“Pain is weakness leaving the body” – Tom Sobal
In 1000 AD England, King Elthred was supreme ruler on earth. To villagers and peasants, life was a fragile gossamer strand that could be snapped by a sudden invisible hand as easily as one might brush aside a spider’s web.
Healers relied on sacred and profane remedies to exorcise the physical demons that brought plagues and misery. In darker times, giving in meant giving up. People learned early to chide and cajole the injured and infirmed ( gettest thou out of bed, you are fine !) as if to acknowledge the severity of their condition would make it a self fulfilling prophesy.
In the late 1500’s, an unusual illustrated journal maintained by an 11th century monk revealed much about life and death in the dark ages. In one protracted pictograph of medieval medicine, leaches were applied to the legs of individuals with circulatory and psychological ailments. With their parasitic poultice in tow, the afflicted were expected to walk great distances – presumably to increase circulation – which in turn would swell the growth of the leach until it would literally burst off the patient’s skin. This bloody explosion was said to mark the point at which the bad blood had been extracted, improving the odds for a speedy recovery. It was theorized by one etymologist that this was the genesis of the Anglican stiff upper lip expression – “walk it off.”
Centuries later, I recall being beaned in the right leg during a high school scrimmage by Jim Gott, an all-county pitcher who threw laser fastballs in excess of 90 mph. Gott went on to enjoy a decade long career in Major League Baseball with stints as a reliever for the Blue Jays, Giants and Dodgers. On this day, he all but fractured my femur with a low and tight slider that chose not to break. I am reminded of the blinding flash of pain as well as the taste of red dirt on my tongue as I writhed in the chalk of the batters box. I distinctly recollect the unsympathetic cacophony of fathers and coaches who all yelled out precisely at the same moment, “walk it off, Turpin!”
As I got up limping on one leg, I shot an indignant leer through the chain-linked backstop. I saw distain on their ancient faces and could almost divine their prehistoric thoughts. “that kid, what a milk toast. “ and “It’s just as well his father isn’t hear to see this.”
Injuries were common in the era of free-range kids. There were road rash bicycle accidents, sandlot football broken arms, Fourth of July firework burns, and new scout knife gashes. We knew emergency room nurses on a first name basis. Yet these ladies only saw a fraction of our maladies as with most families of our generation, we used the “O Squared” method to triage medical events. The O squared rule simply stated that one must have been bleeding from at least two orifices to merit professional medical attention. This therapeutic best practice was not unique to our family. It was an indispensable axiom for our entire neighborhood including the Del Santo family, a classically prolific, eleven-kid Italian Catholic family that lived directly diagonal to our back yard.
The Dels kitchen was a 24-hour MASH hospital. I can distinctly recall one of the Del Santo boys breaking his finger and attempting to get treatment from Mrs. Del, a saint of a mother who, while holding a screaming child, cooking bacon and eggs and dragging two other toddlers attached to her ankles, adroitly administered a field dressing with the detached calm of a battlefield corpsman.
In a treatment torn from the page of a survivalist field manual, Mrs. Del grabbed a long plastic Lego, scotch tape and set the finger. Both patient and parent seemed content with the makeshift splint although, I was personally stunned that the stopgap remedy became permanent and was never replaced with the popular metal splint encased in white gauze and athletic tape.
In the days of “man up” medicine, athletic coaches did not get sued for pushing athletes to the point of heat exhaustion or vomiting. Having survived the Army with a crusty Master Sergeant who was the only survivor of a platoon overrun in North Korea, my father considered pain an essential process in forging stronger character. Through suffering, one could achieve a higher plane of consciousness where pain ultimately subsided. (We now know this higher plateau to be known as shock.) However, in the days of ” tough it out” and shake it off”, no one iced a monkey bump the size of a golf ball, paid attention to the bruise on your left quad that resembled the continent of Australia or woke you up every hour after taking a shot to the head in football.
It was not uncommon to come into the house balling uncontrollably after you had just pounded a nail through your hand while building a primitive fort or plunged an ice pick into your thigh while removing grout from shower. Parents of the 60s would actually hit you to calm you – perhaps influenced by war movies where the tough officer slaps the hysterically wounded man. ” Get a hold of yourself, Bob. You still have your other leg.” Once slapped out of your self-pity, your parent would proceed to pour stinging rubbing alcohol on your gaping wound causing you to shriek and leap uncontrollably out of your chair. Another therapeutic slap reduced you to a drooling, blubbering, shaking mass of blood stained clothes.
In days before the over prescription of antibiotics created superbugs and killer staph infections, a boil would not be considered life threatening but instead be lanced with a sterilized sewing needle and protected with a simple 3 inch Band-Aid. A summer splinter was dug out with that same needle as you were screaming, “ no, I can walk with this in my foot, no!”
One would think with this tough love education that we would have grown into a society of practical homeopaths eschewing formal medicine for crazy glue, anti-bacterial ointment and a rubber belt to bite on. As we became parents, we changed from Darwinian fatalists into empathetic hyperactive helicopter parents. Actually, the opposite occurred. At every sniffle, sneeze or throaty cough, we rushed our first-borns to emergency clinics and to pediatricians begging for antibiotics because we could not stand the uncertainty of an illness. We wanted instant resolution and it contributed to creating a healthcare system that was all too eager to accommodate our anxieties.
As we got older and realized our children were more or less indestructible objects, we became part of the cavalcade of “ walk it off “ parents. After our son fell while swinging on his pull up bar, we chastised him and sent him to bed – despite his complaints that his hand was hurting. Two days later, he was diagnosed with a broken bone in his hand (ok, so maybe it was four days later). Our daughter took a bad spill while playing soccer – again there was whining about a sore shoulder and neck. “ You’re fine,” we told her as she complained about being too sore to practice. Three days later we were looking at the X-Ray that revealed the broken collarbone. Oops!
It is a cool autumn football night as I wander over to midweek practice fields that buzz under an eerie glow reminiscent of alien landing lights. There is a symphony of yells, whistles, smacking helmets and tribal clapping followed by a singular outburst “break!”
A padded adolescent warrior lies on the ground and is slow getting up. As players take a knee in a sign of solidarity, a coach sympathetically touches the players shoulder pad and coaxes him to sit up. Across the turf field, a father paces uneasily. His large build and slight limp suggest a lifetime of contact athletics. I am secretly critical as he is obviously barely restraining his need to run on to the field to hold his son. He moves closer to the sideline straining to see his player, attempting to ascertain the nature of his injury. As a veteran “ tough it out” parent, I start towards him to reassure him that his progeny will be fine. He can hold it in no longer. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he screams, “Come on Jimmy, you’re fine. Get back in there!”
I feel a sudden chill and for a moment, sense my father is right behind me, seated on wooden bleachers urging me to suck it up and get back in the game. I turn, expecting to see him restlessly pacing, waiting for me to dust myself off and hustle down to first base.
There is no one there. As I turn to return to my observation post, I stumble over an equipment bag tossed on the sidelines and hit my knee on the gurf field. Dusting myself off and limping over to the fence, I glance up hoping no one has witnessed my gaffe. In the shadows lurks another late 40’s father. He is obviously an alumnus of the “suck it up academy”.
“Walk it off, dude” he says with a chuckle.