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June, 2004

Mishaps to My Thumbs

by Larry

Ever since, as a small child, hearing the puzzling "Little Jack Horner" nursery rhyme, about a young fellow, Jack, who, while eating a mincemeat pie, "stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said 'What a good boy am I (!),' " I've understood that there is something inscrutably special about our thumbs.

The knowledge that these "ugly duckling fingers" are remarkable in their own right was reinforced for me a few years later by seeing the delightful 1952 film about a children's story writer, "Hans Christian Anderson," with Danny Kaye playing the lead, and hearing him sing the catchy "Thumbelina" song, accompanied by the dancing antics of his decorated (to seem like an independent person) thumb, clearly an exceptional part of the human anatomy.

But, for all my early pleasure in using them for such hobbies as playing with my food, finger painting, marbles, or making things with modeling clay, it was my thumbs' going in harm's way that ultimately provided the strongest impressions of them over the years.

I tried my hand, so to speak, at a variety of artisan tasks as I was growing up and, sadly, discovered rather quickly that, with respect to making things, I was really all thumbs. One common result of this was that, no matter how many times I practiced my carpentry skills, inevitably before long while hammering in nails the tool would land with staggering force upon one or the other of my most vulnerable members.

Larry, about 1949, at age 5, in Falls Church, VA. Around this time I briefly took an interest in a button noted when a car door was open.
And I did not have to hear awful tales of such tortures as pulling out the nails of one's thumbs, applying thumbscrews, or hanging a person by his or her thumbs to know too that these are particularly sensitive portions of the body.

In sports also my thumbs bore the full brunt of a lack of natural expertise. For instance, once, when attempting to return a spiked volleyball, the full force of the sphere was transmitted onto my upwardly extended left thumb, seeming to shoot the bones into the heel of the hand. A sharp pain indicated there had been some resistance to this outcome's success. The longest thumb bone had developed a small fracture instead.

Nor did the knowledge later surprise me that having opposable thumbs helped permit us to get ahead of other species. I'd long realized that opposition was a sign of advancement, and accordingly had practiced it on my dad and mom at every opportunity. Kidding aside, though, most of the mishaps to my thumbs were purely accidental.

Perhaps the most distressing incident involving one of my thumbs occurred when I was about four or five years old. My folks and I were off on a trip. I was on the far right in the front seat. Mom was sitting in the middle. Dad was driving, on the far left. We stopped for something, perhaps to fill up the car's gasoline tank and allow Mom to buy a cup of coffee or go to the restroom. I was briefly alone in the vehicle. I wondered, with the door on the passenger side partly open, about the purpose of that button into the chassis, inside the door. Clearly it would be pushed in when the door was shut, I noted, but it was sticking out now. I pressed it and discovered that the overhead light went off. Hmm. Interesting. I tried it again, not paying too much attention to the fact that Mom and Dad had gotten back into the car, from the driver's side. I was pushing on the button a third or fourth time with my right thumb, and enjoying the flickering off and on of the ceiling light, when Mom noticed the passenger door was still ajar, reached over me to the handle, and swiftly slammed the door shut.

It took me a small shocked interval to realize what had happened, that, contrary to the dictates of science, two objects could occupy the same space at the same time, and that my thumb was still inside the now firmly closed and latched car door. We'd then begun driving on down the road.

" thumb," I stammered a complaint and got my parents' attention to the problem. Our trip was shortened and detoured over to a nearby hospital emergency room where the offended part was given First Aid.


Much later, while doing kitchen police (KP) duty at Fort Polk, LA, in the last week of my Army basic training, with windows wide open because of the heat, the edge of a blowing curtain, near where I was mopping, got caught in a huge floor fan that was not protected up to the later OSHA standards. I grabbed at the curtain to pull it free, but did not take into account the power of the large whirling blades. In a split second, not just the curtain but also my hand had been pulled in, and my left thumb was sliced deeply enough that the post doctors wanted to do surgery.

But this would have meant leaving later and failing to graduate with my company. I'd had enough of Fort Polk's charms and declined the offer. All the military trousers we'd been issued, however, had strictly button-up flies. Zippers were a bit too futuristic for that modern U.S. Army. Over the next few weeks, there and at my next duty station, fastening or unfastening with only one fully functioning thumb proved an even greater challenge than I'd encountered trying to unhook a date's bra during passionate vehicular gymnastics.

While playing with a puppy a number of years ago, I suffered a puncture wound, also to my left thumb, from one of his needle-sharp milk teeth. Who knows where his ivory had been? But the hole got badly infected. Almost overnight, my thumb swelled up to nearly twice normal size and required treatment.

While this little tale might seem to be one of woe, the fact is that my thumbs have a history of minor traumas all out of proportion to both their size and to the injuries I've had generally. Many folks my age have suffered physically far worse than I. In most respects, my thumbs and I have been quite lucky.

All in all, then, I can still enthusiastically give my life a big thumbs up!

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