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American Pie: My Scars - My Life

"The story of my life is written on my skin,'' writes John Merchant whos is currently recovering after a hip replacement operation.

The story of my life is written on my skin, perhaps not a detailed narrative, but with sufficient bookmarks to remind me. The first, of course, is my belly button. Dr. Wrench; yes his real name, delivered me almost 80 years ago, and made a good job of tying off my umbilical cord, though I must confess to not having seen it other than in a mirror, for the past several years.

The next mark of significance dates from my pre-teens; a pale semicircle, like a new moon around the large knuckle on my index finger. The way I acquired it is a bit of a mystery. As children in World War II, we were warned not to pick up any object we found.

The Germans, we were told, were dropping anti-personnel devices, disguised as everyday objects, such as fountain pens, wallets etc. that would explode if handled. I donít have even the vaguest memory of the object I found in the leaves behind my house; only a sudden pain and a rapid flow of blood from my knuckle.

Iím convinced it wasnít an anti-personnel device, because I donít think any were dropped, and that the whole story was just part of a program of propaganda to demonize the enemy. I wound my handkerchief tightly around my finger and hid the wound from my parents for as long as I could, hoping to avoid the castigation that usually followed such events. Ours was a tough-love family.

My next encounter with bodily injury also took place in WWII. My home town was the target of several air raids, and we boys would comb the streets and woods the following day for whatever might have fallen out of the sky. Mostly it was shrapnel from the local anti-aircraft batteries, but on this one day I found a very large, unexploded machine gun shell.
I was thrilled, and couldnít wait to explode it. My parents werenít home, so I stuck it in the garden shed vice. My friends looked through the window while I placed a large nail on the percussion cap and hit it a mighty blow. The resulting explosion was terrifying in the confined space of the shed, and the shell blew a 12 inch diameter hole in the earth floor between my feet.

I think I was concussed, because it was a minute or two before I realized that the tips of the fingers on my left hand, which had held the nail, were peeled back like a banana and bleeding profusely. My white faced friends helped me to wash and bind up my fingers, and when my parents returned I told them I had fallen with a glass jam-jar in my hand. The scars are still visible.

It wasnít but five years later that I added another cutaneous icon, the result of a bad landing in the high jump (we didnít have air mattresses in those days). My tibia and fibula were shattered, penetrating my right shin.

A few years on, I was training for a bicycle road race with a group of like-minded friends. We would do a nightly circuit of about 40 miles through the lanes and small villages near my home, riding one behind the other, taking turns to be the wind breaker at the front.

The rest of the group rode as close to the rear wheel of the rider in front, usually a matter of only a couple of inches. This demanded a level of concentration that didnít allow for taking in the general scene.

As rear man, I saw the wheel in front of me begin to wobble, and a split second later a ball in the road Ė too late for me to avoid it. It turned out to be a cricket ball from a local village game, and as hard as a rock. In an instant I was over the handlebars and sliding along the asphalt. My knees and elbows took the brunt of the fall, leaving me with holes that have not filled in to this day.

From that day to recent times, my propensity to damage myself has mostly involved minor cuts and bruises and broken bones that left little evidence. However, I have a fine white pencil line on my right forearm, the result of losing control of an atrium door I was installing. It attracts more interest than it deserves, and itís fairly obvious that the curious think it is evidence of a failed suicide attempt.

In 2007 I entered the realm of the super-scar with my first knee replacement, followed two years later by the other knee. Not one to be easily satisfied, this month I added a hip replacement, and the surgeon told me it would a matter of months before the other hip gave out!

Oh, I forgot to mention the patchwork of tiny scars on my face; each one evidence of spending too long in the sun. Iíd like to think they add character, but I havenít so far been offered as much as a walk-on movie part.

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