The Curt Series, Chapter 6

One Leg To Stand On

 

My little motorcycle was good for busting around town and in the country, but it was underpowered to get back and forth to the home town on a regular basis. That opportunity was supplied by Greyhound.

The weekends fell into a certain rhythm. Get on bus Friday afternoon, go home. Go out Friday evening. Go to work Saturday, pick up paycheck from prior weekend, go out Saturday night. Go to work Sunday, maybe socialize some late on Sunday, then take the bus back to school with enough money for the week’s food, going-out cash, and bus money for the next weekend.

The free time was usually spent with Curt, and maybe Laura, too, and/or outings with the blonde (now known as Grandma). The parents were pretty good about letting me use the Barracuda for evening sorties, although they starting digging in their heels when I’d get back quite late from a date, which turned out to be most dates.

I was chatting with Curt and Laura in their back yard one morning, or maybe we were playing a game of some sort. Curt was grouchy. He was complaining that his left knee ached. I have no memory of what started the spat between the two (probably because brother-sister spats between them were pretty normal), but sharp words were exchanged that built up in fury (which was also pretty normal), and Laura lashed out with her foot (because they would sometimes thump on each other too), and she connected with the aching knee. He yelled, grabbed the knee, limped into the house, and slammed the door.

It wasn’t unusual for Curt to sulk some when things didn’t go his way, and I just waited for him to get over it and come back out, but he didn’t. Laura and I talked a little more, but the mood was gone, and we soon went our separate ways for the day. The weekend drew to a close, and I got on the bus back to school.

Back at college some days later, I got a handwritten note from Laura in the mail. This wasn’t terribly unusual because she was pretty good about that, and in the pre-electronic age, personal mail was always treasured, especially away from home. This one, though, carried a shock. Curt’s knee had continued to hurt worse and worse, so they’d taken him to doctor, and it turned out he had cancer in that knee. I still remember that awful word in the letter, bolded and underlined.

This was in the days that to get rid of cancer, the doctors just cut it out, along with any surrounding tissue that might be compromised, and hoped for the best. There were drugs being developed that were sometimes marginally effective and radiation treatments that were entirely toxic. But simple excision, or cutting it out, was the accepted course then.

So the doctors followed the same protocols that they would anyone else back then with cancer, and amputated Curt’s leg at mid-thigh.

When I was able to come back to town, and Curt was back home, we just kind of picked up where we left off. He was on crutches, of course, with his left pants leg pinned up, but he was determined to carry on as normally as possible. Weekend nights, we still went out. During times when I was out of school but his was in session, I’d pick him up from high school, and we’d cruise like we always did, although we certainly weren’t going to be running side-by-side anymore. His missing leg was something we talked about, but matter-of-factly, like we would about the late-late science fiction movie last night.

An example. His stump was shrinking as the remaining thigh muscles atrophied, and it meant the bandaging was constantly shifting. We were in the car one time when it was getting annoying to him. He pulled his pants down and took off the bandages to rewrap. I watched, fascinated. He had a scar around three-fourths of the bottom of the stump.

“So they left a strip of skin to fold over?”

“Yeah, they couldn’t just leave it open. They folded that flap of skin over it and sewed it up.”

“Never thought of it that way. Makes sense.”

“Yeah.”

Curt told me that he and the family were at a restaurant, sitting there with pants leg folded up, his crutches to one side. A man came up to him and said quietly, “I see you’ve had a misfortune. You should just know that with the right attitude and practice, you can do fine.” Then he rapped on his pants leg to the hollow sound of the prosthesis underneath, shook Curt’s hand, and walked off. Curt told me, “When he walked away, you couldn’t tell he had an artificial leg. It was great. I can do it.”

I wish I knew who that man was. Whoever and wherever you are, thank you, sir.

But in contrast to our matter-of-fact talks, his family had to deal with the much sharper consequences, not the least of which was worrying what was ultimately going to happen to their son with his diagnosis. And they were with him during the times like when he fell off the toilet because he was unbalanced and not used to the weight redistribution on the toilet seat, and they experienced the frustration, rage, and tears that accompanied such an indignity.

After Curt’s leg stump had shrunk enough, he was fitted for and got a prosthetic leg. I will say now – I must say now – that the American Cancer Society picked up a sizable portion of the cost for that, and I contribute to them to this day.

He was old enough now for his driver’s license, and his dad, who was a mechanic on P-40s in the CBI theater in World War II and who knew how to do things like wrench on cars and fix shattered concrete under cistern lids, modified their family’s second car so it didn’t need a left foot to be driven, and Curt tested in it and got his license. He walked with a cane for quite a while as he got used to his prosthesis, and he used the cane effectively, goosing people, and playfully lifting up girls’ skirts, which I’m sure would’ve gotten me slapped, but the young ladies laughed and shrieked and gave him a pass on it.

Sometimes we went cruising out in the Barracuda, sometimes in his car, and sometimes if we had too many people, we went convoy. Like any 16-year-old with good skills, he relished driving and the freedom that came with it.

So when I was in the home town, I saw the recreational side of things, and they went along fine. He was doing well in school. He was quite the social cut-up with his leg and cane, and if anything, his popularity increased. The scans that the doctors took of him after the amputation and at various times afterward showed that he was clear of cancer in the remainder of his body.

I have no idea what the scanning technology was at that time. As it turned out, it wasn’t good enough.

(Next: The Worst Day.)

— Grandpa

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