I’m of the nature that things will get better. In moments of uncertainty, at the crossroads of the unmet, it’s my tendency to wait awhile, mostly sure that the good will come out and the wounded heal. I leave things alone. I don’t fuss with the injured, allowing time to do its slow work; and then the blood bruise dissipates, the broken heart becomes mended, made whole again. I’m a firm believer in Hippocrates, but ignore the initial word of his oath First do no harm. These are the reasons my left hand is missing.
The explanation goes roughly that I went to my cabin in the woods of upstate New York, eight, nine miles from the Canadian border in St. Lawrence county, little town of Bluffton being the closest by, but not too close really, especially when walking through the night when it’s cold and it always is. I’ve been up there every winter since the night Nixon won his second term. I loaded the station wagon with what I thought would be enough to get me through to the spring thaw and drove away from Brooklyn, disgusted with my people and their country, but most of all with myself for believing it’d be any different or that dumb old George McGovern would ever win. Which is unfair to McGovern, who wasn’t dumb, but I’m still mad at him for not figuring a way to expose Nixon for the son-of-a-bitch he was, although, in certain types of light, even that scoundrel doesn’t look so bad these days.
I didn’t last a full month that first year, didn’t really understand what it was like up there in the guts of winter. My dad built that cabin in the warm early summer of 1941 and in my mind I remember him doing it, all muscle and strong brown skin, tarred black roofing nails in his teeth and plenty of hand me that hammer, kiddo. I`d only just been two years old then (I was born April 20th, 1939, Hitler’s fiftieth) and likely don’t remember (and wouldn’t have been trusted with hammers in the first place, because of being too small). But I want to remember, and have to believe that I do, because he left soon after with the Navy and died with them too before the year was done. They think he was in the hold of a supply ship torpedoed in the Pacific, and he had to be somewhere at the moment of his killing, but they never had a body to show us, and it’s right about how that makes it harder to ever let your grief go.
Truth is my dad didn’t make a great job of the cabin, but then it was only an extended lean-to, a place to stay for a night or two of fishing and drinking, and that’s all I’d ever used it for, driving up once or twice a summer with friends to get away from the city when the heat got too hard to sleep with. Months at a time over the winter were a completely different proposition, but I’ve managed it through the years and to be fair to that poor rube, I’ve got the place better situated than it was back then.
The first frigid morning in ’73, and woken early by the absence of temperature, I boiled water, lots of it, to clean myself up and help the whiskey hangover soften, but also to attack the filthy dishes and pots that’d been left there the October before by three of us who’d stayed up late and then had to scoot back to the city without thinking too much about the next guy who’d happen by. I remember the gravy boat as though it’s sitting here in front of me now. White, simple lipped mouth, and all still encrusted with slop. I picked it up by the business end and my fingers slipped while trying to break off a point of caked gravy ice, sliced a good cut across the pad of my left index finger. Dropped the thing and broke it.
I was surprised at how much it bled, but tops of fingers are like that, maybe it’s just that there’s nowhere else for the blood to go once it reaches the tips. I staunched up the bleeding with an oil rag and twisted a rubber band over it, didn’t have no band-aids, no medical kit or anything. As you’ll have gathered, I wasn’t the most forward-thinking of guys back then. Anyway, it throbbed some, but I didn’t think anything much of it, except to curse my luck for getting cut up on frozen gravy of all the things you might come across.
The cold was probably good for it, as far as things having more of a tendency to rot in humid, sticky weather, but what was strange was that it never got a scab over the whole thing. It was in an unfortunate place, because you are using your fingertips a whole lot, especially when trying to fix up a log cabin that needs plenty of work. I wore gloves mostly, but even then every time I’d take them off the cut would open up all over again. After about a week, there was also something of a seepage problem. My mother always used to say that infected cuts would weep and this was like that.
I don’t need to give a play-by-play here of the days that passed until I’d been alone up there for three weeks, but by then pretty much the whole of that finger was black. I didn’t know whether it was blood collecting under the skin or what, but it was obviously some kind of infection. I kept it as clean as possible and just waited for it to start getting better.
Eventually, running low on food, and at the point of understanding what cabin fever really was all about as a consequence of a couple more feet of snow, I decided to take the awkward trip into Bluffton and see about getting some provisions at the general store, maybe some kind of antiseptic cream. Long story short, the guy behind the counter was also a pharmacist and within five seconds had his nose scrunched up at a smell which until that moment I swear I’d never noticed. He put on one of those latex-type gloves and just touched around the nail, which hurt something awful, and was shaking his head, saying: “Why the hell didn’t you get this fixed up a sight sooner, Son?”
I explained to him I was pretty sure it was going to get better and that it was only a slice from an iced-gravy splinter, and he answered right back wanting to know what kind of gravy it’d been. “It would’ve been chicken gravy, or gravy that was made with some chicken, because that’s what we ate, a chicken dinner, the last meal we had when we were up here.” Well, he just took to tutting and muttering about how as it’d been a silly question because with it having sat there so long, it could’ve been used by rats for a popsicle for all it mattered and who the hell knew what kind of disease we were looking at now anyway.
“Mister, I don’t think I’ve got a disease, I think I’ve got an infected finger is what I’ve got. Badly infected maybe because of my inattention to this date, but still something that I would hope you might be able to supply me with some disinfecting agent for,” said I. “Son,” said he, “you do have a disease, of that I can assure you, and it’s name is gangrene of the finger and maybe of the hand already if something isn’t done as soon as it’s possible, and there ain’t no special cream or gel or salve that’s going to save the flesh here that’s already dead.” I will be honest and admit that this was the first time I was given some pause by the matter.
Anyhow, that’s pretty much how I lost my hand. I still had it then, but it was as if the old pharmacist had sent me directly along to his brother the butcher to chop through clean at the wrist and sear the raw end on a griddle. It’s true there was a little more bad luck involved regarding the weather, because by the time I got back to the cabin to get my stuff and was trying to figure the best way to get up to Oswegatchie, which is the nearest town of any size (four thousand residents) and has a small clinic which serves the district, the snow had begun falling again and heavily. Couldn’t get out for two more days, and he was right the cream didn’t help. It was hurting bad by now and all the time, a lot. I drank two full bottles of whiskey before the skies cleared, and I never was a drinker. Took me nearly three hours on those roads to get to the clinic, driving one-handed and thanking God for the automatic transmission.
Saw a Doctor there who told me pretty much what the pharmacist had said but more of it and that I’d have to go to the proper hospital. I all but passed out in his office, the fever I’d been running finding close to its peak. He gave me an injection of something, saying as how it was the poison that was running in me, that’d I’d let it all go on for too long, that the gangrene was out of hand. And damn it if he didn’t laugh to himself a little at the unintended pun. They arranged for an ambulance to take me. The rest of it’s a blur, but I remember signing papers, knowing it was lucky to be right-handed.
That was a Tuesday evening and I woke up afternoon the next day a one-handed man. Never asked them what they did with the rest of the other one. Disposed it as waste, I guess. I was a week on that ward, called my mother and made her cry. I remember sitting in the ratty lounge they had, small room, watching pictures of his second inauguration, knowing it was time to go back home. Made me think that I was the whole country somehow, that I’d sat around for too long doing nothing and now found myself worse off than before but with no better choice than to be getting on with it. There was a lot of talk about widening the draft back then, because of the American War as the Vietnamese call it. People were nervous about maybe having to go into the army, but that was something I never much worried about again.