth all bent and broken. In another bit, Moe grabs Shemp by the nose and wrenches it around so brutally as to recreate precisely the sound of walnuts being crushed in a meat grinder. No one’s heads ever suffered so much for the sake of laughs.
Perhaps I’ve watched too much of the Stooges (okay, not perhaps, definitely) because it seems that my own head has been trying to eradicate itself in an uncannily comparable stooge-like fashion.
The first instance of head trauma that I can remember took place as a young boy living in New York City. I recall running down the sidewalk, tripping, and somehow executing an acrobatic maneuver so convoluted that the first part of my body to make contact with the pavement was my upper forehead. Other than screaming with sufficient volume to shatter several nearby windshields, all I remember about it is that a nearby adult said, “Boy, you’ve got quite an egg there.” I remember being old enough to know that an actual egg wasn’t growing out of my forehead but I was too young to understand that, when you’re plummeting toward concrete, your eyebrow is a less-than-optimal device for breaking the fall.
Sometime later, slingshots became popular among my age group. Giving slingshots to boys in Manhattan is about as conducive to the safety and well-being of the general populace as giving hand grenades to warring tribes of howler monkeys. Eventually they’ll learn to pull the pins, just as we eventually discovered that you didn’t have to shoot the harmless plastic projectiles that came with the slingshots. With decent-sized rocks in short supply in Greenwich Village, we quickly found an alternative ammunition: marbles.
Immediately upon convincing his parents to purchase the weapon for him, each boy collected and got refunds for as many returnable soda bottles as would buy a bag of glass marbles, and then joined his sadistic cohorts in carpet shelling everything within a one-block radius. We blasted the marbles against fire hydrants, car windshields, the target-friendly buttocks of corpulent pedestrians, store-front plate-glass windows, and an infinite supply of slow-moving pigeons.
Shortly before the neighborhood’s outraged (and deeply bruised) residents, shop owners, motorists, and representatives from the pigeons’ union demanded the confiscation of all slingshots, I was in a park one sunny day admiring a recent acquisition: an extra-large marble with a unique swirl design inside. I wanted to see what the innards were made of so I fired the marble against a high wall about 30 feet away, assuming the impact would detonate the fragile glass projectile. Instead the marble bounced off the wall unharmed and began a flawless return arc, colliding a second later with the outer rim of my eye socket. I was happy to let people think a street gang had savaged me with a tire-iron rather than explain the real reason I had replaced my eyeball with a ripened two-pound strawberry.
Things didn’t go much better with the other traditional boyhood weapon. Long before Ralphie got his Red Ryder in “A Christmas Story,” I was in the yard behind my grandparents’ house in upstate New York and managed to do with a BB gun almost exactly what I’d done with the slingshot. I fired at a glass bottle and watched as the BB exited the muzzle, ricocheted off the target, and hit me in the eye, this time in the inner part. I remember only unrestrained shrieking, swarming adults, several pounds of ice, and frenzied deliberations about Braille, German shepherds, and Patty Duke.
In that same yard in another summer, my brother, cousins, and some neighbor children were playing behind the house. Some teenage boys were watching us from behind the trees and decided it would be fun to pelt the smaller children with large stones. When we heard the rocks start to land around us, we all scattered. My scattering took the form of inserting my face directly into the flight path of a tennis ball-sized igneous missile. The damage was relatively minor; hardly equal to the mummification quantities of gauze my parents were frantically layering around my head. But at this point they had accepted that their son’s skull was the final destination for every airborne object in the western hemisphere. From then on, whenever they heard about an asteroid running loose around Neptune or a space satellite with a decaying orbit they hid me in a basement crawlspace until the danger had passed.
Despite their concerns and precautions, my head continued its unhindered quest for self-destruction.
As a teenager, I was playing touch football one day and went out for a long pass. I was in full stride, flying down the field as fast as I would ever run. I looked back to the quarterback, who saw me get open and hurled a perfect pass that landed squarely in my arms. I tucked it in and, as I turned to run for the touchdown, my head achieved complete molecular fusion with the utility pole that served as our end-zone marker.
Today, that play has been long forgotten but the impact with which my skull struck the pole has become the stuff of legend. Those who witnessed it described the sound as precisely the noise one might expect to hear when a loaded dump truck rolls over a casaba melon. As one witness said, “When I heard that sound, I just assumed you were dead.”
I didn’t die, I merely lost consciousness for a couple of seconds. I further amazed everyone when I got up and continued playing in the game, not because I was especially tough or determined, but simply because the collision had left me with the unshakable notion that I was at least seven of the apostles, all singing the theme from “The Benny Hill Show” while spiraling lazily around the Space Needle in a winged bathtub.
