The normalcy bias, or normality bias, is a belief people hold when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster and its possible effects, because people believe that things will always function the way things normally have functioned.
I understand this well because I have spent a large percentage of my life with a man that my children call Papaw. He suffers from the normalcy bias condition. He became my step-father when I was about six. It was at that point the stories, or shall I say… legends, began. The man is a walking anomaly. By all accounts he should be dead based on any one of several factors. Something in his genetics has a grit that is heretofore unexplained by science. Now that I think about it, his dad was a rough and grumpy guy and reminded me vaguely of the cockroach villain in the first Men In Black movie. Maybe he inherited the tenacity without the exoskeleton.
Since the primary purpose of this blog is a written record for my children I think it is relevant to recount this wonderful man’s history of calamity. I have learned many valuable lessons from Papaw but safety is not one of them. Or maybe it is the exact lesson I learned in a very round-about way. I’m going to share a series of events in no-particular-order. But I will start where most things begin, in the beginning. And let me preface all of this with the statement that Papaw is as loving and smart and loyal as the day is long. He would sacrifice anything of his own for literally almost anyone else who needed it. I love him very much. And he has a head that is hard as a brick stick and ears that filter anything that doesn’t sound like, “Good idea!” or “I agree!”
Papaw had a childhood that introduced him to danger early. The first story I remember was the lawn mower incident. It was a warm summer evening near dusk. Papaw’s father, Crapaw, was mowing his overgrown lawn with the most battle-hardened mower to grace the universe, a Snapper. Papaw was a young boy and had been instructed to stay on the porch while his father peeled around the yard in a frantic race with the setting sun. An innocent scene but the allure of adventure would prove to be more than Papaw could resist.
The shadows were growing long. A light dew had settled over the grass as it will often do at the end of a hot southern day. The air smelled of working man’s sweat, motor oil, and leaded gasoline. Papaw kicked a few rocks and a few crushed filters from Marlboro Reds as he paced back and forth. The porch was boring. A confined life of rules. How could he sit in one place and watch his life pass him by while his father taunted him; lap after lap on his powerful steed? Slaying clumps of Fescue and the battling overgrown weeds.
Inside Papaw’s soul, something stirred.
A desire to confront danger head-on and prove that all warnings from family are ill-founded and meant only for mere mortals. Adventure was at his fingertips and he would have it!
He ventured away from the safety of the porch and entered into a game of follow the leader with a late 1960’s riding mower know regionwide for its ability to chop through thickets with blades no sharper than the edge of a dull spoon. It whipped grass into shape and beat Oak saplings into submission. It was behind this icon of lawn maintenance that Papaw left the porch and began his march with destiny.
Papaw stepped double-time along behind his father proudly. Carefully staying out of his father’s view to avoid an “ass whipping” for not listening. Two men on parade. Exerting their will over nature.
Then the unthinkable happened. The ratio of uncut grass to cut grass had shifted and there was no longer a smooth circular route for the mower to follow. All that remained to be mowed was an irregular strip of grass known to lawn mowing husbands everywhere as The Last Pass. It is a perplexing piece of lawn that has to be handled carefully. While an experienced mowest will make sure his machine is properly aligned and finish in one pass, a lesser human will circle the area fifty times to get every errant blade that the turn radius of the standard Snapper mower somehow avoids.
When it came to lawn maintenance Crapaw was no “lesser human”. Sidenote: This may be the only category where that was true.
Crapaw decided to execute a three-point turn and slammed the mower into reverse. It was a sudden decision. Papaw snapped out of his marching day-dream and probably muttered a phrase that rhymed with “Oh shit.” He tried to stop and change direction but the evening dew made the newly cut grass slippery. He tried to turn and run. It was no use. Like an athlete without his cleats, Papaw fell into the oncoming path of the bestselling mower of the Sears and Roebuck lawn maintenance line of 1970.
His three toes never had a chance. Beheaded as easily as Marie Antoinette after mentioning cake.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury. There it is. This is the true tale that was recounted to me in place of simpler instructions to “do not walk behind the lawn mower while I’m mowing the yard.” Trauma is the most effective teacher.
What about Papaw and his toes you ask? Well, there was concern in the local medical community that he would never be able to walk again. Those concerns were unfounded. As the defense will show, telling Papaw he can’t do something is the recipe for having that very something done.
The above story was recounted on several occasions and usually included some neat facts about how hospitals incinerate body parts and how some people experience ghost pains when their toes get cremated. Other childhood cautionary tales included his easily misguided younger brother and a) getting run over by a tractor disking a field, b) getting kicked in the stomach by a mule, and c) eating a bottle of Tylenol while playing doctor and getting a charcoal stomach pump.
Much like Jesus, Papaw’s life went largely undocumented during adolescence. I can only assume he had a string of successes because he emerged as a young adult with a confidence and physical strength that most men don’t possess. I remember being about seven and he was working on my mother’s 1986 Mazda 323. He didn’t like the placement of the jack under the frame so he did what any man would do. He hoisted the front of the car by lifting with his back and not bending his knees. He instructed me to, “scoot under there and move that jack over”. I did. Safety third.
But I’m getting ahead of myself… back to young twenties Papaw.
Fast forward a bit and he met my mother and convinced her he was responsible enough to marry. I think she knew the truth but he had animals and she loves animals so the math worked. She is, after all, a math teacher.
Somewhere in this early time of married bliss. Papaw was diagnosed with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD); a degenerative kidney disease that is long and painful and results in useless kidneys.
