by Terry Hargrove
Who are you? You are who your friends are. I don’t know who invented that saying, but I know it’s true because I know Disaster Dave.
Dave’s mom died in 1957, so he lived with his dad in affluent Hickory Heights, and spent his summer vacation with his grandparents one block north of us. He was very friendly, didn’t say much, and he grinned all the time. But everybody has something that makes him special, which is just another way of saying everybody is a freak, and Dave was no different. He was born with four toes on his left foot. When he told us, we didn’t believe him, so he pulled off his Red Ball Jets to prove it. Wow. Four toes. I guess that little piggie really did run all the way home, because it wasn’t there anymore. It didn’t take much to impress us in 1966, and four toes made Dave an instant celebrity.
But it also made him clumsy. He was always falling over things and strolling into the paths of bicycles. He was useless in sports, because he couldn’t run a straight line. At first, we thought this was kind of funny. After a loop single, he’d run to first base, but end up getting tagged out on the pitcher’s mound.
“Sorry,” he’d say grinning as he came back to the bench.
If he was split out on the right sideline as a wide receiver, all his patterns became deep posts. Because he wasn’t tall or fast, he was easily covered.
“Sorry,” he’d say after our quarterback Ray foolishly passed to him.
The horse shoes Dave tossed ended up five feet to the left of the post. This was quite a surprise to a few of our out-of-town cousins who would lie stunned in the sun with a grinning face looking down at them.
“Sorry,” he’d say.
As we all grew up, Dave became less of an amusement and more of a potential threat. Many days, my dad would look at Dave and shake his head. ‘We’ll have to move to another town by 1971, because that boy is going to be driving by then,” dad muttered.
After he joined the Boy Scouts, we began to refer to him by the more appropriate sobriquet Disaster Dave. He walked into a fire and accidentally kicked hot grease all over Wayne Buckridge, who was struggling with his Knot Tying Merit Badge requirements at the time. With all the gauze on his fingers, Wayne wasn’t able to tie a sheep shank for months. The next week, we were trying to coax catfish from the waters of Duck River. Dave tried to make a cast with his Zebco, but his bait, a glob of chicken liver on a number 5 hook, came to rest on my brother’s face. The hook went right through the tip of Glenn’s nose, but he had an amazing presence of mind to run forward screaming “Don’t cast! Don’t cast!”
“Sorry,” said Disaster Dave.
For Disaster Dave, accidents were art. The more he tried to be cautious, the broader and grander his painful brush strokes became. Of course, it was always unintentional, and he always said he was sorry, but that was little comfort to the guys who were burnt, cut, bruised, or otherwise damaged. If Dave was an artist, then his masterpiece was on the night of May 30, 1970. Dave had joined the rest of us in Boy Scout Troop 173, and as the years rushed by, he had become almost totally self-sufficient, since, for our safety, we had gradually pushed him out to the edges of our campsites. As we were pitching our tents on the gentle slopes of Rattlesnake Ridge, he sauntered in our direction.
“Hey, guys,” he said. “I’ll cut all the firewood tonight. Look what Grandpa got me for my birthday.”
He pulled out a hand axe. It was only a foot long, but the edge of the blade glistened with potential. As he looked at it, Dave smiled. The rest of us flashed frightened gapes at each other. Dear God, Disaster Dave was armed with an ax. One of us could die that very night, and a smile and “I’m sorry” would be little comfort in the funeral home.
After leaving Disaster Dave with a stack of tree limbs a quarter mile from the campsite, we all gathered to discuss what was to be done. From far away, we could hear Dave chopping wood. Whack. Whack.
“I’ll tell you what we need to do,” said Ronnie Beard. “He’s the way he is because of that missing toe. We got to cut his other little toe off. He’ll be normal then. You know, balanced.”
“We can’t cut off his toe,” said Glenn. “I’m pretty sure that’s against the law.”
“Can’t we kick him out of the troop?” asked another voice.
“No,” I said. “I like Dave. He’s a good guy.”
“I like him, too,” said Barry, “When I get this cast off my arm, I’ll like him even more.”
“His sorrows come, not like single spies, but in battalions,” said the Comic Book Kid. He always talked like that.
Whack. Whack. Thock. Thock. Thock.
Thock? We turned, and there was Disaster Dave. He’d dragged a tree branch toward us and stood looking at his brand new ax handle. The blade was gone.
“Huh. Sorry, guys,” laughed Dave.
Somewhere in the air above us, a sharpened ax blade rose toward the stars. What could we do? Look up and it would surely hit one of us in the face. Run and we might run into it.
The problem with a flying ax blade is that ax blades can’t fly. Momentum died, and the blade fell. It sliced through the thick late spring air, and landed business-edge down on Ronnie Beard’s right foot. When we removed the blade, Ronnie yelled:
“There’s something bouncing around in my shoe!”
Ah, the magic of scouting.
It’s true that Ronnie Beard lost his little toe that night, but the story has a happy ending. Ronnie Beard was 17 years old, and when he turned 18, his first draft number was 8! But the army didn’t want soldiers with 9 toes, so Ronnie became Disaster Dave’s best friend. You are who your friends are, and guys with 9 toes tend to cluster.
But dad was right about one thing. They were both terrible drivers. Oh, they did fine in Tennessee, but for reasons I never understood, they both moved to Kansas after high school graduation. The roads are very straight in Kansas.