At this point, my parents considered having my head permanently encased in a titanium bomb-squad helmet filled with packing peanuts. I would do little to convince them this was a bad idea.
Some years later, I was riding my ten-speed bike down the street. I remember this head-trauma incident as being the most embarrassing only because I wasn’t doing anything particularly dangerous at the time. I was bored and simply steering the bike in slow, lazy circles while I tried to think of something to do. When I turned the handlebars just a little too severely, the front wheel stuck on the pavement, the rear wheel lifted off the ground, and the bike capsized along its vertical axis. It happened so slowly that I actually had time to marvel at what was occurring. The marveling stopped when I realized that I was now completely inverted and, once again, in the gravitational embrace of yet another eyebrows-first trajectory toward the pavement. I landed on the crown of my head, right at the hairline, and almost before I was able to stand up, an irate, roiling mass of inflamed blood vessels erupted at the spot of contact. Within a couple of minutes the frothing contusion looked like a mutilated raccoon trying to claw its way out of a pink balloon.
I walked my bike home, fully aware that there was no way my parents could endure another episode of “Fractured Cranium Tales,” so I jammed a baseball cap over my rapidly swelling second head and went to dinner. Of course, they immediately demanded that I remove my hat at the table and I was forced to unveil Bumpzilla. My father leaped off his chair as though it had been electrified, screamed, “Incubus!” and ran to get the holy water. My mother just went to the locker of bandages, ointments, and vascular clamps she had learned to keep on hand for these occasions.
I was routinely interrogated about how I had sustained the injury but, at this point, it really didn’t matter anymore. I could have walked through the door with the fender from a ’62 Chrysler jutting out my left temple and my father would have just said, “Great! Where are you gonna find a hat big enough to cover THAT, mister?” while my mother would have calmly called the Red Cross to see if ice could be ordered in gross tonnage.
The cranial carnage didn’t end with childhood. In college I was playing racquetball and dove to return a low shot. I grotesquely miscalculated the distance between me and the wall and slammed into it with the back of my head. Unfazed by the impact, I made the shot and went to the service line. My opponent, standing behind me, said, “Um, I think you’re bleeding.” I ran my hand across the spot where I’d hit my head and looked at it. It was deep red. I grabbed a towel, wiped my hand off, and said, “Okay, let’s play.” There was no one to play, however, because having seen the spreading blood stain on the back of my shirt, my opponent (a six-foot-six, 285-pound defensive lineman), was running down the hall screaming like a Campfire Girl with a snake in her jumper. Later in the emergency room a doctor stitched the two-inch gash on my scalp and imparted to me the kind of inscrutable advice only 10 years of rigorous medical training can endow: “Running into walls with your head is not a good racquetball strategy.” I failed his concussion test by answering the question, “Who is the president of the United States?” with the response, “marinara sauce.”
In my early 30s I’d had enough and decided to take up tae kwon do, the “thinking” being that, if I mastered the art of self-defense I could apply those same principles to the defense of my head. Unfortunately, the exact opposite occurred.
Shortly after starting classes, I discovered that sparring was an important part of the curriculum, and that beginning students were frequently paired against sparring partners with much higher belt degrees, so that the novices could benefit from the experience of the experts. And then I learned that scoring a kick to the head was the most prized maneuver you could execute during a match. Being significantly shorter than the rest of the men in the class, this combination of circumstances made my skull the Holy Grail of head shots. How to describe the ensuing butchery? Imagine someone has just taped a winning Powerball ticket to your forehead. Now imagine that Chuck Norris, Bruce Lee, and Mike Tyson are competing against each other to dislodge it. Despite the plump decorative throw pillows I had stuffed inside my head gear, I still drove home after class each night wondering if I was holding the correct steering wheel of the four that hovered in front of me.
And then I got it. Every instance of head trauma that I had experienced to that point had been the direct result of just one thing: activity. Had I not been running, shooting, throwing, biking, sparring, whatever, I would never have sustained these repeated cranial traumas. Clearly, complete inactivity is the key to an anti-concussive lifestyle: a philosophy I have followed devotedly for the past 10 years. Not once in that time have I suffered a bump, a fracture, or a substantial leakage of brain matter (with the brief exception of some cerebral liquefaction during Bush-Kerry presidential debate).
Of course, this plan for securing the integrity of my head has not come without a price, namely, being so out of shape that the physical exertion required to type this story required several multi-liter intravenous infusions of Gatorade. But it seems like a fair price to pay to keep the planet from battering my head around like a soccer ball at a Brazilian beach party.
Of course, continued exposure to the Three Stooges could trigger the same effect as a ball-peen hammer to the foreskull, but that’s a chance my head is willing to take.
© 2010 by Steve Ricci
Steve Ricci is a writer, editor, and photographer who, for some reason, just can’t get into Lost.