what it’s worth, this is my earliest recollection: I was four years old,
it was 1969, and my family lived in a rented house on the east side of Dayton,
Ohio. A gravel driveway led up to a white clapboard cottage with a pitched
roof and no porch. Dozens of twitchy bag worms, nature’s Agent Orange, had
nearly defoliated the evergreen shrubs and maple trees in the front yard.
Stray mongrel dogs kept tipping over our trash cans.
As for the neighbors, they were sales clerks, auto detailers, and Laundromat attendants. They toiled during the day and argued at night. They were either on probation or they’d had their driver’s license suspended, or both. Their kids were always throwing tantrums in department stores, pleading for G.I. Joes and Barbies. The boys had rotten teeth and burr haircuts, the girls pigtails and scoliosis. If they weren’t already gone by the time they turned eighteen, their parents would most likely kick them out of the house.
One afternoon my friend Bobby and I were down in the basement playing with our bright yellow Tonka dump trucks. Undeterred by griminess, we lay on our sides with our cheeks plastered to the cold tile floor and rolled the trucks in ever-widening circles, spluttering engine noises rising from our lips. We were both around the same age, not quite old enough for kindergarten, and neither of our families could afford the luxury of nursery school.
Earlier that day I’d found a jumbo-sized bottle of aspirin in the utility room cupboard. When Bobby arrived with his truck and our mothers abandoned us to the lower depths, I positioned the bottle in the center of the basement floor, eager to invoke a specific imaginary world.
“This is home,” I said firmly.
“We’ve got a job to do,” Bobby said.
Since we only had the one bottle of aspirin to work with, we were forced to adapt the story line to the props, even if two truck drivers living together in the same house did seem a little strange. After a long shift of loading and unloading invisible debris, Bobby and I pushed our trucks over to the aspirin bottle—child-proof containers hadn’t yet been invented—and I shook a few of the chalky, white pills into each of our little palms. Dutifully, we gulped them down in order to get rid of our splitting headaches. Then we pretended to sleep. Fake snores echoed throughout the poorly-lit basement. Next morning, we woke up and did the whole thing over again. Same job, same headache.
Eventually Bobby and I began feeling groggy and fell asleep for real. The sudden tranquility startled my mother, and she came downstairs to check on us. What a scene that must have been for her to behold: two young boys sound asleep on the floor beside an empty bottle of aspirin. I imagine she must have screamed or, at the very least, whimpered. She had no idea how much of the bottle we’d consumed, so distressed mothers and their languorous sons piled into the car and raced to Miami Valley Hospital (where my birth certificate alleges I’d been born).
I remember Bobby and me reclining on adjacent beds in the emergency room, chasing teaspoonfuls of ipecac syrup with glass after glass of warm water and listening, as if through a layer of gauze, to some frightful nurse tell us that we better start vomiting at once or she would have to pump our stomachs. She described snaking a long, flexible tube down each of our throats, by way of the sinus cavity, and suctioning out the contents of our bellies. That was all we needed to hear. We turned obediently to our bedpans.
An hour of retching and regurgitating, and I felt fine. To be honest, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about. In my memory, the experience was not altogether unpleasant.