When I was in fourth grade, a fellow student named Scott Ule played a prank on me, standing behind me in the lunch line and unintentionally knocking my feet out from under me. This would have been harmless pre-adolescent hijinks, except that on the way to the floor, the back on my head was intercepted by the edge of a dark green steel trash can.
I felt a sharp shock, and then everything went blurry for a timeless moment. I realized I wasn’t breathing: “Wow, so this is what it’s like to be dead!” Faces crowded over me, puzzling me, and then horrific pain flooded my mind as my body drew breath.
I don’t remember going to the hospital, other than a dim moment in which the phrase “mild concussion” was used. In fact, I was a bit surprised that I was allowed to stay home from school the next morning, though. I sat at the kitchen table with my mother, attempting to draw with colored pencils. She tried to show me the right way to fill the color in large areas, keeping my strokes headed in the same direction, and smooth. I told her “But that isn’t the way things look to me, Mama.” She gave me some Hawaiian Punch and told me to keep practicing.
That afternoon my father took me back to school, right after lunch. The other kids were amazed to see me, and I was a momentary celebrity. My most appreciative fan, however, was Scott Ule, who told me he had heard I was dead. The story had it that I had died of a broken skull, or alternately, that I wasn’t dead, but I was a vegetable. Either way, the grapevine had it that Scott would soon be picked up by the police for his crime.
He was very happy to see me.
My parents were clear that I should forgive Scott for this, because “he’s from a bad home.” I’m not sure really what the situation was, only that he didn’t have a mother, and his dad worked for the railroads. “No one is setting a good example for him,” they said. So I decided I would be his friend.
A week later he told me I was a dork, and to leave him alone.
Later that year our class went on a field trip. In the late 1960s, few southern Illinois homes had a swimming pool, so we went to the YMCA, to go swimming. Needless to say, I had no idea how to swim. I didn’t even have a bathing suit.
That day I was late leaving the locker room. Without my glasses I couldn’t find my way around very well, and was really intimidated by the size of the pool. Scott saw me and decided to take pity on me. I was looking for the shallow end, and he helpfully told me it was all shallow, and to just jump right in over by the diving boards.
While I was trying to surface he helped me again, jumping in and standing on my back until I was reminded what it was like to be dead. It was eerie, feeling his feet on my back, and not feeling anything else at all. Everything was very blue, and very quiet.
And then I was throwing up my breakfast at the side of the pool, while other kids stood around me and squealed in delight and disgust. In the distance I heard teachers shouting at me for being stupid and jumping in the pool like that, and thanking Scott for diving in and trying to save me. They sent me into the locker room to get dressed, and told me to wait on the bus for everyone else to finish.
Sometimes late I night I close my eyes and I can see the faces of the kids in my class, all staring down at me with curiosity or contempt. Sometimes I look at the strangeness that has followed me though my life, and wonder if I ever got up again.