Elementary school is for me a paradise of sorts. The classrooms are filled with interesting books. The playground has a steel dome that functions as an alien planet. The other jungle gyms are placed at intervals across the yard and make for perfect action trajectories.
Nowadays playground surfaces are all soft synthetics and safe havens. What looks like pavement is actually more akin to rubber matting. Sandbox borders are padded heavier than a flat chested teen cheerleader with an inferiority complex. If your kid gets hurt on the modern playground your lawsuit will be thrown out in about thirty seconds and they'll force your kid to be tested for depression instead.
But in my day? The playground was dangerous and that is what made it fun. We courted disaster daily. Swinging on a swing was all well and good but we had something different in mind. I vividly remember getting up to maximum height, maintaining it for a few swings just to make sure I could go no higher, and then hurling myself off the seat and out into the void. We measured how far we could jump.
The dome was made up of interlocking steel bars that met in isosceles triangles. For a good four years this was heaven for me. We scrambled up and onto the top of it, hung into the interior with our feet and hands hooked onto the bars, bowed towards the sand in a daredevil curve. One rainy day my hands slid off the bar and I plummeted face first into the sand below, my U-shaped body flattening into a straight line, belly hitting ground first followed shortly thereafter by pelvis, shoulders, knees, head and finally feet and hands. I lay gasping for breath as the recess bell sounded, unable to move. The playground aide had to help me to my feet and even then I was enjoying myself, wind knocked out of me in the fearless pursuit of fun.
Back to the differences in the physical properties of ancient and modern playgrounds. At South Road Elementary School, each jungle gym or parallel bars or swing set sat on a slightly raised sandbox. The sandboxes were lined with a meager padding, something like old industrial carpeting folded over the gray wood underneath and stapled on.
Many areas of the makeshift padding had faded or ripped or simply been torn off. So certain areas were exposed.
In kindergarten I was running ferociously. Perhaps away from some real girl, perhaps towards an imaginary dragon, perhaps out of a dream Red Sox dugout. Whatever the impulse I was at top speed. I was about to leap over a corner of the sandbox that held the horizontal ladder, you know the one, where you grab onto a bar and go hand over hand across the abyss (a three foot abyss, yes, but an abyss nonetheless!).
It must have been late in the school year because I was wearing shorts.
What happened next is so clearly imprinted on my brain that it is almost like a short film. My back foot dragged just slightly as I made the leap. It scraped across one of the un-padded areas of wood that surrounded the sand. I felt a flash of pain and ran for a few more steps before I had to stop. I bent down to investigate the wound.
A vertical gash directly on my left inner ankle. No one knew I was injured yet and in my mind the whole playground went silent. Slow motion as I peeled back the bloody sock.
There, winking out at me, was a strip of white. It took me a second to understand what it was that I was seeing. It was bone. I had carved out every bit of skin that separated my ankle bone from the atmosphere. There was surprisingly little blood and I don't remember crying. In fact, I was fascinated. I don't know if I'd even learned about the concept of bones yet but I knew exactly what I was looking at.
Did I gain some insight into human frailty that day? Would I have been better served if my play time had not been interrupted? If I'd merely bounced my ankle off of some harmless synthetic?
Or does the appearance of an ankle bone where it ought not to be offer some truer picture of reality to an expanding mind?
I don't know. I do know this, though. The physical scar is dwarfed by the memory of that sliver of white peeking through my skin, the psychic emblem of some eternal secret I'd somehow instinctively known about well before I ever saw it.