A Bad Thumb Year

A Bad Thumb Year

©2001 By Pat Wray

One of the things I admire most about well-made firearms is the beautiful way they are machined and assembled.  The need to contain and channel explosive forces results in incredibly close tolerances.  For example, when a fine side-by-side shotgun is snapped closed, virtually nothing can escape or enter through the action.  In fact, no matter how thin the small strip of flesh from my left thumb was compressed by my energetic attempt to close my father’s Parker side-by-side 20-gauge on it, the locking mechanism would not engage.  In a strange way, I was comforted by the knowledge.

Of course, it was not an experiment.  I’d not really intended to include my thumb into the shotgun-shotshell equation.  An extended covey rise of quail, exceptional work by a young dog that needed to be rewarded and general stupidity conspired to put my left thumb in harms way.  When the action snapped together, not quite locking, mind you, the damage was done in such a clean, professional manner as to make you wonder if the shotgun could double as a surgical instrument.  We (the shotgun and I) passed the blood blister stage without hesitation and all but removed a small but important strip of flesh from the inside part of my thumb.

It was the 30th day of January 2000 and the beginning of a very bad thumb year.

I don’t really trust my thumbs.  I haven’t since I played high school football.  During those years my thumbs regularly ratted on me.  In those ancient days the pop-top beer can had just been invented.  Those early pop-tops were sharp and would leave a telltale nick in your thumb when you opened one.  The resulting nicks were usually visible for four or five days after the party.  They stood out like neon signs to our eagle-eyed, sadistic, megalomaniac football coach, who inspected our thumbs before practice every Monday.

“All right, ladies,” he would say in his mean, politically incorrect nasal twang, “Line up and hold out your hands.  Let’s see your thumbies!”  On more occasions than I want to remember, my thumbs or those attached to someone else ratted us out and our team ran wind sprints until we couldn’t remember what our thumbs were for.

Thumbs seem to get into more than their share of trouble, much more than you would expect, considering they occupy only 20% of each hand.  But when you see or hear of people losing or otherwise mutilating a digit, chances are it’s a thumb.  Once, while working at a fast food restaurant during college, a co-worker and I were cutting and breading chickens.  My friend was cutting the birds into nine pieces while I steadfastly dipped them in milk and a flour mixture.  Suddenly my friend said, “Damn!” without a lot of emphasis, leading me to believe he’d dropped a piece of chicken on the floor.  When I looked over, he was holding a thumbless hand and the errant digit was down in a large bowl with the chicken pieces.  My response was much more panicky, loud and obnoxious than his.  To this day I wish I’d remained calm and said with a deadpan look, “Maybe we could pass it off as a wing.”

The lesson here, I guess, is that I shouldn’t gripe about my thumb problems.  After all, I still have two.  It is a lesson I’ve not yet learned.

It was less than a month after my experience with the shotgun that I made a similar error at a shooting range.  While trying a friend’s new semi-automatic pistol, my thumb forgot to stay lower than the slide on the first shot.  It is remarkable just how fast those receivers slam back after a shot.  Besides taking a sizeable nick out of your knuckle, the slide’s impact really throws your second shot off target.

At that point, my left thumb was a definite casualty.  Still scabbed and scarring from the shotgun, a small chunk of flesh was now missing and the bone was bruised on the knuckle.  It had become the kind of thumb you try to keep in your pocket, just to keep it out of mischief.  I was fairly successful in doing so for several months, giving it a chance to heal completely.  That’s when it heard the siren song of a hammer stapler.  While installing wall insulation, my left thumb foolishly invaded the potential impact area of a hammer stapler, which in my hands can range about 12 inches in any direction from the intended target.

The good news was that I did not actually drive a staple through my thumb; just hit it with the weighted part of the stapler.  However, that was also the bad news.  A staple through my thumb would at least have reduced the pressure caused by the massive blood blister beneath my thumbnail.  I subsequently had to relieve the pressure by burning through the nail with a heated paper clip, an intense olfactory experience, if ever there was one.

At that point my thumb was so banged up I scarcely noticed putting a hook into it while trout fishing.

A couple weeks later our neighbors across the street asked us to watch their house and walk their dog while they were out of town.  For some reason, the dog, one of those small, furry, yappy creatures that look like they were bred as food for a real dog, refused to leave the house.  After two days my wife asked me to physically remove the dog to the back yard where it could perform its bodily functions.  Because the dog and I had always gotten along I did not anticipate any trouble.  Neither, as it turned out did my thumb, which was bitten and crushed in the ensuing get-together.  Besides the ruined nail, which was becoming old hat by this time, the nerves in the front of my thumb were also affected, leaving me for several months with a thumb that would have been equally useful had it been carved from wood.

As always, there was good news and bad news.  The good news was that my wife was able to keep me from killing the dog.  No, my mistake.  That was the bad news.  The good news was that my poor left thumb was unaffected.  No, I’m sorry.  That was also bad news.  I’m right handed.

It was October 12, 2000.  A very bad thumb year.

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