We lived in Flatfield, Iowa, next to a grain elevator. I was playing in the backyard with my mom when Silo #67 blew. It was one of those corn-dust explosions. The concussion ruptured my mom’s’ eardrums. My dad was standing outside the company headquarters at the time. He lost his eardrums too. In that moment, my parents were rendered deaf as a couple of scarecrows (as we used to say there in Flatfield).
My drums were spared because at the critical moment, I had my fingers stuck hard in my ears, to block out my mom’s scolding after I had soiled the sandbox. Unfortunately for me, whirling metal flak from the silo removed both of my hands at the wrists, which were cocked up in a way to support my fingers in my ear holes but which also inadvertently presented clean targets for the bladelike projectiles.
My fingers remained in my ears, but I could still hear my mother’s cries of dismay, even if she couldn’t.
Being a tough farming family, bred over the years from hardy immigrant stock, my mom and pop and I healed up and went on with our lives. Flatfield was set out on the plains where every farm had someone on it missing a digit or a limb, the toll taken by harvesters, axes, and the like. My parents learned signing for the deaf; I learned to use my new hooks. As I could not sign without articulated fingers, I took up charade-like gesticulating as a way of communicating with my folks.
Thus began my lifelong career as a mime. Through mime grammar school, mime middle school, mime high school, mime summer programs and tutoring, mime college, and mime graduate school, all paid for with state and federal disability scholarships, as well as a few shekels chipped in by our local Lutheran church, I took as my major “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Counselors urged me time and again to consider the dramatic side of miming, but I felt that my greatest challenge lay in generating giggles and guffaws using only my hooks, my stumps, my wits, and my God-given talent. My parents supported me fully in this, although they were rarely able to figure out just what it was that I was trying to tell them.
Throughout school and thence out onto the street as a busker, I faced one relentless enemy, the mercy laugh. It was always present, merciless (as opposed to merciful), a specter that haunted me. Or does that metaphor even make sense? I credit my strength of character for my early successes as I struggled at school against those awful sympathetic titters. Children can be cruel.
Out on the street with my diploma in my hooks, I took up professional busking at the top, on 12th Street and 3rd Avenue. Few mimes, even the best of them, dared face those stoney financial faces heading to and from their labors in mahogany-lined offices, those investment bankers so used to screwing their fellow Americans (pardon my French) for a living.
I could handle the flinty hearts, but I couldn’t take the sympathy. Even those fiscal gnomes bathed me in it. In no time, I found myself retreating to 42 Street and then, as the weather grew colder, to 75th. Finally, I reached rock-bottom, miming on 102nd and Baldwin for a couple of homeless winos and a bankrupt dope fiend. The authorities found me in the gutter, covered with the Style and Home & Garden sections of the Sunday paper.
I began my rehab at the center on Soldiers Island. The staff fitted me out, at taxpayers’ expense, with the latest in new and improved hooks. I performed for the vets there, who were returning from the war in pieces. Amputees of every description. No need to worry about sympathy from this group.
And among them, an Army babe missing both her arms. Helicopter crash. She had a great laugh and a great body, what was left of it. I couldn’t wait to get my forearms around it. Plus, she discovered that she had a little thing for mimes. A lot of the servicemen around were hitting on her, but in addition to my profession, I had my proficiency with prosthetics going for me. After all, I’d been using hooks all my life. Inez (for that was her name) had further to go, needing arms as well as hooks, but she was a trouper, always ready for a laugh and a little bump and tickle.
Rehab complete, we moved in together, on the other side of the river. Inez went back to law school and I started working the terminal-children wards at hospitals around the city. I got a lot of laughs from the kids and the staff with my hook-and-balloon act. Hooks popping balloons by accident never gets old. Neither does accidentally sitting on your hook, or a little innocent toilet humor, wiping with the hook.
We married, Inez and me. We had a couple of kids and as they grew up, it was good to have someone with hands around the house.