I was 14 or 15, a freshman or sophomore in high school, when my stepfather decided he wanted to finish the basement of our raised-ranch home. He was pretty handy and got a great start to it with the framing and sheet rock. He got me involved in the work and I was only unhappy about it at first. By the time we were putting up the last of the sheet rock panels on the ceiling my grandfather was interested enough to get involved too. For a week it was just Grampa and I screwing sheet rock into the basement ceiling, and I really enjoyed working with him. He was a fairly serious old guy who would crack a smile when everyone else was in hysterics. He was typical for most first-generation Irish who grew up in south Boston in the early 20th century. He’d put up with oceans of shit and never say a word about it, unless he felt it directly threatened his family. He was my role model for what a family man should be, and I was excited for this chance to get to know him a little better.
We had worked out a pretty good system. By that age I was strong enough that I could steadily hold a full sheet of the gypsum to the ceiling long enough for Gramps to drill in as many screws as were needed to secure it, which was about a third of what we needed to keep it in place permanently. This would have been the early 80’s so we didn’t have any sonic stud-finders or other high-tech tools to aid us. Instead we did it the old fashioned way with lengths of chalked string to mark predicted stud positions as measured by their intended distance from the wall. We were often wrong with our measurements, and for that reason I became pretty good at patching with the spackle knife and sander. Despite that, we worked well together and learned how to communicate efficiently.
It was a weekday, and I had just gotten home from school. Grampa had just arrived at the house shortly before me, but my mom and stepdad were still at work. Both Grampa and I were excited to get started because this was the day we knew the sheet rock would be finished. As I recall we only had maybe three panels left that afternoon. The first one went up without any hassles, but the second one gave us trouble. It wasn’t even a full sheet but rather a half-sheet cut to fit the short hall towards the back door. For some reason we simply could not get our measurements right and all the screws kept going straight through the gypsum without anchoring into a stud. We put so many holes in that sheet we had to start over and cut another one, which made us impatient. We were so close to finishing that having trouble now was a greater annoyance than it should have been, and we started getting a little snappy with each other.
We eventually got the new piece cut properly, and the screws along the two opposite edges went in fine, which meant I didn’t need to hold the sheet to the ceiling and could instead help with the screws. If I was near an edge, sometimes I would forgo the measurements and the chalked string, and instead use my body’s natural ability to touch fingers together in the same place, even with my eyes closed or my visibility to one or both fingers blocked. With a pencil in one hand, I would take my other hand and place it inside the rafters and find where the stud I wanted met the sheet rock, and then touch the pencil to the spot where I knew it would have met my finger, thus marking the point where my next screw would find the stud. This technique had worked pretty well for me over the rest of the basement, and I was using it now. My Grampa was also rushing it, but he didn’t have my technique, and so he kept missing the center stud. I was done with all the sections I could reach with my own ladder, so I offered to help him with his section. There was no way he was going to let me drill the screws in his section for him, so instead I told him I had a quick way to mark the stud positions accurately, so that he wouldn’t have to make a third hole in the sheet without anchoring.
After explaining it to him, he agreed to the idea. So I climbed up the other side of his A-ladder, put my hand in the ceiling above the sheet and at the edge of the rafter, and marked off the spot. Grampa brought the cordless drill up, fit the screw bit with a new drywall screw, and zip, in it went. Grampa could tell this one had sunk solidly, as he began to bang on the spot to be sure of it. However about a half second earlier I was reminded by a very sharp, alarming pain that I had forgotten to remove my thumb from next to the rafter stud above the ceiling sheet rock. Before I could even comprehend the action, I swiftly yanked my thumb away from the pain and brought it to my face for inspection.
There was my grandfather’s drywall screw, drilled neatly through the bone of my thumb, entering right at the base of the thumbnail with the point having just barely broken the skin on the other side, just above the knuckle and just below the fingerprint. Small bits of gypsum dust and paper still clung to the bottom of the screw head.
“Oh ya, that one went in really good” Grampa said as he thumped the outside of his first against the screw hole in the ceiling.
“That was a good idea to mark the stud that way” *Thump Thump*
“Let’s do the next one just like that” *Thump*
My pleas finally sunk in as he moved his attention from the ceiling to me, “What?”
I held my thumb up between his face and mine, his focus shifted, and a second passed while his comprehension crystalized, “Uh oh.”
Now he was clearly looking nervous, which was interesting to me, because I had never seen Grampa nervous before and my instinct was to reassure him. This guy had been a rock my entire young life, and now he seemed like he had no idea what to do, as was evidenced by what he said next.
“Should we unscrew it?”
I admittedly had no idea what we should do next either, but the last thing I expected was to have him asking me a question about how to solve the problem before us. My thumb was in pain, but surprisingly not in enough pain to cloud my thinking or cause me any more stress than the tenderness after a stubbed toe. The throbbing sensation was strong, but also oddly reassuring. There was no blood or discoloration, my thumb not only felt like a wood stud but acted like it too.