[Side story: He got to watch the disease unfold in his mother who might have been the toughest person, in measure of shear grit, to ever walk the earth. This is a woman whose bucket list must have consisted of various forms of pain and suffering. Once she had exhausted all options for new and painful conditions she decided to allow death to take her.]
This sounds ominous so I will put your mind at ease. Papaw’s kidneys indeed failed, he had dialysis twice weekly, and my mother was a match for donation so she gave him a kidney. Papaw added organ failure to the list of obstacles that he persevered. The real pattern to observe here is that once again, when faced with overwhelming odds, things somehow worked out.
Consider this intro the first book in the Gospel of Papaw.
The Second Book would have to be The Tree Story
Papaw had a brief stint of extended medical leave due to a broken leg which was caused by a falling horse which was brought about by the deeply held belief that he was an actual cowboy and not, in-fact, a mechanic with a small family farm that included a horse. Papaw’s penchant for westerns had him believing that driving cattle was not that hard. True enough until the horse slips in some mud and breaks your leg.
Papaw was confined to the living room couch for days on end. That old familiar desire for adventure that had led him into danger began to grow in his brain. After some long afternoons staring through the sliding glass window into the backyard, he decided that a tree in the backyard was positively unbearable. It was a dying threat to anything that ventured near. If allowed to remain, it could very well spark another Cold War with Russia. He owed it to the United States of America to fell this tree. Damn the costs.
He grabbed his crutches and, somehow, a chainsaw and ventured into the backyard. I stood at the sliding glass door and watched him out of morbid curiosity. Would this be the day? Would this be thing challenge that would be too much for Papaw?
With all the skill of a billiard player and a military strategist he plotted his moves. I watched as he skillfully cut a groove into the base of the tree. Like an over-flannelled cripple lumberjack in the Pacific northwest. With the proper angles and careful lines of the chainsaw he had calculated exactly where that tree would fall. Nothing had been left to chance. Risk was minimal. Success was inevitable.
A spray of woodchips poured out of the tree over the roar of the saw and the wihte-blue cloud of chainsaw smoke. It climaxed in a loud pop and the tree began to fall. All the preparations were for naught because the tree did the unthinkable. In a move that no amount of computer modeling or even physics could have predicted… the tree fell backwards.
Papaw snapped out of his day-dream and probably muttered a phrase that rhymed with “Oh shit.” I muttered the same thing.
The world slowed down. Like a scene from a movie where the director wants to show the audience how fast someone is moving by slowing the world to a crawl and allowing the main character to move at a normal speed. He turned briskly, still holding one of his crutches, and he hopped as fast as his one good leg would allow. The towering harbinger of death popped and exploded and twisted on its journey with destiny. That tree chased Papaw like a one-eyed cat chasing a handicapped mouse. A daring game of chase and chance.
I stood peering out of our sliding glass door and watched the disaster unfold. The snapping branches, flying leaves, and dust from the ground created a cloud that obscured my view. I saw Papaw throw up his hands and fling his crutch as he lurched into a dive. He was swallowed by the chaos and I could see nothing else. The tree came to a rest and the chainsaw went silent. Dust wafted in the breeze and a few leaves drifted lazily to the ground. A hush fell over the backyard. I digested the fact that I just watched a man die.
Someone who was alive seconds ago was now horribly crushed under the weight of his own decisions and a hundred year old Oak tree.
My mind raced with confusion. What should I do? What will I tell my mother? Could I have done something to prevent this? Is this my fault? Should I just cover his body with leaves and call in a missing persons report? WHY DOES A VCR HAVE A CLOCK IF THE FUCKING THING NEVER WORKS AND JUST BLINKS ZEROES AT YOU ALL THE TIME? HAVENT YOU PEOPLE EVER CONSIDERED A BATTERY BACKUP OR SOMETHING SO WE DON’T HAVE TO RESET IT EVERY TIME THE POWER GOES OUT? WE LIVE IN THE COUNTRY FOR CHRISTS SAKE!
My gaze shifted from the quiet tree to my own reflection in the glass doorway. Panic.
But my panic was short lived.
I had forgotten the fact that death is for mortals and not for men who are condemned to wander the earth and seek the bucket list of pain and suffering that only immortality can bring to bear. I resolved myself to go out and scoop what was left of Papaw into a feed sack like we did for dogs and cats that played in the road. I slowly started across the backyard towards the tree.
Halfway through my green mile Papaw pops up through the broken canopy of the fallen tree.
Papaw: *looking around* “Can you see the saw?”
Me: “Oh my god you are alive! What a miracle!”
Papaw: “Its fine. I knew what I was doing.”
Me: “Are you serious? You just did a one-legged dash for your life.”
Papaw: “It moved on me a little. Grab that saw.”
Me: “Moved a little? It fell 180 degrees the opposite direction. I can’t…I’m going in the house.”
Papaw: “Just hand me that…”
Me: “Nope. I’m out.”
That ending dialogue has been modified. I actually think I handed him the saw and we spent some time cutting up the tree. I remember he was a little pissed at the chainsaw for having a bent shaft because it got pinched by the tree. Because inanimate objects have intentions and are out to make your life difficult.
So that is a snippet of Papaw history. A rambling commentary on a great man.
While he is unique I don’t think he is uncommon in the world of dad’s. The spirit of determination and the doing of things that need done is the hallmark of a good father. If you have a father figure who has provided you with wisdom in any form and ample stories for your children, this post is for you. You’re welcome.
Life is for living. And the best way to know you are alive is to almost die.
-Underdaddy to the rescue.