Sunday, October 14, 2012


Bottle-neck guitar

A working man's injury has a story to tell.  Accidents often happen when we are rushing, over-tired or pre-occupied. The scars we carry remind us of our history and help define who are. 

I caught the index finger of my left hand in a hydraulic wood splitter.   I had been working alone on the hill when it happened.  It was the autumn of the year my wife and I separated.  I cut a lot of wood that season, selling it to make up for the loss in family income.  My spouse had been the primary wage earner.  I worked as a stone mason, spent a lot of time with our children and took care of our large rural property. 

I got so I was pretty fast when it came to splitting wood.  I operated sort of on automatic pilot, my mind lost completely in the work.  I would stack three or four logs on the support deck,  
then one by one, roll each into place, pull and hold the lever that activated the hydraulic arm and then watch as the wedge pushed slowly and evenly into the butt end.  In seconds, the  sawed log would split down the length with the grain and I would release the lever and the wedge would reverse course.   I'd then toss the smaller pieces into the truck bed, roll another big chunk of wood into place and repeat the process.  The repetitive act of making firewood had a sort of dreamy, slow motion quality that I quite enjoyed.  With sixty or eighty chords to turn out, that was a good thing.

Anyway, I rolled on a heavy log that had a "Y" at the end.  I propped the thicker stub against the back plate but it rested awkwardly there, so I supported it with my left hand as I pulled the hydraulic lever with my right.   As the wedge pressed in against the log, the tension created caused wood to twist and the upper stem of the "Y" pulled down, somehow pinching my gloved hand between its sawed stump and the back plate.  It happened just that fast.   

I'm a musician.   I've played the guitar for more than thirty-five years.  It was my profession as well as my first love.  My band mates and my past writing partners were like family to me.  I was alway jamming with new people, composing tunes, learning songs and performing until the year I divorced.  It was an artistic discipline as well as my social life.   My left hand is what I fret the guitar neck with and the index finger is incredibly important.  All the bar cords require the first finger, its primary in every riff and scale progression I'd ever learned.  

So I'm up there on the mountain on a cloudy Sunday loading the truck with ash wood and suddenly everything changes.  As I release the hydraulic and am able to pull my hand away from the machine, I know what has happened is bad, really bad.  I'm afraid to remove the glove.  I am worried about the bleeding.  I'm a long way from the house.  

I don't remember doing it,  but I must have reached down with my good hand and shut the gas motor off.  Then I climbed in the truck and with one hand on the wheel, spun the truck around and barreled down hill to the house.  The kids were there.  I rushed in and yelled to my thirteen year old son.  "Sam,  get a bag of ice.  I crushed my finger!  Hurry!"  He jumped up from his chair and ran into the kitchen with me. 

"How'd you do it Pop?"  He asked as he searched under the counter for a plastic freezer bag.

"On that God damn splitter."  I mumbled.  I was leaning over the sink intent on inching off the glove.  I was praying my finger wasn't going to come off with it.  

It was a bloody mess, but still all in one piece.  I rinsed it with cold water.  The skin had burst from around the bone like the rhine on an over ripe tomato.   Sam was cracking trays of ice into the bag he'd found and his little sister Sarah was standing across the counter from me her eyes wide, not saying a word.  

"I'm okay baby,"  I said to her  "but you'd better run upstairs and get my wallet.  I'm going to have to go get some stitches "   

I was in shock I suppose.  Everything was just a numb throbbing all the way up my arm.  As I flushed the wound, I noticed a big wood sliver sticking out of the center of my finger print.  I tried a couple times to pull it out but it wouldn't budge.  Then I realized it wasn't a sliver.  It was a chord of white muscle tissue.

I could sense that Sam was afraid to look at the finger.   He handed me the bag of ice and stood behind my elbow.  I folded it gingerly around the dish towel I'd improvised as a bandage.  

"Guys, I think you had better stay here."  I said as I took my wallet from Sarah's outstretched hand.  My little girl looked so serious that after I'd slipped the billfold in my back pocket I gave her nose a tweak with my good hand  "Hey, I'm okay baby.   You and brother call mom and tell her I'm going to the hospital for a couple stitches. " 

I headed out the back door and as I stepped off the deck I saw our old Dodge Caravan coming down the dirt road.  Sarah's mom had arrived early to take her to soccer practice.   She pulled in and I told her what had happened and she insisted on driving me back into town.  So the kids climbed in the back and off we headed to Binghamton General Hospital's emergency room.  The ride took forty minutes and the whole time I'm thinking "what if I can't play guitar anymore?"  Then it dawned on me.  Maybe that's why the early blues men started playing bottle neck guitar.  Most of them had been farm laborers.  Farmers were always getting hurt, always lossing fingers. 

I thought of old Walter Pavelski who owned the farm next door to ours.  When we were kids, he used to play his  finger-up-the-nose trick.  He would say, "Hey, see if you can do this!"  When we would look up he would have all but the base of his index finger buried in his nose.  Walt had a pretty big nose and when he didn't have his dentures in it seemed even bigger.  It really wasn't hard to believed he'd shoved his whole finger up that nostril of his.  But then he'd pull his hand away and viola, nothing but a stub.  He'd lost the other two thirds to the gears of a corn blower.     

The country blues players.  If they lost a finger, they could always tune the guitar strings to a cord, find a glass bottle and slide it up and down the neck.   Every position is another cord, no problem.  With a little practice, soon they could slide between individual notes and play melody lines.  "Okay," I think , "If worse comes to worse I'll play bottle neck guitar for the rest of my life."

It was a long wait at the emergency room.   My ex is a bigwig in the hospital's marketing department, but that didn't get us a doctor any faster.  Fortunately the physician who finally worked on me was a surgeon.  I guess somewhere along the line one of the nurses must have given me a pain killer, because when he slipped my injured finger through the hole in the sterile operating bib, I laughed out loud.  Isolated from the rest of my hand, this swollen, fleshy appendage certainly didn't resemble my finger.   

"Well Doc,"  I teased  "You look like a rabbi preparing for a circumcision.

"Yes,"  he said with a twisted grin "but I intend on reattaching the skin, not removing it."

It was weird to feel the tug of the needle and thread as he pulled the wound back together.  He had injected me with Novocain or something, so I couldn't  really feel anything.  It was more like my hand was in the other room and my arm was a mile long.

"So what do you think," I said to the surgeon, "Will I still  be able to play my broken hearted love songs?"

My ex was sitting in the cloth walled cubicle with our two kids.  I looked over at them and  smiled.

"Oh I think you'll be able to play them just fine.  You'll need some PT of course, but the joint is undamaged."

"PT?"  I asked

"Yes, therapy. "

"Therapy?  Like post traumatic?  What?  Do you think my finger is going to go into shock every time it hears a two-stroke engine fire up? Maybe flip-out or something?" 

"Physical therapy." he said, glancing up with a no nonsense expression.  "A crush can be many times harder for the body to heal than a laceration.  You must work the finger to prevent scare tissue from developing that could restrict movement.  That is, if you want to be able to play that fiddle of yours again."

"Guitar."  I corrected  "And I'll do all the therapy you want as long as the little bugger works."

"It will work." he assured me.  "You were very lucky."

Indeed I was.  I can still play the guitar.  Maybe even a little better than before.  Like they say about trauma, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

In a lot of ways I am stronger now than I was that day up on the hill with the wood splitter.  And every time I look at my left hand I think just how lucky I am.

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