Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Just a little brain injury

When I was twelve years old, living in Piper, Kansas, one of my favorite hobbies was model rocketry. This hobby combined two of my biggest interests: the meticulous activity of model building and the ultra cool activity of setting things on fire. By twelve, I had already amassed a fine collection of model rockets: a replica German V-2, a sky blue interceptor, a Hercules payload rocket where you could actually fly live crickets, and many, many more.

The process a model rocket goes through during flight is pretty interesting, especially considering the rocket is assembled only out of paper tubes and Elmer's glue. First, after the rocket is assembled and painted, you insert a pre-made engine into the shaft at the bottom. It locks in place with a special clip built into the rocket. Then, you tape on an igniter, which has two wire leads connected to some kind of flammable substance. After connecting the leads to the battery powered igniter (just a box with a button and a light bulb), you give a ceremonious countdown:

10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-BLAST OFF!

The igniter hisses as it lights, and soon, the rocket is soaring into the air.

After a predetermined amount of firing, the rocket begins to coast for a while, until the final charge in the engine fires out the top end of the rocket, dislodging the nose cone and a protective wad of paper. The body of the rocket is connected to the nose cone with an elastic cord and a plastic parachute. If all goes well, the rocket safely floats back to Earth, undamaged.

My friends, Matt and Jeff, and I would walk down to the end of the street to launch our rockets, where a sandy baseball diamond sat adjacent to miles and miles of empty fields. The baseball diamond was ideal for firing rockets, at least most of the time. If the wind was up, however, and we had a particularly powerful engine on the rocket, the rocket could get carried far away and we'd have to chase after it.

This happened one day with my Hercules payload rocket--one of my favorites. Matt and I had just fired it off, and it drifted far off to the northeast, straight for some far off grove of trees.

Damn. We started running.

Crossing the fields and climbing over at least one fence, we finally located the rocket high up in an old rotten tree. The rocket was about 25 feet up, in a tree with a trunk about 10 inches in diameter. Ordinarily, it would be a simple process of climbing the tree, retrieving the rocket, and descending back down. This tree, however, was completely dead and rotten. Lacking the common sense that most twelve year olds lack, I hastily began climbing the tree.

I made it easily up the tree, and out onto a five inch wide limb, rocket in hand. Again, had the tree not been rotten, a five inch limb would have been perfectly safe. As the tree was completely rotten, it was not.

Crack. The limb broke with me on it.

Just like in the Wile E. Coyote cartoons, I see myself hanging there, suspended in mid-air, looking around for something to grab, letting out some urgent expletive. Then, whoosh, down I go.

I landed ass first, and the next thing I know, Matt is helping me up. I have later been told that I must have lost consciousness; apparently, there was some time while I was down on the ground before I got up.

Matt grabbed a suitably long branch, which I used as a crutch, and I hobbled home with his help, my undamaged rocket in my other hand. (I still have that rocket to this very day!) My back was killing me, and I felt woozy and light-headed.

As I got home, my mother, a registered nurse, placed me in a recliner and looked me over. She noticed that my eyes were dilated and ultimately decided I'd better go to the hospital. We drove off to Ft. Leavenworth, 30 miles away, the only medical care available to us as an Army family.

The doctors at the hospital looked me over and determined that I had received a concussion. How, you may ask, does one who lands on his butt receive a concussion? Well, the somewhat scientific answer to this is that the impact of my fall onto my tail bone jammed my spinal column into the bottom portion of my brain, thereby creating a concussion. The less scientific answer, which was favored by my Grandpa Guier for years, was that I had all my brains in my ass! I think he was right too. What was I doing climbing that tree? I could have kicked the damn thing over and just grabbed my rocket off the ground.

The good news was that nothing was broken. The soft stream bed at the base of the tree absorbed most of the impact. Regardless, the doctors still wanted to keep me overnight in the hospital to observe me and make sure I didn't have any problems.

All this was rather cool. I viewed staying in the hospital a bit like staying in a cool hotel with room service. I got to eat exotic hospital food like Salisbury Steak, mashed potatoes, peas and vanilla ice cream for dessert.

The nurse put me in a private room, and hooked me up to a heart monitor. They taped several electrodes across my chest, and hooked the electrodes into a machine which displayed my heartbeats. The nurse, satisfied that the machine was working properly, retired to her late supper in the office down the hall. Watching this machine kept me alert and very entertained long past my bedtime.

As the night wore on, though, I became restless, and being a constant fidgeter, I began to experiment with the electrodes taped onto my chest.

I noticed that if I tapped the back of one of the nodes, I could make a blip on the monitor.


Tap. Tap.

Blip. Blip.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Blip. Blip. Blip.

Okay, now I was inspired. I started tapping out the rhythm to the William Tell Overture to see what the blips on the screen would look like.

Tap, tap tap. Tap, tap, tap. Tap, tap, tap-tap-tap!

The machine dutifully blipped away, until it decided that I had gone into cardiac arrest, and it started souding a long and very shrill alarm.

Within seconds, the nurse rushes into my room in a panic. When she sees me in bed pounding away on my chest electrodes like they're some kind of exotic conga drum, she lets out a long, exasperated sigh, walks over to me and, in a very acid tone, says, "I think we're just fine."


She pulls all the electrodes off my chest with one solid yank. It was a blessing that I didn't have a shred of chest hair yet, or I would have been screaming. I'm sure she would have preferred that I did.

© Copyright 2005-2014, Scott E. Harris. All Rights Reserved.
Please do not reproduce or copy without the permission of the author.