“Maybe we should go to the hospital?”
My grandfather grew up in a time and a place where hospital visits were generally reserved for people who were going to die. In the short silence that preceded his reply I recalled an anecdote he told me about why he has worn denture replacements for his upper four front teeth most of his life. He and his buddies had created a very fun winter game where they would sneak behind the rear of cars at stoplights on unplowed snowy streets and hang on the bumper. When the light would turn green they would attempt to boot-ski along the road as long as they could before losing their balance and skidding to a stop after the fading car ahead of them. I don’t know how long he and his friends had been doing this but the game ended when this one particular car had accelerated too fast with the light change. The car began fishtailing into the light post on the opposite side of the street, causing it to come to an abrupt stop. Predictably, my grandfather and his friend beside him both smashed their faces into the rear of the car. According to my grandfather, his friend broke his nose and fractured his skull, rendering him with a proclivity for bloody noses thereafter. My grandfather was luckier, having no more medical care than a warm saltwater rinse after every meal for a few weeks but passing a year or more before being fitted for dentures. I was relieved when Grampa responded, “Oh ya, the hospital, ya, that’s what your mother would want us to do.”
So off we went. On the ride we speculated a little about what procedure the doctors might use to to remove the screw, and I had to reassure my grandfather that anything so severe as amputation was unlikely. Other than that, Grampa was back to his familiar self. He was a talented whistler, and I was happy to have him whistle a song to calm his nerves. I think I began testing the mobility of my thumb to a Bing Crosby tune. It wasn’t too impaired, I could bend my thumb, but about halfway through the motion it would “click” and snap to its fully bent position with only a little bit of added pain. Extending the thumb was trickier, and required help from my other hand. Twice more and I had enough of that exercise.
Grampa dropped me off at the entrance to the hospital, and while he went to look for parking I strolled into patient admissions. The only free admissions nurse was clearly evaluating me as I approached, guessing to herself the reason for my visit. As I was an obviously healthy (and might I add, ravishingly handsome) young man, I detected from her an air of barely curious contempt. Having a little fun, I was sure to keep my left thumb tucked behind my fingers to shield it from her view as I sat down in the little chair beside her booth.
“Can I help you?”
“Maybe, do you think there is someone here that could remove this for me?” as I held my thumb up between her face and mine, just as I had done with Grampa.
Nurses are ironic creatures. They are often utterly disinterested in the healthy and the young, sometimes to the point of hostility. However, when they are presented with someone in genuine need, they instantly transform into angels, eager to restore you to the state they find so uninspiring. I was delighted to see this nurse’s expression change from bored, mild disdain to instant, bright amusement.
“Oh! Ha! Yes I think we might be able to help with that.”
And so I gave her all my necessary information and was joined by my Grandfather who by this time the nurse was already referencing as “the culprit”. From a payphone, Grampa managed to get in touch with Mom and she thankfully managed to arrive at the hospital just before they were about to give me a sedative. I don’t know what the general anesthesia they gave me was, but it was my first experience with powerful narcotics. I wasn’t so high as to be confused, but I was feeling pretty good. I watched the doctors cluster around my hand, extended out on a long movable section of the bed, perpendicular to my body. They injected a local anesthetic directly into a nerve at the base of my thumb, and then another in my wrist. At some point a gowned janitor came into the room and presented the head doc with something wrapped up in tin foil. I watched the doc unwrap his gift; a very clean and apparently freshly sterilized phillips-head screwdriver. This got me chuckling, and then laughing, and then I just couldn’t stop. So they hit me with more of the drugs. After that it made me sick to move my head, and the world moved around me in freeze-frame cut images. I didn’t think anything was quite so funny anymore. Someone asked me if I wanted to watch TV and I must have responded positively because on it came. The show was a re-run of that time Elvis sang some concert in Hawaii in a sparkly white suit, during his fat days. I thought I couldn’t understand anything Elvis was singing because of all the drugs I was on. It was years later when I saw the special a second time that I realized it was actually because of all the drugs Elvis was on.
My view was blocked by an intern, but I could feel the screw coming out of my thumb, turn by turn. The drugs prevented it from being painful, but the friction was easily felt. With every turn my thumb shuddered a little, as if it were trying to hold the screw in place and didn’t want to let it go. The docs put a little wick in the hole that remained and wrapped my thumb up in a big bandage with instructions to not unwrap it for several weeks. They were very clear about this. They wanted my body to absorb the wick before unwrapping the bandage because they felt that if the wick were removed before then, I would be left with permanent scarring. Unfortunately our health insurance company would not reimburse my mother without having one of their in-network doctors inspect the work about a week later. I was as assertive as I could be as a teenager passing along the surgeon’s instructions, but this idiot unwrapped the bandage anyway. It hurt like hell when that wick was pulled out of the hole and it started bleeding all over him. I could tell he knew he fucked up by the look on his face but it didn’t matter as the damage was done. He wrapped me back up and I lived scarred, but happily ever after.