The quicksand and the dead
Most kids aren't thinking about death lurking around every corner but I was smarter than that. I knew it was coming for me. For us all, really, but I worried mostly about myself. I worried about my body betraying me with something as innocuous as, say, hiccups. When I was seven years old, my Grandpa Bradley died of the hiccups. He had the hiccups for many days, and they wouldn’t go away, and then he died. I was probably told there were complicating factors like his heart condition. I, however, focused on the hiccup, how it could kill you, and how once it started you had to make sure it stopped at all costs. Plus it upset your dad.
When I wasn’t worrying about hiccups, I could pick and choose from my catalogue of fears. Most but not all of these were fed by constant television intake. Television taught me all about
According to television, there were people who wanted to get you on drugs and once you were on them you jumped out windows. Sometimes the drug pushers would leave hypodermic needles filled to the brim with drugs in the grass in a public park, and if you ran around in a carefree manner, you’d fall onto one of them and BAM you're on drugs. I learned this from an episode of The Mod Squad, which also engendered in me a deep aversion to the Santa Monica Pier, where all the dope fiends were.
There was also Good Times, where J.J.’s fiancee took drugs that made her jump out the window. I wondered if it was from PCP, because I knew that PCP would make you jump out a window, every time. I didn’t know what PCP was or why anyone would take it, only that if you did you’d immediately find the nearest window and head out right out of it.
Public service announcements asked us if we knew where our children were. I’m right here, I’d think. Where would I be? Out there, the PSA told me. On drugs.
Every TV movie from the 70s featured Kristy McNichol getting inducted into a cult, or trying to help her brother escape from one, or trying to help her brother and then whoops she's in the cult too. Kristy McNichol was clearly a fool who needed guidance from someone who didn’t wear robes and make people farm. If anyone tried to talk to me in public, and they were friendly, I ran. I didn’t know what cults did, but like drugs, I knew they took you away from your family. And for all I know they might be
The summer I turned 8 was also the Summer of the Son of Sam, and David Berkowitz was going around NYC killing young women with brown hair, and I was a young woman with brown hair. I lived in Long Island, not in New York City, but weren’t we only an hour away? Why wouldn’t he go hunting in the country in the middle of the summer? He'd probably drive there, which was just one reason I would always avoid
One hundred percent of hitchhikers were murdered. I learned this from a TV movie, probably also starring Kristy McNicol. Therefore, if I was walking home I refused all offers of a free ride, even if they were my mom's friends. You could never be too careful. Of course if you were walking you had to look out for
Quicksand, I knew, was everywhere. It was featured in almost every show I watched. Quicksand was a rampant worldwide problem, and it was only a matter of time until I walked right into some. I lived in a beach town, after all, where sand was a prominent feature. And I was all the time walking into things.
Even though I learned from television that quicksand was ubiquitous, no one in real life talked about it. I was sure my parents had quicksand stories. They must have lost friends to it. But still, they kept quiet. I would have asked them, but there was something a little shameful about the quicksand scenes I had witnessed. Escaping quicksand seemed like a vaguely smutty ordeal I shouldn’t know about. You were swallowed up in it, and then when someone pulled you out, it made a great sucking sound and everyone could see through your blouse.
Besides, quicksand was something that happened to you when you ran off on your own, somewhere you weren’t supposed to go. Good girls didn’t worry about quicksand. You probably only got stuck in quicksand if you were on drugs, or running from your cult.
We never discussed quicksand safety in school, either. Maybe, I thought, that came later, around the same time as sex ed. Instead of quicksand, we were taught to fear
According to my memory, fire-safety assemblies made up the bulk of my primary school education. Fireman Bill came to these assemblies to tell us all about we would all die in fires.
A raging fire could begin in milliseconds and took nothing: a magnifying glass left on top of a newspaper on a sunny day; a frayed wire; forgetting the oven is on because you’re watching someone being dragged from quicksand, pulling their clinging blouse away from their chest and you can see everything. Why had fire even been invented? It seemed more trouble than it was worth.
At one fire safety assembly, Fireman Bill talked about this colorless, odorless gas that would come out of nowhere and kill us in our sleep. A slide projected onto the auditorium’s screen showed an illustration of a lamp knocked to its side. Stink lines were coming out of the lamp. “Don’t be fooled by the illustration,” Fireman Bill said. “You wouldn’t smell a thing. You’d just keep sleeping, and not wake up.” There was another slide of a little girl in bed, the stink lines creeping toward her face.
So then I was on the lookout for a gas that could escape from lamps. I began checking lamps for their stability. How likely was it that a lamp might be knocked over? Many of my relatives were given to rambunctious storytelling and dramatic arm gestures. They had to be watched. My mother watched me inspecting the lamps. “Be careful,” she said. “Those could break.”
“Oh god,” I whispered, and ran to my room.
The home was fraught with danger. We needed to have an exit plan, according to Fireman Bill, and we should coordinate this with our families.
But when I brought it up with my mom, she looked at me like I was nuts. “Exit plan? If there’s a fire, we get out of the house. There’s a plan,” she said. She was probably smoking a cigarette in the kitchen when she said this. A dangerous, flame-ridden cigarette.
“You shouldn’t smoke in bed,” I told her.
She looked at me. “Why would I smoke in bed? That’s disgusting.”
Fireman Bill also taught me to fear
“When you cross in front of the bus,” Bill told us, “Always make sure you have the bus driver’s eye. If he’s looking at you, you’re safe. If not, he may not see you. Remember that you’re in a moving vehicle, always. This isn’t a joyride, kids. This isn’t for fun.”
He glared at all of us dumb kids who thought buses were for fun.
“It’s life and death out on the roads. Your driver has an important job and keeping you safe is part of that job, but you have to play your part, too.”
Then he told us this true story. I know it was true because he began thus:
“True story. There were two boys your age. They were at the first boy’s stop. Second boy said, hey, I’ll stick my head out the window to wave goodbye to you. First boy said good idea, pal, you do that. First boy gets out, starts to cross the street, but he forgot to—what?—get the driver’s attention. Driver thinks everyone’s crossed already. He thinks, no problem, right? He pulls away, runs right over the first kid. Bam, he’s dead. Crushed. Driver didn’t even feel him, maybe thought he hit a little bump. There’s so much ruckus on the bus, kids joking around, not taking the bus seriously, he doesn’t hear a thing. He keeps going. And that’s not all. Now we’ve got the second boy, half his body hanging out the window trying to see his friend. Where’d his friend go? Only he doesn’t see the tree right there on the side of the road. I bet you can guess what happens next, right? Can you guess?”
Dead silence. No one could guess.
“Kid’s head hits the tree going 30 miles per hour. No more kid’s head. Imagine all those kids in the bus, just like you, yukking it up, and they see their friend’s headless body sliding into the aisle, blood everywhere. That’s what happens when you don’t pay attention.”
I decided to walk home from school the rest of that year: slowly, carefully, keeping an eye out for dangers from all sides.