Can’t Take A Joke

13 Mar

My wife talked me into taking the family camping over the 4th of July weekend many years ago. I was raised on a farm and saw no reason to spend a weekend roughing it when I did that every day, but we borrowed a tent from a neighbor and found a campsite at a park 120 miles from home.

The next morning I tried to start an alcohol stove to make hot chocolate for our three-year-old daughter—she had a temper until she’d had her morning hot chocolate. After many tries, I still hadn’t managed to light the stove. Maybe it was out of fuel?

I put my hand over it to be sure there wasn’t a flame (you often can’t see an alcohol flame in daylight). Satisfied that there wasn’t a flame, I poured alcohol into the stove from a one-gallon can. One of our boys said, “Daddy, look at the pretty fire.”

Flame raced up the stream of alcohol. I saw it enter the can, which exploded in my hands a fraction of a second later. All I can remember is thinking, “drop and roll.” I tried it, but that doesn’t work well when you’re covered with a highly flammable liquid. Someone finally tossed a blanket over me and smothered the fire. My polyester pants were melted to my skin—at least in places where there was anything left of them or my skin.

I tried to think of jokes, stories, songs—anything to keep the pain at bay, but it shouldered aside all attempts to think. It was like a two-year-old on a tantrum in my mind, refusing to let me focus on anything but it. It continued like that for 45 minutes while I waited for the ambulance and the 45 minute ride to the hospital.

I was finally given morphine IV, and a lot of it, at the hospital, where they cleaned my burns and decided whether I’d have to go to the state burn center or could go back to the hospital in our hometown. The burns covered fifteen percent of my body, which was right at the cut-off point for mandatory referral to the burn center. I was sent to my hometown hospital, as it was a highly regarded regional medical center.
Two hours later, the ambulance delivered me to the ER of St. Joseph’s Hospital in my hometown. The surgeon on call that day spoke English as a second language. He was a colorectal surgeon who specialized in removal of rectal tumors–go figure. But he was the one on call.

For the next several days, he entered my hospital room, examined my bandaged legs, looked over my hospital chart, bowed gravely, and left without saying a word. To try to get him to say something, I finally said, “I know you’re a colorectal surgeon, and that it was a dumb stunt that put me in here, but does this mean you guys think I’m a flaming ass?”

He never came into my room again, although I could see his hands on the back of his resident as he pushed the poor guy into room every morning.

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